The second republican to join the H-Block hunger-strike for political status, a fortnight after Bobby Sands, was twenty-five-year-old Francis Hughes, from Bellaghy in South Derry. He died 40 years ago this week.
Francis Hughes was a determined, committed and totally fearless IRA Volunteer who organised a spectacularly successful series of military operations before his capture, and was once described by the RUC as their ‘most wanted man’ in the North.
Eluding for several years the relentless efforts of the British army, UDR and RUC to track him down, Francis operated boldly throughout parts of Tyrone and north and south Antrim, but particularly in his native South Derry, with a combination of brilliant organisation and extreme daring - until his capture after a shoot-out with the SAS - which earned him widespread popular renown, and won general support for the republican cause, as well as giving him an undisputed reputation as a natural-born soldier and leader.
Francis Hughes was born on February 28th, 1956, the youngest son amongst ten children, into a staunchly republican family which has been solidly rooted, for most of this century, in the townland of Tamlaghtduff, or Scribe Road, as it is otherwise called.
His parents who married in 1939, are Patrick Joseph Hughes, aged 72, a retired small cattle farmer born in the neighbouring town land of Ballymacpeake, and Margaret, aged 68, whose maiden name is McElwee, and who was born in Tamlaghtduff.
A quarter-of-a-mile away from the Hughes’ bungalow, on the other side of the Scribe Road is the home of Thomas and Benedict McElwee - first cousins of Francis. Benedict is currently serving a sentence in the H-Blocks. Thomas - the eldest - embarked on hunger strike on June 8th, and died sixty-two days later on August 8th.
In Tamlaghtduff, as throughout the rest of Bellaghy, sympathy as well as active support for the republican cause runs at a very high level, a fact testified to by the approximately twenty prisoners-of-war from around Bellaghy alone.
Francis was an extremely popular person, both to his family and to his republican colleagues and supporters.
His father recalls that as a boy he was always whistling, joking and singing: a trait which he carried over into his arduous and perilous days as a republican, when he was able to transmit his enthusiasm and optimism both to Volunteers under his command and to Sympathisers who offered them - at great personal risk, food and shelter
It was qualities like these, of uncomplaining tirelessness, of consideration for the morale of those around him, and his ruling wish to lead by example, that have made Francis Hughes one of the most outstanding Irish revolutionary soldiers this war has produced and a man who was enormously respected in his native countryside.
As a boy, Francis went first to St. Mary’s primary school in Bellaghy, and from there to Clady intermediate school three miles away.
He enjoyed school and was a fairly good student whose favourite subjects were history and woodwork. He was not particularly interested in sport, but was very much a lively, outdoor person, who enjoyed messing around on bikes, and later on, in cars.
He enjoyed dancing and regularly went to ceilidh as a young man, even while ‘on the run’, although after ‘wanted’ posters of him appeared his opportunities became less frequent.
His parents recall that Francis was always extremely helpful around the house, and that he was a “good tractor man”.
Leaving school at sixteen, Francis got a job with his sister Vera’s husband, as an apprentice painter and decorator, completing his apprenticeship shortly before ‘going on the run’.
In later days, Francis would often do a spot of decorating for the people whose house he was staying in
On one occasion, shortly after the ‘wanted’ posters of him had been posted up all over South Derry, Francis was painting window frames at the front of the house he was staying in when two jeep-loads of British soldiers drove past. While the other occupants of the house froze in apprehension, Francis waved and smiled at the curious Brits as they passed by, and continued painting.
It was such utter fearlessness, and the ability to brazen his way through, that saved him time and time again during his relatively long career as an active service Volunteer.
On one such occasion, when stopped along with two other Volunteers as they crossed a field, Francis told a Brit patrol that they didn’t feel safe walking the roads, as the IRA were so active in the area. The Brits allowed the trio to walk on, but after a few yards Francis ran back to the enemy patrol to scrounge a cigarette and a match from one of the British soldiers.
A turning point for Francis, in terms of his personal involvement in the struggle, occurred at the age of seventeen, when he and a friend were stopped by British soldiers at Ardboe, in County Tyrone, as they returned from a dance one night.
