By Declan Kearny
The eighth of August past marked the 42nd anniversary of IRA Volunteer Thomas McElwee‘s death on hunger strike in Long Kesh.
I was proud to join his family, friends and comrades in Bellaghy, County Derry, last Sunday and be asked to share some reflections during the dignified, annual wreath laying ceremony at the grave where Thomas is buried alongside his cousin, Francis Hughes, who also died on the hunger strike three months earlier on 12 May 1981. Both men were from the nearby town land of Tamlaghtduff. It is a beautiful place which sits among the drumlins of South Derry outside Bellaghy village.
Like Francis, and the other eight hunger strikers who died in 1981, and Volunteers Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg, who died on hunger strike in England, less than ten years previously, Thomas is an iconic figure within the history of modern republicanism. He died after 62 days on the hunger strike.
The McElwee family and my own, and extended family, have been friends for decades.
Maura Kelly opened proceedings with a beautiful rendition of ‘Farewell to Bellaghy’. It’s an evocative ballad which Maura sings very well. Every time it’s sung I am transported back to the time of the hunger strike: To the protests, and marches in support of the prisoners and their families, and ultimately our attendance at the wakes and funerals for Francis and Thomas. And, how we took in our thousands to the fields of Tamlaghtduff and walked through byres and farm yards to get around the huge military cordons which were set up, in order to attend the burials of both men.
While I thought about my remarks in the preceding days I was very conscious that so much has been said over the decades since Thomas’ death, about the context of the hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981, the political conditions which led Thomas to the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, and the political situation that has evolved since then, and the nature of his sacrifice.
As I did so, I reflected on the seanfhocal Gaeilge, ‘Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine’… ’we live in the shelter of each other’. At its essence the phrase means solidarity, community, compassion, and a sense of the collective.
I shared that thought with those who assembled to remember Thomas. During the dark days of the H-Blocks blanket and no-wash protests, the Republican POWs refused to let themselves be confined or repressed by the isolation, brutality and aggression they endured.
Instead the Blanketmen defined themselves by solidarity, community, care for each other, and by collectivism. In the dungeons of the H-Blocks they lived in the shadow of each other.
Thomas McElwee embodied all these values. That’s why he volunteered to go on hunger strike, and to sacrifice everything if need be, to change the prison conditions which he and others had forced upon them, and also to defy British attempts to criminalise the national liberation struggle.
I recalled that over the years I have heard members of Thomas’ family, friends and prison comrades speak many times about him. He was only 23 years-old when he went on the hunger strike. And yet despite the adversity he faced, he was filled with hopes and aspirations: Ambitious for himself and this community, and for the future. He dreamed of an eventual return to Tamlaghtduff and the happiness that would bring.
Just over ten years following the Hunger Strike the foundations of the current peace process were being laid. I pointed out that during the last 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Ireland has been transformed.
Today that change continues to unfold in plain sight. The whole purpose of partition has been stood on its head. The unthinkable has happened; irreversible demographic and political changes are taking place. There have been historic election results, with the potential of more to come, both north and south.
Irish unity is within touching distance. Of course, some stand in opposition; but while they can block political institutions, they cannot block the tide of history.
Everything is possible, but nothing is inevitable. Those who want the greatest change need to stretch themselves farthest and work the hardest.
A potential, bright new future to be shared by all our people is now in view, but only because we stand on the ramparts built by the commitment and dedication of the many who went before; of Thomas and his nine comrades; of activists and supporters; those who opened their doors, campaigned, or stood for election – and when they did so, carried the potential of being killed: All of those who stood up against the odds.
Our commitment must be to securing a future in which the suffering and hurts experienced by so many, and on all sides, during our past history are addressed through forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.
Today the positive legacy of Thomas’ sacrifice is all around us. It echoes in the laughter of the children at play in South Derry: Their achievements at school and college: With the widespread use of an Ghaeilge: In the vibrancy of Gaelic games and culture, and the welcome towards those of new cultures who come from other places to make Ireland their home: And, in the irrepressible nature of the equality agenda.
Today the language of a new Ireland, and a Republic for all, is Thomas’ legacy speaking to us 42 years on. His spirit lives.
A new progressive, inclusive, democratic Ireland is waiting to be created by us all.
A Republic of compassion in which we can rely upon each other. A rights-based Republic, which will guarantee reliable public services; care properly for our sick people and deliver good education for our children; and will provide good jobs and fair pay.
A ‘Republic for All’, based on solidarity, care for each other, community, and collective purpose… Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.
Today the momentum to build a new progressive, inclusive, democratic Ireland is stronger than ever. A society which is inclusive, and at peace with itself: one to be developed by all the people, and for all the people.
This is a momentous period in our history. We should all take inspiration from the values and legacy of Thomas McElwee; and become involved in the political, economic and social campaigns to make real change happen.
This article first appeared in the August 11 edition of An Phoblacht. Read the original here.