‘I am still so proud of each and every one of them’

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Thousands of people will take to the streets of Derry on Sunday afternoon to mark the 30th anniversary of the hunger strikes. Among them will be sisters Lisa Hegarty and Cathy Coney, nieces of Derry hunger striker, Mickey Devine. As well as remembering the ten republicans who died in Long Kesh, the sisters have also said they will be remembering their late mother, Margaret McCauley, and her campaigning work for her younger brother.

Their father, Frank, will also take part in Sunday’s march from Creggan to the Bogside and will remember the time he spent with his brother-in-law in the prison hospital in Long Kesh.

Sunday’s march will begin at 2.30pm Mickey Devine’s house on Rathkeele Way and make its way to Bishop Street, past the home of another Derry hunger striker, Patsy O’Hara, at Ardfoyle, before continuing to the H Block monument on Rossville Street for a rally.

Former hunger striker Raymond McCartney will be the main speaker at the event.

Lisa, who was nine years-old when her uncle died on hunger strike, said she is still very proud of him. “I still vividly remember when we heard Mickey was going on hunger strike even though I was just nine. My Mammy was brushing the floor and it was announced on the news that Derry man Mickey Devine was joining the hunger strike. She dropped to the floor crying.

“It had a big impact on me as a child to see my mother doing that,” she said.

Former hunger striker Leo Green, centre, guest speaker at the showing of the film Hunger in Creggan Community Sports Hall, pictured with from left, Sean McMonagle, '81 Committee chairperson, Joanne McDaid, '81 Committee, family members Cathy Coney and Lisa Hegarty, Meabh Mackel, Tar Abhaile co-ordinator, and Colr. Alicia McLaughlin. (0503PG20)

Former hunger striker Leo Green, centre, guest speaker at the showing of the film Hunger in Creggan Community Sports Hall, pictured with from left, Sean McMonagle, '81 Committee chairperson, Joanne McDaid, '81 Committee, family members Cathy Coney and Lisa Hegarty, Meabh Mackel, Tar Abhaile co-ordinator, and Colr. Alicia McLaughlin. (0503PG20)

Mr McCauley also recalled finding out that his brother-in-law had joined the fast in June 1981. “I went to visit him in Long Kesh and he told me he had something to tell me and then said he was going on hunger strike but told me to keep it to myself. I knew what day he was planning to start but when the day came it wasn’t on the news in the morning. I was walking down through the Bog when I met a woman who asked if he was my brother in law and she was the one who told me that he had actually gone on hunger strike,” he said.

Both of Mickey Devine’s parents died when he was young and he was raised by his elder sister, Margaret. When she got married Mickey lived with her and Frank.

As his only relatives, the McCauley’s had the power to take him off hunger strike but both supported his decision.

“He told us that if we took him off he would go back. There was pressure but it was his decision to go on the hunger strike and we had to respect that. He said taking him off would only prolong the agony because he would go back on,” Mr McCauley said.

‘We were close’

Cathy was 15 years-old at the time of the hunger strike and has said she has fond memories of her uncle.

“He lived with us and we were close. I remember one time before he went to jail and I was going down to my granny’s house with my daddy. There was a no-go area in the Bog at the time and as we were walking down

“I saw Mickey standing at with a balaclava and a big coat on him. I was calling and waving at him. I knew it was him because of his feet; he was spla-footed.

“That’s how well I knew him that I even recognised him with a mask on.

“I used to write to him in jail too and he wrote back and he always made wee jokes.

“He used to tell me not to get married until he got out so he could be at the wedding,” she said.

Mrs Coney also said she did not want to see her uncle during the hunger strike.

“My mother phoned and asked if we wanted to go up and see Mickey in jail but I said no. I was afraid to go and see him. I didn’t want to see him like that,” she said.

As the Derry man’s condition deteriorated the Frank and Margaret spent more and more time in Belfast, leaving their daughters in Derry.

“It was confusing for me and I didn’t really understand what was going on. I remember being in different people’s houses and different people watching me,” Lisa said.

She also said it was difficult for her as a child to understand what was happening at the time.

“My birthday is on August 17th and Mickey died on August 20th. My parents were staying up in Belfast at the time and I was looking for them to be with me on my birthday and I couldn’t understand why they weren’t,” she said.

However, she paid tribute to her mother for her commitment to her brother. “She was so strong.

“She was only 34 at the time and she had so much to deal with.

“She had us and then she had to deal with the enormous responsibility of caring for her brother and watching him die such an awful death.

“When I think about it now I think about how young she was then and how well she coped with everything. I’m 38 now and I can’t begin to imagine how she managed,” she said.

Mr McCauley also said his late wife’s dedication to her brother is still an inspiration. “I didn’t find out until afterwards but the night before Mickey died Margaret was walking past a church in Belfast and she went up and knocked on the door. The priest came out and told her it was closed. She explained to him that she wanted to come in and say a prayer for her brother as she didn’t think he would last another day and that she wasn’t sure if she would either.

“He let her in and she told me that she prayed that night for the Lord to take Mickey to end his pain. He died the next day,” he said.

The Derry man was with Mickey when he died. Remembering his last moments he said; “Fr Toner came in and he had been with the other hunger strikers and he knew when they were close to death.

“He felt Mickey’s feet and said that he didn’t have long left and within ten minutes he was dead,” he said.

Mickey was the last of the ten hunger strikers to die and Mr McCauley said the other families formed a close bond which still exists today.

“They had been through it and they used to tell us about the different stages the hunger strikers went through.

“We shared in their grief and they shared in ours. All the families are very loyal to each other, just as the men were loyal to each other on the protest,” he said.

Seminal event

He also said the hunger strike is one of the most important events in Irish history.

“People talk about 1916 but I think the hunger strike is maybe even more important. They couldn’t be broken.Look at where republicans are today and compare that to Thatcher,” she said.

Lisa encouraged as many people as possible to take part in Sunday’s rally. My mother told us about it and I have told my children.

“It should never be forgotten what those men did and what women like my mother did as well.

“I am so proud of them.”