On the day that The Blanket shuts up shop it seems appropriate to sign off by penning a tribute to Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes who died three months ago to the day. Brendan was a stalwart of The Blanket. In those issues where his writings appeared the hits counter went through the roof, such was the interest in what he had to say. His passing has left a vacuum in the hearts and lives of those who were his friends. In the time that has elapsed since his life ended, there has been much commentary both in public and in private. Many discussions of his legacy have taken place, aided in no small measure by the widely available writings and interviews he had left for people to mull over. There have been suggestions that he may have bequeathed the public a record of his life in the IRA. But no one has come forward with anything that would remotely resemble a testimony.
Thirty three years ago this month was the first time I met him in ‘A’ Wing of Crumlin Road Prison. While his capture was a major loss for the IRA, his Lower Falls comrades in the jail were excited at the thought of him being on the wing alongside him. His status was legendary. ‘A’ Wing proved to be a roller coaster life for him. It was there that he led a riot, during which he was badly beaten by British troops, in solidarity with the Long Kesh IRA which had burned the prison housing its volunteers. He would later lead a hunger strike against a prolonged post-riot lock up. And it was in ‘A’ Wing that he would learn – the news shouted through his cell door by a screw– that he had become the father of a son.
Despite a life of daring-do in which Brendan rubbed shoulders with some very heroic people including those who died during the 1981 hunger strike, it is instructive to learn that he had one solitary hero in his life, his father. A widower with a large family, his father ‘Kevie’ struggled single handed to bring up his children - five sons and one daughter. Times were hard but the family made it through. It was from his father that Brendan developed a class-based view of the world. This was reinforced by his own experience on the boats as a young seaman where he witnessed terrible poverty in the African port towns and cities his ship would pull into.
His desire to see a socialist outcome inspired him but his political shelter was in a republican structure rather than a socialist one. He had little time for the organised left, viewing it as a mish-mash of sects. He sought to avoid them like the plague, declining to turn up to events if they were involved in putting them together. One winter evening in a deprived Manchester housing estate we were on our way out from a public meeting when one of the paper sellers tried to physically assault a member of some other sect; the target of the attack deemed guilty of some deviation which he had expressed from the floor. Brendan seemed appalled. I merely said to him something along the lines of ‘it’s just them, pay no heed to it.’ While none of this put him off from publicly backing the socialist Eamonn McCann during an election foray it did leave him loathe to work in any organisational capacity with the left.
In the closing years of his life he achieved a life long ambition which was to visit Cuba. For years adorning the walls of his small living room in Divis Tower were pictures of Che Guevera. He had long been a fan of the Castro experiment. ‘The revolution improved ordinary people’s lives there. It was a waste of time here.’ However, the facts on the ground in the country punctured his faith in the Cuban social system which he found discriminatory against Cuban citizens, reserving some hotels only for rich people from other countries. Brendan refused to patronise these hotels in solidarity with the Cubans he felt were the victims of social apartheid.
Genuinely open minded and forever determined to do his own thinking he jealously guarded his independence. Consequently, he was given to an innate caution when it came to ‘advice’ in case it was a Trojan horse trying to smuggle words into his mouth. He was invariably dismissive of people telling him he should say this or that the next time he faced an interview. ‘If it is so important say it yourself’, his usual retort. It was one of his great strengths that if he needed advice he sought it but if he didn’t want it he would give short shrift to those proffering it. Often the first any of his friends knew that Brendan had given an interview was when he was heard on the radio or read about in the print media.
His open mindedness left him with little time for dogma. This lent to his character a suspicion of totalitarians masquerading as liberationists. One Sunday afternoon saw the two of us standing in London’s Hyde Park listening to someone from the Nation of Islam at Speaker’s Corner berate the few curious enough to stop to see what the ranting was about. The speaker was surrounded by acolytes who nodded their heads or loudly proclaimed ‘yes’ at anything they agreed with – which was everything the speaker roared. My attitude to them was much the same as it had been to the irrelevant left of Manchester – something to find fun in for a while before going on to do something more purposeful, like attend a march in support of hunger strikers in Turkey. Brendan was affected by it. He felt the people at the soap box were fascists. The menace they exuded made him very uneasy.
