By Jim Slaven (@JimSlaven)
Republicans in Edinburgh were very sad to hear of the death of South Armagh republican Jim McAllister. Below we republish Pat McNamee’s oration. I met Jim many times in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s at various republican events in Ireland. During that period I would use every opportunity to encourage him to come to Scotland to speak. In May 1991 Jim agreed to be the speaker at an event in Edinburgh to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of IRA volunteer Francis Hughes on hunger strike and the 75th anniversary of James Connolly’s execution.
In 1991 Sinn Fein speakers were very rare in Edinburgh. In fact the local council prohibited the party addressing events on their property and even the Edinburgh and Lothian’s Trade Union Council had a ban on all meetings on Ireland. When Jim arrived, with a Sinn Fein colleague from Belfast, at the packed venue we had a brief discussion and he told me he hadn’t prepared anything and wondered if there was anything in particular I would like him to cover. I said no and offered the advice that a brief run down of the situation in the Six Counties would suffice.
It was my rather thankless task to speak before Jim and say a few words about James Connolly and Francis Hughes by way of an introduction. As Jim took to the stage he paused just long enough to take in the scene and let the standing ovation subside. He then began with the immortal first sentence “Where I come from we shoot down helicopters”.
For the rest of Jim’s speech you could hear a pin drop as he took people on a journey through the republican struggle and South Armagh in particular. Jim finished with a promise to the audience that ‘Once we get the English out of Ireland we’ll come over here and help you get them out of Scotland too’. At this point I looked round and his Sinn Fein colleague had his head in his hands as the hall erupted.
For young republicans in Scotland Jim McAllister was an inspiration. At that point we thought all Sinn Fein speakers were like Jim. Later we realised this was not the case. Jim McAllister was a one off and he’ll be fondly remembered by his friends and comrades in the James Connolly Society, Scotland.
The Oration Pat McNamee delivered at the graveside of Jim McAllister who died last week.
It is a difficult task for me to speak about such a great man. Jim wasn’t a big man in stature but he was a great man in heart and mind. As well as being a gaeilgeoir and a politician he was a father and a husband, he was a craftsman with many skills. He was self educated in Irish History and politics and he was well read in the folklore and legend of Ulster and Ireland. Indeed Jim might say that it can be hard to distinguish nowadays between the history and the folklore or more recent times. Jim was also a songwriter and a poet. One of the best things of all about Jim was that he could tell a great yarn, he had humour and wit and he was mighty crack to be with. I am proud to speak about Jim today for his family Turlough, Aoibhínn and Brendan.
Turlough was released this morning at 8.00am from Magilligan Prison to be here today. Jim hoped the he was going to live long enough to see Turlough released in less than 18 months time but in recent weeks Jim knew that his time was running out. The family requested that Turlough would be released to see his father before his death. They refused. Some people tell us that we are ‘moving forward’.
I won’t try to cover all of Jim’s life but I want to give you a snapshot of the man that I came to know as a comrade and a friend. I met Jim when I was a teenager when Jim returned home having worked in England. I heard of him first as the author of a famous poem in the Crossmaglen/Cullyhanna area, the ‘Daffodil man from Kiltybane’. I’ll return to that later.
Jim was an Irish republican and he grew to be a republican as he educated himself in Irish history and politics. He believed in the republican vision set out the Easter Proclamation of 1916 and he stood by the values and principles contained in it. He believed in ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible’. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. Jim believed in those principles and stood by them all his life.
In 1982 there were elections to be held to the First Northern Ireland Assembly. There was a SF meeting organised in the Oul School, as we called it then, now known as Rathkeeland House. The purpose of the meeting was to select a candidate to stand for Sinn Féin in Newry Armagh There was a lot of talk about the need for republicans to put up a candidate to build the republican vote. There weren’t any volunteers but eventually Jim McAllister said he was willing to stand.
A local man, Paul Rooney, asked ‘who will replace Jim when he gets shot?’ At that time Sinn Féin members and elected representatives were being targeted by loyalist murder gangs assisted by British forces and the RUC. Jim stood for the election and was elected to the Assembly knowing that he was putting his life and family in danger. Following his election he had to have his home fitted with security glass, security doors and cameras as indeed his life was put under threat..
Jim stood on an abstentionist basis because he believed that if you took part in the system of government at Stormont you would become part of the system. The first assembly failed to get off the ground.
Jim went on to be elected to Newry & Mourne District council in 1985 and he was re-elected in 1989. He worked hard for the people as a councillor both inside and outside the chamber. As a councillor he knew every government form inside out. He filled in Social Security forms, Housing Benefit forms, VAT forms and Grant forms. Any form the government could produce Jim could master it.
I spoke to an Irish News journalist recently and he told me that they had a file on Jim containing press statements issued by him during his time as a councillor. One of those statements was a handwritten piece of paper that Jim had posted in. There was no fancy office, no typewriter and no fax machine There was no secretary, no computers and there was no special advisor. It was a hard time to be a Sinn Féin Representative in those days.
In 1992 Jim’s wife Margaret passed away after a difficult illness. Jim didn’t contest the council election in 1993. However he had a different reason not to stand again as a candidate for Sinn Féin. Jim had an independent mind and he didn’t just go with the flow. Jim issued his press statements from his heart based on his republican principles. The peace process was sprouting and some of Jim’s statements were too strong for the Sinn Féin agenda. Jim hadn’t changed his position but others had changed theirs. Jim was told not to issue any further statements unless they were approved by the six-county office. Jim wasn’t going to be gagged or have his comments sanitised.
