Gaughan, the eldest of six children, is born in Ballina, County Mayo, on October 5, 1949. He grows up at Healy Terrace and is educated at St. Muredach’s College, Ballina. After finishing his schooling, he emigrates from Ireland to England in search of work.
While in London, Gaughan becomes a member of the Official Irish Republican Army through Official Sinn Féin‘s English wing Clann na hÉireann and becomes an IRA volunteer in a London-based Active Service Unit. In December 1971, he is sentenced at the Old Bailey to seven years imprisonment for his part in an IRA fundraising mission to rob a bank in Hornsey, north London, which yields just £530, and for the possession of two revolvers.
Gaughan is initially imprisoned at Wormwood Scrubs, where he spends two years before being transferred to the top security HM Prison Albany on the Isle of Wight. While at Albany Prison, he requests political status, which is refused, and he is then placed in solitary confinement. He is later transferred to Parkhurst Prison, where four of the Belfast Ten are on hunger strike for political status.
On March 31, 1974, Gaughan, along with current Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly, Paul Holme, Hugh Feeney and fellow Mayoman Frank Stagg, go on hunger strike to support the fight of Dolours and Marion Price to obtain political status and to be transferred to a jail in Ireland. The prisoners demands are as follows:
- The right to political status
- The right to wear their own clothes
- A guarantee that they would not be returned to solitary confinement
- The right to educational facilities and not engage in penal labour
- The setting of a reasonable date for a transfer to an Irish prison
British policy at this time is to force-feed hunger strikers. According to the National Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee, “six to eight guards would restrain the prisoner and drag him or her by the hair to the top of the bed, where they would stretch the prisoner’s neck over the metal rail, force a block between his or her teeth and then pass a feeding tube, which extended down the throat, through a hole in the block.”
After visiting Gaughan in jail, his brother John describes his condition, “His throat had been badly cut by force feeding and his teeth loosened. His eyes were sunken, his cheeks hollow and his mouth was gaping open. He weighed about six stone.”
During his hunger strike, Gaughan’s weight drops from 160 lbs. to 84 lbs. He is force-fed for the first time on April 22 and this occurs 17 times during course of his hunger strike. The last time he is force-fed is the night before his death. After a hunger strike that lasts 64 days, Michael Gaughan dies on Monday, June 3, 1974, at the age of 24.
The cause of Gaughan’s death is disputed. The British government states that he died of pneumonia. The Gaughan family state that he died after prison doctors injured him fatally when food lodged in a lung punctured by a force-feeding tube. His death causes controversy in English medical circles, as some forms of treatment can be classed as assault if given without the express permission of the patient.
The timing of Gaughan’s death comes just one week after the British Government had capitulated to the demands of Ulster loyalist hunger strikers. After his death, the British government’s policy of force-feeding ends and the remaining hunger strikers are given assurances that they will be repatriated to Irish prisons. However, these promises are reneged on by the British government.
Gaughan’s body is initially removed from London and on June 7-8 over 3,000 mourners line the streets of Kilburn and march behind his coffin, which is flanked by an IRA honour guard, to a Requiem Mass held in the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Following the Requiem Mass, his body is transported to Dublin, where again it is met by mourners and another IRA honour guard who bring it to the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Merchant’s Quay, where thousands file past as it lay in state. The following day, his body is removed to Ballina, County Mayo. A funeral mass takes place on June 9, at St. Muredach’s Cathedral, and the procession then leads to Leigue Cemetery. Gaughan is given a full IRA funeral and is laid to rest in the republican plot, where Frank Stagg would join him after being reburied in November 1976. His funeral is attended by over 50,000 people and is larger than the funeral of former president Éamon de Valera the following year.