#OTD in 1981 – Death of Joe McDonnell, from Lenadoon, Belfast, after 61 days on hunger strike.

Fuair siad bás ar son Saoirse na hÉireann.

Joe McDonnell was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), who died in the 1981 Irish hunger strike.

McDonnell was born on Slate Street in the Falls Road of west Belfast on 14 Sept 1951, and was the fifth of 10 children and went to a nearby Roman Catholic school. In 1970, he married Goretti, and moved into her sister’s house in Lenadoon. There were only two Catholic houses in this predominantly Ulster Protestant housing estate, and the house was attacked on numerous occasions.

McDonnell was arrested in Operation Demetrius and interned on the prison ship HMS Maidstone. He was later moved to Long Kesh Prison for several months. Upon release he joined the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade. McDonnell met Bobby Sands in the run up to an IRA firebomb attack on the Balmoral Furnishing Company. During the ensuing shoot-out between the IRA and the RUC and British Army, both men along with Séamas Finucane and Seán Lavery were arrested. McDonnell and the other men were sentenced to 14 years in prison for possession of a firearm. None of the men accepted the jurisdiction of the court.

McDonnell agreed with the goals of the 1981 Irish hunger strike: the right not to wear a prison uniform; the right not to do prison work; the right of free association with other prisoners; the right to organise their own educational and recreational facilities and the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.

Although McDonnell was not involved in the first (1980) hunger strike, he joined Bobby Sands and the others in the second (1981) hunger strike. During the strike he fought the general election in the Republic of Ireland, and only narrowly missed election to the Sligo–Leitrim constituency.

He went 61 days without food before dying on 8 July 1981. He had two children. His wife Goretti took an active part in the campaign in support of the hunger strikers.

McDonnell was buried in the grave next to Bobby Sands at Milltown Cemetery. John Joe McGirl, McDonnell’s election agent in Sligo-Leitrim, gave the oration at his funeral. Quoting Pádraig Pearse, he stated, “He may seem the fool who has given his all, by the wise men of the world; but it was the apparent fools who changed the course of Irish history”.

The Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), which had been established by the Catholics Bishops Conference, accused the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) of retreating from earlier offers made to the ICJP on the hunger strikers five demands.

‘Joe McDonnell’, written by Brian Warfield of the Wolfe Tones, bears his name, as does a song by the Scottish-Australian socialist folksinger, Alistair Hulett. He is also commemorated in the song ‘Father’s Blessing’ written by Gerry O’ Glacain of the Irish Brigade.

Posted by

Stair na hÉireann is steeped in Ireland's turbulent history, culture, ancient secrets and thousands of places that link us to our past and the present. With insight to folklore, literature, art, and music, you’ll experience an irresistible tour through the remarkable Emerald Isle.