Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

Willie Phelan has died

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A moving tribute to Willie Phelan by Kieran Allen.
Willie Phelan who has died was a member of the SWP.

Willie Phelan died recently of cancer . He was a long time member of the Socialist Workers Party and a key activist in the anti-household charges campaign in the Laois Offally area.

Willie sent in a membership application to the SWP in the early eighties. Before that he had hung out in the punk scene where he honed his fine instincts for rebellion.

His decision to join a revolutionary socialist organisation in the 1980s was unusual. This was a period of heightened reaction when Reagan and Thatcher cast a dark shadow over world politics. ‘Greed is good’ proclaimed the Iron Lady while the failed Hollywood actor promised to strike out at the ‘evil empire’ – and he did not mean his own.

In Ireland, the Catholic fundamentalist right was in the ascendant. They pushed through an amendment, which equated the life of a woman with a day old foetus and mobilised rural Ireland to vote overwhelmingly against divorce.

Yet out of this bleak landscape stepped forth an incredibly brave man who had grown up in a conservative part of rural Ireland. Willie’s house in Ballinakill was a ‘Parnell Cottage’ – a concession granted to landless labourers during the Land League that was accompanied by an acre of land. The cottage lay a few feet back from the road – a sign, Willie often suggested – of how poor his ancestors were.

Willie’s life long commitment to rebellion sprung from many sources.

His mother, Dolly, was a single parent whose only son was born in 1954. With her own tenacity and determination, she held onto him – an incredibly difficult thing to do in an Ireland of the Magdalene laundries – and the atmosphere he grew up in left Willie with an abiding hatred of the Catholic Church.

Willie was a self-taught, highly educated man. At the age of 15, one of his neighbours recounted, he asked him ‘What will you do when you leave school’. ‘Fuck all’ was the reply ‘The more you do, the more responsibilities they try to stick on you’. He spent his time reading, talking and creating a circle of free thinkers around him.

Willie also had a great, surreal sense of humour that illuminated the absurdities of official society. At a time when the craze of ‘moving statues’ swept the country, the two-person SWP branch in Portlaoise went on a subversive night mission to hang ‘Out of Order’ signs on the local statues.

Willie Phelan was a kind and gentle soul. He lived outside a traditional family relationship but formed his own supportive bond with a wide circle, treating his friends’s children as his equals and earning their love and friendship. He was a comforter and friend of those driven to despair by a repressive society. He never patronised but engaged people’s minds with wit and humanity.

At his funeral service, the rasping words of Dick Gaughan blasted out the song ‘Hail to Judas.’ For a moment, some of his neighbours shuffled a little uneasily and whispers were heard that ‘Willie had no time for the church’.

But he had belonged to that great tradition of Irish rebels which had been hardened with a global revolutionary socialist outlook. And he was accepted and respected for that.

Willie Phelan will be sadly missed but the flame of revolution that he helped kindle has been passed on.

July 23, 2012

Written by tomasoflatharta

Jul 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm

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