Patsy O'Hara Commemoration speech
**Posted to the group by Danielle Ni Dhighe
Speech at Patsy O'Hara Commemoration
22 May 2005
Delivered by John Nixon, a young Irish Republican Socialist Party member from Derry
Friends and Comrades,
It is a privilege and an honour to be asked to speak here today on behalf of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement at this, the 24th anniversary commemoration of the death of INLA Volunteer and hunger strike martyr Patsy O'Hara.
I wasn't even born 24 years ago when Patsy and his nine comrades embarked upon a fast to the death in their unified and dignified protest against the failed British attempt to criminalise the republican struggle. Their strength was their youth, their determination, their unity and of course the fact that they were fighting for what was right. That is why they prevailed in the end but as we know that struggle cost us dearly. Our ten comrades died within Long Kesh and during the same period others fell in action on the outside, equally courageous and equally determined to rid our nation of the imperialist aggressor. 1981 is a year that republicans in Ireland will never forget because we lost the best people that the struggle had produced. When I ask comrades of Patsy to describe him I hear stories of courage and of generosity. I hear of a soldier of the working class who never shirked his responsibilities to his community. I hear of a political activist who served on the national leadership of the IRSP whilst on the run. A true hero of Ireland's working class.
At just twenty three years old Patsy had his full life in front of him. He, in his short life, had seen so much that moulded him into the person that he became. He had experienced the oppression and when just a teenager had taken part in the uprising along with the people of this city against the unjust British occupation of Ireland.
The young people of Derry and even of Ireland have a lot to learn from the example of Patsy O'Hara. In today's society of greed where joyriding, drug abuse and anti-community behaviour is becoming rampant people should look towards the likes of Patsy for inspiration.
This is a society in which working class areas are being flooded with dangerous drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine and heroin. Joyriding and burglaries are increasing and the PSNI sit back and allow these people
to operate openly with sanction, not that we ever expected anything different from them. Is it any wonder, with the backing of the PSNI, that some of our young people are turning their backs on their communities? We see by the current situation around the Creggan estate what damage these drugs and their dealers can do to the cohesion of communities. Only by embracing the revolutionary ideals of Patsy O'Hara can working class youth realise their collective potential. We say to the young people of this city: "Follow Patsy's example and fight for your people. Join the Irish Republican Socialist Movement and play a positive role within your communities. Be part of the Irish Revolution!"
Patsy O'Hara by his ideas and his actions is the ultimate role model for the youth of Ireland today. Patsy was not deflected from the revolutionary path by the hollow heroes of the day. When I read about Patsy O'Hara I am reading about a person who was a militant, he was politicised and he was dedicated to the struggle to remove the British occupation forces from Ireland. He was a revolutionary who did not tire of standing up for what is right. Patsy was the Irish equivalent to Che Guevara. A young man who spent his life fighting for freedom and justice.
I could not speak today by not bringing to your attention a struggle of immense importance that is currently taking place at the Eastern borders of Europe. Just last week in Turkey a twelfth wave of death fasters has taken the place of those who have died before them in their struggle against the same type of vindictive and oppressive regime that our comrades in 1981 had to face down. We send our solidarity to our brothers and sisters in Turkey who are embroiled in the most serious of situations and who are facing that situation heroically. We admire their resolve to defeat the fascist regime in Turkey as any victory for the working class abroad is a victory for us here in Ireland also. The campaign in Turkey's prisons and working class areas has been going on since October 2000. Their slogan "Victory or Death" sums up their resolve and determination in defeating Turkey's vindictive regime and, comrades, I urge all of you to help bring this massacre to an end by getting involved in renewed campaigns in support of the Turkish prisoners.
So far 118 prisoners and their relatives on the outside have died during their continued protest. Four years ago, just before she died, one of those martyrs, Arzu Guler, sent the following message to the people of Derry: "Our Death Fast attack against the F-types is not only for the Turkish people, it is for all the world. We cannot separate our struggle from the world's. We know about the struggles of Patsy O'Hara and Michael Devine and we support their cause. We greet you from the depths of our hearts."
