seamus dubhghaill

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


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Death of Irish Hunger Striker Raymond McCreesh

Raymond McCreesh, volunteer in the South Armagh Brigade of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), dies on hunger strike at 2:11 AM on May 21, 1981 in the H Blocks of Long Kesh Prison. McCreesh is one of ten Irish republicans who died on hunger strike in Long Kesh Prison.

Raymond Peter McCreesh, the seventh in a family of eight children, is born in St. Malachy’s Park, Camlough, on February 25, 1957. He is born into a strong Irish republican family, and is active in the republican movement from the age of sixteen. He attends the local primary school in Camlough, St. Malachy’s, and later attends St. Colman’s College, Newry.

McCreesh first joins Fianna Éireann, the IRA’s youth wing, in 1973, and later that year he progresses to join the Provisional IRA South Armagh Brigade. He works for a short time as steelworker in a predominately Protestant factory in Lisburn. However, as sectarian threats and violence escalate, he switches professions to work as a milk roundsman in his local area of South Armagh, an occupation which greatly increases his knowledge of the surrounding countryside, as well as enables him to observe the movements of British Army patrols in the area.

On June 25, 1976, McCreesh and three other IRA volunteers attempt to ambush a British Army observation post in South Armagh. It lay opposite the Mountain House Inn, on the Newry–Newtonhamilton Road. As the armed, masked and uniformed IRA volunteers approached the observation post, they are spotted by British paratroopers on a hillside. The paratroopers open fire on the volunteers, who scatter. Two of them, McCreesh and Paddy Quinn, take cover in a nearby farmhouse. The paratroopers surround the house and fire a number of shots into the building. After some time, McCreesh and Quinn surrender and are taken to Bessbrook British Army base. Local Catholic priests facilitate their surrender. The third volunteer, Danny McGuinness, takes cover in a disused quarry outhouse but is captured the following day. The fourth member of the unit manages to escape despite being shot in the leg, arm and chest.

On March 2, 1977, McCreesh and Quinn are sentenced to fourteen years in prison for the attempted murder of British soldiers, possession of a rifle and ammunition, and a additional five years for IRA membership. The rifle that McCreesh has in his possession when captured is one of the rifles used in the Kingsmill massacre on January 5, 1976, when ten Protestant civilians are shot dead.

McCreesh is sent to the Maze Prison. He joins the blanket protest and takes part in the 1981 Irish hunger strike. He dies on 21 May, after 61 days on hunger strike.


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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 Sir Kenneth Percy Bloomfield in Belfast

Sir Kenneth Percy Bloomfield, former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service who is later a member of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains and for a time Northern Ireland Victims Commissioner, is born in Belfast on April 15, 1931. He has also held a variety of public sector posts in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

Bloomfield is born to English parents and grows up close to Neill’s Hill railway station. Between the years of 1943 and 1949, he attends the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and later goes on to read Modern History at St. Peter’s College, Oxford. On September 12, 1988, he and his wife are the targets of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) attack on their home in Crawfordsburn, County Down. Neither Bloomfield nor his wife are injured in the blast.

Having joined the Civil Service in 1952, Bloomfield is appointed Permanent Secretary to the power sharing executive in 1974. After the collapse of the executive, he goes on to become Permanent Secretary for the Department of the Environment and the Department of Economic Development, and finally Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service on December 1, 1984. In that capacity he is the most senior advisor to successive Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and other Ministers on a wide range of issues. He retires from the post in April 1991.

Since retiring from the Civil Service, Bloomfield has embarked on a life of involvement in a diverse range of organisations. He has taken up roles such as Chairman for the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission and his alma mater, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He has also been involved in the political reform of the States of Jersey and spearheaded the Association for Quality Education, which is fighting to retain academic selection in the Northern Ireland education system. In December 1997 he is asked by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, to become the Northern Ireland Victims Commissioner for a fixed term. His role is to produce a report on the way forward for Victims issues in Northern Ireland. His report entitled We Will Remember Them is published in April 1998. From 1991 to 1999 he serves as the BBC‘s National Governor for Northern Ireland.

Bloomfield receives a Knighthood in the 1987 Queen’s Birthday Honours and honorary doctorates from Queen’s University, Belfast, the Open University and the Ulster University. He is also a Member of the Royal Irish Academy.


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Birth of Northern Ireland Politician Gerry Fitt

Gerard Fitt, Northern Ireland politician, is born in Belfast on April 9, 1926. He is a founder and the first leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a social democratic and Irish nationalist party.

Fitt is educated at a local Christian Brothers school in Belfast. He joins the Merchant Navy in 1941 and serves on convoy duty during World War II. His elder brother Geordie, an Irish Guardsman, is killed at the Battle of Normandy.

