The Blanket

IRA Volunteer Charlie Hughes And The Courage Of The Brave

Brendan Hughes • 10.09.2002

I deliberately set out to write this article without using a bookie’s pen. But the supposedly good pen I selected for this occasion was not so good after all. And so I am back to relying on old faithful - the little half-size blue pen from the bookie’s. Charlie Hughes would have had a laugh at that - ‘trust him’ would have been his attitude. While he never took a drink he did enjoy the occasional flutter at the horses. I suppose horses run in the Hughes family. A matter of weeks ago we buried the well known Horsey Hughes. He was taken to his last resting place in a horse drawn carriage. The way to go Horsie. I’ll be going that way too.

I guess these days, Charlie Hughes is just another name to so many people. He is dead 31 years and this city has moved on a lot since then. But to those who knew him, he will always rest in that little spot deep in our minds through the gates of which pass only the best. And Charlie was the best.

Charlie, with his infectious laugh and strong will, was the son of my aunt Bella who lived in Servia Street. It is now part of the area known as the Lower Falls. He was O/C of D Company - the Dogs - the 2nd battalion of the Belfast Brigade. He was dedicated to the IRA and its goals. By joining the army he was following in a family tradition. Many of the Hughes family walked a similar path, although unfortunately for Charlie his path had already been marked out as the property of the reaper. It was he who brought me into the IRA.

When the events of 1969 caused the IRA to split, the choice for Charlie was straightforward. There was only one IRA and that was the IRA that fights. He quickly became O/C of the Dogs. Throughout 1970 and early 1971 republican resistance to the Northern State became more intense. In this very area, in one of its first major moves to slap down the nationalist people, the British imposed a curfew. With British troops on the streets doing the dirty work of Stormont, Charlie began to come into his own. With his powerful skills of leadership, he was a man that we all looked up to. His house was a hotbed of rebel activity. His mother Bella, was a constant and loyal source of support.

While the war was against the British, the split in the IRA had left a lot of bad feeling about. The Official IRA in the area could never forgive younger people like Charlie for snubbing it after it had deserted the people and left them at the mercy of orange and RUC mobs. The young looked to people like Billy McKee who had left the IRA but who had not left his people. Billy and others like him fought in defence of these areas. The Official IRA could not take the snub or the sneers of the people who took to painting the walls ‘IRA - I Ran Away’.

After the split the Lower Falls had the largest concentration of Official IRA members in Belfast. Most of those had been there before the outbreak of sectarian and state violence in 1969. The Provisional IRA was small in the area but determined. The Officials had the bulk of the weaponry and in the area the majority of the support. Often Charlie and his comrades found that they were harassed and abused by the Official IRA, deeply resentful of any contender to their supposed throne. On occasions they were actually stopped and searched by the Official IRA. As if the British doing it was not bad enough. On one occasion the Officials captured two Provisional IRA volunteers and took them to one of their drinking clubs in Leeson Street where they proceeded to pistol-whip them. They were severely beaten. One D Company volunteer who witnessed the incident reported it to Charlie, who in turn referred matters up to Billy McKee and Proinsias MacAirt.

The choices were clear. The Provisional IRA could either allow this reformist element to crush it on behalf of the British or it would stand up for itself. There was only ever one option, the latter. No one would refer to the Provisional IRA as ‘I Ran Away.’ The word came down from the leadership to all D Company volunteers to go into immediate stand-by mode and to open all arms dumps. A decision was taken by leadership to torch two drinking clubs run by the Official IRA. Throughout the night the small D Company numbers were reinforced by volunteers from other companies. The meeting point was none other than Charlie’s house.

A number of hours passed and then the order came. The Burning Embers was to be made to live up to its name. It was located directly facing Charlie’s house. The assembled volunteers prepared to move out. They did so reluctantly. None wanted to be involved in fighting other republicans, but if the IRA was to survive to defend the districts and punish the British for their military offensive, there was no way that reformist republicans, who wanted to go into the state apparatus rather than fight it, could be allowed to apply the jackboot.

The volunteers left Charlie’s home and made their way to the Burning Embers. Upon entering they came across a party for Jim Sullivan, the Official IRA O/C. The volunteers asked all present to leave in order to avoid injury. They declined. They were then ordered to leave. They refused. At that point Charlie gave the order to ‘burn it’. But he told all the volunteers to throw their petrol bombs behind the bar and not anywhere near the customers. The purpose was to frighten them out rather than harm them physically. It succeeded.

Once the Burning Embers were well and truly on its way to becoming little other than embers the order was given for the Provisional IRA unit to move up to the Cracked Cup in Lesson Street, another of the Official IRA’s drinking dens. But already alerted, the Official IRA were waiting to ambush the unit. A gun battle broke out and two volunteers were shot and injured. Shortly after this incident a ceasefire was agreed and the volunteers of the Provisional IRA dispersed to their billets while a strategy meeting was arranged to take place in Squire Maguire’s house in Cyprus Street. Charlie and the brigade staff attended and it was agreed that all weapons would be put away overnight and that talks with the Official IRA would resume in the morning. Charlie was not convinced of the wisdom of putting the weapons away. And when the brigade staff members were leaving Squire’s house he, as O/C of the Dogs and feeling ultimately responsible for the safety of all volunteers in his area positioned himself behind a lamppost to give them cover. A shot rang out. The Official IRA had broken the agreement and IRA volunteer Charlie Hughes lay dead. He was the first fatality in what was to become a bout of feuds between the Officials and the Provisionals which broke out periodically right up until 1977.

Betrayed and murdered by reformists, the trail blazed by Charlie Hughes was one many young IRA volunteers followed inspired by his courage and commitment. Nearing death on hunger strike in the H-Blocks in 1980, his spirit was my food. He was never far away. I survived while he lies in the plot of the brave from where his inspiration reaches out to touch those of us who had the honour of knowing him.







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In order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them. And if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us.
- Thich Nhat Hanh

Index: Current Articles

17 February 2007

Brendan Hughes
Archive Material

26 September 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


IRA Volunteer Charlie Hughes and the Courage of the Brave
Brendan Hughes


A Question of Identity

Billy Mitchell


Road Kill
Liam O Ruairc


Pakistan and Military Dictators

Anthony McIntyre


Baghdad's Think-Tank Bomb
John Chuckman


Solidarity: 2 Notices
Sam Bahour and Fred Schlomka


22 September 2002


Pipedream Peace
Joe Graham


Can The Course of Labour Afford to Wait?
Billy Mitchell


Easily Annoyed
Peter Urban


Academics on Independence, Part 1

Paul Fitzsimmons


Sabra & Shatila

Anthony McIntyre


Palestine & Iraq
Brendan Hughes


Not In Our Name
Davy Carlin


Death Fasts and Oppression Continue in Turkey



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