Martin Hurson: Dying on Hungerstrike
**This article appeared 24 years ago. Seán posted it last year.
Saturday, July 18th, 1981
SIX DEAD, TWO CRITICAL
Photo from www.irishhungerstrike.com
Last Monday morning, at 4.30 am, Tyrone Blanket man Martin Hurson became the sixth political prisoner to die on Hunger-strike in the Long Kesh H-Blocks, after forty-six days without food. The suddenness of Martin Hurson's death, coming only five days after that of Joe McDonnell, was a shock to all given that two other hunger-strikers, Kieran Doherty and Kevin Lynch, had been almost a week on the fast ahead of Martin.
Martin's health, since he was moved to the prison hospital on June 24th, had been deteriorating much quicker than that of his comrades or of the previous hungerstrikers, Throughout the hungerstrike, he had found great difficulty keeping down the required five pints of water each day.
On Sunday 12th July, the H-Block information Centre in Belfast reported that Martin's inability to drink water was causing him to hallucinate and to lose coherence in his speech. On Sunday night, Martin's family were called to the prison hospital just hours before his death. The death of Martin Hurson, coming two weeks earlier than might have been expected has disproven the assessment that prisoners are not in danger of death until around the 60 day stage of the hungerstrike.
Already, Michael Devine, after only 23 days on hungerstrike on Tuesday, is experiencing similar problems to those of Martin. He is not able to drink sufficient quantities of water and is vomiting that which he manages to swallow.
Last Wednesday, July 15th, the H-Block Information Centre revealed that the condition of Kieran Doherty, then on the 55th day of his hungerstrike, was rapidly deteriorating. He slept little on Tuesday night due to constant vomiting and on Wednesday had difficulty carrying n a conversation and is very weak. His eyesight is also weak, and he had lost 3stone 7pounds since the beginning of his hungerstrike.
Kevin Lynch, one day behind Kieran on the hungerstrike, was unable to talk by Wednesday and is moved around the hospital in a wheelchair. He too is sleeping badly, if at all, due to sickness. He has lost 2stone 7pounds since the start of his fast. Kevin is suffering from severe pains in his back and hips, and feels the cold acutely as a result of the heating in his H-Block hospital cell having been turned off.
Paddy Quinn, who on Saturday is 34 days on hungerstrike, had been experiencing severe pains in his chest, while Thomas McElwee who is 41 days without food on Saturday, has for over a week been suffering bad headaches. He has lost 2stone 1pound.
Laurence McKeown had lost 12pounds in weight by Tuesday, when he was on his 16th day of hungerstrike.
And Pat McGeown, who began his fast on Friday week, July 10th, suffered a nosebleed twice during his first few days of his fast, last weekend.
As Martin Hurson was buried in County Tyrone on Wednesday 15th July, another blanket man from the same county, Matt Devlin, took his place on the eight strong hunger-strike, to the death if necessary.
Death of Martin Hurson
Martin Hurson’s Agonizing Death
After forty two days on hunger strike, Martin Hurson was barely alive. The other men lasted about sixty days or longer. So when news leaked out of the Kesh that Martin was doing badly, it came as a big shock to the family; they had hoped that some settlement over the next month or so would save his life. It was a life worth saving.
Bik for the ICJP: "Get Stuffed"
The ICJP reacted with anger at Joe McDonnell’s death, for the first time lashing out at the British in the media for "clawing back" on concessions and promises made to them. One even broke down in tears before a French television crew. The British reaction? They blew it off, both the death and the criticism. Alison, the Brit prison minister, said he was told McDonnell’s condition wasn’t critical. The NIO refused comment: "ministers are not interested in engaging in public exchanges with the commission." Garret FitzGerald urged the Brits to reengage with the ICJP, but the Commission was in fact done.
Bik, sitting in his prison cell, wrote a "comm" to Gerry Adams about the prisoners attitude towards the ICJP: "No one will be talking to them unless I am present and then it will only be to tell them to skit OK... If we can render them ineffective now, then we leave the way clear for a direct approach without all the ballsing about... Our softly softly approach with them has left the impression that we were taking their proposals as a settlement. I’m sorry now I didn’t tell them to get stuffed."
The US Unsafe for "the Princess"
Alison was dispatched to America to counter the growing effects of Irish-American supporters. In NYC, there was a continual picket set up by Noraid and other H-Block supporters at the British Consulate which made life miserable for Brit bureaucrats going to and fro work through a beehive of abuse. One complained, "When I go to work I am called a bastard and a murderer and a liar and again when I leave." These scenes were duplicated throughout the country.
Even more notable was the fact that Princess Margaret had a scheduled visit to the US canceled on security grounds. A leading Washington politician complained, "It’s the first time a member of the Royal Family as been afraid to visit a friendly country"
Alison hit the US media referring to the hunger strike as "the Irish terrorist suicide", similar to the Japanese Kamikaze pilots: "We have another week or fortnight before the next suicide takes place and we hope we might be able to make a bit of progress in that period."
His tour wasn’t a success. To even the average American, that kind of rhetoric only exposed Brit elitism and attitudes against Irish people generally.
Martin Hurson was a strong country man with a great sense of humor and a friendly, optimistic personality who never lost his boyish good looks. He was well liked in the Kesh because he was always very positive and at 24, although he was in prison since he was 19 and on the blanket as soon as he was convicted, he was in the rude good health of a country boy from Tyrone. He had strong family support and a fiancé, Bernadette Donnelly, who loved him. Bernadette had no idea Martin was an IRA volunteer. She was stunned when she found out he was arrested.
Life in Cappagh
The Hursons had all grown up on the farm on a hill near the small East Tyrone town of Cappagh. There were nine of them in a three bedroom farm house. When Martin was a boy, there was no electricity or running water. Since the Ulster plantation days when the Brits sent in Protestant settlers to replace the native Irish, the Catholics were driven from the good low farmland into the hills where nothing but chickens, pigs and a few scattered cattle could be raised. But it was a wonderfully close community: neighbors took care of neighbors like family; sisters and brothers of one family married sisters and brothers of another; uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters were raised almost communally so that the families could make a living on the sparse land. Everyone was poor, but nobody starved. People were happy enough.
Until the British army, RUC and UDR invaded their countryside.
Martin was a very religious young man. He enjoyed a good time, was a brave soldier and determined republican, and was obviously attracted to the opposite sex, but he was equally devoted to St Martin de Porres, a Peruvian Dominican brother who devoted his life to taking care of African slaves. Once as a boy he "saved" his brother-in-law’s calf, which was so sick the vet gave up on it, by getting down on his knees and praying to St Martin while rubbing his hand over the animal. The next day, the lamb was lambing around in the yard, as good as new. Martin was eleven. Another time he prayed to St. Martin over a car that died. Yes, it turned over at the first try in the morning.
Martin was also a sensitive youngster, who was devoted to his mother. When she became terminally ill with a brain hemorrhage, Martin began showing signs of psychological disorientation. In fact, he lost his memory totally from the day his mother died until the day, several days later, when the tractor he was on tipped over and he was thrown into a ditch. His memory instantly returned as a result of the fall.
Secretly, an IRA Volunteer
In 1968, he witnessed a civil rights march in Dungannon where nationalist were batoned off the streets by the RUC. The Brit army, RUC and UDR were constantly harassing the Hurson family, along with every other nationalist family in the area with young men, but Martin was seemingly oblivious. At least on the outside.
Martin had a lot going for him as an IRA volunteer. He was a good natured "farm boy" and not considered likely to be involved by crown forces in the area. And, he was always on the road, going to work, doing odd jobs and traveling three or four times a week to see his girl friend Bernadette in Pomeroy. He had plenty of excuses for being on the road at night. Moreover, to the family he was off to see Bernadette, to Bernadette he was off home. Often he was an operating IRA soldier against British forces in his country. To this day, people who knew him refuse to believe he was an IRA volunteer. He was an active volunteer for 18 months before anyone found out. Then, on the 11th of November 1976, he was taken from his bed at his father’s house at 6 AM under the Emergency Provisions Act and hauled off to Omagh RUC barracks in connection with a number of shootings and bombings in and around Cappagh. That’s when Bernadette and the family knew for the first time.
