Leading Sinn Féin members are among the 5,000 people who attend the funeral of Joe B. O’Hagan, a founding member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), on April 26, 2001. Party president Gerry Adams gives the oration at the graveside when the leading republican figure is buried in Lurgan, County Armagh, Northern Ireland.
O’Hagan, known to all and sundry simply as JB, dies on Monday, April 23, 2001, in the town in which he was born almost 79 years previously and from which he and his wife Bernadette had been exiled for 25 years during the current phase of the conflict. As befitted a soldier of Óglaigh na hÉireann, a uniformed IRA Guard of Honour attends O’Hagan’s body in the wake house and it is six of his comrades who carry the coffin, bedecked in the Irish Tricolour and beret and gloves, from the family home on the first section of its journey to St. Paul’s Chapel for the Funeral Mass.
Up to 2,000 people attend the funeral and businesses in the bustling North Armagh town close along the route as a mark of respect. At St. Colman’s Cemetery just outside the town, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams pays fulsome tribute to a republican who had been active from the 1940s into the 1990s and right up to his sudden death. Adams notes O’Hagan’s strong faith and welcomes the tribute paid during the Funeral Mass to JB’s republican beliefs and exploits. He adds, however, that it is high time the Catholic hierarchy reverses its directive banning the Tricolour from republican funerals in church premises. “Our National Flag should be allowed to stay on the coffin for the entire ceremony,” he says.
“I have always associated JB with Bernadette,” he tells those gathered at the graveside, “even though they were apart for so many years. They were married for 52 years, and Bernadette told me yesterday that she wouldn’t change a day of it, that she was proud of him and of his life.”
“In many ways he died the way he had lived, very quietly, modestly, not complaining, unassuming to the end. He was one of the most respected republicans of our time. There is no greater tribute that can be paid to any man or woman than to be known as a decent human being and Joe B. was that and more.”
Adams goes on to briefly record the extraordinary history of O’Hagan’s involvement in the republican struggle, as soldier and political activist, since he first joined the IRA in 1940, including that famous 1973 escape from Mountjoy Jail by helicopter, accompanied by Kevin Mallon and the late Seamus Twomey.
“JB grew up in the 1920s in a state abandoned by the Irish Government, where nationalists were subjected to the B-Specials and the Special Powers Act. He stood up at a time when standing up was a very very dangerous thing to do,” says Adams. “It is a wonder to me that he was active in every decade from the 1940s on. There is a mighty man!”
“He also personifies why Irish republicanism has never been defeated. He was an example of a physical force republican who was prepared to support and exhaust other means of struggle. He saw armed struggle as a means rather than as an end, but he never ceased to be an unrepentant republican and to work always for the establishment of an Irish Republic based on national rights for the people of this island. He supported the Good Friday Agreement not as an end but as an effort to build a new accord with our opponents and enemies. Political unionism has found it very difficult to deal with this strategy.”
“Joe B was very philosophical and very wise. He is representative of that republican element who never broke a promise in their lives.”
“Those who seek to defeat the republican struggle by blaming the IRA for everything need to know that none of this will work. That is because of the work that JB and people like him put into this struggle. We won’t be worn down or accept anything less than our full rights. The message for David Trimble and Tony Blair is that it is impossible for us to accept inequality, injustice and second-class citizenship. That is the past. We are looking to the future.”
“Joe B’s passing has left a huge gap, but we should celebrate his life. He touched so many of us. Joe B kept us right. The flame he kept flickering in the lean times is burning brightly now because of his contribution.”
Adams extends his solidarity and sympathy and that of all those present to Bernadette, to O’Hagan’s children, Barry, Kevin, Fintan, Siobhán, Felim and Dara, to his eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, his sisters and entire family circle.
At the end of the Funeral Mass for O’Hagan, the O’Hagan family lead by Joe’s son Fintan place the Irish Tricolour on the coffin before the remains are taken from the chapel. This act is borne out of anger and frustration.
O’Hagan was a republican, an honourable man and a religious man who went to Mass every day. So, his family feels that the Catholic Church, that was as much an influence on O’Hagan’s life as was his republicanism, should respect his wish and allow his coffin to be draped in the Tricolour. The family appeals to the Catholic Church authorities and Adams intercedes on their behalf, but they are refused the right to grant O’Hagan his wish that the Flag not be removed from his coffin.
Dara O’Hagan, the Sinn Féin Northern Ireland Assembly member for Upper Bann, tells the bishop that by sticking to their old policy the Catholic Church is criminalising republicanism and indeed criminalising her father.
Also, the Catholic hierarchy misses a great opportunity to heal a hurt that has existed for over 20 years, when the remains of IRA Volunteer Kevin `Dee’ Delaney were refused entry into Corpus Christi Church in Springhill while bearing the Irish Tricolour. The rancour and hurt felt by republicans over this slight, coming as it does, in conjunction with the British Government’s attempts to criminalise republicanism, has long been an insult that republicans have resented. After all, churches are the people’s property as it is their money and effort that build them. The people of Springhill and the Greater Ballymurphy area paid £5 a brick for the Corpus Christi building and the Delaney family no doubt contributed to that fund.
By taking matters into their own hands, the O’Hagan family claims back some ground for republicans and sends a message to the bishops that they have a part to play in this new political era and that they need to look at their attitude to republicanism.
O’Hagan’s wife Bernadette says that as Fintan draped the Irish Trocolour on Joe’s coffin and the church burst into spontaneous applause, her heart was lifted. “I was so glad, and I walked down the aisle with a smile on my face,” said Bernadette.
(From: “Unassuming and mighty man laid to rest” by Martin Spain, An Phoblacht Republican News, May 3, 2001)