Death of Father John Murphy

BACKFather John Murphy, who was known affectionately to former political prisoners in the H-Blocks as ‘Silvertop’, ‘Spud’ or ‘Murph’, died last weekend and was buried on Tuesday in St Peter’s graveyard at the Rock Chapel, Stoneyford. Former republican POW Jim Gibney, who served a 12-year-sentence in the H-Blocks in the 1980s, attended the funeral Mass and wrote this tribute.

Fr Murphy was deputy prison Chaplin to the late Father Toner and ministered to the prisoners from the earliest days of the prison protest for political status in 1976 until it ended in the deaths of ten republicans on hunger strike. He continued to minister to them until all prisoners were released as a result of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.

In the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, in the depths of the most difficult life-and-death struggle for political status, Fr Murphy was trusted by the protesting prisoners.

On Tuesday the 86-year-old priest was laid to rest in the graveyard adjacent to the Rock Chapel (St Peter’s) where he served the surrounding community as he did the prisoners from 1976.

He told former political prisoner, Seanna Walsh, that on a number occasions he was offered significant amounts of money to tell his story of life in the H-Blocks during the epic struggle for political status but he declined, preferring to protect his respected relationship with the former prisoners through his commitment to confidentiality.

JIMThe chairperson of Coiste na nIarchimi, Michael Culbert, who attended Fr John’s funeral Mass on behalf of former political prisoners and read a section during prayers for the faithful, described the priest as a “very decent, good and considerate man”. In the midst of a very difficult situation, “He delivered difficult messages, to us, and we could be very difficult people to deal with, at a difficult time.”

Michael Culbert found him compassionate and considerate, never negative. He spoke with the prisoners never at them.

He recalled Fr John’s quiet determination being applied in a protracted struggle with the prison administration over their opposition to allowing the prisoners Irish language Bibles. He won that battle.
Raymond McCartney who was among seven republicans on the first hunger strike in 1980 recalled Fr Murphy as being, “Very sincere. He understood what the words pastoral care meant. He stayed out of the internal jail politics. Fr John visited us every day when we were on hunger strike. It was a rare day he didn’t call in to see us.”

At his funeral Mass tributes were paid to him by fellow priests, including Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor diocese. I was not surprised to hear him being described as ‘demure’, reserved and discreet, but also passionate about things that mattered to him, including prisoners – all prisoners, political and non-political. He served on several Catholic Church committees with a pastoral responsibility for prisoners at home and abroad.

Seanna Walsh said that Fr John was comfortable with the prisoners and they were comfortable with him. He was a warm human being and was also trustworthy and you knew when you spoke to him in confidence that it would remain so.

Seanna recalled that Fr Murphy was distressed by the conditions that the prisoners were in and was very much involved in trying to resolve the blanket protest and hunger strike without loss of life. In that regard he was confident after the end of the first hunger strike that a resolution was possible. But he was then very disappointed at the intransigent attitude of the prison authorities.

Fr John Murphy was particularly concerned about the health of Sean McKenna in the hours leading up to the end of the first hunger strike. He said that Sean told him that he believed that he had died on the trolley taking him to an outside hospital. That he had a clear memory of an ‘out of body’ experience of looking down on himself lying on the trolley.

Sean McKenna never fully recovered from the physical impact of that hunger strike and Fr Murphy and Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich worked tirelessly to have him released early from prison.

During the second hunger strike Fr Murphy spent most of his time in the prison hospital with the prisoners, caring for them spiritually and supporting them in every way he could.

These were extremely difficult days for the prisoners and the priest.

But listening to those who knew him, speaking at his Mass, he was clearly a saintly man devoted to his religious beliefs who comforted those in need and gave himself strength to carry on through those harsh times.

I met him several times in prison and outside. I always found him encouraging and optimistic and very thoughtful for the person he was speaking to.

You left him feeling good about yourself and him.

Former political prisoners, Padraic Wilson and Paul Butler also attended the funeral. Danny Morrison, on behalf of the Bobby Sands Trust, laid a wreath at the grave, in respect of a man whose sense of duty to others was based on his respect for them as they saw themselves.

