Sunday, July 7, 2013

Remembering – July 8th 1981

Tomorrow we remember some of the victims of Thatcher’s militarist Irish policy among them hunger striker and IRA volunteer Joe McDonnell, Nora McCabe and Fian John Dempsey.
Joe, who was arrested in October 1976 along with his close friend and comrade Bobby Sands, died on July 8th 1981. He was the fifth of the hunger strikers to die. Joe, who was aged 30, was also one of those who stood in the 1981 general election for the Dáil. He missed out on winning a seat in Sligo-Leitrim by 315 votes.
Each of those who died on hunger strike was a unique and exceptional individual in their own right. Joe was married to Goretti. They had two children, Bernadette and Joseph.  He was born in the Lower Falls but grew up in the Greater Andersonstown area and came to live in Lenadoon Avenue where he was a well-known and very popular man.
When talking about him now all those who knew him, both in the prison and outside all remark on his great sense of humour. Even in the face of enormous adversity he was always laughing and playing practical jokes.
From the day he was sentenced Joe refused to put on the prison uniform to take a visit, so adamant was he that he would not be criminalised. He died just after 5am on Wednesday morning July 8th 1981 after 61 days on hunger strike.
Nora McCabe
A few hours later Nora McCabe, a 33 year old mother of three young children was struck by a plastic bullet fired from an RUC landrover. She was walking from her home in Linden Street just off the Falls Road to a local shop when she was struck in the head. She died the following day.
RUC efforts to claim that they were not responsible for the incident and that the only plastic bullet had been fired at two petrol bombers came unstuck when film footage from a Canadian television crew showed that the fatal shot had come from an RUC landrover and that there were no petrol bombers.
As ever the British system protected its’ own and no one was prosecuted for Nora McCabe’s death. On the contrary the RUC Commander for west Belfast who was in the vehicle from which the plastic bullet was fired and who gave evidence claiming that there were two petrol bombers and that the RUC were never near Linden street, was promoted to the rank of Assistant Chief Constable.
16 year old Fian John Dempsey was shot and killed by British soldiers at the Falls bus depot. I visited the wake house and attended the funeral. A few days later I wrote in An Phoblacht/Republican News: 
Until the morning of last Wednesday week, Fian John Dempsey, aged 16, lived in one of the grey houses which sprawl on either side of the Monagh Road in Turf Lodge.
His family, a week after his death, are now like so many other families, trying to pick up the pieces - in the heart-rending vacuum which is always created by sudden death, especially by the death of one so young and cheerful as John.

At the wake on Thursday week he looks only twelve years old, his body laid in an open coffin flanked by a guard of honour from Na Fianna Éireann.

Hardened by many funerals, by too many sudden deaths, yet one is riveted to the spot unable to grasp the logic, the divine wisdom, the insanity, which tightened a British soldier's trigger finger and produced yet another corpse.

"He's so young, " exclaimed those who call to pay their respects. "Jesus, he's only a child."

All night, neighbours, friends and relatives call. All with the same reaction.

But young people call also, shifting uncomfortably in adult company, but strangely unshocked - not visibly at any rate - by what they see in the sad living room of the Dempsey home.

Just a tightening of young faces as they gaze silently at John's remains, a hardening of eyes, and then silently out again to stand in small groups at the street corner. None of the awkward handshakes and mumbled "I'm sorry for your troubles".

They understand better than most the logic which directed the British Army rifle at John, and, having understood, they pay their respects and move outside - to wait.

John's mother, Theresa, sits comforted by friends, while her husband Jimmy stands, a gaunt figure at the head of his son's coffin, gently stroking John's head. Jimmy shakes hands with Dal Delaney - both fathers of dead patriots (the latter of Dee Delaney killed in a premature bomb explosion in Belfast in January 1980).

Many of Jimmy's prison comrades come to the house. He spent six years in Long Kesh as a political prisoner, and soon talk turns to the Kesh, but not like at an adult wake where 'craic' flows non-stop.

At least, not in the living room, where the youthful figure in the coffin brings one sharply back from what has passed to what lies ahead, from what has been done, to what still remains to be done.

The next morning, the slow sad procession to the chapel on a bright warm summer morning; and after Mass, the girl piper heralding our passing as we make our way, once again, to Milltown. Down from the heights of Turf Lodge, past the spot where John was murdered, and by the British Army barracks, through the open gates of the cemetery, to the republican plot, where two open graves - one for Joe McDonnell - await our arrival.

John left school at Easter. He played hurling and football for Gort Na Mona and soccer for Corpus Christi, and like his father and his many uncles he was a keep fit enthusiast with an interest in body building.

He joined Na Fianna Éireann in October 1980 and like many young people from Turf Lodge, was subjected to regular harassment by British soldiers.

Wreaths are laid before we leave for Lenadoon and the funeral of Joe McDonnell.

John Dempsey's funeral, a smaller and in many ways a sadder ceremony than Joe's, is a stark reminder that for the first time in contemporary Irish history, the struggle has crossed the generation gap.

When Joe McDonnell was first interned in 1972, John Dempsey was a mere seven years old. Yet they were to die and be buried in the same republican plot, within hours of each other, in the service of a common cause and against the same enemy.

As Jimmy Dempsey said of his son, "John has joined the elite. He died for the freedom of his country."

So, did Joe McDonnell. Go ndeanfaidh dia trocaire uirthi.

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