Mason’s regime: A bad time to be a suspect
It was a bad time to be an IRA suspect. Roy Mason, the new Brit direct ruler of the Six Counties, had just initiated a brutal crackdown on the IRA which included, under the auspices of Kenneth Newman, the new head of the RUC, beating and torture of suspects to obtain forced confessions. Martin received awful beatings while in custody: hair was pulled out of his head; he was punched in the stomach and all over his body, kicked in the testicles, and his head banged against a wall. Martin signed a statement under duress.
Bernadette was stunned to hear of his arrest. When she visited him in jail, he saw the condition he was in from the assaults. He sent her a hand crafted jewelry box from the Kesh while on remand and she visited him as often as she could. They were in love as much as ever and she was more than willing to wait form him. Bernadette and Martin became engaged, over a prison table in the visitor’s room in Long Kesh in March of 1979 with a screw looking on.
Despite claiming that his statement was beaten out of him, which couldn’t be denied considering the physical evidence that Martin carried on his body, a judge sentenced him to 20 years for possession of land mines and conspiracy, among other charges.
The case was so controversial because of the beatings, that it wasn’t settled until June 1980 after several appeals and re-trials. The conviction held, naturally.
Martin volunteered and went on hunger strike on 29 May 1981. Bik put him on, even though he didn’t know him personally, because Bobby Sands had recommended him as a good man who wouldn’t break. That was good enough for Bik.
Martin surprisingly nears death
It was Sunday 12 July, not a good day for Catholics in the north under the best of circumstances. Brendan and Francie, Martin’s brothers, were attending H-Blocks rallies, when they received word from a friendly priest that they should go to the Kesh immediately. Brendan raced to get to Martin, taking Bernadette McAliskey and Martin’s fiancé Bernadette, with him. Martin’s father John, sister Rosaleen, and brother-in-law Paddy McElvogue beat them there. They were shocked with what they saw. Martin didn’t respond to their greetings. Rosaleen shouted out their names three times before Martin at last responded, whispering their names.
They were called out to a waiting room while a doctor saw Martin. He told them that Martin had permanent brain damage and that he would be "a cabbage" even if they intervened immediately. The family stayed with him until they could take seeing him in pain no longer. Brendan arrived as the others were on their way out, but without either of the Bernadettes, who had been denied entrance to the Kesh. It was particularly hard for Bernadette Donnelly, who was never to she her beloved Martin in life again.
Martin’s Horrible Suffering, Then Peace
Brendan went in to see Martin alone. He was swinging his arms from side to side ripping at his own flesh, his head going back on forth in obvious agony. Inhuman sounds came from inside his throat; his eyes rolled.
Brendan sat at Martin’s bedside, holding his hands so Martin couldn’t scratch at or punch at his face. He couldn’t be controlled, sweat poured from his face. Brendan couldn’t stand the constant and terrible moaning coming from from deep within his brother, like silent screams. He was too weak to scream. This went on for several hours.
At around 2 AM on the 13th of July, Fr. Murphy came to give Martin the last sacraments. Martin was able to give a nod to the priest. Just before the anointing, he was at his worst: wild-eyed, screaming the terrible muted screams, sweating profusely, and flailing about. Then, like a miracle, he became absolutely at peace.
All that Brendan could do now was wait for his younger brother to die an Irish martyr’s death in Her Majesty’s hell hole of Long Kesh.
Another Hunger Striker Dead
At 4 AM Martin Hurson’s life just ebbed away. There was no second wind. Orangemen prepared in their dreams for a merry "12th of July", shoes shinned, umbrellas wound tightly like walking sticks, bowler hats and sashes on the dresser. The 12th being on the Sabbath, Monday the 13th of July was the big day.
Martin’s body would journey home to the hills of Tyrone as loyalists celebrated across the north a double-header: the Battle of the Boyne and another Hunger Striker dead.
The Rocky Road To Cappagh
The Hurson family battle crown forces to bury their Martin
Brendan Hurson was alone with Martin as his life slowly slipped away after 46 days on hunger strike. His suffering had been intense, certainly different in nature from the others. His agony started much earlier. He looked as though he had been badly beaten; semiconsciously, he tore into himself with his hands and bit his lips raw. But at the very end, he was peaceful.
Martin Hurson died for Ireland at four o’clock in the morning on the 13th of July.
Now there were six hunger strikers’ dead.
The prison authorities wouldn’t give Brendan a phone to call his father and family until 6:20 A.M., over two hours after Martin’s death. They told him there was only one line out and the RUC had that one tied up. Fr. McGuckin at Galbally got the call, offered to tell the family and come to pick Brendan up at the prison.
Fifteen minutes after Martin died, he was he was removed to the prison morgue and was now in the maws of the Northern Ireland Office. Hunger strikers’ funerals were British government affairs.
No one would tell Brendan where they were likely to take his brother’s body.
At 7:15 A.M., Fr. McGuckin arrived, having come directly to the prison; the priest felt it would be better if Brendan broke the news to the family himself.
Martin’s remains disappear
But Francie Hurson, Martin’s brother, and his wife Sally heard the news on the radio: "Another hunger striker is dead: Martin Hurson of East Tyrone ..."
They got themselves together and took off for the Kesh. At one point on the highway, they must have passed Brendan and Fr. McGuckin on their way home.
They were disappointed to have missed Brendan [the RUC purposely didn’t tell them that Brendan was getting a lift home], but asked to see Martin’s body. "No way," they were told at the gate. The warders and British soldiers laughed at them. They cheered as the car moved off back home.
It was the 13th of July, the day the Battle of the Boyne was celebrated this year because the 12th fell on the Sabbath. Loyalists were on the roads by 8 A.M. flying Union Jacks out their car windows, shouting sectarian slogans associated with the 12th and cheering over Martin’s death. This was as close as an Orangeman gets to heaven while on earth.
Meanwhile, the Hurson family had no idea where the NIO had taken Martin’s remains.
Inside the Kesh
Inside the Kesh, Bik sent a comm out to "Brownie" [Gerry Adams]: "Comrade Mor, we heard around 11 AM about Martin’s tragic death. In all honesty it has been the biggest shock to date and has left me shattered... May God have mercy on his soul. I will have to move immediately with a replacement. It will be Matt Devlin [Tyrone]. He was on the second squad on the first hunger strike. This means that the usual clearance procedure will be skipped over. You’ll have to accept my judgment on him being sound. He is fully aware of exactly of exactly what this hunger strike means - i.e. that he in a short period he stands to loose his life..."
Kevin Lynch and "Big Doc", Kieran Doherty, were now in the crisis stage of their hunger strike.
Hundreds of neighbors gathered outside Francie’s house in Carrickmore, Brendan’s in Galbally and kept vigil for Martin’s return with other members of the family at Cappagh.
Martin’s body removed to Omagh; RUC threatens to dump it.
Finally, the undertaker phoned. Martin’s body was in Omagh. At 11:30 A.M., the RUC called the undertaker and told him that if the body was not picked up by noon, it would be dumped somewhere unannounced. Just as they told Patsy O’Hara’s family.
Of course, it was impossible to get from Carrickmore to Omagh in a half hour. Not only that, only close relatives could accompany the hearse, four cars total. Family and friends piled into their cars and speed to the mortuary.
At 12:30 P.M., family friend Massey McAteer was the first to arrive. What he found was chilling. The mortuary was surrounded by Special Branch and RUC is great numbers. Obviously, the body was still there. But McAteer sensed big trouble, and he was right. An RUC landrover was blocking the entrance to the mortuary. When Francie Hurson arrived on the scene, he was told by the RUC that only four cars with family members would be allowed onto the grounds. Francie smelled an RUC trick. He knew that once the family was onto the grounds, that the gate would be closed and the RUC would take off with Martin’s body to God knows where and by a route of their choice, rather, by a route predetermined by the British government.
Francie parked his car outside and walked into the mortuary where he found a green van backed against a door.
What happened next is unbelievable.
RUC attempt to hijack the funeral cortege
The family were trying to get in through the RUC gauntlet while neighbors and friends in their cars waited on the road. The RUC went to work on the cars outside. They were told to move off and clear the road. A lone young man in one of the cars got out and told an abrasive RUC man to "Fuck off!" The RUC couldn’t believe what they just heard. So he repeated himself! The fella wasn’t moving.
Now, the rest of the Huston entourage took heart at this show of bullish courage and they all now refused to move their cars and stepped forward to meet the RUC. If they wanted a riot, they were going to get one.