Go raibh maith agat.
Patsy O'Hara and Raymond McCreesh
Died May 21st, 1981
A determined and courageous Derryman
Twenty-three-year-old Patsy O'Hara from Derry city, was the former leader of the Irish National Liberation Army prisoners in the H-Blocks, and joined IRA Volunteer Raymond McCreesh on hunger strike on March 22nd, three weeks after Bobby Sands and one week after Francis Hughes.
Patsy O'Hara was born on July 11th, 1957 at Bishop Street in Derry city.
His parents owned a small public house and grocery shop above which the family lived. His eldest brother, Sean Seamus, was interned in Long Kesh for almost four years. The second eldest in the family, Tony, was imprisoned in the H-Blocks - throughout Patsy's hunger strike - for five years before being released in August of this year, having served his full five-year sentence with no remission.
The youngest in the O'Hara family is twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth.
Before 'the troubles' destroyed the family life of the O'Haras, and the overwhelming influence of being an oppressed youth concerned about his country drove Patsy to militant republicanism, there is the interesting history of his near antecedents which must have produced delight in Patsy's young heart.
Patsy's maternal grandfather, James McCluskey, joined the British army as a young man and went off to fight in the First World War. He received nine shrapnel wounds at Ypres and was retired on a full pension.
However, on returning to Ireland his patriotism was set alight by Irish resistance and the terror of British rule. He duly threw out his pension book, did not draw any more money and joined the Republican Movement. He transported men and weapons along the Foyle into Derry in the 'twenties.
He inherited a public house and bookmakers, in Foyle Street, and was a great friend of Derry republican Sean Keenan's father, also named Sean.
Mrs. Peggy O'Hara can recall 'old' Sean Keenan being arrested just before the out break of the Second World War. Her father's serious illness resulted in him escaping internment and he died shortly afterwards in 1939.
Mrs. O'Hara's aunt was married to John Mulhern, a Roscommon man, who was in the RIC up until its disbandment in 1921.
"When my father died in 1939 - says Mrs O'Hara, - "John Mulhern, who was living in Bishop Street, and owned a bar and a grocery shop, took us in to look after us. I remember him telling us that he didn't just go and join the RIC, but it was because there were so many in the family and times were hard.
"My father was a known IRA man and my uncle reared me, and I was often slagged about this. Patsy used to hear this as a child, but Patsy was a very, very straight young fellow and he was a wee bit bigoted about my uncle being a policeman.
"But a number of years ago Patsy came in to me after speaking to an old republican from Corrigans in Donegal, and Patsy says to me, 'You've nothing to be ashamed of, your uncle being a policeman, because that man was telling me that even though he was an RIC man, he was very, very helpful to the IRA!"
The trait of courage which Patsy was to show in later years was in him from the start, says Mr. O'Hara. "No matter who got into trouble in the street outside, Patsy was the boy to go out and do all the fighting for him. He was the fighting man about the area and didn't care how big they were. He would tackle them. I even saw him fighting men, and in no way could they stop him. He would keep at them. He was like a wee bull terrier!"
Apparently, up until he was about twelve years of age, Patsy was fat and small, "a wee barrel" says his mother. Then suddenly he shot up to grow to over six foot two inches.
Elizabeth, his sister, recalls Patsy: "He was a mad hatter. When we were young he used to always play tricks on me, mother and father. We used to play a game of cards and whoever lost had to do all the things that everybody told them.
"We all won a card game once and made Patsy crawl up the stairs and 'miaow' like a cat at my mother's bedroom door. She woke up the next day and said, 'am I going mad? I think I heard a cat last night' and we all started to laugh."
The O'Haras' house was open to all their children's friends, and again to scores of the volunteers who descended on Derry from all corners of Ireland when the RUC invaded in 1969. But before that transformation in people's politics came, Mrs. O'Hara still lived for her family alone.
