On 28th October 1987, two Derry republicans, Paddy Deery, (aged 31, married to Colette with three young children) and Eddie McSheffrey, (aged 29, married to Mary with two young children), were killed when a bomb they were carrying in a car exploded prematurely.(There was some suspicion at the time that the bomb had been tampered with before being placed in the car.) Both men had their doors beaten down and homes raided. Both had spent many hours in RUC custody. Paddy went on the run to Donegal and was extradited back to the north a year before he died. Eddie was arrested and charged at least four times. He was only 13 years of age the first time he was arrested and sent to Millisle borstal. He spent many years in jail on trumped up charges.
I met Eddie at some time during the previous year (1986) when he told me about himself and his family being constantly harassed by the RUC and British soldiers. Republican activists expected harassment from the crown forces. They did not accept that their families should be harassed and intimidated by the forces of the English crown or set up by members of the RUC for attack by loyalist death squads.
I attended the Funerals of the two men in Derry and I witnessed the brutal attack by the RUC on the cortege and the mourners as they made their way from the Cathedral to the City cemetery. The reason for my presence there, I will explain later. I should say here that this time in the 1980s was the most difficult and dangerous time of my life as a priest. Because I had a public profile, I was subjected to constant harassment and intimidation by the RUC, British army and UDR on the roads, at my home and at my Church in Fermanagh. I was vilified in the press.
Thatcher and the Tory party were in power and it was clear they were going all out, using every means at their disposal, to defeat the rebellion against the British state in Ireland. She also believed that the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement gave her the authority to do that. Thatcher had the full support of the Dublin government, the SDLP, some of the leading members of the Irish Catholic hierarchy and the full support of the English Catholic hierarchy as was evident during the 1981 hungerstrike. She did not have the support of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich which irked her greatly. The English press were extremely hostile to him. I would not be surprised to learn that the Vatican had also been co-opted by the British. People like me who dissented publicly from the official Catholic Church line, were regarded as “enemies of the state”. It became even more difficult for me after I publicly condemned the Anglo-Irish Agreement at a talk I gave in Kilmichael that year. These were challenging years for republican families and for anyone who took an interest in their plight.
The Deery family was well known in Derry as was the McSheffrey family. Manus Deery, a first cousin of Paddy, was shot and killed by a British soldier on 19 May 1972 –some three months after Bloody Sunday. He was walking home to Limewood Street in the Bogside from a Fish and Chip shop when he was shot dead by a British army sniper who was situated on the Derry Walls.
Well known writer, Nell McCafferty, a native of the Bogside wrote a book titled “Peggy Deery, an Irish Family at War” which was published in 1989 by Attic Press, Dublin. The book tells the story of Peggy Deery and her 14 children. Paddy was the eldest. Nell’s book gives a good insight into the living conditions in Derry before and during what are called ‘the Troubles’ but which really was a war inflicted on them. It certainly was a war as far as Peggy Deery and her family and neighbours were concerned-and that war came to them when the British army arrived. The early chapters tell of the economic hardship of the large Deery family before 1968. They lived in absolute poverty. Soon after the Civil Rights started they got their own council house in the Creggan but their hardship did not end.
Peggy’s husband died a young man leaving her to rear the 14 children on her own. On 9th August 1972, her eldest son, Paddy, was blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet fired by a British soldier when he stopped outside the Bogside Inn to watch an anti-Internment rally. He was only 16 years old. Another son, Michael was killed in an incident at a Night club in the city. He too was only a teenager.
Peggy herself was seriously wounded on Bloody Sunday –the only woman to be shot and injured by the British army on that dreadful day. She was shot in the thigh and was lucky to survive. She was lame ever afterwards.
The story of Peggy Deery as told by Nell McCafferty is an amazing story and describes the sadness and upheaval of those dreadful years in Derry when British soldiers occupied the city with the aim of suppressing the people’s rebellion. Many young people had joined the republican movement after Bloody Sunday in 1972 and again after the 1981 Hunger strike and so the conflict intensified. 1987 was a most violent year. Altogether 106 people lost their lives that year -26 were republicans, 27 members of the state forces, 6 were loyalists and 45 were civilians. The year before that 66 people were killed. Clearly, the war was escalating. Intimidation and harassment by the RUC, UDR and British army increased in nationalist/republican communities. The loyalist death squads were active carrying out random killings of Catholics. These were the years when Margaret Thatcher was in power in London. She was determined, by whatever means necessary, to defeat the rebellion of the ‘restless natives’ as the British had attempted to do in all their other colonies.
It was on 28th October 1987 that Peggy’s eldest, Paddy (the one who lost his eye when the British soldiers attacked him in 1972), was killed in a premature bomb explosion along with his comrade Eddie McSheffrey. This sad incident attracted much publicity mainly because of the controversy surrounding the funerals.
The controversy arose because Bishop Edward Daly had, some months previously, made a ruling that there would be no more IRA funerals in Churches in his diocese. The chapter in Nell McCafferty’s book about the funerals of Paddy and Eddie interested me greatly because I became involved in that controversy.
The edict from Bishop Daly banning republican funerals was published after the funeral in March of that year (1987) of an IRA member, Gerard Logue (26yrs) who died when a gun he was carrying went off accidentally. His funeral took place in the Long Tower Church. Four hundred RUC men accompanied the cortege from his home to the Church. It took many hours to get there. When the funeral cortege eventually arrived outside the Long Tower Church, an IRA colour party fired a volley of shots over the coffin in the grounds of the Church. The firing of shots over the coffin of a dead IRA volunteer was a traditional practice at IRA funerals. The heavily armed RUC who were present in huge numbers, as they were at all IRA funerals in the years after the 1981Hungerstrike, attacked the mourners as they made their way to the City cemetery.
