Birmingham Six's Richard McIlkenny

 

The funeral has taken place in Celbridge, Co Kildare, of Richard McIlkenny, who was falsely imprisoned for 16 years with five other men who became known as the Birmingham Six.

Mr McIlkenny (73) died on Sunday at Blanchardstown hospital, Dublin. He is understood to have been suffering from cancer for some time. He had lived in Celbridge since his release from prison in 1991.

About 400 mourners at St Patrick's church were told Mr McIlkenny "struggled with life on the outside and often spoke of prison".

"He was a gentle soul and had the heart of a lion," his daughter Ann said. She added her father was immensely proud of his family and of his Belfast roots. He had moved to Birmingham in 1957 with his wife Kate. They had six children: Ann, Theresa, Martine, Seán, Maggie and Siobhán.

Ann told the congregation that when her father visited Belfast in 1973, he went to see his two brothers, Ambrose and Anthony, who were interned in Long Kesh.

"He told them he hoped the next time he saw them it would be under happy circumstances."

However, in 1974 Anthony was shot dead in a sectarian drive-by shooting. When his family returned to their house in Belfast after identifying him in hospital, they saw a news flash relating to the arrest of six men in Birmingham for pub bombings in the city.

In the hours that followed they learned one of those arrested was her father. The family immediately travelled to Birmingham.

"When they saw him the next day, he had been so badly beaten he was unrecognisable," she said. "It was the start of a long hard struggle that we never thought we would see the end of. The six men had been given 21 life sentences with no release date. Our hearts break but now Dad has the freedom he wanted for so long."

Fr PJ Gilmore told those gathered they should celebrate not only the life of Mr McIlkenny but also the resilience he had shown through nearly 17 years of "isolation, pain and sorrow".

When immigrants went to live in countries that were in conflict with their home country, it was difficult for them. "Tensions grow to such an extent that everybody is a suspect. The writing on the wall in Kilburn sent us all a message: 'If you're Irish, you're guilty'." He said Muslims were suffering now in the same way in detention centres in Iraq, Cuba, Australia and Britain.

Patrick Hill, Gerry Hunter, Hugh Callaghan, Billy Power and Johnny Walker, who were sentenced to life along with Mr McIlkenny in 1975 and released in 1991, attended yesterday's service. Also in attendance were three of the Guildford Four - Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong and Gerry Conlon - as well as Gareth Peirce, who helped secure the release of the Guildford Four and Labour councillor Nicky Kelly, who was jailed for a robbery in the 1970s before receiving a State pardon.