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2 December 2004 Edition

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Four Derry Volunteers killed in action - Remembering the Past


Volunteers Antoine Mac Giolla Bhríghde, Ciaran Fleming, Danny Doherty and Willie Fleming

Volunteers Antoine Mac Giolla Bhríghde, Ciaran Fleming, Danny Doherty and Willie Fleming

In this week, 20 years ago, four IRA Volunteers, Antoine Mac Giolla Bhríghde, Ciaran Fleming, Danny Doherty and Willie Fleming, made the ultimate sacrifice for Irish freedom.

Antoine and Ciarán

Antoine Mac Giolla Bhríghde was from Magherafelt in South Derry. In 1964 his father Frank, in search of work, had moved the family from his native Derry to Belfast. Ignoring politics, they moved to Killowen Street in loyalist East Belfast, where they were soon under constant attack. The attacks culminated in 1972 with Frank and Antoine (then 14) being shot. Frank, already ill, never recovered from the 12 bullets that hit him and died 17 months after the attack. Antoine made a full recovery and took over as head of the family. In the mid-'70s, Antoine joined the Free State Army and in 1979, while on leave, he was captured near Strabane, smuggling weapons into the Six Counties. He was given a three-year jail sentence. Antoine was released in 1980 and worked tirelessly for the Republican Movement right up to his untimely death.

Ciarán Fleming was the youngest child of Maud and Paddy; he was raised on a loyalist estate in the Waterside area of Derry and witnessed the bigotry and triumphalism of the Orange State first hand. Ciarán was arrested and imprisoned from an early age and spent his formative years in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh at the height of the Blanket Protest and the Hunger Strikes. His quiet, easygoing nature belied a fierce and dedicated commitment to the republican cause. He played a major role in the Great Escape of 1983 and on his escape from jail returned to the forefront of the armed struggle. His cousin William, also an IRA Volunteer, was to die within four days of Ciarán.

On Sunday 2 December 1984, IRA Volunteers Antoine and Ciarán took part in an operation against crown forces near Drumrush in County Fermanagh.

The operation began the night before, when a Toyota van was commandeered in Pettigo, County Donegal. It was driven to a nearby site where it was loaded with nine beer kegs, each containing 100lbs of explosives. The van was then driven several miles across the border, where Volunteers carefully placed the landmine into position at the side of a laneway leading to the Drumrush Lodge Restaurant, outside Kesh. A command wire was then brought back to an observation post over looking the laneway, where three armed Volunteers lay in wait for the RUC and Brits. A hoax call was then made, warning that a firebomb had been placed in the Drumrush Lodge Restaurant.

At around 1am, Antoine and another Volunteer, both unarmed, were waiting in a van which was to be used to withdraw from the area after the engagement. They noticed an RUC car approach the restaurant and Antoine gave the code word "one", meaning to detonate the mine. The mine failed to go off. Then Antoine saw a car parked on the lane and believed it to contain civilians. Antoine got out of the van and walked towards the car to tell the occupants to leave the area. On approaching the car, two SAS men called on him to halt, they called to drop his gun and when Antoine said he wasn't armed, one of the SAS men stepped forward and shot him in the left side.

Antoine was then cuffed with plastic stays, beaten, tortured and shot dead. His comrades, when later debriefed, reported hearing a single shot, then screaming, and a short time later a further burst of machine gun fire, after which the screaming stopped. On hearing the first gunfire, the armed IRA Volunteers rushed to the scene and immediately opened fire on the SAS. They shot Lance Corporal Slater dead, hit a second in the shoulder and severely wounded the third with multiple gunshot wounds to the legs.

Under heavy fire, the Active Service Unit retreated across the swollen River Bannagh, where sadly, Ciarán, a non-swimmer, was swept away and drowned

Danny and Willie

Danny Doherty was from the Creggan Estate in Derry. He came from a close knit family with strong republican views. His father, two brothers and sister were all imprisoned for their republican beliefs. Danny joined Na Fianna Éireann at 14. Throughout his time in Na Fianna, he proved to be of invaluable assistance to the IRA. At 17, Danny lied about his age and became a member of the IRA. A short time after, Danny was imprisoned in Portlaoise Jail for membership and possession of explosives. He spent three years and ten months there. The conditions in Portlaoise at the time were very bad, with beatings and strip-searches. Once, Danny had to go three months without a visit. On his release, Danny reported back to the IRA and when asked what role he envisaged for himself, he promptly and without hesitation insisted on rejoining an active service unit.

Willie Fleming was born and raised in the Top of the Hill area of Waterside, Derry. He was the sixth of seven children of Leo and Betty. Three of Willie's brothers were POWs and Willie grew up in the midst of a conflict that took its toll on his community and on his family. He joined the ranks of Na Fianna at the age of 14 and was an extremely valuable resource to the Derry Brigade staff. As a member of Fianna Éireann, Willie was always active, either collecting information for the IRA or being active within the organisation. He attended several Ard Fheiseanna and spoke on many occasions. When Willie joined the IRA at 17, he became an invaluable asset, being intelligent, trustworthy and always anxious to play his role in any operation against crown forces.

On Thursday 6 December 1984, Danny and Willie were driving on a motorbike on active service through Derry. When they entered the grounds of Gransha Hospital, an SAS man drove a car into the motorbike, dislodging Willie from the pillion seat. As he lay on the ground, two further SAS members shot him, first with 9mm pistols, until they ran out of ammunition, and then with HK 53 sub-machine guns. His autopsy showed that he had four gunshot wounds to his head and 56 to his trunk and torso. When Willie was knocked off the bike it went out of control, mounting a kerb and throwing the already shot Danny to the ground. Two more SAS men then continued to empty their weapons into him. At Danny's inquest, the coroner stated that Danny had three gunshot wounds to the head and 21 to the trunk. Danny and Willie, although armed with pistols, had no chance either to defend themselves or to surrender. They were shot down by the Brits under the shoot-to-kill policy. Following the shootings, the RUC left the bodies lying where they had fallen for over five hours, before eventually removing them to Altnagelvin Hospital.

Funerals attacked

All four men were given full military funerals. At the funeral of Antoine Mac Giolla Bhríghde, the RUC, wielding batons, tried to remove the Tricolour from the coffin. They insisted on putting Land Rovers in the centre of the cortege and rammed the family car to get behind the hearse. The family then stopped the funeral until the RUC removed themselves from the cortege. After 20 minutes, the RUC pulled out of the cortege and the mourners made their way to St Mary's Church, where Gerry Adams gave the oration. Ciarán Fleming's body was not found until 21 December. His funeral took place on Christmas Eve and, despite further attacks by the RUC, Ciarán was laid to rest by his comrades with full military honours.

Willie Fleming's funeral from the Waterside joined up with that of Danny Doherty of Creggan. It was the largest funeral in Derry City since the death of Patsy O'Hara. The coffins were draped with Tricolours and four IRA Volunteers in full uniform fired volleys over the coffins. Over 3,000 people followed the cortege to Derry City Cemetery. In his oration, Martin McGuinness said: "We are an occupied country and those brave enough to fight repression deserve nothing but respect and unfailing support from us all. Only the IRA can bring Britain to the negotiating table."

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1