Saturday 7 December 2019

The courage of departed friend, Kevin

My friend Kevin Barry Johnson, who died recently aged just 50, was a man of immense courage.

He always stood up for the underdog and he was vehemently opposed to all forms of intimidation and coercion.

Bogside born and bred, he was well-known in his native Derry and not always for the right reasons. News pictures show, he must have been the smallest person ever arrested.

When Troubles erupted, he knew little other than rioting, stone throwing, stealing and when he was old enough, heavy drinking.

Although small in stature, he was immensely strong and he was well equipped to handle himself when it came to facing down bullies.

He was given the nickname 'Biggsy' by former Mayor of Derry, Councillor John Tierney, who likened him to Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber.

Biggsy would have been an ideal candidate for a republican paramilitary organisation, but his inherent humanity stopped him. He possessed no sectarian traits whatsoever. In fact, he was intrigued by his surname, which suggested he came originally from Protestant stock.

And he was eternally grateful to an RUC man who went into the witness box and deliberately told the judge a pack of lies to ensure Biggsy received a custodial sentence. The policeman later visited him in the cells and told Biggsy he did it to save his life as he believed the bould IRA were planning to shoot him dead.

At one stage, the Provos tried to harness his courage for their own ends. A well-known Derry gunman told him: "Come with me to Buncrana and I'll teach you how to shoot the eyes out of a hen at 50 yards." But Biggsy replied: "I didn't know hens in Donegal were legitimate targets!"

Biggsy detested the fascist nature of paramilitary organisations. He knew that if he was to survive the Troubles, he would have to steer clear of the self-appointed cream of Irish manhood, the Irish Republican Army.

His friend Colm Carey wasn't so lucky. Born in Derry in 1954, he was a teenager when the Troubles broke out. Like Biggsy, he was a familiar sight on streets during rioting.

Determined

But unlike Biggsy, when the IRA came calling he couldn't resist. Being an IRA man gave Colm a sense of worth in the impoverished community where he lived in Derry's Waterside. He even served a term in prison for IRA activities.

But alcohol got the better of him and after he was booted out the IRA, he became a street drinker. On July 16 1982, Biggsy Johnson woke early. Unusually for him, he had no hangover. He had money in his pocket and he was determined to spend it.

The sun was shining as Biggsy walked passed Derry's Guildhall on to the quay overlooking the River Foyle where he met Colm Carey. The two men were friends and Biggsy asked Colm to join him in a drink.

Biggsy insisted Colm came with him and after buying a huge carryout, the men were soon enjoying themselves drinking in the sunshine, as they were barred from most Derry pubs.

A few hours later Biggsy called and paid for a taxi to take Colm home as he was about to pass out. He also shoved eight pounds in his pocket along with two cans of beer.

Back in the Waterside, Colm bought more beer and when they were done he staggered back into the off-sales where he stole a bottle of whiskey.

A member of the IRA standing in the shop spotted the theft and an hour later a so-called IRA punishment squad burst into Colm's home at Strabane Old Road. They dragged their former comrade - who was practically unconscious as a result of the vast quantity of alcohol he had consumed - out into the garden where they shot him in both legs with a high powered rifle.

An hour passed before an ambulance was called. But by that time Colm Carey - former IRA prisoner and chronic alcoholic - lay dead. In death, he gained notoriety, by becoming the first person in Northern Ireland to die as a result of a so-called punishment attack. If he had survived, Colm Carey would have been 60 today.

The brutal nature of Colm Carey's death and the shameful actions of those involved h aunted Biggsy Johnston for the rest of his life.

I learned this week, that Biggsy had left money in his will to the Omagh Bomb Fund and he also donated money to help in the upkeep of Auschiwtz Concentration Camp.

And it is there, I will be privileged to attend next February when Biggsy's ashes will be scattered.

Irish Independent

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