18 February 2010 Edition
2010 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis: Ulster Le Chéile Honoree
John ‘Johnny Doc’ Doherty: A life of struggle
Despite being 86 years of age, Johnny ‘Doc’ Doherty is a man who doesn’t seem to have lost any of his intellectual sharpness or enthusiasm for life.
It is a life that he has spent in struggle, from his early teens to the present day.
And in his native Ballymacarrett in East Belfast it is clear that the name ‘Johnny Doc’ commands respect. Last week An Phoblacht’s PEADAR WHELAN travelled across the Bridge, to the Short Strand area of East Belfast, to interview Johnny in advance of the forthcoming Le Chéile gathering, at which he will be honoured for his commitment to the republican struggle down through the decades.
Johnny’s story in a lot of respects mirrors those of many northern republicans/nationalists/Catholics who were born into the partitioned Ireland of the 1920s.
Partition ensured that they were to exist in a state where they were at best tolerated and at worst repressed.
And the contradictions that were at the heart of Johnny’s life were similar to those of many people across the North.
“Did you come from a republican family?” I asked.
“No”, said Johnny emphatically, and he went on to explain that his father had been in the British army and fought in the trenches of France during the First World War.
“My mother was sympathetic”, he pointed out, using the time-honoured euphemism for republicanism.
So what was it like for the young Doherty growing up in Foundry Street off the staunchly loyalist Newtownards Road?
“Times were hard”, he stated matter-of-factly. “My father was put out of the shipyard and you hadn’t a boot on your foot.”
In the 1930s Johnny started, “to run with the lads” and he joined the republican scouting organisation Na Fianna around 1936/37.
At the age of 14 years and 10 months Johnny was arrested and served one month in the infamous ‘Crum’ (Crumlin Road Gaol), for membership of the republican scouts.
Life in the Crum was for Johnny a time for getting to meet other republicans from across the North and he fondly remembers Neil Gillespie from Derry, who taught the young Doherty to play chess.
He recalled how some of those in Belfast prison at that time were convicted for selling and wearing Easter lilies.
“Easter lilies were banned at the time, as was republican music”, he said. For us, the expressions of republicanism that we take for granted were issues around which republicans of Johnny’s day had to fight and organise.
After his release Johnny once again became involved in the struggle and with the outbreak of the Second World War and the re-emergence of the IRA Johnny was to end up on the inside of prison bars once more.
He was interned between 1941 and 1945 and was the youngest internee when he was incarcerated. This second term of imprisonment was in stark contrast to his first jail term. The Prison Authorities imposed a strict regime and the republican detainees were shown very little sympathy.
Johnny well remembers the execution of Volunteer Tom Williams, hanged on 2 September 1942, despite the pleas from many international, influential figures to have the sentence commuted.
“It was a terrible morning, the mood was really sad,” he recalled.
After the Williams execution the prison chaplain Fr McAllister campaigned for improved conditions for the prisoners.
As with republicans down through the ages, the thoughts of the men in the Crum were taken up with escape and one such escape was led by Gerry ‘The Bird’ Doherty from Derry. Five men, realising that a passageway between the prison and St. Malachy’s was unguarded at Noon each day, made through the alleyway and made good their escape to the then Free State.
No matter what the conditions, republican POWs always found a way to trump their gaolers.
On his release in 1945 Johnny met and married Margaret, with whom he had three children, John, Ann and Robert.
The years between 1945 and 1969 were, apart from Operation Harvest, or the Border Campaign as it was known, fallow years for republicans.
Johnny worked to put bread on the family table until the events of 1969 engulfed him once again.
Small isolated Catholic ghettoes such as the Short Strand were surrounded by vast loyalist districts and were under constant threat by both the state forces and their loyalist cohorts.
These areas were dependent on a resurgent IRA for defence and in those early years of the struggle Johnny used his contacts throughout the country in the search for the equipment needed for defence.
In his own modest way Johnny played down the importance of his efforts, describing it as being “active in an unofficial way”.
As the conflict intensified, particularly with the introduction of internment, Johnny’s eldest son John was taken and interned in Long Kesh.
His second son Robert would also be arrested in 1977 and sentenced to 18 years in the H Blocks.
It was while John was incarcerated in the Cages that Johnny was targeted by loyalist gunmen and seriously wounded. It was on ‘Pancake Tuesday’ 1972 that he was shot as he went to the bakery in Clyde Street for pancakes.
The story of his shooting is revealing in that Johnny was working for the electricity board at the time. He was also a union convenor and had to deal with the fact that one particular member of the union refused to pay his union dues to Johnny, because he was “a Taig”.
Johnny believes this man set him up and he later found out that loyalist publications described Johnny as “the father of an internee” in claiming responsibility for the attack.
Johnny spent up to four weeks in hospital and says that when the RUC arrived at his bedside they were only interested in some hijackings that had happened n the area and never once mentioned the attempt on his life.
Sadly for Johnny, his son John died from cancer after his release from internment. John had been there during the 1974 action in which republican prisoners burnt down the Long Kesh camp and would have been among the prisoners targeted with CR Gas used by the British army on the prisoners in retaliation.
A prisoners’ pressure group, Ceartais, is exploring the link between the numbers of prisoners who have died of cancer since their exposure to CR Gas.
The death of Margaret, just months before the couple celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, was another blow for Johnny.
“We had really hoped she would survive to see the 60th anniversary”, he recounted sadly.
Johnny told me he was really taken aback when he was nominated for the Le Chéile award, but as I talk to those republicans from the area that I know and respect it is clear they believe he is more than worthy of the accolade.
As a man of immense integrity, he was involved in mediation between republicans over the years. To fill that role he was trusted by all those he came into contact with.
That alone tells us of the stature of the man.
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
- This special edition which focuses on Irish Unity, features articles by Pearse Doherty, Dr Thomas Paul and Martina Anderson.
- Pearse sets out the argument for an United Ireland Economy whilst Pat Sheehan makes the case for a universally free all-island health service.
- Other articles include, ‘Ceist teanga in Éirinn Aontaithe’, ‘Getting to a new Ireland’ and ‘Ireland 1918-22: The people’s revolution’.