She was especially proud of her eldest son, Sean Seamus who had passed his eleven plus and went to college.
When Sean was in his early teens he joined the housing action group, around 1967, Mrs. O'Hara's conception of which was Sean helping to get people homes.
"But one day, someone came into me when I was working in the bar, and said, 'Your son is down in the Guildhall marching up and down with a placard!
"I went down and stood and looked and Finbarr O'Doherty was standing at the side and wee fellows were going up and down. I went over to Sean and said, 'Who gave you that? He said, Finbarr!' I took the placard off Sean and went over to Finbarr, put it in his hand, and hit him with my umbrella.'
Mrs. O'Hara laughs when she recalls this incident, as shortly afterwards she was to have her eyes opened.
"After that, I went to protests wherever Sean was, thinking that I could protect him! I remember the October 1968 march because my husband's brother, Sean, had just been buried.
"We went to the peaceful march over at the Waterside station and saw the people being beaten into the ground. That was the first time that I ever saw water cannons, they were like something from outer space.
"We thought we had to watch Sean, but to my astonishment Patsy and Tony had slipped away, and Patsy was astonished and startled by what he saw."
Later, Patsy was to write about this incident: "The mood of the crowd was one of solidarity. People believed they were right and that a great injustice had been done to them. The crowds came in their thousands from every part of the city and as they moved down Duke Street chanting slogans, 'One man, one vote' and singing 'We shall overcome' I had the feeling that a people united and on the move, were unstoppable."
Shortly after his release in April 1975, Patsy joined the ranks of the fledgling Irish Republican Socialist Party, which the 'Sticks', using murder, had attempted to strangle at birth. He was free only about two months when he was stopped at the permanent check-point on the Letterkenny Road whilst driving his father's car from Buncrana in County Donegal.
The Brits planted a stick of gelignite in the car (such practice was commonplace) and he was charged with possession of explosives. He was remanded in custody for six months, the first trial being stopped due to unusual RUC ineptitude at framing him. At the end of the second trial he was acquitted and released after spending six months in jail.
In 1976, Patsy had to stay out of the house for fear of constant arrest. That year, also, his brother, Tony, was charged with an armed raid, and on the sole evidence of an alleged verbal statement was sentenced to five years in the H-Blocks.
Despite being 'on the run' Patsy was still fond of his creature comforts!
His father recalls: "Sean Seamus came in late one night and though the whole place was in darkness he didn't put the lights on. He went to sit down and fell on the floor. He ran up the stairs and said: 'I went to sit down and there was nothing there'
"Patsy had taken the sofa on top of a red Rover down to his billet in the Brandywell. Then before we would get up in the morning he would have it back up again. When we saw it sitting there in the morning we said to Sean: 'Are you going off your head or what? and he was really puzzled."
In September 1976, he was again arrested in the North and along with four others charged with possession of a weapon. During the remand hearings he protested against the withdrawal of political status.
The charge was withdrawn after four months, indicating how the law is twisted to intern people by remanding them in custody and dropping the charges before the case comes to trial.
In June 1977, he was imprisoned for the fourth time. On this occasion, after a seven-day detention in Dublin's Bridewell, he was charged with holding a garda at gunpoint. He was released on bail six weeks later and was eventually acquitted In January 1978.
Whilst living in the Free State, Patsy was elected to the ard chomhairle of the IRSP, was active in the Bray area, and campaigned against the special courts.
In January 1979, he moved back to Derry but was arrested on May 14th, 1979 and was charged with possessing a hand-grenade.
In January 1980, he was sentenced to eight years in jail and went on the blanket.
What were Mrs. O'Hara's feelings when Patsy told her he was going on hunger strike?
"My feelings at the start, when he went on hunger strike, were that I thought that they would get their just demands, because it is not very much that they are asking for. There is no use in saying that I was very vexed and all the rest of it. There is no use me sitting back in the wings and letting someone else's son go. Someone's sons have to go on it and I just happen to be the mother of that son."
