Joe McDonnell (Seosamh Mac Dónaill)
September 14 1950 – July 8 1981
The fourth Irish Republican Army volunteer to join the 1981 hunger strike was Joe McDonnell from Belfast. Joe was born in September 1950, the fifth of 10 children, in Slate Street on the Falls Road. Joe married Goretti in 1970 and moved to his sister’s house in Lenadoon, at the time considered a unionist area. There, they were subject to frequent attacks by bigots.
Joe volunteered to replace his friend Bobby Sands, who he was captured along with while on active service in October 1976, joining the hunger strike on May 9 1981. Joe was regarded by his comrades as a cool and efficient volunteer who did what he had to do and never talked about it afterwards.
A well-known and very popular man in the greater Andersonstown area, Joe had a reputation as a quiet and deep-thinking individual, with a gentle, happy go-lucky personality, who had, nevertheless, a great sense of humour, was always laughing and playing practical jokes and who, although withdrawn at times, had the ability to make friends easily.
He had joined the Republican Movement soon after the introduction of internment without trial in August 1971. He was himself interned on the prison ship Maidstone in 1972 and in Long Kesh from 1973 to ’74.
Arrested and jailed for a commercial bombing operation, Joe was sentenced in September 1977 to 14 years’ imprisonment. He joined the Blanket protest for the restoration of political status and was denied visits unless he wore the prison uniform. Goretti and their two children had not seen him in the more than three and-a-half years since he was sentenced up until the hunger strike.
From the day he was sentenced Joe refused to put on the prison uniform to take a visit, so adamant was he that he would not be criminalised. He kept in touch instead, with his wife and family, by means of daily smuggled communications, written with smuggled biro refills on prison issue toilet paper and smuggled out via other Blanketmen who were taking visits.
Incarcerated in H5, Joe acted as ‘scorcher’ (an anglicised form of the Irish word, ‘scairt’, to shout) shouting the news from his block to the adjoining one about 100 yards away. Frequently, this was the only way that news from outside could be communicated from one H-Block to another.
Although Joe was not involved in the first hunger strike in 1980, he joined Bobby Sands and the others in the second strike. During the strike he stood in the 26-County general election and only narrowly missed out on a seat in the Sligo–Leitrim constituency by 315 votes. Goretti took an active part in the campaign in support of the hunger strikers.
All the family were actively involved in campaigning for him, and despite the disappointment at the result both they and Joe himself were pleased at the impact which the H-Block issue had on the election. Adults cried when the video on the hunger strike was shown during the campaign, his family recall, and they cried again when Joe was eliminated from the count.
Joe McDonnell died at 5.11am on July 8 1981 after 61 days on hunger strike, the fifth man to give his life. He was buried next to Bobby Sands in Milltown Cemetery. John Joe McGirl, Joe’s election agent in Sligo-Leitrim, gave the oration at his funeral.
Quoting Pádraig Pearse, he said, “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.”