INLA Volunteer, Patsy O’Hara was one of three INLA Volunteers who died whilst on Hunger Strike, along with the seven Volunteers from the IRA. Patsy survived 61 days on hunger strike from 21 March 1981 until 21 May 1981 when he died, 40 years ago this week.
The following text is taken from ‘The Time Has Come’, the memoirs of Patsy’s brother Tony O’Hara, INLA Volunteer, Blanketman and OC of INLA prisoners within the H-Blocks at the commencement of the 1981 Hunger Strike.
When Patsy went on hunger strike, I stood down as OC of the INLA because I thought to myself, “I’ll be the weakest link, if my brother starts dying or falls into a coma.” If that happened, the pressure would have been put on me to come to an agreement with the Brits; so, I was thinking, “For the sake of the hunger strikers, we cannot allow any weakness.”
I didn’t know how I would feel if my brother were dying, but no part of me wanted to tell my brother Patsy to come off the hunger strike as I was 100 percent behind him at the time, and those who were against it, would have been pushing all these demands at me. We still wanted all six demands, so Rab Collins from Belfast replaced me as OC of the INLA.
If it had been a few years earlier, I would have been the one on hunger strike and not Patsy. I was not permitted to go on the hunger strike because Patsy and the other volunteers were saying, “No you’ve only got five more months to serve, and you’ll be out of here.”
Patsy was on hunger strike for 61 days, from 21 March 1981 until the 21 May 1981 when he died. I only saw Patsy for a total of 2 hours and 15 minutes in that period, even though we were both in the same prison. It still angers me, even to this day.
However, I was one of the lucky ones as Tom McElwee’s brother Benedict never got to see him because Tom died very quickly on hunger strike. When a hunger striker’s health conditions deteriorated, they tended to bring the relatives up to see them. Tom died very fast because Fr Tom Toner, one of the priests who said Sunday mass at the prison, told us that he had just left Tom and returned to his Parish in Belfast when Tom had passed away. Fr Toner told us that when he had left Tom, he was sitting up talking to him and he was healthy looking and very lucid looking, but then when he got to Belfast, he was told that Tom McElwee had died. However, at Sunday mass in the prison that week, Fr Toner told us that when he had visited Tom that day, Tom had said to him, “I think Jesus is calling me.”
The 2 hours and 15 minutes comprising my visits with my brother Patsy consisted of three quarter-hour visits and a few half-hour visits. On the first visit I had with Pasty, he was lying in the bed, but could talk and there was a screw sitting there listening to our conversation, so we had no privacy.
The minute I walked into his prison hospital cell, there was a strong smell of cabbage, which they had brought into his room. I was absolutely raging. Then, on the second or third visit I had with Patsy, he said to me, “Tá Griangrafer agam,” which means “I have a camera” in Irish. There had been a small camera and tape recorder smuggled in to him, so he used it to take a few photographs of himself to be sent outside.
After he was finished taking his photographs, he sent the camera on to Raymond McCreesh along with a small roll of film and the tape recorder. Pasty also managed to record a message to be sent out, but because Raymond was already falling into a coma, he didn’t manage to record a message as well. Patsy did manage to get the small roll of film sent outside, and the photographs were published in the Irish Press newspaper. The photographs were of Patsy sitting on a wheelchair holding his own head up as the muscles in his neck were probably too weak for him to hold his own normally. The actual photographs were taken by a friendly orderly in the canteen of the prison. Once the photographs were published, the screws raided the cell and I don’t know what terrible things they did to Patsy, but his health went downhill very rapidly after that. The screws then found the camera and tape recorder under Raymond McCreesh’s pillow, so the abuse that they both had to endure after that must have been very severe.
Patsy was the only prisoner to get a real image of a hunger strike to the outside world. The only other images were the posters portraying what the hunger strikers taken from Family photos looked like. The posters were put up all over Ireland; so, when people saw a real live image of a hunger striker, it caused a whole big sensation, not to mention the embarrassment to the British government for what they were allowing to happen.
My mother, father, Brother and Sister, all went to see Pasty every day during the last couple of weeks of his life. My last visit with my brother Patsy was when he was dying. He could barely speak, and his throat was very croaky. They moved Patsy to the cell Bobby had died in a few weeks before and there was door at the end of the corridor, which was Patsy’s room door. And I remember the screws were pushing my sister Liz out the door as I was being brought in another direction to visit Patsy. She spotted me and burst into tears. The screws had no empathy at all, and they were very cold with no respect for Patsy or my family. They would not even let the family stay together by our dying brother’s bedside.
The doctor had put Patsy on spring water as he couldn’t keep the tap water down. But now, his body was starting to shut down. They had given him sips of spring to moisten his caked lips, and I remember going out and the tears welling up in my eyes, and about to start falling down my face like a waterfall. But I knew that I had to control my emotions somehow because I didn’t want to be seen crying in front of those bastards, the screws. I looked directly at the wall and willed my tears to disappear.