A PROMISE FULFILLED
By Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
On 12 February, 1976, Ireland lost a patriot son. His name was Frank Stagg of County Mayo. He was from a long line of Irish patriots as his father had fought in both the War of Independence and the Civil War. In the 1970s, Frank emigrated to London, where he worked as a bus conductor. He joined Sinn Féin in 1972 and shortly thereafter joined the IRA. In April 1973, he was arrested in Coventry and, under archaic Conspiracy Laws used to convict IRA members when there was a lack of hard evidence, Frank Stagg, Father Patrick Fell, and five others were convicted of conspiracy to commit arson and given 10-year sentences. Taken to Albany Prison, Frank was frequently punished with solitary confinement for claiming political prisoner status and refusing to don the uniform or do the work assigned to criminals.
In March 1974, he was moved to Parkhurst Prison, with fellow Mayo man Michael Gaughan. Together, they joined a hunger strike in support of the fight begun by Marion and Dolores Price in Brixton prison demanding political prisoner status and repatriation to Ireland to be near family. All were force fed by authorities, despite the fact that such methods had been 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 (back of 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 weighing just 84 pounds. The Brits said he died of pneumonia, but it was found that he died from infection by food lodged in a lung punctured by a feeding tube.
His coffin, draped in the same Tricolor that was used for hunger-strike Mayor Terence McSwiney’s funeral 54 years earlier, was carried in solemn procession across Ireland to Leigue Cemetery in Ballina where he was given a full military burial and laid to rest in the Republican plot. Thousands turned out to pay their respects in Dublin and along the route to his final resting place in Mayo.
Following Gaughan’s death, negotiations began and the hunger strike was called off. But the talks were a ruse just to halt the strike and prevent more deaths which were being highly publicized. Instead of meeting the prisoner’s demands, the authorities moved Frank Stagg to a solitary confinement punishment cell in Wakefield Prison, where he remained under 23-hour lockdown with no furniture, radio, newspapers nor cigarettes, and was prevented from sleeping by a bright light in his cell day and night. On 14 December 1975, a worn Frank Stagg began his final hunger strike for repatriation. He battled starvation for 62 days before he died on 12 February 1976 – again from forced feeding. His last request was to be buried next to my republican colleagues and comrade, Michael Gaughan. Embarrassed by the public demonstration at Gaughan’s funeral, the Fine Gael/Labour Government moved to avoid the prospect of another high-profile funeral of an IRA Volunteer.
As Stagg’s widow and friends waited at Dublin airport to receive his remains as instructed, the plane carrying Frank’s body home flew right over them. It had been diverted to Shannon where Gardaí Special Branch seized the coffin. It was removed by helicopter to a small cemetery near Ballina and buried far from the Republican Plot under massive state security, on Feb 21, 1976. 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 the martyred patriot.
In Ballina, the grave was filled with six feet of concrete and a 24-hour guard was posted to prevent the removal of the coffin and the fulfillment of Stagg’s last wish. A Requiem Mass was allowed to the family, but they boycotted it in protest. 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 made an emotional promise to the fallen patriot. He said: I pledge that we will assemble here again in the near future when we have taken your body from where it lies. Let there be no mistake about it, we will take it, Frank, and we will leave it resting side by side with your great comrade, Michael Gaughan.
For six months, all was quiet and the government, finding it hard to justify the expense of a 24-hour guard on a dead IRA volunteer, removed the guard. Then, on the night of November 6th, 1976, a group came to dig a grave in the plot next to the Stagg grave, presumably preparing for a new burial. The plot had actually been purchased months earlier by Frank’s brother, George. 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 him. In his honor, Seamus Robinson of Belfast, who had written the song TAKE ME HOME TO MAYO for Michael Gaughan, composed a song BRAVE FRANK STAGG. Today there are 3 graves with the Stagg name on them: The empty concreted grave with the original tombstone, an empty grave bought by his brother, and a Republican grave next to that of Michael Gaughan where Frank now rests and where Sinn Fein annually makes pilgrimages. Joe Cahill had kept his promise.