Patsy Brennan remembers December 29, 1972, like it were yesterday.
Just after 1 o’clock that afternoon her late husband James ‘Junior’ McDaid, commandant of the 3rd Battalion of the IRA in Derry at the time, was shot dead by British soldiers near Ballyarnett House close to the Donegal border.
He was unarmed at the time and aged just 32.
Patsy was cuffing in the Welch Margetson shirt factory while her husband was being gunned down.
It wasn’t until she had finished her shift in the Carlisle Road factory and visited her mother’s house up in Helen Street that she learned what had happened.
Though it’s 45 years ago today Patsy vividly recalls walking in to see her mother sitting in deep discussion with Father Edward Daly in her living room.
She sensed immediately something terrible was wrong.
“I remember it like yesterday. Bishop Daly was sitting in the house with my mother and I knew the minute I saw him that something was wrong.
“He told me then about ‘Junior’ being shot out there in that field in Ballyarnett.
“He was shot through the heart. The doctor said to me: ‘If the whole of the Royal Victoria Hospital had been there they wouldn’t have been able to save him’.
“There were three of them, including ‘Junior’ and Tommy Roberts [another late IRA Volunteer who passed away in June of this year].
“They parked a car up near Birdstown and were coming across the fields. They found a couple of things that gave them an idea that the soldiers were about, packed lunches and apples and crisps, and they were kind of cautious but they couldn’t turn back again.
“They just walked on. They heard a voice calling them to halt.
“Tommy said that if they had wanted to shoot the three of them, they easily could have done it, because it was a big open field.”
As it happened, of the three Volunteers present only ‘Junior’ was killed.
At the time the British Army claimed a military patrol of its 25th Light Regiment Royal Artillery had encountered three men near the border, one of whom, they claimed, was armed with a light rifle, possibly an Armalite. The Derry Brigade of the IRA, however, denied that any of the men had been armed, a circumstance that was later corroborated at inquest. Patsy says that while she remembers that encounter with Edward Daly as clearly as today, the months and years after ‘Junior’s’ death were a blur. There was the huge funeral that left his family home in Dunaff Gardens for St. Mary’s Chapel, Creggan, on New Year’s Day, 1973.
But after that whole episodes remain unclear, understandably so, as in the short few years after she and ‘Junior’ had met in the Corinthian ballroom and then wed in mid 1960s, the couple had endured a lot of heartache. And then this.
“We had two children die of cystic fibrosis in 1967 and 1968 [Seán and David, both were just six months when they died] and he was killed in 1972 in that short space of time. The years after that are a blank to me.”
Patsy says that while ‘Junior’s’ death left her, his wife, bereft, she remembers her late husband as someone who was totally dedicated to the republican cause and that he had been fully aware of the potential outcome of his IRA involvement.
“When he joined he was very sensible. He would have said to himself: ‘I might get killed but to hell with it’. He was that dedicated to ‘the movement’ he just put his whole heart into it. The day he got out [of the Curragh in late 1972] he wasn’t supposed to be out until January but they let him out. Members of ‘the movement’ told me that he went straight back to the IRA leadership to go back [on active service] again.”