17 May 2001 Edition
Emotion and confidence as Hunger Strikers are honoured
BY MÍCHEÁL MacDONNCHA
Over 700 people turned out for one of the most emotion-charged events to be held so far in this 20th anniversary year of the 1981 Hunger Strike. The Border Constituencies' Salute to the Hunger Strikers was a very special evening which brought together key figures from that period to honour the ten men who died and to share with the predominantly youthful audience the experience of that epic struggle.
John Pickering, friend, comrade and cellmate of Kieran Doherty, hunger striker and Cavan/Monaghan TD, was among the guests of honour. Organised by the County Monaghan 1981 Committee, the event in Monaghan town on 9 May featured music and presentations. Local balladeers Céilí Swing began the music before the internationally renowned Wolfe Tones took to the stage. Their repertoire for the night centred on the prison struggle and the hunger strikes and Derek Warfield on behalf of the group spoke passionately of all 22 hunger strikers who have died for Irish freedom since Thomas Ashe in 1917.
The presentation ceremony was chaired by Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. He spoke of how the hunger strikes came about. He said:
``The republican struggle was at its lowest ebb in the late Ô70s when a British Labour government imposed criminalisation with the sole purpose and intent of defeating Irish republicanism. The sacrifice of the Blanket men, the Armagh women and the hunger strikers ensured that the British strategy of defeat was itself defeated.
``This came at a terrible cost to the men and women themselves and to their families. They will always have our solidarity and our support. For them the hunger strike was primarily a huge personal tragedy, a loss that can never be replaced.
``The British failed to learn the lesson in 1981 and continued to attempt to defeat republicanism politically and militarily. They had willing allies in successive Dublin governments.''
Ó Caoláin paid tribute to the people ``in every part of Counties Cavan and Monaghan who supported the prisoners at that time and who worked to ensure the election of Kieran Doherty''. While Margaret Thatcher had let ten men die she had failed to break the prisoners or the republican struggle. ``On the contrary we emerged stronger and more confident than ever'' he said.
The TD said that one of the legacies of the hunger strikers was the strength of Sinn Fein as was clear from the representative gathering from the border counties. He then introduced the Sinn Féin Cathaoirleach of Monaghan County Council Brian McKenna and the Sinn Féin Vice-Chair of Cavan County Council Charlie Boylan. Boylan was Election Agent for Kieran Doherty TD in 1981 when Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin was Director of Elections.
It was of course in Fermanagh/South Tyrone that Bobby Sands was elected and after his death the by-election was won by Owen Carron, another guest of honour on the night. The third prisoner elected in that year was Paddy Agnew who was TD for Louth and Paddy was introduced for the first time on a Monaghan platform.
Hunger Striker Joe McDonnell received a high vote, narrowly failing to get elected in Sligo-Leitrim in 1981 and the Sinn Féin Mayor of Sligo Seán MacManus was present to represent that constituency.
The families of the hunger strikers were represented by the relatives of Raymond McCreesh, the third hunger striker to die, from Camlough in South Armagh. A message of regret was received from Alfie and Margaret Doherty, parents of Kieran, who could not be present due to Margaret's hospitalisation on the eve of the event.
There was a standing ovation for John Pickering of Andersonstown, Belfast, friend, comrade and cellmate of Kieran Doherty TD. He spent 20 years in prison in the North and was on hunger strike for 27 days in 1981. He spoke with emotion of his friend Kieran, whom he described as ``quiet, determined and dedicated''. The hunger strikers were ``ordinary men faced with extraordinary challenges'' and he described the depth of his own feelings when confronted with the imminent death of his friends Bobby and Kieran in particular.
What Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin described as the hunger strikers' ``legacy of political strength and confidence'' was emphasised in the presentation ceremony. Sinn Féin Louth County Councillor and Dáil candidate Arthur Morgan made the presentation to former H-Block TD for Louth Paddy Agnew. Fermanagh/South Tyrone Assembly member and Sinn Féin candidate Michelle Gildernew made the presentation to former MP for that constituency Owen Carron. John Pickering accepted on behalf of the McDonnell family a presentation from Sligo Sinn Féin Mayor and Sligo-Leitrim candidate Seán MacManus. Assembly member Conor Murphy, Sinn Féin candidate in Newry/Armagh, made the presentation to the McCreesh family. The final presentation to the Doherty family was accepted on their behalf by John Pickering from Councillors Brian McKenna and Charlie Boylan.
The platform party was then joined by Francie and Ann Brolly from Dungiven, County Derry. Francie is the author of the anthem of the H-Block struggle and hundreds joined in as he and Ann sang:
``I'll wear no convict's uniform
Nor meekly serve my time
That Britain might brand Ireland's fight
Eight hundred years of crime.''
A surprise guest, Sinn Féin Honorary Vice-President Joe Cahill, spoke briefly of his pride at seeing such a large gathering of young people and said that republican confidence was growing daily and, quoting Bobby Sands, ``turning ever more certainly to the laughter of our children, our ultimate revenge''.