The pair were taken out of their car and so badly kicked that Francis was bed-ridden for several days. Rejecting advice to make a complaint to the RUC, Francis said it would be a waste of time, but pledged instead to get even with those who had done it, “or with their friends.”
Notwithstanding such a bitter personal experience of British thuggery, and the mental and physical scars it left, Francis’ subsequent involvement in the Irish Republican Army was not based on a motive of revenge but on a clear and abiding belief in his country’s right to national freedom.
During the early part of ‘the troubles’, the ‘Officials’ were relatively strong in the South Derry area and Francis’ first involvement was with them.
However, disillusioned, as were many others, with the ‘Sticks’ unilateral ceasefire in 1972, he left to set up and command an ‘independent’ military unit in the Bellaghy area. About the end of 1973 the entire unit - including Francis - was formally recruited into the IRA.
Francis’ involvement brought him increasingly to the attention of the British army and RUC and he was regularly held for a few hours in Magherafelt barracks and stopped on the road by British patrols; and on one occasion he was held for two days at Ballykelly camp.
As the 1975 IRA/British army truce came to an end Francis, fearing his imminent arrest, went ‘on the run’. From that time on, he led a life perpetually on the move, often moving on foot up to twenty miles during one night then sleeping during the day - either in fields and ditches or in safe houses; a soldierly sight in his black beret and combat uniform, and openly carrying his rifle, a handgun and several grenades as well as food rations.
The enemy reacted with up to fifty early morning raids on Francis’ home, and raids on the homes of those suspected of harbouring him. Often, houses would be staked out for days on end in the hope of capturing Francis. Often, it was only his sheer nerve and courage which saved him. One night, Francis was followed to a ‘safe house’ and looked out to see the Brits surrounding the place and closing in. Without hesitating, the uniformed Francis stepped outside the door, clutching his rifle, and in the darkness crept gradually through their lines, occasionally mumbling a few short words to British soldiers he passed, who, on seeing the shadowy uniformed figure, mistook him for one of themselves.
On numerous occasions, Francis and his comrades were stopped at checkpoints along the country roads while moving weapons from one locality to another but always calmly talked their way through. Once, a UDR soldier actually recognised Francis and his fellow Volunteers in a car but, fully aware that Francis would not be taken without a shoot-out, he waved their car on.
The years before Francis’ capture were extremely active ones in the South Derry and surrounding areas with the commercial centres of towns and villages like Bellaghy, Maghera, Toome, Magherafelt and Castledawson being blitzed by car bombs on several occasions, and numerous shooting attacks being carried out as well.
Among the Volunteers under his command Francis had a reputation of being a strict disciplinarian and perfectionist who could not tolerate people taking their republican duties less seriously, and selflessly, than was necessary. He also, however, inspired fellow Volunteers by his example and by always being in the thick of things, and he thrived on pressure.
During one night-time operation, a weapon was missing and Francis gave away his own weapon to another Volunteer, taking only a torch himself which he used to its maximum effect by shining it at an oncoming enemy vehicle, which had its headlights off, to enable the other Volunteers to direct their fire.
Francis’ good-humoured audacity also showed itself in his republican activity. At the height of his ‘notoriety’ he would set up road-blocks, hoping to lure the Brits into an ambush (which by hard experience they learned to avoid), or he would ring up the Brits and give them his whereabouts!
Such joking, however, did not extend only to the enemy. One day, lying out in the fields, he spied one of his uncles cycling down a country road. Taking careful aim with his rifle he shot away the bike’s rear wheel. His uncle ran alarmed, into a nearby house shouting that loyalists had just tried to assassinate him!
The determination of the British army and RUC to capture Francis Hughes came to a head in April 1977. In that month, on Good Friday, a car containing three IRA Volunteers was overtaken and flagged down on the Moneymore Road at Dunronan, in County Derry, by a carload of RUC men.
The Volunteers attempted to make a U-turn but their car got stuck in a ditch as the armed RUC men approached. Jumping from the car, the Volunteers opened fire, killing two RUC men and injuring another before driving off. A hundred yards further up the road a second gun battle ensued but the Volunteers escaped safely.
