Today in history: FRANCIS HUGHES DIES ON HUNGER STRIKE

12 May 1981

Irish Hunger Strike 1981

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usFrancis Hughes: A determined and totally fearless soldier

Read Francis’ biography >>here

Photo from CAIN – click to view

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IRSM.org

Francis Hughes: Scourge of the UDR

June 1981

The name of Francis Hughes will surely continue to stick in the throats of British military and political hawks.

Unlike many of those who make the ultimate sacrifice Francis Hughes had already become a legend in his own lifetime and amongst his own people as one of the most capable guerrilla fighters Ireland has produced in the long war against British Imperialism.

Having put Francis Hughes “safely away” in 1978 the British assumed that his name would no longer strike terror in their own hearts and a chord in the minds of people in South Derry.


‘Francis caught’ – click to view

The British were exultant at his arrest following a gun battle in which Francis and a comrade killed an SAS man and wounded another. Despite an awesome wound he refused to answer his interrogators who later described him as “totally uncooperative”. After the usual mockery of a Diplock trial British soldiers felt slightly more relaxed in South Derry and surrounding areas. Very foolish of them of course but then the British military mind has never understood the collective spirit of solidarity engendered by individually brilliant revolutionary soldiers like Francis Hughes.

And brilliant he was. His exploits are legion and legendary spreading through areas of Tyrone, Derry and Antrim. They are too numerous to recount here. Suffice it to say that all the normal cliches like dedication, bravery, military skill and the like are inadequate to describe a man who caused the British military machine as much grief as most guerrilla fighters from Tom Barry, Michael Collins and through to the modern breed of fighters.

One or two examples of his coolness and ingenuity would make even Collins look like a novice. The night he was surrounded by British soldiers in one of the numerous “safe houses” in his area of operation he simply grabbed his rifle and weaved his way through the tightening circle stopping occasionally to mumble a few familiar words with the professionals of the British Army whose perception of the “stupid Irish” has often been a weapon in our favour. He got away then as on many other occasions.

Behind his folk hero status in South Derry, however, lies the fairly typical story of a young Irish man who was not allowed to grow up normally in the artificial police state called Northern Ireland. It was not for want of trying.

Showing an aptitude for history and woodwork at school he started an apprenticeship as a painter and decorator at the age of 16 years which he completed shortly before becoming a full time revolutionary. Shortly after he became a painter he and a friend receive a brutal beating from British soldiers on a lonely country road one night. The experience was to prove more painful to the Brits than Francis himself over the next few years.

Responsible for more attacks on British forces than the combined strength of many other units put together he became the “most wanted man” in the Six Counties. So feared was he that his comrades recalled recently in Republican News one UDR patrol recognised him once at a checkpoint but fearful (wisely) of a shoot-out they waved him through.

Francis Hughes is now doubly famous and revered. His hunger strike to the death was just the ultimate proof, if any were needed, that his determination and actions in the field were inspired by a profound political motivation.

If the entire body of self-seekers now scrambling to retain their seats in the Dail possessed between them just a portion of the guts and conviction that Francis showed there might not be the need for the ending of many young Irish lives.

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BBC ON THIS DAY

Second IRA protester dies in jail

12 May 1981

Play >>news video

A second IRA hunger striker, 25-year-old Francis Hughes, has starved to death in the Maze Prison near Lisburn in County Antrim.

His death comes a week after the death of Bobby Sands on 5 May, the first to die in a republican campaign for political status to be granted to IRA prisoners.

“His blood is on Margaret Thatcher’s hands.”
Francis Hughes’ brother Oliver

Hughes began refusing food and medical attention a week after Sands began his hunger strike on 1 March. He lapsed into unconsciousness and died at 1743BST today.

As news of his death spread in Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry, women clanged dustbin lids and young men stoned army vehicles, threw petrol bombs and hijacked lorries.

Hughes’ brother, Oliver, blamed the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for his death. Speaking from his hometown of Bellaghy he said: “Margaret Thatcher and the British Government have murdered my brother and his blood is on Margaret Thatcher’s hands.”

The condition of two other hunger strikers at the Maze, Raymond McCreesh and Patrick O’Hara, continues to deteriorate.

Their five demands include: the right to wear their own clothes, refrain from prison work, associate freely with other Republican prisoners, to have visits and parcels once a week and the right to have lost remission on sentences restored.

