The Death of Martin Hurson

Irish Prisoners of War – NORAID Online

Chapter 37

Martin Hurson’s Agonizing Death

After forty two days on hunger strike, Martin Hurson was barely alive. The other men lasted about sixty days or longer. So when news leaked out of the Kesh that Martin was doing badly, it came as a big shock to the family; they had hoped that some settlement over the next month or so would save his life. It was a life worth saving.

Bik for the ICJP: “Get Stuffed”

The ICJP reacted with anger at Joe McDonnell’s death, for the first time lashing out at the British in the media for “clawing back” on concessions and promises made to them. One even broke down in tears before a French television crew. The British reaction? They blew it off, both the death and the criticism. Alison, the Brit prison minister, said he was told McDonnell’s condition wasn’t critical. The NIO refused comment: “ministers are not interested in engaging in public exchanges with the commission.” Garret FitzGerald urged the Brits to reengage with the ICJP, but the Commission was in fact done.

Bik, sitting in his prison cell, wrote a “comm” to Gerry Adams about the prisoners attitude towards the ICJP: “No one will be talking to them unless I am present and then it will only be to tell them to skit OK… If we can render them ineffective now, then we leave the way clear for a direct approach without all the ballsing about… Our softly softly approach with them has left the impression that we were taking their proposals as a settlement. I’m sorry now I didn’t tell them to get stuffed.”

The US Unsafe for “the Princess”

Alison was dispatched to America to counter the growing effects of Irish-American supporters. In NYC, there was a continual picket set up by Noraid and other H-Block supporters at the British Consulate which made life miserable for Brit bureaucrats going to and fro work through a beehive of abuse. One complained, “When I go to work I am called a bastard and a murderer and a liar and again when I leave.” These scenes were duplicated throughout the country.

Even more notable was the fact that Princess Margaret had a scheduled visit to the US canceled on security grounds. A leading Washington politician complained, “It’s the first time a member of the Royal Family as been afraid to visit a friendly country”

Alison hit the US media referring to the hunger strike as “the Irish terrorist suicide”, similar to the Japanese Kamikaze pilots: “We have another week or fortnight before the next suicide takes place and we hope we might be able to make a bit of progress in that period.”

His tour wasn’t a success. To even the average American, that kind of rhetoric only exposed Brit elitism and attitudes against Irish people generally.

Martin Hurson

Martin Hurson was a strong country man with a great sense of humor and a friendly, optimistic personality who never lost his boyish good looks. He was well liked in the Kesh because he was always very positive and at 24, although he was in prison since he was 19 and on the blanket as soon as he was convicted, he was in the rude good health of a country boy from Tyrone. He had strong family support and a fiancé, Bernadette Donnelly, who loved him. Bernadette had no idea Martin was an IRA volunteer. She was stunned when she found out he was arrested.

Life in Cappagh

The Hursons had all grown up on the farm on a hill near the small East Tyrone town of Cappagh. There were nine of them in a three bedroom farm house. When Martin was a boy, there was no electricity or running water. Since the Ulster plantation days when the Brits sent in Protestant settlers to replace the native Irish, the Catholics were driven from the good low farmland into the hills where nothing but chickens, pigs and a few scattered cattle could be raised. But it was a wonderfully close community: neighbors took care of neighbors like family; sisters and brothers of one family married sisters and brothers of another; uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters were raised almost communally so that the families could make a living on the sparse land. Everyone was poor, but nobody starved. People were happy enough.

Until the British army, RUC and UDR invaded their countryside.

St Martin

Martin was a very religious young man. He enjoyed a good time, was a brave soldier and determined republican, and was obviously attracted to the opposite sex, but he was equally devoted to St Martin de Porres, a Peruvian Dominican brother who devoted his life to taking care of African slaves. Once as a boy he “saved” his brother-in-law’s calf, which was so sick the vet gave up on it, by getting down on his knees and praying to St Martin while rubbing his hand over the animal. The next day, the lamb was lambing around in the yard, as good as new. Martin was eleven. Another time he prayed to St. Martin over a car that died. Yes, it turned over at the first try in the morning.

Martin was also a sensitive youngster, who was devoted to his mother. When she became terminally ill with a brain hemorrhage, Martin began showing signs of psychological disorientation. In fact, he lost his memory totally from the day his mother died until the day, several days later, when the tractor he was on tipped over and he was thrown into a ditch. His memory instantly returned as a result of the fall.