Some time after this funeral, Bishop Edward Daly announced that he would not allow any more funerals of IRA members in Catholic churches in the Diocese of Derry.
Some eight months later his decision was to be challenged by the families of the two men killed by the premature explosion. The families of Paddy and Eddie were well known and well respected in the area. It was their wish to have a Funeral Mass in St Eugene’s Cathedral their parish church. The wives of the two men, Mary McSheffrey and Colette Deery spoke to the Parish priest. He told them that Bishop Daly was sticking to his earlier decision and was not going to allow the funeral to take place in the Cathedral. The two families were deeply disappointed about that prospect as they wanted a Catholic funeral. They believed that the men were entitled to a Catholic funeral. Republican leaders had assured them there would be no firing of shots in the grounds of the Cathedral.
After three days, it was still uncertain what was going to happen, I received a phone call from Martin McGuiness. He wanted to meet me and I agreed to meet him on the Friday. He asked if I would be willing to say a Funeral Mass in the Cathedral grounds for the two dead volunteers, that is, if Bishop Daly was determined to forbid the funeral to be held in the Cathedral. I said I would be willing to say the Mass. I knew this was going to be controversial and probably get me into trouble –with my own bishop in Clogher diocese and with Bishop Daly. However, I felt I had to do what I considered to be the right thing and show compassion for the families and friends of the two men.
Saturday came and went and there was still no indication that the Bishop and the clergy in the Cathedral parish were prepared to relent and allow the Funeral to take place in the Cathedral. Letters were sent by the Bishop repeating his decision. Some family members decided to hold a vigil outside the Presbytery.
On the Sunday, in the parish where I was based in Fermanagh, I bought one of the northern Sunday Papers and the front page headline ‘Rebel Priest to say Funeral Mass’ took me by surprise. As far as I remember, it did not use my name. Needless to say, I was surprised to see this story on the front page. I have no idea, to this day, how the story got to the Press.
I was still determined to say the Funeral Mass outside in the grounds of the Cathedral if necessary. I felt it was the right thing to do. I was angry that the Bishop should forbid anyone in his diocese a Christian funeral and a Christian burial. I did not think that was a Christian thing to do. The funerals of the two men were to take place on 2nd November 1987-the Feast of the Holy Souls. I travelled to Derry with all that I needed to celebrate a Mass outdoors if that was required. A large crowd had already gathered in the space in front of the Cathedral for 10 o’clock Mass. The place was surrounded by hundreds of RUC in riot gear. Peggy Deery was there though her injured leg was hurting.
There was tension when the Funeral cortege arrived in the Cathedral grounds with the coffins containing the remains of the two IRA volunteers-six days after they were killed. They were not sure if they would be admitted to the Cathedral. The wives of the two men tried to negotiate with the local clergy and insisted they wanted a funeral Mass. The Parish priest came out and read a statement to the mourners: “I must register a protest at the entry of these funerals into the Cathedral against the express wishes of the Church authorities. To avoid any unbecoming scenes I have been advised by the bishop to celebrate Requiem Mass forthwith.”
The coffins were carried to the door of the Cathedral. Another younger priest received the two coffins of the dead IRA men at the door. The coffins were brought into the church as at a usual funeral. I attended the Requiem Mass in the congregation. The priest -celebrant continued with the Mass which was by coincidence the Feast of All-Souls. He made no mention of the two men. He prayed for all the deceased.
(In her book, Nell recalls that at the funeral of the first member of the IRA, Eamonn Lafferty, who was shot dead in August 1971 the Bishop Neil Farren and fourteen priests attended the Mass in St Eugene’s Cathedral. There was no trouble whatsoever.)
When the coffins were carried out of the Cathedral they were then draped with Tricolours and republican symbols. The republicans then realised that the RUC had blocked the intended exit so they turned back and placed the coffins in the hearses. Then along with the families, they decided to wait to avoid a clash with the RUC. They went to their homes in the Bogside and had some tea and sandwiches. They returned a few hours later. The RUC was still there. The family were afraid they might seize the coffins, which apparently they had the power to do, so they decided to go though the only gate the RUC allowed them to pass through. This was so that the RUC could keep a close eye on proceedings.
As they left the Cathedral grounds on the road to the City cemetery accompanied by droves of RUC men, the cortege stopped and a volley of shots was fired over the coffins. They RUC made a charge to arrest the person who fired the volley and in the melee one of the coffins fell to the ground. A riot ensued on the roadway to the cemetery. Many of those attending the funeral were injured by the baton -wielding RUC men. Some required hospital treatment for their injuries. Eventually, when some kind of peace was restored, the cortege resumed its journey to the City cemetery. The burials took place many hours after the Funeral was held at the Cathedral. Everyone of the huge crowd of mourners present was feeling a mixture of anger and sadness. The wives and families of the two men showed great courage on that sad day.
Three months after Paddy’s death, on the 28 January 1988, Peggy Deery died –broken hearted. Her youngest daughter named Bernadette Devlin Deery, and another daughter, June, were with her when she died.
Both families got on with their lives after that but none of them have forgotten those terrible days- and they never will forget.