‘Absolute fanatic’

Security forces have said Hughes was “an absolute fanatic whose name stood for murder and nothing else”. A spokesman went on to describe him as “as vicious a man as you could meet, a ruthless killer who thrived on what he was doing”.

His republican colleagues hailed him as “fearless and active”.

Four years ago, Hughes became a wanted man after the home of a policeman was blown up in County Tyrone. No-one was hurt but Hughes’ fingerprints were found on adhesive tape used on the bomb.

In March 1978 he was finally caught after a gun battle at Bellaghy and eventually sentenced to a total of 83 years in prison for his six-year-long career as an IRA gunman and bomber.

The government is refusing to grant any of the hunger strikers’ demands. Mrs Thatcher says they are a cover for gaining political status, a special category denied paramilitaries in the Maze since 1976.

In Context

The Maze Prison was initially run along the lines of a prisoner-of-war camp, segregated according to paramilitary allegiance with military-style command structures.

In March 1976 the British government ended special category status – which had accorded the prisoners political recognition – and started to treat paramilitary offenders as ordinary criminals.

The jail became the focus of intense international scrutiny between 1976 and 1981 when Republican inmates fought for political status, initially through the “blanket” and “dirty” protests.

Their campaign culminated in two hunger strikes.

During the second in 1981, 10 Republicans, led by Bobby Sands, starved themselves to death and 64 civilians, police and soldiers died in violence directly attributable to the hunger strikes.

Three days after the hunger strikes came to an end on 3 October, the Ulster Secretary James Prior negotiated a package of concessions for the Maze prisoners – much to the fury of the loyalist community.

He met two of the prisoners’ demands – the right to wear their own clothes and the restoration of 50% of lost remission for those who obeyed prison rules for three months.

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Irish Northern Aid

**The following extracts are taken from INA’s online book of the Hunger Strikes.
The beginning of the book is >>here

The Man From Tamlaghtduff

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Detail of Francis from Derry mural (image from CAIN)

On Sunday, the 15th of March, 1981, Bobby was joined on hunger strike by one of the greatest heroes of the conflict, Francis Hughes, of South Derry. He was captured after a intense fire fight with the SAS almost two years previously to the day. Francis lead the British army on a wild and bloody ride for years in his home land of South Derry that usually ended with Brit casualties and with Francis slipping through, around or behind hostile lines of soldiers. He was one with the hills. Taking in the odds never seemed to be part of his calculations when engaging the Brits. Sometimes he simply attacked whole squads arrayed to capture or kill him, turning an aggressive British operation into a full retreat. Francis Hughes was a legend. He was 23 years of age when he was captured; he was 25 when he died. Chisty Moore wrote a popular song about Francis, “The Boy From Tamlaghtduff:”

The Boy form Tamlaghtduff

As I walked through the Glenshane Pass I heard a young girl mourn
‘The boy form Tamlaghtduff ‘she cried ‘is two years dead and gone’
How my heart is torn apart this young man to lose
Oh I’ll never see the likes again of my young Francis Hughes

For many years his exploits were a thorn in Englands side
The hills and glens became his home there he used to hide
Once when they surrounded him he quietly slipped away
Like a fox he went to ground and kept the dogs at bay

Moving round the countryside he often made the news
But they could never lay their hands on my brave Francis Hughes
Finally they wounded him and captured him at last
From the countryside he loved they took him to Belfast

Oh from Musgrave Park to the Crumlin Road and then to an H-Block cell
He went straight on the blanket then on hungerstrike as well
His will to win they could never break no matter what they tried
He fought them every day he lived and he fought them as he died

As I walked through the Glenshane Pass I heard a young girl mourn
‘The boy form Tamlaghtduff ‘she cried ‘is two years dead and gone’
How my heart is torn apart this young man to lose
Oh I’ll never see the likes again of my young Francis Hughes

~Lyrics from >>eirefirst.com

Francis Hughes Is Taken To Hospital: “Victory to the IRA!”

Around this time, on his 25th day without food, Frances Hughes was taken to the prison hospital in weakened condition. He was taken away from the wing by an escort of 6 prison warders. One was plenty to control Frank at that time, yet it was a form of harassment and mockery to surround him like that. It was also a left-handed complement of sorts: that Francis Hughes was so feared that, even though hardly able to stand, he wasn’t trusted to go without a battle. He was our Superman. Perhaps he would yet attack his tormentors even now, break out of the H-Blocks, leap the perimeter walls in a bound, back into the hills and hollows of South Derry where he would again attack the British army at will. He would escape his captors only in death, but they would still learn to fear him. They would always fear him.