Living in the nationalist Beechmount neighbourhood of the Falls, he stands for the Falls as a candidate for the Dock Labour Party in a city council by-election in 1956, but loses to Paddy Devlin of the Irish Labour Party, who later becomes his close ally. In 1958, he is elected to Belfast City Council as a member of the Irish Labour Party.

In 1962, he wins a seat in the Parliament of Northern Ireland from the Ulster Unionist Party, becoming the only Irish Labour member. Two years later, he left Irish Labour and joined with Harry Diamond, the sole Socialist Republican Party Stormont MP, to form the Republican Labour Party. At the 1966 general election, Fitt won the Belfast West seat in the Westminster parliament.

Many sympathetic British Members of Parliament (MPs) are present at a civil rights march in Derry on October 5, 1968 when Fitt and others are beaten by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Fitt also supports the 1969 candidacy of Bernadette Devlin in the Mid Ulster by-election who runs as an anti-abstentionist ‘Unity‘ candidate. Devlin’s success greatly increases the authority of Fitt in the eyes of many British commentators, particularly as it produces a second voice on the floor of the British House of Commons who challenge the Unionist viewpoint at a time when Harold Wilson and other British ministers are beginning to take notice.

In August 1970, Fitt becomes the first leader of a coalition of civil rights and nationalist leaders who create the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). By this time Northern Ireland is charging headlong towards near-civil war and the majority of unionists remain hostile.

After the collapse of Stormont in 1972 and the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973 Fitt becomes deputy chief executive of the short-lived Power-Sharing Executive created by the Sunningdale Agreement.

Fitt becomes increasingly detached from both his own party and also becomes more outspoken in his condemnation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. He becomes a target for republican sympathisers in 1976 when they attack his home. He becomes disillusioned with the handling of Northern Ireland by the British government. In 1979, he abstains from a crucial vote in the House of Commons which brings down the Labour government, citing the way that the government had failed to help the nationalist population and tried to form a deal with the Ulster Unionist Party.

In 1979, Fitt is replaced by John Hume as leader of the SDLP and he leaves the party altogether after he agrees to constitutional talks with British Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins without any provision for an ‘Irish dimension’ and then sees his decision overturned by the SDLP party conference. Like Paddy Devlin before him, he claims the SDLP has ceased to be a socialist force.

In 1981, he opposes the hunger strikes in the Maze prison in Belfast. His seat in Westminster is targeted by Sinn Féin as well as by the SDLP. In June 1983, he loses his seat in Belfast West to Gerry Adams, in part due to competition from an SDLP candidate. The following month, on October 14, 1983, he is created a UK life peer as Baron Fitt, of Bell’s Hill in County Down. His Belfast home is firebombed a month later and he moves to London.

Gerry Fitt dies in London on August 26, 2005, at the age of 79, after a long history of heart disease.


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Murder of PSNI Officer Ronan Kerr

Police Constable Ronan Kerr, a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer, is killed by a booby trap car bomb planted outside his home in Killyclogher near Omagh on April 2, 2011. Responsibility for the attack is later claimed by a dissident republican group claiming to be made of former members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

Kerr is Roman Catholic, a group which at the time constitutes approximately 30% of PSNI officers, and is 25 years old at the time of his death. He is a member of a Gaelic Athletic Association club, the Beragh Red Knights. The guard of honour at Kerr’s funeral is formed of club members and PSNI officers, a funeral also attended by the leaders of Ireland’s four main churches.

Kerr’s murder is condemned by almost all sections of Northern Irish politics and society as well as bringing international condemnation. On April 6, a Peace Rally is organised in Belfast by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which is reported to be attended by up to 7,000 persons. Similar events are held in Omagh, Enniskillen, and London.

BBC Ireland correspondent Mark Simpson comments, in relation to the unified response of the community, “A murder designed to divide people has actually brought them closer together.” Graffiti praising the murder is daubed on walls in predominantly republican areas of Derry.

On July 26, 2011 five men are arrested in connection with the investigation. They are later released. On November 26, 2012, investigating detectives announce the arrest of a 22-year-old man in Milton Keynes. On November 27, a 39-year-old man in County Tyrone is arrested and questioned. However, as of 2017 no persons have been charged with Constable Kerr’s murder.


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The Sallins Train Robbery

The Sallins Train robbery occurs on March 31, 1976 when the Cork to Dublin mail train is robbed near Sallins in County Kildare. Approximately £200,000 is stolen. Five members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, Osgur Breatnach, Nicky Kelly, Brian McNally, Mick Plunkett, and John Fitzpatrick, are arrested in connection with the robbery.

