This story is about my traveling to England, Wales and Ireland when I was twenty-one years old. I was an observer at the Francis Hughes (a hunger striker) funeral in Bellaghy, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
Back in 1980, 1981 and 1982 I lived in Ireland for a total of thirteen months. My dad paid for two trips and I paid for one trip to Ireland. In May of 1981, I took my hard-earned money and flew from Minneapolis to London (Gatwick Airport). I took a bus to Brighton and then to Southampton. In Southampton, I stopped by the police department and thanked the policeman who helped me the previous fall when I was temporarily down and out in Southampton; he helped me get a room at the Salvation Army.
From Southampton I took a bus into Wales, took the ferry across to Ireland (Wexford) and took a bus to Carlow. In Carlow I stopped at the local college to see if there were any notices for rooms for rent. Somehow I bumped into this guy named Brian. Brian was an instructor at the college and he said I could stay at his place for the summer, because he was going to Africa on a mission trip in about a week.
Brian lived in Athy*, County Kildare and we drove to his place; he let me sleep on the couch. The next day, Brian and I were watching the news and there was a story about Francis Hughes, a hunger striker, who had died at the prison in Long Kesh in Northern Ireland. Brian knew Francis Hughes' family very well. Brian was originally from Northern Ireland. Brian's first reaction to the news was that there could be riots in Northern Ireland. Bobby Sands, another hunger striker, had died a week before. This was all big news in Ireland; I later learned that the deaths of Sands and Hughes were big news in the United States as well.
So Brian looked at me and asked me if I wanted to go on a road trip into Northern Ireland. I said, no problem. So we headed north and Brian and I had an intense discussion about the troubles in the North. We stayed at his sister's place, I believe, in Antrim, County Antrim. The funeral of Francis Hughes would be in a day or so. Funerals in Irish culture are very important--everybody goes to funerals.
The day of the Francis Hughes funeral, we drove out to Bellaghy, County Antrim. There were tons of people lining the roads. There were one or two British Army helicopters circling the neighborhood. Brian parked his car in a pasture maybe a mile or two from the Hughes family farm. We met a pretty reporter from the London Times newspaper--I think her name was Linda Melvern. Since she was English and she was in Republican (IRA) territory (historically, there have been tensions between the English and the Irish), she decided to hang out with us for most of the day--I think she felt safe being with us. It seemed like she was glad that there was an American in the outfit. She was really beautiful. A Northern Irishman, an English woman and an American: we were quite the team.
We walked to the Hughes farmhouse and walked inside. I met Francis Hughes' dad and mom and relatives.
Brian, who knew the Hughes family well, said, "This is Tim Shey from the United States." Mr. Hughes smiled and we shook hands.
I said something like, "I am sorry for the loss of your son, Mr. Hughes."
We met a few more people and then walked over to the casket to see the body. The body of Francis Hughes was very thin, emaciated. I think he died after forty-some days without food.
Brian told me that before Francis Hughes was captured by the British Army, he had dyed his hair blond and met these two British SAS (Special Air Services) men in a field. Hughes killed one SAS man and wounded the other; Hughes was wounded in the exchange of gunfire.
There was one story about Francis Hughes where he was in this farm house; it was surrounded by British soldiers. Hughes managed to get a British Army uniform and put it on. Hughes walked out of the house disguised as a British soldier and walked up to the British and said, "Be careful. Hughes is inside the house." Then he walked off and escaped.
Before the funeral procession to the local cemetery, Brian gave me a black armband [looking at a video of the funeral, we were actually wearing white armbands; it was a long time ago--sometimes it is hard to remember all of the details]--we were "stewards"--we were supposed to help keep back the crowds of people from the funeral procession. The British Army helicopters kept circling the area. Brian said that they were taking photographs of the people in the funeral.
Then several masked men appeared wearing black balaclavas (face masks); they escorted the coffin of Francis Hughes to the hearse. They followed the hearse to the cemetary. When they marched, they would chant, "Cle deas cle, cle deas cle." It sounded like "clay jazz clay", which means "left right left" in Gaelic (native Irish language).
The funeral procession walked for a while and was blocked at some intersection. Brian and I had to help push these people out of the way. There was this Canadian news cameraman right there filming everything; I may have made it on the nightly news in Canada. So the procession was diverted to another route to the cemetery somewhere in or around Bellaghy.
I don't remember too many details about the cemetery and what went on there. I think the masked men fired a few volleys from their rifles at the grave of Francis Hughes. After the cemetery, the crowds eventually dispersed. The beautiful English reporter caught up with us; somehow she strayed-off and lost sight of us. The three of us walked through the town of Bellaghy. There were these Scottish Highlanders (soldiers) sitting down, lounging around, smoking cigarettes, talking--they didn't seem too concerned about what was going on. There were no riots; there was a little trouble at the intersection where Brian and I were; I don't know of any other trouble during the funeral.
We said goodbye to Miss Melvern, got in the car and drove back towards Antrim. (Years later I read Linda Melvern's article on the Francis Hughes funeral at the Iowa State University Library in Ames, Iowa.) On the way, we noticed this car on the side of the road. It looked like they were broke down: both men were outside the car looking at a flat tire. So Brian pulled over and asked them if they needed any help.
They said something like, "Our car is broke down and we need to get to Belfast."
Brian said, "Hop in. We'll take you to Belfast." Belfast wasn't that far away from Antrim.
They both climbed into the back seat of Brian's car. One guy was older than the other: his name was Bob Jamieson of NBC News. The other, younger guy was the cameraman. They were in Northern Ireland covering the Francis Hughes funeral. The cameraman said he was very tired: he had to carry that heavy camera all over the place all day long. Bob Jamieson looked familiar; I am sure I had seen him on TV before.
So Brian drove them to Belfast to the Europa Hotel. Bob Jamieson and his cameraman were very grateful and thanked us.
Later that summer, in July, I took a train to Belfast and stayed for two or three days and attended a funeral of another hunger striker in West Belfast--somewhere near the Falls Road. I had bought these Army surplus jungle boots back in the States before I came to Ireland. I was walking back from the funeral and these kids noticed my Army jungle boots and said, "Must be with the IRA." I later was stopped by some British soldiers armed with rifles and they asked me a few questions. One soldier said, "Ah, my first American." Another soldier looked at my boots and asked me if I had been in the military in the States. We had a short, friendly chat and then I proceeded to walk back to downtown Belfast.
Brian and I drove back to Antrim and we stayed with his sister's family for another day or two and then we drove back to Athy. Brian soon left for Africa and I stayed in Athy where I soon began to write my first novella: a story about a thirty-something man named Johnny O'Sullivan from County Kerry who wanders and works in Ireland and England; I incorporated my experience of the Francis Hughes funeral into the story. I was twenty-one years old at the time and was heavily influenced by William Shakespeare, James Joyce and William Faulkner. The novella came to 73 pages in length. I sent it to several publishers, but it was never accepted for publication.
I ended up staying in Ireland that time for nine and a half months. After I finished writing and typing the manuscript (it took me seven weeks), I worked on a farm in Killorglin, County Kerry and then a farm in County Laoish and County Kildare for a short time. I later flew back to the States in February 1982.
[Originally published by Digihitch.com]
Francis Hughes Funeral on YouTube
*Athy Town, Co. Kildare, Ireland
**Barge on River Barrow
Hitchhiking Ireland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales