A Compelling Story, a Great Honor

Liz and Pearse Kerr

Liz and Pearse Kerr

As a Catholic and a nationalist living in the Cliftonville neighborhood of North Belfast in the late 1970s, young Pearse Kerr was accustomed to being treated with suspicion and contempt—and often brutality. Orangemen forced his family out of their first home, threatening to burn it down. Out on the streets, British soldiers frequently stopped, questioned and searched him, even though they knew him by name and had stopped and questioned him many times before. Once, on his first day of high school, a soldier struck him with a rifle butt, knocking him over a wall.

He wasn’t even surprised when, in the early morning hours of August 18, 1977, British soldiers smashed the door of his house at 233 Cliftonville Road, rousted him out of bed and hustled him off to Castlerea Interrogation Center. Nor was he surprised by his treatment once he got there. “It might sound bad, and it was,” he says. “”They broke my wrist, dislocated my neck, fractured a rib, choked me unconscious, and generally pushed me around… It was nothing out of the ordinary at the time. They beat me pretty good … but they didn’t kill me. It was well-known what was going on. It wasn’t shocking or anything. It was just part of life over there.”

Kerr spent three months in custody.  He was in Castlerea Interrogation Center for seven days, then transferred to Crumlin Road Prison.  All told, he was incarcerated from August 18 to November 26. Unlike many prisoners of the time, Pearse Kerr—named after the Irish nationalist and leader of the 1916 Easter Rising Pádraig Pearse—was an American. His parents Brendan and Betty Kerr, originally from the Falls Road in Belfast, had moved to Philadelphia in 1957. Pearse was born not long thereafter at Temple University Hospital. Given his status as a U.S. citizen, Kerr’s imprisonment triggered a huge backlash in the Philadelphia Irish community, and he was released thanks to the intervention of Daily News columnist Jack McKinney and Northeast Philadelphia Congressman Joshua Eilberg.

Kerr’s harrowing story, together with his continued activism here after his return to the States, rarely fails to move people who come to know him. Evidently, Kerr’s experience caught the attention of the committee organizing the 2011 Burlington County St. Patrick’s Day Parade. They recently named him their grand marshal.

Arguably, given that St. Patrick’s Day represents all things Irish, it was a good choice. Few local people could better symbolize Irish pride.

In Kerr’s household, that pride always came first. While living in the States, his father was one of the founding members of Irish Northern Aid and was active in Clan na Gael, another Irish republican organization.

“I was brought up with an Irish nationalist mindset, he says. “There’s no taking that away.” He also knew well that his first name stood for something. (It certainly meant something to the British in Belfast, he says. “When that’s your name, spelled like that, they know exactly who you are.”)

For Kerr, his time in prison left no lingering scars, but it did affect the way he looked at life: “It was maybe a solidification of what I was always taught.”

He also knows how lucky he was. Many prisoners were not nearly so fortunate. Even at the time of his release, he was uncertain what fate had in store for him. His jailers entered his cell, tossed a bag at him and ordered him to pack his clothes.

“Nobody said to me, you’re getting released,” he recalls. I thought I was being sent to Long Kesh (site of the 1981 Hunger Strike). They took me to a court in the city center. When I got to the courtroom, I was standing in the dock and, out in the foyer, I could see my father. And I knew I was going to be released.

“We got a taxi and we went to my grandmother’s house. The following day I flew to Philadelphia for a “Free Pearse Kerr” rally … which I had the pleasure to attend.”

Even though he has been in the States for years, the experience still resonates, and his Irish pride continues to make itself known through his many local activities, including Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 25.

That’s why the Burlington County honor means so much to him.

“I had no idea. I didn’t know I was in the running,” he says. “I was shocked, I really was. It’s such an honor to be chosen. I love Ireland and I love the AOH and I love the Irish republican movement. To be able to represent all that means the world to me.”

Author: Jeff Meade

Jeff is one of the founding editors of irishphiladelphia.com. More details.

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13 Comments

  1. Awesome story..Pearse and Liz are amazing people. Great story Irish Philadelphia!!!

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  2. Pearse, no one deserves the honor morte than you. I remember your father well from Northern Aid and all he did for Irish Freedom. I also remember and was involved in the protest on your behalf. Although this old mind is not as good as it once was there are many things you never forget and again congratulations and good luck to you, Liz and your family on this great honor. Hope I can make the parade.

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  3. GREAT STORY ALL THE BEST .

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  4. We were so Honored that Pearse is the Grand Marshal this year. We can not wait to see him marching down the street. If anyone wants to attend the Grand Marshal Dinner on Feb 27th Please let us know. We would love to have you join us on this special night.

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  5. Great stuff Pearse! We’ll keep working for a United Ireland with freedom for all Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter.

    Ned McGinley
    Past National President AOH in America

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  6. I am very gratefull to know Pearse he in one of the nicest people I know, he very much deserves this honor I can not think of anyone better myself, congratulations

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  7. Well Done Burlington County Philadelphia

    I knew Pearse as a young boy and as a young man, but mainly as a close friend.
    I am delighted to see that Pearse is being given such recognition by his community.
    From a distance we can only say that we hope both he and his wife enjoy this moment of honor!
    I always say that anyone can be born Irish but it is more important to be Irish by choice,
    Pearse by his deeds and actions has been such a good example of this.
    Enjoy! Liam

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  8. This is a very nice article and it makes us proud to know both of you!

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  9. Pierce, Congratulations, after reading this article I know why uou were so highly recommended for the FFAI chair. I’m glad I listened. I’m proud to have a man of your caliber on the AOH Pa. State Board.

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  10. Pearse – Congratulations on a well deserved honor.

    For those who understand
    no explanation is necessary.
    For those who don’t understand
    no explanation is possible.

    Your commitment to the cause is an inspiration.

    Tiocfaidh Ar La!

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  11. I was living in Philadelphia at the time Pearse was wrongfully jailed, and I joined the protest march to the Philadelphia office of the British consulate in Philly.
    As I recall, the U.S. government did not wish to lift a finger to help him. It wasn’t until local Philadelphia politician Joshua Eilberg got involved that he was released.

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  12. What a tremendous story. I cannot believe the US Government did nothing at this time. Just shows what a awful job Reagan did with regards to the conflict in Ireland. Very sad when he could have done much more.
    Thank you Pearse for all that you stand for and all that you have done.

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  13. This is really a message to the editor. My doctoral thesis includes a section on Pearse Kerr (and others) to illustrate the treatment meted out to those incarcerated in Castlereagh, so I have known his story for a long time. Now I am writing a book based on the thesis and would like to use a photograph of Pearse. May I use the one you have used in this article? Certainly a photo of Pearse as a 17 year old would be preferable, but I have no wish to bring back dreadful memories by asking him. I leave it with you to get back in touch with me. Incidentally, I live near Liverpool, England.

    Thank you

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