McCreesh and O’Hara die on the same day

An Phoblacht

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Photo: Raymond McCreesh mural unveiled in Camlough by Raymond’s former comrades Dan McGuinness and Paddy Quinn who were arrested and imprisoned with him.

Remembering 1981: Four men dead as crisis escalates

Thursday 21 May 1981 witnessed the deaths of two more Hunger Strikers. Raymond McCreesh passed away at 2.30am. Later that evening Patsy O’Hara died.

A Mass had been celebrated at Raymond McCreesh’s bedside on Wednesday evening by his brother Fr Brian McCreesh. He was semi-conscious and appeared to show some sign of recognition but died just a few hours later. His remains were returned to his beloved Camlough in South Armagh for the funeral the following Saturday.

Leaving the family home in St Malachy’s Terrace, the cortege stopped briefly at the lane outside the house where it was joined by a honour guard of IRA Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and Na Fianna Éireann. Led by a lone piper, the cortege paused to allow Raymond McCreesh’s comrades fire a final salute over the Tricolour-draped coffin.

At St Malachy’s church loudspeakers broadcast the Mass to a huge crowd of mourners. Mass was concelebrated by five priests led by Raymond’s brother Brian. In his sermon Fr Wolsey criticised the British for selectively quoting from the Pope’s 1979 Drogheda speech: “Violent means must not be used, the Pope says, to change injustices. But neither must violent means be used to keep injustices. The Pope has said so. The first passage has been over quoted; the second one rarely heard.”

After the Mass, the funeral procession made it’s way the short distance to the cemetery where, in sight of the family home the coffin was lowered into the grave. Chairing the graveside ceremonies was South Armagh republican, Joe McElhaw. Defying a British exclusion order Sinn Féin President Ruairí Ó Brádaigh delivered the oration. Paying tribute to McCreesh he said: “We are gathered here to perform a last, sad but proud duty for that great Irishman and human being, Raymond McCreesh.” He detailed McCreesh’s progression from Na Fianna Éireann to the IRA and his capture in 1976 after a gunbattle with the British army. He had fought imperialism, which was the “enemy of mankind”

Ó Brádaigh outlined the area’s proud history of resistance to British rule. He accused the British Government of callously murdering McCreesh and his comrades but added that British policy was now in ribbons. “Where now is their Ulsterisation? Where now was their normalisation? Where now is their criminalisation?”, he asked.

“These hungry and starving men in their beds of pain, by superior moral strength, have pushed the British government to the wall and have shamed them in the eyes of the world”, said Ó Brádaigh.

Comparing the Hunger Strikers to Terrence McSweeney, the Lord Mayor of Cork who died on Hunger Strike in 1921, he pledged republicans would continue their resistance to British rule.

Patsy O’Hara

Patsy O’Hara passed away at 11.39pm. By his bedside were his father James, his sister Elizabeth and family friend James Daly. Speaking of his final moments his sister said: “My Father called Patsy! And he sort of, as if he recognised the voice, sort of just tried to move his head, just one last time. And then he died. And as he was dying his face just changed, he had a very, very distinct smile on his face which I will never forget. I said you’re free Patsy. You have won your fight and you’re free. And he was cold then.”

Former leader of INLA prisoners in the H-Blocks, O’Hara came from a staunchly republican family and was much respected in his native Derry. The night of his death saw sustained rioting on the streets of Derry. The RUC replied with volleys of plastic bullets, murdering 45-year-old Harry Duffy in the process. Two days earlier they had murdered 12-year-old Carol Ann Kelly in Twinbrook..

Repeating their actions with the Francis Hughes cortege, the RUC hijacked O’Hara’s remains. Long Kesh Governor, Stanley Hilditch had informed the family that the remains had been taken to Omagh where they could be collected. About 4.30am the RUC phoned Derry with a message. “If you want to collect this thing you had better do it before daylight”. They were determined to prevent a daytime cortege. In a sickening development it emerged, after the body was finally retrieved by the grieving family, that the RUC ghouls had mutilated the body.

The funeral, the biggest in the city since the Bloody Sunday funerals, was addressed by a number of people. Chairing the proceedings was James Daly, husband of murdered anti-H-Block activist Miriam Daly. He offered his condolences to the family before introducing a member of the INLA leadership who read out a statement. Patsy’s brother Seán then addressed the mourners. He compared Charles Haughey to Pontius Pilate and said the Hunger Strikes were an important victory for the cause of Irish freedom as the whole world could now see the callousness of the British.

Gerry Roche of the IRSP detailed the harsh experiences, North and South, endured by O’Hara during his short life. Commending his revolutionary spirit Roche said the attempt to criminalise the prisoners was an attempt to criminalise the entire struggle. O’Hara had recognised this and had resisted courageously. “He believed that it is no crime to fight the British occupation forces, but the duty of every Irish man and Irish woman”, Roche said.

An INLA firing party fired a volley of shots over the coffin in a final salute to their dead comrade.

