Shaped by the past, looking to the future
Sligo's newest councillor, Sinn Fein's Chris MacManus, talks to editor Jenny McCudden about his upbringing in a staunchly republican household, the death of his only sibling, brother Joe in an IRA ambush, how he bears no ill will to the soldier who shot him, and his love of reading, history and politics
When Chris MacManus was a little boy 'it was not unusual for Gerry Adams to take his bed for the night as he slept on the couch.'
His father Sean was the national Chairperson of Sinn Féin and their home operated an open door policy when it came to prominent republicans.
"Republican politics was not glamorous at the time. They did not stay in hotels and could be looking for a bed for the night or a plate of food. Fortunately Mum was a very good cook and could always stretch the pot," Chris recalls.
Growing up in a staunchly republican household was the norm for Chris. The 44-year-old who has just taken the place of his retired father on Sligo County Council never knew any different. From an early age he also remembers early morning raids on the family terrace in Maugheraboy. "This must have been a frightening experience for a child?" I ask. Chris admits the first time it happened was but he trusted his parents to protect him.
Sitting over a coffee in the Glasshouse Hotel, the Sinn Féin councillor is relaxed and easy to chat to. He is instantly recognisable around his home town of Sligo with his obligatory cap, scarf and scooter. Following in his father's footsteps, Chris has been directly involved in politics since the tender age of 26 when he was first elected to the now defunct Sligo Borough Council. He held his seat for three consecutive elections until it was abolished in 2014.
A qualified engineer, Chris was something of a rebel in school. He tells me he was suspended from Summerhill at the age of 13 over a 'confrontation with a priest.' "We were not a very well-off family but around the house one thing we had in shed loads was books. So, I would question everything in history and Christian doctrine," he says.
It was during his final year in Summerhill that a life-changing event happened to 18-year-old Chris, the death of his brother who was killed in an IRA ambush. Joe was just 21 when he was shot dead at a farm house in Belleek by a part time Ulster Defence Regiment soldier. Chris who only had one sibling, was close to Joe.
"He was killed in a gunfight with a member of the UDR in 1992," says Chris, "It was a very traumatic part of my upbringing. We would have socialised together. We were both politically motivated selling the party newspaper on Friday evenings in town, sharing clothes and robbing each others cheap aftershave."
Chris was aware that when Joe moved to south Donegal 12 months prior to his death it was as an IRA volunteer to take part in the armed struggle 'against the British Forces.'
"Joe was a young adult, a business student in the college, lots of girlfriends and a happy-go-lucky person. None of his friends would have suspected he was in the IRA. He chose to give that all up, the easy life, for his convictions."
Chris is quick to point out that there was never any 'expectation for us to engage in politics.' He admits his parents worried about Joe's path but crucially they also understood.
That understanding did not shield them from what was to come, a knock on the door on a Wednesday night on February 5th 1992 from senior republicans from the Donegal area. The family had heard earlier in the day that a 'volunteer' had been shot dead.
"I remember coming home from school. I was doing my Leaving Cert. Mam was ironing in the kitchen and told me a man had been shot. But we didn't know if it was Joe."
Later that evening when their worst fears were confirmed, the family 'fell apart.'
"As soon as we saw them at the door, we knew. They said they had got word that Joe had been shot. We embraced each other and cried and tried to get through the next few hours. Your whole world collapses in the space of a few minutes."
The Gardaí called to the house the following day to ask one thing: "Was it going to be an IRA funeral?"
Chris says: "At no stage did the Gardaí sympathise with the family or inform us of Joe's death. There must have been a thousand Gardaí in the area for his funeral. He got full republican honours with a volley of shots fired at Sligo cemetery where Gerry Adams delivered a graveside oration."
So how did Chris get over the loss of his big brother? He said it was imperative that he deal with the loss on a personal level and not think about his death in the context of how he was killed. The first year was the toughest. Chris got a place as an engineering student in NUI Galway.
