seamus dubhghaill

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


Leave a comment

Death of 1981 Hunger Striker Thomas McElwee

Thomas McElwee, Irish republican volunteer in the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), dies on August 8, 1981 at the age of 23 after 62 days on hunger strike at Long Kesh Prison.

McElwee, the sixth of twelve children, is born on November 30, 1957, into the small, whitewashed home built by his father, along the Tamlaghtduff Road in Bellaghy, County Derry, Northern Ireland. He attended St. Mary’s primary in Bellaghy, and then Clady intermediate. After leaving school he goes to Magherafelt technical college for a while, but later changes his mind and goes to Ballymena training centre to begin an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic. Harassment from loyalist workers there forces him to leave and he then goes to work with a local mechanic.

McElwee and his cousin Francis Hughes form an independent Republican unit, which for several years carries out ambushes on British Army patrols as well as bomb attacks in neighbouring towns such as Magherafelt, Castledawson, and Maghera.

In October 1976, McElwee takes part in a planned bombing blitz on the town of Ballymena. Along with several colleagues, he is transporting one of the bombs, which explodes prematurely and blinds him in his right eye. He is transferred from the Ballymena hospital to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for emergency surgery to save his remaining eye. It is three weeks before he is able to see at all.

After six weeks McElwee is transferred again, this time to the military wing of the Musgrave Park Hospital. One week before Christmas, he is charged and sent to Crumlin Road Gaol.

At McElwee’s subsequent trial in September 1977, having spent over eight months on remand in Crumlin Road, he is charged and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for possession of explosives and the murder of Yvonne Dunlop, who is killed when one of the firebombs destroys the shop where she is employed. His murder charge is reduced to manslaughter on appeal, although the original jail term stands. He returns to the blanket protest he had joined immediately after his trial, in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh.

Imprisonment is particularly harsh for McElwee and his brother Benedict who are frequently singled out for brutality by prison warders, outraged at the stubborn refusal of the two to accept any form of criminal status. On one occasion he is put on the boards for fourteen days for refusing to call a prison warder ‘sir.’ In a letter smuggled out to his sister Mary, Benedict writes of the imprint of a warder’s boot on his back and arms after a typical assault. However, throughout the brutality and degradation they have to endure serves only to deepen yet further, and harder, their resistance to criminalisation.

McElwee joins the 1981 Irish hunger strike on June 7, 1981 and died on August 8, 1981, after 62 days on the strike. Indicative of the callousness of the British government towards prisoners and their families alike, he is denied the comfort of his brother’s presence at that tragic moment. He dies after 62 days of slow agonising hunger strike with no company other than prison warders – colleagues of those who had brutalised, degraded and tortured him for three-and-a-half years.

In 2009, Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) name their Waterford cumann after McElwee, replacing that of George Lennon, O/C of the Waterford Flying Column who led the IRA anti-Treaty Republicans into Waterford City in March 1922. The Waterford RSF had adopted the Lennon name without the permission of his son who noted that his father had, in later years, become a committed pacifist and opponent of the Vietnam War.

McElwee is the main subject of the song Farewell to Bellaghy, which also mentions his cousin Francis Hughes, other members of the independent Republican unit and deceased volunteers of the South Derry Brigade of the Provisional IRA. He is also the subject of The Crucifucks‘ song The Story of Thomas McElwee.


Leave a comment

The Milltown Cemetery Attack

The Milltown Cemetery attack takes place on March 16, 1988 at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland. During the large funeral of three Provisional Irish Republican Army members killed in Gibraltar, an Ulster Defence Association (UDA) member, Michael Stone, attacks the mourners with hand grenades and pistols.

On March 6, 1988, Provisional IRA members Daniel McCann, Seán Savage and Mairéad Farrell are shot dead by the Special Air Service (SAS) in Gibraltar, in Operation Flavius. The three had allegedly been preparing a bomb attack on British military personnel there, but the deaths outrage republicans as the three were unarmed and shot without warning. Their bodies arrive in Belfast on March 14 and are taken to their family homes. Tensions are high as the security forces flood the neighbourhoods where they had lived, to try to prevent public displays honouring the dead. For years, republicans have complained about heavy-handed policing of IRA funerals, which have led to violence. In a change from normal procedure, the security forces agree to stay away from the funeral in exchange for guarantees that there will be no three-volley salute by IRA gunmen. The British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) will instead keep watch from the sidelines. This decision is not made public.