Thomas McElwee Remembered

Thomas McElweeOn Sunday, 7th August, the day before the 35th anniversary of the death of Thomas McElwee, people, some in period costume representing 1916, gathered in Bellaghy to pay their respects to the young 23-year-old who died on hunger strike after sixty two days. After a march through the town the commemoration was held just outside the gates of St Mary’s graveyard where both Thomas and his cousin Francis Hughes are buried.

Excerpts from Padraig Pearse’s oration at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa were enacted by Sean Kerr which was followed by personal reminiscences from Thomas’s friend and comrade, Colm Scullion, who was on active service with Thomas at the time of their arrest in October 1976.

“During the blanket protest,” said Colm, “Tom embraced the Irish language and education programmes conducted by, among others, Bobby Sands and Tommy McKearney. He actively took part in all debates and saw the necessity of politics side by side with armed struggle.

“Thomas was also was known as the hard man of the wing. The screws called him ‘Punchy McElwee’. He took no nonsense from them despite the vast odds. I remember the screws coming around with the dinner. One screw threw Thomas’s plate on the urine-covered floor. Thomas said nothing then punched him as hard as he could and he was punished with being sent to the boards for a month.

“Thomas was also a very devout Catholic. He never missed the Rosary and always carried the prayer books sent in by his mother, Alice. He was very anti-sectarian and expressed a wish to work among the Protestant community and show them that we could share this island as one people without English interference.

“Thomas joined the hunger strike on Monday 7th June. He was kept in our wing for about three weeks. The morning he left was terrible. He came to our cell door, we wished each other good luck. The men all got to their doors to bid him farewell. He walked up the wing to the gates and shouted, ‘All the best, Colm’.

“The screws then took him to the prison hospital in a van. We stood at our cell windows watching him wave out the window as we cheered and roared.

“That was the last time I saw ‘Big Tom’.”

Me speaking in South DerryRecalling 1981
Danny Morrison, the former Sinn Féin Director of Publicity, was the last speaker. He had given the oration at Thomas’s funeral in August 1981 and he recalled the hunger strike period. He said:

“In my experience the damage inflicted on us by the sectarian six-county state and the British occupation was compounded by partition and the Free Statism of the southern establishment. When RTE covered Bobby Sands going on hunger strike, or Thomas McElwee going on hunger strike what they covered was their Diplock court convictions.

“They never covered the men’s political or moral convictions because that would have gone against the desire to criminalise our struggle which was much easier to do than confront the power of Britain and British intransigence.

“1981 was the longest year in my life – but what must it have been like for the families of comrades dying a slow death?

“I do believe 1981 was ‘our 1916’. After 1981 all was changed utterly. After the Easter Rising, within a few weeks the British had executed the leaders, but here in the North the hunger strike deaths took place over a seven month period.

“In the middle of the hunger strike we thought a breakthrough was possible. We had been told that the British government was interested in settling it. I was allowed into the prison on Sunday 5th July to meet with the hunger strikers. I can still see those men around that table in the canteen of the hospital wing. On my left Kieran Doherty, then Kevin Lynch, then Thomas, Thomas McElwee, who by that stage had already completed 1,300 days in a H-Block cell on protest. Martin Hurson was too ill to attend. At the bottom of the table was Paddy Quinn. On the right was Laurence McKeown, then Micky Devine, then sitting beside me in a wheelchair was my old friend and comrade Joe McDonnell who would be dead within three days. They all spoke, including Tom who was adamant that their demands must be met.

“Just before the first hunger strike, in 1980, ended the British government was full of promises – that they would introduce an enlightened, progressive and liberal prison regime. But as soon as the hunger strike ended, and the pressure was off, the British reneged on their commitments, refused to budge and their bad faith triggered the second hunger strike.

“This experience of bad faith was what was foremost in the minds of the men around that table. They said they wanted to see what the British government was offering and they wanted it confirmed in a way that the British could not subsequently repudiate. The Irish Commission for Justice and Peace similarly asked the British to send in an official to explain what, if anything, was on offer.