Secretly, an IRA Volunteer

In 1968, he witnessed a civil rights march in Dungannon where nationalist were batoned off the streets by the RUC. The Brit army, RUC and UDR were constantly harassing the Hurson family, along with every other nationalist family in the area with young men, but Martin was seemingly oblivious. At least on the outside.

Martin had a lot going for him as an IRA volunteer. He was a good natured “farm boy” and not considered likely to be involved by crown forces in the area. And, he was always on the road, going to work, doing odd jobs and traveling three or four times a week to see his girl friend Bernadette in Pomeroy. He had plenty of excuses for being on the road at night. Moreover, to the family he was off to see Bernadette, to Bernadette he was off home. Often he was an operating IRA soldier against British forces in his country. To this day, people who knew him refuse to believe he was an IRA volunteer. He was an active volunteer for 18 months before anyone found out. Then, on the 11th of November 1976, he was taken from his bed at his father’s house at 6 AM under the Emergency Provisions Act and hauled off to Omagh RUC barracks in connection with a number of shootings and bombings in and around Cappagh. That’s when Bernadette and the family knew for the first time.

Mason’s regime: A bad time to be a suspect

It was a bad time to be an IRA suspect. Roy Mason, the new Brit direct ruler of the Six Counties, had just initiated a brutal crackdown on the IRA which included, under the auspices of Kenneth Newman, the new head of the RUC, beating and torture of suspects to obtain forced confessions. Martin received awful beatings while in custody: hair was pulled out of his head; he was punched in the stomach and all over his body, kicked in the testicles, and his head banged against a wall. Martin signed a statement under duress.

Bernadette was stunned to hear of his arrest. When she visited him in jail, he saw the condition he was in from the assaults. He sent her a hand crafted jewelry box from the Kesh while on remand and she visited him as often as she could. They were in love as much as ever and she was more than willing to wait form him. Bernadette and Martin became engaged, over a prison table in the visitor’s room in Long Kesh in March of 1979 with a screw looking on.

Despite claiming that his statement was beaten out of him, which couldn’t be denied considering the physical evidence that Martin carried on his body, a judge sentenced him to 20 years for possession of land mines and conspiracy, among other charges.

The case was so controversial because of the beatings, that it wasn’t settled until June 1980 after several appeals and re-trials. The conviction held, naturally.

Martin volunteered and went on hunger strike on 29 May 1981. Bik put him on, even though he didn’t know him personally, because Bobby Sands had recommended him as a good man who wouldn’t break. That was good enough for Bik.

Martin surprisingly nears death

It was Sunday 12 July, not a good day for Catholics in the north under the best of circumstances. Brendan and Francie, Martin’s brothers, were attending H-Blocks rallies, when they received word from a friendly priest that they should go to the Kesh immediately. Brendan raced to get to Martin, taking Bernadette McAliskey and Martin’s fiancé Bernadette, with him. Martin’s father John, sister Rosaleen, and brother-in-law Paddy McElvogue beat them there. They were shocked with what they saw. Martin didn’t respond to their greetings. Rosaleen shouted out their names three times before Martin at last responded, whispering their names.

They were called out to a waiting room while a doctor saw Martin. He told them that Martin had permanent brain damage and that he would be “a cabbage” even if they intervened immediately. The family stayed with him until they could take seeing him in pain no longer. Brendan arrived as the others were on their way out, but without either of the Bernadettes, who had been denied entrance to the Kesh. It was particularly hard for Bernadette Donnelly, who was never to she her beloved Martin in life again.

Martin’s Horrible Suffering, Then Peace

Brendan went in to see Martin alone. He was swinging his arms from side to side ripping at his own flesh, his head going back on forth in obvious agony. Inhuman sounds came from inside his throat; his eyes rolled.

Brendan sat at Martin’s bedside, holding his hands so Martin couldn’t scratch at or punch at his face. He couldn’t be controlled, sweat poured from his face. Brendan couldn’t stand the constant and terrible moaning coming from from deep within his brother, like silent screams. He was too weak to scream. This went on for several hours.

At around 2 AM on the 13th of July, Fr. Murphy came to give Martin the last sacraments. Martin was able to give a nod to the priest. Just before the anointing, he was at his worst: wild-eyed, screaming the terrible muted screams, sweating profusely, and flailing about. Then, like a miracle, he became absolutely at peace.