Subsequently, the RUC issued a ‘wanted’ poster of Francis Hughes and two fellow republicans, Dominic McGlinchey and Ian Milne, in which Francis was named as the ‘most wanted man’ in the North.
When his eventual capture came, it was just as he had always said it would be: “I’ll get a few of them before they get me.”
At 8.00 p.m. on March 16th, 1978, two SAS soldiers took up a stake-out position opposite a farm, on the south side of the Ronaghan road, about two miles west of Maghera, in the townland of Ballyknock.
At 9.15 p.m. they saw two men in military uniform and carrying rifles, walking in single file along the hedgeline of the field towards them. Using their ‘night sights’ in the darkness, the SAS men observed the military behaviour of the two on-comers and having challenged them, heard the men mumble a few words to each other in Irish accents and assumed that the pair were UDR soldiers.
One of the pair, in fact, was Francis Hughes, the other a fellow Volunteer, and with only a second’s hesitation both Volunteers cocked their rifles and opened fire. One SAS man fell fatally wounded but the other - though shot in the stomach - managed to fire a long burst from his sterling sub-machine gun at the retreating figures, and to make radio contact with his base.
Within three minutes, nearby Brit patrols were on the scene and the area was entirely sealed off. The following morning hundreds of Brits took part in a massive search operation.
Fifteen hours after the shooting, at around 12.15 p.m. the next day, they found Francis Hughes sitting in the middle of a gorse bush in a field three hundred yards away, bleeding profusely from a bullet wound which had shattered his left thigh. As he was taken away on a stretcher he yelled defiantly, through his considerable pain: “Up the Provies”.
His comrade, though also wounded, slightly, managed to evade the dragnet and to escape.
How he survived the night of the shooting, possibly the coldest night of that year, bears eloquent testimony to Francis’ grim determination to evade capture. After being shot, he dragged himself - unable to walk - across the Ronaghan road and across two fields without a sound, before burying himself in a thick clump of gorse bushes.
At one point, en-route, Francis fell down a sharp drop between fields, and his left leg - the muscle and bone completely disintegrated - came up over his shoulder; but Francis worked it carefully down before continuing to crawl on his way. In his hiding place, he lay through the night, motionless and soundless, till his capture.
When he was found, unable to move through the cold, pain and stiffness, Francis, knowing that both Brits and RUC were on instructions to shoot him on sight, gave his name as Eamonn Laverty and his address as Letterkenny, County Donegal.
Francis was taken to Magherafelt hospital and from there to Musgrave Park military hospital in Belfast, and it was only then that his true identity was revealed. He spent ten months in Musgrave Park where his leg was operated on, reducing his thigh bone by an inch-and-a-half and leaving him dependent on a crutch to walk.
On Wednesday, January 24th, 1979, Francis was taken from Musgrave Park hospital to Castlereagh interrogation centre where he spent six days before being charged on January 29th. For more than four days Francis refused food and drink, fearing that it might have been drugged to make him talk.
His behaviour in Castlereagh was typical of the fiercely determined and courageous republican Volunteer that he was. His frustrated interrogators later described him as “totally uncooperative”.
Nevertheless, at his trial in Belfast in February 1980, after a year on remand in Crumlin Road jail, Francis was found ‘guilty’ on all charges.
He received a life sentence for killing the SAS soldier, and fourteen years for attempting to kill the other SAS man. He also received fifty-five years on three other charges.
In the H-Blocks, Francis immediately went on the protest for political status and, despite the severe disability of his wounded leg, displayed the same courage and determination that had been his hallmark before his capture.
And, just as always wanting to be in the thick of things and wanting to shoulder responsibility for other political prisoners as he had earlier looked after the morale of fellow Volunteers, Francis was one of those to volunteer for the hunger strike which began on October 27th, 1980. He was not one of the first seven hunger strikers selected but was among the thirty men who joined the hunger strike in its closing stages as Sean McKenna’s condition became critical.
That utter selflessness and courage came to its tragic conclusion on Tuesday, May 12th, when Francis died at 5.43 p.m. after fifty-nine days on hunger strike.