Michael Stone is a loyalist, a member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) who had been involved in several killings and other attacks, and who describes himself as a “freelance loyalist paramilitary.” He learns that there will be little security force presence at the funerals, and plans “to take out the Sinn Féin and IRA leadership at the graveside.” He says his attack is retaliation for the Remembrance Day bombing four months earlier, when eleven Protestants had been killed by an IRA bomb at a Remembrance Sunday ceremony. He claims that he and other UDA members considered planting bombs in the graveyard, but abandon the plan because the bombs might miss the republican leaders.

The funeral service and Requiem Mass go ahead as planned, and the cortege makes its way to Milltown Cemetery, off the Falls Road. Present are thousands of mourners and top members of the IRA and Sinn Féin, including Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Two RUC helicopters hover overhead. Stone claims that he entered the graveyard through the front gate with the mourners and mingled with the large crowd, although one witness claims to have seen him enter from the M1 motorway with three other people.

As the third coffin is about to be lowered into the ground, Stone throws two grenades, which have a seven-second delay, toward the republican plot and begins shooting. The first grenade explodes near the crowd and about 20 yards from the grave. There is panic and confusion, and people dive for cover behind gravestones. Stone begins jogging toward the motorway, several hundred yards away, chased by dozens of men and youths. He periodically stops to shoot and throw grenades at his pursuers.

Three people are killed while pursuing Stone – Catholic civilians Thomas McErlean (20) and John Murray (26), and IRA member Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh (30), also known as Kevin Brady. During the attack, about 60 people are wounded by bullets, grenade shrapnel and fragments of marble and stone from gravestones. Among those wounded is a pregnant mother of four, a 72-year-old grandmother and a ten-year-old boy. Some fellow loyalists say that Stone made the mistake of throwing his grenades too soon. The death toll would likely have been much higher had the grenades exploded in mid-air, “raining lethal shrapnel over a wide area.”

A white van that had been parked on the hard shoulder of the motorway suddenly drives off as Stone flees from the angry crowd. There is speculation that the van is part of the attack, but the RUC says it was part of a police patrol, and that the officers sped off because they feared for their lives. Stone says he had arranged for a getaway car, driven by a UDA member, to pick him up on the hard shoulder of the motorway, but the driver allegedly “panicked and left.” By the time he reaches the motorway, he has seemingly run out of ammunition. He runs out onto the road and tries to stop cars, but is caught by the crowd, beaten, and bundled into a hijacked vehicle. Armed RUC officers in Land Rovers quickly arrive, “almost certainly saving his life.” They arrest him and take him to Musgrave Park Hospital for treatment of his injuries. The whole event is recorded by television news cameras.

That evening, angry youths in republican districts burn hijacked vehicles and attack the RUC. Immediately after the attack, the two main loyalist paramilitary groups—the UDA and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)—deny responsibility. Sinn Féin and others “claimed that there must have been collusion with the security forces, because only a small number of people knew in advance of the reduced police presence at the funerals.”

Three days later, during the funeral of one of Stone’s victims, Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh, two British Army corporals, Derek Wood and David Howes, in civilian clothes and in a civilian car drive into the path of the funeral cortège, apparently by mistake. Many of those present believe the soldiers are loyalists intent on repeating Stone’s attack. An angry crowd surrounds and attacks their car. Corporal Wood draws his service pistol and fires a shot into the air. The two men are then dragged from the car before being taken away, beaten and shot dead by the IRA. The incident is often referred to as the corporals killings and, like the attack at Milltown, much of it is filmed by television news cameras.

In March 1989, Stone is convicted for the three murders at Milltown, for three paramilitary murders before, and for other offences, receiving sentences totaling 682 years. Many hardline loyalists see him as a hero and he becomes a loyalist icon. After his conviction, an issue of the UDA magazine Ulster is devoted to Stone, stating that he “stood bravely in the middle of rebel scum and let them have it.” Apart from time on remand spent in Crumlin Road Gaol, he spends all of his sentence in HM Prison Maze. He is released after serving 13 years as a result of the Good Friday Agreement.

In November 2006, Stone is charged with attempted murder of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, having been arrested attempting to enter the Parliament Buildings at Stormont while armed. He is subsequently convicted and sentenced to a further 16 years imprisonment. He is released on parole in 2021.


Leave a comment

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey Assassination Attempt

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, Northern Ireland civil rights campaigner and former Westminster Member of Parliament (MP), is shot by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a cover name of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), who burst into her home at Coalisland, County Tyrone on January 16, 1981. She survives the assassination attempt.

The three men shoot McAliskey nine times in the chest, arm and thigh as she goes to wake up one of her three children. Her husband, Michael, is also shot twice at point blank range. British soldiers are watching the McAliskey home at the time, but fail to prevent the assassination attempt. It is claimed that Devlin’s assassination was ordered by British authorities and that collusion was a factor. An army patrol of the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment enter the house and wait for half an hour. McAliskey claims they are waiting for the couple to die.

