19.5.06

Striker’s activist legacy and ‘full of life’ nature still remembered

Daily Ireland

Twenty five years ago this weekend Raymond McCreesh from Camlough in South Armagh and Patsy O'Hara from Derry City died on hunger strike in Long Kesh at the age of 24. We look at the their lives and the momentous events surrounding their deaths

by Mick Hall
19/05/2006

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us“Ray McCreesh had the ability to instantly switch from being very serious to being full of humour," says Breandán Lewis, a childhood friend of the south Armagh hunger striker. “He possessed an energy both serious and light. I can only describe him as being full of life."
The familiar publicity poster of the young republican icon laughing for the camera was taken in December 1975, when he was just 18 and six months before being arrested after a dramatic shoot-out with British paratroopers.
Breandán and his family members featured in the original photograph. (Click photo to view)
“I can remember vividly when it was taken. Ray had been talking politics at my family home. The tension then broke with some light-heartedness and his image was captured," says breandan. The McCreesh and Lewis families first met within Irish language circles and remain close today, living in the same village of Camlough, Co Armagh. Seven generations of the McCreesh family had lived in the area.
Ray McCreesh attended Camlough Primary and St Coleman's Secondary school in Newry. Breandán, now a local Sinn Féin councillor, went to the same school but was three years older. At St Coleman's McCreesh is said to have shown an intense interest in Irish language and history, being described as "very conscious of his Irishness". He later became a fluent native speaker during his incarceration at Long Kesh prison. A keen sportsman, he played under-16 minor football for Carrickcruppin GAA club.
After studying fabrication engineering at Newry Technical College, he began working at Gambler Simms Steel Ltd, but decided to leave, believing his personal security was being compromised by taking the same route through loyalist countryside each day. He returned to working on a milk round, which covered the Mullaghbawn and Dromintee areas of the south Armagh border, a job he had first started aged 14.
His involvement in republican activism at this point was already deep. In 1974, he was promoted to the IRA's first battalion South Armagh aged 17, after joining the Fianna in 1973. His milk round gave him an intimate understanding of the local terrain and an insight into the movements of state forces.
“Although he spoke freely about politics with people he respected, he talked nothing of his military involvement," Breandán says.
“He was committed, knew the seriousness of his situation and from the outset maintained an inner composure which precluded all such talk. He rarely drank and kept a low profile. It resulted in him never really being suspected by the police and army.
"When he was captured, people around Camlough were surprised at the extent of his involvement."
Late on the evening of June 25, 1976, McCreesh and three other volunteers set out to ambush a covert military post opposite the Mountain House Inn on the main Newry to Newtownhamilton Road, near the town of Sturgan. After being dropped of by a volunteer in a commandeered car, McCreesh, Paddy Quinn and Danny McGuinness, made their way across fields, towards the post. The car made its own way towards the ambush point, being parked there to draw the soldiers' attention. As the driver returned to join the others who were walking down the hillside following the line of hedgerows, he spotted paratroopers closing in on their position.
“The driver was armed only with a short Sten gun," explains Paddy Quinn.
“He fired it in their direction and all of a sudden the field around us was being cut up with bullets."
The driver was shot three times as paratroopers opened up with SLRs and light machine guns. Even so he managed to escape.
"Myself and Ray zig-zagged across fields towards a farmhouse. There were bullets flying everywhere. The house was empty and there was no car in the drive. Instead of taking off on foot we waited on Dan, who was hiding in a bunker beside the quarry on the hill where we were ambushed. He had been watching us from the hill and saw the amount of tracer bullets fired at our position. He thought we were dead, so he just stayed there.
“After several minutes a helicopter landed at the back of the house and as we made our way to the front, another landed, blocking our way. Paras got out and began firing through the windows, shooting up the house. We fired back and there was a stand-off."
Shortly afterwards a local priest, Fr Peter Hughes, arrived at the scene and attempted to negotiate a surrender.
“I can remember Ray remember asking: ‘Should we fight our way out of here?' I told him we would have no chance and if we surrendered we'd live to fight another day."
The men agreed to surrender. As they walked from the house a paratrooper began firing.
“We went back inside. The NCO began cursing the soldier, saying he had orders to get us out before dark. We walked out again and were taken away by the RUC to Bressbrook barracks. We were interrogated and beaten for three days. Dan McGuinness was captured at the quarry the next day."
After nine months on remand in Crumlin Road jail, McCreesh was tried and convicted, in March 1977, of attempted murder, possession of a rifle and ammunition, and IRA membership. He received a 14-year sentence, and lesser concurrent sentences, after refusing to recognise the court.
In the H-Blocks he immediately joined the blanket protest. He refused his monthly visits for four years, right up until he informed his family of his decision to go on hunger-strike on February 15, 1981, this year. He also refused to send out monthly letters, writing only smuggled ‘communications’ to his family and friends.
The only member of his family to see him during those four years in Long Kesh two or three times was his brother Fr Brian McCreesh, who occasionally said Mass in the H-Blocks.
“He was a jolly lad, but stubborn," remembers Paddy Quinn.
“It was no surprise when he put his name forward for the hunger strike."
One of the most controversial aspects of McCreesh’s hunger strike involved allegations that the NIO and prison officials had drugged him, in order to confuse the protester during the last week before he died. The intention, many believe, was to pressurise the McCreesh family to intervene and take him off the protest. After 50 days of fast, family members, including Fr Brian McCreesh and were called to the prison hospital at the request of the prison doctor. They were told by a medical officer that McCreesh had been given the last rites by a Catholic priest, which had left him “shocked and frightened”. Fr Brian McCreesh was said to be suspicious of this, knowing that his brother was a deeply religious man and would have taken comfort from the sacrament. The prison doctor then claimed that the hunger striker seemed to have replied “yes” when asked if he wanted him to save his life.
When questioned by family members Raymond was dazed and incoherent, although he slowly came round and reasserted his determination to carry his protest through.
Ray McCreesh died over a week later, 61 days into his protest, on May 21, 1981.
“It was a very dark time, and we have never really got over,” says Breandán Lewis.
“People in Camlough gathered to say the rosary every night. Others involved got in political activism. When Raymond died, the emotional impact was immense and it was long-term.”
The response in the prison was of sadness and determination.
Paddy Quinn said: “The more brutality you received the deeper you dig your heels in. Raymond’s death gutted us, but it made us more determined.”

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