“I left the hunger strikers to go to the doctor’s office where I was in telephone contact with Gerry Adams on the outside. He was liaising with Martin McGuinness who was liaising with Brendan Duddy the British contact. It was no way to do business and was open to misrepresentation and distortion. But as I was waiting to see what the British would say, a deputy governor, John Pepper, burst into the office and ordered me out and I never saw the hunger strikers again. The ICJP six times called upon the British to send in a representative to meet the prisoners but they never replied.

“After Joe’s death Michael Alison, the prisons minister, was asked to give the British position. He compared talking to hunger strikers as like talking to hijackers: ‘you continued talking while you figured out a way to defeat them,’ he said.

“And that was the policy that was to lead to the deaths of Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Micky Devine.

“I stood here 35 years ago and was honoured to give the oration at Tom’s funeral just as I am honoured to be here today in the presence of his noble family.

“Back then the British army and the RUC occupied and took up positions on surrounding roads. They were protected by not one but by six helicopters. Benny, who was also in prison on the blanket, arrived just in time from the H-Blocks on a 10-hour parole. Tom’s coffin was carried from the house by his sisters. At the end of the lane IRA Volunteers stepped forward and fired a volley of shots over his coffin.

“A piper played the H-Block song and many people quietly sang:

     I am a proud young Irishman,
     In Ulster’s hills my life began,
     A happy boy through green fields ran
     And I kept God’s and man’s laws.

“Among the mourners was Dinny Gleeson, a veteran of the War of Independence who had been in a Flying Column and had fought the British army and the Black and Tans – a real connection with 1916 and our long struggle for freedom.

“Chairing the graveside ceremony was veteran republican John Davey, who had been interned in the 1950s, 1960s and again in the 1970s. Indeed, it was in Long Kesh Internment Camp that he and I became friends. John himself was later to die in violent circumstances when he was assassinated coming from Council business to his home in Gulladuff.

“I wish to repeat what I said that day 35 years ago. Thomas McElwee was invincible from beginning to end, in life as well as in death.

“His dying words remain powerful and indeed were extremely prescient and are even more relevant today. Thomas said: ‘I bear no animosity, no ill-feeling towards anybody. I would like to live among the people… and promote peace and harmony among Catholics and Protestants and also with the British.’

“I have always found it remarkable that the oppressed are always more forgiving than their oppressors. It is very tempting to feel bitterness.

“The British were full of great spite and great cynicism. Their position was: ‘We know we cannot defeat you. But we will make sure you die.’

“I say they were cynical because not long after the hunger strike they conceded the five demands. When I was imprisoned in the H-Blocks some years later – and I see men here today whom I was with – I and those comrades had political status, prison conditions won for us by Thomas and his comrades.

“But the hunger strike was bigger than that. It inspired a new generation who put manners on the British, brought thousands more into republicanism, empowered the people, and created a political momentum which is unstoppable, a political movement in Sinn Féin which will un-partition Ireland.

“So we draw courage and great inspiration from Thomas McElwee and his example. He towers over the people who hunted him, arrested him, charged him, judged him, convicted him, stripped him, beat him, and the system that killed him.

“He towered over every one of them, and he was only twenty three.

“What a man.

“What a soldier.

“What a hero.

“What a son.

What a brother.

“Thomas McElwee.”

Among this group photograph taken after the commemoration are relatives of Thomas McElwee and Kevin Lynch

Among this group photograph taken after the commemoration are relatives of Thomas McElwee and Kevin Lynch

★★★★★ From RTE for ‘66 Days’

The RTE review of Brendan Byrne’s film about Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, 66 Days, is quite considered and sensitive and has given the documentary five stars, which is astonishing given the history of the station with regard to coverage of northern affairs. These are the opening comments:

“There are moments of terrible sadness in 66 Days, Brendan J Byrne’s profoundly moving account of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in the so-called H Blocks of Long Kesh prison. The film alternates between an uneasy sense of futility and the spiritual triumph granted in part by by hindsight, the triumph that appears to trump the relentless despair. 66 Days incorporates the stories of Sands’ nine comrades who also died in 1981, after hunger strikes which had lasted 217 days. Seven of the dead were members of the Provisional IRA and three were Irish National liberation Army (INLA) activists.”

The rest of the review can be read here.



Unionists on ‘66 Days’

Two unionists, one the political commentator and broadcaster Alex Kane, the other the DUP MP Gregory Campbell, have seen the film 66 Days about Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in 1981.

