The Irish Republican Prisoners Support Group (IRPSG) would like to pay tribute to our Chair and one of its founders, Michael Holden, who recently died while on holiday in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, Ireland. Michael was born in Carrick on Suir on June 4th,1941 and attended the Christian Brothers school in the town where as a young boy he performed in the school pantomimes. He enjoyed the Irish Gaelic language and sports. He left Ireland when he was eighteen years of age.
One of the foremost things that I would like to say - Michael was a loving husband to his wife Kathleen and they lived together in Hemel Hempstead. Over the years Michael became a central figure in his local community. He would often put people before himself and drive neighbors to mass, doctors’ appointments or shopping.
He was a lifelong Republican activist, who campaigned tirelessly for the freedom of Irish Prisoners of War (POWs), the withdrawal of the British army and the end of British interference in both the Free State and in the Occupied Six Counties. He campaigned against the criminalization of the struggle for Irish freedom. Hence Michael spent most of his life dedicated to fighting for the Worker’s Republic and the campaign for Irish Self-determination.
Michael came from a long history of Irish Republican struggle and like a proud son he often spoke about his father Paddy Holden, on how his father was steadfast and unwavering. Paddy Holden was the last surviving member of K Company 8th Battalion South Tipperary Brigade, and participated in many actions against the Black and Tans and Royal Irish Constabulary. Michael’s father was a political prisoner in the 26 Counties of Ireland (Free State). In 1921 Paddy was amongst the volunteers who occupied the barracks in Carrick-on Suir as the Black and Tans withdrew from it. For the last five years of Paddy Holden’s life, Kathleen Holden took care of him until he died in 1993.
From a young age Michael was involved in Republican politics. He became a member of Sinn Fein before the splits, occasioned by that organisation's perceived inadequate response to the attack of the Six-County statelet on the Nationalist community. He left that organisation and for periods was active in turn with Provisional Sinn Féin (with the Luton Branch), Republican Sinn Féin for which he assisted in developing a London cumann (branch) and latterly the 32-County Sovereignty Movement. Michael was modest, courteous and easy to work with.
One of the things that was admirable about Michael - he held the cause of Irish self-determination first, above party, group or leader, which caused him to leave a number of organizations over the years.
Michael believed that in order for the Republican Movement to be effective in Britain, there was a need to work with the British left. An example of this was when Michael supported the RCG publication ‘Hands Off Ireland’, and attended the founding conference of the Irish Solidarity Movement. Over the years Michael was in contact with comrades within the Civil Rights veterans' organization in Derry and a number of Irish political and campaigning organizations in Britain and Ireland including the Connolly Association, Prisoners' Action Committee, the Irish in Britain Representation Group, SF, RSF, 32 CSM, Irish Republican Socialist Party, Republican Network for Unity, Saoirse and groups campaigning around strip-searching, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Irish political prisoners and innocent people in prison such as the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven and Judith Ward. He also worked with the Troops Out Movement and participated on occasion in Irish solidarity events organized by other British-based left wing organizations, including jointly organised events such as demonstrations for civil rights in Ireland, against internment, protests over British Army assassinations, support for the Blanketmen followed by the Hunger Strikers and what was for many years the annual Bloody Sunday commemoration in Britain.
For decades Michael spent many nights writing letters to prisoners and articles about the plight of Republican POWS. Sometimes he would send money to families. Michael would sometimes send money to prisoners' families and newspapers to the prisoners themselves.
The Irish Political Status Committee was founded by Michael and other comrades in 2000 to support Irish Republican prisoners who were not covered by the Good Friday Agreement. Michael and other IPSC members wrote articles in the IPSC newsletter which was sold in numerous Irish centers across Britain, and sent to prisoners in jail. Michael helped organize IPSC activities such as public meetings and in pursuance of its aims members of the IPSC picketed the Irish Embassy, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.
Michael helped develop the IPSC website. Michael was instrumental in organizing IPSC activities which entailed pickets at the Irish Embassy, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. When the IRPSG was formed in 2009 we continued this important work. An example of this was when Michael and the IRPSG secretary met with the Irish Ambassador in London to highlight the treatment of political prisoners in Portlaoise Prison (Co. Laois).
In the course of Michael’s political activities, he endured police and intelligence service harassment, and was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and, like many others, was held in Paddington Green police station but then released without charge. Michael amongst other Sinn Fein members discussed their experiences in a Channel Four Documentary ‘Suspect Communities’. The program dealt with the PTA and its effects on the Irish community living in Britain. During the interview Michael states that the interrogators questioned him mostly about his legal but militant trade union and Republican activities.
Over the years Michael spoke on numerous radio stations in the USA and Australia and elsewhere to highlight the plight of Irish political prisoners. It was through Michael that members of the IPSC and later the IRPSG spoke at the International Symposium against the Isolation of Political Prisoners (2005, 2014 and 2016). Michael had been chair of the IRPSG since its foundation in 2009. Michael amongst others was a key source for the book Special Category, The IRA in English Prisons written by Irish historian Ruan O'Donnell.
