Profile: Father James Chesney

 

FR JAMES Chesney was as unlikely a character to fit the stereotype of a brooding terrorist as might be imagined. A charismatic clergyman who raced around the country lanes of Derry in his sports car, he was, according to contemporaries, convivial, considerate and deeply involved in the life of the local community.

When suspicions about his role first emerged publicly, back in 2002, former local MP and civil rights activist Ivan Cooper recalled his first meeting with the priest who, on that occasion, was accompanied by his wealthy aunt and uncle, Willie and Betty Noon.

It was the early 1970s, some time before the Claudy bombings.

“They arrived at my house in a bright red Mercedes,” Cooper remembered. “She was dripping with furs and waving a long cigarette holder. Later, I was invited to their house for what they called ‘soirees’. There was always a fair sprinkling of priests, including their nephew, Fr Jim Chesney.

“The Noons had no children; Fr Chesney was like a son to them. He was in his late 30s, six foot tall, dark and strikingly handsome, an extremely magnetic and engaging man . . . I was not aware his political views were very different from his aunt and uncle’s until some time later when I went to a meeting of his parishioners where he asked some pointedly republican questions, but in a subtle and courteous way.

“He organised big dances and massive bingo events, where all the towns and villages round about could join in by radio link for what were huge prizes in those days.”

Some suspicions were aroused before he was moved across the Border. Fr Chesney’s parishioners began to point out the alarming regularity with which these events were robbed. They suspected the takings were going to IRA coffers, with the priest’s connivance.

Fr Chesney’s outrage after Bloody Sunday is thought to have converted his republican activism into paramilitary commitment. He became, as he was later described, a “Provo priest”.

The precise sequence of events that led up to the Claudy bombs is not detailed in the police ombudsman’s report but an anonymous letter sent by a “Father Liam” in 2002, which triggered the investigation, hints at reasons for the carnage. Fr Liam, who has never been identified, said he had met Fr Chesney at a house in Malin Head, Co Donegal, in late 1972, when the latter broke down and confessed his role in the bombings.

“He said that he was horrified at the injustices done to the Catholic people . . . He became a member of the IRA and was soon in charge of a small number of volunteers,” the letter revealed.

Fr Chesney was ordered to place bombs in Claudy to relieve pressure on the IRA brigade in Derry following the breakdown of the 1972 ceasefire.

According to this second-hand account, Fr Chesney had wanted to give warnings of the bombs so the streets could be cleared but when they stopped at nearby Dungiven, the IRA men could not find a telephone box in working order.

“This horrible affair has been with me now for 30 years and it has been hanging over me like a black cloud,” Fr Chesney allegedly told Fr Liam. “I must talk to someone in authority before I die . . . I must meet my maker with a clear conscience. The souls of the deceased are crying out not for vengeance but for justice.”

Fr Chesney had been moved to Bellaghy, Co Derry, in the same month as the Claudy bombings and in the following year, 1973, he was sent to Raphoe in Co Donegal.

He was later despatched to Malin Head. He died of cancer in March 1980, aged 46. The “Provo priest” was questioned three times by successive bishops of Derry about his role but always denied participating in the Claudy attack. – ( Guardianservice)