IRA Volunteer Michael Gaughan was killed in Parkhurst Jail on the Isle of Wight this month in 1974. He was killed on the 3rd June that year by force-feeding while on hunger strike. An honour guard of Provisional IRA had presided over his body’s removal by ferry to the mainland and from there to London, where the first of his three funeral processions was to take place.
Also on hunger-strike with Gaughan although in different jails in Britain were other Provisional IRA prisoners: Gerry Kelly, Paul Holmes, Hugh Feeney and fellow Mayoman Frank Stagg. They were acting in support of the struggle of Volunteers Dolours and Marion Price1 to obtain political status and to be transferred to a jail in Ireland. The prisoners’ demands were as follows:
- The right to political status
- The right to wear their own clothes
- A guarantee that they would not be returned to solitary confinement
- The right to educational facilities and not engage in penal labour
- The setting of a reasonable date for a transfer to an Irish prison2
At the time I was a young and fairly inexperienced activist supporting an English-based Marxist-Leninist group.3
On the 7th a funeral procession was being organised by Provisional Sinn Féın in an area of strong Irish diaspora settlement in North-West London. I took a bus from my South-East London home by a part of the canal near Peckham (now filled in) to the Elephant & Castle and changed on to the London Underground metro system to travel to Kilburn, from where I walked up to the Cricklewood area. There in the forecourt of the Crown pub was where I had been told the funeral procession would gather and where I would also meet my comrades of the organisation.
After a little, preparations were being made for departure. A priest was to lead the procession, which I strongly disliked but obviously had no say in the arrangements. A lone piper would follow, a traditional feature of mourning where Irish resistance is involved. The coffin would be carried for a period on the shoulders of volunteers, before being transferred to the hearse and a senior comrade of my organisation approached me.
“Some representatives of British Left organisations are going to carry the coffin,” he said. “We’ve been asked if we’d like to take part. What do you think?”
He was asking me, I presumed, because I was the only Irish supporter of the organisation present, although it had an excellent record of supporting Irish resistance and prisoners and several of its comrades had gone to jail as a result.
He seemed not keen on the idea and I got the impression that he felt as I did that it was tokenism, distasteful posturing by the British Left. Tariq Ali (now a journalist but then a member of the now-defunct Trotskyist organisation in Britain, the International Marxist Group) was one of those hefting the coffin. I agreed with my comrade and said we should not (a decision I now regret) and so we didn’t. No organisation on the British Left at that time, in terms of commitment and actions in proportion to its size, deserved the honour more than our organisation.
From the forecourt of the Crown a long parade escorted Gaughan’s coffin from Cricklewood in West London along the main road to the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Quex Road church in Kilburn. It was a very Irish area then with nearly every pub being of mainly Irish clientele and it contained a dance hall where Irish bands played. Every shop and pub along the way was closed for the funeral and crowds lined the route. The atmosphere was very solemn with the laments being played by the piper very audible.
On the 8th of June 1974, the body of IRA Volunteer Michael Gaughan arrived in Dublin, where it was met by mourners and an IRA guard of honour. The body was brought to the Adam and Eve’s Franciscan church on Merchant’s Quay, where thousands filed past as it lay in state (no doubt under the watchful eyes of the Garda Special Branch).
On the following day, the 9th of June 1974, Michael Gaughan’s funeral took place in Ballina, County Mayo. The funeral mass was held at St. Muiredach’s Cathedral, Ballina, procession then to Leigue Cemetery, Ballina. He was given a full republican burial and laid to rest in the Republican plot (where Frank Stagg, also killed by force-feeding, would join him after being reburied in November 1976 – see further below). Vol. Gaughan’s coffin was draped in the same Tricolour that had been used for Terence McSwiney’s funeral 54 years earlier (the same flag would later be used in the funeral of James McDade, IRA member killed in a premature explosion in Coventry). Gaughan’s funeral was attended by over 50,000 people, larger than the funeral of former Irish president Éamon de Valera.
It was no doubt to avoid scenes such as this that the Irish state took certain steps when two years later, on 12th February 1976, a comrade of Gaughan’s, Vol. Frank Stagg, also from Mayo, was also killed in Wakefield Prison, Yorkshire, by force-feeding while on hunger-strike. Although much of this this took place during the IRA truce of 1975-January 1976, the British authorities refused to grant any of the demands. The Wikipedia entry says that “Stagg died on 12 February 1976 after 62 days on hunger strike” which, though not untrue is a lie by omission.4
The Irish Government had the flight carrying his coffin diverted from Dublin where a large crowd awaited it, to Shannon airport.
On arrival at Shannon, the Gardaí snatched the coffin and drove it straight to Ballina, Mayo under armed guard, to a cemetery near Stagg’s family home, where it was placed in a prepared grave into which wet concrete was then poured, six feet deep, instead of soil. And the site remained under guard until the concrete had set and for some time after.
Although those proceedings would have been in complete opposition to the wishes of the deceased, the State had obtained agreement for them from Frank Stagg’s widow and one of his brothers, the Labour Party’s Emmet Stagg. It was opposed by another two of Frank Stagg’s brothers and of course by the dead Volunteer’s comrades.
In November of that year, a number of those comrades dug down near the grave, tunneled under the concrete, removed the coffin and re-interred it in the Republican plot, near to Michael Gaughan’s grave, where it rests today.
A simple but plaintive song about Michael Gaughan survives in not uncommon use: Take Me Home to Mayo. There are a number of versions on Youtube; this one contains relevant images and film footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14-kuxsHjPg
1Although Gerry Kelly is a current Sinn Féin MLA, both the Price Sisters denounced the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Féin; Marian was effectively interned for a period because of her politics and has not been active politically due to ill-health since her release in May 2013. On January 23rd of that year she was escorted from jail to attend the funeral of her sister, Dolours. Of the surviving hunger strikers of 1975-’76, Paul Holmes was the only other one to attend that funeral.
2The British promised to concede the demands after Gaughan’s death – they had already conceded them to Loyalist prisoners – but reneged on the promise. The Price Sisters did eventually win repatriation to jail in the Six Counties, Ireland. The struggle on the issue of repatriation, which the British authorities conceded to British prisoners in Irish jails but not generally in reverse, carried on for many years. It is UN and generally human rights policy that prisoners should serve their sentences in jails close to their family networks.
3I had previously been an unaffiliated Anarchist activist, then came to support the English Communist Movement (M-L), which later became the Communist Party of England (M-L), which I left some years later. It has since gone through a number of bigger changes and evolved into the current Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (M-L), a much-changed organisation from the days referred to in this article.
4This is an important omission because the death of Vol. Stagg at the State’s hands after Gaughan’s brought about a change in policy of the British Medical Association, which afterwards recommended to its members that people in sound state of mind embarking on a hunger strike should not be forcibly fed even if they were heading for death. In consequence, the British State no longer has a policy of force-feeding prisoners on hunger-strike, since such would have to be supervised by medical personnel.