The deaths of McCreesh and O’Hara in the H-Blocks took place against an increasingly violent backdrop outside the prison. The IRA was mounting increasingly effective military operations against the British army with five British soldiers killed in an ambush at Altnaveigh, South Armagh.

Crown forces attempted to crush rising nationalist anger. In addition to the plastic bullet deaths of Carol Ann Kelly and Harry Duffy, there was a wave of indiscriminate plastic bullet attacks leaving hundreds injured, many of them seriously, including Paul Lavelle (15) from Ardoyne who was left in a coma.

The Hunger Strike was causing a huge outcry in the 26 Counties and Taoiseach Charles Haughey was forced to give the impression of doing something, particularly in light of an impending election on 11 June. He promoted as a serious initiative an intervention by the European Commission on Human Rights which amounted to nothing.

Just two days before her brother died, Haughey met with Patsy O’Hara’s sister Elizabeth, during which he gave the impression that a development involving Europe was imminent and asked her for a contact number at which she could be reached. The following morning she got a call summoning her to Government Buildings. Haughey was still pushing the Commission angle but told Elizabeth that Patsy would have to come off the Hunger Strike to give time for a complaint to be made to the Commission. It was clear at this point that the Commission was just a diversion. Elizabeth O’Hara broke off all contact with Haughey.

There was mounting anger on the streets in the 26 Counties. Although the H-Block committee was determinedly non-violent as a matter of strategy, there was a wave of incidents across the state such as the 23 May torching of a bus belonging to English fishermen in Ballinamore, County Leitrim. In a vain attempt to distract from the real issue a Government summit was called with much fanfare to discuss “escalating violence”.

A statement from the Catholic Cardinal, Tomás O Fiach said: “Raymond McCreesh was born in a community that has always proclaimed that it is Irish, not British. When the northern troubles began he was barely 12, a very impressionable age at which to learn discrimination. Those who protested against it were harassed and intimidated. Then followed Burntollet, The Bogside, Bombay Street and Bloody Sunday in Derry all before he was 15.” The Cardinal went on to say that McCreesh would never have been in jail had it not been for the abnormal political situation. “Who was entitled to judge him?”, he asked.

The 20 May local elections in the Six Counties saw a number of H-Block candidates elected. Amongst them was Raymond McCreesh’s brother, Oliver.

International support for the Hunger Strikers soared. There were daily demonstrations in the United States. Thousands marched in protest through New York on the Saturday after the deaths of McCreesh and O’Hara. Amongst the countries that saw demonstrations, many of them large, were Australia, Norway, Greece, France and Portugal.

The deaths of Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara, who had started the strike on the same day, died on the same day and were born within a fortnight of each other in February 1957, marked a critical escalation in prison struggle as well as the struggle outside the prisons walls.

Despite the constant rain and a blustery wind that dogged their steps on the road from Newry to Camlough thousands of republicans marched on Sunday 21 May, 2006 to remember IRA Volunteer Raymond McCreesh who died in 1981 after 61 days on hunger strike.

The march was lead by a colour party of former republican POWs from the South Armagh area. At the head of the flag bearers was Paddy Quinn and Dan McGuinness.

Both men were captured with Raymond McCreesh in 1976 as they mounted an operation against an undercover British army unit near Sturgan Road not far from Camlough, Raymond’s home village. Quinn was later to follow his friend and comrade on hunger strike.

A colour party from South Armagh Ógra Shinn Féin marched in formation behind the main colour party.

Sunday’s march was the culmination of a weekend of events organised in South Armagh to remember Raymond McCreesh’s sacrifice and celebrate his life and commitment to the republican cause.

On Friday a mural was unveiled on Raymond McCreesh’s House and a well attended discussion on the legacy of the Hunger Strike was held on Saturday night.

Panellists included Bik McFarlane, O/C of the H-Block prisoners during the Hunger Strike and former Sinn Féin Publicity Director Danny Morrison.

As the march set off from Newry the rain tried hard to dampen spirits but with every mile walked more people joined the procession.

Banners carried bore the names of towns and villages throughout South Down and South Armagh- Camlough, Silverbridge, Belleek, Bessbrook, Crossmaglen, Cullyhanna, Mullaghbawn. Newry was well represented with three banners named in honour of fallen IRA Volunteers from the area.

Monaghan, Armagh’s neighbour to the south, sent a contingent while the Harford/Bell Republican Flute Band from Dublin also attended.

In the crowd were members of the Hughes and McElwee families from Bellaghy. Bridie Lynch from Dungiven was there indicating the bond that exists among the families of the H-Block martyrs.

A commemoration was held at the Republican Plot in Camlough cemetery where Raymond McCreesh is buried. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams gave the main oration. Acknowledging the courage and commitment of Raymond McCreesh he said it reflected the courage and commitment of the IRA in South Armagh in the way it fought the British army to a standstill in the area.

Adams went on to commend the work of republicans in South Armagh who had embraced the republican peace strategy and were working hard to fulfil the vision of the united Ireland for which Raymond McCreesh had died.

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