The Deaths of Kieran Doherty and Thomas McElwee on Hunger Strike

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Click thumbnail to view full size – photo of Kieran’s mural by CRAZYFENIAN

The 2nd of August marked the 24th anniversary of the death of hungerstriker Kieran Doherty after 73 days without food. I apologise for not posting this in a timely manner. I mean no disrespect to any particular hunger striker or any other important republican anniversary by my lapses. This particular season is a very difficult one to get through because there is a constant reminder of some painful memory to re-live, and for people who take the priciples and the events of the hunger strike seriously, the trauma of the deaths repeats itself over and over, year after year and never goes away.

Thomas McElwee

Tomorrow, August 8, also marks the anniversary of the death of Thomas McElwee after 62 days on hunger strike.

Irish Northern Aid

Thomas McElwee

“When you see the official photograph of Thomas McElwee on hunger strike posters, a 3/4 profile, he looks like a choir boy. When you look into his left eye — you can’t help but — there’s mischief. A twinkle that black and white photography and death don’t dim. He lost his other eye in a premature explosion on an IRA operation with his brother Benedict. He was nineteen. Benedict was seventeen. A comrade, Colum Scullion, lost several toes and Sean McPeake’s leg was blown away.

He looks directly at you through the camera, like he knows something that you know too. Even if you don’t want to admit it, he knows you share this secret. If you don’t see it, he isn’t looking at you…”

**Please see this post for more information about Thomas.


Kieran Doherty – Irish Hunger Strikes Chapter 40

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The Dohertys

“The Dohertys lived on a hill in a nationalist section of West Belfast called Andersonstown. Kieran was the third of six children. His mother Margaret was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism after she married Alfie Doherty. The family was Irish republican through and through. Alfie managed the local Republican Club that helped raise funds for the prisoners’ families after the previous manager was shot dead. Kieran’s granduncle, Ned Maguire, had taken part in a famous escape from the Crumlin Road jail in 1943. Two of Kieran’s second cousins, Maura and Dorothy Maguire, were shot dead by the British army in 1971. His second cousin Ned was interned and was now on the blanket. In 1972, his uncle Gerry took part in another famous escape from the Crum, when republican prisoners pretending to be playing football leaped over the fences en masse to freedom.

At fifteen, Kieran left formal schooling to work with his father as a floor tiler. His brothers Michael and Terence were at that time interned without trial and the Doherty family were constantly harassed and raided.

Kieran joined Na Fianna Eireann in 1971 at the age of fifteen. He was arrested almost immediately, but his father Alfie raised hell about his son’s age and Kieran was released — only to arrested and taken away again when he turned sixteen and interned without trial.

In November 1975, Kieran was one of the last internees to be released. He immediately went on active service with the IRA in the Andytown area with Joe McDonnell, John Pickering and others. He was mostly on the run as their unit was very active and effective.

They say Kieran was a very internal person, but big, very strong and decisive. Once he gave a man a public beating for hitting a woman. He was quiet and shy, but nobody crossed Kieran Doherty. They called him “Big Doc.”

He was arrested in 1976 after a bombing, with John Pickering [who was to join him later on hunger strike] and others including Terry Kirby [who escaped from the Kesh in ‘83 and was later arrested and held for extradition in the U.S.], and in 1978 was given 18 years.

He went on the blanket immediately. He was not an easy man.

He would take no orders. He would neither talk to or “hear” screws. He wouldn’t even acknowledge the existence of screws!

He was beaten unmercifully. Once he was hit, kicked and had his testicles squeezed until he was unconscious because he refused to cooperate on a mirror search. Another time eight screws took him into a room for a rectal search. Kieran treated this as usual. They nearly beat him unconscious but he refused to comply. Next they asked him to open his mouth for an oral search, but he refused again and was punched and karate chopped to get him to open his mouth. He didn’t. They took him back to his cell. He refused to wash to see the doctor. He was beaten so badly the doctor came to his cell. Later that night, he began to vomit, probably from the stomach punches and kicks, and was taken to the prison hospital.

Typically, Kieran on his release was sent to the punishment cells and charged with attempting to strike a warder.
By God, they will not rub my nose in it

When the first hunger strike was broken through the deceit of the Brits, Kieran was very angry [he was among the last group of hunger strikers in ‘80]: “They are rubbing our noses in it. By God, they will not rub mine.”

On Friday, 22 May 1981, Kieran Doherty replaced Raymond McCreesh on hunger strike. Almost immediately, Kieran was put forward for the Dail elections. On 11 July, he was elected TD for Cavan/Monaghan. Some thought that this would get the Irish government into action. Kieran was under no such delusions.

‘The Menace’

In the beginning of August, Kevin, Kieran, and Paddy Quinn were all into the last stages of deterioration. The Republican movement was coming under a lot of pressure in the press and from the hunger strikers’ families because of the behind the scenes actions of various forces including Catholic Churchmen. Particularly active in this regards was Fr. Denis Faul, whom the prisoners called “The Menace”. They were spreading the lie that the Movement was ordering the men on the hunger strike and then orchestrating events. The press loved this angle.

When Joe McDonnell died, the Daily Mail [11 July 1981] wrote: “In the blackmailing battle to achieve political status for thugs, they had ordered him to starve to death. To the IRA Joe McDonnell is worth far more dead than alive. The men with the guns are weeping no tears. For them the funeral was no more than another well managed melodrama, another notch on the gun barrel in their propaganda war.”

The lie that the Movement was keeping the hunger strikers ignorant of what was going on outside the prison was another manufactured problem. Fr. Faul was to thank for this one as well, who stirred up the families that the men were being kept in the dark. It was decided that Gerry Adams, Owen Carron, and Seamus Ruddy of the IRSP would be allowed to go into the Kesh to explain the realities to the men, not that they needed any explaining.

Fr. Faul’s reasoning was: if Adams and the others told the men exactly what the situation was and explained that the decision to stay on the strike was totally theirs, then the men would come off. The Movement’s reasoning for agreeing to the meeting was: the men were always in charge of the hunger strike, so what was to loose? In fact, the hunger strike was costly for the Movement in terms of human loss and resource depletion as well as energy going into one part of the struggle. The men went on hunger strike themselves. They could call it off as easily and the republican movement would welcome the decision. Even if one man decided off, his decision would be respected.”


Thomas McElwee

“Speaking of the hunger strike and her sons and their comrades during Thomas’ strike, Mrs. McElwee said: “I know Thomas and Benedict would be determined to stand up for their rights. In the Blocks one will stand for another. If this hunger strike isn’t settled one way or another they’ll all go the same way. There’ll never be peace in this country.”

Thomas McElwee died at 11.30 a.m. on Saturday, August 8th. Indicative of the callousness of the British government towards prisoners and their families alike neither had the comfort of each other’s presence at that tragic moment. He died after 62 days of slow agonising hunger strike with no company other than prison warders – colleagues of those who had brutalised, degraded and tortured him for three-and-a-half years.”

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Click thumbnail to view all photos at Larkspirit’s ‘Scenes from the Funerals’

**Please see also Irish Hunger Strike 1981 Memorial Website


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