A Promise Fulfilled

Frank Stagg, of Hollymount, County Mayo, came from a long line of Irish republicans. His father had fought in both the War of Independence and the Civil War. In the 1970s, Frank emigrated to England, where he worked as a bus conductor in North London. He joined Sinn Féin in 1972 and shortly thereafter joined the IRA. In April 1973, he was arrested in Coventry and charged under ancient Conspiracy Laws, which were often used to convict IRA members when there was not enough concrete evidence. Frank Stagg, Father Patrick Fell, and five others were convicted of conspiracy to commit arson and given a ten-year sentence.

He was taken to Albany Prison on the Isle of Wight where, claiming political prisoner status, he refused prison clothes and work. He was frequently punished with solitary confinement. In March 1974, he was moved to Parkhurst Prison, where he and fellow Mayo man Michael Gaughan joined a hunger strike begun by the sisters Marion and Dolores Price in Brixton demanding political prisoner status and repatriation to Ireland. All were force fed by the authorities, despite the fact that such methods were being condemned by Amnesty International and the Court of Human Rights. Eventually, the strikers were repatriated to Northern Ireland except for a few that included Stagg and Gaughan. Both men continued to suffer forced feeding. According to the National Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee, six to eight guards would restrain the prisoner and drag him or her by the hair to the top of the bed, where they would stretch the prisoner’s neck over the metal rail, force a block between his or her teeth and then pass a feeding tube, which extended down the throat, through a hole in the block. After 64 days of this torture, Michael Gaughan died on June 3 at age 24 and weighing 84 pounds.

Following Gaughan’s death, negotiations were begun and the hunger strike was called off. But the talks were a ruse to halt the strike and prevent further highly publicized deaths. Instead of meeting the demands, the authorities moved Frank Stagg to a solitary confinement punishment cell in Wakefield Prison, where he remained under 23-hour lockdown. He was allowed no furniture, radio, newspapers or cigarettes, and prevented from sleeping by a bright light in his cell day and night. On 14 December 1975, Frank Stagg began his fourth and final hunger strike, with the demand again for repatriation. Frank battled against starvation for 62 days before he died on 12 February 1976 from forced feeding. His last request was to be buried next to my republican colleagues and my comrade, Michael Gaughan. Michael Gaughan had been buried in Ballina, County Mayo in a highly politicized funeral in which the IRA had taken a prominent role. This had embarrassed the Fine Gael/Labour Government which now faced the prospect of another high-profile funeral of an IRA member.

As Stagg’s widow and friends were waiting at Dublin airport, the plane carrying Frank Stagg’s coffin home was diverted to Shannon and the body was taken by the Gardaí. It was taken by helicopter to a small cemetery near Ballina and buried, under massive state security, on Feb 21. 1,600 police and soldiers couldn’t stop the IRA from firing a volley of shots over the grave in Frank’s honor as 6 to 7 thousand people threw rocks at the police and soldiers at the funeral. As far away as America, 3,000 people marched through New York City and over 1,000 attended a special mass in Boston for Francis Stagg, The grave was immediately covered over in concrete and a 24-hour guard was placed at the plot to prevent the family from exhuming the coffin and fulfilling Frank’s last wish. A Requiem Mass was allowed to the family, but they boycotted it in protest at not being allowed to have the funeral that Frank wanted. The following Sunday, the Republican Movement held its own ceremony at the republican Plot, despite a massive police presence. A volley was fired following an oration by the late Joe Cahill who pledged that Stagg’s body would one day be moved to lie beside his fellow IRA comrades in accordance with his last wishes.

Six months later, the government found it impossible to justify the expense of a 24-hour guard on a small local cemetery in Mayo and removed the guard. Then, on the night of November 6th, 1976, a small group came to dig a grave in a plot they had purchased next to the Stagg grave, presumably preparing it for a burial. The plot had actually been purchased by the IRA, and when the grave was deep enough, they tunneled horizontally, beneath the concrete covering Frank Stagg’s coffin, and quietly removed it. Frank Stagg was re-buried as he had wished, next to Michael Gaughan in the Republican plot, where a Catholic Priest led a litany of prayers and his comrades fired a volley of shots over his grave. In his honour, Seamus Robinson of Belfast, composed the song BRAVE FRANK STAGG. Seamus had also written TAKE ME HOME TO MAYO for Michael Gaughan.

Joe Cahill had fulfilled his promise.

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