Here are their views on the film: Alex Kane’s from The Newsletter and Gregory Campbell’s also from The Newsletter.


‘66 Days’ – Everyone Should Watch

Denzil McDaniel has been reporting news from Fermanagh for many decades and was a witness to the 1981 hunger strike and the election of Bobby Sands in the by-election in the constituency. In this opinion piece from The Impartial Reporter he gives his views on the film about Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, 66 Days, and refers to a BBC Radio Ulster interview last Monday between DUP MLA Nelson McCausland and Danny Morrison, Secretary of the Bobby Sands Trust.

Denzil McDaniel –



Follow The Money!

66 days posterFour days after a DUP minister reinstated a £200,000 grants scheme for marching bands – which had been suspended last year due to budget cuts (largely championed by the DUP!) – the DUP have slammed the BBC and Northern Ireland Screen for part-funding the documentary 66 Days about the hunger strike of Bobby Sands at a cost of £76,000.

Between 2012 and 2015 marching bands (the overwhelming majority of which are loyalist) received more than £500,000 under the Musical Instruments for Bands scheme. Nelson McCausland argued that, “Participation in the arts is one of the departmental priorities and this sector is right up there at the top as the largest community arts sector in Northern Ireland.”

Last week the new DUP Minister of the Communities, Paul Givan, who posed for photographs as he set alight an Eleventh Night bonfire, announced that he was reintroducing the grants scheme for marching bands. More DUP elected representatives issued statements but the best was from the MP for East Antrim.

“I’m sure other unionists, and even plenty of non-unionists, will agree with me. Do they really think this is a good way of spending public money, to keep on stirring the pot about the past?” said Sammy Wilson, forty eight hours after unionists celebrated a three hundred and twenty six year-old battle in which Protestant King William of Orange vanquished Catholic King James II over who should rule the English throne.

Commemorations, ’81

Today, in Galbally, republicans gathered for a wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of 24-year-old Martin Hurson, an IRA Volunteer who died in the 1981 hunger strike after forty-six days without food.

The event followed a similar ceremony last Sunday, also on the 35th anniversary of the death on hunger strike of Joe McDonnell (8th July), Martin’s comrade, in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. At that event, attended by Goretti, Joe’s wife, and Joe’s brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey, himself an ex-prisoner and comrade of Joe’s gave the oration and spoke about Joe McDonnell, ‘the man’, and how at an event a few nights earlier great memories about Joe were recalled by his friends and comrades.

Goretti (centre), wife of Joe McDonnell; Bernadette (right), Joe's daughter; and Alex Maskey (left), a friend and comrade of Joe's, who gave the oration

Goretti (centre), wife of Joe McDonnell; Bernadette (right), Joe’s daughter; and Alex Maskey (left), a friend and comrade of Joe’s, who gave the oration

All ten of the H-Block hunger strikers will be honoured in a march and rally in West Belfast on Sunday, 14th August.

The oration in Galbally was given by veteran republican Sean Hughes from South Armagh who paid tribute to the sacrifices made by Martin Hurson and his imprisoned comrades.

Veteran republican Sean Hughes speaking at Martin Hurson's grave in Galbally, County Tyrone

Veteran republican Sean Hughes speaking at Martin Hurson’s grave in Galbally, County Tyrone

He said: “It is difficult to do justice to the memory of those who died on hunger strike. For those who were close to the prisoners and their families there remains a raw, emotional wound. Their names are inscribed on the pages of Irish history and their sacrifice is an inspiration to freedom-loving people all over the world.”

Sean went on to link the sacrifices of Easter 1916 with the sacrifices of 1981: “Ireland today needs once again the spirit, vision and selflessness of those who rose in Dublin in Easter Week and those who laid down their lives in the H-Blocks in 1981… More Irish citizens than ever before are supporting the republican values of freedom, unity and equality. More citizens than ever before are supporting Sinn Féin as the party to deliver a united Ireland, to build a fair economy and establish a real republic.”

He said that the recent Blexit referendum presented probably the most serious and economic crisis to face the island of Ireland in many years and that for the North to be dragged out of the EU “against the will of its people, by the votes of people in England and Wales would be a travesty of democracy.”

