Sincere, easy-going and full of
THE TENTH republican to join the hunger strike was
twenty-three-year-old IRA Volunteer Thomas McElwee, from Bellaghy in South
Derry. He had been imprisoned since December 1976, following a premature
explosion in which he lost an eye.
He was a first cousin of Francis Hughes, who died after fifty-nine days on
hunger strike, on May 12th.
One of the most tragic and saddening aspects of the hunger strike was the
close relationships between some of the hunger strikers.
Joe McDonnell following his friend and comrade Bobby Sands on hunger strike
and then into death, both having been captured on the same IRA operation in
Elsewhere, similar close ties, parallels, between one hunger striker and
another: the same schools; the same streets; the same experiences of
repression and discrimination.
And for those families, relatives and friends most acutely conscious of the
parallels there is of course an even more intense personal sadness than for
most, in the bitter tragedy of the hunger strike.
But of all those close relationships, none was surely as poignant as that
between Thomas McElwee and his cousin, Francis Hughes: two dedicated
republicans from the small South Derry village of Bellaghy, their family
homes less than half-a-mile apart in the townland of Tamlaghtduff, who were
close friends in their boyhood years and who later fought side by side in
the towns and fields of South Derry for the freedom of their country.
It came then as no surprise to those who knew them when Thomas and Francis
stood side by side again in the H-Blocks (along with Thomas' younger
brother, Benedict) in taking part in the thirty-strong four-day fast at the
end of the original seven-man hunger strike last December.
And when the deaths of Bobby Sands and Francis Hughes, on the subsequent
hunger strike, only months later, failed to break the Brits intransigence,
the McElwee family were already certain that either Thomas or Benedict, both
of whom had volunteered, would soon be joining the hunger strike as well.
What are the qualities that make a twenty-three-year-old South Derry man
ready to die a painful death on hunger strike, in defence of his political
principles and to end, for himself and for his comrades, the horrors of the
H-Blocks in which he had already spent almost four years?
The story of Thomas McElwee is not of a uniquely courageous, or uniquely
principled young man, any more than were any of the hunger strikers unique
in some way.
But it is the story of a fairly typical young Derryman, kind and
good-natured, full of life, and with a craze for cars and stock-car racing
who is also filled with a love of his country and its way of life, who (like
many others) had watched that country overrun by foreign and hostile troops,
torn by sectarianism and discrimination, and who had spent over half of his
young life striving to achieve the liberation of his country.
Within those few years he had become part of a tradition of the resistance
of ordinary Irish people, that will never be criminalised.
Thomas McElwee, the fifth of twelve children, was born on November 30th,
1957, into the small, whitewashed home built by his father, along the
Tamlaghtduff Road in the parish of Bellaghy.
His father, Jim (aged 65), a retired builder, has lived in Tamlaghtduff all
his life, coming from a family of farmers which settled in the area at the
turn of the century. One of his sisters, Margaret, married into the Hughes
family, and is the mother of the late Francis Hughes. Thomas' mother, Alice
(aged 56), lived in Philadelphia until she was seven years old, her family
having moved there from County Derry but later returning, and she has lived
in Bellaghy for most of her life.
Jim and Alice married in 1950 and had twelve children, the oldest thirty,
the youngest fourteen. They are: Kathleen, the eldest; Mary; Bernadette;
Annie; Enda; Thomas; Benedict; Joseph; Nora; Pauline; Majella; and the
youngest James. Even within the Irish countryside where strong family bonds
are the rule, the McElwee family are considered to be particularly close and
considerate to one another, and there are strong ties too between them and
the Hughes family.
As children, Thomas and Benedict and Francis Hughes, along with other
neighbours' children, used to walk together each day to the bottom of the
Tamlaghtduff road to catch the bus to school, returning home again each
evening. They went to St. Mary's primary in Bellaghy, and then to Clady
intermediate, three miles away.
Thomas got on pretty well at school. His favourite subjects were English and
Maths, and he was also good at Geography and History.
At home he was quiet, very good natured and sincere, and particularly good
towards his mother, helping out around the house and with jobs like cutting
the hedge and putting up fencing.
He was also, however, very much an outdoor person, and although more serious
than Benedict (who would usually have started off the devilment the pair got
involved in), he was full of fun, with a strong sense of humour and
One of the pranks they sometimes got up to along with other local lads,
earning them the temporary wrath of neighbours, was climbing on to the roof
of a house, blocking the chimney, and then watching as the smoke began to
appear in the kitchens. "They weren't too popular when that happened",
remembers one of their sisters, laughing.
But frequently too, Thomas was out-at week-ends and during school holidays -
helping neighbours, including Protestant farmers, with their crops and
machinery. He also used to go to work, picking gooseberries, at the
monastery in Portglenone, staying there for maybe ten days at a time, during
He had always been a determined person, arguing his point of view with his
sisters and brothers, and if he wanted something, often a present for a
member of his family, he would work hard to earn enough for it.
From the time he was eleven Thomas had an intense interest in working with
cars and all types of machinery. On one occasion his mother brought a lawn
mower which Thomas immediately dismantled, to see how it worked. When he
reassembled it, it worked, but perhaps not just quite as well as before!
As he grew older, his fascination for engines grew stronger. He got his
driving license as soon as he was old enough, and got his own car. He used
to travel all over the place to watch stock-car racing, particularly at
Aghadowey near Coleraine, in North Derry, and once he even got his own
stock-car for a while.
At weekends he used to go to local dances in neighbouring towns and villages
such as Ardboe and Clady. Usually, if it was ceilidh dancing, he had to be
dragged along, but he enjoyed it once he was there.
Yet, though full of life, there was a serious, reflective side to Thomas
He enjoyed playing records, often of traditional music, sometimes 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 mis-rule.
