The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Dying Easily

If a man is aware that his time was not wasted, that he made a contribution to humanity, despite life’s difficulties and misunderstandings, why should he fear death? When all is said and done, what is death but a deep sleep, which to the man who is content with modest achievements, should be welcomed as a reward at the end of life’s struggle? – Sean Kearney

Anthony McIntyre • 23 May 2004

I never got to meet Sean Kearney until the final year of his life. He had reviewed a book on Joe Cahill in Fortnight which interested me, and the magazine’s editor, Malachi O’Doherty, suggested that I give him a call some day. I did just that and he invited me over to his home in North Belfast. It was a warm Sunday afternoon last year and the tumours that would finally overpower him had begun their remorseless march through his body. Yet if they preoccupied him he showed little sign of it. If his ordeal concentrated his mind, it was on living purposefully rather than on dying.

Much of that first exchange took place through the medium of Irish. I had never attained the level of fluency that he had and he sensed it without saying as much. We conversed easily because he had glided the conversation down the levels to where I was comfortable. If there seemed anything of the religious about Sean it was his passion for the language. But even here his sense of the secular prevailed and he remained resolutely opposed to making Irish compulsory. Forcing sectional values or preferences upon others was something he found repellant. And when our conversation drifted to topics associated with authoritarian imposition his spirit would flare up in clear rebellion against the 'saved and the sanctified' who believe they are ideologically ordained to decide what the rest of us should think, feel or do.

It was an ethos that caused Provisional republicanism to acquire an anathematised status in his eyes. On the penultimate visit to him before his death, he told me he had worked with Families Against Intimidation and Terror (FAIT), a body that had vigorously challenged the Provisional IRA on its use of punishment beatings. Henry Robinson and Vincent McKenna were the names that sprang to my mind when I thought of FAIT, not Sean Kearney. But other republicans remember his involvement. I had always despised the group and told him as much. I said it was an NIO front - he accused me of peddling Provo propaganda. He denounced the immorality of the IRA beating innocent kids with iron bars and baseball bats. I protested that I knew many on the receiving end of a punishment beating, but none who were innocent. He defended FAIT as being balanced in its criticism. I asked him when had it ever spoken out about the punishment attacks carried out by the Northern Ireland Prison Service. And so we battled, lobbing charge and counter-charge back and forth across the perspectival net that divided us. Despite being gravely ill, his eyes blazed with lucidity and his mental faculties remained undiminished. The only thing we agreed upon that day was that punishment beatings were tantamount to torture and can have no place in post-caveman society. But when we parted, it was on the most friendly of terms.

Sean Kearney had twice served prison terms for republicanism in the 1950s. A short sentence in Crumlin Road and then as an internee in the same jail. He devoured books and told me it was through reading that he had moved beyond republicanism towards a more leftist politics. He judged the former to be imbued with right wing Catholicism and narrow-minded self-righteousness. When I asked him if he now described himself as a socialist, he merely said he was a democrat. He seemed to have little time for isms; the flesh, blood and bones of people were what mattered.

Nor had he time for religion. It struck me that he viewed it as some form of mentally debilitating affliction and was perplexed that people still clung to the smell of incense and the comfort of crosses in today’s material world. Being wholly averse to priestcraft myself, there was nothing that he could say on that topic that would strike me as disagreeable. Most inspirational of all was that while he used up every second of life productively, he had no fear of death. Last October, in a very moving piece of writing in Fortnight, he penned an article entitled ‘I am dying and I can live with that.’ The last time I spoke with him, about seven weeks before he died, he was preparing to get married to his partner Liz that very weekend.

Sean died last week. In his typical no-frills style he donated his body to medical science. In death something of him has managed to live on by ensuring that his contribution to humanity lies in continuing to replenish the fount of knowledge and reason he so valued while alive. His task remains one of assisting in that process through which 'free-thinking, independent men and women, will defeat ignorance.' Now in his deep sleep, his manner of retiring for the final night, should reassure those of us still terrified of being tormented and tortured by devils and gods once our lives elapse:

My death won’t launch me into any ‘journey’ to confront demons or wrathful gods who might fling me into hell fire or a limbo of tortured souls consumed with hatred and fear. On the contrary I consider it the end of a journey. Many who choose to believe in some mythical paradise or demonic hell, must experience great apprehension and terror, based on the fear of God’s wrath. For my part, I know that nothing shall disturb my sleep, and that when my body disintegrates there will be no soul left, to be goaded and tortured in some after life, in the way that non-believers were burned in medieval times.

When our time comes we only go to where we were before we were conceived. And who has bad memories of that?





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

24 May 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


Tipping Over Cash Cows
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Dying Easily
Anthony McIntyre


Danger to Society
Chrissie McGlinchey


The Moral Failure of the "Free World" in Gaza
Ghali Hassan


Colin Powell, DOA
Paul de Rooij


The Letters page has been updated.


21 May 2004

Portlaoise Prison and Compassionate Parole
Anthony McIntyre


New Republican Protest Looms in Maghaberry
Martin Mulholland, IRPWA


Computer Enchanced?
George Young


A Comic Apology?
M. Shahid Alam


Lessons from Vietnam
Liam O Ruairc




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