The ‘Self-Inflicted’ Death Of Maze Medical Officer Dr David Ross: ‘The Eleventh Hunger Striker’

The late IRA commander and leader of the 1980 prison fast for political status, Brendan Hughes called him ‘the eleventh hunger striker’, and believed that Dr David Ross, the Maze prison’s medical officer, had been so deeply affected by the deaths of the ten IRA prisoners on the second protest in 1981 that, five years later, he took his own life.

In sharp contrast, Hughes’ colleague, Bobby Sands, who was the first IRA prisoner to die on the 1981 hunger strike, disagreed. Dr Ross, he told Hughes, was ‘a mind manipulator’ and he did not trust him. Ever since, their argument has divided the IRA prison population of the day.

Hughes’ told the story of the two IRA prison leaders’ interaction about Dr Ross in his interviews with Anthony McIntyre for the Boston College oral history archive. The account was later published in ‘Voices From The Grave‘.

Support for Brendan Hughes’ verdict on Dr Ross has, however, now come from an unexpected source.

In an account of his career as the Maze prison’s Deputy Governor and Head of Security during much of the Troubles, Tom Murtagh ascribes Dr Ross’ suicide to the ordeal of shepherding ten republican prisoners to often painful and difficult deaths during the politically torrid year of 1981.

Murtagh also discloses that, by grisly coincidence, Dr Ross took his own life during a spate of suicides by prison staff at the jail in 1985/86.

According to the now retired senior prison official, by 1986 the Maze prison was an angry cockpit in which paramilitary prisoners, by now unofficially segregated in separate Republican and Loyalist Blocks and/or wings, were in a constant psychological and physical struggle with prison staff for control.

The picture he paints is of a jail that, in the years following the 1981 hunger strike settlement, gradually appeared to be falling under the sway of the inmates, and out of the charge of the staff.

By his account the warders were suffering the consequences; some sought escape in drink or feigned sickness to avoid work. Others were ‘turned’ by the paramilitary inmates and agreed to work for the IRA or their Loyalist equivalents. Some sought a more final solution, by taking their own lives, although Murtagh does not quantify the toll:

……it is clear that all staff working in the segregated wings were under immense psychological strain, the effects of which naturally varied from one individual to another. While many strived to cope, others just went sick causing further difficulty in an establishment that was already substantially understaffed. Others turned to alcohol. In 1985/ 1986 a number of The Maze staff took their own lives.

There is evidence that, by this stage, both Republican and Loyalist prisoners were having success in corrupting and recruiting prison officers. The extent of this is difficult to quantify in that the PIRA carefully protected these individuals by insisting that they appeared to be doing their job properly and remained above suspicion.

It must also be assumed that the Loyalists were also having success on this front as they became more confrontational and aggressive in their dealings with staff at all levels. A Block Governor described them as ‘constantly in your face, abusive and threatening, often for no other reason other than that they were getting away with it’.

Dr David Ross worked away, tending to the medical needs of prisoners and warders alike in the midst of this undeclared war. But when he decided to take his own life, on June 13th, 1986, Murtagh believed that what drove him to such a drastic and final act was not the strife in the H Blocks, but the mental scars left by the 1981 hunger strikes, five years earlier:

Though it is difficult to be sure what drove them (the suicidal warders) to such despair it seems reasonable to conclude that their work environment was a contributing factor. One of those who sadly died in such circumstances was the Medical Officer, Dr David Ross who had cared for the prisoners on both hunger-strikes and despite his efforts had to watch ten of them die. He was clearly affected by the experience and on 13th June 1986 he took his own life.

From the little that is known about his background, Dr Ross was born and reared in Ballymena, Co Antrim – the heart of Ian Paisley’s North Antrim Westminster constituency. He later became a GP in nearby Ballyclare.

His background and rearing would in all probability have been typical of many Unionists and Protestants of his generation. Distrust and abhorrence of Irish republican goals and violence, and those who advocated them, would have been in the political DNA of all those he mixed with, not least at the Maze prison.

All of which makes even more remarkable the evident human sympathy he was able to show, as Brendan Hughes attested, for the IRA prisoners in his charge.

He was 57 years old when, in the garage of his home in the northern suburbs of Belfast, he put the barrels of a shotgun to his stomach and then his neck and pulled the trigger. He died in the Royal Victoria Hospital four hours later.

Murtagh’s story, told in the book, ‘The Maze Prison: A Hidden Story of Chaos, Anarchy and Politics‘, was published in February this year.

