A Compelling Story, a Great Honor

irishphiladelphia.com – reprinted with permission

 

Liz and Pearse Kerr

As a Catholic and a nationalist living in the Cliftonville neighborhood of North Belfast in the late 1970s, young Pearse Kerr was accustomed to being treated with suspicion and contempt—and often brutality. Orangemen forced his family out of their first home, threatening to burn it down. Out on the streets, British soldiers frequently stopped, questioned and searched him, even though they knew him by name and had stopped and questioned him many times before. Once, on his first day of high school, a soldier struck him with a rifle butt, knocking him over a wall.

He wasn’t even surprised when, in the early morning hours of August 18, 1977, British soldiers smashed the door of his house at 233 Cliftonville Road, rousted him out of bed and hustled him off to Castlerea Interrogation Center. Nor was he surprised by his treatment once he got there. “It might sound bad, and it was,” he says. “They broke my wrist, dislocated my neck, fractured a rib, choked me unconscious, and generally pushed me around… It was nothing out of the ordinary at the time. They beat me pretty good … but they didn’t kill me. It was well-known what was going on. It wasn’t shocking or anything. It was just part of life over there.”

Kerr spent three months in custody.  He was in Castlerea Interrogation Center for seven days and then transferred to Crumlin Road Prison.  All told, he was incarcerated from August 18 to November 26. Unlike many prisoners of the time, Pearse Kerr—named after the Irish nationalist and leader of the 1916 Easter Rising Pádraig Pearse—was an American. His parents Brendan and Betty Kerr, originally from the Falls Road in Belfast, had moved to Philadelphia in 1957. Pearse was born not long thereafter at Temple University Hospital. Given his status as a U.S. citizen, Kerr’s imprisonment triggered a huge backlash in the Philadelphia Irish community, and he was released thanks to the intervention of Daily News columnist Jack McKinney and Northeast Philadelphia Congressman Joshua Eilberg.

Kerr’s harrowing story, together with his continued activism here after his return to the States, rarely fails to move people who come to know him. Evidently, Kerr’s experience caught the attention of the committee organizing the 2011 Burlington County St. Patrick’s Day Parade. They recently named him their grand marshal.

Arguably, given that St. Patrick’s Day represents all things Irish, it was a good choice. Few local people could better symbolize Irish pride.

In Kerr’s household, that pride always came first. While living in the States, his father was one of the founding members of Irish Northern Aid and was active in Clan na Gael, another Irish republican organization.

“I was brought up with an Irish nationalist mindset, he says. “There’s no taking that away.” He also knew well that his first name stood for something. It certainly meant something to the British in Belfast, he says. “When that’s your name, spelled like that, they know exactly who you are.”

For Kerr, his time in prison left no lingering scars, but it did affect the way he looked at life: “It was maybe a solidification of what I was always taught.”

He also knows how lucky he was. Many prisoners were not nearly so fortunate. Even at the time of his release, he was uncertain what fate had in store for him. His jailers entered his cell, tossed a bag at him and ordered him to pack his clothes.

“Nobody said to me, you’re getting released,” he recalls. I thought I was being sent to Long Kesh (site of the 1981 Hunger Strike). They took me to a court in the city center. When I got to the courtroom, I was standing in the dock and, out in the foyer, I could see my father. And I knew I was going to be released.

“We got a taxi and we went to my grandmother’s house. The following day I flew to Philadelphia for a ‘Free Pearse Kerr’ rally … which I had the pleasure to attend.”

Even though he has been in the States for years, the experience still resonates, and his Irish pride continues to make itself known through his many local activities, including AOH Div 25.

That’s why the Burlington County honor means so much to him.

“I had no idea. I didn’t know I was in the running,” he says. “I was shocked, I really was. It’s such an honor to be chosen. I love Ireland and I love the AOH and I love the Irish republican movement. To be able to represent all that means the world to me.”

 

FFAI

On June 15th like many others I nervously awaited the release of the Saville Inquiry, it would be hard to believe that the truth could somehow be once again be delayed or worse denied, but after so many years of waiting I was not going to take anything for granted.  At work I was lucky enough to be able to access the live BBC coverage online.  Just prior to 10:30 a.m. EST the BBC switched to the Guildhall in Derry City, television cameras panned the windows of the building and showed what seemed to be hands of family members of those lost in Bloody Sunday, pointing to the what looked like a document and signally thumbs up.  Was it possible that after almost waiting for 40 years the truth would be told?

