Last Monday when we placed Dolours Price in the cold forbidding clay of a Belfast cemetery, I had no sense that the earth was enriched by absorbing her, just that we had been impoverished by relinquishing our grip on her as she passed into the ground. It marked the final goodbye in stark contrast to first hello that heralded a friendship 14 years earlier. Comradeship had long preceded friendship. People don’t need to know each other to be comrades, merely to be part of the same insurrectionary enterprise. Platonic relationships frequently grow from comradeship but cannot be reduced to them. When comradeship forged by conflict moved rapidly into friendship in a less bellicose world I felt immensely honoured. As a teenage republican I was inspired by the raw courage of two West Belfast siblings, often referred to as the Venceremos Sisters, putting it up the might of what Ian Cobain has termed Cruel Britannia.
It would be a quarter of a century after her epic hunger strike that I first met Dolours. The location, Dublin 1999. Along with her sister Marian, whom I had previously been introduced to in Belfast at another political event, she was attending a discussion in the Teacher’s Club at which I spoke along with Tommy McKearney, himself a survivor of a prolonged hunger strike. We had gathered to muse on the Good Friday Internal Solution which fell so far short of republican goals Sinn Fein’s Jim Gibney had earlier told his audience in a college on Belfast’s Whiterock Road that, from a republican perspective, it could easily be thrown in the bin; its only redeeming factor was that it could advance the nationalist agenda which at that time republicanism was deferring to. Gibney was commenting on what should have been a clear blue sea divide but would soon grow blurred under the mist and myth of the peace process as republicanism came to embrace, even celebrate, its own oceanic failure.
It was evident then that as DNA republicans neither Dolours nor Marian Price could ever buy into anything that resembled the Treaty of 1922. They were not the type of children prepared to devour the revolution and as such would in some ways come to be devoured by it. They came equipped with the right amount of prescience to grasp that as a consequence of accepting an agreement that the party had never actually negotiated, but would later claim ownership of, Sinn Fein would come to behave in a fashion that would suggest its origins lay in Cumann na nGaedheal rather than any anti-Treaty composition. A well read articulate and intelligent woman, she was too instinctive a republican to buy into Treaty politics which had been bequeathed to Ireland by a Blue shirt mindset. She would have subscribed to the view of Padraic Pearse that:
The Man who, in the [matter] of Ireland, accepts as a “final settlement”, anything less by one fraction of an iota than separation from England - is guilty of so immense an infidelity, so immense a crime - that it were better for than man - that he had not been born.
Dolours, the consummate entertainer, was at ease with all manner of opposition, being more than capable of holding her own intellectually. I once introduced her to a loyalist friend at Dublin airport, where she held court, enchanting us with her wit and acerbic thrusts at those who scorned the ‘reviled and spat upon’ whose company she was content, in that resigned sense that was her way, to be part of. My friend, I believe, was more charmed than he was persuaded.
On another occasion both of us made the trek to Derry to stand shivering outside a voting booth canvassing for the Derry socialist Eamonn McCann, for whom she had enormous admiration of considerable longevity, and who would on the day deliver her funeral oration. At that time a number of republicans including the late Brendan Hughes anticipated Sinn Fein embracing some aspects of Tory Party economics, and felt it important to lend their support to something that had more resemblance to the politics that sustained us through the years of conflict and jail endurance rather than identify with the neo liberal ethos of the party that had sought to crush the republican struggle.
It was a strange day. Despite the mutual antipathy between us and Sinn Fein, it was their party members whom I had known from jail that kept us supplied with ready cups of tea and snacks throughout our sojourn. It was as bitterly cold as the day we buried her. When Raymond McCartney came into the polling station that evening his wife, a former republican prisoner who had served time in the same wing as Dolours, was genuinely pleased to see her, embracing her warmly, while myself and Raymond chatted. Derry was a cold place that day but not as cold as a Belfast summer where the chill was perennially and perniciously pumped the way of those who refused to profess a belief in what they clearly did not believe.
On a different occasion I ended up alongside Dolours outside Belfast City Hall where PSNI members were pummelling people for sitting on the road at an anti war rally shortly after the US invasion of Iraq. She turned up at these things. That was her, one apple that never fell too far from the radical tree within which she had bloomed.
As Brendan Hughes lay dying, she called to our home and we sat together awaiting the dreaded word from Belfast. We saw the hole coming yet still fell through it as the terra firma gave way beneath our feet when confirmation of Brendan’s passing came. The following day she drove me to Belfast on a solemn journey. The next such journey would see me without her but for her.
Then Dolours was fairly robust and not yet near the shell that she slowly morphed into as the years took their toll. The demons that haunted her were not yet beyond a command that would keep them at a safe distance. But it was a losing battle. She was at pains to work out how so many could with consummate ease perform a volte-face on the politics they had sometimes killed for, and march in the opposite direction away from republicanism and into the Treaty camp where the entrance sign clearly states ‘abandon all republican hope all ye who enter here.’ Was the motivation for killing so shallow and self serving?
As the political-moral construct through which she interpreted the world was deconstructed piece by piece, and as profanity after profanity took root in ground she held sacred, the dyke could no longer be plugged. In my affidavit submitted to a US court I expressed the view that the course being pursued by the British police aided by the US was potentially deleterious to the psychological wellbeing of Dolours. The same prosecutorial zeal and harsh indifference that hounded Aaron Swartz to his death would prove far from sated.
On the Sunday prior to her burial I travelled up to Belfast with my children. My wife had been there since the Friday before. In the wake house I kissed her cold forehead while my son, her god child, held his hand over his mouth mesmerised by my act.
The following morning republicans and others descended on a windblown and rain swept Andersonstown to fall in behind the funeral cortege as it would begin its journey to the Church and from there on down the Andersonstown Road to Milltown Cemetery. I met ex prisoners I had not seen in almost four decades. It was the wettest funeral I recall ever attending. There was virtually no respite from the relentless rain as it sought to penetrate the phalanx of umbrellas that seemed to move as one, Dolours leading the way to her final resting place. We were drenched as the skies seemed to cry above our heads.
In ways she was an enigmatic woman who had an ability to discern. The hard exterior which she sometimes projected never deflected me away from grasping that beneath it all was a sensitivity not at all cut out for the type of conflict she ended up being central to. The road of conflict was stony and she walked it barefooted. She was condemned to suffer and carry the burden that others more liable, more culpable, were only too willing to pass onto her. She fully accepted her role in the political violence that consumed the North. What she could not abide by was the fact that others who had given her orders throughout her very active IRA life seemed eager to adopt the politics of Gethesemane and deny her, disown the IRA, shift the blame for its activities onto subordinates, and mendaciously brand her a liar. It was a burden that grew no lighter as the years grew heavier and her wearier.
As we carried her along the road where she had seen so many carried before her, the coffin probably heavier than she was, I sensed that the burden of pall bearing her mortal remains was ultimately the price to be paid to secure her own unburdening. For Dolours, republican life had indeed been the Via Dolorosa.