seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Hunger Striker Joe McDonnell

joe-mcdonnellJoseph (Joe) McDonnell, a volunteer in the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), dies on July 8, 1981 after 61 days on hunger strike during the 1981 Irish hunger strike.

McDonnell is born on Slate Street in the lower Falls Road of Belfast, Northern Ireland on September 14, 1951 as one of ten children. He attends a nearby Roman Catholic school. He marries Goretti in 1970 and moves into her sister’s house in Lenadoon. There are only two Catholic houses in this predominantly Ulster Protestant housing estate, and their house is attacked on numerous occasions.

McDonnell is arrested in Operation Demetrius and, along with Gerry Adams and others, is interned on the prison ship HMS Maidstone. He is later moved to HM Prison Maze in County Down for several months. Upon release, he joins the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade. He meets Bobby Sands during the preparation for a firebomb attack on the Balmoral Furnishing Company’s premises in Dunmurry. During the ensuing shoot-out between the IRA and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British Army, both men, along with Séamus Finucane and Seán Lavery, are arrested. McDonnell and the others are sentenced to 14 years in prison for possession of a firearm. None of the men accept the jurisdiction of the court.

McDonnell agrees with the goals of the Irish hunger strike, namely: the right not to wear a prison uniform; the right not to do prison work; the right of free association with other prisoners; the right to organise their own educational and recreational facilities and the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.

Although McDonnell is not involved in the first hunger strike in 1980, he joins Bobby Sands and the others in the second hunger strike the following year. During the strike he fights the general election in the Republic of Ireland, and only narrowly misses election in the Sligo–Leitrim constituency. He goes 61 days without food before dying on July 8, 1981. He has two children. His wife takes an active part in the campaign in support of the hunger strikers.

McDonnell is buried in the grave next to Bobby Sands at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast. John Joe McGirl, McDonnell’s election agent in Sligo–Leitrim, gives the oration at his funeral. Quoting Patrick Pearse, he states, “He may seem the fool who has given his all, by the wise men of the world; but it was the apparent fools who changed the course of Irish history.”

McDonnell is commemorated on the Irish Martyrs Memorial at Waverley Cemetery in Sydney, Australia and is also commemorated in The Wolfe Tones song, “Joe McDonnell.”


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Passage of the Special Powers Act 1922

special-powers-act-1922The Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922, often referred to simply as the Special Powers Act, is passed by the Parliament of Northern Ireland on April 7, 1922, shortly after the establishment of Northern Ireland, and in the context of violent conflict over the issue of the partition of Ireland. Its sweeping powers make it highly controversial, and it is seen by much of the Northern Irish nationalist community as a tool of Ulster unionist oppression. The Act is eventually repealed by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973, following the abolition of Northern Ireland’s parliament and the imposition of direct rule by the British government.

At the start of the twentieth century, the people of Ireland are divided into two mutually hostile factions. Nationalists, the much larger group, are mostly Roman Catholic, identify primarily as Irish, and want some form of Irish home rule or independence from Britain. Unionists, the smaller group, concentrates primarily in the province of Ulster, are mostly Protestant, identify primarily as British (although many see themselves as Irish and British), and are committed to remaining within the United Kingdom.

Partition is formally established with the Government of Ireland Act 1920. This also establishes the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which comes into being the following year. Partition is followed by high levels of inter-communal violence, especially in Belfast. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), although it spends most of these years fighting in the Irish Civil War, aims to use armed force to end partition and compel the United Kingdom to withdraw sovereignty from Northern Ireland.

The Act is presented as being necessary to re-establish peace and law and order in Northern Ireland, and enables the government to “take all such steps and issue all such orders as may be necessary for preserving the peace and maintaining order,” although it is specified that the ordinary course of law should be interfered with as little as possible. Because it is presented as emergency legislation, the Act is initially current only for one year and has to be renewed annually. In 1928, however, it is renewed for five years and when this period expires in 1933 the Act is made permanent.

Despite rhetoric accompanying the Act which asserts that it is for the purpose of restoring public order, its provisions continue to be used for the entire period of the Northern Irish parliament’s existence. Because the Ulster Unionist Party is the only party ever to form a government in this parliament, the Act is used “almost exclusively on the minority population.” Initially, regulations under the Act are used mostly to curb immediate violence and disorder. One of the most controversial of these is internment without trial.