The former Head of Security at one of Europe’s toughest and most dangerous jails, pens a portrait of Dr Ross that strikingly mirrors Hughes’ depiction of a caring and sympathetic physician. Describing Ross’ work during the second hunger strike, Murtagh wrote:

According to Hospital Chief Officer (Frank) Smith, David Ross hardly ever left the prison (day or night) throughout the months of the hunger-strike. Ross was a quiet spoken and caring man who maintained a constant dialogue with the hunger-strikers to ensure their comfort and care at all stages of their fast. His dedication was recognised by most of the prisoners…..

Murtagh quotes one of Dr Ross’ junior assistants, who is not named in the book, as echoing the view that the hunger strike had troubled the physician. Speaking of the impact the hunger strike had on warders and Dr Ross alike, the aide said:

When you are caring for these guys, getting to know them and their families and watching their grief, you are only human and you have your feelings. It had an impact on all of us. I know Dr Ross, who never seemed to leave the hospital, was badly affected by his experience with the hunger-strikers.

Several years ago made a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) for a copy of Dr Ross’ inquest file. A long silence followed. Eventually a more productive route was opened up to the Public Record Office in Belfast but even with generous and kind assistance from staff at the office, it took the best part of two years before the file was handed over.

Much of the file has been redacted, notably the identity of witnesses who gave evidence and/or statements to the inquest. But the file does reveal that at the time of his death, the medic was receiving treatment from a psychiatrist for what the report called ‘recurrent depressive illness’. Another document suggests that this specialist was based at Belfast’s then major mental health institution, Purdysburn hospital.

According to the inquest file, the Maze medical officer was being treated with ‘anti-depressant and anxiolotic drugs’ for his depression, the last prescription for which was dated April 7th, 1986. Anxiolotic drugs are used to treat extreme anxiety.

That Dr Ross committed suicide is accepted by all those involved in investigating his case, although under Northern Ireland law, inquests do not deliver judgements which accord blame or responsibility for deaths; they merely investigate and inquire into the cause of deaths.

Northern Ireland inquests can however, deliver ‘Findings’ which implicitly and inevitably do ascribe some responsibility for deaths. Although the 58-page inquest report is redacted in places, sometimes heavily, and the names of some witnesses – including, it seems, the Purdysburn psychiatrist and his report – are blacked out, enough of the ‘Findings’ survive to explain what happened.

Much of the other witness statements have also been redacted, but again the task was done somewhat sloppily. For example, Dr Ross’ wife’s statement is redacted to hide her identity and relationship to her husband, but whoever was given the task, left her name, ‘Gladys Ross’, untouched as well one reference to ‘My husband…’.

According to witness statements collected by RUC officers and submitted to the coroner, James Elliot, there was little about Dr Ross’ behavior earlier that day, June 13th, 1986, to suggest that it would end so tragically.

Two prison officers, one a warder, the other a catering officer, interacted with the doctor on the morning of his death and saw nothing to cause concern.

One told investigating police officers:

(Dr Ross) appeared to be his normal efficient and busy self at no time did he give me the impression that he was under stress or preoccupied….During the past week I had dealings with Dr Ross at various times and found him to be his usual self.

The catering officer said:

At 1110 hrs Dr Ross visited the kitchen to sample the dinner meal as he does on a daily basis The dinner menu for that day was creamed potatoes, carrots, vienna steak and curry sauce – steamed pudding and vanilla sauce, he did not eat the full meal but left a small portion. No comment was made about the meal and he signed the menu book. We chatted for about ten minutes and then he left. He gave no indication of being depressed or feeling low.

But another member of Dr Ross’ medical staff thought that not all was well with his boss:

On Friday 13 6 86 I was i/c Phase 4 surgery Compound Maze, which Dr Ross SMO attended to carry out the sick parade. Dr Ross appeared to be in normal form, but I did notice that he did seem to be a little quieter than usual, as if he had something on his mind. He would normally, always be in more of a hurry to get the morning’s work cleared up, but on Friday morning did not seem to be in any hurry at all. Other than the above, I did not notice anything else unusual in his behaviour.

Gladys Ross’ account chimes with that provided by the first two warders above. Her husband returned to their home in Templepatrick on the northern outskirts of Belfast at about 2 pm that day and there was nothing to portend the impending tragedy:

He had about an hours sleep. He then had a cup of tea. We then put flowers in the garden. He then took (redacted) dog for a walk. He would have been away for approximately 30 minutes. I was in the house when I heard a bang. I saw the dog run out the back with its head down. I went into the back boiler house which is attached to the rear of the garage. I then went into the garage. I saw (redacted) lying on the floor. I thought he had had an accident with the car. The time would have been about 6.20 pm. (Redacted) has not been suffering from any ilnnesses.

