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of all the Hunger Strike participants and the information concerning the affiliation of each, age, date starting, date withdrawn or date of death.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


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.


**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.

Joe McDonnell

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who had, nevertheless, a great sense of humour, was always laughing and playing practical jokes, and who, although withdrawn at times, had the ability to make friends easily.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.'



Joe McDonnell

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.

Haughey’s Demise

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.

Black flags

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.


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