After the failure of the authorities to produce a “book of evidence” against them, the four are released but are immediately re-arrested. During interrogation in Garda Síochána custody, all except Plunkett sign alleged confessions, presenting with extensive bruising and injuries they claim are inflicted by members of the Gardaí.

While awaiting trial, Fitzpatrick jumps bail and leaves the country. The trial of McNally, Kelly, and Breatnach in the Special Criminal Court becomes the longest-running trial in Irish criminal history, at 65 days, before it collapses due to the death of one of the three judges, Judge John O’Connor of the Circuit Court.

Medical evidence of beatings is presented to the court, both during the initial trial and the second trial. The court rejects this evidence, finding that the beatings have been self-inflicted or inflicted by the co-accused. Anticipating a conviction, Kelly flees before the conclusion of the second trial. The three are found guilty, solely on the basis of their confessions, and sentenced to between nine and twelve years in prison. Kelly is sentenced in absentia.

In May 1980, Breatnach and McNally are acquitted on appeal on the grounds that their statements had been taken under duress. The same month, the Provisional Irish Republican Army claims responsibility for the robbery. Kelly returns to Ireland from the United States in June 1980, expecting to be acquitted. Instead he is incarcerated in the maximum-security Portlaoise Prison and spends the next four years proclaiming his innocence, including a 38-day period on hunger strike.

After a campaign by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International, and others and a song, Wicklow Boy, by the popular folk singer Christy Moore, Kelly is eventually released on “humanitarian grounds” in 1984. He is given a presidential pardon in 1992 and receives £1,000,000 in compensation. Breatnach and McNally are also given compensation.


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The La Mon Entertainment Complex Bombing

la-mon-bombingA Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) incendiary device explodes at the La Mon entertainment complex in Comber, County Down, on February 17, 1978, killing twelve people and injuring thirty others. The blast has been described as “one of the worst atrocities” of the Troubles.

Since the beginning of its campaign, the IRA has carried out numerous attacks on economic targets, killing many members of the public in the process. The IRA’s goal is to harm the economy and cause disruption, which will put pressure on the British government to withdraw from Northern Ireland.

On February 17, 1978, an IRA unit plants an incendiary device attached to petrol-filled canisters on meat hooks outside the window of the Peacock Room in the restaurant of the La Mon House Hotel. The IRA often give bomb warnings in advance of destroying property but never when targeting the police or military. After planting the bomb, the IRA members attempt to send a warning from the nearest public telephone, but find that it has been vandalised. On the way to another telephone they are delayed again when forced to stop at an Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) checkpoint. By the time they are able to send the warning, only nine minutes remain before the bomb detonates at 21:00. The blast creates a fireball, killing twelve people and injuring thirty more, many of whom are severely burned. Many of the injured are treated in the Ulster Hospital in nearby Dundonald. A 2012 news article claims that the IRA were targeting Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers they believed were meeting in the restaurant that night. The article claims that the IRA had gotten the wrong date and that the meeting of RUC officers had taken place exactly one week earlier.

The day after the explosion, the IRA admits responsibility and apologises for the inadequate warning. The hotel had allegedly been targeted by the IRA as part of its firebomb campaign against commercial targets. However, the resulting carnage brings quick condemnation from other Irish nationalists, with one popular newspaper comparing the attack to the 1971 McGurk’s Bar bombing. Sinn Féin president Ruairí Ó Brádaigh also strongly criticises the operation. In consequence of the botched attack, the IRA Army Council gives strict instructions to all units not to bomb buses, trains, or hotels.

A team of 100 RUC detectives is deployed in the investigation. As part of the investigation, 25 people are arrested in Belfast, including Gerry Adams. Adams is released from custody in July 1978. Two prosecutions follow. One Belfast man is charged with twelve murders but is acquitted. He is convicted of IRA membership but successfully appeals. In September 1981, another Belfast man, Robert Murphy, is given twelve life sentences for the manslaughter of those who died. Murphy is freed on licence in 1995. As part of their bid to catch the bombers, the RUC passes out leaflets which display a graphic photograph of a victim’s charred remains.

In 2012, a news article claims that two members of the IRA bombing team, including the getaway driver, are British double agents working for MI5. According to the article, one of the agents is Denis Donaldson. That year, Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) completes a report on the bombing. It reveals that important police documents, including interviews with IRA members, have been lost. A number of the victims’ families slam the report and call for a public inquiry. They claim the documents had been removed to protect certain IRA members. Unionist politician Jim Allister, who has been supporting the families, says, “There is a prevalent belief that someone involved was an agent and that is an issue around which we need clarity.”