By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
It does not happen very often that the publication of this column coincides with the anniversary of one of the 10 men who died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks in 1981. Today is one of those rare occasions. Twenty-nine years ago Joe McDonnell died after 61 days on hunger strike. Next Tuesday is Martin Hurson’s anniversary. Joe was one of the oldest of the 10 men yet he was also a very young man. He was just 29-years-old.
Joe was married to Goretti and had two children - Bernadette and Joseph. Joe came from a large family of eight children. He began his hunger strike on May 9 1981, four days after the death of Bobby Sands. Before his death, after 61 days, three other prisoners had died - Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara and Raymond McCreesh.
Joe would have heard the news of their deaths while he was in a cell in an H-Block or in the H-Block hospital wing.
There is no doubt that Joe would have known the fate that awaited him as the news of the death of each hunger striker reached his ears. Yet at no stage during his agonising hunger strike did he pause to consider his impending death.
In an article written by Danny Morrison several years ago, following a visit to the then closed and decaying Long Kesh, he recalled meeting Joe, two days before he died, in the canteen of the prison hospital.
With Joe were Tom McElwee, Kieran Doherty TD, Kevin Lynch and Mickey Devine.
Danny wrote: “Joe McDonnell, who had two days to live, was brought in on a wheelchair and kept joking throughout the visit. He smoked several cigarettes in between sipping water.”
Gerry Adams in his book Before the Dawn wrote about knowing Joe from being interned with him: “Joe was a very happy-go-lucky guy.” He recalled Joe’s “sense of fun”.
“On the day he started his hunger strike, he sent me out a King Edward Cigar from his prison cell,” he said.
That wit greeted me when I first met Joe in Cage 3 in 1973 and on the two occasions I visited him when he was on hunger strike. I wondered at the time, and still do to this day, where Joe and the other hunger strikers got their resolve to carry them beyond life. Indeed the same question may be asked of their loved ones who stood with them as they faced their final moments.
Jim ‘Jazz’ McCann, then a very young prisoner, remembered his time with Joe on the blanket protest in the H-Blocks. “Joe was a tower of strength. He got a lot of us through the protest. He was forever an optimist. A ‘raker’ - the life and soul of the wing.”
Joe never took a visit with his family for almost five years because he refused to wear a prison uniform. But he “talked about Goretti and Bernadette and Joseph and his family, especially his sister Maura, every day and night,” according to Jim.
He was in constant contact with Goretti through comms and had visitors from across Belfast smuggle her comms to him. Jim said: “Joe’s dream was to get a visit with Goretti and the children and to be reunited with them, wearing not a prison uniform but his own clothes.” Former hunger striker Raymond McCartney described Joe as “the heartbeat of the wing. The wise ‘old’ man of the wing, who was very protective of other prisoners.”
Joe had regularly argued for the hunger strike, two years before it actually began. To his comrades he was “rock-solid”, “unbending”, “stubborn and principled”, “a figure-head”, “a family man”, “a caring person”. And a man who made others laugh while got them through the toughest and most challenging of times.