Radio Free Eireann, New York’s influential Irish radio program, begins each week with a song that shouts the words “unrepentant Fenian”. Once the description “unrepentant” Fenian or “unrepentant” Republican puzzled me. Repentance denotes regret and a contrite turning away from some misdeed or wrongdoing. Fenianism or Republicanism I took to be a virtue or accolade, synonyms for Irish patriotism. No one speaks of a repentant patriot. Why should a Republican or Fenian ever be repentant and why would it ever be noteworthy to single out a Republican for being unrepentant?
Brendan Hughes surely lived and died as an unrepentant Republican. He could have no more repented or disowned or denied his part in the IRA’s fight against British rule, than he could repent being Irish or disown Belfast or disavow the legitimacy of the Irish struggle by donning a British criminal uniform in the H-blocks of Long Kesh.
The very suggestion that he repent, disown or even mitigate his part in the struggle to make himself more politically palatable to the British crown or a Paisley led Stormont would have been met with that sly mischievous smile, perhaps a chuckle and an instruction to ”cop yourself on.”
Like countless others, I knew of him long before I would meet him. Like a Jim Lynagh, or Pete Ryan or Francis Hughes among so many others, Brendan Hughes was one of those volunteer IRA soldiers whose courage and determination seemed to overflow into those alongside them, somehow instilling confidence that the overwhelming military advantages held by British crown forces would someone be neutralized or overcome because he was there.
It was perhaps most characteristic of him that when he escaped from a British prison he did so not to gain freedom and safety in the south or even a respite, but to get back to the fight within days.
In the H-blocks he had the unenviable, if not near impossible task of rallying the H-block blanketmen, keeping up their spirits and morale in the daily fight against British criminalization while exercising the restraint and patience required by the Republican movement, to build a campaign and network of support in Ireland and beyond.
He was instrumental in the campaign which would eventually inspire countless thousands across Ireland and around the globe to rally behind the blanketmen against Thatcher’s brutal torture.
When all attempts at a political resolution, including that by Cardinal O’Fiaich were dismissed by Thatcher, and the ultimate protest, hunger strike, was forced upon Republican political prisoners, Brendan Hughes volunteered to lead. While himself suffering 53 days of hunger strike after having undergone years of protest the decision fell upon him to end the first hunger strike when it seemed that the British had ceded an honorable resolution in time to save the life of Sean McKenna. We would then see Thatcher renege and choose the tactics which would mean the death of ten hunger strike martyrs, in her vain effort to break the struggle by breaking the prisoners.
Twenty years ago after his release from Long Kesh, Brendan volunteered to come to the United States to collect funds on behalf of the Republican Movement. It was not an assignment he relished, but one that was important to the struggle. He would begin meetings candidly by explaining he was not there to seek monies for Irish Northern Aid or the families of political prisoners or for Sinn Fein.
He threw himself into the tour, patiently and diplomatically meeting small groups answering questions and explaining strategy. He worked with patience, determination and some humor and succeeded nearly doubling his original goal. Years later it would be speculated that he was perhaps too successful. Denis Donaldson would be sent to New York the next year and someone would quip that agent Donaldson was Britain’s answer to Brendan’s success.
In those days, the British trumpeted the propaganda fiction that the IRA fight was continuing not due to the injustice of British rule but because so-called godfathers were profiting from the war. Anyone who ever visited Brendan Hughes would see this claim for the lie that it was, as he clearly never profited, benefited or was enriched by a struggle in which he long played a leading role.
Later, he would come to disagree with the deal that would barter away acceptance of British rule with a unionist veto, in exchange for power, places and patronage within Stormont. How
easy it would have been for him to keep silent, and simply continue to enjoy, the esteem, camaraderie and job opportunities, to which his part in the struggle more than entitled him. Instead the same beliefs which brought him out on the streets of Belfast to join the struggle against the forces of the British crown led him to decide that loyalty to the struggle now demanded him to speak against the deal, and direction in which the Movement was headed.
His positions are public and in most cases show him taking a stand to defend others. He spoke out for a Republican debate on a political alternative to Stormont .He supported the demands of Republican prisoners at Maghaberry for segregation which was now being used by the British in place of a prison uniform as a new tactic of imposing criminalization. He urged against a Republican feud after the murder of Joseph O’Connor. He spoke for support for former Republican prisoners whose time in British jails had taken huge physical, mental and financial tolls. He expressed deep fears that the movement which could not be broken by British repression was being co-opted by power, privilege and profits within a British regime. Most recently he was to the forefront in opposing any Republican backing of the RUC-PSNI, which he saw as an endorsement of British rule, criminalization and repression, a force whose members had murdered, tortured and jailed Republicans.
His arguments were seldom answered on the merits but sidestepped with fanciful claims that Brendan was affected by the hunger strike or his years of imprisonment. The worst and most hurtful of these was the slander that he was against the leadership on a personal basis. This was a movement led by some with whom he had fought alongside, been imprisoned
and risked his life. The idea of speaking against these leaders must have been heartbreaking for him and harder in some ways than than refusing the crown uniform in Long Kesh. Such slanders were created to enable others to rationalize themselves to themselves without dealing with the truth behind his words.
In remembering this unrepentant Fenian there are no better words than something he, himself wrote for THE BLANKET, about a relative named Charlie Hughes, who had given his life in the struggle and whose memory Brendan said inspired and sustained him while on hunger strike:
“He lies in the plot of the brave from where his inspiration reaches out to touch those of us who had the honour of knowing him.”
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