Jim distanced himself from Sinn Féin and was opposed to the partitionist government in Stormont. He was ostracised and isolated by some of those who had been his former comrades. He was forgotten by so many that he had helped over the years. Some people go with the flow. Jim stood to his republican principles.
Jim was a natural public speaker.
As a republican Jim travelled the length and breadth of Ireland speaking at funerals, commemorations, public meetings and protests. Jim didn’t need a script, a text or any much notes. Not like some of us.
Jim could hold the attention of any crowd and is remembered for his oratory around Ireland. I travelled with him to Ardboe in Co Tyrone in the early 90’s for the funeral of Pete Ryan. Pete was a volunteer killed in Coagh by the SAS along with Lawrence McNally and Tony Doris. I knew Pete, and Jim was giving the oration. I told Jim what I knew about Pete and Jim wrote a couple of words on the back of an envelope. At the graveside Jim spoke at length and at leisure and received a great applause.
Jim was a gaeilgeoir and enjoyed speaking his native language. He and I had many a good crack in Irish and the Irish would be better after a couple of pints. Cuireann an ól leis an cáinte.
Jim would speak in Irish to the British soldiers and the RUC at the many checkpoints that were prepared for him. He gave his name, address and other details in Irish. The RUC charged him with obstruction and refusing to identify himself. Jim was duly taken to court and the judge dismissed the case.
In more recent years Jim was the spokesperson of the Paul Quinn Support Group that was established after the brutal and savage killing of Paul Quinn. Jim campaigned for justice for the family of Paul Quinn who were his close friends. In spite of the fierce intimidation Jim campaigned publicly and the killing was debated in the Assembly and the Dáil. Jim didn’t cower in fear from British forces and he wouldn’t cower in the face of others.
You would wonder how Jim managed to have a life outside of all that he did as a political activist. Indeed Jim had a beloved wife Margaret and they had their 3 children, Turlough, Aoibhínn and Brendan before her untimely death 21 years ago. Jim knew the importance of his family and acknowledged that he wouldn’t have been able to be a political activist without the support of his wife in the early years and his children in later years.
Jim was a tiler, a painter, a plasterer and a clockmaker. He loved his clocks and his books. As well as being great historian he was a practical man and could turn his hand to anything. He was an active participant on Facebook having taught himself how to use a computer. There are not a lot of 68 year olds that are on Facebook.
One of my last discussions with Jim was only a few days before he died. We were communicating by email which was easier that the phone because Jim’s voice was weak.
He had read a recent publication on the lives of Brendan Moley and Brendan Burns in the weeks before his death. The book was written to mark the 25th anniversary of their death. Jim had known both volunteers well but he was hurt and disappointed at the account given in the book about the oration given at Brendan Burns Funeral. The account stated that ‘A local SF representative gave a graveside oration’. It didn’t state who the representative was.
The book quoted the speaker’s comments. In relation to Brendan Burns the book said:
He (Brendan) realised that that the solution was an end to partition, he realised that the British presence was the problem and that until they are gone from our country there is no prospect for the future of this country.
The speaker was quoted further, ‘The two Brendan’s didn’t believe they would get freedom by asking for it, they believed they had to fight for it’. The speaker was of course Jim McAllister but his name was whitewashed out of that account. Jim said, ‘They were happy to quote me at length but they hadn’t the grace to mention my name.
Jim was resigned to the fact that his time was running out and he expressed no fear of death. I had to ask him if he had any wishes in relation to his funeral arrangements. It was not an easy question to ask to a friend of many years and it wasn’t an easy question to answer. Jim wanted to be acknowledged as a republican by some of his close friends and comrades. He wanted to be remembered that he stood firm on the true values and principles of republicanism and that he had been an elected representative at a time when it was a dangerous thing to be a Sinn Féin representative. Jim wanted to be remembered as an unapologetic, unreconstructed republican.
I have said that Jim was a bard, a song writer and a poet amongst his many talents. Many of you will have heard of the Daffodil Man from Kiltybane. I want to finish by reciting a piece of that poem that captures Jim’s love of his country and the people in it.
The Daffodil Man From Kiltybane
Armagh’s the orchard county, the home of honest men
It runs fron North of Lurgan town down south to Crossmaglen
from County Down to the Monaghan hills it stretches East to West
With County Louth as it’s southern friend and it’s North by Lough Neagh caressed
It’s name is steeped in history, St Patrick loved its soil,
It gave succour to the hunted and hunter it’s mountains would foil.
But it isn’t m intention to sing all it’s praises in rhyme
I’m telling a different story at this present moment of time.
I’m bringing to your notice a story of renown
How a bunch of golden daffodils arrived in our fair town………………………
(The story of the suitors)
…..The moral of the story lads would seem to go like this
If you would go a courting pluck flowers for your miss
And now this story is over but one thing’s left unclear,
What will Thomas Henry do when the sad news he does hear?
That the daffodil man from Kiltybane has won sweet Bernie’s hand
And that Garvey is the chosen one of Keenan’s bachelor band.
By James McAllisterThis oration was first published on The Pensive Quill and the original can be viewed here.