Sunday, February 17, 2008

Brendan Hughes, "The Dark:" 1948-2008

From my friends I just now received news of his death after being in a coma. He had suffered from effects to his eyesight from the long hunger strike he had chosen to undergo many years before. A few of the men he commanded and lived with in prison you have heard of, but fewer, outside those who know about the details of what's labelled The Troubles, will place accurately the name of "The Dark," Brendan Hughes.

I had the honor of meeting this brave man in dramatic circumstances. How would you feel if a parade had failed to ask you to join? What if you fought a war and after the peace no one came to comfort you? The rejection by the organizers of a commemorative march in honor of one's fallen friends and those who had served under one's command hurt him deeply. We had crossed the street and talked the rest of that outwardly bright but inwardly somber afternoon a few years ago. From him, I heard the story that I detail, in the colder facts of print, below.

My host did manage to rescue my own reduced dignity, I hope, in "The Dark's" eyes. He asked what had brought me to West Belfast and when I told him I'd been interested on a personal as well as an academic level, he appeared either to recoil or do a double take. (The pub was dark, too, after all.) My host assured him about me that "he was one of us," and I remain grateful for that generous inclusion.

Sinn Féin had with a march down the main thoroughfare of West Belfast commemorated the "D" company of the Second Batallion of the Belfast Brigade of IRA in a small park with a stone plaque in a little fenced-off area on the Lower Falls Road. What the leaders of the march had pointedly neglected to remember was the considerable efforts for the Cause made, in and out of prison, by the former local commander, Brendan Hughes. His fellow inmates rose to acclaim and international success. But, that day, nobody came from the press to talk to him about the role he played, twenty years before, in preparing for what so many hailed as the coming of peace to Ireland. You may find Brendan Hughes in books and even depicted (perhaps under an assumed name) in a few films depicting the H-block era at Long Kesh. But, that afternoon, he walked away as the parade and the crowds left towards Milltown cemetery. His friend, my host, remained behind to listen to him, and to stand by him when he needed such strength.

Any history of the conflict will provide you with more information about this man. Nicknamed for his swarthy complexion, he proved a loyal comrade and Officer Commanding for not a few now more famous individuals. Due to his principled opposition to an IRA leadership enmeshed post-GFA in scandal and graft, he and many of his fellow volunteers found themselves shunted aside by many more famous individuals who take command of how the republican struggle. Brendan Hughes spoke out against those with whom he had fought. He accused them of betraying their promises. For this, he was cast out of those deemed worthy of a memorial. It reminded me of Winston Smith melancholy under the chestnut tree, or the fate of a gulag's disgraced Politburo member, but Brendan had not given in under pressure. He remained true to his word.

Some of these men and women, alongside whom Brendan Hughes worked and suffered for many decades, now compromised. They did not keep their word. To be frank, they may collaborate with those they once swore to oppose. Perhaps this is too harsh? Should not those once determined to destroy their neighbors now learn to forgive? Yes, hope and history may-- as Heaney phrases it --meet. Who wants more explosions, more Saracens, more young men and women killed? None of us. However, and this addendum may raise eyebrows or spark vitriol, on what terms do we in fact fairly honor those who died for a hopeful cause now neglected or distorted by those rewriting history in recent years?

I had pushed a pram about with my host's daughter inside. We went around the paths of the little garden. Meanwhile, Brendan and my host stood, walked, sat, and waited. I was relieved to let the man's memories stay with him and his friend. The symbolism of the young life I cared for briefly while my host comforted the man as he wept his own losses moved me deeply. You can see plaques and peruse interviews, watch videos and interview survivors, but no other moment of my own involvement through my own long years trying to make sense out of Irish republican ideology and out of its erratic idealism and sordid practice had such an visceral impact upon me.