Another group of soldiers then arrive and transport them by helicopter to a nearby Dungannon hospital for emergency treatment and then to the Musgrave Park Hospital, Military Wing, in Belfast, under intensive care. Their condition is initially said to be serious, but not life-threatening.

The attackers, Ray Smallwoods, Tom Graham, both from Lisburn, and Andrew Watson from Seymour Hill, Dunmurry, are captured by members of the Parachute Regiment, who are on patrol nearby when they hear the shots and are taken in for questioning by the police and subsequently jailed. All three are members of the South Belfast UDA. Smallwoods is the driver of the getaway car. Police say it is a professional attack. The gunmen cut the telephone wires to the house before breaking down the front door with a sledgehammer.

McAliskey had played a leading role in the campaign for Republican prisoners in the HM Prison Maze, who are demanding “prisoner of war” or political status. They want to be held separately from loyalist supporters in the Maze. Four other members of the campaign for the H-block inmates have been murdered.

Seven Maze prisoners went on hunger strike before Christmas in support of their demands for political status. The strike is called off on December 12 after Taoiseach Charles Haughey convinces the inmates their families want them to start eating again.


Leave a comment

Bernadette Devlin Elected MP for Mid Ulster Constituency

Bernadette Devlin, Irish socialist and republican political activist, is elected Member of Parliament (MP) for the Mid Ulster constituency on April 17, 1969, standing as the Independent Unity candidate.

Devlin is born in Cookstown, County Tyrone to a Roman Catholic family and attends St. Patrick’s Girls Academy in Dungannon. She is studying Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast in 1968 when she takes a prominent role in a student-led civil rights organisation, People’s Democracy. Devlin is subsequently excluded from the university.

She stands unsuccessfully against James Chichester-Clark in the Northern Ireland general election of 1969. When George Forrest, the MP for Mid Ulster, dies, she fights the subsequent by-election on the “Unity” ticket, defeating Forrest’s widow Anna, the Ulster Unionist Party candidate, and is elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. At age 21, she is the youngest MP at the time, and remains the youngest woman ever elected to Westminster until the May 2015 general election when 20-year-old Mhairi Black succeeds to the title.

After engaging, on the side of the residents, in the Battle of the Bogside, she is convicted of incitement to riot in December 1969, for which she serves a short jail term.

Having witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday, Devlin is infuriated that she is consistently denied the floor in the House of Commons by the Speaker Selwyn Lloyd, despite the fact that parliamentary convention decrees that any MP witnessing an incident under discussion would be granted an opportunity to speak about it. Devlin slaps Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary in the Conservative government, across the face when he states in the House of Commons that the paratroopers had fired in self-defence on Bloody Sunday.

Devlin helps to form the Irish Republican Socialist Party, a revolutionary socialist breakaway from Official Sinn Féin, with Seamus Costello in 1974. She serves on the party’s national executive in 1975, but resigns when a proposal that the Irish National Liberation Army become subordinate to the party executive is defeated. In 1977, she joins the Independent Socialist Party, but it disbands the following year.

Devlin stands as an independent candidate in support of the prisoners at Long Kesh prison in the 1979 European Parliament elections in Northern Ireland and wins 5.9% of the vote. She is a leading spokesperson for the Smash H-Block Campaign, which supports the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981.

On January 16, 1981, Devlin and her husband, Michael McAliskey, are shot by members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), who break into their home near Coalisland, County Tyrone. Devlin is shot fourteen times in front of her children. British soldiers are watching the McAliskey home at the time, but fail to prevent the assassination attempt. The couple are taken by helicopter to a hospital in nearby Dungannon for emergency treatment and then transported to the Musgrave Park Hospital, Military Wing, in Belfast, under intensive care. The attackers, all three members of the South Belfast UDA, are captured by the army patrol and subsequently jailed.

In 1982, she twice fails in an attempt to be elected to the Dublin North–Central constituency of Dáil Éireann. In 2003, she is barred from entering the United States and is deported on the grounds that the United States Department of State has declared that she “poses a serious threat to the security of the United States,” apparently referring to her conviction for incitement to riot in 1969.

On May 12, 2007, she is the guest speaker at éirígí‘s first Annual James Connolly commemoration in Arbour Hill, Dublin. She currently co-ordinates a not-for-profit community development organisation based in Dungannon, the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme, and works with migrant workers to improve their treatment in Northern Ireland.