While this was going on on the road, inside Francie Hurson was squeezing himself between the mortuary wall and the green van to discover Martin’s body being removed to the van. Francie was putting a stop to this hijacking just as the other family members arrived. He could see the RUC wanted full control of the operation. The Hurson’s wanted their brother in their undertaker’s care and to go home by a route that they chose, not driven through crazed loyalist mobs along the way celebrating both The 12th and Martin’s death.
Francie demanded the body be turned over to the family. The RUC refused. This argument went on back and forth for over an hour as outside the RUC were unleashing Alsatian dogs on the friends and neighbors and getting abuse thrown back at them. The RUC wanted those outside in their cars before they would move off. It was now 3 P.M.! Compounding the problem for the RUC was that the longer they took to get things moving, the more sympathizers were gathering outside on the road. At this point, the family just want to get home regardless of the route.
The rocky road to Cappagh
As they finally moved out of the mortuary grounds in Omagh, a long cortege of cars, RUC landrovers in the lead followed by the van with Martin’s body with Francie right behind it headed off to Cappagh. But the RUC weren’t through. Apparently, they had orders from above and tried to take over the procession at every turn, including ramming RUC vehicles into the following cars, including Francie’s, in attempts to separate form the cortege.
The whole trip the RUC tried to take wrong turns and detours, only to be stopped by Francie, who would pull his car out from behind to in front of the RUC landrovers, effectively blocking the way. As he got out of his car, he was joined each time by family and friends; everybody would get out of their cars to confront the RUC. These aborted detours started pitched battles and abuse between the RUC and mourners. RUC dogs were again used on the people. Finally, after what seemed like days of bickering and fighting, Martin was home again in Cappagh.
Cardinal O’Fiaich: "But I have no power. England has the power"
A thousand people were lining the road when they arrived. The coffin was carried through the winding country roads from Cappagh to the family home a mile away. A piper lead the sad march.
Cardinal O’Fiaich came to the wake the next day. Cappagh was is in his diocese. Oddly, it took courage for the Cardinal to attend a hunger striker’s funeral. He knew he would be hammered in the press and elsewhere.
Francie challenged the Cardinal, sitting together over tea in the Hurson living room, for not doing more to save Martin and the other young Irish men dying for their country one after another. But Francie and the family admired him for honoring Martin and the family by coming to the house. The Cardinal said, "Francie, what can I do? I honor Martin. I’ve come here to the house to be with the Hurson family. But I have no power. England has the power."
There was rioting and attacks throughout the north. Five RUC men and a British soldier were wounded in gun and blast-bomb attacks in Belfast alone after word of Martin’s death reached the streets.
Martin’s place "beside Ireland’s glorious dead"
It was a large funeral considering the remoteness of the countryside and the trouble supporters had passing through RUC/Brit roadblocks and detours. A lone piper walked behind three masked IRA volunteers who fired shots in a military salute over Martin’s grave. Sean Lynch, Martin’s election agent in the Dail election, gave the funeral ration: "I am sure that Oliver Plunkett who was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn and Joan of Arc, the young French maiden who was burned at the stake, were among those who received Martin and place him beside Ireland’s glorious dead."
(c) 2001 The Irish People. Article may be reprinted with credit.
Martin Hurson: Maintaining humanity
Irish Hunger Strikes Chapter 8
Maintaining Humanity Inside the H-Blocks:
Martin Hurson, who died on 13 July, 1981, after 46 days on hunger strike, was typical of most of the men. He had a lousy singing voice. Only a few of the men could sing a passable song much less get the words right, but in an environment like the H-blocks where there were no books, no newspapers, no TV, no radio and no exercise -- and the Blanketmen were locked up 24 hours a day -- the only entertainment was what the men could provide for each other.
Singsongs were perhaps the easiest way for the men to entertain themselves. Often they derived more fun from "slaging" the awful singers than from praising the good ones. Martin Hurson was so bad, the whole wing would give up a spontaneous, communal moan at the clearing of his throat. And for the most part he knew only one song. At least he had the courage to blast away.
Tom Holland's cell was next to Martin's. "Well, what did you think of that, Dutch?," Martin shouted to Tom after singing a song, who replied, "Martin, I've heard the words before but I can't recognize that tune."
Once Hurson announced when it was his turn to sing that he would pass because he was singing the same song over and over again and wouldn't sing until he learned a new one. A sigh of relief was heard around the wing, until he was ordered by the wing OC to sing the new song that was handed to him at mass. But Martin replied that he hadn't memorized it, and because it was near midnight, there was no light to read from. At that a particularly sadistic screw on night duty turned Martin's cell lights on and walked off to the safety of his room. The words to a crackling, off-tune "Sean South" rang throughout the wing. The screw was cursed for his cruelty.
Even though the men would howl and carry on during these "performances", no matter how bad the singer was, he always got applauded at the end, with banging and yelling across the cells.
Died July 13th, 1981
A hard-working and extremely likeable republican
IN THE early hours of Tuesday morning, November 9th, 1976, a series of British army and RUC swoops in the Cappagh district of Dungannon in East Tyrone led to the arrest from their homes, under Section 10 of the Emergency Provisions Act, of three young local men: Pat Joe O'Neill, Dermot Boyle and Peter Kane. Two days later, November 11th, in similar dawn swoops in the area, four other men, James Joseph Rafferty, Peter Nugent, Kevin O'Brien and Martin Hurson, were arrested from their homes.
Over the next few days all seven men were held in Omagh RUC barracks, interrogated about IRA operations in East Tyrone since 1972, and systematically tortured by detectives from the newly established Regional Crime Squad.
The men had their hair pulled, their ears slapped, they were made to stand for prolonged periods in the 'search position' against a wall, they were kicked and punched and forced to do exercises for lengthy periods.
Finally, two men, Peter Nugent and James Rafferty, were released without charge, Rafferty to Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh where he spent four days recovering from his injuries. The remaining five were charged (and subsequently convicted) on the sole basis of statements made during that interrogation.
One of the five is now in the cages of Long Kesh, the other four became blanket men in the H-Blocks.
Four-and-a-half years later with revealing ironic insight into the nature of the British judicial system in Ireland, while four RUC detectives involved in those Omagh interrogations were awaiting trial on charges of assaulting James Rafferty during interrogation, in the prison hospital of Long Kesh, one of those convicted on the basis of a tortured 'confession' - Martin Hurson - lay dying on hunger strike for political status.
Edward Martin Hurson was born on September 13th, 1956, in the townland of Aughnaskea, Cappagh, near Dungannon, the eighth of nine children: six girls and three boys.
Both of his parents, John, aged 74, a small hill farmer, and Mary Ann (whose maiden name was Gillespie) who died in April 1970 after a short illness, came from the Cappagh district, and the whole of their family - including Martin - were born into the white washed farmhouse perched precipitously on top of the thirty hilly acres of rough land that make up the Hurson farm.
The Cappagh district is a wholly nationalist area of County Tyrone, composed mainly of farmers, and comprising between two and three hundred closely knit families. The land is infertile, lowland hills, good only for grazing cattle and rearing a few pigs, yet the roots of families like the Hursons stretch back maybe two or three hundred years. The land may not be much but it is theirs.
Over by Donaghmore, a few miles away, where the fields are bigger and the grass more lush, most of the farmers are loyalists.
Martin was close to the land as he grew up. Although he went first to Crosscavanagh school in Galbally, and then to St. Patrick's intermediate in Dungannon, when he was not at school he was more often than not helping out about the farm, driving a tractor, helping to rear 'croppy pigs' or looking after cattle.
A 'typical' country lad in many ways, part of a very close and good humoured family, Martin was a quiet, very religious, and easy going young man, who nevertheless, before his arrest, enjoyed social pursuits such as dancing and going to the cinema, and enjoyed the company of other people, among whom he had a well-earned reputation for being a practical joker and a bit of a comedian.
Like many others, he was capable of being very outgoing and talkative on occasions, while remaining essentially a rather shy and quiet personality.
Perhaps because he was one of the youngest of the family, Martin was particularly close to his mother, whose premature death in 1970 when he was only thirteen, came as a deep shock to him.
It was Martin who returned home one day to find his mother taken seriously ill and who ran to a neighbouring farm to ring a doctor. That day, a Saturday, Mrs. Hurson was taken to Omagh hospital, and from there to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where she died the following Thursday, April 30th.