All that Brendan could do now was wait for his younger brother to die an Irish martyr’s death in Her Majesty’s hell hole of Long Kesh.

Another Hunger Striker Dead

At 4 AM Martin Hurson’s life just ebbed away. There was no second wind. Orangemen prepared in their dreams for a merry “12th of July”, shoes shinned, umbrellas wound tightly like walking sticks, bowler hats and sashes on the dresser. The 12th being on the Sabbath, Monday the 13th of July was the big day.

Martin’s body would journey home to the hills of Tyrone as loyalists celebrated across the north a double-header: the Battle of the Boyne and another Hunger Striker dead.

Chapter 38

The Rocky Road To Cappagh
The Hurson family battle crown forces to bury their Martin

Brendan Hurson was alone with Martin as his life slowly slipped away after 46 days on hunger strike. His suffering had been intense, certainly different in nature from the others. His agony started much earlier. He looked as though he had been badly beaten; semiconsciously, he tore into himself with his hands and bit his lips raw. But at the very end, he was peaceful.

Martin Hurson died for Ireland at four o’clock in the morning on the 13th of July.

Now there were six hunger strikers’ dead.

The prison authorities wouldn’t give Brendan a phone to call his father and family until 6:20 A.M., over two hours after Martin’s death. They told him there was only one line out and the RUC had that one tied up. Fr. McGuckin at Galbally got the call, offered to tell the family and come to pick Brendan up at the prison.

Fifteen minutes after Martin died, he was he was removed to the prison morgue and was now in the maws of the Northern Ireland Office. Hunger strikers’ funerals were British government affairs.

No one would tell Brendan where they were likely to take his brother’s body.

At 7:15 A.M., Fr. McGuckin arrived, having come directly to the prison; the priest felt it would be better if Brendan broke the news to the family himself.

Martin’s remains disappear

But Francie Hurson, Martin’s brother, and his wife Sally heard the news on the radio: “Another hunger striker is dead: Martin Hurson of East Tyrone …”

They got themselves together and took off for the Kesh. At one point on the highway, they must have passed Brendan and Fr. McGuckin on their way home.

They were disappointed to have missed Brendan [the RUC purposely didn’t tell them that Brendan was getting a lift home], but asked to see Martin’s body. “No way,” they were told at the gate. The warders and British soldiers laughed at them. They cheered as the car moved off back home.

It was the 13th of July, the day the Battle of the Boyne was celebrated this year because the 12th fell on the Sabbath. Loyalists were on the roads by 8 A.M. flying Union Jacks out their car windows, shouting sectarian slogans associated with the 12th and cheering over Martin’s death. This was as close as an Orangeman gets to heaven while on earth.

Meanwhile, the Hurson family had no idea where the NIO had taken Martin’s remains.

Inside the Kesh

Inside the Kesh, Bik sent a comm out to “Brownie” [Gerry Adams]: “Comrade Mor, we heard around 11 AM about Martin’s tragic death. In all honesty it has been the biggest shock to date and has left me shattered… May God have mercy on his soul. I will have to move immediately with a replacement. It will be Matt Devlin [Tyrone]. He was on the second squad on the first hunger strike. This means that the usual clearance procedure will be skipped over. You’ll have to accept my judgment on him being sound. He is fully aware of exactly of exactly what this hunger strike means – i.e. that he in a short period he stands to loose his life…”

Kevin Lynch and “Big Doc”, Kieran Doherty, were now in the crisis stage of their hunger strike.

Hundreds of neighbors gathered outside Francie’s house in Carrickmore, Brendan’s in Galbally and kept vigil for Martin’s return with other members of the family at Cappagh.

Martin’s body removed to Omagh; RUC threatens to dump it.

Finally, the undertaker phoned. Martin’s body was in Omagh. At 11:30 A.M., the RUC called the undertaker and told him that if the body was not picked up by noon, it would be dumped somewhere unannounced. Just as they told Patsy O’Hara’s family.

Of course, it was impossible to get from Carrickmore to Omagh in a half hour. Not only that, only close relatives could accompany the hearse, four cars total. Family and friends piled into their cars and speed to the mortuary.

