Kevin McKenna funeral: former IRA chief of staff buried in Monaghan

Gerry Adams at graveside warns against demonising ‘patriots like Kevin McKenna’

First came the sound; the refrain of the pipes, carrying through the hot, still air. Then the guard of honour shimmered into view – men and women, lining the route, dressed in black trousers, white shirts, black ties.

Then the piper breasted the hill, then the hearse, then the Tricolour-draped coffin. Behind it, came the mourners, their hundreds filling the narrow Monaghan lane.

They had come to bury a former IRA chief of staff, Kevin McKenna – a Tyrone man who had spent most of his life in Monaghan, and who had risen to become one of the Provisionals’ longest-serving leaders.

“The republican family is a strong one,” said one former IRA member. “The bonds you make, those are unbreakable. He was our leader. I had to come to pay my respects.”


McKenna, who died on Tuesday, was the leader of the IRA from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s during some of the most violent years of the Troubles. Though a guarded figure, he made no excuses for the IRA's violence. He was one of its longest-standing chiefs of staff, leading the illegal importation of arms from Muammar Gadafy's Libya in the 1980s. He led the IRA through the first IRA ceasefire in 1994, though he was replaced thereafter.

He was buried after Requiem Mass at St Mary's, Magherarney, near Smithborough, Co Monaghan, on Thursday, attended by hundreds of locals, but many, too, from across the island.

Speaking at the graveside, the former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams described McKenna as "a decent man doing his best in very difficult times", and said the IRA had been "right" to fight against British rule in Ireland.

"The republican people of the North never went to war," said Mr Adams. "The war came to us.

“I’m mindful of those who have been hurt, and there has been hurt on all sides and healing and reconciliation is needed, but the war is over.

“The future is being written now, and as we help to write that future we will not let the past be written in a way which demonises patriots like Kevin McKenna any more than we would the generations before them.

“I think the men and women of 1916 were right,” Mr Adams said. “I think the H-Block hunger strikers were right. I think Kevin McKenna was right.

“I think the IRA was right, not in everything that it did, but it was right to fight when faced with the the armed aggression of British rule.”

Referring to McKenna’s leadership of the IRA during the first IRA ceasefire in 1994, Mr Adams also said that it had been “right to make peace”.

“Kevin was a republican soldier who had the politics to know when to fight, and the political vision to know when to talk.

“Kevin had the courage to make the big decisions with others during the conflict, and he also was one of those who had the courage to make the big and difficult decisions during the effort to make peace,” he said.

As the coffin arrived at the gates of St Mary’s, Magherarney, the black beret and gloves were taken from atop the coffin, and the Tricolour was removed and folded.

The funeral was attended by several Sinn Féin politicians, including party leader Mary Lou McDonald, Northern leader Michelle O'Neill, MEP Martina Anderson, TDs Caoimhighín Ó Caoláin, Martin Ferris and Pearse Doherty, and MP Michelle Gildernew.

Bernie McGuinness, the wife of the North’s former deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, also attended, as did his son Fiachra.

1916 Proclamation

Among the items brought to the altar was a copy of the 1916 Proclamation, which the chief celebrant Fr Joe McVeigh said was a symbol of McKenna’s “dedication to Irish freedom and to a united Ireland”.

His life, he said, had changed after the introduction of internment in 1971, and Bloody Sunday in 1972: “After that, we had war,” he said, “and with that Kevin’s life changed forever.”

Praising McKenna’s role in the peace process, Fr McVeigh said he had last seen him at Martin McGuinness’s funeral in Derry in March 2017 “which reminded me how these two men had worked together to bring about a just and a lasting peace in Ireland,” he said.

At the graveside, which was covered in green, white and orange wreaths and Easter lilies, Adams described McKenna as a "patriot" who had chosen to return from Canada in 1970 to join the IRA.

“Among the rolling hills of Tyrone, and the narrow laneways, the villages and the roads of that historic county, Kevin and his comrades relentlessly and defiantly fought the British army,” he said.

He said that while it was “the nature of things that the part played by republicans like Kevin during the long years of war will never be known”, he described McKenna as “the real deal, a decent, honest republican who saw off Thatcher and her ilk and brought the British government to the negotiating table”.

“There was no peaceful way to end the union and to build a new united Ireland,” Adams said. “Thanks to your efforts, Kevin, and the efforts of many others there is now a growing debate about a new Ireland and a referendum on Irish unity, and thanks to your efforts there is a pathway towards unity. Our duty is to complete that journey.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times