After the troubles of the early 1920s dies down, the provision for internment is not used until the IRA’s Border Campaign of the 1950s, in which several hundred republicans are interned. Following the outbreak of The Troubles in 1968, many within the Protestant community call for the reintroduction of internment. This occurs in 1971 and authorises internment of those suspected to be involved in terrorism. Although there are loyalist as well as republican terrorists at this time, of the 1,981 men interned, only 107 are loyalists. Due to inadequate intelligence-gathering, many of the interned republicans are members of the Official Irish Republican Army rather than the recently formed Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which is much more heavily involved in terrorist activity at the time.

Internment ends in 1975, but is credited with increasing support and sympathy for the PIRA amongst the Catholic community and outside of Northern Ireland. It helps to create political tensions which culminate in the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike and the death of MP Bobby Sands. Imprisonment under anti-terrorism laws specific to Northern Ireland continue until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but these laws require the right to a fair trial be respected.


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The Glasdrumman Ambush

glasdrumman-ambush-ni-mapThe Glasdrumman ambush, an attack by the South Armagh Brigade of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) against a British Army observation post, takes place on July 17, 1981 at a scrapyard in Glasdrumman, County Armagh, southwest of Crossmaglen.

The crisis, triggered by the 1981 Irish hunger strike of Provisional IRA and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoners, leads to an increase in militant Irish republican activity in Northern Ireland. British intelligence reports unveil IRA intentions of mounting illegal checkpoints and hijacking vehicles on the IRA-controlled roads in South County Armagh, near the Irish border. To counter it, the British Army deploy the so-called COPs (close observation platoons), small infantry sections acting as undercover units, a tactic introduced by Major General Richard Trant in 1977.

On May 6, 1981, a day after the death of hunger-striker Bobby Sands, one IRA member from a three-man unit is arrested while trying to set up a roadblock east of the main Belfast-Dublin road by twelve members of the Royal Green Jackets, divided in three teams. A second volunteer crosses the border, only to be arrested by the Irish Army. The third IRA man escapes, apparently injured. A total of 689 rounds are fired by the soldiers.

After this initial success, the British Army continues these tactics. On July 16, another operation is carried out by eighteen Royal Green Jackets soldiers. That night, four concealed positions – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta – are inserted into the Glassdrumman area, around a scrapyard along the border. The plan is that another unit, called the triggering team, would ambush any IRA unit on sight, while the other four would block the expected escape routes. On July 17, the commanders in charge of Alpha and Delta teams, suspecting that the operation has been compromised by the presence of local civilians, orders the withdrawal of their men. Shortly thereafter, Bravo team is suddenly engaged by automatic fire from an M60 machine gun and AR-15 rifles fired by six or seven IRA members. The concealed position, emplaced inside a derelict van, is riddled by more than 250 bullets. The team’s leader, Lance Corporal Gavin Dean, is killed instantly and one of his men, Rifleman John Moore, is seriously wounded. Moore is later awarded the Military Medal. The IRA members fire their weapons from across the border, 160 yards away.

British army commanders conclude that “it was not worth risking the lives of soldiers to prevent an IRA roadblock being set up.” The incident also exposes the difficulties of concealing operations from local civilians in South Armagh, whose sympathy with the IRA is manifest. Several years later, the IRA would repeat its success against undercover observation posts in the course of Operation Conservation in 1990.


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Long Kesh Prison Hunger Strike Ends

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger strike is called off at Long Kesh prison – later known as HM Prison Maze –  on October 3, 1981. While the IRA does not win immediate concessions, in some ways it is a Pyrrhic victory for Margaret Thatcher’s government. It galvanises support and membership for the IRA and generates huge sympathy for the strikers in the United States where fund-raising is a major priority. The death of the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands, creates a martyr and an iconic figure.

In January 1981, prison authorities begin to supply the prisoners with officially issued civilian clothing, whereas the prisoners demand the right to wear their own clothing. On February 4, the prisoners issue a statement saying that the British government has failed to resolve the crisis and declares their intention of a hunger strike. The hunger strike begins on March 1, when Bobby Sands, the IRA’s former officer commanding (OC) in the prison, refuses food. Unlike the first hunger strike the previous year, the prisoners join one at a time and at staggered intervals, which they believe would arouse maximum public support and exert maximum pressure on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The republican movement initially struggles to generate public support for the second hunger strike. The Sunday before Sands begins his strike, 3,500 people march through west Belfast. During the first hunger strike four months earlier the marchers had numbered 10,000. Five days into the strike, Independent Republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Frank Maguire dies, resulting in a by-election. There is debate among nationalists and republicans regarding who should contest the election. After negotiations they agree not to split the nationalist vote by contesting the election and Sands stands as an Anti H-Block candidate against Ulster Unionist Party candidate Harry West. Following a high-profile campaign, the election takes place on April 9, and Sands is elected to the British House of Commons with 30,492 votes to West’s 29,046.