Brendan that afternoon across from the memorial, where he and my host had spent short but agonizingly protracted sad moments as the sunglassed and bereted marchers had trooped on with banners and regalia, had told me in the pub's shadows (along with more taciturn friend of his, "Isaac,") of the death over thirty years earlier of a young woman, during a fierce and lengthy gun battle nearby. I wish I could have bought him the two pints that he insisted on for me and my friend. This verbal tribute's my small way of repayment for his kind favor on what had proven a grim day. Yet, the fact that he came there, that he insisted upon his visit for his own grieving and his own public pride at the devotion he had shown displayed too his own repayment, his own dues returned for the friends living and dead that the Garden's enumeration and dedication had represented. He had every right to join the parade, yet he stood his ground nonetheless, for he remained true to his cause.

I later looked up the details of an earlier, harrowing day he had spent only a few blocks away in the compendium "Lost Lives." From his information I had deduced** the unnamed woman killed: "Patricia McKay, Official IRA, Catholic, 20, married, typist"-- she is listed as fatality #617 on Sept. 29, 1972. She had died of a stomach wound; reports had told of a woman in the area around Ross Street carrying a rifle. Gunfire followed. Republicans claimed she was unarmed. Her ambulance was stopped by soldiers and they escorted her to the hospital where she died. The OIRA paper "United Irishman" claimed she'd been shot five times.

Earlier that same day in that same battle around Servia Street off Albert Street, when members of both IRA factions had been waiting to ambush British soldiers, #616, "Ian Stewart David Burt, Royal Anglian Regiment, 18, single" and #615, "Jimmy Quigley, IRA, Catholic, 18" also perished. The army's version had four men carrying pistols being chased up Divis Street as Daniel McErlean's funeral cortége made its way up the road.

After Quigley had been shot, soldiers went to recover his body. They then came under fire from a another gunman; Burt was hit in the head. His comrades claimed that they had been shot at by at least a dozen gunmen. The exchange of rifle fire, the book tells us, "lasted from noon to midnight." Quigley came from the Divis Towers down the road and his name's listed on that memorial roll of honor. That day, the troops had been patrolling during the funeral of McErlean-- who had been blown up two days earlier during a UVF bombing of a small room used as a bar near Unity Flats. Thirty people had been injured at the Carrick Hall Social Club. The presence of the British troops at McErlean's funeral procession had then sparked the "major gun-battle." Three more young people died as a result: one Provo, one Stickie, one soldier.

I record this data to show how many lives ended early in the war, and to reflect on, as with Brendan Hughes, how many more will take many years to end. Those for whom the conflict terminated quickly entered the 3,500 entries of a book I wish never to have a revised edition, "Lost Lives." Yet, what massive volume will contain the tales told let alone the stories suppressed by millions more, those who still remember the battles and the bombs today, roughly a dozen years after the end of the Troubles? The damage remains either way.

Will the daughter who I pushed about in her stroller ever gaze on a Garden of Remembrance large enough for 3,500 names? Let alone a million and a half who lived in the North of Ireland during the three decades of strife? And the families of those sent to fight for the Crown against the double rivalry of Officials and Provos, IRA vs. INLA, Loyalists vs. Nationalists? Do we need a Valley of the Fallen or a Maya Lin-designed plinth enormous enough for so many names? Could any legible book could hold so many pages, when 3,500 Lost Lives filled a hefty tome already?

So, will CAIN continue to record only smaller gardens, divided by faction or denomination or regiment? Out of the four people I mentioned who died in Ireland, only Volunteer Quigley's inscribed (age at death there given as 17) on the Company "D" Falls Road plaque. McKay belonged to the rival contingent also claiming legitimacy as the IRA; McErlean is counted on another engraving listing the local civilian dead; Burt wore the uniform of the enemy. Perhaps in time we will come to love them all equally, not forgetting the reasons why each died, not erasing the truth of the war in which they found themselves seeking a better world free of strife and murder, even as they bled to death. Were these people, some still in their teens, pawns of shadowy forces, or did they truly believe with the clarity of youth their patriotic slogans?

As a parent now, I recognize a greater good that we need to share. I do not praise violence, but I recognize that in our fallen human state, its threat and its reality may force change that otherwise will not occur. We all admit this weakness, this fascination with the power at the barrel of a weapon, even as we lament its firing. Every father or mother or lover or child must feel this threat at the grave. We all lament the flag-draped coffin and only the foolish will gloat at a longer list of casualties. Whether or not rank or insignia accompanies their entry upon a Roll of Honour, none of us wish for a thicker "Lost Lives" or a fresh Garden's added plaque.

