In 1974 and 1976, two Irish Republicans died on hunger strike in British jails in unsuccessful bids for political status, Michael Gaughan in Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight and Frank Stagg in Wakefield prison. Both Gaughan and Stagg were natives of Mayo. Perhaps the success of the Price sisters, Kelly, and Feeney in achieving repatriation to Irish jails, although not immediately, gave them reason to hope.
At the time of Gaughan’s hunger strike, Brit policy for dealing with such protests remained one of forced feedings, a brutal process whereby the jaws were painfully forced open with clamps and a pipe rammed down the throat into the stomach. Sometimes it went down the windpipe by mistake. It was to be the last time the Brits would use force feeding as a tactic.
As the protesting Republican prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s prison contemplated putting their names forward for the imminent hunger strike, and the prison command staff began the process of deciding who would be the ones to go on it in grim, successive waves, the deaths of Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg were the last that they could reflect on. It wasn’t very pretty.
The basic demands of Gaughan and Stagg were essentially the same demands that were being put foreword by the hunger strikers of 1980: political status, the right to wear their own clothes [which really meant the right not to wear criminalizing prison gear], and not to be forced to do prison work like ordinary prisoners.
Michael Gaughan began his strike on 31 March 1974 and was force-feed from 22 April until his death, officially of pneumonia, a condition brought about as a direct result of the abuse his body took from the forced feeding. He steadfastly refused all medical treatment.
Gaughan received but one visit throughout his ordeal, his Mother just three weeks before he died. They both cried. What make his death even more pitiful was that the Brits had only a week earlier given in to the demands of several Loyalists who were also on hunger strike at the time. But as Tim Pat Coogan was to write in The IRA: a History, “... there would be no capitulation to the demands of a lone IRA hunger striker in a British jail.” And so he was let die.
The Aftermath: Controversy, Tears and Posthumous Triumph
Gaughan’s death was to set off a major debate among medical professionals and self-professed British moralists: does a patient have the right to end his own life for any reason, political or otherwise? The use of forced-feeding by prison authorities was clearly a form of assault, not a benign gesture on the government’s part to save hunger strikers lives. It was a political strategy just as much as was the hunger strike itself.
Later, in a similar display of cynical righteousness, a prominent bishop of the Catholic Church in England by the name of Hume was to make the astounding pontification in 1981 that dying on hunger strike for one’s beliefs was the moral equivalent of suicide.
In any case, nothing in particular came of the whole controversy, at least not enough to effect the death on hunger strike two years later of Frank Stagg.
The controversy and publicity disaster the Brits endured over Michael Gaughan’s funeral and burial in his hometown of Ballina, Co. Mayo, was another matter. The British government was in a quandary as to what to do when it discovered that Gaughan was to be very publicly buried with full IRA honors, but not before a tearful yet triumphant funeral procession across the breadth of Ireland, from Dublin airport through the center of the country to a Co. Mayo grave in the Republican plot. If the Brits used physical force or overt political pressure to prevent this from happening, they would have been hammered in the press and elsewhere. To allow it to happen was perhaps even worse. But the Dublin government was in no position nor inclined to stop the funeral and so the Republican movement was able to pull off an emotional and political demonstration of strength in the face of the Brits, who were hopping mad at being flaunted in such an arrogant manner.
Hundreds of thousands participated in one form or another. The press went wild on both sides of the Irish Sea and in America. The classically romantic and poignant song “Take Me Home To Mayo” is a tearful reminder of those times. Whenever the opening words “My name is Michael Gaughan...” are heard it’s impossible not to get caught up in the emotions of his death, his love of his country, and the meaning of his sacrifice. Even if you never heard the name of Michael Gaughan before in your life, you knew something was calling you from the grave.
But as we know, the Brits do get even, or at least try to, regardless of the cost to themselves or others.
On 12 February, 1976, Frank Stagg died after 62 days on hunger strike in Wakefield prison for political status. Because of the Gaughan publicity disaster, the Brits were resolved not to allow the Republican movement to so publicly canonize another martyr for the cause of Irish freedom. Stagg’s last request as he lie dying, blind and his body wasted to a fraction of himself, was to be given an IRA military funeral along the same route that Michael Gaughan’s body was taken, from Dublin to Ballina, in Mayo.
The world media waited in ghoulish anticipation at Dublin airport for the expected showdown between the British government and IRA supporters over the Frank Stagg’s coffin. But the clash never materialized as the Brit aircraft with Stagg’s body overflew Dublin, landed stealthily at Shannon airport, and whisked the remains to Leigue Cemetery in Ballina, where the Gardai [Irish police] hastily dug a grave in his family’s plot and buried him under 18 inches of solid concrete to ensure against his removal. His grave was within sight of Michael Gaughan’s, but it was not in the Republican plot which was his dying wish.
The next day Joe Cahill, undoubtedly the most publicly prominent Republican of the time, gave a powerful oration over Frank Stagg’s grave, promising that one day he would lie with his comrades. Joe must have also been thinking of his best friend Tom Williams lying in an unmarked Crumlin Road jail grave 30 years after his execution. It would be 50 years before Williams would be buried with honor. Frank Stagg didn’t have to wait that long.
The Gardai put up a 24-hour watch. But on 6 November, 1976, after the guards had removed their constant vigil, at around midnight a group of IRA volunteers accompanied by a priest dug throughout the night, tunneled under the concrete to recover Frank Stagg’s coffin, blessed it, and reburied Frank in the Republican plot just a hundred yards away.
The Past and the Future
These events were well known by the men and women Republican prisoners in Long Kesh and Armagh as they prepared for the much anticipated hunger strike in 1980. If they hadn’t heard of the hunger strike martyrs of the past before being imprisoned, they certainly found out about them now.
What was to happen next would change the course of Irish history forever.