Martin was so shocked by the tragedy that he lost his memory completely for a week, only regaining it when a tractor he was driving up a steep slope, with his father, overturned, throwing the pair to the ground, this fresh shock dramatically restoring his memory.
That period of his life was also the time when 'the troubles' began to have an impact.
Although the family did not discuss politics, and internment did not affect anyone from the Cappagh area, it was impossible not to be keenly aware of British oppression so close to Dungannon which - spearheading the civil rights campaign through the late sixties - had fostered such a strong current of republicanism in the process.
However, Martin's personal resistance to that British repression and his subsequent intense suffering at the hands of it were not to occur for several years. In his teens his great delight was to play practical jokes on his family and neighbours, particularly on April Fool's Day and on Hallowe'en.
"He liked a joke and a laugh" remembers a long-time friend of Martin's. "Him and Peter Kane were a comical match". Or, as his brother Francis remembers with a laugh, "If he thought it would make you mad he would do it".
Like the time he ran breathless to Paddy Donnelly's to tell him that Sylvie Kane's cows had toppled his milkchurns and the milk was going everywhere. And as Paddy dashed down to save his milk, Martin called out, "Hey Paddy, April Fool" before disappearing through a gap in the hedge.
Leaving school, Martin started work as an apprentice fitter welder at Findlay's, and after a stint there he went across to England for a while, living in Manchester with his brother Francis and his wife, and working for McAlpine's. But not long after Francis and his wife returned to Tyrone, Martin too returned when the particular job he was working on had finished at Christmas in 1974, rather than move to another job.
He had spent almost a year-and-a half in England but wasn't particular about it, a view confirmed early on after his arrival, when he was forced to spend two weeks in hospital having been struck by one of McAlpine's mechanical diggers!
Back in the farmhouse at Cappagh, Martin bought himself a car on hire purchase and got himself a job in Dungannon at Powerscreen International. He paid for the car within a year, having always had a gift for scraping money together.
As a child, whenever he managed to get hold of a penny or a shilling, here or there, instead of spending it he would take it to a nearby farmer and family friend who put it into a box for him until he had enough to buy, once, a white cob, or a pig to rear. He was 'old fashioned'' in that way, his brother Francis recalls.
He also loved to work and was a "great riser" in the morning, his father says, never missing a day's work until his arrest.
Late in 1975, he met and started going out with Bernadette Donnelly, at the wedding of her sister Mary Rose to a cousin of Martin's, at which he was best man.
Bernadette, aged twenty-three, comes from Pomeroy: she was extremely active in the hunger strike campaign, along with members of Martin's family, appearing on rally platforms and taking part in marches and pickets all over the country.
Before his arrest, Martin and Bernadette were often both behind the practical jokes he loved playing. His brother Francis was often the victim.
On one occasion, Francis, his wife, and their two children, were asleep in a caravan in the Donegal resort of Bundoran. They awoke however to find themselves not on the caravan site but on an adjacent road, Martin and Bernadette having towed it off-site during the night.
On another occasion the pair borrowed Francis' almost new cine-camera to film the wedding of a friend, Seamus McGuire, in Donegal. Somewhere along the route back from Donegal they found out they'd lost the camera and lost it remained.
Afraid to tell Francis, they kept quiet about the camera for several weeks, before Francis remembered to ask for it back. Instead of owning-up, Martin gave Francis an almost identical replacement hoping he wouldn't notice. But when he did, Martin, not lost for words, just explained: "I left it into a shop for fixing, but they said it wasn't worth fixing."
But those relatively light-hearted and easy-going days were coming to an end.
East Tyrone, like many other areas in the North, was a centre of highly proficient republican operations against the enemy forces.
To combat the level of republican military activity, deputy chief constable of the RUC Kenneth Newman (shortly to be promoted to chief constable), was one of those behind the restructuring of the RUC in early 1976, which led to the setting up of what were called Regional Crime Squads.
Their primary function was to ensure convictions for all 'unsolved' republican activity by extracting signed statements, in effect to 'clear the books' of an embarrassing list of unattributable republican operations.
Under the torturer Newman, and the then direct-ruler Roy Mason, the Regional Crime Squads only responsibility was to 'get results' (a guarantee of promotion) without undue regard to the methods they employed. One method they did employ was torture.
Martin was arrested and taken to Omagh RUC barracks on November 11th, 1976, along with the six others arrested that day and two days previously.
He was badly, and professionally tortured in Omagh for two days, beaten about the head, back and testicles, spread-eagled against a wall and across a table, slapped, punched and kicked. He heard Rafferty's screams as he was tortured in the adjoining room.
To escape the torture Martin signed statements admitting involvement in republican activity.
He was then transferred to Cookstown barracks, but as soon as he arrived he made a formal complaint of ill-treatment. Back in Omagh barracks, chief inspector Farr, realising this could prejudice the admissibility of Martin's statements at his trial, got the Cookstown detectives to re-interrogate Martin and extract the same statements, which they did by threatening to 'send him back to Omagh'.
On Saturday night, November 13th, Martin was charged, along with Kevin O'Brien and Peter Kane. Dermot Boyle and Pat Joe O'Neill had been charged the day before.
Martin was charged with a landmine explosion at Galbally in November 1975. This charge was later dropped, but he was then further charged with IRA membership, possession of the Galbally landmine, conspiracy to kill members of the enemy forces, causing an explosion at Cappagh in September 1975, and possession of a landmine at Reclain in February 1976 which exploded near a passing UDR landrover.
Even though the alleged speciality of the East Tyrone active service unit operating around Cappagh was explosives, the RUC offered not one shred of forensic evidence, against any of the five men, merely signed statements extracted by torture.
These statements, however, were good enough for Judge Rowland at the trial of the five men in November 1977, after a year on remand in Crumlin Road and in the remand H-Block of Long Kesh.
Admitting as evidence the statements Martin made in Omagh, and dismissing doctor's evidence about the extent of Martin's injuries, Judge Rowland sentenced Martin to twenty years for possession of landmines and conspiracy, as well as two other sentences of fifteen and five years respectively, the sentences to run concurrently.
The other four men received sentences ranging from fifteen to twenty years.
Martin appealed his conviction on the grounds that the judge had ignored medical evidence about his ill-treatment. The appeal was dismissed but he was granted a retrial.
At the four-day trial in September 1979, before Judge Munray, the Omagh statements were ruled inadmissible, but instead of Martin walking free the judge went on to accept the admissibility of the Cookstown statements, themselves extracted under threat of renewed torture.
One of the consequences of the retrial was the further postponement of the enquiry into James Rafferty's allegations of brutality in Omagh, on the grounds that it might prejudice the retrial (to the RUC's detriment!).
The enquiry had been reluctantly acceded to by the RUC Police Authority following the persistent endeavours of Authority member, independent Dungannon councillor, Jack Hassard. He, however, later resigned from the Authority, describing it as being "as independent as a sausage without a skin" when the tribunal which was set up failed to begin its enquiries. The tribunal finally collapsed earlier this year when the RUC detectives from Omagh refused to give evidence to it on the grounds that they might incriminate themselves!
Subsequently, four of the detectives who tortured James Rafferty, Martin Hurson and the others at Omagh that November: chief inspector Harold Colgan, and constables Michael O Neil, Kenneth Hassan, and Robert McAdore were charged with assaulting Rafferty.
Those four torturers, however, are only convenient scape-goats representing the tip of the iceberg in what was an orchestrated and widespread attempt during the Roy Mason era to jail republicans on the flimsiest of pretexts by means of torture extracted statements. Such men make up a substantial proportion of those political prisoners in Britain's Northern and English jails today.
Martin Hurson went straight on the blanket after his first trial, and following his retrial he appealed once again against conviction, challenging the admissibility of the Cookstown statements, but his appeal was disallowed in June 1980.
On May 29th, this year, Martin joined the hunger strike, replacing South Derryman Brendan McLoughlin who was forced to drop out because of a burst stomach ulcer.
In the Free State general election in June, Martin was a candidate in Longford/Westmeath, and although missing election, obtained almost four-and-a-half thousand first preference votes, and over a thousand transfers, before being eliminated at the end of the sixth count, outlasting two Labour candidates and a Fine Gael contender.
Barely one month after election the Free State government's bolstering of Britain's barbaric intransigence led to the death of Martin Hurson, the sixth hunger striker, at that stage, to die.