Sands’ election victory raises hopes that a settlement can be negotiated, but Thatcher stands firm in refusing to give concessions to the hunger strikers. The world’s media descends on Belfast, and several intermediaries visit Sands in an attempt to negotiate an end to the hunger strike, including Síle de Valera, granddaughter of Éamon de Valera, Pope John Paul II‘s personal envoy John Magee, and European Commission of Human Rights officials. With Sands close to death, the government’s position remains unchanged.

On 5 May, Sands dies in the prison hospital on the 66th day of his hunger strike, prompting rioting in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. More than 100,000 people line the route of his funeral, which is conducted with full IRA military honours. Margaret Thatcher shows no sympathy for his death.

In the two weeks following Sands’ death, hunger strikers Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara die. Following the deaths of Joe McDonnell and Martin Hurson, the families of some of the hunger strikers attend a meeting on July 28 with Catholic priest Father Denis Faul. The families express concern at the lack of a settlement to the priest, and a decision is made to meet with Gerry Adams later that day. The following day Adams holds a meeting with six of the hunger strikers to outline a proposed settlement on offer from the British government should the strike be brought to an end. The six men reject the settlement, believing that accepting anything less than the “Five Demands” would be a betrayal of the sacrifice made by Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers who had died.

The hunger strike begins to break on July 31, when the mother of Paddy Quinn insists on medical intervention to save his life. The following day Kevin Lynch dies, followed by Kieran Doherty on August 2, Thomas McElwee on August 8 and Michael Devine on August 20. On September 6, the family of Laurence McKeown becomes the fourth family to intervene and asks for medical treatment to save his life, and Cahal Daly issues a statement calling on republican prisoners to end the hunger strike.

The strike is called off at 3:15 PM on October 3, 1981. Three days later, James Prior, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announces partial concessions to the prisoners including the right to wear their own clothes at all times. The only one of the “Five Demands” still outstanding is the right not to do prison work. Following sabotage by the prisoners and the Maze Prison escape in 1983, the prison workshops are closed, effectively granting all of the “Five Demands” but without any formal recognition of political status from the government.

(Pictured: A Belfast mural of the Long Kesh hunger strikers)


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Bobby Sands Dies on Hunger Strike

Robert Gerard Sands, commonly known as Bobby Sands, Irish nationalist and member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, dies on hunger strike while imprisoned at Long Kesh Prison on May 5, 1981.

Born in Belfast on March 9, 1954, Sands is the oldest of four children born to John and Rosaleen Sands, and the couple’s first son. Sands grows up in Belfast under the cloud of nationalist and loyalist divisions. At an early age, Sands’s life is affected by the sharp divisions that shape Northern Ireland. At the age of ten, he is forced to move with his family out of their neighborhood due to repeated intimidation by loyalists.

“I was only a working-class boy from a Nationalist ghetto,” Sands later writes about his childhood. “But it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom.” Loyalist intimidation proves to be a theme throughout Sands’ life. At the age of 18, he is forced out of his job as an apprentice car builder. Not long afterwards, he and his family have to move again, as a result of political trouble.

The steady number of conflicts pushes Sands to join the Republican Movement in 1972. His ties to the movement soon capture the attention of the authorities, and later that year, he is arrested and charged with possessing firearms in his house. He spends the next three years of his life in prison. Upon his release, Sands immediately returns to the Republican Movement. He signs on as a community activist in Belfast’s rough Twinbrook area, quickly becoming a popular go-to person for a range of issues affecting the neighborhood.

In late 1976, authorities arrest Sands again, this time in connection with the bombing of a large furniture company and an ensuing gun battle. After weathering a brutal interrogation and then a court proceeding that offers up questionable evidence connecting Sands and three others to the attack, a judge sentences Sands to 14 years in prison at Long Kesh Prison, a facility used to house Republican prisoners from 1971 until 2000, located just outside of Belfast.

