25.3.05

Richard O'Rawe - Blanketmen

Daily Ireland

Hunger strike revisited

Think you know the story of the 1981 hunger strikes? Think again. We’ve all seen Bobby Sands’ emaciated body, the footage of people honking car horns in glee at his election, that priest comparing conditions to an open sewer in Calcutta. You might even say that Richard O’Rawe’s Blanketmen (New Island), is – whisper it – old news.
All this is playing in the shallow end of a powerful tale. O’Rawe pulls the reader into the deep water till they’re gulping for air.
Rather than the ‘skin and bones’ Bobby Sands, the 2-D icon for a thousand murals, you meet a “man for all seasons”; softly spoken with a flair for sing-songs.
We are told that some prisoners weren’t so happy about the downside of the “dirty protests”, and were more than happy to face the wrath of the prison leadership rather than share their cells with maggots.
Such earthy images bring O’Rawe’s time in Crumlin Road to life. The mounting brutality of the ‘screws’ is ever-present. One tale tells of a prisoner who begged for salt to gargle away the mouth ulcers that tormented him. The guards pinned him down and force fed him two massive handfuls of salt.
The touch isn’t always so heavy. O’Rawe describes with great affection the prisoners smuggling in tobacco (brought in by a priest – hidden where no tobacco should go), and blowing the forbidden smoke under the doors to infuriate the guards. In one hilarious anecdote, O’Rawe describes the false sacrament of confession that experienced prisoners would trick rookies into, with the old hand posing as a priest.
Once the venial sins had been dealt with, they would probe into intimate details about the young prisoner’s love life. The joke was on the veteran: O’Rawe’s partner in sin was none other than the his companion’s daughter.
However it is the hunger strikes that dominate the book. O’Rawe steers clear of the traditional Irish, us versus them perspective.
Instead, he paints the story as a three way struggle between the “bosses” of the British, the “shop stewards” of the IRA army council, and the “workers” of the prisoners. To quote O’Rawe’s socialist father, “the workers always get shafted”.
He portrays the army council as intransigent as the British – insisting the prisoners stick to their demands, even when it was clear that the British wouldn’t move an inch.
As O’Rawe puts it, this policy of “no compromise” meant “no strategy”. He describes a decline in prison morale, the frustration of the situation and the overwhelming guilt in harrowingly matter-of-fact prose.
Even if I had wanted to put the book down, there wasn’t a chance.
O’Rawe was, and is, a committed republican. Yet he pulls no punches, saying the strategies of both hunger strikes was “fatally flawed”, and he is unrelenting in his criticism of the Army Council and the outdated elements of IRA ideology.
Even Gerry Adams, a “messianic figure” and a tireless negotiator, is seen to be covering his own back at times.
Any who think of the IRA as an inherently criminal organisation should read this book. So should people who think they can do no wrong.

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