Having seriously deteriorated after forty days on hunger strike, he was unable to hold down water and died a horrifically agonising death after only forty-four days on hunger strike, at 4.30 a m. on Monday, July 13th.
Published in IRIS, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 1981. IRIS was a publication of the Sinn Fein Foreign Affairs Bureau.
The Death of Joe McDonnell on Hunger Strike - 8 July 1981
Joe McDonnell's funeral - Photo from www.irishhungerstrike.com
'Joe McDonnell (30)
Irish Republican Army (IRA)
joined hunger strike on 8 May 1981 and died on 8 July 1981 after 61 days without food'
**This information is from the CAIN page 'The Hunger Strike of 1981 - List of Dead and Other Hunger Strikers', which contains the list of all the Hunger Strike participants and the information concerning the affiliation of each, age, date starting, date withdrawn or date of death. The research and text are by Martin Melaugh, and the page is located here: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/hstrike/dead.htm
Photo by CRAZYFENIAN
Here is the information again which I posted on the anniversary of Joe's start of his Hunger Strike in 1981, and it will be followed by some chapters from the Irish Northern Aid website.
IRISH HUNGER STRIKE 1981 MEMORIAL WEBSITE
**Please visit this excellent site to read Joe's biography, originally published in IRIS November 1981. This site is a personal tribute by the webmaster, well done with lots of information and photos and very moving.
Began Hunger Strike 9 May 1981 - Died July 8th, 1981
'A deep-thinking republican with a great sense of humour
THE FOURTH IRA Volunteer to join the hunger-strike for political status was Joe McDonnell, a thirty-year-old married man with two children, from the Lenadoon housing estate in West Belfast.
A well-known and very popular man in the Greater Andersonstown area he grew up, married and fought for the republican cause in, Joe had a reputation as a quiet and deep-thinking individual, with a gentle, happy go-lucky personality, who had, nevertheless, a great sense of humour, was always laughing and playing practical jokes, and who, although withdrawn at times, had the ability to make friends easily.
As an active republican before his capture in October 1976, Joe was regarded by his comrades as a cool and efficient Volunteer who did what he had to do and never talked about it afterwards.'
by Brian Warfield
Oh my name is Joe McDonnell
From Belfast town I came
That city I will never see again
For in the town of Belfast
I spent many happy days
And I loved that town in oh so many ways
For it's there I spent my childhood
And found for me a wife
I then set out to make for her a life
Oh but all my young ambition
Met with bitterness and hate
I soon found myself inside a prison gate
And you dare to call me a terrorist
While you look down your gun
When I think of all the deeds that you have done -
You have plundered many nations
Divided many lands
You have terrorized their people
You ruled with an iron hand
And you brought this reign of terror to my land
Through the many months internment
In the Maidstone and the Maze
I thought about my land throughout those days
Why my country was divided
Why I was now in jail
Imprisoned without crime or without trial
And though I love my country
I am not a bitter man
I've seen cruelty and injustice at first hand
And so one faithful morning
I shook bold freedom's hand
For right or wrong I tried to free my land
Then one cold October's morning
I was trapped in the lion's den
And I found myself in prison once again
I was committed to the H-Blocks
For fourteen years or more
On the "blanket" the conditions they were poor
Then a hunger strike we did commence
For the dignity of man
But it seemed to me that no one gave a damn
Oh but now I am a saddened man
I've watched my comrades die
If only people cared or wondered why
Oh may God shine on you, Bobby Sands
For the courage you have shown
May your glory and your fame be widely known
And Francis Hughes and Ray McCreesh
Who died unselfishly
And Patsy O'Hara, and the next in line is me
And those who lie behind me
May your courage be the same
And I pray to god my life was not in vain
And though sad and bitter was the year of 1981
All was not lost, but it's still there to be won
© Brian Warfield
INA/Irish Hunger Strikes Chapter 33
'The fight for Joe McDonnell’s life'
The McCreeshes and Liz O’Hara had dealt with An Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, in order to save Raymond and Patsy’s lives. He promised that neither would die. He did nothing to save them. Goretti McDonnell, Joe’s wife, and Eilish Reilly, Joe’s sister, had to deal with both Haughey and the new Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald. If Haughey was bad, and he was bad, Garret Fitzgerald was, according to Goretti, "one hundred times" worse.
Charles Haughey set up the elections so that hunger strike deaths would have the least effect possible. He knew what a volatile issue it could be based upon Bobby Sands’ election. The Irish people, even in the south, expected some progress in saving the lives of these young men from the Taoiseach. Even if the IRA campaign wasn’t popular, Margaret Thatcher was anathema to Irish sensibilities and it became a matter of saving Irish lives versus her stone like inflexibility and hatred for anything Irish.
So he called the election to take place in three weeks: too late to save Raymond and Pasty and too soon to have to worry very much about Joe McDonnell dying, who would be reaching crisis perhaps six weeks later.
But he lost anyway and here’s how.
Nine H-Block Candidates
Haughey didn’t count on the prisoners effectively running candidates in the southern elections. The Brits took care of that by banning prisoners from running for parliament just a week previous to avoid the embarrassment of loosing their seats to "terrorists" elected by the people. The Brit legislation was ironically called "The Representation of the People Bill" rather than "Those People That Can’t Represent the People Bill."
It would have been political death to propose such a move from Dublin, although it probably crossed their minds. As for the prisoners, they knew Fitzgerald, the leader of the more right wing Fine Gael party, could be the beneficiary of votes flowing to H-block candidates and away from Haughey’s party, Fianna Fail, but what did Haughey ever do that was worthwhile in terms of saving hunger strikers’ lives except to bring in the Human Rights Commission to get himself off the hook? The Commission’s intervention was useless and embarrassing to the families.
The hope of the H-block Committee was that if a hunger striker were to be elected to the Irish Dail, then whoever was Taoiseach would have to stand up to Maggie Thatcher.
Besides, the publicity was desperately needed. On 1 June, for example, just before the elections were called, a Granada television company special affairs program on the hunger strike was censored by the Independent Broadcasting Authority on grounds that a 20 second segment showing poor Patsy O’Hara’s mutilated body in his coffin was republican propaganda! Granada struck back by pulling the entire program in protest and replaced it with a public service program on the evils of smoking.
The H-block campaign for the Dail
The narhaps they would draw enough votes, however, to be noticed. If they failed to do decently, they would be hammered by the conservative Irish press. The British press would then pick on the bones.
As the campaign began, Charlie Haughey caught an egg with his face. A real Donegal "grade A" fired into his gob by an irate H-block supporter. There would be figurative eggs as well on Fianna Fail faces in three short weeks.
Kieran and Paddy TDs as Haughey Comes Tumbling Down
The night the election returns were announced, 12 June 1981, there was mayhem throughout the north and south. Kieran Doherty was in! Amazingly, Kieran was elected to the Dail for Cavan/Monaghan. Paddy Agnew was also elected from County Louth. Two H-block TDs was an unbelievable result. The campaign got started a week late as it was because of infighting between IRA and INlA supporters figuring out who would stand where. It was run on a shoe string -- the committee was previously banned by the Irish government to raise any funds by law. On top of that, the was constant garda special branch presence at the doorstep of the Dublin election headquarters, enough to scare off the good citizens of the so called Republic of Ireland. Of course, this "Republic" also had a total ban on media interviews with republicans as a result of the Irish Broadcasting Act.
It is tough to run a campaign without money or publicity and with hostile police asking questions and taking notes outside your headquarters.
Joe McDonnell, Kevin Lynch and Tony O’Hara [Patsy’s brother] did not top the polls, but did well enough to make a major impression.
It was, in fact, such an impression that it brought down the government around Haughey and brought Fine Gael to power. Kieran and Paddy replaced two Fianna Fail TDs and the H-block candidates votes all the way around was the difference.
Haughey had the blood of four men on his hands as far as republicans were concerned, so good riddance. They could not have anticipated that the new man they would be so responsible, indirectly, for bringing to power would have the deaths of six men on his conscience.
Irish Commission for Justice and Peace
The elections in the south provided hope for the hunger strikers and their families, so did the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, which put forward on 3 June a three-part proposal for a solution based on improved conditions in prison clothing, work and association. The commission meet with Northern Ireland prisons minister Michael Alison several times during the month.