As a prisoner, Sands’s stature only grows. He pushes hard for prison reforms, confronting authorities, and for his outspoken ways he is frequently given solitary confinement sentences. Sands contention is that he and others like him, who are serving prison sentences, are actually prisoners of war, not criminals as the British government insists.

Beginning on March 1, 1981, Sands leads nine other Republican prisoners in the H Block section of the Maze prison on a hunger strike that lasts until death. Their demands range from allowing prisoners to wear their own clothes to permitting visits and mail, all of which are central in improving the inmates’ way of life.

Unable to move authorities to give in to his requests, and unwilling himself to end his hunger strike, Sands’s health begins to deteriorate. During the first seventeen days of the strike alone, he loses 16 pounds. A hero among his fellow nationalists, Sands is elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone while in prison. Sands becomes the youngest MP at the time. However he dies less than one month later without ever having taken his seat in the House of Commons.

Only days after slipping into a coma, on the morning of May 5, 1981, Sands dies from malnutrition due to starvation. He is 27 years old and has refused to eat for 66 days. He becomes so fragile over his final weeks that he spends his final days on a water bed to protect his deteriorating and fragile body. At time of his death, Sands is married to Geraldine Noade, with whom he has one son, Gerard.

The announcement of Sands’s death prompts several days of rioting in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Over 100,000 people line the route of Sands’s funeral. He is buried in the ‘New Republican Plot’ alongside 76 others. Their graves are maintained by the National Graves Association, Belfast.

While loyalists dismiss Sands’s death, others are quick to recognize its significance. Over the next seven months, nine other IRA supporters die on hunger strike. Eventually, the British government gives proper political recognition to the prisoners, many of them earning their release under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Bobby Sands’ final days are depicted in the 2008 Steve McQueen film Hunger, with actor Michael Fassbender portraying Sands.


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Birth of Irish Folk Singer Christy Moore

Christopher Andrew “Christy” Moore, Irish folk singer, songwriter, and guitarist, is born in Newbridge, County Kildare, on May 7, 1945.

After attending Newbridge College, Moore works as a bank employee and has a desire to express himself using traditional music. During a twelve-week bank strike in 1966, he goes to England, as do many striking officials, but he does not return when the strike is settled. Doing general labouring work, he frequents the folk clubs and the Irish music pubs where he meets Séamus Ennis, Margaret Barry, Luke Kelly, Martin Byrnes, and many other traditional musicians.

Moore’s first album, Paddy On The Road, a minor release of 500 copies, is recorded with Dominic Behan in 1969. In 1972, his first major release, Prosperous, brings him together with three musicians, Liam O’Flynn, Andy Irvine, and Dónal Lunny, who shortly thereafter form the Irish folk music band Planxty. For a short time they called themselves “CLAD,” an acronym of their names, but soon decide on Planxty.

After leaving Planxty in 1975, Moore continues his solo career, reforming his old band on occasion. He also forms the band Moving Hearts with Lunny and five other musicians in 1980. In 1987, he appears on Gay Byrne‘s The Late Late Show performing with The Dubliners for their 25th anniversary. In 2000, he publishes his autobiography, One Voice.

Moore’s earlier years of heavy drinking, sleeping dysfunctional hours, continual traveling, and often eating takeout foods results in a decline in health and several operations. Moore’s battle with alcohol and subsequent heart operations take their toll. At the end of the 1990s, Moore reduces his workload for medical reasons.

Moore releases his first new studio album in four years on April 17, 2009, entitled Listen, and promotes it through a series of live gigs. In December 2011, he releases the album Folk Tale. His most recent album, Where I Come From, is released in November 2013 and features a new protest song called Arthur’s Day. The album peaks at No. 3 on the Irish album charts.

Moore is best known for his political and social commentary which reflects a left-wing, Irish republican perspective, despite the fact that his mother was a Fine Gael county councillor and parliamentary candidate in Kildare. He supports the republican H-Block protestors with the albums H-Block in 1978, the launch of which is raided by the police, and The Spirit of Freedom. He also records songs by hunger striker Bobby Sands, including Back Home in Derry. Moore ceases support of the military activities of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1987 as a result of the Enniskillen bombing.

