End of era as last resident of Free Derry Corner Johnny McKane is laid to rest

An era ended in Derry as Johnny McKane, the last surviving resident of the house whose gable now forms Free Derry Corner, was laid to rest on Friday.

Mourners gathered in the Long Tower this morning to say goodbye to one of the lesser sung heroes of the social justice and civil rights campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s.

In his homily Fr. Gerard Mongan spoke of how Johnny grew up in a modest terraced house in the heart of the Bogside, one side of which would later become the most famous gable wall in the world.

"You can see a model of it before us, the iconic landmark in the Bogside that attracts busloads every day. It was the gable wall of a two up, two down, number 33 Lecky Road, where three generations of a family had lived and Johnny was the last man to live in it. He had moved out just before the iconic words 'You are now entering Free Derry' were scrawled on the gable wall of his home on the night of January 5, 1969.

Johnny McKane with the iconic banner he recovered on Bloody Sunday.

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"Free Derry Corner is a legendary monument throughout the world but to Johnny it was just simply home," said Fr. Mongan.

Johnny, who passed away peacefully on Tuesday, was born in January 1939 about a hundred yards from the Long Tower Church where his Requiem Mass took place today.

"He served as an altar boy in the Long Tower and would get up 6.55am in the mornings, climb the gates, and make sure the sacristan was up to have the church ready," the congregation heard.

Johnny met and married his wife Ann (née McCafferty), who sadly pre-deceased him by four years, and initially they made their home in the back room of the Free Derry Corner house, where, as throughout nationalist and working-class Derry at that time, 'conditions were difficult'.

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33 Lecky Road, which is now known throughout the world as Free Derry Corner. Photo: Jim Davies.

Redevelopment forced the family to move, first to another home on the Lecky Road, and then to Lisfannon Park, where Johnny and Ann raised a family of eight.

Fr. Mongan explained that Johnny was devoted to the local community.

"Through Parkhead Youth Club Johnny spent all three hours trying to distract the youth at the height of the Troubles with football, snooker, pool and discos, while Ann washed the rigs and prepped them for the next games," mourners were told.

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He was deeply involved in the civil campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s and took part in some of the major demonstrations of that era, which, like his old home on the Lecky Road, had an influence that reverberated far beyond Derry.

The famous anti-internment march banner retrieved by Johnny McKane on Bloody Sunday.

"Social and community conscious, Johnny was always aware of the social injustices in Derry - housing, unemployment, education, taking part in the famous cavalcade to Stormont for the City of Derry University, 1965; the Civil Rights March, October 5, 1968, with his two sisters beaten off the street; and on Bloody Sunday Johnny had the foresight to recover the banner from the march and stored it safely for future generations, now pride of place at the Museum of Free Derry," said Fr. Mongan.

Johnny was laid to rest at the City Cemetery on Friday.

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Pre-deceased by his wife Ann, he is mourned by his children Damien, Brian, Sean, Kevin, Peter, Eamon, Joseph and Geraldine, his wider family circle, and friends.

The Bloody Sunday Trust issued a statement, saying they were 'saddened at the passing of Johnny McKane, the last surviving resident of 33 Lecky Road, now Free Derry Corner'.

"He saved the blood stained banner on Bloody Sunday, one of the key historical items in Ireland. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam." the Trust stated.