Writing shortly before the hunger strike began, Patsy O'Hara grimly declared: "We stand for the freedom of the Irish nation so that future generations will enjoy the prosperity they rightly deserve, free from foreign interference, oppression and exploitation. The real criminals are the British imperialists who have thrived on the blood and sweat of generations of Irish men.
"They have maintained control of Ireland through force of arms and there is only one way to end it. I would rather die than rot in this concrete tomb for years to come.
Patsy witnessed the baton charges and said: "The people were sandwiched in another street and with the Specials coming from both sides, swinging their truncheons at anything that moved. It was a terrifying experience and one which I shall always remember."
Mr. and Mrs. O'Hara believe that it was this incident when Patsy was aged eleven, followed by the riots in January 1969 and the 'Battle of the Bogside' in August 1969 that aroused passionate feelings of nationalism, and then republicanism, in their son. "Every day he saw something different happening," says his father. "People getting beaten up, raids and coffins coming out. This was his environment."
In 1970, Patsy joined na Fianna Eireann, drilled and trained in Celtic Park.
Early in 1971, and though he was very young, he joined the Patrick Pearse Sinn Fein cumann in the Bogside, selling Easter lilies and newspapers. Internment, introduced in August 1971, hit the O'Hara family particularly severely with the arrest of Sean Seamus in October. "We never had a proper Christmas since then" says Elizabeth. "When Sean Seamus was interned we never put up decorations and our family has been split-up ever since then."
Shortly after Sean's arrest Patsy, one night, went over to a friend's house in Southway where there were barricades. But coming out of the house, British soldiers opened fire, for no apparent reason, and shot Patsy in the leg. He was only fourteen years of age and spent several weeks in hospital and then several more weeks on crutches.
On January 30th, 1972, his father took him to watch the big anti-internment march as it wound its way down from the Creggan. "I struggled across a banking but was unable to go any further. I watched the march go up into the Brandywell. I could see that it was massive. The rest of my friends went to meet it but I could only go back to my mother's house and listen to it on the radio," said Patsy.
Asked about her feelings over Patsy be coming involved in the struggle, Mrs. O'Hara said: "After October 1968, I thought that that was the right thing to do. I am proud of him, proud of them all".
Mr O'Hara said: "Personally speaking, I knew he would get involved. It was in his nature. He hated bullies al his life, and he saw big bullies in uniform and he would tackle them as well.
Shortly after Bloody Sunday, Patsy joined the 'Republican Clubs' and was active until 1973, "when it became apparent that they were firmly on the path to reformism and had abandoned the national question".
From this time onwards he was continually harassed, taken in for interrogation and assaulted.
One day, he and a friend were arrested on the Briemoor Road. Two saracens screeched to a halt beside them. Patsy later described this arrest: "We were thrown onto the floor and as they were bringing us to the arrest centre, we were given a beating with their batons and rifles. When we arrived and were getting out of the vehicles we were tripped and fell on our faces".
Three months later, after his seventeenth birthday, he was taken to the notorious interrogation centre at Ballykelly. He was interrogated for three days and then interned with three others who had been held for nine days.
"Long Kesh had been burned the week previously" said Patsy, "and as we flew above the camp in a British army helicopter we could see the complete devastation. When we arrived, we were given two blankets and mattresses and put into one of the cages.
"For the next two months we were on a starvation diet, no facilities of any" kind, and most men lying out open to the elements...
"That December a ceasefire was announced, then internment was phased out." Merlyn Rees also announced at the same time that special category status would be withdrawn on March 1st, 1976. I did not know then how much that change of policy would effect me in less than three years".
Patsy O'Hara died at 11.29 p.m. on Thursday, May 21st - on the same day as Raymond McCreesh with whom he had embarked on the hunger-strike sixty-one days earlier.
Even in death his torturers would not let him rest. When the O'Hara family been broken and his corpse bore several burn marks inflicted after his death.
Published in IRIS, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 1981. IRIS was a publication of the Sinn Fein Foreign Affairs Bureau.
