21.5.06

Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara: Two Lives and Two Deaths for Ireland

INA: 1981 Hunger Strike

Irish Hunger Strikes Chapter 31

The McCreeshes were on the land around Camlough, Crossmaglen and Dorsey in South Co. Derry for as long as anyone could remember -- seven generations, maybe more.

"Bandit Country"

Since 1970, the Nationalist families of the area, whether involved in the armed struggle or not, were tormented day and night by the British army and the Ulster Defense Regiment.

The men and women of South Armagh, however, were so outraged by the British invasion of their homeland, their beautiful lakes and mountains and farms, that they gave even more than they took. So many British crown forces were killed or maimed in South Armagh by the local IRA that they called it "Bandit Country". At one point, the IRA controlled the ground -- totally. The only way the Brits could operate was by helicopter.

na Fianna and the IRA

As a boy of ten or eleven, Raymond McCreesh was no exception with regards deep resentment over the British presence and his being harassed. But he was a quiet, very religious boy. Raymond worked delivering milk to the local farms and shops. At 16 he joined na Fianna Eireann. At seventeen, he join the IRA and his job fit in perfectly with gathering of information on British army patrol movements. Young volunteers in the area were most often used to gather intelligence and brought slowly into the conflict. Raymond was so good at covering up his activities in the IRA that not even the RUC/Brits really suspected him, any further than they suspected every nationalist. He was never arrested and stayed away from Republican demonstrations. Even his friends and family were amazed to hear of his IRA activities, but he was known as a determined and skilled soldier to the men he served with.

Fr. Brian finds out

His brother, Fr. Brian McCreesh, however, "knew". Fr. Brian was serving as a curate near Dundalk, when his brother knocked on his door at two o’clock in the morning. Raymond said he was stopped by the Garda for questioning and let go. Before giving him a place to sleep, Brian asked his brother directly if he was involved in the IRA, something the Fr. Brian would have understood but not approved of. Raymond said, "No." But he looked away from his brother’s eyes. No more was needed to be said. A year latter, Raymond’s freedom to operate would come to an abrupt end.

Shoot-out and capture

Early on 21 June 1976, a Brit army patrol was routinely surveilling the Mountain House Inn near Belleeks. Soon, an IRA suspect, Paddy Quinn, was spied leaving the Inn. The Brits moved in re-inforcements, including an 8 man patrol of the hated and feared Parachute Regiment [also responsible for the slaughter on Bloody Sunday]. The patrol split up into two groups and dug in; they waited for four days, logging in movements and taking pictures.

At 9:30 P.M., four armed IRA men were seen by the second surveillance patrol moving military style across a field. The men were preparing an attack on the Brit observation post at the Mountain House, unaware they were being observed. The Brits radioed for reinforcements from the nearly Bessbrook barracks. Raymond, with a Garand rifle at the ready, Paddy Quinn, and the two others, were allowed to progress until the got to approximately 50 yards of the 2nd. Brit patrol when they opened fire. Reinforcements arrived. Helicopters flew overhead, lighting up the fields. One of the IRA men seemed to be hit but managed to escape through a gatepost into another field and they away.

At the sounds of the helicopters with reinforcements, Raymond and Quinn left their position and scrambled across a hayfield towards the house of Pat O’Neil. The house was quickly surrounded. The men were afraid, with good reason, that they would be summarily executed "shoot-to-kill" style. Raymond used the house phone to call several local priests and the RUC, of all people, at Bessbrook hoping to avoid what seemed inevitable murder at the hands of the paras. A priest arrived and the men arranged to surrender, but as soon as they left the house, hands in the air, the paras opened fire and the two dove back into the house. The second priest managed to arrange an orderly surrender.

Interrogation and conviction

One of the men managed to escape. Raymond, Paddy and Danny Maginness [who was captured in a house near the scene]were taken to Bessbrook Barracks where they were interrogated and tortured.

They were caught red-handed, but Quinn and McCreesh refused to sign statements. "We were caught with the guns and the ammunition and that’s all I want to say," Paddy told the RUC. They wrote up a 5 page statement on him and three pages on Raymond. Maginness did sign a statement under duress and abuse. All three refused to recognize the court when they came up for trial.

