When Frank Stagg died he had three funerals, not only that, he had two graves and three headstones. That's because when Frank Stagg died in 1976 there was a sort of tug of war over his body between the Irish Government and supporters of the Provisional IRA. Where was Frank Stagg's final resting place?
Producer Liamy Mac Nally introduces his acclaimed Documentary On One production - listen to Frank Stagg's Three Funerals above.
I was a teenager in Mayo in 1976, when local man, Frank Stagg, died on hunger strike. I was fascinated. It was hot on the heels of the death of another Mayo man, Michael Gaughan, also on hunger strike. But it was the story of Frank Stagg’s funeral which stuck with me – how his body had been 'kidnapped’ by the Irish government and how he ended up with his name on three headstones.
In the 1990s, while working as a local radio journalist, I decided to revisit the story as part of a series for Midwest Radio on Mayo’s three hunger strikers, Jack McNeela, Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg.
Shortly afterwards, I met Ronan Kelly, a producer from the Documentary On One, on the street in Westport. We got talking about documentaries and I mentioned the story of Frank Stagg’s funeral…or funerals, as it turned out.
The story was given added poignancy for me at the time because my 90-year-old mother, a Republican, was dying. Ronan and I decided to repurpose some of the existing recordings and carry out some new interviews to make a documentary for RTÉ. My mother felt strongly that the programme had to be made – that it's important to keep telling the stories of the past to new generations. Sadly, she died before the documentary was finished. The result was Frank Stagg’s Three Funerals.
The background was this: In 1973, Frank Stagg was given a ten-year jail sentence in England after being found guilty, with others, of planting bombs in Coventry. Stagg was denied repatriation to Ireland and instead, subjected to solitary confinement. Family members, including his wife and mother, faced humiliating body searches during prison visits.
In December 1975, Frank Stagg went on hunger strike to seek an end to solitary confinement and prison work, and repatriation to Ireland. The British government refused and Frank Stagg died on 12 February 1976.
At the time, tensions were high in Ireland. The funeral of hunger-striker Michael Gaughan in 1974 was the focus of an outpouring of republican feeling – thousands lined the route of the cortege as it made its way across the country.
With Stagg’s death and imminent funeral, the Government feared a repeat of the Gaughan funeral display.
Frank Stagg’s wishes were for his body to be buried in the republican plot in Ballina town cemetery. Following his death, the plan was for his coffin to be flown into Dublin Airport and then carried across the country to Ballina. However, the government diverted the plane from Dublin to Shannon Airport. A large force of Gardaí and Army personnel then escorted the body to Ballina where Stagg was buried, not in the republican plot but elsewhere in the cemetery and under a headstone, provided by the state.
Furthermore, to prevent the coffin being removed, the government arranged for concrete to be poured on top of the plot and for a 24-hour armed guard to be placed in a nearby hut.
What the Government didn’t realise was that the grave right beside Frank Stagg’s was for sale. This was bought by his brother George. On this, he erected a headstone, (referring to the adjacent plot) stating that ‘the pro-British Irish government’ had stolen Frank’s body. He vowed to reinter his brother’s body in the Republican Plot, as per Frank’s wishes.
Very late, on a wet and windswept night, twenty-two months after Frank Stagg was buried, and by which time the armed guard had been ended, six men assembled in the Ballina graveyard. They started digging down into the grave plot owned by George Stagg. Then, they dug sideways into Frank’s grave and removed his coffin. (Although the government had put concrete on the surface of the grave, they had failed to put it down the sides.) Quickly, the men brought Frank’s body to the republican plot and reburied it. They said a hurried prayer and disappeared into the night.
Stagg’s name was eventually added to the monument at the republican plot – one man commemorated on three headstones in the same graveyard.
Listen to more from Documentary On One here.