Died May 21st, 1981
A quiet, good-natured and discreet republican
THE THIRD of the resolutely determined IRA Volunteers to join the H-Block hunger strike for political status was twenty-four-year-old Raymond McCreesh, from Camlough in South Armagh: a quiet, shy and good-humoured republican, who although captured at the early age of nineteen, along with two other Volunteers in a British army ambush, had already almost three years active republican involvement behind him.
During those years he had established himself as one of the most dedicated and invaluable republican activists in that part of the six counties to which the Brits themselves have - half-fearfully, half-respectfully - given the name 'bandit country' and which has become a living legend in republican circles, during the present war, for the courage and resourcefulness of its Volunteers: the border land of South Armagh.
Raymond's resolve to hunger strike to the death, to secure the prisoners' five demands was indicated in a smuggled-out letter written by Paddy Quinn, an H-Block blanket man - who was later to embark on hunger strike himself - who was captured along with Raymond and who received the same fourteen year sentence: "I wrote Raymie a couple of letters before he went to the prison hospital. He wrote back and according to the letter he was in great spirits and very determined. A sign of that determination was the way he finished off by saying: Ta seans ann go mbeidh me abhaile rombat a chara' which means: There is a chance that I'll be home before you, my friend!"
Captured in June 1976, and sentenced in March 1977, when he refused to recognise the court, Raymond would have been due for release in about two years' time had he not embarked on his principled protest for political status, which led him, ultimately, to hunger strike.
Raymond Peter McCreesh, the seventh in a family of eight children, was born in a small semi-detached house at St. Malachy's Park, Camlough - where the family still live - on February 25th, 1957.
The McCreeshes, a nationalist family in a staunchly nationalist area, have been rooted in South Armagh for seven generations, and both Raymond's parents - James aged 65, a retired local council worker, and Susan (whose maiden name is Quigley), aged 60 - come from the nearby townland of Dorsey.
Raymond was a quiet but very lively person, very good-natured and - like other members of his family - extremely witty. Not the sort of person who would push himself forward if he was in a crowd, and indeed often rather a shy person in his personal relationships until he got to know a person well. Nevertheless, in his republican capacity he was known as a capable, dedicated and totally committed Volunteer who could show leadership and aggression where necessary.
Among both his family and his republican associates, Raymond was renowned for his laughter and for "always having a wee smile on him". His sense of humour remained even during his four-year incarceration in the H-Blocks, as well as during his hunger strike where he continued to insist that he was "just fine."
Raymond went first to Camlough primary school, and then to St. Coleman's college in Newry. It was at St. Coleman's that Raymond met Danny McGuinness, also from Camlough, and the two became steadfast friends. They later became republican comrades, and Danny too then a nineteen-year-old student who had just completed his 'A' levels was captured along with Raymond and Paddy Quinn, and is now in the H-Blocks.
At school, Raymond's strongest interest was in Irish language and Irish history, and he read widely in those subjects. His understanding of Irish history led him to a fervently nationalist outlook, and he was regarded as a 'hothead' in his history classes, and as being generally "very conscious of his Irishness".
He was also a sportsman, and played under-sixteen and Minor football for Carrickcruppin Gaelic football club as well as taking a keen interest in the local youth club where he played basketball and pool, and was regarded a good snooker player.
When he was fourteen years old, Raymond got a weekend job working on a milk round through the South Armagh border area, around Mullaghbawn and Dromintee. Later on, after leaving his job in Lisburn, he worked full-time on the milk round, where he would always stop and chat to customers. He became a great favourite amongst them and many enquired about him long after he left the round.
During the early 'seventies, the South Armagh border area was the stamping ground of the British army's Parachute regiment, operating out of Bessbrook camp less than two miles from Raymond's home. Stories of their widespread brutality and harassment of local people abound, and built-up then a degree of resentment and resistance amongst most of the nationalist population that is seen to this day.
