‘We are still living with Gary’s death today’

Derry republican Michael English. (2204MM10)
Derry republican Michael English. (2204MM10)

While the ten republican hunger strikers died in Long Kesh prison in 1981, many others, including several in Derry, died on the streets during protests associated with the hunger strikes.

On Easter Sunday that year, two Derry men, Gary English and Jim Brown were knocked down and killed by a British Army land rover during disturbances at the bottom of Creggan Hill.

Seventeen years-old Jim Brown was killed on impact but 19 year-old Gary English died when the land rover reversed back over his injured body.

Tragedy visited the English home in Cable Street again, four years later when Gary’s brother, Charles, an IRA volunteer died following an attack on the RUC in the William Street area.

Thirty years on, his father, Mickey, maintains the army’s actions in 1981 were deliberate, and part of a wider strategy to defeat republicanism.

Speaking on the 30th anniversary of his son’s death, Mr English said the hunger strikes changes his family completely. “1981 has been described by many historians as a watershed in Irish history. Losing our eldest son in 1981, for our family, I would describe it was our ground hog day. We are still living with it as if it was yesterday,” he said.

“That was the beginning of a part of our family’s history that was only starting but we did not know that then. As a direct consequence of what happened to Gary in 1981 and what followed in the legal circus in Crumlin Road courthouse, and what happened in the hunger strikes in the H Blocks, all had an influence four years later with the death of my son, Charles,” he said.

At the time of Gary English’s death, the hunger strike had been ongoing for seven weeks and protests were being held in Derry on an almost daily basis. Tensions were particularly high on Easter Sunday following the annual Easter Rising commemoration.

Recalling his memories of Easter Sunday 1981, the 70 year-old said; “I was doing what I usually did on a Sunday morning, walking my greyhounds. I was walking around the old Celtic Park at about eight in the morning and Gary came walking along on his way to play a match for Derry Rovers against Celtic Swifts. The game was on early because of the Easter commemoration march. Our family pet dog was following behind him and he called over to me and said, ‘Can you take Tanner home?’

“Later on, at about 6.50pm I was back out with the dogs along with a friend of mine, Patrick Doherty, and he asked me if I had heard about two young fellas being killed near the Cathedral but I didn’t think of relating it to Gary. He always went to his granny’s house for dinner on Sunday it was normal that he was not in the house. At about 8pm I went over to the Cathedral and there was still a crowd about and I saw Charles there. He knew someone had been killed but did not know it was his brother.

“Every Sunday night I went up to play snooker with my friend, Michael Sweeney. at the Northern Counties Club where Gary was a bar steward, but there was no sign of Gary so we went home.

“At about 11pm I went down to Rossville Street with my wife, Maureen, and met a friend of Gary’s at Glenfada Park. He said he thought he’d seen Gary there so I was relieved,” he said.

However, as he made his way home the situation changed rapidly. “As I was coming along Cable Street I saw a figure standing at my front door in underpants and a vest. It was Charles and he was shouting; ‘Daddy, daddy!’ I ran over and he just said, ‘Our Gary is dead.’ He had just taken a phonecall from the police barracks asking for someone to come and identify the body.”

Mr English said the phonecall from the police changed the course of his son’s life. “One thing happened that night that framed his mind for the future when he answered that phonecall. The policeman told him; ‘Your brother is laying here in the morgue, flat as a pancake.’ It always stuck with me that is what gave Charles that mindset; he couldn’t understand the callousness.”

Mr English said he was involved in the hunger strike campaigns but added that he did not expect tragedy to come to his door. “I was politically astute enough to see that Thatcher and her government were on a campaign to confront republicanism. She was not for turning and wanted to run republicans into the ground.

“The British Government made a decision to tackle republicans in prisons and their supporters on the streets. There was a conscious decision to make protesters know that if they took to the streets they were taking their life in their hands, hence the death of my son, Jim Brown, Paul Whitters, and others in Belfast. So many died on the streets during the hunger strikes for no other reason than the British decided that ‘might is right.’”

Mr English said by the time of the hunger strikes republicans had a lot of experience of death and that helped his family through their grief. “We became accustomed to death. Friends had died and we had attended funerals and wakes. It was part of daily life at that time. Because we were a republican family and lived in those times it helped us grieve. We could relate to friends who had died and we had shared in their grief and they shared in our grief over Gary. That’s what the republican family did. I felt strongly that we were part of something bigger, part of a republican family that bore pain with dignity,” he said.

The Bogside republican, despite his grief, was able to view his son’s death in the political context of the time.

He made an emotional public offer to the Thatcher government to accept his son’s death and let the hunger strikers live. “I knew the British Government had set its face on confrontation and that this would only be the beginning of deaths on the streets and in the prison. That is why I made that plea.

“It was a difficult thing to do but I probably did not realise how difficult because my family and I knew we belonged to something bigger than us. I knew it would not be listened to but I felt it was worth making the effort if it would prick someone’s conscience,” he explained.

Mr English said the protests on the streets in 1981 were part of the same struggle that was happening in Long Kesh. “People were sacrificing their lives inside the prison in a clear and emotive way and other people were prepared to sacrifice their lives in a different way by lending their support to the prisoners through protests. We were not prepared to be beaten into the ground any more; it was our Alamo and my son’s death was part of that,” he said.

The 70 year-old said he will remember his son along with the hunger strikers at the major commemoration rally which will be held in Derry on Sunday May 1st. “My son was born on November 11th, a day when Britain remembers its war dead by wearing a poppy and he died on Easter Sunday, a day when Ireland remembers her dead by wearing a lily. On May 1st I will remember him alongside the hunger strikers and others from the republican family who helped us share the grief. That was a great support to our family.

“Grief and pain shared is always easier to carry,” he said.