“We are the risen people, this time we must not be driven into the gutter. Even if this should mean dying for justice. The fight must go on. I want my memorial to be peace with justice.” –Frank Stagg
Frank Stagg was the seventh child in a family of thirteen children, born at Hollymount near Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, in 1942. Stagg was educated to primary level at Newbrooke Primary School and at CBS Ballinrobe to secondary level. After finishing his education, he worked as an assistant gamekeeper with his uncle prior to emigrating from Ireland to England in search of work.
In England, Frank was employed as a bus conductor and later qualified as a bus driver. In 1970 he married Bridie Armstrong from Carnicon, Co Mayo. He joined Sinn Féin in Luton in 1972 and shortly afterwards joined the IRA. Frank remained in touch with home and spent his annual holidays in Hollymount up to the year of his arrest and imprisonment in 1973. In the words of his mother, “he never forgot he was Irish”.
Frank Stagg began his sentence in Albany Prison on the Isle of Wight. Insisting that he be treated as a political prisoner he refused to do any prison work, which resulted in him spending most of his time in solitary confinement. In March 1974, while in Parkhurst Prison, he and Michael Gaughan joined the hunger strike begun by the Price sisters (Dolours and Marion), Hugh Feeney and Gerry Kelly demanding repatriation to Ireland. All suffered the horrific ordeal of forced feeding.
Stagg continued for 70 days. Following the death of Michael Gaughan as a result of force feeding the remaining hunger strikers ended their fast after assurances from the prison authorities that they would be transferred to a prison in Ireland.
The authorities, however, pursued a policy of giving in to prisoners’ demands when they were on hunger strike only to renege on their promises once the prisoner came off protest. Frustrated by such vindictive tactics and determined to secure his demands or die, Frank Stagg and several other prisoners embarked at the end of 1975 on another hunger strike, Stagg’s fourth in two years.
Frank Stagg died after fasting for 62 days. In order that he be afforded a republican funeral, Stagg stated in his will that his body should be entrusted to Derek Highstead, then Sinn Féin organiser in England. The Wakefield coroner complied with his request.
Meanwhile, the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government tried to cajole, intimidate, and bribe members of the Stagg family to collaborate in a week of desecration. Having failed, the institutions and servants of the state were used to hijack the body and orchestrate a parody of a funeral of honour. As Frank Stagg’s body was being flown home, and as the aeroplane was approaching Dublin airport, the government ordered Aer Lingus to fly on to Shannon where the Special Branch seized the coffin. Fine Gael Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave chose to defy in the most callous and insulting manner imaginable the deathbed wishes of Frank Stagg and to use the Special Branch to bury him.
The state’s hijacking of Frank Stagg’s body was a carbon copy of Britain’s treatment of Terence MacSwiney’s remains in 1920.
On Saturday, 21st February, Requiem Mass, boycotted by almost all his relatives, was held. He body was taken to Ballina where it was brought by Special Branch men to a grave some 70 yards from the Republican Plot in Leigue Cemetery, where he had asked to be buried. In order to prevent any re-interment by republicans, the Special Branch afterwards poured six feet of concrete on top of the coffin.
The following day, republicans held their own ceremonies at the Republican Plot, despite a mass presence of Gardaí. A volley of shots was fired by IRA Volunteers to salute their fallen comrade. In his oration Joe Cahill made a promise to Frank Stagg. He said: “I pledge that we will assemble here again in the near future when we have taken your body from where it lies. Let there be no mistake about it, we will take it, Frank, and we will leave it resting side by side with your great comrade, Michael Gaughan.”
For six months the Gardaí were stationed in the cemetery watching the grave but eventually they gave up and left. And when they did, the IRA, on 6th November 1976, disinterred Frank Stagg’s remains and reburied them with Michael Gaughan, thus carrying out his last request.
Featured image: Emmet Stagg (back left) helps gardaí bury Frank Stagg away from the Republican Plot