Thomas McElwee dies on Hunger Strike – 8 August 1981

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Thomas McElwee on hunger strike.

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.

The foundation is shaken, but holds

Paddy Quinn’s being taken off his hunger strike by his mother was a serious morale problem. Would other parents do the same? The Doherty and Lynch families held firm, but it set a precedent that could be followed, and with Fr. Faul working behind the scenes, the hunger strike was on less solid ground.

Now, one of the hunger strikers, Pat McGeown, was challenging the basis of the strategy of hunger strike, more like a devil’s advocate than a truly dissenting voice, but he was still negative about the whole approach and believed that the prisoners needed to be more practical and flexible, working both inside and outside the system to destroy it. Once the men decided to commence the strike, he, like the man and committed republican he was, put his name forward and was accepted.

Inner doubt

On the 18th day of his fast, Pat was moved early to the prison hospital with a severe respiratory illness. After the Quinn situation and the deaths of Kevin and Kieran, he again expressed his doubts; this time privately to Bik McFarlane. In fact, he told Bik he wasn’t sure he could go the whole way through with his fast. Pat and Bik had a talk, exchanged comms, and Pat seemed to have settled the matter in his own head.

Bik sent out a comm to “Brownie” [a.k.a. Gerry Adams] about the matter: “He has been truthful with us to date which has caused him much pain. It couldn’t have been easy to open up like that. Anyway, I just don’t know now. As it stands I feel I must accept that the inner conflict has ended and has ended favorably. Who can read minds eh?” For sure, Pat was one of the most committed individual in the struggle.

The men in H-Block 6 were informally polled to test the waters: approx. 30% wanted to stop, 30% wanted to stay the course although they were not confident of winning, and 40% demanded no compromise. Opinion was mixed, but not commitment; the men were certainly still pulling together with the leadership.

Weak, vain attempts

Meanwhile, the Dublin government’s Foreign Minister, John Kelly, contacted the Brit Embassy asking for some practical reforms being implemented unilaterally in the Blocks to move things forward in lieu of actual negotiations. The Brits rejected this out of hand. The Irish Commission for Justice and Peace then asked Bik [through Fr. Murphy] to get the men to put a formal request to the Northern Ireland Office asking for a clarification of the Brit position and complaining that there was no meaningful dialogue. Fr. Murphy knew the response before he handed the message to Bik: call for the 5 demands or the ICJP can get lost.

Family members carried out of Taoiseach’s office

On Thursday, 6 August, the families meet with Fitzgerald. They wanted an answer one way or another. They had been going back and forth to Dublin and yet nothing seemed to be happening in terms of support from the Irish government. They told him to support the five demands. No, no, sorry, he couldn’t. Remove the troops from the border. No, no, he couldn’t do that. Remove the Irish Ambassador from London. No, no. Expel the British ambassador. No, sorry, no. So the family members sat down and refused to move from the Taoiseach’s office. Fitzgerald left the room and the gardai came in and removed those inside by force.

Mary McElwee was their spokesperson. She read a statement to the press: “… Not only has he failed to act over the death of a fellow TD and elected representative of the Irish people; our forcible eviction today further underlines his lack of commitment to finding a just solution…”

Thomas and Dolores

Thomas McElwee was now past sixty days on hunger strike, but he was feeling pretty well. He was certainly lucid and looked better than he should. He wasn’t really sick or in great pain like the others.

His girlfriend, Dolores O’Neill, who had been arrested in association with the bomb incident that lead to Thomas’s and his brother Benedict’s arrest and conviction, was released from Armagh jail for a few hours to see him. She was serving a 20 year sentence. It was both beautiful and sad and Thomas was broken hearted when she had to leave, all too soon to be able to say everything that needed to be said. Both knew they probably would never see each other again, perhaps when Tom’s condition became critical she would get another visit. But by then, Tom would not be fit to interact in any real way with anyone. Anyway, the next meeting, they knew, wouldn’t be a happy one.


Thomas McElwee was born into a large family of eight girls and three boys. He lead the typical life of a nationalist lad in the South Derry countryside, full of promise but very little chance to rise in the world. Young Tom wanted to study to become a mechanic, but the only opportunity to do so was in Ballymena, Paisley-land, where he was harassed and had his tools stolen. So, he settled into work around his home near the town of Bellaghy on the Tamlaghtduff Road. Frank Hughes was his cousin and their large family and his were close. The McElwee boys, like the Hughes boys and the other nationalist families were constantly harassed by the RUC, UDR and British army.

Thomas and Benedict were arrested and taken away for questioning regularly. Still, it came as a surprise when the phone rang with the news of the premature bomb explosion and the condition of the two boys. Fighting the Brits force for force was not necessarily surprising in South Derry.