Given that background and Thomas' personal qualities of courage and concern
for his neighbours it was not surprising that he joined na Fianna Eireann
when he was only fourteen, and subsequently joined the independent unit led
by his cousin, Francis Hughes, which concentrated on defence of the local
area and ambushes of British forces, before it was recruited in its
entirety, after a period of time, into the IRA.
The following few years, before Thomas' capture in October '76, were active
ones in the South Derry area with a succession of successful bomb blitzes of
the commercial centres of towns like Magherafelt, Bellaghy, Castledawson,
and Maghera, and a high level of ambushes and booby-traps which made the
British forces reluctant to wander into the country lanes surrounding
Thomas had a reputation of a dedicated and principled republican who knew
what he was about, and knew moreover what he was fighting to ultimately
achieve. He was particularly interested in local republican history and knew
what had happened in Bellaghy and the surrounding areas over the past fifty
Because of his discretion as a republican, and, doubtless, good luck as
well, Thomas - unlike Francis Hughes - was not forced to go 'on the run' and
continued to live at home.
After leaving school he had gone to Magherafelt technical college for a
while, but later changed his mind and went to Ballymena training centre to
begin an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic. But harassment from loyalist
workers there forced him to leave and he then went to work with a local
Although not 'on the run' Thomas was still subject to the extreme harassment
at the hands of the Brits and the RUC that began to be felt in the area in
the mid-seventies, even before the IRA's military campaign in the South
Derry countryside, led by Francis Hughes, began to bite deep against the
Like many young men, whenever Thomas went out he was liable to be stopped
for lengthy periods of time along empty country roads, searched, maybe
threatened, and abused.
There were also house raids
The McElwees' home was first raided in 1974, and Thomas was arrested under
Section 10, for three days. That time it was over twenty-four hours later
before the family learned that Thomas was being held in Ballykelly
interrogation centre. On another occasion, both he and Benedict were
arrested, and taken to Coleraine barracks, after a raid on their home.
The last time that the family would be together, however, was on the evening
of October 8th, 1976. That evening the 'Stations' took place in the McElwees'
home, a country tradition where Mass is said in one house in every townland
during Lent, and during the month of October. That month in Tamlaghtduff it
was taking place in the McElwees's and most of the neighbours were there as
well. After the Mass there was a social evening, with food and music.
The following afternoon - Bernadette's birthday - at 1.30 p.m. on October
9th, Kathleen answered the phone, to be told that both their brothers Thomas
and Benedict were in the Wavery hospital in Ballymena following a premature
bomb explosion in a car in the town, shortly beforehand.
In the explosion, Thomas lost his right eye, while two other Bellaghy men
were also injured: Colm Scullion, losing several toes and Sean McPeake,
losing a leg.
Benedict McElwee, fortunately, suffered only from shock and superficial
burns. Following the explosion, several other republicans in the town were
arrested, later to be charged. These included Dolores O'Neill, from
Portglenone, Thomas' girlfriend, and Ann Bateson, from Toomebridge, both of
whom joined the protest in Armagh women's jail.
Thomas was transferred from the Ballymena hospital to the Royal Victoria
Hospital in Belfast for emergency surgery to save his remaining eye. It was
three weeks, however before he was able to see at all.
After six weeks he was transferred again, this time to the military wing of
the Musgrave Park hospital, where Benedict also was. One week before
Christmas, both brothers were charged and sent to Crumlin Road jail.
At their subsequent trial in September 1977, having spent over eight months
on remand in Crumlin Road, Thomas was convicted, although he made no
statements, not only of possession of explosives but also of the killing of
a woman who accidentally died in a bomb attack elsewhere in Ballymena that
day and with which other republicans were also charged.
That 'murder' conviction was, on appeal, reduced to manslaughter but a
twenty-year sentence remained, and Thomas returned to the blanket protest he
had joined immediately after his trial, in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh.
Their imprisonment was particularly harsh for the McElwee brothers who were
frequently singled out for brutality by prison warders, outraged at the
stubborn refusal of the two to accept any form of criminal status.
For a while they were able to keep in touch with each other as they were
both in H6 Block, but they were split up and had hardly any opportunity to
see each other at all for over two years.
Both Thomas and Benedict have been frequently mentioned in recent years in
smuggled communications detailing beatings meted out to blanket men. On one
occasion Thomas was put on the boards for fourteen days for refusing to call
a prison warder 'sir'. In a letter smuggled out to his sister Mary, one
time, Benedict wrote of the imprint of a warder's boot on his back and arms
after a typical assault.
Throughout, though, the brutality and degradation they had to endure served
only to deepen yet further, and harder, their resistance to criminalisation.
The McElwee family weren't surprised last December when they discovered that
both Thomas and Benedict had joined the thirty-strong hunger strike, as Sean
McKenna neared death, but even then the partial breakdown in communications
between H Blocks at that critical time meant that the family learnt first
that Benedict was going on hunger strike, only to be informed an hour and a
half later that Thomas was going on the fast too.
Speaking of the hunger strike and her sons and their comrades during Thomas'
strike, Mrs. McElwee said: "I know Thomas and Benedict would be determined
to stand up for their rights. In the Blocks one will stand for another. If
this hunger strike isn't settled one way or another they'll all go the same
way. There'll never be peace in this country."
Thomas McElwee died at 11.30 a.m. on Saturday, August 8th. Indicative of the
callousness of the British government towards prisoners and their families
alike neither had the comfort of each other's presence at that tragic
moment. He died after 62 days of slow agonising hunger strike with no
company other than prison warders - colleagues of those who had brutalised,
degraded and tortured him for three-and-a-half years.