Patsy O’Hara was a survivor. He grew up in Derry during some of the city’s most violent years and he was hit by a soldier’s bullet at the tender age of fourteen. He lived through that ordeal and became a fighter devoted to freeing Ireland from English rule. Patsy had a keen sense of what he thought was right and a huge streak of Irish Republicanism. This combination led him straight into the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a militant Irish Republican group that was dedicated to forcing the English out of Ireland by any means necessary. It also eventually led him into the H-Blocks of Long Kesh Prison where he died on this day in 1981 while on hunger strike.
Patsy O’Hara was one of ten men who died on hunger strike in Long Kesh, also known as the Maze. Republican prisoners had been protesting there for more than five years. They felt that they deserved Special Category Status which would classify them as political prisoners rather than criminals. That distinction had once been in place but it was removed in 1976 and the prisoners refused to accept its removal. Their protests grew more extreme over the next few years before culminating in two hunger strikes by 1981.
The first hunger strike ended after fifty-three days and just before anyone died. The prisoners believed that they’d reached an agreement with the English government that would get them Special Category Status again, or would at least allow them to wear their own clothes while a compromise was reached. They soon found out that they were wrong and there was no change in the conditions of the prison, or the status of the prisoners.
The second hunger strike began in 1981, but this time Patsy and the rest of the men weren’t going to fold until their goals had been met. They knew from the beginning that some, if not all, of them would die on the strike but they started it anyway. The men joined the protest at different intervals to maximize the length and scope of the strike but despite the watchful eyes of the international press and the decision to vote one of them into Parliament, the English government would not compromise. The men began dying and the international condemnation and pressure to save the rest grew louder but nothing worked. Margaret Thatcher’s English government would not negotiate no matter how many men died. Her very public disdain and hardhearted response to their plight was a sure sign that no last ditch effort to reach a deal would be forthcoming.
Patsy had to have known that was the case as he slowly crept toward death’s door, but he did not come off the strike. His parents respected his wishes and did not intervene medically, even though they were pressured to do so by various political parties and the church. They knew Patsy would prefer to die for his beliefs so no matter how much they may have wanted to take him off the strike, they did not. His last words were, “let the fight go on.”
Patsy O’Hara died on the night of May 21st, 1981. His body showed signs of being beaten and burned (after his death) when it was returned to his family. He is remembered on various murals and memorials throughout the North of Ireland but especially in the city of Derry where he was born and raised. The town he loved still loves and honors him, even decades later.