"I must be the only student in history to have not liked Galway. I didn't even last the year. I just could not settle with no close family and friends around. I found it very hard to relate to people. It's not as if I could go around broadcasting that I was upset or did not feel like coming to college because my brother was in the IRA and had been shot dead."
So Chris who is a self-confessed home bird returned to finish his studies in Sligo. Since that difficult period in his life, he has had time to reflect and admits that he holds no grudge towards the man who killed Joe.
"I bear no ill-will to the UDR soldier who killed my brother. If he wanted to meet with me tomorrow, I would engage and talk to him. I accept his right to have defended himself in a gun battle. I do not hold any hatred for him." Does Chris ever wonder about the influence and effects of republicanism on his family?
He says: "The only thing I blame my parents, Helen and Sean for, is for giving us the ability to feel a sense of honour. It's hard for non-republicans to understand but when you grow up in a household that stood for something, you develop a sense of pride. We were both strong willed boys and nothing was foisted on us."
Chris says he never wanted to take up arms, but always saw a future for himself in politics.
"My Dad is my political mentor, my mother is a very strong woman, the glue that keeps the family together, she is our rock. The weird thing is my brother is older than me but he is forever 21. I'm not going to be his best man or godfather to his first born. You could say any loss of life is not worth it but in the context of the conflict in the North, Joe followed his convictions. He was not unique."
A film buff, reader and QPR footie fan
The man behind the councillor can be found in O'Neills pub on Church Hill enjoying a 'good pint in good company.' Sligo's newest councillor is also not adverse to a good film.
In fact the movie buff has been known to binge on a good box set of a weekend - that's when his beloved Queen Park Rangers are not playing of course. The London-based team is a throwback to where he was born as he spent the first four years of his life in the UK capital before relocating with his family to Sligo. Apart from a few months in Galway, Chris has never lived anywhere else.
He even bought his own home just a couple of doors down from the house he was reared in. There's a racing bike in that house Chris hopes to take out: "I'm full of good intentions. I did lose 4 stone in the last few years so must get cycling again."
For a lover of film, it was a dream come true for Chris when renowned director Ken Loach approached him to gather extras for his film 'Jimmy Hall.' He then asked if Chris would audition for a part, which he subsequently got.
"It's like someone who never played professional football finding themselves playing for Brazil in a world cup final," he jokes. But has he caught the acting bug? Chris says although he would like to act more, his performances will only be of a political nature going forward.
Having ran in the 2016 General Election, Chris got more than 7,000 votes. "Having hit the crossbar last time around or come relatively close I would definitely like to run again," he says.
Fresh from the Northern Ireland elections last week, his biggest love is politics and the 44-year old admits it may even have got in the way of him 'settling down.'
"It is one of the regrets that I have that I never really took the time to try and settle down. I've had relationships over the years but have never met Mrs. Right. Or maybe Politics has taken up too much of my time to give Mrs. Right what she needs, but you never know what is around the corner," Chris says.
Looking back on his political career Chris says he is most proud of the Cranmore regeneration project which he first mooted. "I was leading the charge on Cranmore and it will be one of my personal projects that I will be articulating now that I'm back on the council."
He describes himself as a bit of a political anorak, shy by nature but he will never be afraid to be vocal on local issues such as housing and developing infrastructure.
Chris is Sligo's Newest County Councillor. He has hopes to run for the Dail next time around. The issues that concern him the most are housing and infrastructure. He believes Sligo's infrastructure deficit is the biggest problem. "If we sort out the big projects like the N4 and the N17 and rural broadband the jobs and tourism will follow in their wake to some extent. We are not going to bring tourism or jobs here until we have the right infrastructure." The Sinn Fein councillor has been heavily involved with conflict resolution work. Peace and Reconciliation are high on his agenda. He has concerns over how Brexit and the potential reintroduction of a hard border could impact on the Peace Process. "Dissidents could use it to their advantage," he fears.