ON THIS DATE (8TH JULY) 39 YEARS AGO : DEATH OF OUR 17TH HUNGER-STRIKER.
‘The fourth IRA Volunteer to join the (1981) hunger-strike for political status was Joe McDonnell, a thirty-year-old married man with two children, from the Lenadoon housing estate in West Belfast. A well-known and very popular man in the greater Andersonstown area he grew up in, he had a reputation as a quiet and deep-thinking individual, with a gentle, happy go-lucky personality, who had, nevertheless, a great sense of humour, was always laughing and playing practical jokes, and who, although withdrawn at times, had the ability to make friends easily.
As an active republican before his capture in October 1976, Joe was regarded by his comrades as a cool and efficient Volunteer who did what he had to do and never talked about it afterwards. Something of a rarity within the Republican Movement, in that outside of military briefings and operational duty he was never seen around with other known or suspected Volunteers, he was nevertheless a good friend of the late Bobby Sands, with whom he was captured while on active service duty. Although he didn’t volunteer for the earlier hunger strike in 1980, it was the intense disappointment brought about by British duplicity following the end of that hunger strike and the bitterness and anger that duplicity produced among all the blanket men that prompted Joe to put forward his name the next time round.
And it was predictable, as well as fitting, when his friend and comrade Bobby Sands met with death on the sixty-sixth day of his hunger strike, that Joe McDonnell should volunteer to take Bobby’s place and continue that fight. His determination and resolve in that course of action can be gauged by the fact that never once, following his sentencing to fourteen years imprisonment in 1977, did he put on the prison uniform to take a visit, seeing his wife and family only after he commenced his hunger-strike. The story of Joe McDonnell is of a highly-aware republican soldier whose involvement stemmed initially from the personal repression and harassment he and his family suffered at the hands of the British occupation forces, but which then deepened – through continuing repression – to a mature commitment to oppose an occupation that denied his country freedom and attempted to criminalise its people. It was that commitment which he held more dear than his own life.
Joe McDonnell was born on September 14th 1951, the fifth of eight children, into the family home in Slate Street in Belfast’s Lower Falls. His father, Robert, a steel erector, and his mother, Eileen (whose maiden name is Straney) , both came from the Lower Falls themselves, and they married in St. Peter’s church there, in 1941, living first with Robert’s sister and her husband in Colinward Street, off the Springfield Road, before moving into their own home in Slate Street, where the family were all born. A ninth child, Bernadette, was a particular favourite of Joe’s, before her death from a kidney illness at the early age of three : “Joseph practically reared Bernadette”, recalls his mother, “he was always with the child, carrying her around. He was about ten at the time. He even used to play marleys with her on his shoulders.” Bernadette’s death, a sad blow to the family, was deeply felt by her young brother Joe.
Joe and his then girlfriend, Goretti, who also comes from Andersonstown, married in St.Agnes’ chapel in 1970, and moved in to live with Goretti’s sister and her family in Horn Drive in Lower Lenadoon. At that time, however, they were one of only two nationalist households in what was then a predominantly loyalist street, and, after repeated instances of verbal intimidation, in the middle of the night, a loyalist mob – in full view of a nearby British Army post, and with the blessing of the raving Reverend Robert Bradford, who stood by – broke down the doors and wrecked the houses, forcing the two families to leave. The McDonnells went to live with Goretti’s mother for a while, but eventually got the chance to squat in a house being vacated in Lenadoon Avenue. Internment had been introduced shortly before, and in 1972 the British army struck with a 4.00 a.m. raid ; Joe was dragged from the house, hit in the eye with a rifle butt and bundled into a British Army jeep. Their house was searched and wrecked. Joe was taken to the prison ship Maidstone and later on to Long Kesh internment camp where he was held for several months. Goretti recalls that early morning as a “horrific” experience which altered both their lives. One minute they had everything, the next minute nothing.
