The Fourth Hunger Striker
“After we are gone, what will you say you were doing? Will you say that you were with us in our struggle or were you conforming to the very system that drove us to our deaths?”
Patsy O’Hara was born 11 July, 1957 on Bishop Street in Derry City. His parents were Peggy (née McCluskey) and James. He had two older brothers; Seán Seamus and Tony, and a younger sister Elizabeth. His family lived above a small pub and grocery shop which his parents inherited from Peggy’s uncle. Her father James McCluskey had served in the IRA during the Irish War of Independence in the 1920’s.
Patsy was short and stout until the age of 12, when he suddenly shot up to six feet, two inches. He was a mischievous child who enjoyed playing jokes. He was always courageous. His father said of him: “No matter who got into trouble in the street outside, Patsy was the boy to go out and do all the fighting for him. He was the fighting man about the area and didn’t care how big they were. He would tackle them. I even saw him fighting men, and in no way could they stop him. He would keep at them. He was like a wee bull terrier!”
Patsy’s older brother Seán Seamus had joined the Derry Housing Action Committee around 1967, which involved attending protests. Their mother Peggy wasn’t pleased about this at first. She then started attending these along with him out of concern, then eventually out of support. There was a civil rights movement very much influenced by that led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the USA gaining momentum in the North of Ireland, and especially in Derry.
The people of Derry, who were mostly catholic, like the O’Haras, had suffered systematic discrimination in housing and employment although they were actually in the majority in Derry City. This was the result of gerrymandering, or creative drawing of districts to produce a controlled result. This was also because until 1969, voting in local council elections had requirements that denied votes to some while granting multiple votes to others. This invariably ran along sectarian lines and favoured Unionists. A setup which made the Catholic and nationalist people feel that the system was stacked against them. It also made many people in Derry see socialism as the solution to problems rooted in economic and political inequality.
Derry is one of the six counties which were partitioned from the rest of Ireland by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 which ended The Irish War of Independence. It became part of the new state known as Northern Ireland along with counties Antrim, Down, Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone.
The state of Northern Ireland was governed by the Parliament at Stormont, called a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people” by Sir James Craig, one of its founders. The rights of the large minority of catholics and nationalists who lived within the state were not a consideration. Many loyalists viewed the catholic community with suspicion, fear, and hatred. The catholics in the North of Ireland suffered discrimination in housing and employment. They also they suffered brutal repression by the notoriously sectarian police force, the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and the infamous B-Specials, police reservists who were well-armed, but not well disciplined.
In 1968, at the age of 11, Patsy was to witness this brutality first hand. Peggy, Sean Seamus, Tony and Patsy attended a peaceful march in Derry on 5 October, 1968 at the Waterside station. The peaceful march for Civil Rights for was viciously attacked by the RUC and B-Specials with batons and fire hoses causing over 30 injuries as they watched. That incident in particular is cited by many as the beginning of the conflict in the North of Ireland as television images were widely seen.
Patsy described what he saw: “The people were sandwiched in another street and with the Specials coming from both sides, swinging their truncheons at anything that moved. It was a terrifying experience and one which I shall always remember.”
The year of 1969 saw civil rights marchers attacked at Burntollet bridge outside Derry city, where a loyalist mob of 300 who attacked the marchers included 100 off-duty B-Specials. The peaceful marchers were beaten with pipes and cudgels with nails driven through them. The RUC did nothing to stop them while arresting peaceful protesters.
The summer of 1969 saw week-long sectarian riots in Derry, known as the Battle of the Bogside, which was provoked by loyalist parade marchers in mid-August. The O’Hara’s home, always open to their friends, was now open to volunteers who had come from all over Ireland to assist the people of Derry as they fought off incursion/invasion of their homes by the RUC.
The same week, the Falls Road catholic ghetto in Belfast was invaded by loyalist mobs from the neighbouring Shankill Road escorted in by the police. The B-Specials fired indiscriminately, killing innocent civilians, including a 9 year old boy asleep in bed. Since the police were seen as exacerbating the situation, rather than diffusing it, British troops were sent in to keep order throughout the North of Ireland.
