Hunger Strike Documents: Patsy O'Hara's Struggle
Patsy O'Hara's Struggle
An Camchéacta/The Starry Plough, June 1981

All the way from the Long Tower Church, through the Brandywell and Bogside and up to the Creggan to the cemetery, people kept saying that it was amazing. The biggest turn-out ever seen in Derry. Bigger than the Bloody Sunday march, even, bigger than anything.

Older people said that the only thing to compare was the opening of Gaelic Week in Derry in 1951, when De Valera himself arrived and drove in an open car up Rossville Street.

That was in the days of innocence, when Republicanism was a matter of rhetoric and socialism was a strange word.

It was different now. The reality had collided with the rhetoric. Patsy O'Hara was dead. And in dying he had crystalised the cause and the consciousness of the people.

All the way along the long tumultuous march people talked of knowing him.

There were some who knew him well and talked intimately of the kind of fellow he was, of the fact - irrelevant really - that he was natural at chess. That he used to play the guitar and might have joined Tony's band if only he hadn't been too . . . shy.

Too shy for the public glare!

Or the time he was shot by the Brits when he was only 13 and had to be helped up the banking by his father, Big Jim, to see the Bloody Sunday march coming down from Creggan.

And all the tiny things he'd say and do, nothing too trivial.

And it wasn't just the natural wish to claim acquaintance with the suddenly-famous dead. It was a tact that Patsy woo no stranger to any of us now. Nobody who dies in the struggle is a stranger to us.

Patsy, in his death, touched a chord, tapped a feeling, deep within nationalist workers in Derry. The strange thing was that just a few days beforehand the SDLP had made advances in local elections in the city, a result which had been interpreted by all as a signal that "moderates" had the ascendancy. Yet half at least of those who voted for the John Hume ticket were marching within the shadow of British guns behind Patsy's coffin.

Whatever about the marks they made on ballot papers, they held Patsy O'Hara deep in their hearts. Beneath the surface sheen of bourgeois politics, the spirit of resistance still surged strong.

And it took Patsy O'Hara to dredge that up and out in the open in Derry. We have all had our heroes, the glittering names from the glorious past to be conjured up on platforms, the standard reference points of old republicanism. Ashe and MacSwiney, Darcy, McCaughey . . . the hero-deeds of the dead. Great men in the indomitable persistency with which they pursued their goal, examples to us all surely, but distant still, detached from the day-to-day living-out of grinding existence in a Catholic ghetto.

Such men have illuminated the past. Patsy transfigured the present. Because we knew him, because he was no stranger to any of us. Because we could talk of the ordinary things that he did.

That was what brought it home, the fact that it could be any of us, that there was nothing strange or startling about Patsy to set him apart from us, the fact that one of US had ended as a bundle of bones in a Long Kesh cell.

The march wound its way from the church down Bishop Street, then twisted into the Brandywell, rubble-strewn from righteous riots, to the Bogside, past Free Derry Corner where the city took its stand and 14 of our neighbours - Patsy's neighbours - had crumpled to death under the bullets of the Paras on Bloody Sunday, into Westland Street by Meenan Park where Eugene McGillan and Colm Keenan had been shot down, up the hill into bleak and blood-stained Creggan, the stewards struggling to contain the crowd that grew mightier by the minute.

In death his body was tiny and shrivelled, but his spirit must have soared to know that by his death the die had been cast. He'd been one of our own, no figure from dull history, and if he could face eternity in good heart on our behalf, then each must stiffen the sinews to carry on where he left off. We owed it to him, and if to him then to ourselves as well, he being come of

As they lowered him into the grave his family stood with faces fixed in proud grief, their cold and private sorrow hemmed in on all sides by the public warmth of the masses. As the clay of Creggan cemetery claimed him, he was claimed too by Creggan.

He is now part of all of us, and lives on in all of us, having left us his own strength as he weakened and his own living faith as he died. And with him, and for him, we'll go forward and win.

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