Before those thoughts could sink in the cameras were now broadcasting from the English Parliament. What I heard next took even more time to sink in.  The new Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had no sooner started his address to Parliament when he said, “The conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong”. Regarding the actions of the British soldiers that day Cameron said “you do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible”.

Cameron then spoke the words that the families of those murdered and injured had waited 38 years for: “What happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day – and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our Armed Forces acted wrongly. The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Armed Forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government – and indeed our country – I am deeply sorry.  I would also like to acknowledge the grief of the families of those killed. They have pursued their long campaign over thirty-eight years with great patience. Nothing can bring back those that were killed but I hope, as one relative has put it, the truth coming out can set people free.”

When the speech ended and the BBC cameras switched back to the Guildhall, the next half hour of coverage was something that I will never forget. Tony Doherty whose father Patrick was murdered profoundly stated “When the state kills its citizens, it is in the interests of all that those responsible be held to account. It is not just Derry, or one section of the people, but democracy itself which needs to look out. The British people need to know, the Irish people need to know, the world now knows.”

The cameras showed the family members coming outside of the Guildhall on the steps and stage, I saw the people we have marched with for years in Derry and it was as if you could actually see the weight that was lifted off their shoulders. I saw John Kelly raise his fist in vindication and thought of what he had told me just a few months earlier in Washington DC.  Like so many parents who lost sons on Bloody Sunday John’s mother never recovered from the loss of her son Michael or stopped striving for his justice.  She passed away several years ago but on her death bed John told me that the family decided to tell her that Michael had been finally exonerated, they couldn’t let her die without some sort of justice.  On this day Mrs. Kelly, her son and all those that died and were injured finally got the justice they deserved.  Rest in peace Mrs. Kelly and to all the parents and family members who have passed away waiting for justice.

Later the cameras showed Jean Heagarty, whom I also had met in Washington, she approached the stage and very symbolically ripped a copy of the Widgery report in half; relegating it once and for all for as the lies and garbage that it was.

As the large screens that flanked the stage showed a picture of the murdered and injured a family member of each victim took the stage to read their loved ones name, cite from the Saville inquiry the true events surrounding their murder and very symbolically announce to the world their innocence.  Truth and vindication and it only took 38 years.  The emotions of that morning are something that I will never forget, it was as powerful a moment as I have ever experienced.  I am sure that so many in the AOH and LAOH felt the same way especially those that have made the trips to partake in the commemoration marches.

In the aftermath of June 15th I would speak to a friend who aptly said; if prior to the release of Saville if they had given us a blank piece of paper and asked us to write what we would think would be the best case scenario we could not have said it any better than Cameron did.

Near the end of his speech to Parliament Cameron said; “this report and the Inquiry itself demonstrate how a State should hold itself to account… and how we are determined at all times – no matter how difficult – to judge ourselves against the highest standards. Openness and frankness about the past – however painful – do not make us weaker, they make us stronger.”  He added that “neither will we hide from the truth that confronts us today.”

I commend the words, actions and straightforwardness of David Cameron on June 15th; it is extremely unfortunate that none of his predecessors had the courage or fortitude to admit the truth which they no doubt knew.  For Cameron’s words to be more than just sound bites in response overwhelming evidence it is critical that he understands that there remain hundreds of other victims who deserve the same vindication that the Bloody Sunday victims and families have just received.  The high standards that the state should hold itself to, the openness and frankness about the past no matter how painful are the standards by which the English government should approach its need to tell the true story of its involvement in the North.  The family of those that were killed in acts of collusion by state security, those killed by paramilitaries, or any unresolved death also deserve no less.

Mark Twain once said “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” It will not take multimillion dollar inquiries to get the truth; it just requires the truth and a vehicle where the truth and not necessarily prosecution is the main objective.  If the Saville inquiry has taught us anything it is that the truth does not cost anything but when the truth is concealed and suppressed deliberately the quest to right that wrong will cost society something much more expensive than money.  Prime Minister Cameron we will judge your words on your future actions.