Republican News · Thursday 17 December 1998

[An Phoblacht]

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 ideals.

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.

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