Last Sunday a commemoration was held in Bellaghy in honour of Tom McElwee, the ninth republican prisoner to die during the 1981 hunger strike. The parade assembled at McElwee’s home place in Tamlaghduff and was led by a group of ex-POWs carrying photographs of the hunger strikers, followed by local bands and a band from County Donegal. The parade went through Bellaghy village, and then gathered at St Mary’s Cemetery where Tom and his cousin Frank Hughes are buried. Local Sinn Féin Councillor Caoimhe Scullion chaired the commemoration. Comrades of the two hunger strikes were prominent in the ceremony: Ian Milne laying a wreath on behalf of the Republican Movement and Sean McPeake on behalf of the ex-POWs. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was in attendance and former IRA escapee Gerry Kelly MLA gave the main oration. Colm Scullion, another close comrade of Frank and Tom, gave a personal tribute, which we publish below.
“Friends, during the week Ian Milne asked me if I could put together a few words on Thomas McElwee. He said, ‘Colm, if you can, include the personal side of Thomas, which perhaps most people won’t know but would love to hear.’
“It made me think of not only the sad times in the H-Blocks, but also the laughs and happier times of normal teenagers in a very abnormal society.
“I suppose our first introduction to protest or resistance was the civil rights protests in Bellaghy. I remember attending, like many others, with our parents. Thomas and Benedict would also be there listening to, among others, Bernadette Devlin.
“The protesting would continue, this time it was the anti-internment demonstrations. Benedict had broken his ankle and attended on crutches aided by his big brother. On one occasion a car drove through the protest and headed up Castle Street chased by Thomas! And, fortunately for the driver, he got away!
“A somewhat normal life did exist during the turmoil. We like other youths of our age were frequenters of the local dance scene in Moneyglass, Ardboe and Dungiven. Cars weren’t in abundance but Thomas was always there to offer a lift.
“As a Volunteer in the IRA Thomas never backed away from any operation no matter the risk. On one occasion when a car couldn’t be obtained Thomas used his own, the important thing to him was get the job done.
“It was during this time that South Derry, under the command of Dominic, Francis and Ian, led the fight against the British forces. Some would claim that the area was virtually a no-go area.
“On the morning of October 9th 1976 we were part of a bombing team attacking commercial targets in Ballymena. Thomas, Benedict, Sean Mcpeake and myself had reached our destination. In the car we had four bombs. Myself and Sean were seated in the back of the car while Benny and Thomas were in the front. I remember a blinding flash and explosion then a panic to get out of the car. Outside the car Sean was lying on the ground covered in blood, Thomas was standing covering his face with his hands, blinded. I had tried to run away and it was only then that I saw the extent of my injuries. I collapsed on the ground and woke up the following day in hospital.
“We spent over two months in hospital. Although we were in different rooms in the security ward of Musgrave Park we contacted each other by writing notes. I remember Thomas sending me a homemade birthday card entilted, ‘A joiners mishap’ and on it was a drawing of me scratching my head and looking at a door hung upside down.
No matter how bad or serious the situation Thomas would always see the lighter side even at his own expense. On remand in the canteen it wasn’t unusual for Tom to put his artificial eye in someone’s cup of water, anything for a laugh.
“During the blanket protest he 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.
“One Sunday while coming from Mass the screws were sticking their fingers in our mouths in a so-called search. Bobby and I had reached our cell and Bobby shouted out to the men what was happening in case someone was carrying a note or tobacco. We watched the men come up the wing through a small space on the door. Thomas approached the screw hands raised for the search, as soon as the screw attempted to search his mouth Tom punched him in the face about half a dozen times. The screw dropped to the ground screaming for help. Tom was marched to the boards again.
“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 was kept in our wing for about three weeks on hunger strike. 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 we saw Big Tom.”