At 12:30 P.M., family friend Massey McAteer was the first to arrive. What he found was chilling. The mortuary was surrounded by Special Branch and RUC is great numbers. Obviously, the body was still there. But McAteer sensed big trouble, and he was right. An RUC landrover was blocking the entrance to the mortuary. When Francie Hurson arrived on the scene, he was told by the RUC that only four cars with family members would be allowed onto the grounds. Francie smelled an RUC trick. He knew that once the family was onto the grounds, that the gate would be closed and the RUC would take off with Martin’s body to God knows where and by a route of their choice, rather, by a route predetermined by the British government.

Francie parked his car outside and walked into the mortuary where he found a green van backed against a door.

What happened next is unbelievable.

RUC attempt to hijack the funeral cortege

The family were trying to get in through the RUC gauntlet while neighbors and friends in their cars waited on the road. The RUC went to work on the cars outside. They were told to move off and clear the road. A lone young man in one of the cars got out and told an abrasive RUC man to “Fuck off!” The RUC couldn’t believe what they just heard. So he repeated himself! The fella wasn’t moving.

Now, the rest of the Huston entourage took heart at this show of bullish courage and they all now refused to move their cars and stepped forward to meet the RUC. If they wanted a riot, they were going to get one.

While this was going on on the road, inside Francie Hurson was squeezing himself between the mortuary wall and the green van to discover Martin’s body being removed to the van. Francie was putting a stop to this hijacking just as the other family members arrived. He could see the RUC wanted full control of the operation. The Hurson’s wanted their brother in their undertaker’s care and to go home by a route that they chose, not driven through crazed loyalist mobs along the way celebrating both The 12th and Martin’s death.

Francie demanded the body be turned over to the family. The RUC refused. This argument went on back and forth for over an hour as outside the RUC were unleashing Alsatian dogs on the friends and neighbors and getting abuse thrown back at them. The RUC wanted those outside in their cars before they would move off. It was now 3 P.M.! Compounding the problem for the RUC was that the longer they took to get things moving, the more sympathizers were gathering outside on the road. At this point, the family just want to get home regardless of the route.

The rocky road to Cappagh

As they finally moved out of the mortuary grounds in Omagh, a long cortege of cars, RUC landrovers in the lead followed by the van with Martin’s body with Francie right behind it headed off to Cappagh. But the RUC weren’t through. Apparently, they had orders from above and tried to take over the procession at every turn, including ramming RUC vehicles into the following cars, including Francie’s, in attempts to separate form the cortege.

The whole trip the RUC tried to take wrong turns and detours, only to be stopped by Francie, who would pull his car out from behind to in front of the RUC landrovers, effectively blocking the way. As he got out of his car, he was joined each time by family and friends; everybody would get out of their cars to confront the RUC. These aborted detours started pitched battles and abuse between the RUC and mourners. RUC dogs were again used on the people. Finally, after what seemed like days of bickering and fighting, Martin was home again in Cappagh.

Cardinal O’Fiaich: “But I have no power. England has the power”

A thousand people were lining the road when they arrived. The coffin was carried through the winding country roads from Cappagh to the family home a mile away. A piper lead the sad march.

Cardinal O’Fiaich came to the wake the next day. Cappagh was is in his diocese. Oddly, it took courage for the Cardinal to attend a hunger striker’s funeral. He knew he would be hammered in the press and elsewhere.

Francie challenged the Cardinal, sitting together over tea in the Hurson living room, for not doing more to save Martin and the other young Irish men dying for their country one after another. But Francie and the family admired him for honoring Martin and the family by coming to the house. The Cardinal said, “Francie, what can I do? I honor Martin. I’ve come here to the house to be with the Hurson family. But I have no power. England has the power.”

There was rioting and attacks throughout the north. Five RUC men and a British soldier were wounded in gun and blast-bomb attacks in Belfast alone after word of Martin’s death reached the streets.

Martin’s place “beside Ireland’s glorious dead”

It was a large funeral considering the remoteness of the countryside and the trouble supporters had passing through RUC/Brit roadblocks and detours. A lone piper walked behind three masked IRA volunteers who fired shots in a military salute over Martin’s grave. Sean Lynch, Martin’s election agent in the Dail election, gave the funeral ration: “I am sure that Oliver Plunkett who was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn and Joan of Arc, the young French maiden who was burned at the stake, were among those who received Martin and place him beside Ireland’s glorious dead.”

(c) 2001 The Irish People. Article may be reprinted with credit.

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