The SAS terror regiment began operating in this area in large numbers too, in a vain attempt to counter republican successes, and the high level of assassinations of local people on both sides of the South Armagh border, notably three members of the Reavey family in 1975, was believed locally to have been the work both of the SAS, and of UDR and RUC members holding dual membership with 'illegal' loyalist paramilitary organisations.
Given this scenario and Raymond's understanding of Irish history, it is small wonder that he became involved in the republican struggle.
He first of all joined na Fianna Eireann early in 1973 and towards the end of that year joined the Irish Republican Army's 1st Battalion, South Armagh.
Even before joining the IRA, and despite his very young age, Raymond - with remarkable awareness and maturity - became one of the first Volunteers in the South Armagh area to adopt a very low, security conscious, republican profile.
He rarely drank, but if occasionally in a pub he would not discuss either politics or his own activities, and he rarely attended demonstrations or indeed anything which would have brought him to the attention of the enemy.
It was because of this remarkable self-discipline and discretion that during his years of intense republican involvement Raymond was never once arrested or even held for screening in the North, and only twice held briefly in the South.
Consequently, Raymond was never obliged to go 'on the run', continuing to live at home until the evening of his capture, and always careful not to cause his family any concern or alarm.
Fitted in with his republican activities Raymond would relax by going to dances or by going to watch football matches at weekends.
After leaving school he spent a year at Newry technical college studying fabrication engineering, and afterwards got a job at Gambler Simms (Steel) Ltd. in Lisburn. He had a conscientious approach to his craft but was obliged to leave after a year because of a fear of assassination.
Each day he travelled to work from Newry, in a bus along with four or five mates who had got jobs there too from the technical college, but the prevailing high level of sectarian assassinations, and the suspicion justifiably felt of the predominantly loyalist work-force at Gambler Simms, made Raymond, and many other nationalist workers, decide that travelling such a regular route through loyalist country side was simply too risky.
So, after leaving the Lisburn factory, Raymond began to work full-time as a milk roundsman, an occupation which would greatly have increased his knowledge of the surrounding countryside, as well as enabling him to observe the movements of British army patrols and any other untoward activity in the area.
Republican activity in that area during those years consisted largely of landmine attacks and ambushes on enemy patrols.
Raymond had the reputation of a republican who was very keen to suggest and take part in operations, almost invariably working in his own, extremely tight, active service unit, though occasionally, when requested - as he frequently was - assisting other units in neighbouring areas with specific operations. He would always carefully consider the pros and cons of any operation, and would never panic or lose his nerve.
In undertaking the hunger strike, Raymond gave the matter the same careful consideration he would have expended on a military operation, he undertook nothing either a rush, or for bluff.
The operation which led to the capture of Raymond, his boyhood friend, Danny McGuiness, and Patrick Quinn, took place on June 25th, 1976.
An active service unit comprising these three and a fourth Volunteer arrived in a commandeered car at a farmyard in the town land of Sturgan a mile from Camlough - at about 9.25 p.m.
Their objective was to ambush a covert Brit observation post which they had located opposite the Mountain House Inn, on the main Newry - Newtonhamilton Road, half-a-mile away. They were not aware, however, that another covert British observation post, on a steep hillside half-a-mile away, had already spotted the four masked, uniformed and armed Volunteers, clearly visible below them, and that radioed helicopter reinforcements were already closing in.
As the fourth Volunteer drove the commandeered car down the road to the agreed ambush point, to act as a lure for the Brits, the other three moved down the hedgeline of the fields, into position. The fourth Volunteer, however, as he returned, as arranged, to rejoin his comrades, spotted the British Paratroopers on the hillside closing in on his unsuspecting friends and, although armed only with a short range Stengun, opened fire to warn the others.
Immediately, the Brits opened fire with SLRs and light machine-guns, churning up the ground around the Volunteers with hundreds of rounds, firing indiscriminately into the nearby farmhouse and two vehicles parked outside, and killing a grazing cow!
The fourth Volunteer was struck by three bullets, in the leg, arm and chest, but managed to crawl away and to elude the massive follow up search, escaping safely - though seriously injured - the following day.
