Martin Hurson became the sixth republican to die on hunger strike on this day in 1981. In this archive article by Connla Young for Daily Ireland, his fiancee recalls the place where the couple grew up.
To a stranger travelling through east Tyrone, the black flags and life-size posters hanging from telephone posts may arouse a mild curiosity.
To those closer to home, the images of Martin Hurson’s smiling face mask a hurt that has cloaked this close-knit community for a quarter of a century.
The area’s landscape has changed little since Hurson died on hunger strike on July 13, 1981.
A few new houses dot the rolling hills around Galbally where the Hurson family scratched a living from their modest farm. However, a new generation of young people has grown up in the district, relatively untouched by the 30-year conflict that raged during their parents’ youth.
People in their 20s and younger know Martin Hurson’s name but, for them, the events of the hunger strike are from a different time. Even so, tucked away in the belly of the rugged Tyrone countryside, a memorial to the hunger strikers tells of the place that Hurson and his nine comrades will always hold in the hearts of those who knew them.
At the time of his death, Hurson was engaged to Bernadette Donnelly from the nearby village of Pomeroy. The pair met at the wedding of Hurson’s cousin Sean Kelly and Bernadette Donnelly’s sister Mary Rose Donnelly in 1975. Within weeks, they were inseparable.
Now, 25 years later, Bernadette Donnelly has returned to the place where she and Martin Hurson grew up. She has brought with her a vast collection of personal letters sent by Hurson while he was on the blanket protest in Long Kesh. Almost 80 letters and a number of intimate poems reveal the depth of the couple’s relationship after Hurson was sentenced to 20 years in November 1977. He was arrested 12 months earlier, along with other young people from the Galbally area.
The wounds of the 1981 hunger strike remain raw for Bernadette Donnelly, while the anniversary of his death provides more cause for reflection.
“For the last few weeks, I have been looking at a lot of stuff I have.
“He wrote me a lot of letters and seven or eight love poems. I met his sisters and brothers this week and showed them what he had written. It was the first time they had seen them. It was really tough for them. We were crying and laughing,” she says.
The grief Bernadette Donnelly feels over her fiance’s passing was exacerbated by his quick demise. After 46 days on hunger strike, Hurson died more quickly than his comrades.
“He died so quickly. It was unexpected so I didn’t get to say goodbye. The last time I saw him was about seven or eight days before he went but I really didn’t think he was going to die.
“I used to write to him every week. My letters were about three pages long so he asked me to cut them down to a page. On my last visit with him, he was looking side on at me, which made me think he had double vision.
“The difference with Martin and the other men was how quickly he went. Other families got five or six days with their loved ones before they died. We didn’t get that,” she says.
Bernadette Donnelly was refused permission to visit her fiance as he slipped into the coma of his final hours. The grey steel gates of Long Kesh were slammed in her face by cold-hearted prison officials.
“Brendan Hurson and me were at a H-block march in Armagh when Malachy McCreesh, brother of Raymond, came over and said that Martin had taken bad. A Galbally man, John Campbell, drove Martin’s brother Brendan, Bernadette McAliskey and myself straight to Long Kesh. Neither Brendan nor me had ID and they were not going to allow Brendan in.
“His sister and father were already there with him but found it hard to watch him. They told Brendan that, if his father identified him, they would let him in but not me. I was engaged to get married to him but they wouldn’t let me in.
“Bernadette McAliskey pleaded with them to let me in but they wouldn’t because they said I wasn’t family. I just put my arm on Bernadette’s arm and said to her: ‘They shot you six months ago. Just leave it and I’ll get in tomorrow morning.’ They even threatened not to let Martin’s brother Francie in when he arrived,” she says.
She returned to the Hurson home in Tyrone and arranged to travel back to Long Kesh with them the following morning.
“I was at my sister’s house getting ready to go and see Martin when I put on the seven o’clock news,” she recalls.
“They just announced that he was dead. I thought I was going to see him then I found out he had died at 4.30am. His sister was driving down the road when she heard it on the news as well. That’s how we heard it.”
Hurson’s death brought a heartbreaking end to any hope of a shared life for the young couple.
“We had intended to get engaged the Christmas after he was arrested but we had to put that off. At the start, he didn’t take many visits but, as time went on into 1978, he began to take more. He used to talk about getting out and spoke of how we would go into Pomeroy and get married. He talked about how we would go to Galbally hall. ‘We wouldn’t send out any invitations. People could just come along,’ he said. There were plenty of musicians in Galbally and they would just come and play for us,” says Bernadette Donnelly.
“We were going to get engaged before he got picked up. He said that, if he had been out, we would have been engaged or married so we got engaged while he was in jail.
“I don’t think he expected to die on hunger strike. But he was very determined and I knew where he was coming from. I was behind him. I wasn’t angry. I knew why he was doing it.”
After Hurson’s death, his fiancee retreated into a period of deep grief and rarely ventured out. In 1984, she eventually decided to move to the United States to make a new life. Almost three years after Hurson’s death, Bernadette Donnelly removed her engagement ring for the first time. She has remained in contact with the Hurson family in the intervening years and is godmother to one of Martin Hurson’s nieces.
Several weeks ago, she returned to Long Kesh to finally visit the place where her young love breathed his last. This time around, the grey steel gates swung open to reveal a deserted Long Kesh. Only bitter memories and the grief of loved ones haunt the prison wing at Long Kesh today.
“If I had known Martin was going to die, I would not have left the jail that night. I would have stayed through the night to see him. I was back about six weeks ago and stood at the same gate I stood outside 25 years ago. And it didn’t matter if I got in that day or not. I saw the cell that Martin was in, and I was in the hospital wing. I sat in room seven, where he died. I stayed there on my own for a while and knelt down and prayed. I think I felt him in the room. I felt his presence there.
“I never want to see it again. Some members of the Hurson family will be down there on Thursday but I don’t want to see it again.”
The irony of being able to walk unhindered through the gates so firmly closed to her 25 years ago is not lost on Bernadette Donnelly today.
“I got into the jail after 25 years but, when I needed to be there, when Martin needed me, I could not be there. But I’m glad I was outside the night before he died, the night they didn’t let me in. If I had not been there, I may have thought there was a chance I could have got in and that would have been worse.
“But now that I have been there, I know how close I was to him. The distance between the gate and the hospital is so short. When I was there, I could not believe how close I was to him and yet, as they say, so far away.”
In the last 25 years, Bernadette Donnelly has built a new life for herself but still carries the memories of 1981.
“He sent me 78 letters and I kept them -- the first to the last. It was 25 years ago but, to me, it seems like last week. I recall everything from that time. I have found it very hard this year. It has brought back a lot of memories and it has been really hard but I’m getting on with it for him.”