On his release Joe joined the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, operating at first in the 1st Battalion’s ‘A’ Company which covered the Rosnareen end of Andersonstown, and later being absorbed into the ‘cell’ structure increasingly adopted by the IRA. Both during his first period of internment, and his second, longer, internment in 1973, as well as the periods when he was free, the McDonnell’s home in Lenadoon was a constant target for British army raids, during which the house would often be torn apart, photos torn up and confiscated and letters from Joe (previously read by the prison censor) re-read by infantile British soldiers, and Goretti herself arrested. In between periods of internment, and before his capture, Joe resumed his trade as an upholsterer which he had followed since leaving school at the age of fifteen. He loved the job, never missing a day through illness, and made both the furniture for his own home as well as for many of the bars and clubs in the surrounding area. His job enabled him to take the family for regular holidays – he took a strong interest in his children, Bernadette, aged ten and Joseph, aged nine, teaching them both to swim, and forever playing football with young Joseph on the small green outside their home – but Joe was a real ‘homer’ and always longed to be back in his native Belfast ; part of that attraction stemmed obviously from his responsibility to his republican involvement.
An active Volunteer throughout the Greater Andersonstown area, Joe was considered a first-class operator who didn’t show much fear. Generally quiet and serious while on an operation, whether an ambush or a bombing mission, Joe’s humour occasionally shone through. Driving one time to an intended target in the Lenadoon area with a carload of Volunteers, smoke began to appear in the car. Not realising that it was simply escaping exhaust fumes, and thinking it came from the bags containing a number of bombs, a degree of alarm began to break out in the car, but Joe only advised his comrades, drily, not to bother about it: “They’ll go off soon enough.”
Outside of active service, Joe mixed mostly with people he knew from work, never flaunting his republican beliefs or his involvement, to such an extent that it led some republicans to believe he had not reported back to the IRA on his second release from internment. The British, however, persecuted him and his family continually, with frequent house raids and street arrests. He could rarely leave the house without being stopped for P-checking, or held up for an hour at a roadblock if he had somewhere to go. A few months before his capture, irate British soldiers at a roadblock warned him that they would ‘get’ him, and they did – his capture took place in October 1976 following a firebomb attack on the Balmoral Furnishing Company in Upper Dunmurray Lane, near the Twinbrook estate in West Belfast.
The IRA had reconnoitred the store, noting the extravagantly-priced furniture it sold, and had selected it as an economic target. The plan was to petrol bomb the premises and then to lay explosive charges to spread the flames. The Twinbrook active service unit led by Bobby Sands was at that time in the process of being built up, and were assisted consequently in this operation by experienced republican Volunteers from the adjoining Andersonstown area, including Joe McDonnell (pictured).
Unfortunately, following the attack, which successfully destroyed the furnishing company, the escape route of some of the Volunteers involved was blocked by a car placed across the road. During an ensuing shoot-out with the British Army and the RUC, two republicans, Seamus Martin and Gabriel Corbett, were wounded, and four others, Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell, Seamus Finucane and Sean Lavery, were arrested in a car not far away. Three IRA Volunteers managed to escape safely from the area. A single revolver was found in the car, and at the men’s subsequent trial in September 1977 all four received fourteen-year sentences for possession when they refused to recognise the court. Rough treatment during their interrogation in Castlereagh failed to make any of the four sign a statement, and the RUC were thus unable to charge the men with involvement in the attack on the furnishing company despite their proximity to it at the time of their arrest.
From the day he was sentenced Joe refused to put on the prison uniform to take a visit, so adamant was he that he would not be criminalised. He kept in touch instead, with his wife and family, by means of daily smuggled ‘communications’, written with smuggled-in biro refills on prison issue toilet paper and smuggled out via other blanket men who were taking visits. Incarcerated in H5-Block, Joe acted as ‘scorcher’ (an anglicised form of the Irish word ‘scairt’, to shout) shouting the sceal, or news from his block to the adjoining one about a hundred yards away. Frequently this is the only way that news from outside can be communicated from one H-Block to the blanket men in another H-Block. It illustrates well the feeling of bitter determination prevailing in the H-Blocks that Joe McDonnell, who did not volunteer for the hunger strike in 1980 because, he said, “I have too much to live for”, should have become so frustrated and angered by British perfidy as to embark on hunger strike on Sunday, May 9th, 1981.
