OVERCOMING THE FEAR OF DEATH
"Keep on marching, don't give up"
30 May 1981
This tribute to the determination and spirit of republican resistance of the four dead H-Block hunger-strikers - IRA Volunteers Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, and Raymond McCreesh, and INLA Volunteer Patsy O'Hara - is written by Belfast republican Jim Gibney, who had the demanding, but privileged task of regularly visiting the former three in the H-Block prison hospital during their fast to the death for political prisoner status.
But it was in the last week of each of the three hungerstrikers' lives that the full impact of the strike hit the hungerstrikers themselves, their families and myself. On my last visit with Francis, I accompanied his mother and his brother, Oliver. It was a very moving occasion. Francis was going downhill fast. His eyesight was blurred and he had to hold his hand over one eye throughout the visit. He had been violently ill that morning.
His mother threw her arms around his neck and said: "I'm the proudest mother in the world. Your family are all proud of you." She blessed him with a special cross brought from Calvary in Jerusalem and Francis tenderly kissed it. He said "I always like to see you happy." I never saw Francis alive again.
Two days later I visited Raymond. He was in pretty good shape. After leaving him I was walking down the corridor and I noticed Bobby's cell door open. I walked in and saw him lying in bed with a crucifix given to him by the Pope's envoy around his neck. His mother, father and Marcella were lined along his bed. He sensed someone else in the cell. He looked towards me. "How are you?", I asked. "Is that you, Jim?" he said, stretching out his hand. "It is, Bobby", I replied, as I clasped him. "I'm extremely weak, I'm blind, I can't see you. Tell the lads to keep their chins up. Don't be down-hearted. I'm hanging on in. I'll see this thing thru," he said. We held hands for what seemed like an eternity but probably was less than a minute, then I left.
I had a similar, shattering experience two weeks later when I visited Raymond for the last time. As I entered the hospital complex I physically shook, and as I passed the cells Bobby and Francis died in, my blood ran cold. I was tempted to look inside the cells, but out of the corner of my eye I saw a gaunt figure waving and smiling at me.
It was Patsy O'Hara. His cell door was open and he was sitting by his bed, propped up in a chair. I went to his cell door and spoke briefly to him. He was strong and in good spirits.
Raymond's condition contrasted strongly with Patsy's. He lay motionless in the bed.
For thirty seconds he did not know he had visitors. Then, when he realised, he had visitors. Then, when he realised, he had difficulty taking in the names of his visitors: "It's your Uncle Peter and Jimmy McCreesh, your cousin, and Jim Gibney," said his cousin. "Oh," said Raymond in a faint voice that trailed off into silence. We sat for a few more minutes in silence, broken finally by questions which reflected the strained mood, then a longer silence. I thought Raymond had died, his chest stopped moving and he appeared to stop breathing, but he came to ...
As the visit ended, Raymond came round a bit, shook everyone's hand strongly, and threw his arms around his Uncle Peter's neck. "Keep on marching, don't give up" he said.
"That I will, that I will," said his uncle.