Hughes, Francis (1956–81), republican paramilitary and hunger-striker, was born 28 February 1956 at Tamlaghtduff, near Bellaghy, Co. Londonderry, one of ten children of Joseph Hughes, a farmer with 20 acres, and his wife, Margaret (née McElwee). A brother, Oliver, was an Irish Independence Party member of Magherafelt district council. Francis Hughes was educated at St Mary's primary school, Bellaghy, and Clady intermediate school, and was then apprenticed as a painter and decorator. His paramilitary involvement reflected family tradition (his father had been an IRA member in the 1920s, and a brother was interned for eight months in 1971), and intensified after he was beaten by local UDR men. Hughes joined the Official IRA, but after they declared a ceasefire in 1972 formed an independent local group, the Unrepentants, which included Dominic McGlinchey (qv). In 1973 this group joined the Provisional IRA; for a time Hughes was Provisional OC in south Derry. From 1975 he was based south of the border, regularly returning to combat in his home territory.
Hughes was a charismatic leader, a skilled sniper, and an able manufacturer of lethal booby traps, who cultivated a reputation for conscious bravado and daring hairs-breadth escapes. He saw himself as following in the footsteps of Tom Barry (qv), Dan Breen (qv), and Michael Collins (qv), regarded himself as a soldier, and often wore military clothing. Many stories are told of his reckless bravery and ability to bluff his way through awkward situations; he allegedly phoned the security forces to taunt them, telling them where he was to lure them into ambushes. He killed at least a dozen people – some sources claim as many as thirty. After a shooting incident in which two RUC men were killed on 8 April 1977, Hughes was described as the most wanted man in Northern Ireland, and a poster for his arrest was issued showing him and two associates. On 16 March 1978 he was wounded in a shoot-out at Fallylea, near Maghera, in which a member of the SAS (Special Air Service) was killed. Hughes was captured the next day and spent ten months in hospital with a shattered hip. Several operations left one leg shorter than the other and thereafter he was nicknamed ‘Bootsie’ because he wore a surgical boot. In 2001 a memorial stone was erected on the site of his capture.
In January 1980 Hughes was sentenced to life plus twenty years for murder and was committed to the Maze prison. His fellow hunger-strikers in the Maze might have expected release by 1987; Hughes would not have expected to be released until the turn of the century. When seven prisoners in the Maze undertook a hunger strike that was later aborted, Hughes joined them briefly in December 1980. He resumed his hunger strike on 15 March 1981 and died on 12 May after fifty-nine days, refusing requests from the IRA leadership outside the prison to end the strike after the death of Bobby Sands (qv). The journey of his body from the Maze to the well-attended funeral near Bellaghy was marked by rioting as the hearse passed through loyalist areas. The poet Seamus Heaney, a relative, has written of his ambivalent feelings about participating in an ‘establishment’ literary event on the day of Hughes's funeral. The ninth hunger-striker to die, Thomas McElwee (1957–81), was Hughes's first cousin.
Hughes was the only well-known hunger-striker apart from those involved in the H-block protest; he was also (at his own insistence) an exception to the rule that prisoners who could be presented as particularly murderous were excluded from the strike. No other hunger-striker's memory was challenged by so many identifiable victims and victims’ relatives. Early republican commemorations celebrated his exploits as righteous war against the forces responsible for the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 and other acts of oppression. The political developments of the 1990s led republicans to present the hunger-strikers as founders of the peace process, and Hughes's military activities were played down accordingly. When a New York muralist portrayed the ten hunger-strikers alongside Gandhi and Martin Luther King as peacemakers, the father of one of Hughes's victims called it ‘a sick joke . . . it shows how ignorant Irish-Americans are’ (Observer, 20 May 2001). A man seriously injured at the age of eight when a bomb planted by Hughes killed his father and ten-year-old sister described Hughes as ‘a cold-blooded killer . . . I have the scars still to prove it’ (ibid.).
Hughes's military reputation and early death ensured his prominence (until world attention waned) in the memory of the hunger strike. Christy Moore composed a ballad, ‘The boy from Tamlaghtduff’, in his honour; a republican folk group, the Irish Brigade, recorded another, ‘Hughes lives on forever’. Frank Higgins, played by David O'Hara in the film Some mother's son (directed by Terry George, 1996) is loosely based on Hughes; in H3 (directed by Les Blair, 2001) Hughes was played by Feargal McElharron.