Before he left the wing, he whipped the Blanketmen into a frenzy of support –a wild, righteous joy that a person might experience once or twice in a lifetime, if lucky. He didn’t need it to prepare himself to die. No. He did it for them. He raised his crutch [he was still crippled by the bullet wounds he received during his capture and abuse in prison] high over his head and shouted to the men and banged on their cells as he passed: “Victory to the IRA!” The men shouted back and hammered on their cell doors. “Tiocfaidh ar la! Victory to the Blanketmen!,” Francis Hughes bellowed as they took him to the hospital. It would be the last they would see of Francis Hughes, but they never would forget him.

The Blanketmen’s thoughts turn to Frank Hughes

As the men inside the H-Blocks honored Bobby’s memory, it was also impossible not to think about Frank, dying himself in the prison hospital, and Patsy and Raymond as well. The two weeks lead time between Bobby and Francis Hughes going on hunger strike now seemed like a good idea. But was enough to save his life?

The Legend of Frank Hughes

I knew an Irish American whose name just happened to be Francis Hughes. He was traveling through the north during the late 70s and gave his name upon request at Brit checkpoint. He could see the soldiers’ irises dilating into pinheads at the sound of the hated words: “Francis Hughes”. The man almost had a heart attack. What was he supposed to say when asked for his name? He headed south. Fast. Such was the fear and hatred that Brit crown forces learned to have for even the sound of the name of Francis Hughes.

Tamlaghtduff and the Hughes Family

The Hughes’ ancestral family had managed a living on country farmland near Bellaghy, South Co. Derry, in a place called Tamlaghtduff for as long as anyone remembered. Joseph and Margaret Hughes had a large family to raise, four boys and six girls. Joe was known to be of Republican sympathy, but that was all. Actually, Frank’s father, Joe, fought with the IRA in the ‘20s, but was quiet about all of that, having enough to do keeping a dozen human beings and a number of animal beings alive to talk about past struggles. Life was a struggle, but a good one. They had enough, neither rich nor poor.

Nonetheless, the RUC, British army, and particularly the British army regiment recruited locally among Unionists and Loyalists — the Ulster Defense Regiment, targeted the Hughes boys for abuse and surveillance.

For Frank, the “troubles” begin at fifteen

The struggle in the north first impacted Frank Hughes as a 15-year-old school boy. One cold morning the RUC and Brit army raided the Hughes family home with rifles and guns drawn, broke into the room that Frank shared with his older brother Oliver, and dragged Oliver away to an internment camp where, without trial or due process, he served 8 months “behind the wire.” Oliver had a clip of ammunition in the pocket of the jacket his mother insisted he wear against the cold as they took him off. Luckily, he found a moment to fling it unnoticed into the dark Irish morning. He had plans to be married in 10 days.
The turning point: “I’ll get my own back…”

When Frank turned 17, he was beaten badly by a UDR patrol while returning home from a dance. He hid the fact from his family, but the pain was so bad that his father, Joe, finally got the truth out of him. Joe told him to report the incident to the RUC and go to a doctor. Frank replied, “I’ll get my own back in my own time.” He would do better than that.

No one really knows how many of the British crown forces were killed by the hand of Francis Hughes; the “official” count is thirty. But there was never a sense of revenge, Francis always thought of himself as a soldier for Ireland and wore full military gear when operating. In 1973, he and a group of young neighbors joined the Provisional IRA after a brief stint with the “Officials”, which they left to form their own fighting group they called the “Independents”.

Frank’s leadership and technical skill was apparent. He was deadly with a weapon and probably invented, clearly perfected, a deadly booby-trap bomb constructed with a clothespin, a piece of stick, and some fishing line that he connected to an explosive device.

Always on the attack

But his greatest assets as a fighting man was his calmness, courage, and desire to engage the enemy at all times. He was fearless. One IRA leader said, “He was the sort of man who would shoot up a few policemen on his way to a meeting to plan our next attack on the police.”

