Kieran’s sacrifice recalled 25 years on


By Francesca Ryan

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe 25th anniversary of the death of Andersonstown hunger striker Kieran Doherty occurs this week on August 2.

Known to most as ‘Big Doc’, Kieran was a dedicated republican and, by all accounts, a brave and outstanding soldier.

But to Terry and Michael Doherty, Kieran was their younger brother and, like most siblings, the brothers shared their ups and downs.

Born in October 1955, Kieran was the third of six children in the Doherty household in the Commedagh area of Andersonstown.

A very active youth, Kieran participated in a variety of sports and always met and excelled at any challenges that were set before him.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usClick on CRAZYFENIAN’s mural photo of ‘Big Doc’ to view.

A hero, a son, a brother

“He was a determined wee kid,” said Terry, “anything he did, he did it full-belt.

“I remember we used to go swimming when we were younger. Before we went in he would always say ‘I’m going to swim X amount of lengths’, and he always did. Half the time he’d nearly drown to get them done, but he would always finish it.”

Kieran’s tall, athletic frame led him to play under-18 Gaelic football for St Teresa’s GAC at the tender age of 14. Playing alongside his older brother, Michael, Kieran was elated to pick up a minor championship medal aged just 15.

“Kieran played down the wing and he took no prisoners,” remembers Michael. “At 6’2″ he was a big fella and a great asset to the team.”

A reserved lad with a dry sense of humour, Kieran had a close circle of friends with whom he enjoyed a good laugh.

“He wouldn’t be the type to be holding court in a bar, he wasn’t that outgoing but he would always share a joke with his friends,” said Terry.

“He loved a good Guinness and we all used to go to the Ex-Servicemen’s Club, it was known as the Burnt Cabin, in South Link where we’d get a ‘crate on the slate’ and have a good dance. Don’t get me wrong,” he added, “myself and Kieran used to fight the bit out too, we shared a room so there was always a bit of sparring going on.”

Life was turned upside down for the Dohertys with the onset of internment in 1971, when the three brothers found themselves behind the bars of Long Kesh.

“The Brits were always raiding the house in the early 1970s, it was normally the Green Jackets. When they arrived my father used to have each one of us follow them into different rooms to make sure they didn’t plant anything,” said Terry.

“Kieran always stood up to them and never took any cheek,” added Michael. “I remember the Brits came to lift Kieran a few weeks before his 16th birthday, my daddy had to get out the birth certificate to prove he hadn’t yet turned 16.

“Of course they came back for him a few weeks later but we’d managed to get the news to him in time and he went on the run in Limerick.”

Kieran remained in Limerick for a few months but was eager to return to Belfast where he played an integral role in Na Fianna’s Andersonstown brigade.

“We saw less and less of him,” said Terry. “He was interned between 1973 and 1975 and when he was lifted again in 1976 he spent almost two years on remand at the Crum before going on the blanket in Long Kesh in 1978.

“He was a stubborn big fella and he always resisted when the screws tried to search him, he would never look at them when they spoke to him and he never complied with orders.

“There was one time they beat him so badly that he had to go to hospital. He never told us that, we found out from someone else.”

The criminalisation of republican prisoners, the brutality of the prison wardens and the five demands were the main topics of conversation in comms Kieran sent to his family in the late 1970s and 1980.

It came as no surprise, then, that Kieran was on the shortlist for the 1981 hunger strike headed by Bobby Sands.

“We knew he was on the shortlist but we didn’t know exactly where he was on the list,” said Michael. “I was walking home from work on the Falls Road on May 22, 1981 when someone told me that Kieran had replaced Ray McCreesh on the hunger strike.”

Making it clear to his grief-stricken family that he didn’t want to be taken off the strike, Kieran emphasised that he didn’t want to see anyone who didn’t support him.

“He kept saying ‘Promise me that you won’t take me off, if I lose my faculties, you have to promise you won’t take me off the hunger strike’,” recalls Michael.

In the first few weeks of the strike, the boys remember their brother sitting up in his bed chatting. “Once he’d asked about any political developments on the outside he would just start having the craic. He’d sleg me about the clogs I used to wear, he’d ask about different people in the area and always asked about the Go-Sun Chinese in Andytown,” laughed Terry.

As time went by the Dohertys remained hopeful that a breakthrough would arrive and Kieran could be taken off the strike. Hopes soared when the 25-year-old was elected TD for Cavan/Monaghan in June of 1981 with 9,121 first preference votes.

“We all thought that was it,” said Terry. “We thought that would turn things around, it even gave Kieran a bit of hope but there just wasn’t enough done. The Irish government could have put more pressure on Thatcher but they didn’t, they sat on their laurels.”

As the weeks went by and Kieran grew weaker, his family were summoned to Long Kesh 16 days before he died.

“He had such a big frame so it was terrible to see the pyjamas hanging on him,” said Terry. “He was extremely weak so we’d have to lift him to move him, even then he was making sure we wouldn’t take him off the strike if he went unconscious.”

An enduring memory for Michael was attending a Mass in the prison presided over by Fr Tom Toner.

“I was doing a reading and Kieran was too weak to attend the Mass but Micky Devine and Thomas McIlwee were there in their wheelchairs. It was just heartbreaking to see.”

Three days before his death, medical staff at Long Kesh told the Doherty family Kieran’s heart rate was up, a sign that death was imminent. They asked again if the family wanted to take Kieran off the strike, again they refused.

“We kept saying no because that was what Kieran wanted,” said Michael. “He and Kevin Lynch had lasted longer than the other hunger strikers and the screws would taunt us, asking what vitamins we were slipping him.”

Kieran died on August 2, 1981 after 73 days on strike. His mother, Margaret, his sisters, Roisin and Mairead, and Terry were there. His father, Alfie, and brothers, Michael and Brendan, were on their way to the prison at the time.

“It was strange to watch,” said Terry. “He would take a deep breath and then exhale, then there would be nothing for a while, his breaths got further and further apart, then they stopped.”

As the hearse brought Kieran’s body home to Andersonstown, the Dohertys got a glimpse of the support and sympathy that was to be visited upon their Commedagh Drive home in the weeks following his death.

“It was about 2am when the hearse was coming up Kennedy Way, there were literally hundreds of people lining the route to the house,” said Michael. “Of course the Brits were there too and began firing plastic bullets into the crowd. It didn’t deter the people from coming to my mother’s house.”

Messages of support from France, Iran and the US, to name a few, were delivered to Kieran’s home. “The house never stopped,” said Michael, “there was even a group of herdsmen who had travelled from Peru for the funeral and three members of the Iranian Revolutionary Parliament came with gifts. It was overwhelming and very emotional for all of us.”

Twenty-five years on and the memories of a man they were proud to call their brother are still as vivid for both Michael and Terry.

“It’s not something we’ll ever get over, some days are harder than others but it’s a slow process,” said Michael.

“With the anniversaries there is always something that will take us back to 1981, whether it’s meeting someone from Kieran’s campaign team or someone that knew him. I was at an event in Cavan only last month and there were people in their eighties coming up and saying they helped out in the campaign. It’s a nice feeling to have people remember him.”

Despite Kieran’s international status as one of Ireland’s bravest soldiers, for Michael and Terry he will always be their young brother.

“We remember Kieran as this big, strong and determined fella who had his own way of thinking, he was shy and reserved but wouldn’t be pushed around,” said Michael. “A brother is a brother you know,” added Terry, “and that’s what he was to us.”

Journalist:: Francesca Ryan


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