At the close of the evening the Wolfe Tones played a musical tribute to the late republican Joe B. O'Hagan whose recent death was a personal loss to many of those in attendance.
Bellaghy pays tribute to Francis Hughes
In a series of events over the weekend, hunger striker Francis Hughes was remembered in the County Derry village of Bellaghy.
Saturday 12 May marked the 20th anniversary of Hughes' death; the County Derry man died after 56 days on hunger strike in the H Blocks of Long Kesh.
A day-long exhibition, which included many hitherto unpublished photographs of Hughes and his comrades Dominic McGlinchey and Ian Milne were displayed in the Wolfe Tones GAA Hall in Ballyscullion Road just outside the town.
Ironically, Saturday 12 May was also the anniversary of Sean Brown, a leading figure in GAA circles in Derry and a senior member of the Bellaghy club who was abducted by loyalists on 12 May 1997. His body was found hours later in his burnt out car on the road to Randalstown just off the M2 motorway.
The exhibition was dominated by a huge mural of Hughes, painted by Belfast muralists Danny Devenney and Marty Lyons. It was part of an exhibition on display in the Ulster Museum up until the end of last month and depicts Hughes as a modern day Cú Chulainn.
The Bellaghy man was a renowned guerrilla fighter and his bravery both inside and outside prison shook the British militarily and politically.
In the course of the day, hundreds of people attended the exhibition which, according to Colm Scullion of the Bellaghy 1981 Committee, had to be run a second day due to demand.
At 5pm, in a ceremony at the Hughes family home in Tamlaghtduff, a stone commemorating Francis Hughes was unveiled. In a simple ceremony, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness unveiled the plaque on the original Hughes family home, the old farmhouse in which Francis was born.
In the presence of Joe and Maggie, Francis's father and mother, his brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces, McGuinness spoke of Francis as a friend, a freedom fighter, as someone who loved his country, who wanted to see it free and was prepared to pay the ultimate price in pursuit of the goal of a united and free Ireland.
Bik McFarlane, OC of the republican POWs in the H Blocks at the time of the Hunger Strike, also attended the ceremony.
At 7.30pm that same evening, over 1,000 people attended a wreath laying ceremony in the church yard of St Mary's on the outskirts of the town where Hughes is buried alongside his cousin and fellow hunger striker Thomas McElwee.
Later that evening, as many as 500 people packed into the Wolfe Tone hall for a performance of the play about the hunger strike, TheLaughter of Our Children, penned by Brian Campbell and former hunger striker Laurence McKeown.
Hunger Strike Events
Tralee, Co Kerry, had a busy week of Hunger Strike commemorative events, starting last Thursday, 10 May, at the Grand Hotel.
Former H-Block blanketman Gerry Hanratty gave a rousing speech at a meeting in the hotel, which was chaired by local Sinn Féin councillor, Martin Ferris, himself a former blanketman.
Hanratty asked those under the age of 22 to stand up and then reminded the audience that the majority of the hunger strikers were ``in that age bracket and were from working-class backgrounds''.
Hanratty said his abiding memory of the 1981 hunger strikes was of the anguish of families forced to watch their loved ones die. ``I also remember mothers, sisters and wives massaging the skin of the hunger strikers when it started to turn black,'' he said. ``The tremendous courage and dedication of the hunger strikers as their teeth started to fall out, their bones began to get brittle and they slowly started to go blind on their way to an agonizing death, is something that I will never forget.
``The hunger strikers were ordinary people, but their sacrifice was extraordinary. Let us never forget their commitment, dedication and courage.''
Two days later, on Saturday 12 May, a white-line vigil was held in Tralee Town Centre to pay tribute to the memory of Francis Hughes, who died on the same day, 20 years earlier. Hughes was aged just 25 years when he died after 59 days on hunger strike.
On Sunday 13 May, in wet conditions, republicans gathered at Gortaglanna, Knockanure, near Listowel in Co Kerry, to remember Lyons, Walsh and Dalton, assassinated by Black and Tans on 12 May 1921. Martin Ferris spoke at the event, at which he placed emphasis on the need for republicans to prepare to fight oncoming elections. ``As we face into elections,'' he said, ``let us all pay a fitting tribute to the memory of these great men and others like them.''
In the Southwest, Waterford Sinn Féin held a very successful commemorative march and rally on Saturday in Waterford City, attracting over 500 people.
In the city centre, speeches were delivered to the crowd. Guest speaker, former blanketman Leo Greene, spoke of the magnitude of the struggle that took place in prisons in 1981. He remarked that that struggle was not in vain and that the hunger strikers succeeded in their efforts to defeat the British government.
On Sunday, 20 May, the play centring on the hunger strike period, ÔThe Laughter of Our Children', will be performed at the Forum Theatre, The Glen, at 8pm.