This year marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Derry republican James Keenan and a fundraising event will be held in the city tomorrow evening to raise money to erect a headstone on his grave.
The lifelong republican, from the St Columb’s Well area of the city, was an IRA leader in Derry during some of the most volatile events in the city’s history.
In June 1920, the streets of Derry resembled a battlefield as members of the British Army’s Dorset Regiment, and their loyalist supporters in the UVF, opened fire indiscriminately on civilians. In response, the IRA in the city tried to defend the nationalist population and intense gun battles regularly broke out.
James Keenan was one of the IRA members who fought in these gun battles and a year later he was the IRA’s quartermaster in the city and supplied much of the arms and ammunition for the large offensive in April 1921.
This however, was not the Derry man’s first experience of war as he had previously served in the British Army in the First World War.
Born at 83 St Columb’s Wells in 1885, the eldest child of Daniel Keenan and Margaret Maguire, James left school early and was working as a message boy in the city by the time he was 13 years-old.
Unemployment was high in Derry at the time and James joined the British Army and served with a machine gun corps during the First World War.
Events in Ireland took a dramatic turn during the conflict with the Easter Rising in 1916 and subsequent War of Independence. These events had a profound influence on the Derry man and on his return to the city he became involved with republicanism and joined the IRA. On Monday June 21, 1920, James, also with another local republican, James ‘Ching’ Hillen, were alleged to have shot and killed Howard McKay, the son of the Governor of the Apprentice Boys, Marshall McKay. The pair were arrested for the killing and stood trial on three separate occasions, the last time in Portadown when they appeared in front of an all-Protestant jury in March 1924 and were found not guilty. If the pair had been convicted of the killing they would have been hanged.
Matt Doherty, a senior figure in the Irish Volunteer movement in Derry and founder member of the Owen Roe O’Neill Flute Band, provided an alibi for the pair at their trials.
Returning to Derry following the trial, James followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a tailor doing outwork for the city’s shirt factories.
A downturn in the industry made employment scarce and James, by this stage married to Sarah Diamond and with a family to support, turned to street betting, for which he was prosecuted in 1927.
He kept up his involvement with republicanism during this time and was also a member of the Gaelic League, the Irish Union Association and the Green Cross Fund.
In 1939 he again came to the attention of the authorities when he was arrested and imprisoned for two years for possession of what was described at the time as “seditious literature.”
By the time of his release his health was failing and he died in the Mater Hospital in Belfast in October 1943, just yards from Crumlin Road jail where he had served his sentence.
His sons were influenced by his republicanism and at the time of his death three of them, Sean (who later became a prominent IRA figure), Terence and Daniel, were interned in Crumlin Road jail and were not released to attend his funeral.
James was determined that he would be buried as a republican but was also aware that the RUC would enforce the Special Powers Act which banned the flying of the Tricolour in the North. In order to get around this, prior to his death he made arrangements with a local undertaker that a Tricolour be placed over his body inside the coffin.
He was buried in an unmarked grave in the City Cemetery, next to the grave of Irish Volunteer’s leader , Commander James McGlinchey.
To mark the 70th anniversary of his death, the Bogside and Brandywell Monument Committee have planned a fundraising ‘night at the races’ event to raise funds to erect a headstone to mark his final resting place. The event will be held in Mailey’s Bar, Lecky Road, at 9pm tomorrow.