Raymond went on the Blanket immediately upon his arrival at the H-Blocks. His selection for the hunger strike was controversial because he so quiet and wasn’t a famous IRA man. Some thought his religious nature would make him susceptible to the influence of interfering priests trying to get him off the hunger strike, even his own brother. But, Bobby Sands, who knew Raymond from being on the same wing, understood his determination. So did Frank Hughes, whom he shared a cell with. Oddly enough, the same British corporal who Frank killed during the firefight that lead to his capture, was the same man who was the first to open fire on Raymond’s Active Service Unit a few years earlier. They both could attest to Ray McCreesh’s resolve and dedication.

At 2:11 on Thursday morning, 21 May 1981, Raymond McCreesh became the third hunger striker to die for Ireland’s cause.

Patsy O’Hara: the early days in "Dodge City"

In the 1970’s, Derry City was nick-named "Dodge City", because it was more like the American "Wild West" than the beautiful city of churches that it is, or once was. It was impossible to come of age in Derry City in the 1970’s and not be involved in the struggle on one level or another. Derry City was at the heart of it: the Civil Rights Movement, The People's Democracy, "Free Derry Corner" and, of course, Bloody Sunday.

Pasty’s eldest brother, Sean Seamus, was interned without trial in 1971 for two years. Tony, the second oldest, was jailed in 1976 for five years, which he served on the Blanket. In 1968, Patsy would have been at least an observer of the Civil Rights marches which his family were very supportive of.

At 14, Pasty got a closer look at the "Troubles" than he wanted, when he and another boy were caught in a Brit/IRA crossfire. His mate, Robert Canning, standing next to Patsy, was shot by the Brits in stomach. He was lucky to survive. A few months later, Pasty also found himself in the local hospital, Altnagelvin, in the Protestant side of town, with a British bullet wound in his leg. He had already joined na Fianna Eireann.

Shep

Someday, somebody will compile a series on the humor of the past thirty years of conflict. Not yet, but someday it will be possible.

The O’Hara’s had a dog named Shep. Derry people don’t actually "have" dogs -- the dogs, although members of the family, being independent characters. While Pasty was on his back in Altnagelvin after having been shot, his father Jim took off on the long walk to visit him through the Bogside and into dangerous areas, dangerous for Nationalists that is.

Unbeknownst to Jim, Shep [a golden coated collie/lab mix] had apparently made the semi-conscious decision to visit Patsy as well, and trotted off at a safe distance.

Jim found Patsy on the sixth floor [in the same ward as Canning, still recovering from his stomach wound], but the place was crawling with RUC and Brit soldiers. The corridors were thick with them. Even a hospital was no sanctuary to Nationalists, especially those with Brit delivered bullet wounds. Shep had little trouble finding Patsy, and, lopping noisily onto the ward with all 20 nails working into the hard hospital floor, leapt onto his bed and started wagging, licking and engaging in other dogishness, mush to the surprise and delight of Jim and Patsy.

Not so Crown forces. Some, disguised as male "nurses", took it upon themselves to arrest poor Shep. Shep refused to submit. "No surrender" for the Derry dog. He raced around the room, playing with the RUC men’s advances with deft moves of his own. They ordered Jim to remove the dog. Jim told them if they wanted him out they would have to remove him themselves. Shep heard all this from his lair under Patsy’s bed. There he stayed, receiving encouragement from Jim and Patsy and others in the ward.

Shep left of his own free will when Jim went home. All night, the RUC kept shouting into Patsy and Canning, trying to sleep, "Ye wee Fenian bastards" and threatened to slit their throats. The boys enjoyed every minute of it, except for the throat part.

Numerous arrests; one conviction

In 1974, Pasty was interned for 6 months without trial. He joined the INLA [Irish National Liberation Army] soon after his release. He was arrested again in June of 1975, serving 10 months for possession of explosives, but the charge didn’t stick. In September 1976, he was arrested again for possession and acquitted after 4 months on remand. He was arrested in 1977, in Dublin, for holding a gardai at gunpoint, but was acquitted yet again in January 1978. The charm was broken on 7 May 1979, when he was arrested by a patrol of the Royal Hampshire Regiment in Derry City and convicted of possession of a fragmentation grenade. He was sentenced to eight years and went immediately on the Blanket.

He was a likely candidate for OC of the relatively small group of INLA prisoners in Long Kesh, because of his military service and having served on the IRSP (Irish Republican Socialist Party) Ard Comhairle or executive.

He died for Ireland at 11:29 PM, 21 May 1981, the same day as his friend Raymond McCreesh.


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