Tuesday, December 30, 2014

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Jim Reilly

Jim Reilly was the quiet man of the H Blocks. Older and shrewder than most of his peers he was a discerning character, which left him never totally at ease in an organisation where deception was prized over perception. Despite that, his natural ability to get along with people was reflected in the diverse turn out at his Belfast funeral in March. According to a former blanket man, 'on that day republicans of all persuasions were at his funeral which shows the respect he was held in.' This was a theme echoed by another former blanket man, Peader Whelan, who wrote of the turnout as ‘indicating the esteem in which he was held.’

Jim Reilly was arrested in 1987. A republican friend told me today that just before his arrest Jim and he spoke at Larry Marley’s funeral in Ardoyne.

Jim was a horsey man so it was no surprise when he said he was going to pick up a new horse box. He didn’t say it was filled with enough explosives to send Shergar into outer space.

This led to a This Is Your Life sketch in the blocks. Jim was the caught off guard guest on the night. When the compere introduced Jim’s co-accused - a horse, so well put together that the designer would never be out of work in panto season - the canteen erupted. It still stands out in my mind as one of the set pieces of H block pageantry. It was fitting therefore that his remains should be borne through Belfast in a horse drawn carriage.

Photo by An Phoblacht

He was constantly involved in a banter battle with Scope McLaughlin, a young republican socialist from Twinbrook. Scope had allowed his belly to accrue a few extra and not well concealed pounds. One of Jim’s favourite stunts was to have me put a pillow up my top and call Scope out to the grill from the other wing for a yarn. Jim would hide in the ablutions literally doubled up in laughter while Scope would rail across the wings that he knew "Reilly you bastard" was behind it and to come out from his hiding place.

I would often talk with Jim in the H Blocks about politics. At the time I was into writing wry poetry and prose that was regarded as humorously subversive of the official line. Jim would love to get it as quickly as I churned it out. In his Belfast drawl he would make some witty and insightful observation. 

On the last occasion I spoke with him, we had met in passing outside the Sinn Fein centre on the Falls Road. His partner worked in the adjoining bookshop. She had done great work on behalf of the protesting prisoners and had visited me on a number of occasions before I got to know Jim.

He might have been a Shinner but Jim Reilly was certainly no shunner. He never ostracised those opposed to the leadership narrative and he wasn’t in the slightest reticent about talking with me – by then a persona non grata - outside the gates of hell, although there was no way I could be enticed into that furnace of fantasy: we chatted at the front of it. We spoke about the direction the movement seemed to be heading in. He was no yes man so was always going to have some difficulty with the official line that was being pushed by the leadership. He told me he had sympathy with my perspective but nodded in the direction of a passing Brian Keenan, attired in building clothes in contrast to the suited and booted who could be seen about the office. He said that people like him seemed content with the way things were shaping up. It was similar to the view Martin Meehan had expressed to me some years earlier when he too was finding it difficult to imbibe the drivel without retching. Denied the pieces that would have allowed them to see the full picture they had a tendency to look to solid IRA leaders with a history of militancy and who they felt had the benefit of the requisite information that would allow them to make a more rounded and informed evaluation.

How precariously tenuous that approach was seemed to be borne out when Keenan was later said to have repudiated the strategy from his deathbed to volunteers who had taken their lead from him. Some are said to have told him ruefully, perhaps resentfully, that they only bought into it because of him.

Whatever the accuracy of that, the fractiousness caused by the deception and dissembling of the leadership can make its way right to the crematorium. A former blanket man told me that at the funeral Sinn Fein sought to cold shoulder some of Jim's siblings and that the party also excluded them from a memorial event in Twinbrook. His siblings ‘remember that day differently than his wife did.’ In a way that comment shows how even family can be polarised in their perspectives at the most stressful of times.

The last word on the life of a truly great character who touched so many with his charm should be left to the same former blanket man:

But every one remembered him as the quiet man who had his issues with the present leadership but kept his counsel to himself. I remember him as a republican who was loyal mostly to his friends.


marty said...

Really lovely tribute to a man who deserved such tributes and more,he may have walked in the dark side but he was a shining light of a human being ,,liked him a lot and respect to Marguerite..