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3 June 1974 – Óglach Michael Gaughan dies on hunger strike in England

Twenty-three days into his strike, Michael was force-fed for the first time. The method of force-feeding hadn’t changed from the days when Thomas Ashe died due to the brutality of it in 1917.

My name is Michael Gaughan, from Ballina I came.

I saw my people suffering and swore to break their chains.

I raised the flag in England, prepared to fight or die.

Far away from Mayo beneath an Irish sky.

Take me home to Mayo across the Irish Sea,

Home to dear old Mayo where once I roamed so free.

Take me home to Mayo there let my body lie,

Home at last in Mayo beneath an Irish sky.

THIS well-known republican ballad was penned in honour of a young man from Ballina, County Mayo, who was one of the hundreds of republicans imprisoned in 1974, the most vulnerable of whom were in English jails.

Michael Gaughan was the eldest of six children. After finishing his schooling, he left Ireland for England in search of work. Whilst in England, he joined the IRA and became an active Volunteer in a London-based Active Service Unit. 

During a mission to gather funds for the IRA campaign, he was captured and ultimately convicted of  arms possession and conspiracy to rob a London bank. Gaughan was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment at the Old Bailey in December 1971

His first two years of imprisonment were in Wormwood Scrubs in London. He was then moved to Albany Prison on the Isle of Wight where his request for political status was refused and he was punished with solitary confinement for even daring to claim it. He was later moved to Parkhurst Prison, also on the Isle of Wight.

In November 1973, the trial of 10 Irish people for bomb explosions in London saw four begin a hunger strike immediately for political status and repatriation. Their demands were simple:-

•  A guarantee that they would not be returned to solitary confinement;

•  The right to educational facilities and not to do prison work;

•  The setting of a reasonable date for a transfer to an Irish prison.

Within days, the prison authorities began force-feeding Dolores and Marian Price, Hugh Feeney and Gerry Kelly. They were brutally force-fed for 206 days. 

On 31 March 1974, Frank Stagg, Paul Holmes, Hugh Feeney and Michael Gaughan joined the strike. 

Twenty-three days into his strike, Michael was force-fed for the first time. The method of force-feeding hadn’t changed from the days when Thomas Ashe died due to the brutality of it in 1917.

The viciousness of the force-feeding and resisting the doctors and the warders took its toll on the hunger-strikers. It left them battered and bruised, drained physically and mentally. The psychological torture of this barbaric assault on a person also had an effect as one of the hunger-strikers recounted to a relative at the time:

“The mental agony of waiting to be force-fed is getting to the stage where it now outweighs the physical discomfort of having to go through with it.’’

During his hunger-strike, Michael was force-fed 17 times, the last time on the evening of 2 June.

The physical toll on the hunger strikers is borne out by Michael’s brother John’s statement of his condition when he last saw him. His throat had been badly cut by force feeding and his teeth loosened. His eyes were sunken, his cheeks hollow and his mouth was gaping open. He weighed about six stone.

Visitors to the hunger strikers were only allowed to see them through a glass screen, supervised by prison warders. In what must have been a very emotional visit, his mother Delia saw him alive for the last time through this screen three days before his death.

On 3 June 1974, the prison authorities announced that Michael Gaughan had died.

They later explained that he died from pneumonia, a result of the force-feeding tube having pierced his lung and food lodging in his lung. He was 24 years old.

The manner of his death caused controversy in medical circles and this method of force-feeding was later abandoned by the British state.

Following Gaughan’s death, the remaining hunger strikers ended their fast after assurances from the prison authorities that they would be transferred to a prison in Ireland. The British, however, pursued a policy of seeming to concede to prisoners’ demands when they were on hunger strike only to renege once the prisoner came off protest.

From the Isle of Wight, Michael’s remains were brought to London. On 7 and 8 June, thousands lined the streets of Kilburn and marched behind the coffin, which was flanked by an IRA guard of honour.

Michael Gaughan’s funeral makes its way through Dublin, followed by tens of thousands of mourners

● Michael Gaughan’s funeral makes its way through Dublin, followed by tens of thousands of mourners

On Saturday 8 June, Michael Gaughan’s remains reached Dublin, where they were met by tens of thousands of mourners. Under another IRA guard of honour, Michael’s body was brought to the Franciscan Church of Adam & Eve on Merchant’s Quay by the River Liffey, where thousands more filed past as it lay in state.

The following morning, Michael Gaughan began his final journey home. From Dublin to Ballina, his cortege was met by thousands paying their last respects in every town and village en route.

After mass in Ballina Cathedral, the IRA paid its respects to a loyal soldier of Ireland, firing a volley above his coffin before it was taken to Leigue Cemetery to be buried in the Republican Plot.

In his last message to his republican comrades, Michael Gaughan had said:

“I die proudly for my country and in the hope that my death will be sufficient to obtain the demands of my comrades. Let there be no bitterness on my behalf but a determination to achieve the new Ireland for which I gladly die. My loyalty and confidence is to the IRA and let those of you who are left carry on the work and finish the fight.’’

Michael Gaughan died on 3 June 1974.

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