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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Jim Gibney: Hunger Striker Helped Others Through Toughest Times

Note: There are two versions of this article: the one published in the Irish News, and a slightly different one on the Bobby Sands website. Both verisons can be found below.

Hunger Striker Helped Others Through Toughest Times
Jim Gibney
Thursday Column, Irish News
8/07/10

It does not happen very often that the publication of this column coincides with the anniversary of one of the 10 men who died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks in 1981.

Today is one of those rare occasions. Twenty-nine years ago Joe McDonnell died after 61 days on hunger strike. Next Tuesday is Martin Hurson’s anniversary.

Joe was one of the oldest of 10 men yet he was also a very young man. He was just 29 years old.

Joe was married to Goretti and had two children – Bernadette and Joseph. Joe came from a large family of eight children.

He began his hunger strike on May 9 1981, four days after the death of Bobby Sands. Before his death, after 61 days, three other prisoners had died – Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara and Raymond McCreesh.

Joe would have heard the news of their deaths while he was in a cell in an H-Block or in the H-Block hospital wing.

There is no doubt that Joe would have known the fate that awaited him as the news of the death of each hunger striker reached his ears. Yet at no stage during his agonising hunger strike did he pause to consider his impending death.

In an article written by Danny Morrison several years ago, following a visit to the then closed and decaying Long Kesh, he recalled meeting Joe, two days before he died, in the canteen of the prison hospital.

With Joe were Tom McElwee, Kieran Doherty TD, Kevin Lynch and Mickey Devine.

Danny wrote: “Joe McDonnell, who had two days to live, was brought in on a wheelchair and kept joking throughout the visit. He smoked several cigarettes in between sipping water.”
Gerry Adams in his book Before the Dawn wrote about knowing Joe from being interned with him:

“Joe was a very happy-go-lucky guy.” He recalled Joe’s “sense of fun”.

“On the day he started his hunger strike, he sent me out a Kind Edward Cigar from his prison cell,” he said.

That wit greeted me when I first met Joe in Cage 3 in 1973 and on the two occasions I visited him when he was on hunger strike.

I wondered at the time, and still do to this day, where Joe and the other hunger strikers got their resolve to carry them beyond life.

Indeed the same question may be asked of their loved ones who stood with them as they faced their final moments.

Jim ‘Jazz’ McCann, then a very young prisoner, remembered his time with Joe on the blanket protest in the H-Blocks. “Joe was a tower of strength. He got a lot of us through the protest. He was forever the optimist. A ‘raker’ – the life and soul of the wing.”

Joe never took a visit with his family for almost five years because he refused to wear a prison uniform. But he “talked about Goretti and Bernadette and Joseph and his family, especially his sister Maura, every day and night,” according to Jim.

He was in constant contact with Goretti through comms and had visitors from across Belfast smuggle her comms to him.

Jim said: “Joe’s dream was to get a visit with Goretti and the children and to be reunited with them, wearing not a prison uniform but his own clothes.”

Former hunger striker Raymond McCartney described Joe as “the heartbeat of the wing. The wise ‘old’ man of the wing, who was very very protective of other prisoners.”

Joe had regularly argued for the hunger strike, two years before it actually began. To his comrades he was “rock-solid”, “unbending”, “stubborn and principled”, “a figure-head”, “a family man”, “a caring person”.

And a man who made others laugh while he got them through the toughest and most challenging of times.

Sourced from the Irish News


A slightly different version of this article appears on the Bobby Sands Trust website:

Joe McDonnell Tribute

July 8, 2010

Today is the 29th anniversary of the death on hunger strike of IRA Volunteer Joe McDonnell from West Belfast. Veteran republican Jim Gibney here pays tribute to the fifth hunger striker to die in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh.

It does not happen very often that the publication of this column [Jim’s weekly feature in the ‘Irish News’] coincides with the anniversary of one of the ten men who died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks in 1981. Today is one of those rare occasions. Twenty-nine years ago Joe Mc Donnell died after 61 days on hunger strike. He was one of the oldest of the ten men yet he was also a very young man. He was 30-years-old. Joe was married to Goretti and had two children, Bernadette and Joseph. Joe came from a large family of eight children.