On 6th May 1986 (redacted) and I had come back from a holiday in America, we had a great time. On Friday 13th June when (redacted) and I were doing the garden he told me he had bought daisy killer and he said that maybe next week the weather would be suitable to put it on the lawn. During the last four weeks he was happy and full of plans for what he was going to do over the summer in the garden. Such as building a green house and planting trees. At the several social occasions we attended recently he was cheerful, outgoing and chatty, and afterwards he said how much he enjoyed himself. (Redacted) had been sleeping well, eating well and was full of interest.

The inquest did not call Dr Ross’ death ‘suicide’ but the meaning of the words chosen by the coroner was clear; the circumstances of Dr Ross’ death, he wrote, ‘were consistent with self-infliction’.

But what happened inside Dr Ross’ mind in the four hours or so between the Maze medical officer arriving home from a shift at the prison, apparently in a good mood and with no outward sign of mental distress, and his decision to put a double-barreled shotgun to his stomach and then his neck and pull the trigger remains a mystery.


What follows are the relevant documents in the story of Dr David Ross, beginning with extracts from Brendan Hughes’ interview with Anthony McIntyre, followed by facsimiles of the relevant inquest papers:

“But Sean was not the only one – Sean was the weakest … So all those weaknesses were there. After Sean asked me, I gave him a guarantee that I would not let him die. A few days later –now, I want to try and get the sequence correct here. Dr [David] Ross – he was the main doctor looking after the hunger strikers – came and informed me that Sean had only hours to live. It’s possible they were playing brinkmanship with me at this stage. And it’s possible that the cells were bugged and that they picked up what I had said to Sean. And they knew that if Sean went into a deep coma, that I would intervene. And that’s exactly what happened. Dr Ross came to me and told me that Sean would die within hours and he wanted permission … to take Sean to hospital. And this took place. There was a sudden rush of activity; prison orderlies took Sean on a stretcher up the wing. I was standing in the wing with Father Toner, Father Reid and Dr Ross … and I shouted up after Dr Ross, ‘Feed him.’ I had no guarantee at that point that anything was going to come from the British, no guarantee whatsoever. We all knew that they had offered us this deal but we had no guarantee that the deal would go through. We only had their word for it. The hunger strike was called off before the British document arrived. It was only later that night, I think; it was very late at night that Father Meagher and Bobby [Sands] arrived at my cell with the document.

Q. So is it fair to say that the hunger strike then did not end as a result of the document but the hunger strike ended prior to the document and it was in many respects the humanitarian decision on your part –you were bound by your word?

A. Yeah.”

“… a footnote to all this is that myself and Bobby had disagreements about the doctor who was in charge at the time of the hunger strikes. Bobby believed Dr Ross to be a mind-manipulator. I didn’t believe that. I believed him to be OK. But it’s important to remember that after the second hunger strike, Dr Ross blew himself away with a double-barrelled shotgun. He shot himself in the stomach and then blew his head off. I don’t know if it was to do with the hunger strikes [but] I believe it was. And I would sometimes refer to Dr Ross as the eleventh hunger striker, the eleventh victim of the hunger strike. I mean, anybody who could stand by and watch ten men die and not be affected … is a very, very ruthless man indeed … and I don’t believe that Ross was as ruthless as that. Bobby had no time for him, did not trust him, believed him to be, as I say, a mind-wrestler, trying to get inside people’s minds. But he used to sit on my bed for so long sometimes I would wish he’d go, [but] he would talk to me about fishing, about the mountains, the rivers and the streams. And for a man to bring in spring water every morning for the hunger strikers because he believed it to be much richer and would help the prisoners was not a ruthless man. That’s what he did, every morning he brought spring water in instead of the tap water that we had. And you know during a hunger strike it’s awful to drink salt and water. And I remember throwing it up, many’s a time throwing it up. But you had to try … the memory of that salt water and the sickness and … and the smell and watching your flesh. I mean, the body is a fantastic machine –it’ll eat off all the fat tissue first and then it starts eating away at the muscle to keep your brain alive. When that goes, all that’s left is your brain, and it starts to go as well. And that’s when the brain damage sets in. Your body needs glucose, and the last supply of glucose is in your brain.

This article first appeared in the Broken Elbow


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