Thirty years ago, INLA prisoner Kevin Lynch from Dungiven died after 71 days on hunger strike in Long Kesh. The youngest of eight children, he was 25 at the time of his death on August 1, 1981. This weekend, ahead of his anniversary, events will take place in his native Park and Dungiven to commemorate his death. County reporter ShEEnA JAcKSon spoke with Kevin Lynch’s brother Gerald and sister Bridie who recalled their brother’s time on Hunger Strike
Across from street from Dungiven cemetery, where Kevin Lynch is buried, the hunger striker’s sister, Bridie has turned her living room into a shrine to her baby brother. Pictures and paintings adorn the walls while medals and finely sculpted crafts sit on tables.
Among the memories is a black and white photo of the Lynch family in their Sunday best. Surrounded by his brothers and sisters, at the front, wearing knee length shorts and a crisp short-sleeved shirt underneath a woollen tank top, is Kevin. He is no more than five or six years old.
“Kevin was always a happy go lucky young lad and no matter where the older boys went, Kevin went too,” says Bridie. “He loved sport and was just full of fun.”
The family was close and, while times were hard, they “never wanted for anything”. Initially they lived in Park in a tiny house with no running water but moved later to Dungiven to a council house and, in later years, Paddy Lynch bought a pub.
At 16, tall and strong, standing over six foot, Kevin captained the Co. Derry U16 hurling team that won the All Ireland.
Like many lads at the time, Kevin headed across the water to England. He stayed in Bedford with his brothers, working as a bricklayer and playing football and hurling and “enjoying the craic” for several years before heading home. At that time the INLA was “strong” around Dungiven, says his brother, Gerald.
“Kevin got a few beatings by the RUC and the army and I remember one night he was coming home from training and, at the bus stop, a crowd of boys got out of a few jeeps and beat into him. There were a few other occasions too. At that stage he wasn’t involved, to the best of my knowledge, but then I suppose after that he got active,” he says. “My mum and dad might not have known. Kevin and me would talk. We were brothers, but we were friends too. People have their own minds.”
In December 1977, after spending a year on remand in Belfast’s Crumlin Road prison, Kevin was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh by a Diplock non-jury court for INLA operations in the North Derry area. On arrival at the H-Blocks Kevin Lynch joined the ‘blanket protest’ for a period of three and a half years until he took his place of the Hunger trike.
“It was very hard on my mum and dad, very hard, and so began that chapter,” says Gerald.
Recalling the phone call to say Kevin had joined the Hunger Strike, he remembers switching on the news and seeing his brother’s face flash on the television screen. He said Kevin pleaded with his parents for their support.
“My mother said she would support him,” he says. “Kevin’s way of thinking was that he was a single man, so rather than a married man doing it, he would but, for that to happen, he needed the support of the family to get through and my mother did that and she said she would never take him off. She carried that to the day she died. I often told her, ‘You gave him great comfort.’ We found out years later that he was over the moon he had the family support and that gave him great confidence; he knew he could do it. Kevin was very strong willed. When he was on hunger strike and the meal was at the bottom of the bed I remember saying to him, I couldn’t do it and he said, ‘Well, if you were here for a while you could.’”
The family say the deaths of all the hunger strikers “could have been avoided from day one, but (Margaret) Thatcher wanted her pound of flesh,” says Gerald. “There is no two ways about it. She wanted her glory. To any reasonable person, negotiations are a great thing. In any war fought there are negotiations. From the early days the prisoners wore their own clothes, ran their own wing and she (Thatcher) said, with a stroke of a pen, ‘It’s not happening, you’re criminals’, and they weren’t. They were political prisoners. They were volunteers, not fighting for gain. They were never going to adhere to that,” says Gerald.
“The young men in there endured savage conditions. At the beginning they could go out of their cells and go to the toilets but were getting beat left, right and centre, left unconscious and dragged back to the cells and they made a decision not to put up with it. And the reason for the excrement on the walls was to stop the maggots breeding. For the urine they would use bits of bread and make a dam in the corner to contain the urine. The maggots that were there were unreal. The lads came from good homes and they were treated worse than animals. A bishop said it was worse than the sewers of Calcutta.”
When visiting Kevin during the Hunger Strike the family did their best to be upbeat.
“One thing Kevin was aware of because of the previous hunger strikers – was what would happen to him, what stage he would go blind, the whole breakdown. When he did get sick, he was very ill.”
After learning negotiations with the British Government had broken off, Gerald recalls: “I said to Kevin. ‘at this minute you will die if things don’t resume’. That was around the middle to late part of the Hunger Strike. I remember he had a cigarette in his right hand and he thought seriously about what I said and he put his left hand behind his head and lay back on the bed and took a real good draw out of his cigarette and said, ‘If I have to die I will die’. That’s exactly what he said. He was there for the full haul. We knew he was going to die and it broke my mum and dad’s hearts. To see your son lying like that going through the pain.”
Bridie recalls the last moments with her brother and recalls how he took her hand and whispered: “Be good to mammy and daddy”.
“The men didn’t go on the hunger strike to die, but they were prepared to die. Kevin didn’t want to die,” she says.
Kevin Lynch was given a full military funeral by the Irish Republican Socialist Movement with six armed INLA volunteers in uniform firing a final volley of shots over his coffin as it made its journey to Dungiven cemetery.
“Kevin is buried beside mammy and daddy but not with them, which I think is sad,” says Gerald. “My parents were immensely brave. How they kept going I don’t know. The power they had was immense.”
Bridie says everything her mother did during those days ”was all for her son”.
“I’m sure he is looking down on us now and just feeling proud,” says Bridie. “I am very proud of my brother because he stood for what he believed in.”
Gerald says not a day goes by he doesn’t speak to his brother.
“I have a painting of him in the house and every morning I get up and talk to him. I might just say ‘hello’ or ‘how are you’ or say a prayer the odd time. It is hard but sure they say your loved ones never go far away.”