He said that the situation and the solution “underlines and strengthens the case for a United Ireland…
We are the generation who will bring about Irish unity. We have the determination, the commitment, and the right strategy, and we remain inspired by the sacrifices of patriots like Martin Hurson.”

The BBC & The Hunger Strikes

“Denounced by right-wing press and politicians as the ‘IRA’s best friend’, the BBC had to walk a fine line between reporting events and being seen as a vehicle for IRA propaganda” writes Prof Robert Savage, a lecturer in Irish, British and European history at Boston College, US.

Prof Savage is the latest guest writer to an ongoing series on the 35th anniversary of the hunger strike published by the Irish Times over the past few months. The full list of past and future features can be found here.



‘Rethinking 1981’

H BlocksFormer blanket man Eoghan Mac Cormaic attended a meeting in London last week, part of a series of reflections on the 1981 hunger striker organised by the Irish Times. Here, he reports on the conference.

A few months back I noticed an advertisement for a symposium called ‘Rethinking the 1981 Long Kesh / Maze Hunger Strike: 35 years on’. I mentioned it to the Bean an Tí, who is busy researching prison handicrafts for an MA thesis, thinking it might be of interest and we were soon busy searching for flights and Airbnb’s to bookend the event.

More than seventy participants spent Monday 27th June at the University of Notre Dame in London, revisiting the 1980-81 hunger strikes in a day-long seminar organised as part of an Irish Times re-analysis of the events of that historic time. Directed and driven by two PhD researchers, Alison Garden and Maggie Skull, the day’s talks were framed around a number of themes; a screening from the prison memory archive and an informative open discussion to end the day.

The opening remarks by Skull and Garden asked that all who wished to make any points in reply to contributions from the panellists, or from other members of the audience, would do so in a polite and respectful way. It was clear that the divided historical perspectives, and memories of the period, would be in the room even while some of the papers were evidently more to do with research tangents than the events of 1980-81.

The first panel of the day talked of the theme ‘Space’. Laura McAtackney, author of An Archaeology of the Troubles: the dark heritage of Long Kesh/Maze Prison gave an interesting account of the material cultural artefacts (including the remaining prison buildings themselves) of the hunger strikes. Her comments noted the way material objects changed over the final years of the deserted prison with items going missing, either removed as souvenirs, trophies, or to be safeguarded in local collections such as the Eileen Hickey Museum. McAtackney also noted the inherent danger of memory itself, changing, fading, inventing over time and that in some ways there is more importance in the memory attributed to an object than to the veracity of the object itself.

On the panel with her was George Legg, making a vain attempt to link the hunger strikes to a poem by Medbh McGuckian, and theories of ‘biopolitical space’, the body politic. UCD Lecturer Emilie Pine’s contribution was on ‘Mediating the Memory of the Prison Protests and Hunger Strike’. This talk examined the portrayal of the hunger strike in film, focussing on the film Hunger, a film which caused some difficulty for the contributor as it dealt with themes of cleansing and the purification of the hunger striker’s body to an almost Christ-like appearance at the end of the film. That discussion, like McAtackney’s, brought forward a lot of questions, and statements, from the floor – not all in agreement.

Feminist perspectives were given in the next panel, when Caroline Magennis returned to the theme of biopolitics, in a talk on ‘History exists in your body’. The part attributed to women in troubles fiction, and the contribution of women writers, was examined in the Magennis talk.

The panel theme was ‘Body’, and this was addressed by Ian Miller, a lecturer in the history of medicine in UU who outlined a history of the use of hunger strikes in various countries over time, challenging the belief that this form of protest has its roots among Irish political prisoners, as he recounted examples from the suffragettes, India, the Middle East and even examples of non-political hunger strikes. Miller held nothing back when talking of the barbarity of forced feeding, a practice used to torture Irish POWS in English jails in the 1970s. The third contributer to this panel, Niall Ó Dochartaigh (an NUIG lecturer), raised the idea of the conflict between biological versus organisational time in the hunger strike negotiations. This very interesting subject was central to the brinkmanship played by the British during the hunger strike and opened a discussion from the floor as attempts were made to tease out who did what, when.