Patsy was very aware of what was happening in his city and in his country from what he had seen and experienced. He developed a strong socialist, nationalist and republican ideology. His father James observed: “Every day he saw something different happening, people getting beaten up, raids and coffins coming out. This was his environment.” He joined Na Fianna Éireann in 1970, a Republican youth organisation. In early 1971, still only 13, he joined the Pádraig Pearse Sinn Féin Cumann in the Bogside area, selling Easter Lilies (a Republican symbol commemorating Ireland’s Patriot dead) and newspapers.
In August of 1971, Brian Faulkner, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, introduced Internment-imprisonment without trial. On the morning of 9 August, 342 men in the Catholic and nationalist community across the north of Ireland were arrested and held without charge or trial. This was part of Operation Demetrius carried out by the British Army. They worked often from outdated lists, which is why many of the men arrested had no current involvement. Many convictions were obtained by torture, thus many innocents were imprisoned for years. The policy would remain in place until 1975.
In October 1971, Patsy’s brother Seán Seamus was arrested and interned in Long Kesh. He would be interned there for several years. Shortly after Seán’s Seamus’ arrest, Patsy was shot and wounded in the leg by a British soldier after coming out of a friend’s house in Southway. The Army said it was crossfire. He was fourteen at the time. He spent several weeks in Altnaglevin hospital and several more weeks on crutches.
Because of his wound, Patsy did not attend the anti-internment/civil rights march of Sunday, 30 January, 1972 in Derry City. He went with his father to watch the march as it wound its way down from the Creggan. Patsy remembered: “I struggled across a banking but was unable to go any further. I watched the march go up into the Brandywell. I could see that it was massive. The rest of my friends went to meet it but I could only go back to my mother’s house and listen to it on the radio.” Ironically, as it turned out, a British bullet kept him out of harm’s way on that day.
The peaceful marchers were fired upon by British soldiers, killing 14 and wounding another 14 unarmed protesters, and became known as “Bloody Sunday”. The soldiers claimed they acted in self defence; although no soldiers were injured and none of the dead and wounded were armed. Many of the dead were shot in the back as they ran or were shot as they tended the wounded. It had a deep effect on Patsy as it did many young men across the country, but it was different for him. It literally hit close to home.
The inevitable result of Bloody Sunday was the escalation of the conflict. What had been a non-violent movement now became an armed struggle as innocent people were being murdered by the forces of the state. Patsy’s father said: “I knew he would get involved. It was in his nature. He hated bullies all his life, and he saw big bullies in uniform and he would tackle them as well”
There was certainly no shortage of bullies in uniform for him to fight. Shortly after Bloody Sunday, he joined the Republican Clubs. From that time, he was continually harassed, assaulted, arrested and interrogated. He describes being arrested by the British Army in the summer of 1974 with a friend on the Briemoor Road: We were thrown onto the floor and as they were bringing us to the arrest centre, we were given a beating with their batons and rifles. When we arrived and were getting out of the vehicles we were tripped and fell on our faces”.
In October 1974, he was taken to Ballykelly interrogation Center. He was interrogated for three days. His face was burned with cigarettes. He grew a beard to cover the scars. Then he was taken to be interned in Long Kesh. Patsy describes his arrival: “Long Kesh had been burned the week previously, and as we flew above the camp in a British army helicopter we could see the complete devastation. When we arrived, we were given two blankets and mattresses and put into one of the cages. For the next two months we were on a starvation diet, no facilities of any kind, and most men lying out open to the elements”. Upon his release in April 1975, he joined the INLA as did his brother Tony.
The IRSP (Irish Republican Socialist Party), and its paramilitary wing, the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) were formed in December 1974 by former members of the Official IRA who were opposed to that organisation’s ceasefire from May 1972. The founding leader of the IRSP/INLA (together known as the IRSM-Irish Republican Socialist Movement); was Seamus Costello, who advocated a combination of socialist politics on economic issues and traditional physical force Irish republicanism. Costello was a veteran of the IRA border campaign of the 50’s.
The largest and dominant Republican paramilitary organisation was the Provisional IRA.
The Provisionals had split from the Official IRA themselves in 1969. The Officials had become much more left-wing with a decidedly Marxist philosophy who prioritised uniting the workers over taking up arms in defence. Eventually the Officials renounced violence and became The Workers Party. The Provisional IRA was formed by those who advocated armed struggle as being necessary. The members of the rival organisations called each other nicknames based on their commemorative Easter Lilies, such as Patsy sold as a kid. Officials used adhesive, so were called “Stickies”, Provisionals used pins and so were called “Pinnies” or “Pinheads”.