By the end of the month, the ICJP requested a meeting with Humphrey Atkins, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State. Just before the request, Atkins issued a 6 page statement calling for an end of the hunger strike before any concessions could be considered, i.e., the same old line that brought the 1980 hunger strike to an end and caused the deadly 1981 strike. The prisoners called the statement "arrogant and callous."
Garret Fitzgerald now was meeting with the families and telling them that their sons and siblings would not die. Six would.
Next: Garrett and the ICJP; Joe McDonnell’s last fight; and new men join the strike
(c) 2001 The Irish People.
INA/Irish Hunger Strikes Chapter 34
"An Appalling Mass of Evil!"
The Fight For Joe Mc Donnell’s Life
Three More Join the Hunger Strike
After the deaths of Patsy and Raymond, and the H-Block candidates’ successes in the Dail elections, there was still a good period of time before Joe Mc Donnell would reach crisis. Of course, a sudden heart attack or another fatal event could happen at any time. In order to put more pressure on the Brits, three new men who had volunteered months ago were selected to join Joe: Brendan McLaughlin, Kieran Doherty, and Kevin Lynch.
Putting three men on would insure that there were four on hunger strike and that the Brits couldn’t just wait out Joe’s death, because there were others behind him. As Bik McFarlane put it, "It was a calculated risk, taken in the firm belief that we could definitely exert further pressure both on the Brits to seek settlement and on the Irish establishment to do something positive to get Thatcher’s government off their intransigent line... But we needed to act positively and decisively. And pressure, regardless of its severity, could never balance against the sheer hell of an agonizing death for those on hunger strike."
The Catholic Bishops Move -- In the Wrong Direction
The work of The Irish Commission on Justice and Peace, headed by Dublin Bishop Dermot O’Mahony, who was also Chancellor of the Dublin Archdiocese, was one of the few initiatives that offered any real hope for saving Joe’s life. In fact, the whole point of the ICJP was to save Joe’s life. But the Commission was a curious operation, dealing directly with the press, the Irish government, the Northern Ireland Office and the RUC, where they received all of their information, but not with the prisoners themselves. Only when it was too late did they meet with the hunger strikers.
"An appalling mass of evil."
In June, the Irish Bishops delivered a statement which oddly highlighted the crimes of Republicans and spoke of the hunger strikers themselves as performing acts of evil leading to an "appalling mass of evil." The bishops made no mention of the appalling mass of evil the British army and loyalist death squads were heaping upon the nationalist people or the reasons for the IRA’s military campaign, even if they were against it.
In fact, they offered no plan of settlement or way out of the impasse except that the men needed to "reflect deeply on the evil of their actions."
The Bishops’ attack was so severe and one sided that the Sunday Times headline roared: IRISH CATHOLIC BISHOPS CONDEMN MAZE FAST AS EVIL. Meanwhile, Joe McDonnell’s life was daily being sucked out of his weakening body.
Speaking about the situation after the hunger strike was over, Bishop O’Mahony, the man in charge of a committee with the remit of saving these men’s lives on hunger strike, had this to say:
"All along we were against granting political status to the IRA prisoners. To grant political status would help the IRA, and we couldn’t do that... The IRA would have as their goal not only getting the British Army out of Ireland, but undermining the democratic process in the South of Ireland.
"One can’t forget the crimes most of those in prison are guilty of, even though they were tried in special courts: attempted murder, bombing, all kinds of violence..."
It was like putting Hitler in charge of saving Jews.
Brendan comes off his fast
Brendan Mc Laughlin, who had just started his strike, was stricken with wracking stomach pains which turned out to be a severe case of perforated ulcers. He was immediately taken off his fast; he wouldn’t have lasted another week or two. The idea wasn’t to die, but to pressure the Brits to win the 5 demands. So much for Cardinal Hume’s suicide nonsense.
Bik informed Martin Hurson by comm that he would be taking Brendan’s place. And so he did.
Brendan’s coming off the strike, not of his own doing, nevertheless must have encouraged Thatcher to visit the North for sick reasons of her own. The world had watched her gleefully preside over four deaths on hunger strike; there was no reason to expect that she wouldn’t just as gleefully watch the entire Irish Nation heaped dead in front of her.
Nonetheless, here she was flying into Belfast. It got ugly, but not ugly enough.
"Good morning, good morning, good morning"
Thatcher wanted to make headlines, so she tried to set up while on her trip a meeting with Churchmen, particularly Cardinal O’Fiaich. To his credit, he refused to break previous commitments elsewhere to suit her propaganda requirements, although meeting for purposes of saving lives was another matter.
Thatcher, her reptilian self, busily shook hands with Belfast city center crowds in front of the media, although she could hardly help her forked tongue from occasionally flicking out from her stoney serene countenance. "Good morning, good morning, good morning," she chimed as if she were attending a Wimbleton match. "Good morning, good morning, good morning," She feigned, complaining happily like a good housewife that she wouldn’t be able to get any shopping done because of the crowds. She avoided questions from the press about the hunger strike like the plague; the general impression that she wanted to portray was that everything was fine. Hunger strike? What hunger strike? Just Irish men starving to death.
Journalists kept trying to get something out of her, "Mrs. Thatcher, why are you here?" "Good morning, good morning, to see these people, good morning..."
But at a Stormont press conference later she said that the hunger strikers had been "persuaded, coerced or ordered to starve themselves to death." And "Faced with failure of their discredited cause, the men of violence have chosen in recent months to play what may well be their last card."
Thatcher on "Downtown" radio program: ‘No one asked me to compromise...'
One radio journalist cornered her on his Belfast based radio program ["Downtown"] and asked if her "last card’ remark wasn’t tantamount to provoking the IRA? She avoided the question. He followed up and she responded evasively stressing how the community have rejected the Provisional IRA and she said these remarkable words: "... and I stress this very much indeed -- no one in any responsible position in any religion has urged me to give either political status or anything like special category status."
The host [Eamon Maille] jumped in, incredulous: "But they have asked you to compromise, haven’t they?"
Thatcher: "One moment, one moment. No one has asked me to compromise on any of those things."
Maille: "Are you saying that you haven’t been asked to actually find a solution?"
Thatcher: "May I answer your questions? No on. Now let’s get this absolutely clear. No one has asked me to compromise on any of those things. Now what I am saying is we will uphold the law, we will continue to uphold the law."
This was an amazing statement. Hadn’t the Irish government, at least, asked her to compromise or find a solution? And if not, what did that say about the Haughey and/or Fitzgerald?
Maille brought up the 22 people who were killed since Bobby Sands’ death. Thatcher snapped: "And who killed them? The men of violence killed them."
Back in London
She could easily myopically ignore the men of violence in her own army of occupation in Ireland, loyalist killers, and the thuggery of the RUC, because no sooner did she arrive than she was back off to London. While in London, perhaps she would be able to hook up with Cardinal O’Fiaich, who would be attending the centenary celebrations of the martyrdom of St. Oliver Plunkett. That would be some occasion for a meeting of the two, the British PM and the Cardinal from Crossmaglen over in England to celebrate the memory of a man murdered for his faith by the British government. In fact, such a meeting was set up for the 1st of July at Number 10 Downing Street. Whatever would he say to her? The first thing in the event was, when asked what he wanted to drink, he asked for "a little Irish." But there wasn’t a drop of the stuff in the house. He had a bitter Scotch instead.
Joe, weakening in body, gets a joke in
Others flew in after Maggie. One was David Steel, a life-long British civil servant. He actually visited the Kesh and met with Joe. Stupidly, Steel asked Joe to compare the conditions in Long Kesh with the Crum where he was held on remand. I don’t know what kind of face Joe McDonnell put on for Steel, but I like to think he was straight faced: "The food was better." He had been on hunger strike almost two months.
Next: The fight for Joe McDonnell continues; O’Fiaich meets Maggie
(c) 2001 The Irish People.
INA/Irish Hunger Strikes Chapter 35
"For the Dignity of Man"
8 July 1981: Joe McDonnell Dies
on Hunger strike
The Commission of Irish Catholic Bishops, the ICJP, as anti-republican and pro-establishment a group as could be imagined, held meetings throughout June with the press, the major Irish political parties, Michael Alison [N. I. prison minister] and only when it was really too late with the prisoners. Aware of Joe McDonnell’s failing medical condition, they met with Alison for the third time on 26 June. Then on 30 June, NI Sec’t of State Humphrey Atkins issued a six page statement calling for an end to the hunger strike BEFORE anything could be done regarding prison conditions. The prisoners were outraged that the Brits would even try to run that tired trick passed them, but of course it was all about the press anyway.