He began his hunger strike on the 9th May 1981, four days after the death of Bobby Sands. Before his death, after sixty one days, three other prisoners had died – Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara and Raymond Mc Creesh.

Joe would have heard the news of their deaths while he was in a cell in an H-Block or in the H-Block hospital wing. There is no doubt that Joe would have known the fate that awaited him as the news of the death of each hunger striker reached his ears. Yet at no stage during his agonising hunger strike did he pause to consider his impending death.

In an article written by Danny Morrison several years ago, following a visit to the then closed and decaying Long Kesh, he recalled meeting Joe, two days before he died, in the canteen of the prison hospital. With Joe were Tom Mc Elwee, Kieran Doherty TD, Kevin Lynch and Mickey Devine.

Danny wrote: “Joe Mc Donnell, who had two days to live, was brought in on a wheelchair and kept joking throughout the visit. He smoked several cigarettes in between sipping water. I had been there to bring them up to date with our contacts with the British and the ultimately forlorn attempts to resolve the political status issue.”

Gerry Adams in his book ‘Before the Dawn’ wrote about knowing Joe from being interned with him: “Joe was a very happy-go-lucky guy.” He recalled Joe’s “sense of fun… On the day he started his hunger strike, he sent me out a King Edward Cigar from his prison cell.”

I wondered at the time and still do to this day where Joe and the other hunger strikers got their resolve to carry them beyond life. Indeed the same question may be asked of their loved ones who stood with them as they faced their final moments.

Three ex-prisoners who knew Joe as an active IRA volunteer outside and inside prison spoke to me about the man they knew. Seamy Finucane said Joe had a reputation in Andersonstown for being “a hands-on IRA operator”. He was a member of two active service units attached to the Belfast Brigade and Battalion staffs. He oozed confidence. “In his company you knew you were safe”.

“Being safe” around Joe is how a very young prisoner, Jim ‘Jazz’ Mc Cann, remembered his time with Joe on the blanket protest in the H-Blocks. “Joe was a tower of strength. He got a lot of us through the protest. He was forever the optimist. A ‘raker’, the life and soul of the wing.” Joe never took a visit with his family for almost five years because he refused to wear a prison uniform. But he “talked about Goretti and Bernadette and Jospeh and his family especially his sister Maura every day and night,” according to Jim. He was in constant contact with Goretti through comms and had visitors from across Belfast smuggle her comms to him.

Jim said, “Joe’s dream was to get a visit with Goretti and the children and to be reunited with them, wearing not a prison uniform but his own clothes.”

Former hunger striker Raymond Mc Cartney described Joe as “the heart-beat of the wing. The wise ‘old’ man of the wing, who was very protective of other prisoners.”

Joe had regularly argued for a hunger strike, two years before it actually began. To his comrades he was ‘rock-solid’, ‘unbending’, ‘stubborn and principled’, ‘a figure head’, ‘a family man’, ‘a caring person’.

And a man who made others laugh while he got them through the toughest and challenging of times.

Sourced from The Bobby Sands Trust website

Gerry Adams speech on Joe McDonnell: A Heroic Leader

Speech on the grounds of the Roddy McCorley Club given by Gerry Adams at Joe McDonnell commemoration, 8 July 2010

Joe McDonnell was great craic. He loved life and had a great sense of fun. He was optimistic, charismatic, a natural leader, and a practical joker. And he was a dedicated and committed IRA Volunteer who 29 years ago on July 8th 1981 died on hunger strike.

I first met Joe during internment. We were being held on the Maidstone Prison ship in Belfast Lough. The conditions were punitive and primitive. After protests by us and following the imposition of British Direct Rule it was closed. We were moved to the cages in Long Kesh. Joe was one of hundreds of men and women incarcerated without trial. And although conditions were harsh in the cages he was always cheerful.