On a couple of occasions, Michael and I went to the Wolfe Tone commemoration and joined fellow Republicans in the march that was filmed by the Irish Gardai. During the march and after the speeches were read we handed out leaflets which were welcomed.
It is sad to relate that, at times, accusations of Michael being a police informer have been floated around by people in the Republican Movement. It is our belief that this has historically been a British tactic to instill fear and disunity in the Irish community and Irish solidarity movement. Some of this campaign of vilification was by whisper but at times surfaced more openly: for a time one individual telephoned and sent faxes to the company that Michael worked for and notified the work place about Michael’s political activities.
On another occasion in 2011, the police arrived at Michael’s house and notified him that there was a threat made to his life on Facebook. They didn’t notify him of who it was. At the time, Michael decided not to take the threat seriously and continued with his political work. IRPSG comrades were told that one the person spreading the rumors was a former police officer. Accusations continued. Despite the fact that no evidence was ever produced to back up these allegations.
In 2012 Michael and Kathleen were told that a letter had been posted to a person in London that had alleged evidence. When Michael and Kathleen visited the person they were notified that the letter had been posted to Michael’s address. The letter never materialized.
Diarmuid Breatnach, co-founder of the Irish Political Status Committee IPSC and Chair until his return to Ireland in 2003 commented:
There have been many occasions of police and British Intelligence services penetrating Irish solidarity and British left-wing organizations with informers and agents provocateurs including two attempts of which I am aware to penetrate the IPSC. But the allegations against Michael were unfounded. Ironically, one of Michael's accusers had himself been subject previously to harassment and pressure to turn him into an informer, in resisting which we, Michael included, had supported him. Soon after two members ceased to work with the Committee but Michael continued.
Michael was a private gentleman, and sometimes he would convey how, the stigma of being called a 'tout' by some people did deeply hurt him. On a personal level, Michael would try to meet people who spread such rumors but they refused. All he wanted to do was to give his side of the story, to counter such accounts and try to convince them that they were mistaken. He also wanted to be in a position to move on, and forgive. Determined to clear his name, Michael decided in July 2016 to use the Freedom of Information Act to ascertain any files on him so that he could refute such allegations.
For decades Michael campaigned and wrote to republican POWS, such as Marian and Dolours Price when they were arrested in the 1970s and force-fed, and when Marian was incarcerated (for holding a document while a statement was read from it at an Easter Commemoration). He received letters from prominent Republicans such as Mickey McKevitt, and corresponded with his wife Bernadette Sands. Michael amongst others were key in the campaign for the release of Stephen Kaczynski, imprisoned in a Turkish jail.
On the international plane, Michael supported the struggles of the Vietnamese, Palestinians, Basques, Kurds, Turkish political prisoners (at one time organizing a joint event with their support group in Britain) and many other peoples against imperialism and colonialism. He supported equality for people irrespective of gender, sexuality, religion or ethnic background.
In recent years, Michael’s health declined. He found it difficult to breathe. He was having treatment for his lung condition and was in receipt of medication. He spoke highly of the NHS medical practitioners despite not liking the medication. He found the side effects rather unpleasant which in turn made him feel unwell. He was advised against stressful activities by his doctor and by his wife. As a friend and comrade I always stated that his health was paramount and more important.
Michael would convey how disappointed he was, because he could not attend pickets. However, Michael would write to MPs in England and TDs in Ireland.
On September 3rd Michael and his wife Kathleen stood with members of the Irish Republican Prisoners Support Group, veteran Republican and comrade Terri Gavin and FRFI supporters at a picket outside Downing Street, calling for freedom for imprisoned Republican Tony Taylor and the Craigavon Two. On that very day, we made people aware of the continued practices of internment without trial. This was the last picket that Michael attended and the last time IRPSG members had the privilege of Michael’s presence. However, before leaving on holiday, Michael wrote the IRPSG statement that was to be read at the 2016 International Symposium against the Isolation of Political Prisoners in Paris.
Diarmuid Breatnach, comments, “Michael Holden was one of the most consistent Irish solidarity activists that I worked with in thirty years in London”.
The loss of Michael will be felt by the Irish solidarity movement for a long time and he will be sadly missed by all progressive people who knew him. Messages of condolences have been received from members of Republican Network for Unity, RSF in Ireland, Anti-Internment Group of Ireland, Dublin Anti-Internment Committee, Civil Rights Network amongst others.
Comrades, Michael was buried in his home town of Carrick on Suir at St Mary’s cemetery, Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary in Ireland. We send condolences to his wife Kathleen, his family, friends and comrades from various places across the world. Michael will be sadly missed by all progressive people. May he rest in peace.