IRA Volunteer Thomas McElwee
was born on 30th of November, 1957 in Tamlaghtduff in the Bellaghy
parish of south Derry. Born into a large Catholic family, Tom was the fifth of twelve children. His family lived in a small white-washed house that the father, Jim, built with his own hands.
Thomas and his brother Benedict along with their cousin Francis Hughes
, who lived right down the road, went to school together. They grew up together as friends and developed their ideas of nationalism together as well.
Thomas is remembered by the people of Bellaghy as being sincere and quiet. He liked to help his mother around the house. He also loved the outdoors and he and Benedict would get themselves into many predicaments in the woods and on the country roads.
Thomas also had a very acute sense when it came to engines. He loved working with cars and his interest was even further fueled once he got his driver's license. He enjoyed playing records too, very often of republican ballads, at a time when the 'troubles' had barely begun. Even before 1969, the McElwees, including Thomas, would sometimes go to folk concerts in the village where many of the ballads recalled the tradition of resistance to British injustice.
At fourteen, Tom joined na Fianna Eireann
and began his activism to remove the British presence from Ireland. It was not long before he also joined Francis Hughes'
independent unit of Volunteers operating in the South Derry area. When this entire unit was incorporated into the Provisional IRA, Tom became one of the youngest Volunteers in the area.
He was very active over the next few years; Tom took part in dozens of successful operations with his brother and cousin around the towns of Magherafelt, Bellaghy, Castledawson, and Maghera. These attacks consisted of booby-traps, ambushes, hit-and-run gun fights and landmine attacks. Their unit became one of the most successful and feared of the early 1970's.
Thomas had the reputation of a principled republican
who knew what he was fighting for. He had a great appetite for history, especially local history. He was constantly reading about Republican events and happenings in the Bellaghy area over the last century.
Both because of good luck and his quiet nature, Thomas was never forced to go "on the run"
like his famous cousin Francis. He continued to be harassed though, both by the Brits and the RUC. The McElwee home was raided on a number of occasions and Thomas and Benedict both were arrested.
On the 9th of October 1976, Thomas and Benedict were involved in a pre-mature bomb explosion. Tom lost an eye
while Benedict was comparably lucky, suffering only superficial burns and shock. There were two other Volunteers in the car as well; Colm Scullion, losing several toes and Sean McPeake, losing a leg.
After six weeks in RVH in Belfast, Thomas was transferred to Musgrave military hospital, joining his brother. A week before Christmas, they were both remanded to Crumlin Road jail. After eight months, they were brought to trail. The charged brought against them included: murder and possession of explosives. They were convicted of both charges and sentenced to twenty years.
The charge of murder was a sham
. A girl had been killed in Ballymena the same day the bomb prematurely exploded in the car carrying the IRA Volunteers. Nearly half a dozen other Volunteers arrested in the South Derry area were also charged with this death. Tom and Benedict both appealed the charge and it was later knocked down to manslaughter.
Imprisonment was particularly harsh for the McElwee brothers who were often singled out by prison warders, angry at the brothers' refusal to accept any form of criminal treatment. For a while they were able to keep in touch with each other as they were both in H6
, but they were eventually split up and had hardly any opportunity to see each other at all for over two years.
After years on the blanket, the brothers joined the thirty strong hungerstrike in December of 1980
to stand up for the rights of the prisoners. As Sean McKenna
neared death, the strike was called off as an apparent deal was struck with the British. It would not be known until mid January that this deal was a sham and the Brits had backed out.
Thomas and Benedict put their names in for the 1981 strike but Tom was the one chosen to make the sacrifice. The determination
he showed and his youth together made a statement. He died on August 8th, 1981
after refusing food for 62 days
. He remained determined and unbroken.
His statement had been made. God bless his soul.
, a song
Tribute to Tom McElwee on Ireland's Own