His concern at the emergence of fascistic tendencies amongst ostensible freedom fighters was also evident closer to home. He remarked a number of years ago that he could see ‘paranoia’ within the Provisional leadership: ‘anybody who criticises must be condemned, there must be no debate; “we must not be questioned”. We have something that is almost fascism developing out of this, and that is scary.’
The active suppression of political discussion riled Brendan and went against his natural inquisitive nature. He had often encouraged open discussion in Cage 11 which along with Cage 9 regarded itself as a centre of progressive thinking in an otherwise conservative environment. He and Gerry Adams had shared the first cubicle on the left to the entrance of the middle hut. Adams had promoted a culture of learning which Brendan ensured continued on after his cell mate was freed.
We had debates, we had discussions, we had arguments, we had read about the Palestinian cause, we read about the South African cause, we debated all these causes and we became politically educated, we became not just a soldier who was just a person who was able to fire a gun, but a person who was able to think before he fired a gun.
Like all cages, 11 seemed to have an abundance of books but it benefited from having no one who seemed to frown on any literature. Unlike Cage 10 where prisoners on occasion were advised to keep certain books in the locker and not on the book shelf, in 11 everything was on open display. One of Brendan’s favourites which he regularly revisited was The Technology of Political Control. He felt then that republicans would need to grow au fait with its contents as over time the British state would become increasingly technologically sophisticated as it moved to crush republican resistance. While Connolly always appeared as the icon of the republican left Brendan leaned more to Liam Mellows, again a taste he acquired from Gerry Adams.
Cage 11 was also a place where documentaries would be viewed avidly. Anything remotely political would take priority on the black and white television screen that provided our lens on the wider world. The Orlando Letelier murder in Washington by Chilean security services, the coup that overthrew Bhutto in Pakistan, William Hague’s address as a 16 year old to the annual Tory Party conference, the Khmer Rouge mass murder in Cambodia, the Baadar-Meinhoff kidnapping and killing of Hans Martin Schleyer, the death of former Italian Prime minister Aldo Moro at the hands of the Red Brigades, and the PLO defence of the Port of Tyre were all followed closely in Cage 11. In terms of intellectual exploration Cage 11 was in the avant garde, much of it a consequence of The Dark’s influence.
In the H-Blocks his distrust of ‘lectures from ‘on high’ grew more pronounced. He disliked formal education and readily embraced the then in-vogue concepts developed by radical educationalists Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich which he saw as challenging to hierarchy. Nor was he ever enamoured to the organised study groups that took place in some wings, preferring instead what he called ‘one-to-one’ informal exchanges.
Brendan carried a charisma which won him the respect of opponents as well as the admiration of friends. In the prisons the screws showed him a particular deference. Out for a drink in the Empire in South Belfast we bumped into a few former prison staff from the Kesh. They offered to buy us a round. We bought them one instead. Shortly before he died he relayed an account of a former prisoner officer calling to visit him in his flat. One night as we entered Liverpool British police detained Brendan for over an hour only to ask him about his experiences and request his autograph at the end of it.
Brendan Hughes was for long the leader of the blanket protest. Ironically, while he is heavily associated with the imagery of the blanket man defying the power of the British state to force republican political prisoners to wear the prison uniform, the no-uniform protest was not his preferred option. He felt it allowed the prison administration to confine republicans to their cells, from which their ability to create havoc within the echelons of prison management was attenuated. And he had been familiar with too many republicans from earlier IRA generations who had worn prison uniform during their bouts of incarceration but who could never be criminalised as a result. The prison arena was merely another battle field and Brendan like all capable military commanders assessed the matter in strategic terms. He did not want to give any advantage or commanding heights to the opposition. However, he could read the mood of his men and was sensitive to how the beatings and deprivation endured by them in their refusal to wear the uniform had become the mark of IRA and INLA pride.
