Millions were deeply affected by image of hunger striker’s sisters carrying coffin
Former comrade pays tribute to Tom McElwee from staunch republican area of Bellaghy, Co Derry who died after 62 days on hunger strike 25 years ago
By Connla Young
The sight of eight sisters carrying the remains of their brother has become one of the most haunting and powerful images captured during the closing days of the 1981 hunger strike.
The enduring image was beamed across the globe in the hours after Thomas McElwee was buried in the Co Derry village of Bellaghy on August 10, 1981.
Seen by millions of people, the image of eight young Irish women walking their brother to his final resting place gave the world a glimpse of the dignity with which the McElwee family shouldered their personal pain.
Just two days earlier the girls’ 23-year-old brother saw out his final hours surrounded only by prison officers in the hospital wing at Long Kesh prison.
Even after 62 days without food, Thomas McElwee was denied the comfort of his family and loved ones by the cruel prison regime he had challenged for the previous three and half years.
Tom McElwee was the sixth of 12 children born into his parents’ home at Tamlaghduff Road near Bellaghy in November 1957. The small whitewashed house sits just a few hundred yards from the family home of his cousin Frank Hughes, who died after 59 days on hunger strike in May 1981. The two young men now lie side by side in the grave yard at St Mary’s church in Bellaghy.
Although captured separately, the cousins both suffered serious injury before being arrested and were subjected to years of abuse from prison staff at Long Kesh as a result of their disabilities.
Thomas McElwee lost an eye after a premature explosion in Ballymena, Co Antrim, in 1976. The Bellaghy man required emergency treatment at the Royal Victoria Hospital in order to save his remaining eye.
His friends Colm Scullion and Sean McPeake were also seriously injured in the blast while his brother Benedict suffered from shock and burns.
After his arrest, Thomas refused to make a statement and was eventually sentenced to 20 years behind bars. The Bellaghy man immediately went on the blanket protest along with his younger brother Benedict.
Friend and former comrade Ian Milne spent several years on the blanket and has vivid memories from that time.
“One of things that strikes me from that time is Tom and Frank’s funerals. Setting aside the commotion that went on trying to get their bodies home, their families were not allowed to bring their remains through the town of Bellaghy when they were getting buried.
“Instead of taking the straight road through the town as their families had done for generations they both had to be driven to the graveyard through countryside roads. That’s still hurts both families. They were not allowed to take their sons straight to the graveyard to bury them.
“They brought in thousands of RUC men and troops to make sure both men could not pass through the town.
“Twenty-five years ago republicans were not allowed to travel through Bellaghy but republicanism in that town and around south Derry is very strong now and things have changed a lot. The time when the British and unionist businessmen could stop people from going through the town has gone – it is now a republican area.
“That is just one legacy Tom and the other men left behind them. Both these lads came from the same area. No other two hunger strikers came from as close an area. This area is staunch and has never bent the knee. Tom and Frank were at the forefront of that and today I feel we are carrying on the same struggle they fought for.”
Now the Sinn Féin chairman of Magherafelt District Council, Mr Milne says men like Tom McElwee had no option but to commit to a hunger strike.
“The British were steadfast in opposing any compromise. But republican prisoners were not criminal. How could anyone involved in the conflict put a prison uniform on. There was just no other way at that time. I can’t believe the brutality heaped on the prisoners at that time. In many ways we became used to the prison regime. It was only when I went back to Long Kesh about a year and a half ago that I realised the immense psychological and physical torture we were put through each day. I was scalded myself.
“Tom was tortured by the screws. They taunted him about the eye he lost but Tom never bowed to them, not once. If they wanted to pick a fight they would get it when they came to him.”
The former prisoner says the hunger strike was about more than just the prison issue.
“I think for the British it wasn’t just about defeating the prisoners, it was about defeating the IRA and the struggle against British occupation. The Brits hoped to break the struggle by breaking the prisoners. It was never going to work. The hunger strikers were ordinary people and they lived like the rest of us but they were also exceptional people because not everyone can die on hunger strike.
“You have to have strong convictions and be a special person to do that. These people, people like Tom, loved those around them so much that they laid down their lives for them as well as the wider struggle. When I think of them it gives me strength and I recommit myself every time I think about that. I salute the hunger strikers and all those who gave their lives.”