Much has been said and written about Brendan over the years, and my initial instinct in the wake of his sad demise was to keep my thoughts and reflections to myself. At times words can appear redundant, and sometimes phrases are not easily constructed to convey the depth of personal feelings.
Overcoming such reticence has not been an easy task and I have struggled with sentence and syntax in an attempt to indicate at least something of what I knew of him. Of course Brendan was loved by many people, and respected by more, and it was with a heavy heart that I heard the news of his death last weekend. It was a privilege to have known him.
I first heard of “The Dark” as a young schoolboy in the seventies growing up in Southampton. Rumour suggested that he, on behalf of the ‘RA, had driven Gerry Conlon and Paul Hill out of Belfast because of their juvenile predisposition toward “anti-social” behaviour. Those troubled young men, so I was told, made a nuisance of themselves around Southampton, like thousands of others (including myself) but were unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. British “justice” has a lot to answer for.
So my first awareness of “The Dark” caused me to ponder the status and authority of a man who might “persuade” people to take their chances in another part of the world! It was a thought guaranteed to induce a certain trepidation in a teenager not altogether unlike the unfortunate exiles.
I also vaguely remember conversations, hushed in a local bar, about people “running guns” for the IRA. I had family on the QE2 and I can recollect my grandfather telling me a story about a priest from Holy Family Church storing weapons for Republicans.
Darky’s name was mentioned again in that context of course, and some from the local Irish community were closely involved in shifting Armalites to Belfast (indeed others spent long terms in English jails for attempting to assist the armed struggle in a more practical way!). So the image I began to develop of “The Dark” evolved, slowly, as more information was acquired and assimilated.
This process was taken a stage further after I was made redundant from the shipyards in Woolston, Southampton and I studied for a degree in Politics as a mature student. I eventually completed a third year undergraduate dissertation on the Irish Republican movement, and learned in the process about the Hunger Strikes and the role that Brendan had played in Long Kesh. I was beginning to believe that I had some idea of who he was, and what he was like as a person. But I was wrong.
I became much more familiar with the Republican movement over the years and I visited good friends from Derry in the infamous H Blocks, and from Dublin in the dreary edifice of Portlaoise. And so eventually it happened that I came to meet (via Anthony McIntyre) Brendan “Darky” Hughes.
Over the subsequent months and years I spent many hours chatting with, listening to and laughing with Brendan, and even managed to coax him over to Southampton for a visit – no mean accomplishment given his reluctance to leave Belfast! He was a kind, generous, thoughtful human being and I was extremely proud to call him a friend.
Yet at his life’s conclusion, what can, or ought to be said about Brendan Hughes? The “Darky” I knew from gossip and hearsay, “The Dark” I was aware of through books and journals, was only ever partial and incomplete, barely a fragment of the whole.
Some men are less than the sum of their newspaper clippings and media profiles, whilst others pale into insignificance against the vivid anecdotes and stories told by others. Brendan was different. Physically quite frail, slight of build, quiet and unassuming, he was never boastful or in the slightest way self-indulgent - but his character was immense.
He was absolutely unyielding in his commitment to his principles. He was a Republican and a socialist, intensely proud of his working class identity. In an era when weather-vane politicians in fancy suits sell their ideological values to the highest bidder and media-savvy spin doctors try to re-write history to their own advantage, “The Dark” was a colossus.
With great honesty and integrity he would articulate the ideas and values that underpinned his political activism – national liberty, social justice and egalitarianism. An Ireland for all the people. These were non-negotiable political ideals, and he took them to his grave. The greatest tribute we can pay him is to re-dedicate ourselves to perpetuating those ideals. That would be a fitting legacy for “The Dark”.
I will never, ever forget Brendan Hughes the man, and I refuse to abandon what he believed in.
Tiocfaidh Ar La Comrade