The 1980 hunger strike of which he was the leader failed to resolve the prison issues that had given rise to it. Again Brendan felt that a head on assault should be avoided and he disagreed strongly with the decision by Bobby Sands to launch a second strike. While Bobby and his nine comrades who died eventually broke the British on the substance of political status Brendan concluded that it came at ‘too big a cost.’
Brendan had a deep affinity with those he served time with in the prison wings and cages built by the British for the purpose of crushing republicanism. He was regularly visited by ex-prisoners and would instantly change course in the run of his day if he learned that a former prisoner needed assistance. From the ceasefires one of Brendan’s big bones of contention lay in his firm belief that ex-prisoners had been abandoned by Sinn Fein. The early death of the first blanket man Kieran Nugent particularly upset him.
Kieran died in 2000. They called him a ‘river rat’ because he spent his last days drinking by the river in Poleglass. Why didn’t somebody in the movement not see he’d problems and help him? He was the bravest of the brave.
I was never quite sure that he was altogether right on this. We publicly disagreed on the life and death of Kieran, he taking the view that more could have been done, I feeling that it was Kieran’s independence, so manifested in his ability to go it alone on as the first man on the blanket protest, which may have militated against him seeking help. But Brendan remained adamant and publicly clashed with a Sinn Fein ex-prisoners body in the closing years of his life.
Brendan hailed from one of the great IRA companies in Belfast. Known as ‘the Dogs’, D Company fought with the ferocity of a wolf in its war with the British Army. It was soldiers with the British Army who gave Brendan his long standing nickname ‘the Dark’. British fatalities in the area were rivalled only by South Armagh, and then over a much longer period. South Armagh had a land mass whereas the area covered by the Dogs, the Lower Falls, was less than a mile squared. And being a warren of streets it had none of the foliage of South Armagh. British squaddies dreaded the Dogs and were known to have driven through the district with religious paraphernalia adorning their vehicles in the vain hope that the IRA might not fire on them.
Yet Brendan was clinical without being ruthless. On one occasion he spared the life of a British soldier he could easily have killed. On another he expressed his regret at failing to arrive quickly enough at a place where Lower Falls locals had captured a young British soldier who stood crying for his mother. The loss of British life on that occasion ate at Brendan who always regretted that other IRA colleagues arrived first and did what the IRA did when it captured enemy troops.
As the operations officer of the Belfast Brigade from late 1972 Brendan had prosecuted the war against the British with vigour. Such was his energy that when an opportunity for escape from internment in December 1973 presented itself other Belfast Brigade figures of greater seniority opted for Brendan to go, given that he more than anyone else had the hands on experience to up the ante against the British. In the six month period that he was free the Belfast Brigade bombed the Grand Central hotel, the British Army HQ in Belfast on two separate occasions. The BBC was also car bombed. Brendan had also set his mind to working on the bombing of Stormont in response to the Sunningdale Agreement which was the early mark 1 version of the Good Friday Agreement.
Brendan’s entire role in the IRA in the period that he was on the run, having escaped, was directed towards stopping the agreement working. He realised that for it to have succeeded the IRA’s self defined national liberation struggle would have been truly reduced to the pejorative status termed recently by novelist Glenn Patterson as ‘the war of devolution with a north-south dimension.’ In many ways the period helped mould his thinking and made his opposition to the Good Friday Agreement much more trenchant.
Throughout his entire political life Brendan adopted the stance of the dissident. He was unshakeable in his belief that republicanism was a philosophy of dissent. With his death dissenting republicanism has lost one of its great voices. Quiet in tone but penetrating in logic, Brendan never failed to make his point.
There is so much that could be written about Brendan Hughes that any obituary will fall short of the mark. A full blown book would be required to capture the life of this rock of republicanism. He deserves no less.
Read more of Anthony McIntyre at The Pensive Quill.