This neither diminishes the nobility nor eradicates the shame that any conflict enmeshes its perpetrators, bystanders, and victims within. Yet, as I grow older, I imagine both the dreams of those who take up guns and the sobriety of those who lay them down. Finding solutions in such a divided battleground has never been facile, nor has resolution ever been easy. But, along with this hope, I read history as well as Heaney. I have enough of an ear to catch that hope and history may not always rhyme, given our ability, for thousands of years, to miss the beat, to blow the fuse, then wreck the parade. There's always some of us left after the march, to shuffle amidst the debris. Even now as I type this, I know both why I called Brendan Hughes a brave man and why I hope our children's future needs no such stark heroism.

Requiescant in pace. You can scan many names yourself, in books and on the Net. Let your eyes become their witness. I cannot solve all the lively questions these dead names raise. May they all rest peacefully, commemorated and remembered fittingly.

Visit CAIN archive's "Physical Memorials of the Troubles in West Belfast." Information & more photos at
For background on "The Dark:"
**Brendan Hughes wrote about "the wee Sticky," Patricia McKay; the editor of "The Blanket" reminded me after I wrote this blog entry. I'm not sure if his reflection was before or after I met him, but it would've been produced around this time.
His contributions to "The Blanket" have now been archived at:
And, tributes have been composed, including a slightly edited version of my own, at:"
Here's a poem by Ciara Ni Tuama, "Brendan":"


Anonymous said...

Please e-mail for a different perspective of what took place in 1972 in the Lower Falls in September in regard to Servia Street. Your blog is not the forum to discuss the deaths of an 18yr old and 17 yr old who both answered the call to serve the 'cause' or their country.

Fionnchú said...

"Anonymous" may not think a blog's a proper place for discussion of "The Dark," but the rest of you may appreciate the many eulogies gathered at this on-line forum:
The Blanket: Brendan Hughes, 1948-2008

Scudbob said...

Thanks, I appreciated the personal insight into a complicated man who lived through a difficult tme.

Seoirse MacDomhnaill said...

(Air: Shanagolden)

The gray clouds over Milltown
Are calling soft to me
The Smoke from burning fires
Brings bitter memories
The people and the traffic
They quickly hurry by
All through the streets of Belfast
Where young Patricia died.

Patricia as a girl
Was Belfast born and raised
And often in the stories
She heard our heroes praised
But no thoughts of death or violence
Did cloud her youthful brain
Til England sent it's monsters
To help support it's reign.

Do you remember, Patricia,
In the spingtime of your years
The hatreds and the bigotry
Which filled our hearts with fears?
We only asked for equal rights
But that was soon denied
All on the streets of Belfast
Where you bravely fought and died.

Then in the year of '69
Our homes they were aflame
Down from their haunts on Shankill
The Orange butchers came
But you'd read of Tone and Connolly
Fidel and valiant Che
And to defend your people
You joined the IRA.

You were a Sticky Volunteer
Your young heart knew no dread
You stood up for the Starry Plough
And the Workers' flag of red.
But England sent it's soldiers,
They said to keep the peace,
But on the streets of Belfast
Their terror was unleashed.

Then came that dark September
When the British huns came on
They thought they could subdue us
With the baton and the gun
But the Stickies and the Provos
They made their stand that day
All on the streets of Belfast
To counter England's sway.

You fought them, lovely Patricia,
All through that Autumn day
We could hear the rifles firing
And the Thompsons' deadly spray
But a bullet found your proud young heart
From the rifles of the foe
And on the streets of Belfast
They laid Patricia low.

But that was long ago, my girl
Some things are better now
Because of all you sacrifice
Our heads we will not bow.
But the cruel flag of England
Up in the somber sky
Still flies o'er the streets of Belfast
Where young Patricia died.

Seoirse MacDomhnaill, 2008