McAteer, Hugh (1916–70), republican activist, was born 13 August 1916 in Derry city, second among four sons of Hugh McAteer, dock labourer, of Fanad, Co. Donegal, and Brigid McAteer (née O'Doherty) of Buncrana, Co. Donegal. He was educated in the city by the Christian Brothers and left school to find work locally as a clerk. By this stage, however, McAteer had already become involved in the republican movement, having joined its junior rank, Na Fianna Éireann, before moving into the IRA itself around Easter 1933. Along with others in the Derry area he crossed the border later that year to Donegal to assist the election campaign of Fianna Fáil. His first encounter with the authorities in Northern Ireland came in July 1936 when the police raided the McAteer family home, seizing weapons, explosives, and IRA documents. Hugh was arrested along with his father and brothers Edward (qv) (later leader of the nationalist party), Daniel, and John. When they all appeared before the court, Hugh – while refusing as a committed republican to recognise its legitimacy – immediately took full responsibility for what had been found and stressed that the rest of the family were ignorant of anything discovered in the house. This was accepted, and while the charges against his father and brothers were dropped he was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.
In November 1941 he was released and soon became involved again in the activities of the IRA as it sought to wage a military campaign in the north against the background of the second world war. Because of the Dublin government's hostility, the IRA decided to concentrate activities in Northern Ireland. At a meeting in February 1942 McAteer was appointed CO of the Northern Command, and along with others began to plan for a new offensive. A short time later, after further changes within the leadership, he also took on the role of chief of staff. Although he was to succeed in revitalising its efforts, with a fresh wave of attacks taking place, the impact of these was limited as the IRA struggled against determined efforts from the authorities on both sides of the border, in addition to the absence of widespread nationalist support. Furthermore the movement itself appeared at times ill-equipped to conduct its affairs. The perfect example of this came in October 1942, when McAteer was captured in Belfast; along with his director of intelligence, he had gone to meet a boyhood neighbour from Derry who was now a policeman, but was seemingly prepared to pass on information to assist the IRA. When both men arrived for the meeting they walked into a carefully prepared trap and were arrested, and a short time later McAteer was sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment on charges of treason. These events seemed to signal the end of any serious IRA campaign; this was not to prove entirely the case, as in the coming months McAteer ensured that the IRA remained an embarrassment to the NI government by several publicity coups. This began (January 1943) when he and three other republican prisoners escaped from Crumlin Road jail: the men first broke out of the main building through a hole they had cut in the roof, and then scaled the prison wall. In spite of an enormous manhunt and a £3,000 reward, McAteer remained at large for some ten months. During this period he caused further discomfort when on Easter Saturday 1943 he appeared in public at the Broadway cinema, not far from the Falls Road area in Belfast. With large numbers of police on duty in nationalist areas of Belfast to prevent republicans staging any military commemoration, a group of IRA men seized the cinema and interrupted the film, and McAteer appeared on stage. While one of his fellow escapees, Jimmy Steele, read the 1916 proclamation of the republic, he delivered a short speech outlining the movement's plans for the coming year.
On his escape from prison he resumed his position as chief of staff, and intermittently the IRA continued to engage in a number of attacks within Northern Ireland. But late in November 1943 McAteer's period of freedom ended when two policemen spotted him walking along the Falls Road, and after a brief chase he was found in the kitchen of a house where he had tried to hide. Returned to prison to serve the rest of his sentence, he took part in efforts by republican prisoners to protest at their conditions. In particular they resented being forced to wear prison uniforms, but in the face of wartime censorship and the unwillingness of the authorities to grant any concessions even when a hunger strike was organised, they made little headway. Once the second world war had ended in the summer of 1945, the authorities in Ireland, north and south, began a gradual process of releasing republican prisoners and internees, but McAteer was one of the last freed (August 1950). Earlier that year (February 1950), while still in prison, he stood unsuccessfully as a Sinn Féin candidate in the Westminster election for the constituency of Londonderry. In 1964 he once more made an unsuccessful attempt to win the seat, again losing to a unionist opponent.
After his release he returned to live in Derry city and worked for a number of years in his brother Edward's travel agency. Although he had left the IRA he still retained some contacts with it, and in the early 1950s appears to have acted as liaison between it and the Irish government, informing the authorities at one point that the IRA might recognise the legitimacy of the southern state. By the mid 1960s he had returned to live and work in Belfast, where he established a travel agency on the Falls Road. In 1968 McAteer travelled to the USA, appeared on several television programmes recounting his past exploits, and in Chicago received a civic reception from the local authorities. With the onset of civil unrest in Northern Ireland in the summer of 1969 he, along with other former republican activists, became involved in the network of defence committees established in nationalist areas to offer some protection against the growing anarchy on the streets. He then went on to help to establish Republican News in early 1970, joining its editorial board and writing an article for the paper's first issue.
He collapsed and died suddenly outside his office (24 June 1970) and was given a republican funeral before being buried in Milltown cemetery. McAteer was survived by his three children and his wife Nora (née McKearney; m. 1951), herself a member of a prominent republican family in Belfast, who had also served a prison term for IRA activities.