By Aengus O Snodaigh
As a young man, Michael Gaughan left Ireland to find work in England. Leaving Ballina in County Mayo he could not have guessed what lay ahead of him. The eldest of a family of six, he emigrated to England after finishing school at the CBS in Ballina. In London, he became an active Volunteer and it was while on a fund-raising operation that Michael was captured.
Gaughan was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in the Old Bailey in December 1971 for conspiracy to rob £530 in a raid by republicans on a bank in Hornsey, London and posession of two revolvers. His first two years of imprisonment were in Wormwood Scrubs in London. He was then moved to Albany Prison on the Isle of Wight where his request for political status was refused and he was punished with solitary confinement for even daring to claim it. He was later moved to Parkhurst Prison.
In November 1973, the trial of the Belfast Ten for bomb explosions in London saw four of the ten begin a hunger-strike immediately for political status and repatriation. Within days, the prison authorities began force-feeding Dolores and Marion Price, Hugh Feeney and Gerry Kelly. They were brutally force-fed for 206 days. On 31 March 1974, Frank Stagg, Paul Holmes, Hugh Feeney and Michael Gaughan joined the strike.
Twenty-three days into his strike, Michael was force-fed for the first time. The method of force-feeding hadn’t changed from the days when Thomas Ashe died due to the brutality of it in 1917.
Another of the hunger-strikers, Gerry Kelly, explained the process:
“Six or eight warders would enter the cell, pull the bed to the centre of the floor, surround me and then jump on me, pinning my legs and arms and grasping me by the hair. When they had control of my body they pulled me along the bed and up to the high metal bed end. At this point my head was forced backwards over the bar by pulling my hair until the neck was stretched straight....
“The doctor and the warder would then proceed to open my mouth. As time went by the methods changed little, but at first it was clumsy and crude; pulling my upper and lower lips apart in opposite directions; pressing down on my chin or pushing my nose upwards (this normally led to nosebleeds); pushing and grinding knuckles into my jaw muscles.
“If this didn’t work, large forceps were sometimes run violently along my gums to get me to open my teeth. They later discovered a subtle method by using a thin, hard plastic Ryles tube which pushed up my nasal passage. When it hits of the back of your throat it makes you want to vomit; once you dry-retch, your teeth part voluntarily; a wooden or metal clamp was violently thrust between my teeth.
“When I overcame the urge to vomit and managed to keep my teeth closed, they discovered that by moving the Ryles tube back and forth, rubbing it against the sensitive inner tissue at the back of the nose, they could cause a searing pain. I can only describe this pain as like a hot knitting needle being pushed in between my nose and eye.
“Inevitably, they succeeded in opening my mouth on most days. They would then thrust in a wooden clamp, which contained a hole in the centre through which a rubber tube was fed into the throat. This part I always found the most frightening and it did not diminish through repetition. It is painful and if the tube goes down the wrong passage it can be fatal.”
The brutality of the force-feeding and resisting the doctors and the warders took its toll on the hunger-strikers. It left them battered and bruised, drained physically and mentally. The physiological torture of this barbaric assault on a person also had an effect as one of the hunger-strikers recounted to a relative at the time:
“The mental agony of waiting to be force-fed is getting to the stage where it now outweighs the physical discomfort of having to go through with it.”
During his hunger-strike Michael was force-fed 17 times, the last time on the evening of June 2.
The physical toll on the hunger-strikers is borne out by Michael’s brother John’s statement of his condition when he last saw him: His throat had been badly cut by force feeding and his teeth loosened. His eyes were sunken, his cheeks hollow and his mouth was gaping open. He weighed about six stone.
Visitors to the hunger-strikers were only allowed to see them through a glass screen, supervised by Prison warders. In what must have been a very emotional visit Michael’s mother Delia saw him alive for the last time through this screen three days before his death.
On 3 June 1974, the prison authorities announced that Michael had died. They later explained that he died from pneumonia, a result of the force-feeding tube having pierced his lung and food lodging in his lung. Michael was 24 years old.
The manner of his death caused controversy in medical circles and the method of force-feeding was later abandoned by the British state. Ian Brady, one of the notorious Moors Murderers, claims in a document in Long Longford’s hands that he witnessed Parkhurst Prison’s Senior Medical Officer and four other officers force-feeding Gaughan without the usual rubber tube shortly before his death. Brady had been in a cell near Gaughan and observed this brutal attack When he threatened to give evidence at the inquest he was shifted to Wormwood Scrubs.
His death led to the British authorities making commitments to meet the demands of the remaining hunger-strikers and the hunger strike ended shortly afterwards. The commitments made by the British were not fully honoured.
From the Isle of Wight, Michael’s remains were brought to London and on 7-8 June, thousands lined the streets of Kilburn and marched behind the coffin, which was flanked by an IRA guard of honour.
On Saturday, 8 June, his remains reached Dublin, where they were met by tens of thousands of mourners. Under another IRA guard of honour, Gaughan’s body was brought to the Adam and Eve’s Franciscan church on Merchant’s Quay, where thousands more filed past as it lay in state.
The following morning, Michael began his long final journey home. From Dublin to Ballina, his cortege was met by thousands paying their last respects in every town and village en route.
After mass in Ballina Cathedral, the IRA paid its respects to a loyal soldier of Ireland, firing a volley above his coffin before it was taken to Leigh Cemetery to be buried in the Republican Plot.
In his last message to his republican comrades, Michael had said:
“I die proudly for my country and in the hope that my death will be sufficient to obtain the demands of my comrades. Let there be no bitterness on my behalf but a determination to achieve the new Ireland for which I gladly die. My loyalty and confidence is to the IRA and let those of you who are left carry on the work and finish the fight.”
Michael Gaughan was killed by the prison and medical authorities of Parkhurst Prison on 3 June 1974, 45 years ago.