Later when he commenced his hunger strike, four days after the death of his friend and comrade Bobby Sands, Joe sent me out from the H Blocks a King Edward cigar. Don’t ask me how he got it.

Joe was the fifth man to join the hunger-strike. He was 29 years old, married to Goretti and with two children Bernadette and Joseph.

He was born in the Lower Falls but grew up in the Greater Andersonstown area and came to live in Lenadoon Avenue where he was a well-known and very popular man.

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 smuggled communications –comms – 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 ‘scarcher’ (an anglicised form of the Irish word, scairt – to shout) shouting the scéal, or news from his block to the adjoining one about a hundred yards away. This was the only way that news from outside could be communicated from one H-Block to the blanket men in another H-Block.

Joe had been arrested at the same time as Bobby Sands and the two were very close. It was predictable, inevitable almost, that when Bobby died on May 5th after 66 days on hunger strike that Joe would take his place a few days later.

Like Bobby, Joe also stood for election. On June 11th there was a general election in the south. 9 prisoners, four of them hunger strikers, stood. It was a time of severe economic difficulties and there were many pressing issues bearing down on citizens in that part of the island. Despite that, and the fact that the political platform of the prisoners was for support for their five demands, thousands of people used their votes to back the prisoners.

Paddy Agnew and Kieran Doherty were elected and Joe came within 300 votes of becoming a TD for Sligo.

Despite this public backing the Irish government proved inept, was hostile to the prisoners and refused to stand up to the Thatcher government.

Joe died in the early hours of July 8th after 61 days on hunger strike. A few hours later Nora McCabe was shot with a plastic bullet and murdered by the RUC at the corner of Linden Street and the Falls Road.

Two days later I arrived late for Joe’s funeral having attended the earlier funeral of 16 year old John Dempsey, a member of Na Fianna Éireann who had been shot dead by the British Army.

On the Andersonstown Road, outside the building that later became Connolly House, an IRA firing party gave its last salute to a fallen comrade. As they withdrew from the funeral the British Army and RUC raided a house in St. Agnes Drive a short distance away. There was the thud and crack of gunfire and then of plastic bullets as the house and then the funeral was attacked by British forces.

The scenes were chaotic. There was a running battle between mourners and the British Army and RUC in St. Agnes Drive which spilled out onto the Andersonstown Road. Other mourners, with children, huddled in groups wherever they could to get protection from the scores of plastic bullets that were being fired. As Martin McGuinness and I pushed our way through the crowd from the front of the funeral procession the plastic bullets flew like deadly flocks of birds from the RUC land Rovers towards the mourners.

Somewhere in the middle of all this I heard that my brother Paddy had been shot. Somebody else told me he was in a Saracen which was sitting in the street. An elderly man lay on the ground in front of the Saracen refusing to let it move. It was my uncle Paddy. And then an ambulance with siren screaming flew past me. I was later told that Paddy was in that.

But despite all that was happening Joe’s funeral still had to proceed and the thousands who were there did so with the greatest dignity.

Much has been written since then about the hunger strikers, the hunger strike, and its impact. I believe it was a watershed event in Irish history. It changed the course of Irish history.

I also believe that for those today who want to know what it means to be a republican you need look no further than the men and women in Armagh and the Blocks and to the hunger strikers.

They are today’s role models. They were noble, selfless, decent men and women who demonstrated enormous heroism in the face of great hardship. They were totally committed to opposing oppression and injustice and to building a new society based on equality and freedom.

Through their efforts and those of thousands of others Irish republicanism has grown in political strength to a level unimaginable in 1981.

Two weeks ago I spoke at the Short Strand commemoration to mark the 40th anniversary of the Battle of St. Mathews. As part of those events Danny Devenny, mural painter extraordinaire, who was in the Cages with Bobby Sands, painted a new mural.

In bold words it says: ‘Understand the Past – And build a Better Future’.That’s where our focus must be. That’s what motivated Joe and Bobby and Big Doc and their comrades. And there is a role for everyone in building that new future.

Sourced from Gerry Adams’ blog, Leargas

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