“Thomas has died,” the priest said

On Saturday, the 8th of August 1981, Mr and Mrs McElwee gathered their large family together to discuss for the first time what to do when Thomas lost consciousness. They invited their family physician to advise them as to the consequences of taking him off at this stage. As he was discussing the medical pros and cons, the phone rang in the hallway, two rooms away. Thomas’s youngest brother James, only a child, picked up the phone, then let it drop from his hand to the floor.

A few minutes earlier in his prison hospital cell, Tom was talking in a friendly manner with a medical officer; they got along fairly well. The man went off to get him a light. Tom was smoking cigars up to a few days ago, but had switched to cigarettes. By the time he got back after letting Fr. Toner into the ward, Tom was dead. Pat McGeown and Laurence McKeown heard Tom gasp desperately for air while they were in the exercise yard and then all was silent. They knew he was dead. The returning medical officer and Fr Toner found him in his bed.

Fr. Toner was still on the line when Mrs McElwee got to her son in the hall, who was crying, the dropped phone on the floor. “Thomas has died.” the priest said. That was all he said to Mrs McElwee. That was all he told young James. “Thomas has died.” End of conversation. What his intentions were are anyone’s guess, but compassion wasn’t one of them.

Thomas died alone

None of the family was with Thomas at the end and that was deeply disturbing. Benedict had been refused all along permission to visit his brother, but because of Tom’s time on hunger strike [62 days], he was finally given permission. He was on his way from the Blocks, when he was told his brother was dead, don’t bother. But they needed someone to identify the body, so they escorted him to the hospital anyway. He refused to cry in front of the hospital screws or in the corridors. Back in his H4 cell, he buried his face in his blanket.

Bik commed Gerry: “The news yesterday of big Tom’s death greatly stunned us here. It came suddenly and left us pretty numb. He was a terrific character — a pillar of strength here with the deep respect of every last blanket man. He was fearless and never knew despair… It’s hard to properly describe such a man.”

Tom was one to take on the screws physically. There was nothing half-hearted about his resistance, even with one eye and other injuries from the explosion. He hit back and hit hard. Once he knocked out several teeth of a screw who had pushed him. He then was beaten badly by five others and taken to the punishment cells for 2 weeks.

Big Tom must have felt it was worth it. It wasn’t often that screws got to taste their own blood.

Low comedy: Rev McCrea gets “crowned” by Oliver Hughes

Two days later, there was a pitched battle at a meeting of Magherafelt council when Oliver Hughes, Frank’s brother and Thomas’s cousin, moved that the chairman cancel the meeting in honor of Thomas and, as a concession to unionists, in honor of a local man shot dead by the IRA. One of those in attendance was the Rev William McCrea, a councillor and notorious bigot, who rose to object honoring “the murderer McElwee.” Chaos ensued. The chairman, Patrick Sweeney, a nationalist, was knocked to the floor in the melee. Oliver smashed a chair over the Rev McCrea’s righteous head before the RUC arrived.

Oliver bundled Sweeney into his car and took him limping and battered into the hospital emergency ward. The hospital was crowded with visitors. This grand and pathetic entry was soon topped by the Rev McCrea, who emerged from an ambulance in a wheelchair, his head wrapped in bandages. If it were a cartoon, scores of little birds would be circling his skull.

Hughes, incensed, grabbed McCrea by both lapels and swung him out of his wheelchair and around the street like a big, stuffed animal. More mayhem ensued before the unionist calvary, the RUC, arrived to save the day.

It is funny now to visualize, but I’m sure it wasn’t so funny at the time.

Approximately 1,000 petrol bombs were launched at crown forces over the weekend of Thomas’s wake. Two nationalists were murdered by “crown forces”, one by a plastic bullet and the other shot dead by a loyalist death squad. The Brits removed the union jack from the British consulate in NYC. It wouldn’t go back up for a long while.

Funeral trouble

At Tom’s funeral mass, Fr. Michael Flanagan blasted both the British government and the republican movement which he blamed for “ordering” the hunger strike. Several stormed out of the services, including Bernadette McAliskey. Thomas told his sister Mary when he first went on hunger strike: “Nobody is putting this on us but ourselves, Mary. Don’t listen to propaganda like that.” Fr. O’Neill, who knew Tom since he was a boy, told Mary that he brother confided in him: “All I’m doing is placing my body between the screws and my comrades.” There was no one better for doing that than Thomas McElwee. The family knew the truth.

“God keep me for you”

Thomas never did get to see his love, Dolores O’Neill, again. Not in life. When they parted on her visit a few days before his death, he held her in his arms and whispered, “God keep me for you.” Maybe that’s the way it will be in God’s time. The eight McElwee sisters carried their brother’s coffin to the grave into Irish history. He was the ninth man to die on hunger strike in occupied north of Ireland in the year 1981.


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