The ICJP had arranged a meeting with Atkins for 2 July in Belfast. The new Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, had a plane at the ready to fly the lot of them to London if they could move up the date. They couldn’t or wouldn’t and finally met on the 2nd of July as planned.
The Taoiseach’s fleet of Mercedes pose for the press
FitzGerald had a fleet of Mercedes standing by to take relatives of the hunger strikers, who were meeting with him in Dublin, to Long Kesh to supposedly persuade the men to accept terms of a new breakthrough that of course never came -- all done to appear to be doing something. The press gave the impression that there they were, engines idling, at the ready, hood ornaments aimed at the Dublin-Belfast road for a last minute dash to the Kesh. It was another Dublin show.
The ICJP did however met with Atkins again on the 4th of July. Whatever signs of conciliatory moves hinted to previously by Atkins were now replaced by the hard line. You could almost feel Thatcher slouching in the wings.
On that same afternoon, the prisoners sent out a 21,000 word statement that incorporated the five demands, but without one mention of political status. It seemed that there could be room here to negotiate. The ICJP hurriedly meet with the hunger strikers that afternoon -- for the first time!
The Northern Ireland Office cynically denied a request to have Bik McFarlane, the prisoners’ OC, at the meeting. The ICJP met with the hunger strikers without Bik. On Sunday, 5 July, McFarlane met with the Commission alone. There seemed to be some hope while meetings were taking place. Behind the scenes, who knew what was happening? In the event, nothing was happening.
Meet, promise, renege
On Monday evening, 6 July, the ICJP was called to meet with the NIO. There was speculation among the media that there was some hitch in compromise arrangements that had been put forward earlier by the Brits.
The press was right. The NIO was pulling back on some potentially hunger strike breaking suggestions. The ICJP demanded that they send a senior NIO official to tell the hunger strikers exactly and authoritatively what would be on offer if they came off the strike. The Brits had suggested movement on prison clothing and perhaps more.
The NIO’s response? What’s the rush? Joe McDonnell’s life was in no "immediate" danger. He had been on hunger strike for 59 days.
O’Fiaich face to face with Thatcher
Cardinal O’Fiaich was gravely affected by the deaths of the men. He had blown the whistle on the Brits about conditions in the Kesh. He made powerful statements and worked behind the scenes, but he blamed himself for not doing enough. What else he could have done, he wasn’t sure, but he cried when Raymond McCreesh, one from his own diocese of Armagh, and Patsy O’Hara died.
He was in London to attend a commemoration for St. Oliver Plunkett, himself martyred by the British. He spoke at the open-air commemorative mass of the penal days in Ireland and of the priests ordained by Oliver Plunkett who defied the British by bringing the people through those terrible Cromwellian times: "Golden priests with wooden chalices" they were called.
At 8 PM, he arrived at Number 10. Thatcher arrived at 8:15 sharp. Bishop Lennon was with the Cardinal; he was asked by O’Fiaich to takes notes. This was going to be a serious meeting.
Maggie: Poor Me
After brief generalities, Thatcher started in, loud and shrill. Why were these people doing this to me? What am I supposed to do if they want to kill themselves? Why were they on hunger strike to begin with? She was shouting now; all worked up over what was happening to her. She had asked so many people why they were doing this and nobody could tell her! It was all happening to HER. It was like she was commiserating to herself in the shower after a rough day. The Churchmen might as well have been back in Ireland, or India, for all she took notice of them.
Rantings and ravings
Bishop Lennon dropped his pen. He was afraid he would throw it at her he was so infuriated. He took no further notes.
She was droning now, over and over again the same questions and points and poor me this and poor me that. Lennon interrupted her. She wouldn’t have yielded otherwise. He started to explain the alienation of nationalists in the north and why it existed. She re-interrupted almost immediately, but the Bishop bulled on -- he had a subconscious habit of thrusting two fingers like daggers at his target when making points. Anyway, she yielded. He accused the NIO of inflexibility and the British government of almost criminal inaction which actually drove young people to the IRA.
When it was Thatcher’s turn, she attacked. But what she said indicated that she heard nothing that Lennon said. Or at least she dismissed it as not being worthy of reply. She began a long lecture, or sermon rather, only to be interrupted by the Cardinal or the Bishop who would then be interrupted by her. Back and forth for two hours. Often they sat as she ragged around the large room. She had no idea of the current situation or even the rudiments of Irish history. At one point she declared that Northern Ireland had been set up to begin with to "save" the Catholics from civil war. O’Fiaich was compelled to give her a history lesson and finished by expressing his belief that the "Irish question" would only be solved when there was a 32 county, independent Irish state of some kind, of any kind, as long as the Irish people themselves could determine their own political fate without interference.
She interrupted with pompous indignation, but he would have none of it. He went on, hoping that in some unconscious reptilian part of her, she was listening -- perhaps some of this somewhere was recording, but no.
Thatcher: why do the Irish always have a problem?
Her position, she explained, after the Cardinal’s long history lesson and personal analysis, was that the British were totally guiltless for any problem happening in Ireland.
She complained: why must the Irish always have a problem? She even explained haughtily that "we" fought the Germans and now we are friends. What about that?
The Cardinal looked her hard in her hardly human eyes: "Because, Madame, if you want a simple answer, you’re no longer in occupation of the Ruhr."
Inside the Kesh: only surrogate visits for Joe
Joe McDonnell refused to take visits the whole time he was on the Blanket, because he would have had to wear the prison uniform. But he would send his love and receive news from his wife Goretti through another prisoner who took visits in order to gather and send out information. Raymond McCartney, a Blanketman from Derry City, took regular visits with Goretti and would pass on family news to Joe and his feelings back to her. Joe was ravenous for this information and insisted Raymond tell him every detail. Ray was always taken by surprise how Goretti, a street-wise Belfast woman, would throw a packet of tobacco at him at the exact moment the screw, who was always present during visits, looked away for a second. "Joe was very proud of Goretti indeed," he recalled. He also got himself sent off to the punishment cells, "the boards", when a screw saw a parcel of tobacco pass between Goretti and him. But Raymond survived in good spirits, much to Joe’s relief. He felt responsible. Raymond told him not to bother, and had even managed to hand over a private "comm" to him from Goretti. When Raymond went on hunger strike in 1980, Joe made sure that he knew how much the McDonnell family were praying and thinking of him for his kindness. Now it was Joe on hunger strike and Raymond praying for him.
Raymond, years later, recalled that Goretti was very generous and warm and that "you could always detect in both of them the emphasis they placed on each other, on their children and family."
First visits in three and a half years
The first time he met his family was after he was a few days on hunger strike. He expected only Goretti, but got half the family. It was the first visit he had taken in over three and a half years. His sister Maura and his mother Eileen were there as well as his two children, Bernadette and Joe Og. They said through it all, even as a child, Joe never cried. He cried then. He told a story to his family. "Poor Frankie Hughes, he’s in a bad way," he said and started to laugh, "He’s still singing. He’s on the way out and singing till the end!" It was the day Frank Hughes died.
Later his brother Frankie visited Joe. He had just lost the Dail election for Sligo/Leitrim by only 300 votes. "That’s it for me," he said but thought that Kieran Doherty would be saved: "They’ll not let a TD die."
Joe: "Don’t forget Bernadette and Goretti’s birthdays"
Maura, Joe’s sister, had been in America for weeks trying to drum up international support. The ICJP were running all over the place when she returned, but it seemed nothing but spinning wheels going nowhere.
She saw Joe just before the end. He was in pain, but lucid. "Look after yourselves ... look after Mammy, and Goretti and the kids," he said. As always, he was thinking of everyone but himself. Then he told Maura not to forget his daughter Bernadette’s birthday which was coming up on the 10th of July and Goretti’s on the 13th.
Just after five in the morning, Tuesday, 8 July, 1981, Joe McDonnell died. He was buried on his daughter’s birthday.
On 9 July the Irish Catholic bishops met again with the Irish Taoiseach FitzGerald and announced that new efforts would be made. I wonder what Goretti made of that. Five more would die of these new Irish efforts, all show and righteousness. Towards the end of the "Ballad of Joe McDonnell", are the lines: "Then a hunger strike we did commence/For the dignity of man/But it seemed to me/That no one gave a damn." It must have seemed that way indeed.