In June 1981, Joe was a candidate during the Free State general election, in the Sligo/Leitrim constituency, in which he narrowly missed election by 315 votes. All the family were actively involved in campaigning for him, and despite the disappointment at the result both they and Joe himself were pleased at the impact which the H-Block issue had on the election, and in Sligo/Leitrim itself. Adults cried when the video film on the hunger strike was shown, his family recall, and they cried again when Joe was eliminated from the electoral count. At 5.11 a.m., on July 8th 1981, Joe McDonnell, who – believeably, for those who know his wife Goretti, his children Bernadette and Joseph and his family – “had too much to live for” died after sixty one days of agonising hunger strike, rather than be criminalised.’
(From ‘IRIS’ magazine, Volume 1, No. 2, November 1981.)
‘THE CULT OF THE FALSE PROPHETS…’
From ‘The United Irishman’ newspaper, June, 1955.
About the other political parties, little needs to be said – they all bear the mark of opportunism and their sincerity is not merely suspect, it is not even suspected to exist. These are the parties who proclaimed a shadow ‘Republic of Ireland’ in order to be relieved, for a time, of the need to create the reality.
The Republican Movement claims to have a practical solution for ending partition in the near future ; it asks the people to give it their support and share in the glory of repelling the last invaders from Ireland. The false prophets having failed, the Republican Movement offers an effective alternative of new men with old ideas.
(END of ‘The Cult Of The False Prophets’. NEXT – ‘Education’, from the same source.)
BORN ON THIS DATE (8TH JULY) 250 YEARS AGO : A REVOLUTIONARY WOMAN WHO WAS OVERSHADOWED BY HER BROTHER.
Mary Anne McCracken (pictured) was born on this date (8th July) in 1770 and, at 21 years of age, she became an active campaigner for social reform and a supporter of revolutionary republicanism, abiding interests she maintained for the following 76 years.
She was born in High Street, Belfast, one of six children ; her father, John, was a ship’s captain and her mother, Ann Joy, was a successful business woman with interests in the ‘Newsletter’ newspaper, a paper mill and the cotton industry.
As a child, Mary Anne took an avid interest in world affairs and was especially well-briefed about the American War of Independence – it was this interest that encouraged her and her sister-in-law, Rose Ann McCracken, to join the Society of United Irishmen soon after its formation in Belfast in October 1791. Indeed, following the battle of Antrim in June 1798 and the collapse of the Rising in the North, Mary arranged safe passage for her brother, Henry Joy, on a ship bound for North America, but he was ‘arrested’ as he was about to board the ship and imprisoned in Carrickfergus Jail, County Antrim, and from there he was transferred to Belfast Jail. Mary was present at his ‘court-martial’, and comforted him in his cell as he awaited execution. She accompanied him to the scaffold, and didn’t hesitate when expected to look after Henry Joy’s daughter, Maria Bodel.
Five years later, just as she had seen her brother make the supreme sacrifice for liberty, she was to again witness another loved one, Thomas Russell, meet the same end at Downpatrick Jail in 1803. She withdrew from radical politics following Russell’s execution and joined forces with English prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, to form a ‘ladies committee’ to demand better conditions in Belfast’s workhouse.
She was a member of the ladies committee of the poorhouse, secretary of the Belfast Charitable Society (between 1832 and 1851) and president of the ‘Committee of the Ladies’ Industrial School for the Relief of Irish Destitution’, which assisted victims of the attempted genocide in Ireland, which was orchestrated by Westminster. She was also an outspoken opponent of slavery and campaigned to abolish the employment of small boys as ‘climbing boys’, who were young boys used by chimney sweeps as helpers, and won improvements for poor house women in the clothing trade and in children’s education – she helped develop the idea of an infants school which flourished for a brief period. She was bitterly opposed to slavery and she fought hard for better conditions for other children who worked in factories.
During the early 1840’s she assisted Dr Richard R. Madden, the historian of the United Irishmen, with detailed accounts of the lives of her brother and Thomas Russell.
In her last years she saw the republican principles for which she had fought, and for which those she had loved had died, once again being widely espoused throughout Ireland by the Fenian movement.
Mary Anne McCracken died on July 24th, 1866, in her 97th year, and deserves to be remembered as much as her brother, Henry Joy McCracken.
