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Brendan Hughes (The Dark): An appreciation

John McAnulty

17 February 2008

I first met the Dark when I found myself a victim of the ‘internment by remand’ system being operated by the British in the ‘70s.  An involuntary guest of the British in Crumlin Road jail, I was undergoing a medical examination on entry when the doors of the cell were flung open and a wing full of republican prisoners made satirical remarks about my naked rear end.  I later discovered that the men in white coats had been sent by Brendan and that my initiation was one of a whole series of activities designed to lift morale on the wing.

Even at this time Brendan was a living legend.  He was what the IRA would have liked itself to be: burning with hatred of injustice and class oppression, innocent of any sectarian impulse, utterly fearless and utterly dedicated to protecting his volunteers, pursuing the armed struggle, expelling the British and establishing a united Ireland. It made him officer commanding (O/C) of the Belfast brigade, the leader of the first hunger strike and, uniquely, the only republican ever to openly protest the class exploitation of ex-prisoners by the capitalist republicans who employed them at starvation wages. 

One thing was evident.  Brendan was dedicated not only to the goal, but to the process. Daring firefights with the British were not activities to be engaged in reluctantly but were embraced with fervour as adding sharpness, vigour and meaning to life.  This attitude made him an outstanding guerrilla leader, but left him defenceless when conditions changed.

One other memory of my time in the Crum was an attempt to organise Marxist study circles.  The first meetings attracted 40 prisoners, but the republican leadership then instructed members to attend lectures on Irish history and language.  There was no malice in this.  They saw the talks as a distraction that might cause division in the volunteers.  In reality the aversion to politics left the republican fighters at the mercy of the more political elements on the Army Council.

My last meetings with the Dark were a series of conferences and meetings exploring the possibility of a political regroupment where he spoke consistently of the need to revive the struggle.  I last heard his voice at a conference in Derry where, clearly a dying man, he spoke over a phone link, urging the republicans to unite politically and rebuild resistance.

What was absent from these last meeting was any explanation of what had gone wrong. For him, the armed struggle had had the capacity to bring victory and he could not understand why his movement had decayed.

That was the tragedy of the Dark and of many young people of his generation.  They gave everything to a physical force movement that would in the end fail them.  The tradition of Connolly socialism had the sympathy of many of them and part of the tragedy was the inability of socialists to respond adequately to the mass movement that blossomed in the North.

Brendan died with dignity, true to the freedom call that awoke his generation.  That is something that will be denied to those, his former comrades, who betrayed him.


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