The long journey finding Big Hugh
Recently released POW Joe Doherty pays tribute to his comrade, Hugh
Hehir, who died on active service ten years ago
It was a long journey. Many years had passed between us; and much had
happened. Little did I know that I would meet up with an old comrade
on top of Cnoc an Claire, Ennis, Co Clare. There in a hidden away
graveyard I would stand over the graveside of Volunteer Hugh Hehir.
This is not the first time I have written about this old comrade. In
May 1988 I wrote an obituary column for An Phoblacht. Hugh had been
shot dead that same month by Free State Forces while on active
service. I wrote the column in a New York prison cell. There I had
heard the news while fighting British attempts to extradite me.
I met Big Hugh in 1973 while reporting back to active service after a
time in Long Kesh. Although active south of the border Hugh had
volunteered to come north to join the Belfast Brigade. There he
joined up C Coy New Lodge Road. Hugh and I became close comrades and
billeted together while on the run. There was something special about
Hugh that all others had come to realise. Hugh was a cultured man and
had a great influence on others around him. Needless to say I came to
admire and respect the intelligence and nature of the big man.
Soon after, we were both captured with explosives and sent to Long
Kesh for the next six years. There we experienced the events that put
Long Kesh on the global map, including the emerging political
activism and education programmes of republican prisoners in the
camp; we also experienced the burning of Long Kesh and the erection
of the infamous H-blocks that could be sighted across the wire.
Everyone who spent time with Hugh will testify to his commitment to
participate in all things in the prison that would further republican
Released in December 1979, Hugh was expelled south of the border
while I headed back to Belfast and into active service. Making
contact after a period of time I learned that Big Hugh had reported
back. But soon I was captured and returned to the Crumlin Road.
Within a week Big Hugh sent greetings. After the 1981 Crumlin Road
escape we again met up south of the border. It was a few happy days
together and unknown to me the last I was to see him.
The arrival of my Mum's letter to my New York prison in May 1988 was
a sad moment in my life. Hugh had been killed that week. I knew he
had married and had children, one of whom was to die in a car
accident not long before his own death. Being thousands of miles away
there was not much I could do only to write an obituary conumn in
respect and admiration of a great Volunteer and friend.
It was several years later that Dan Nolan, a retired former fire
chief in Connecticut and a County Clare man himself, had sought out
the grave of Big Hugh while on a trip to Clare. Dan and his brother
Jim, who still lives in Clare, searched for days seeking out Hugh's
grave, not an easy task.
Released last month, I took a trip to Co Galway to visit John and
Deirdre Burke, American friends who settled down in Galway. They
suggested we go search out Hugh's grave. Phone calls were made to the
US seeking out where Jim Nolan lived. The next day we met up with the
big Clare man and headed off in search of the grave.
It is difficult to explain the emotions of that moment as I cast my
eyes upon Hugh's final resting place. There lay a republican who gave
so much. I knew that in this present day political environment Big
Hugh would be at the forefront of political activity. Hugh's great
political insight and openness would grasp the need for alternative
strategies. As I looked down at his grave I knew that we had lost a
great asset to the present struggle. Hugh would know that support for
the present strategy was an imperative if we are to achieve the goal
of a democratic free Ireland. We miss you comrade.