Francis Hughes (Proinsias Ó hAodha)
28 February 1956 – 12 May 1981
Francis Hughes was born on February 28th, 1956, the youngest son amongst ten children, into a staunchly republican family in the townland of Tamlaghtduff, South Derry.
Francis’s wider family were also staunchly republican, the McElwee family who lived nearby. They had two sons, both first cousins of Francis, who were IRA volunteers and incarcerated in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, Benedict and Thomas. Thomas later went on to join Francis on hunger strike and died, lasting sixty-two days, and died on August 8 th 1981.
As a boy Francis went first to St. Mary’s primary school in Bellaghy, and from there to Clady intermediate school . On leaving school at sixteen, Francis got a job as an apprentice painter and decorator, completing his apprenticeship shortly before ‘going on the run’.
Republicanism was part and parcel of Francis’ young life, and because of his family’s known history of Republicanism, his family inevitably experienced harassment from Crown forces. His older brother Oliver was arrested in 1971 and held without trial for eight months. Francis also became the subject of the states brutal harassment and violence.
Whilst still young man and after returning from an evening out in Ardboe, Co. Tyrone he was stopped at a checkpoint by the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) .When they realised who he was he was so badly beaten he was bedridden for several days.
Francis inevitably became involved in the republican movement. Firstly he became involved with the Officials but having called a ceasefire in 1972, he set up an independent republican military unit that same year which comprised of a number of republicans from the local area. Francis and these same republicans later merged into the IRA in 1973 and became one of the most feared units of the IRA.
In fact Francis Hughes was described by the RUC as the most wanted man in the 6 counties until his arrest. Francis was a fiercely determined and dedicated IRA volunteer who led from the front. He led a life perpetually on the move, often moving during the night then sleeping during the day, either in fields and ditches or safe houses; a soldierly sight in his black beret and combat uniform and openly carrying a rifle, a handgun and several grenades as well as food rations.
His strategic maneuvering and tactical ability was second to none and had the RUC and British Army searching for him with little success. Safe houses were necessary as there were over fifty raids on Francis’ home, as well as those suspected of harbouring him. He had many friends in the area as he was popular there and also had many relatives. Francis became so successful in his operations against the Crown Forces that pictures were posted around South Derry, and the surrounding areas of Antrim and Tyrone.
Ultimately the Crown forces caught up with Francis following a shoot-out between the IRA and the SAS in which an SAS soldier was killed. On March 16th, 1978, two SAS soldiers took up a stake-out of a known safe house used by Francis Hughes. On approach to the farmhouse with another volunteer the SAS attempted to apprehend them and gunfight ensued.
One SAS man fell fatally wounded but the other – though shot in the stomach – managed to fire a long burst from his sterling sub-machine gun at the retreating figures, and to make radio contact with his base. Within three minutes, nearby British army patrols were on the scene and the area was entirely sealed off. The following morning hundreds of British soldiers took part in a massive search operation.
The next day, they found Francis Hughes bleeding profusely from a bullet wound which had shattered his left thigh. His comrade, although wounded, managed to escape. Francis was taken to hospital where he stayed for a period of time and as soon as possible was sent to Castlereagh interrogation centre. He said nothing and was deemed entirely uncooperative by his RUC interrogators.
He spent a year on remand in Crumlin Road gaol and at his diplock trial in February 1980 he was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to a total of 83 years imprisonment. As soon as he arrived in the H-Blocks, Francis immediately went on the protest for political status and, despite the severe disability of his wounded leg, displayed the same courage and determination that had been his hallmark before his capture.
Francis Hughes volunteered for the 1980 hunger strike and after it collapsed he volunteered to be part of the hunger strike in 1981 led by Bobby Sands and was accepted. In an open letter he wrote to the people of south Derry about his decision to go on hunger strike he said:
“I have no prouder boast than to say I am Irish and have been privileged to fight for the Irish people and for Ireland. If I have a duty I will perform it to the full with the unshakeable belief that we are a noble race and that chains and bounds have no part in us.”
Francis Hughes was a determined and totally fearless soldier. He courageously died on Tuesday, 12th, May at 5.43 p.m. after fifty-nine days on hunger strike. The IRA said he was one of the bravest soldiers of the armed struggle against British rule.