A most passionate contribution from Fr Joe McVeigh from the floor asked that if the symposium was to achieve anything that it should nail the atrocious lie that the prisoners were being directed from the outside.

A screening of extracts from the Prisons Memory Archive, a huge undertaking attempting to provide an online repository of interviews (with ex-POWs, families and former members of the prison staff) was shown by its author Cahal McLaughlin. McLaughlin spoke of the traumatic and emotional return many prisoners made to their former sites of detention, emotion which was not confined to ex-POWs over the events from 35 years ago, as one interview with a prison warder (a former Medical Officer) showed, as he struggled with a return to the prison hospital.

McLaughlin was frank, however, in admitting that not everyone was completely happy with the presence of ‘ex-screws’ on a par with ‘ex-POWs’, with aggressors being placed among those who suffered at the hands of prison warders on the inside.

The panel ‘Legacy’ followed with more opportunity for the audience to question the views of the academics: Stephen Hopkins (Politics), Stephanie Lehner (Literature and Cultural studies) and historian Thomas Hennessey.

Their analysis (including a reiteration of the discredited Richard O’Rawe) and a strange attempt to say that the hunger strikes gained nothing, or may have been one more glorious failure, or failed to reach what the prisoners set out to attain, gave rise to plenty of disagreement from the floor. This session led on, logically, to the final round table discussion with Laurence McKeown (former hunger striker), Fr Joe McVeigh (human rights campaigner), Liam McCloskey (former hunger striker) and Hugh Logue (formerly of the SDLP and the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace).

Unfortunately Hugh Logue needed to leave early, leaving less opportunity to find clarification of his views and the hints at a dark hand controlling events from outside. Before exiting he made a bizarre defence of Richard O’Rawe (saying he was in the same vein as the whistle-blower Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe – a claim quickly dismissed by Laurence McKeown) and made a call for the Catholic church to open up for all to see their archive of their role in 1981.

The organisers deserve credit for the work put in to this conference, and for bringing so many disciplines together to discuss what is still so fresh for so many (families, friends, comrades) despite the tricks memory can play with days, dates or detail. Although billed as a conference for academics the input of four people – including two hunger strikers – who each had real roles in the prison protest and hunger strike narrative was vital and validated the work of the symposium.


Raymond McCreesh Remembered

Last Saturday night, after Mass at the Church of St Malachy in Camlough, a commemoration in memory of IRA Volunteer Raymond McCreesh, who died on hunger strike thirty-five years ago, was attended by a large number of relatives, comrades, friends and neighbours in the adjacent graveyard. Conor Murphy (Sinn Féin MLA) chaired the event which included the playing of a lament at the lowering of the flags and a moving recital of the Ballad of Raymond McCreesh by the Daly sisters from Crossmaglen. Later, the crowd marched behind St Joseph’s Pipe Band to the republican monument on the Newry Road.

MeganThe main speaker at the commemoration was Sinn Féin MLA Megan Fearon, the youngest member of the Assembly, who was born in 1991, just three years before the IRA ceasefire. This is her speech:

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh achan duine agus is mor an onoir a bheith anseo inniu.

I want to extend my own warm welcome to the families of our patriot dead; we are forever indebted to you.

It’s a huge honour to be here this evening with so many of Raymond McCreesh’s friends and family.
It was on this day, in 1981 that the Republican Movement lost one of its proudest sons, Raymond McCreesh. Yes, he was a soldier and an exemplary one at that. However, he was also a son, a brother, a friend, and a role model to many.

Raymond and his comrades were ordinary young men and women, who rose to the challenge of the extraordinary times they lived in.

Raymond McCreesh, born to James and Susan on 25th February 1957, attended St Malachy’s Primary School and St Colman’s College in Newry. A schoolmate of his recalled how, somewhat prophetically, they hung over the old school wall to watch the funeral of veteran republican Jack McElhaw pass by.
For many, it is Raymond’s smile that has left an indelible mark on their memory. He was quiet, good-natured with a mischievous sense of humour. It was a shock to many when it became known at my own uncle’s funeral, Jim Lochrie, that he was a volunteer in Óglaigh na hÉireann as he stepped forward for the guard of honour.

