deliberately set out to write this article without
using a bookies 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 bookies.
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. Ill
be going that way too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Charlies house.
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 Charlies 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.
volunteers left Charlies 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.
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
IRAs 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 Maguires 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 Squires 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.
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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