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23 July 2009 Edition

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'I die proudly for my country'

Book Review
Michael Gaughan: Prepared to Fight or Die
Edited by Ella O’Dwyer
Price €7/£6

Reviewed by
Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD

IN the second book in the Irish Republican Legends series, following the first on Brian Keenan, the life and death of the young Mayo IRA Volunteer Michael Gaughan is revealed.
The unfolding renewed war in Ireland rarely intruded on most of the Dublin 4 residents when I was growing up in Sandymount in Dublin in the late 1960s and 1970s. Our family, though, was part of a minority, being republican, Irish-speaking and raised with an appreciation of the impact of history of Irish history that were aware of what was happening.
Some key moments I still remember as a young child: getting my father to buy me the banned Men Behind the Wire as my first single (CD for the new generation); protests for Irish-language rights, hearing the booms of bombs in Dublin when cutting turf in the Dublin Mountains, and the deaths and funerals of Michael Gaughan in 1974 and Frank Stagg in 1976.
The song Take Me Home to Mayo by Seamus Robinson is reprinted in the book and many will remember the first time they heard this simple and haunting ballad of Michael Gaughan’s life.
A young Irish republican operating with the IRA in ‘the belly of the beast’ in England, Michael was captured in 1971 along with several other Volunteers and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.
A vivid description of the prison life for republicans is given by fellow POW Hugh Feeney, reprinted here from In the Care of Her Majesty’s Prison, published in 1976.
Ruán O’Donnell penned a short chapter on the history of the prison struggle at the time in England and in it he explains that Gaughan, Frank Stagg and Paul Holmes joined the hunger strike of the Belfast Ten: Gerry Kelly, Hugh Feeney and eight others.
In a very descriptive article, Gerry outlines the brutal method of force-feeding of POWs on hunger-strike overseen by the Prison’s Dr Brian Cooper. It involved forcing tubes up the nose to make a victim dry retch, then inserting a wooden clamp with a hole in it through which another tube was forced down the throat and then a ‘food’ was  poured into the stomach. Michael was killed when his lung was punctured and food poured into it.

Ella O’Dwyer’s interview with fellow IRA Volunteer Danny McElduff, who recruited Michael into the IRA, brings new information to light about the young Mayo man.
He remembers him as a cheerful, laughing man but a very serious-minded republican who wanted to go the full hog at things. He recounts their time together inside and outside the jail and is the highlight in this book.
Michael’s touching words, in letters to his mother while on his hunger strike, are very moving but show his determination to be recognised as a political prisoner and be moved with other IRA prisoners to prisons in the North where political status was recognised.

Of particular interest is the memories of the harrowing experience for Michael’s family, his mother Delia and sister Tina reprinted from The Irish News 15 years ago.
The surprise for Delia that Michael was an IRA Volunteer, her attempts to persuade him to reconsider his hunger strike, of her last visit and the painful memories of seeing him “like someone from a concentration camp”.
“He showed me his throat where it was sore from the force-feeding. It was red and raw and he had some teeth missing.”
The visit ended prematurely and 24-year-old Michael died two days later as a result of the brutal practice of force-feeding him for over two months.
Also included is an article by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, written two years later when Frank Stagg was again on hunger strike for the same reasons.
An article from a 1981 An Phoblacht  by Pat McGlynn about the death on hunger strike of the two Mayo men, Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg, highlight the different approaches of the prison regime and the Dublin Government to the men and their funerals.
Mícheál Mac Donncha’s article details Michael’s last journey home, from the piper Larry O’Dowd leading the cortege away from Newport jails to the massive turn-outs in London, Dublin and through the towns home to Ballina; how it was met along the way by literally hundreds of thousands in a show of solidarity with his family and with protesting republican POWs in England.
Though a short book, it provides a snapshot of the life of a republican legend. Definitely worth a read for young republicans who have no memory of the 1970s and the republican struggle. Hopefully, this timely book on the 35th anniversary of his killing calls out for the full biographical treatment of Michael’s life and death and a proper history of republicanism in the 26-County state and in Britain during the 1970s.
Well done to all involved. I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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