The INLA had feuds with the Officials since its turbulent founding. There were also tensions with the “Provos” who didn’t want rivals for recruitment. Some Provisionals, like Tony had defected after that organisation’s extended ceasefire in 1975 to join the INLA, who shared the Marxist ideology of the Officials. The Officials, and later the INLA had a strong presence in Derry, where their socialist rhetoric struck a nerve with the young people who had seen so much economic injustice.
Patsy was free for only two months when he was arrested at an army border checkpoint on the Letterkenny Road in June 1975. He was driving his father’s car from Buncrana, Co. Donegal when a stick of gelignite was found. He swore it was not his. He was charged with possession of explosives. He was released after six months on remand amid suspicions that the explosives were planted, as Patsy had claimed.
Patsy was “on the run” or in hiding for much of the year 1976 for fear of arrest. One night his brother Seán Seamus had come home in the dark, and fell on the floor as he went to sit on the couch. He realised too late it was missing. Unknown to him, Patsy had taken the couch to his hideout and returned it in the morning before a puzzled Seán Seamus awoke to see it mysteriously reappear.
In September 1976, Patsy was arrested again and held once more on remand for four months for weapons possession. He was released as the charges were dropped before he came to trial. In Patsy’s case in particular, this can be seen as a tool of government harassment and imprisonment at will.
Also in 1976, Patsy’s brother Tony was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 5 years for having participated in an armed robbery. He always maintained his innocence. He was convicted on hearsay evidence by a “Diplock Court” with one judge and no jury. Tony’s experiences of imprisonment, brought about by a drastic change in government policy would later also directly affect Patsy.
On 1 March, 1976, new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees announced that anyone convicted of a scheduled offence after March 1976 would be treated as an ordinary criminal and would have to wear a prison uniform, do prison work and serve their sentence in the H-blocks of the new Maze Prison, which replaced the Nissan hut Cages of Long Kesh. This coincided with the phasing out of Internment. The intent was to erase the distinction between political prisoners and ordinary criminals, despite the fact that they had set up a special court system for political offences.
This was part of a British Government policy of criminalisation. The aim was not only to break the will of the prisoners, but to label the republican movement itself as a criminal conspiracy, without popular support. The republican prisoners saw themselves as prisoners of war. As such, the command structure of the paramilitary organisations were preserved, morale made imprisonment more bearable and the prisoners were treated relatively decently. With the revocation of Special Category Status, that all changed.
On 14 September, 1976, Kieran Nugent became the first prisoner sentenced after the revocation of special status. When he arrived at The Maze, he was asked his size for a prison uniform, he refused to wear it, and told them they would have to nail it to his back. Since he was forbidden to wear any other clothing, Nugent went naked, wrapping himself in a blanket. Thus, the Blanket Protest was born, and by 1978, 300 Republican prisoners were refusing to wear prison uniforms, for which they were confined to their cells and lost the right to fifty percent remission of their sentences for good behaviour. Patsy’s brother Tony, arriving at Long Kesh not long after Nugent, immediately joined the protest and went “on the blanket”.
Patsy went to live down in Dublin for a time, but he seemed no less active, nor apparently was he any more popular with the authorities than in Derry. In 1977, he was elected to the Ard Comhairle (Executive Committee) of the IRSP. He also helped to publish The Starry Plough newspaper of the IRSP. He was an intelligent, literate and articulate socialist revolutionary. Within the organisation, he stressed discipline, regulation and dedication.
In June 1977, Patsy was arrested on charges of holding a Garda (Republic of Ireland police officer) at gunpoint. He was released on bail six weeks later. While out on bail, he served as commander of the guard of honour for the funeral for INLA leader Seamus Costello. Costello had been assassinated in Dublin on 6 October 1977, allegedly by the Official IRA. Over 5,000 attended his funeral. Patsy was acquitted once again of his charges in January, 1978.
On 10 May 1978 he was arrested on O’Connell St. in Dublin under section 30 of Offences against the State act. This allows a person suspected of such an offence in the Republic of Ireland to be held without warrant or being charged for 24 hours. He was released 18 hours later. He returned to Derry in January 1979. His homecoming was short-lived.
