Irish Echo Online - News

United they stand
Troubles are more than a memory at IAUC convention
By Ray O'Hanlon

Despite the roar of aircraft landing at adjacent LaGuardia Airport, all was quiet in the room where Patrick Rooney looked out from his little square on the big quilt.

In life, Patrick never made the journey to America. He never got out of Belfast. He never even got out of childhood.

Patrick was just 9 years old when a bullet struck him in the head as he lay sleeping in his bedroom in the Divis Flats complex at the bottom of the Falls Road. He was the first child killed in the Troubles. He died after being hit by an RUC tracer bullet fired from a Browning machine gun on an August evening in 1969.

On a fall morning in New York, 24 years later, Patrick's face stared silently from his square on the Relatives for Justice Remembering Quilt.

His family had included a small altar boy's outfit beside the photograph. Patrick had been due to serve at Mass the morning after his death.

All around Patrick's square were other squares, each depicting a life lived and a life lost. They were stitched together on six separate panels that combined to form the entire Remembering Quilt, here on its U.S. debut at the Irish American Unity Conference 20th annual convention at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel.

The quilt is the work of the Belfast-based Relatives for Justice campaign, the director of which, Mark Thompson, was one of the featured speakers at a gathering which also included a keynote address from Fr. Aidan Troy, a man who knows much of the dangers that civil strife can impose on the very young.

Each panel of the quilt contains 49 squares, each one of them naming at least one person's life lost to the Troubles.

Two additional panels are now in the works, Thompson said. He said that the quilt is open to families in both communities and is not in any way judgmental. As well as people killed by "the state" and loyalist paramilitaries, it is also open to families who have lost loved one to violence from the IRA and other republican groups.

The quilt also includes dedication to a number of IRA members. And, tragically, more than one child.

Not too far from Patrick Rooney was the square for Brian Stewart, killed by a plastic bullet in October 1976. Brian is depicted holding an Irish tricolor in one hand and a placard calling for the banning of plastic bullets in the other.

That wish has yet to be fulfilled.

Brian Duffy, who was killed at the age of 15 just before Christmas, had a Christmas tree motif on his square. This though his mother has not put up a tree in the family home since her son's death.

The quilting process has to date involved the work of 2,200 people over three

years, and, in its current form, measures 50 feet by 8 feet. A total of 306 families are currently represented. Some of the squares commemorate more than one family member.

The display room at the convention wasn't big enough to display all the panels on one wall, so two panels of the quilt were displayed on each of three walls. Most of the squares included photos and all contained depictions of the individual's life, work and hobbies and interests. Attorney Pat Finucane's square had a scales of justice, but also a tiny soccer ball button.

According to Thompson, the quilt represented for many of the bereaved families "a legacy of impunity that still looms large, and which overshadows their lives and the journey toward healing and recovery."

That barrier of impunity, said Thompson, had prompted the families to search for answers to questions about why their loved ones had to die, and about the nature of a system that allowed each death to happen.

The quilt, he said, also represented historical memory and historical fact but also the hope that the awfulness of conflict was over for good, that healing and recovery would prevail and that lives, and by extension communities, could be rebuilt.

Thompson was one of about a dozen speakers and presenters at the convention, including Fr. Troy, Reps. Joe Crowley and Donald Payne, former Rep. Bruce Morrison, veteran equality campaigner Inez McCormack, New York-based attorney Eamonn Dornan, and Jarlath Kearney, son of the late fair employment campaigner from Belfast Oliver Kearney.

Troy gave a first hand account of the problems facing the Holy Cross girls school in North Belfast and the recent attacks on other Belfast schools. He said that apart from "a few thugs," the nationalist community in the city had no interest in retaliating for the loyalist campaign of intimidation aimed initially at Holy Cross and now other schools.

Troy, who is a native of Bray, Co. Wicklow, also unveiled his plans to open a cross-community center in the old Holy Cross boys school, located at the point where Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in the Ardoyne area converge.

Also speaking to the convention gathering, McCormack paid tribute to Oliver Kearney, who, she said, had exemplified the MacBride Principles campaign for more than two decades. That campaign, she said, had lifted from people a sense of humiliation and the feeling that they were the problem.

McCormack said that despite laws in place aimed at enforcing fair employment legislation, employers in the North were "getting the sense that enforcement was not the order of the day." She said that much of the problem was due to an "institutional mindset" and that she knew of one top civil servant whose career had been "restricted" due to his efforts to implement change.

"If senior civil servants don't want to implement the law, they should get out of their jobs," McCormack said.

Carol Russell, an IAUC chapter president from New Jersey, told the gathering that despite reports of a quiet summer in Belfast, the situation there was tense and there continued to be large number of sectarian attacks.

"A lot of people are under death threat," she said.

This story appeared in the issue of October 22-28, 2003

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