Raymond and Paddy Quinn ran zig-zag across open fields to a nearby house, under fire all this time, intending to commandeer a car. Unfortunately, the car belonging to the occupants of the house was parked at a neighbour's house several hundred yards away. Even then the pair might have escaped but that they delayed several minutes waiting for their comrade, Danny McGuinness, who however had got separated from them and had taken cover in a disused quarry outhouse (where he was captured in a follow-up operation the next day).
The house in which Raymond and Paddy took cover was immediately besieged by berserk Paratroopers who riddled the house with bullets. Even when the two Volunteers surrendered, after the arrival of a local priest, and came out through the front door with their hands up, the Paras opened fire again and the Pair were forced to retreat back into the house.
On the arrival of the RUC, the two Volunteers again surrendered and were taken to Bessbrook barracks where they were questioned and beaten for three days before being charged.
One remarkable aspect of the British ambush concerns the role of Lance-Corporal David Jones, a member of the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute regiment. According to Brit statements at the trial it was he who first opened up on the IRA active service unit from the hillside.
Nine months later, on March 16th, 1977 two IRA Volunteers encountered two Paratroopers (at the time seconded to the SAS) in a field outside Maghera in South Derry. In the ensuing gun battle, one SAS man was shot dead, and one IRA Volunteer was captured. The Volunteer's name was Francis Hughes, the dead Brit was Lance-Corporal David Jones of the Parachute regiment.
In the eighteen months before going on hunger strike together neither Raymond McCreesh or Francis Hughes were aware of what would seem to have been an ironic but supremely fitting example of republican solidarity!
After nine months remand in Crumlin Road jail, Raymond was tried and convicted in March 1977, of attempting to kill Brits, possession of a Garand rifle and ammunition, and IRA membership. He received a fourteen-year sentence, and lesser concurrent sentences, after refusing to recognise the court.
In the H-Blocks he immediately joined the blanket protest, and so determined was his resistance to criminalisation that he refused to take his monthly visits for four years, right up until he informed his family of his decision to go on hunger strike on February 15th, this year. He also refused to send out monthly letters, writing only smuggled 'communications' to his family and friends.
The only member of his family to see him at all during those four years in Long Kesh two or three times - was his brother, Fr. Brian McCreesh, who occasionally says Mass in the H-Blocks.
Like Francis Hughes, Raymond volunteered for the earlier hunger strike, and, when he was not chosen among the first seven, took part in the four-day hunger strike by thirty republicans until the hunger strike ended on December 18th, last year.
Speaking to his brother, Malachy, shortly after Bobby Sands death, Raymond said what a great loss had been felt by the other hunger strikers, but it had made them more determined than ever.
And still managing to keep his spirits up, when told of his brother, Fr. Brian, campaigning for him on rally platforms, Raymond joked: "He'll probably get excommunicated for it."
To Britain's eternal shame, the sombre half-prediction made by Raymond to his friend Paddy Quinn - Ta seans ann go mbeid me abhaile rombat - became a grim reality. Bhi se. Raymond died at 2.11 a.m. on Thursday May 21st, 1981, after 61 days on hunger strike.
Published in IRIS, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 1981. IRIS was a publication of the Sinn Fein Foreign Affairs Bureau.
BBC: On This Day - 12 May 1981
Video news report
12 May 1981: Second IRA protester dies in jail
Women clang dustbin lids on the road to mark Francis Hughes' death
A second IRA hunger striker, 25-year-old Francis Hughes, has starved to death in the Maze Prison near Lisburn in County Antrim.
His death comes a week after the death of Bobby Sands on 5 May, the first to die in a republican campaign for political status to be granted to IRA prisoners.
"His blood is on Margaret Thatcher's hands".
Oliver Hughes, Francis Hughes' brother
Hughes began refusing food and medical attention a week after Sands began his hunger strike on 1 March. He lapsed into unconsciousness and died at 1743BST today.