On 14 May 1979 in Derry, he ran into a patrol of the Royal Hampshire Regiment and was seen discarding an item in the bushes. It was found to be a Soviet-made F1 fragmentation grenade wrapped in a purple-patterned sock. A search of the O’Hara house found the matching sock in Patsy’s bedroom. He was convicted of possession of the hand grenade. His only conviction out of numerous arrests. On 15 January 1980, he was sentenced to 8 years. On Patsy’s arrival at Long Kesh, he immediately joined the protest and went “on the blanket” as did his brother Tony before him. He also likewise joined the No Wash Protest.
What was called “the No Wash Protest.” began in April, 1978. Since the withdrawal of political status in 1976, The animosity between the prisoners and the prison officials escalated. The prisoners endured brutal beatings for things like refusing to address prison officers as Sir and their refusal to cooperate in general with rules for criminal prisoners. The IRA leaders in prison requested of the IRA Army Council to assassinate prison officials, which they did, starting with Patrick Dillon in April of 1976.
Some prisoners were refusing to leave their cells to shower or use the toilet due to the beatings. They were being beaten when trying to empty their chamber pots. After a prisoner was badly beaten and sent to solitary confinement, the Blanketmen now refused to leave their cells, smearing their excrement on the walls. This was also because spiteful prison officers would empty the pots back in the cells.
On 27 October 1980, Brendan Hughes O.C. (Officer Commanding) of the IRA prisoners, Tommy McKearney, Raymond McCartney, Tom McFeeley, Sean McKenna, Leo Green, and INLA member John Nixon went on Hunger Strike simultaneously, called by Brendan Hughes. As Sean McKenna was in and out of a coma after 53 days, The Hunger Strike was called off on a decision taken by Brendan Hughes on a promise of concessions. At the beginning of this Hunger Strike, Patsy had become O.C. Of the INLA prisoners. He had placed himself fourth in the line of INLA prisoners to join the strike.
The Hunger Strike was Intended to secure the Five Demands, which were:
The right not to wear a prison uniform;
The right not to do prison work;
The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
When it had become obvious that the British government had no intention of granting the concessions it promised, a second Hunger Strike began on March 1, 1981 when Bobby Sands refused food. Unlike the previous Hunger Strike, where seven men started at the same time; Sands, who was O.C. of the IRA prisoners, thought it wiser to stagger them at intervals this time. This would also prolong the protest. Francis Hughes, the second in line, began his on March 16. Patsy decided to lead the Hunger Strike for the INLA prisoners. It was decided that he and IRA prisoner Raymond McCreesh would begin their fast on the same day, March 22.
Shortly before going on Hunger Strike, Patsy wrote “We stand for the freedom of the Irish nation so that future generations will enjoy the prosperity they rightly deserve, free from foreign interference, oppression and exploitation. The real criminals are the British imperialists who have thrived on the blood and sweat of generations of Irish men. They have maintained control of Ireland through force of arms and there is only one way to end it. I would rather die than rot in this concrete tomb for years to come.” He also wrote “After we are gone, what will you say you were doing? Will you say that you were with us in our struggle or were you conforming to the very system that drove us to our deaths?”
His mother Peggy showed tremendous strength and courage in the face of her grief and torment at watching her son die. She had said “There is no use me sitting back in the wings and letting someone else’s son go. Someone’s sons have to go on it and I just happen to be the mother of that son.”
Then on 5 May, Bobby Sands died, then Francis Hughes on 12 May. Peggy had been hopeful because Elizabeth, Patsy’s sister had been to Dublin to see Taoiseach (Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland) Charles Haughey, who had assured here that no more Hunger Strikers would be allowed to die. But Patsy and Ray McCreesh were in a bad way.
As Peggy left from visiting Patsy, she put her arms around him and said: “I don’t care about Ireland or the world, but I’m going to save you.” She left, but was called back after Patsy had lost consciousness. Though conflicted, she had decided to honour his wishes to continue when he uttered his last words: “I’m sorry Mammy, we didn’t win. Let the fight go on.”
Patsy O’Hara died 21 May 1981 at 11:29pm. Raymond McCreesh had died a few hours earlier, both after 61 days on Hunger Strike. Patsy was aged twenty-three.
With many thanks to: Kevin Rooney – Irelands Struggle 1969 – The Present Day.
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