By Lynne Kelleher
The brother of a republican prisoner who died on hunger strike has opened up about the bizarre events surrounding the commandeering of his brother’s body by the government en route to his funeral.
Frank Stagg, the brother of former Labour TD Emmet Stagg, was 35 when he died in 1976, having refused food for 62 days at Wakefield prison in Yorkshire while serving a 10-year sentence for conspiring to commit arson.
The TG4 documentary series Finné details how he made a will five days before he passed away requesting to be buried with full military honours alongside former cellmate and fellow Mayo hunger striker Michael Gaughan in Ballina, who had died two year earlier.
In an extraordinary move, the State ordered that the aircraft carrying Frank Stagg’s body from London to Dublin be diverted to Shannon to avoid a similar military-style funeral to Gaughan, which had drawn thousands of republican mourners.
The State’s handling of Frank Stagg’s funeral caused controversy as his coffin was forcefully taken away from distraught family members in Shannon Airport before being helicoptered to his hometown for burial in a plot in Ballina, which was later covered in feet of concrete so it couldn’t be reburied.
Looking back on the turmoil of the funeral in the documentary, George Stagg says the State’s actions after his older brother’s death were “outside the bounds of decency”.
In the TG4 documentary, George Stagg, details how he eventually found a way to grant his brother’s last wishes by digging up his body under the dead of night from underneath a wall of concrete.
George Stagg, who had accompanied his brother’s coffin on the cargo plane, tells how he was arrested by two plain-clothes officers as soon as they landed and brought to Ennis Garda Station.
The coffin was brought into a waiting helicopter and the funeral took place with a wall of gardaí and army personnel surrounding the graveyard but with most of his grieving family missing.
“The State had possession of Frank’s coffin and body. It was a horrific feeling to think his body was being moved around the country under armed guard of soldiers and police and being buried without us being present.”
George Stagg said his mother — who stayed away from the funeral because she believed it was against his wishes — had her first visit to his grave photographed by special branch detectives.
Republicans held their own ceremony at Leigue Cemetery the following Sunday, with an oration from Joe Cahill and a pledge that the body would be moved to lie beside Gaughan, in accordance with Stagg’s wishes, which resulted in chaotic scenes.
Gardaí kept a nighttime guard over the grave for over a year and poured concrete over the grave to ensure the body couldn’t be reinterred but they omitted to buy the plot where they buried Frank Stagg.
Cemetery caretaker Gerry Ginty, who spotted that the State had never bought the plot where the prisoner had been buried, urged George Stagg to buy the plot along with the adjoining plot.
In the TG4 documentary, George Stagg details how he tunnelled to the concrete-covered coffin with the help of four others using their bare hands on a black, stormy night on November 5, 1977 — 22 months after his brother’s death.
“We dug around in over the coffin and under it and passed ropes through and were able to inch it out,” he says.
“When we got the coffin out I put my hands on it and just said, ‘It’s for you Frank we’re doing this’.”
- The documentary Finné is shown TG4 at 9.30pm on Wednesday.