‘FREEDOM OF INFORMATION OR FUMBLING OF INFORMATION…?’
By Paul O’Brien.
From ‘The Magill Annual’, 2002.
(‘1169’ comment – Interesting article, considering the recent changes to this particular piece of State legislation.)
Other departments released far more comprehensive information ; one department, for example, had one recorded case and released to ‘Magill’ a photocopy of the actual written complaint, a copy of the response by the accused, and files from the investigation which followed. All names and personal details which might have identified any of those involved were blacked out. But ‘Magill’ was then contacted by two of the departments which had supplied the most comprehensive information ; officials for the departments said that, following legal advice from the Attorney-General, they had realised the information provided should not have been released. The officials requested that ‘Magill’ not use the information provided, because it shouldn’t have been released in the first place.
One department pointed out in a subsequent letter that “public disclosure of statements made on the understanding of confidence would undermine its anti-harassment policy and procedures and that this could be detrimental to the management of industrial relations and hence the management of civil service staff”.
Essentially, the officials were arguing, if details of such cases were made public, and if individuals could possibly be identified from those details, then it was likely that others involved in future cases might be less forthcoming because of the fear of public disclosure. ‘Magill’ accepts this point, and will not use any of the varying levels of information provided by the departments. ‘Magill’s’ original intention had been to assess whether sexual harassment/discrimination was a problem in the civil service, not to identify individual cases or those involved. The key point, however, is that because the sensitive information was actually released, the departments in question had no legal way of stopping ‘Magill’ from using it… (MORE LATER.)
From ‘The United Irishman’ newspaper, November 1954.
Rev. T. Lynham Cairns, Chairman of the Dublin Methodist Synod, said in Dublin on 23rd October, in reference to the Omagh raid – “I would appeal to the Archbishops, Bishops and Churchmen of all sections and all sides to speak the healing word. I would appeal to the laymen of every church who have the vision of Christian understanding to move for peaceful and co-operative ways before horror comes upon us, as come it will if men of good will do not act faithfully.”
We of the Republican Movement gladly support this appeal. The Irish people long for peace and would eagerly seek ways of achieving peace, but peace must be based on justice. It cannot rest on surrender or be imposed by occupation forces ; that way inevitably leads to resistance and the responsibility for the strife rests solely on the occupation forces. Will the Rev Mr. Cairns join with us in demanding the evacuation of the British occupation forces? We sincerely hope he will.
Unfortunately, far too many people accept the idea that the only way to peace is with the ultimatum “Croppy, lie down!”
(END of ‘For Peace’. NEXT – ‘Sinn Féin’ and ‘National Collection’. )
STAYCATION (time again)…
…yahoo(!). Yeah, right!
Myself and the Girl Gang can’t get to our usual holiday destination (New York) this year, and we can’t even go local together as we all have children and grandchildren, elderly parents, workmates, neighbours, friends etc so we won’t be mixing-it-up (!) in each others company, for obvious health reasons, until next year (hopefully then..!) so the family have booked some of us in to a posh hotel ‘down the country’ (!) for two weeks, from Monday 13th July 2020 to Monday 27th July 2020.
I wrote ‘down the country’ because that’s all I’ve been told – it’s a surprise for us, from the rest of our family and our extended family as a ‘Thank You!’ for, I’m told, “being there for us when it really mattered”! Ah Shucks..(…and I hadn’t the heart to tell ’em to convert the cost if it into dollars and hold it for next year for me..)! But we’re going, anyway, of course, heading off on Monday morning, 13th July next ; where, I don’t know, but I do know that if it works out as planned we won’t be back in Dublin until at least Monday 27th, meaning no blog posts until at least Wednesday 5th August 2020. Sort of looking forward to the break, sort of a bit apprehensive about it at the same time, but intend to give it a shot anyway (no real choice!). And the road to Hell is paved with…etc!
Thanks for reading – Sharon and the ‘1169’ team. Stay safe, and ‘play’ safe ; even if that means keeping a sensible distance from yourself (and always try to keep that safe distance between yourself and those that have either a physical virus or a moral one! And, if by chance we end up in your part of the country, apologises in advance..!)