Remembering Joe McDonnellMcDonnell was born on September 14th 1954 on Slate Street in the lower Falls Road area of Belfast, the fifth of nine children.
At the age of 17, he began dating Goretti, the sister of his close friend Michael. Joe & Goretti married in St. Agnes’ chapel in 1970 and moved in to live with Goretti’s sister and her family in Horn Drive in Lower Lenadoon.
At that time, however, they were one of only two nationalist households in what was then a predominantly loyalist street, and, after repeated instances of verbal intimidation, in the middle of the night, a loyalist mob broke down the doors and wrecked the houses, forcing the two families to leave.
The McDonnells went to live with Goretti’s mother for a while but eventually got the chance to squat in a house being vacated in Lenadoon Avenue.
In 1972 McDonnell was arrested in Operation Demetrius, and along with Gerry Adams and others was interned on the prison ship the Maidstone. He was later moved to Long Kesh for several months.
On his release Joe joined the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, operating at first in the 1st Battalion’s ‘A’ Company which covered the Rosnareen end of Andersonstown.
In between periods of internment, and before his capture, Joe resumed his trade as an upholsterer which he had followed since leaving school at the age of fifteen.
McDonnell met Bobby Sands during the preparation for a firebomb attack on the Balmoral Furnishing Company’s premises in Dunmurry.
During the ensuing shoot-out between the IRA and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British Army, both men, along with Séamus Finucane and Seán Lavery, were arrested.
McDonnell and the others were sentenced to 14 years in Gaol for possession of a firearm. None of the men accepted the jurisdiction of the court.
From the day he was sentenced, Joe refused to put on the prison uniform to take a visit, so adamant was he that he would not be criminalised.
Although McDonnell was not involved in the first (1980) hunger strike, he joined Bobby Sands and the others in the second (1981) hunger strike on May 9th.
During the strike, he fought the general election in the 26 counties, and only narrowly missed election in the Sligo–Leitrim constituency.
At 5.11 a.m., on July 8th, Joe McDonnell, who believably, for those who know his wife Goretti, his children Bernadette and Joseph and his family – “had too much to live for” died after sixty-one days of agonising hunger strike, rather than be criminalised.
McDonnell was buried in the grave next to Bobby Sands at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast.