Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the deaths of two Derry IRA volunteers who were shot dead by the British army in the Bogside in March 1972.
Their relatives, friends, and former comrades will gather in the Gasyard tomorrow evening to celebrate their lives. MICHAEL MCMONAGLE looks at the deaths and funerals of Colm Keenan and Eugene McGillan...
The fortieth anniversaries of the shooting of two young Derry IRA men will be remembered in the city tomorrow evening.
19 year-old Colm Keenan and 18 year-old Eugene McGillan were shot dead by British soldiers in the Dove Gardens area of the Bogside on March 14, 1972. A gun battle was taking place between the IRA and the British Army at the time but the IRA, as well as a number of civilian eyewitnesses, have always maintained that both men were unarmed when they were killed.
Colm Keenan, a son of veteran Derry republican, Sean Keenan, was described as a lieutenant in the Derry brigade of the IRA at the time of his killing. He was also a close personal friend of Martin McGuinness.
Their shootings took place in the last day of the Widgery Tribunal into the events of Bloody Sunday and it was claimed at the Saville Inquiry by a former British Army intelligence officer that a group of military lawyers joined the troops on patrol in the Bogside that night and were involved in the gun battle.
Three British soldiers were also wounded during the gun battle.
The British account of the shooting incident said that troops were fired on from the junction of Elmwood Road and Stanley’s Walk and that one of them was hit in the chest and thigh. The soldiers also claimed they came under heavy machine gun fire from Maureen Square and two more soldiers were wounded. The British army said soldiers returned fire and were relieved by reinforcements in armoured personnel carriers.
The two young IRA men were taken into houses in the area after they had been shot. Local residents who attempted to assist the wounded teenagers insisted that neither was armed.
The funerals of both IRA men were held under what was described at the time as “one of the strictest security operations mounted in Derry since the Troubles began.”
Colm Keenan was buried with full military honours and his funeral was attended by more than 8,000 people while Eugene McGillan’s funeral was private.
Sean Keenan was released from Long Kesh, where he was interned at the time, to attend his son’s funeral.
Despite the increased security, which included a ring of RUC and military checkpoints being thrown up around the Bogside and Creggan, IRA Chief of Staff, Sean MacStiofan, and leading Belfast provisional Martin Meehan, managed to get into Derry for the funeral of Colm Keenan.
Mac Stiofan was introduced to deliver the oration by Martin Meehan, who described him as the Provisional IRA Chief of Staff.
In his oration, the IRA Chief of Staff, at the time one of the most wanted men in Ireland, paid tribute to the two Derry teenagers.
“Two more revolutionary soldiers have given their lives for their people. Just a few weeks ago 13 sons of Derry were shot dead and this week we mourn the deaths of two more. Next week, maybe next month, who knows who will be next?” he said.
He also said that only when Ireland as a whole country had peace could a proper tribute be paid to the men who died.
A representative of the Derry Command of the Provisional IRA also delivered an oration.
Speaking to reporters in the City Cemetery, Mr MacStiofan said the pair were two fine young men who were an outstanding example to all revolutionaries for their dedication to the cause of Irish freedom. Their death does not surprise me, as the best and the bravest are the first to fall.”
Colm Keenan’s coffin was flanked by an IRA guard of honour made of up men wearing black berets and green combat jackets. The honour guard included Martin McGuinness who is now the Deputy First Minister.
30 members of Cumann na mBan, dressed in uniform, and 15 members of Na Fianna Eireann also took part in the guard of honour. A volley of shots was fired over the coffin in the cemetery.
Following the deaths of the two men, the Provisional IRA in Derry released a statement paying tribute to them.
“They were two of the finest members of the Provisional IRA in the Derry area. They were close comrades and their deaths are deeply regretted by all those who are now proud to say they once served with them.
“They were brutally gunned down in cold blood,” the organisation said.
The Derry comhairle ceantair of Sinn Féin said; “After sustaining heavy losses the British chose to take their revenge on two unarmed men.
“We in Sinn Féin share in the grief and sorrow of their loved ones and friends and yet we feel proud, proud that we were associated with these true patriots of Ireland and proud that they, at such an early age, were regarded as so great a threat to the might of the British army that they were shot down in cold blood on the streets of their beloved Derry.
“Never as long as we have men of the calibre of Colm and Eugene will England ever conquer the Gaels.”
Eugene McGillan was a refrigeration engineer with a local firm where his foreman was Mitchel McLaughlin, later a Sinn Féin MLA. He often spent his weekends driving his work van to Long Kesh to take relatives to visit men who were interned. His last words before he died were ‘How’s Goodly?,’ a nickname he had given Colm Keenan.
To mark the anniversaries, the Bogside and Brandywell Monument Committee will hold a commemoration at the Lecky Road republican monument, opposite the Gasyard Centre, at 7pm tomorrow evening. They have appealed for as many people as possible to attend the commemoration event.