Thatcher and her ilk, we knew, regarded us distantly as another species. But to even our own, for the most part, snug in Dublin, the Blanketmen and those dying for Irish freedom on hunger strike might as well have been from Mars. It’s hard, even after 20 years, not to hate these people.
Next: Joe’s funeral becomes an RUC/Brit army shootout
(c) 2001 The Irish People.
INA/Irish Hunger Strikes Chapter 36
"Terror, profanity & sacrilege"
RUC and Brits Riot,
Open Fire On Mourners At Joe McDonnell’s Funeral
By Gerry Coleman
"When I look back and think of him, I always recall that night he said that he wasn’t made of the stuff that makes a martyr and patriot. He could never have been more wrong. My abiding memory of Joe is that he never, ever bent." -- Jazz McCann, Blanketman [Nor Meekly Serve My Time]
The false hopes raised by the Catholic bishops of the ICJP made Joe McDonnell’s death an even more terrible blow. His funeral was a Irish tragedy. His lovely wife, at the same time so strong and so broken with brief, his two children, Bernadette and Joseph, crying touching his coffin. There was also the sadistic horror of everything that Joe grew up hating, fighting against, and dying to remove from his country: the brutality of the RUC and the British army and the government that pulled their strings.
The Tories huffed and puffed over their evening clarets, so appalled were they whenever the television showed IRA color guards firing volleys over the coffins at hunger strikers’ funerals. The coffins were jolly good, but the bloody terrorists mustn’t be allowed to honor or bury their dead. The order went down from Thatcher and her boys: get Joe McDonnell’s firing party. The RUC/Brit army were delighted to comply; at they very least, they would terrorize the mourners.
It took the funeral procession four hours to reach Milltown cemetery; a journey that should have taken a half hour.
Brits fire live rounds indiscriminately into mourners
The Irish Times: "It appears that the firing party was trapped by an Army helicopter carrying telescopic equipment. When the first shots were fired and people in the funeral procession realized what was happening, youths broke away and bombarded the soldiers with stones. Troops and police [sic] reinforcements fired dozens of plastic bullets in return. Some observers believe that they also fired live rounds. The RUC deny this."
That live rounds were fired into the crowd is indisputable.
The Times article continued:
"Women holding young children ran screaming into the nearby church, while others crouched on the footpath and in the doorway of the Busy Bee shopping centre. Troop reinforcements sped in armoured vehicles into the middle of the crowd which scattered into side streets. A local priest, the Reverend Dan O’Rawe, said soldiers and police fired indiscriminately.
"For some time afterwards the procession was seriously disrupted and took nearly four hours in all to reach Milltown cemetery, where a Provisional Sinn Fein speaker told the crowd that they were there ‘despite British Army terror, profanity and sacrilege.’"
Live and plastic bullets
Oistin McBride, who photographed the funeral, described the scene in his about to be published book of photographs and commentary about the past twenty years of conflict in the north, Family, Friends and Neighbors. Once British army fire was heard coming from a nearby house where the IRA color party was believed to be retreating from "some of the tens of thousands of mourners were attempting through sheer force of numbers to reach the house where the shooting was taking place in an effort to aid the IRA firing party."
"They were beaten back by volleys of plastic bullets and the realization that live ammunition was also being fired. I watched groups of soldiers charge down St. Agnes Drive firing plastics, regrouping, firing and charging again. Some bumped into me as they ran. I followed the running battle back to the Falls road where the funeral cortege had disappeared in disarray. RUC and Brit Landrovers drove wildly onto the main road scattering anyone in their way."
He recalled how Brit soldiers established a position in St John’s Church carpark from which they fired volley after volley of deadly plastic bullets at mourners trapped behind low walls on the street.
Soldier of the Queen
Important insights into the mind-set of a typical British army soldier at the time of the hunger strike are to be found in a personal memoir by Bernard O’Mahoney, an Englishman of Irish Catholic decent. He has no love for the IRA, but he reveals some interesting truths in his book, A Soldier of The Queen. When his regiment arrived in Co. Fermanagh from Germany, they were briefed by a sergeant that they would never have to worry about legal ramifications from killing a suspect, "Just shoot the fucker dead and we’ll made it up from here." To lighten up the atmosphere, the men were told there would be a crate of beer for the first one to "kill a Paddy."
O’Mahoney, a rough and crude soldier when it came to the rights of citizens, nevertheless often wasn’t happy about what was going on. He was particularly appalled by the house searches that he found served only one purpose: to harass a targeted family. His insights into the deaths of the hunger strikers are important.
Hatred and disdain
The hunger strikers were treated as figures of hatred or disdain. "Soldiers tried to hide their anxiety by making a joke of it." They put captions like "slimmer of the year" under hunger strikers’ newspaper photos. They had a running Hunger Strike Sweepstakes: on a board in the operations room were listed the names of all those on hunger strike. Soldiers would guess the number of days a particular hunger striker "would take to die." They would get drunk and party in the bar at the base after a death, but the UDR men were the worst, being essentially anti-Catholic bigots. The Brits hated the IRA and perhaps even the Irish generally [including the unionists/loyalists!], but the UDR men would grow venomous at the death of a hunger striker. They particularly enjoyed the death of Raymond McCreesh, all the more because his bother was a Catholic priest.
"Kill all Catholics. Let God sort them out"
O’Mahoney says that they didn’t believe these men would follow through at first. When Bobby died, they were mostly concerned for their safety as IRA attacks increased and the hostility of the people on the ground grew. As hunger strikers continued to die, he said that the soldiers came to believe that all Catholics were closet republicans and abuse was handled out to all. O’Mahoney recalls shouts of "Kill all Catholics. Let God sort them out" in the base canteen.
When a hunger striker would die, the local people would come out into the streets to bang bin lids to announce the loss. The Brit army actually considered confiscating the bin lids in nationalist areas!
But O’Mahoney says, "Behind the bravado, I could smell fear -- fear of the growing strength of the IRA, both on the ground and in terms of the international support the Hunger Strike was attracting for the republican movement. some UDR people seemed to be anticipation the day when they and their families would be slaughtered in their beds by the rampaging Fenian hordes." The soldiers all supported Ian Paisley’s call for squaddies to all carry shotguns. But not all standard weaponry was official according to O’Mahoney, who wrote about the common practice of loading plastic bullet rifles with the equivalent of D-size batteries.
He recalls being puzzled by the black mourning flags on homes and lampposts: "I thought people were foolish to advertise their loyalty to the IRA in that way." Indeed the patrols did take note with the intention of coming back to make them pay for it. Often Brit or UDR soldiers would shoot the flags down, being afraid to pull them down least they be booby trapped. "Yet at the same time part of me admired what I saw as the flag-wavers’ come-and-get-me defiance of the authorities." When it came down to it, he hated his experience in the north of Ireland because "I had met full-on a real badness within myself." Enough said.
Martin Hurson looses ground quickly
Martin had gone on the hunger strike on 29th of May, twenty days after Joe McDonnell, seven days after Kieran Doherty, and six days after Kevin Lynch. Michael Gorman, a Blanketman who was sent to the prison hospital for treatment for an injured foot towards the end of June, got to meet with Joe and Kieran, who he knew were in the hospital. During his stay there, he was disturbed by hollow coughing sounds coming from somewhere on the ward. He couldn’t help but shudder each time it rang out.
At the mass that Fr. Toner said in the hospital ward’s TV room on a makeshift altar, Michael walked in to greet Joe and "Big Doc". What happened next he tells in Nor Meekly serve My Time:
"...to my left I saw what looked like a pile of blankets on a wheelchair. As I passed by, a slight coughing sound came from the blankets, stopping me dead in my tracks. I cast a puzzled glance towards Joe and Doc. Joe told me it was Martin Hurson and that he was very ill.
"I searched for Martin’s face. Reaching out I touched it -- he was warm and looked peaceful and at ease...
"I watched as the communion was lifted and touched to Martin’s lips. Lowering my head, I felt a deep sadness sweep over me at the sight."
As Michael was talking to Fr. Toner after mass, a harsh coughing filled the room: "It was Martin. On their knees one on each side of the wheelchair were Joe and Doc, talking to him, their voices seeking to soothe him. What a sorry, pitiful, moving and heart-breaking sight. I felt humbled at it, yet so proud of them for their loving and comradely gesture."
(c) 2001 The Irish People.