Once Frank was trapped upstairs in a safe house surrounded by a Brit patrol. When an officer entered the house and confronted the scared witless owner, Frank, wearing his typical combat jacket and bristling with weaponry, came down the stairs and walked calmly passed the officer saying, “Nothing inside.” And off he went into the night.

Another incident that displayed Frank’s coolness under pressure was when he and two armed comrades were stopped by a Brit army patrol in an isolated area. He told the officer that they were taking “a shortcut” and was amazingly waved on through. When they were well passed the check point, the other two were horrified as Frank turned back and asked the Brit officer if he had a light. He calmly strode back and lit his cigarette. Little did the Brits know that they had just lit a fag for the most dangerous man in Ireland.

Another time he hitched a ride from a friend. Unfortunately, Frank was carrying with him a very considerable rifle. They ended up driving right into a check-point on a road too narrow to turn around on. Frank said, “Keep driving” and explained that he would smash the windshield and open fire. The friend was naturally petrified at the prospect and Frank so calm about it. A Brit soldier aimed his rifle at the two; the driver raised his shaking hands high. Frank saluted the soldier, who for some reason, panic or befuddlement, waved them through. There was no way that soldier didn’t see Frank’s riffle butt prepared to smash the window. No problem for Frank one way or the other.

The Moneymore escape

It was obvious Frank’s readiness to fight gave him the edge. Another incident would catapult him to the top of Britain’s “most wanted” list. On April 8th ‘77, four RUC men were on routine patrol when the VW Frank and two other IRA men were driving in pulled onto the road to Magherafelt [in South Derry] forcing the RUC car to brake. They drove after Francis’ car and motioned to the driver to pull over, expecting to give the “boys” a lecture on reckless driving. The VW jammed on its brakes and the RUC overshot them before stopping. The VW attempted a U-turn only to end up in a roadside ditch. Frank and his comrades jumped out and opened fire on the RUC men who were themselves flying out the doors of their vehicle. A Constable Sheehan was hit immediately and was knocked back into the vehicle. Constable MaCracken took a fatal hit. More RUC were now converging on the scene as the three escaped through the fields. An RUC car answering the call for support came upon three men jogging towards them in a field next to a quarry near Moneymore. Frank engaged the RUC in a covering firefight before joining his comrades who had leapt over a fence and began running through the open quarry. There they could be easily picked off by the RUC who were perfectly located. But the men, lead by Hughes, took turns covering each other by firing upon the RUC position. They did this so perfectly, each firing and falling back in turn, 4 or 5 yards apart, that the RUC never got a clear shot, although they fired away ineffectively, more interested in keeping their heads down.

The RUC and Brit army poured in reinforcements in pursuit of the men, who took cover in a small clump of bushes in the middle of an open field hoping that the obviousness of the spot would cause the Brits not to bother with it. Instead, the Brits set up a command post on the spot, yards away from Frank and his men. Unbelievably, they were undetected and made a break for it as night fell — using the same “leaps and bounds” military cover technique they had used earlier.

Word quickly spread through the north, Frank Hughes did it again!

“Most wanted terrorist”

The British army and RUC were so impressed with Francis’ military ability, as evidenced by the classic cover tactics employed in the Moneymore escape, that his photo was circulated on posters all over the Six Counties. Frank was now “the most wanted terrorist” in Ireland. Frank had a different “most wanted terrorist list” in his head: Britain’s crown forces in his Country.

Capture, Interrogation, and Death on Hunger Strike

People generally had the wrong idea of Frank Hughes. He certainly wasn’t an ideologue and he certainly had a powerful, pure belief in the Republican struggle. He was brave beyond brave and hated that his country and its people were terrorized and enslaved, and no one knows how many British crown forces he either killed or had a hand in killing, but he hated killing. He really hated what he felt he had to do.

“For God’s sake, I don’t want to be shooting them.”

Particularly, he hated having to kill British soldiers. He told his brother Mick, “They’re just kids. For God’s sake, I don’t want to be shooting them. I want them to bloody go home in the morning.”

“Do you know that I hate what I’m doing?” he told his brother, “I really hate it. But I’m going to keep doing it — that’s the funny thing about it. Tomorrow night I might blow up ten of them. I hope I do. But, Jesus, I hate doing it. It’s just that I don’t know any other way.”

He was taught by his father, Joe, not to be bigoted against Protestants or anyone. The Ulster Defense Regiment was a locally recruited, overwhelmingly Protestant British army regiment. Once he burst in

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