Political songs Moore has performed throughout his career include Mick Hanly’s On the Blanket about the protests of republican prisoners, Viva la Quinta Brigada about Irish volunteers who fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and Minds Locked Shut about Bloody Sunday in Derry.

In 2007, Moore is named Ireland’s greatest living musician in RTÉ‘s People of the Year Awards.


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The 1981 Irish Hunger Strike Begins

hunger_strike_memorialThe 1981 hunger strike begins on March 1, 1981, when Bobby Sands, a former commanding officer of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and prisoner at Long Kesh prison, refuses food. Other prisoners join the hunger strike one at a time at staggered intervals, which they believe will arouse maximum public support and exert maximum pressure on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The movement initially struggles to generate public support for the hunger strike. The Sunday before Sands begins his strike, only 3,500 people march through the streets of west Belfast as compared to 10,000 marchers during a previous hunger strike four months earlier.

Five days into the strike, however, Independent Republican Member of Parliament (MP) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Frank Maguire dies, resulting in a by-election. There is debate among nationalists and republicans regarding who should contest the election but they ultimately agreed not to split the nationalist vote by contesting the election and Sands stands as an Anti H-Block candidate against Ulster Unionist Party candidate Harry West. Following a high-profile campaign the election takes place on April 9, and Sands is elected to the British House of Commons with 30,492 votes to West’s 29,046.

Sands’ election victory raises hopes that a settlement can be negotiated, but Thatcher stands firm in refusing to give concessions to the hunger strikers. The world’s media descends on Belfast, and several intermediaries, including Síle de Valera, granddaughter of Éamon de Valera, Pope John Paul II‘s personal envoy John Magee, and European Commission of Human Rights officials, visit Sands in an attempt to negotiate an end to the hunger strike. With Sands close to death, the government’s position remains unchanged and they do not force medical treatment upon him.

On May 5, Sands dies in the prison hospital on day 66 of his hunger strike, prompting rioting in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Over 100,000 people line the route of his funeral, which is conducted with full IRA military honours. Margaret Thatcher showed no sympathy for his death.

In the two weeks following Sands’ death, three more hunger strikers die – Francis Hughes on May 12, and Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara on May 21. The deaths result in further rioting in Northern Ireland, particularly Derry and Belfast. Following the May 21 deaths, Primate of All Ireland Tomás Ó Fiaich criticises the British government’s handling of the hunger strike. Despite this, Thatcher still refuses to negotiate a settlement.

On July 28, following the deaths of Joe McDonnell (July 8) and Martin Hurson (July 13), the families of some of the hunger strikers attend a meeting with Catholic priest Father Denis Faul. The families express concern at the lack of a settlement and a decision is made to meet with Gerry Adams later that day. At the meeting Father Faul puts pressure on Adams to find a way of ending the strike, and Adams agrees to ask the IRA leadership to order the men to end the hunger strike. The following day Adams holds a meeting with six of the hunger strikers to outline a proposed settlement on offer from the British government should the strike be brought to an end. The strikers reject the settlement, believing that accepting anything less than their original demands will be a betrayal of the sacrifice made by Bobby Sands and the other men who had died.

On July 31, the hunger strike begins to break when the mother of Paddy Quinn insists on medical intervention to save his life. The following day Kevin Lynch dies, followed by Kieran Doherty on August 2, Thomas McElwee on August 8, and Michael Devine on August 20. On September 6, the family of Laurence McKeown becomes the fourth family to intervene and asks for medical treatment to save his life, and Cahal Daly issues a statement calling on republican prisoners to end the hunger strike.

A week later James Prior replaces Humphrey Atkins as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and meets with prisoners in an attempt to end the strike. Liam McCloskey ends his strike on September 26 after his family says they will ask for medical intervention if he becomes unconscious. It also becomes clear that the families of the remaining hunger strikers will also intervene to save their lives. The strike is called off at 3:15 PM on October 3. Three days later Secretary of State Prior announces partial concessions to the prisoners including the right to wear their own clothes at all times. The only one of their original five demands still outstanding is the right not to do prison work. Following sabotage by the prisoners and the Maze Prison escape in 1983, the prison workshops are closed, effectively granting all five of the demands but without any formal recognition of political status from the government.

Over the summer of 1981, ten hunger strikers die. Thirteen others begin refusing food but are taken off hunger strike, either due to medical reasons or after intervention by their families. Many of them still suffer from the effects of the strike, with problems including digestive, visual, physical and neurological disabilities.