Beneath his smile there lay the many qualities that made him a capable, dedicated and highly respected volunteer. He had joined na Fianna Eireann in 1973 and later became a member of the IRA. It’s said that Raymond and Dan McGuinness were never too far apart, they would have been in the village every Saturday night to enjoy the craic along with Oliver Doran and James Lennon. So it came as no surprise when they were captured together on active service, along with Paddy Quinn, in June 1976. They were charged and remanded in Crumlin Road Jail before being sentenced and sent to the H-Blocks, where Raymond immediately joined the blanket protest. He continued his resistance to criminalisation with conviction right up until 1981, when he took the courageous and unimaginable decision to join the hunger strike, where he and his nine comrades would make the ultimate sacrifice.

His death was and remains a tragic blow to his family, and a huge loss to the Republican Movement. He will always be remembered as a heroic and selfless young person, and I hope his memory will inspire others as it has done for me.

The late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich said: “Raymond McCreesh was captured bearing arms at the age of 19 and sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. I have no doubt that he would have never seen the inside of a jail but for the abnormal political situation. Who is entitled to label him a murderer or a suicide?”

Cardinal Ó Fiaich was alluding to the fact that Raymond had the misfortune to be born into one of the most heavily militarized areas anywhere in the world, to be born into the Orange state, one-party rule and institutional discrimination. He was, effectively, born into the belly of the beast where the worst excesses of partition were visible daily. Young people living in South Armagh were met with constant harassment from the RUC and the British army. Faced with the watchtowers, faced with the British Army patrols and faced with British brutality, Raymond, like generations of Irish republicans before him, decided to face down those conditions.

Comrades, Raymond was my age when he gave his life on hunger strike. 24 years old. He was just an ordinary young man. He could have chosen another way, taken an easier path but he didn’t. He chose to stand up for this community, for the people he loved and who loved him.

And it is because of the dedication and sacrifice of people like Raymond McCreesh that I was fortunate to be born into an entirely different political dispensation. My generation of young republicans are separated from him only by time.

Thirty five years on….the political landscape is vastly different. Our struggle continues in a new way. Young nationalists and republicans have no fear of second-class citizenship today as we continue to grasp the opportunities we have been afforded as a result of the sacrifice of those who went before us.
The progress we have made would not have been possible without Raymond and his comrades. This political phase of struggle means that no one, man or woman – young or old – need ever again risk imprisonment, injury or death in pursuit of our goals. All that is asked of us now is our time – how can we possibly do any less?

There is still much work to be done to achieve our ultimate goal of a 32-County Socialist Republic. Thirty five years on from Raymond’s death the vision of republicans’ remains vibrant and viable.

It is viable but it is not inevitable. We are the generation charged with ending partition and establishing a new Republic. We must become reinvigorated & build the republican struggle into the mass political movement required to achieve our goals.

1916 witnessed a coming together of republicans, Irish language activists, trade unionists and the women’s movement in the cause of an independent Irish republic.

As we enter new mandates in both the Dail and Stormont, this is our template, as we seek to build alliances for that same cause, and effect change on our island. The 1916 Proclamation remains our mission statement, our guide, as it was for republicans in every decade since. No regressive or revisionist force will hold us back.

I also want to make this very clear – We will not allow the memory of Raymond McCreesh to be denigrated by unionism, by the media or indeed by elements of so called “progressive” nationalism.
Raymond McCreesh is an Irish hero.

He knew that freedom is never voluntarily given – it must be taken.

He knew that the men and women of 1916 were right.

AND we know that the men & women of 1981 were right.

It was and remains republic against empire, republicanism against imperialism.

As we stand here today by the graves of our volunteers, let us be clear – a real 32 County Republic is the only fitting monument to their memory.

And let us be equally clear that the Irish republicans of 2016 are as determined to achieve those objectives as those we honour here today.

For Raymond and his comrades, this was never about the past. They were always looking to the future.
And that is the legacy handed down through generations – from 1916, to the men in H-Block cells and the women in Armagh Gaol – and to us here today.

This is not about the past. This is about the future.

Together, we, and only we, can make the vision of Raymond McCreesh a reality.

Let’s make him proud.

Beidh and bua againn go fóil.


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