seamus dubhghaill

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


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Death of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich

tomas-o-fiaichRoman Catholic Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, the Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh and an ardent Irish nationalist, dies of cardiac arrest in a hospital at Toulouse, France at the age of 66 on May 8, 1990 after falling ill on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Lourdes is a Catholic shrine where a peasant girl reported a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1858. Miraculous cures have been reported there.

Ó Fiaich is born Thomas Fee on November 3, 1923 in Cullyhanna, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, within sight of the border with the Republic of Ireland. He changes his name to the Gaelic form as his love of the Irish language and nationalist sentiments develop.

An announcement of the death, issued by the church’s press office in both Belfast and Dublin, says Ó Fiaich had appeared unwell to doctors accompanying the group of 600 pilgrims from his seat at Armagh in Northern Ireland.

Ó Fiaich is admitted first to a hospital in Lourdes, then flown by helicopter to Toulouse. Philippe Giovanni, director of the Rangueil Hospital there, says the cardinal died of a brutal cardiac arrest soon after being admitted.

While calling for a unified Ireland and criticizing British policy in Northern Ireland, Ó Fiaich, whose name is pronounced O’Fee, also castigates the violence of the Irish Republican Army, the predominantly Catholic outlawed guerrilla army that seeks to end British rule in Northern Ireland and unite it with the Republic of Ireland.

Ó Fiaich is appointed spiritual leader of Ireland’s four million Catholics in in 1977. Two years later Pope John Paul II makes him one of the first cardinals of his papacy.

Tributes to Ó Fiaich poured in from some both sides of the Irish border. In Dublin, Taoiseach Charles Haughey says he is “devastated, … deeply grieved.” Britain’s top official in Northern Ireland, Secretary of State Peter Brooke, also expresses sadness. “We did not always agree about everything, but he treated me with the greatest possible courtesy, friendliness and warmth.”

However hardline Protestant leader Ian Paisley of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party says Ó Fiaich is “the mallet of Rome against the Protestants of Northern Ireland.” He claims Ó Fiaich had “made an outrageous statement that the majority of bigotry in Ulster stemmed from the Protestant section of the community” and added, “He did not seem to realize that the IRA, which is carrying out the most atrocious of outrages … were the people who needed to be indicted with bigotry.”

In Belfast, Ulster Television suspends scheduled programs for an hour and airs a religious program and a news program about the cardinal.

Ó Fiaich retains close ties to Armagh, which had been dubbed “bandit country” because of the IRA activity. From the time he becomes primate, he speaks publicly of his wishes for a united Ireland. He visits IRA guerrillas in jail, calls the British Army’s fatal shooting of an Irish civilian murder, and says the border dividing Ireland is “unnatural.”

Following his death, Ó Fiaich lies in state at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, where thousands of people line up to pay their respects.

(From: AP News, apnews.com, May 8, 1990)


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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.