As news of his death spread in Catholic areas of Belfast and Londonderry, women clanged dustbin lids and young men stoned army vehicles, threw petrol bombs and hijacked lorries.
Hughes' brother, Oliver, blamed the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for his death. Speaking from his hometown of Bellaghy he said: "Margaret Thatcher and the British Government have murdered my brother and his blood is on Margaret Thatcher's hands."
The condition of two other hunger strikers at the Maze, Raymond McCreesh and Patrick O'Hara, continues to deteriorate.
Their five demands include: the right to wear their own clothes, refrain from prison work, associate freely with other Republican prisoners, to have visits and parcels once a week and the right to have lost remission on sentences restored.
Security forces have said Hughes was "an absolute fanatic whose name stood for murder and nothing else". A spokesman went on to describe him as "as vicious a man as you could meet, a ruthless killer who thrived on what he was doing".
His republican colleagues hailed him as "fearless and active".
Four years ago, Hughes became a wanted man after the home of a policeman was blown up in County Tyrone. No-one was hurt but Hughes' fingerprints were found on adhesive tape used on the bomb.
In March 1978 he was finally caught after a gun battle at Bellaghy and eventually sentenced to a total of 83 years in prison for his six-year-long career as an IRA gunman and bomber.
The government is refusing to grant any of the hunger strikers' demands. Mrs Thatcher says they are a cover for gaining political status, a special category denied paramilitaries in the Maze since 1976.
FRANCIS HUGHES - 1956-1981
**Today marks the 24th anniversary of the death of Francis Hughes. Tuesday, May 12th Francis died at 5.43pm after 59 days on hunger-strike.
click to view - Photo from Larkspirit
See also Irish Hungerstrike.com and
Bobby Sands Trust
Francis Hughes: Scourge of the UDR
The name of Francis Hughes will surely continue to stick in the throats of British military and political hawks.
Unlike many of those who make the ultimate sacrifice Francis Hughes had already become a legend in his own lifetime and amongst his own people as one of the most capable guerrilla fighters Ireland has produced in the long war against British Imperialism.
Having put Francis Hughes "safely away" in 1978 the British assumed that his name would no longer strike terror in their own hearts and a chord in the minds of people in South Derry.
The British were exultant at his arrest following a gun battle in which Francis and a comrade killed an SAS man and wounded another. Despite an awesome wound he refused to answer his interrogators who later described him as "totally uncooperative". After the usual mockery of a Diplock trial British soldiers felt slightly more relaxed in South Derry and surrounding areas. Very foolish of them of course but then the British military mind has never understood the collective spirit of solidarity engendered by individually brilliant revolutionary soldiers like Francis Hughes.
And brilliant he was. His exploits are legion and legendary spreading through areas of Tyrone, Derry and Antrim. They are too numerous to recount here. Suffice it to say that all the normal cliches like dedication, bravery, military skill and the like are inadequate to describe a man who caused the British military machine as much grief as most guerrilla fighters from Tom Barry, Michael Collins and through to the modern breed of fighters.
One or two examples of his coolness and ingenuity would make even Collins look like a novice. The night he was surrounded by British soldiers in one of the numerous "safe houses" in his area of operation he simply grabbed his rifle and weaved his way through the tightening circle stopping occasionally to mumble a few familiar words with the professionals of the British Army whose perception of the "stupid Irish" has often been a weapon in our favour. He got away then as on many other occasions.
Behind his folk hero status in South Derry, however, lies the fairly typical story of a young Irish man who was not allowed to grow up normally in the artificial police state called Northern Ireland. It was not for want of trying.
Showing an aptitude for history and woodwork at school he started an apprenticeship as a painter and decorator at the age of 16 years which he completed shortly before becoming a full time revolutionary. Shortly after he became a painter he and a friend receive a brutal beating from British soldiers on a lonely country road one night. The experience was to prove more painful to the Brits than Francis himself over the next few years.
Responsible for more attacks on British forces than the combined strength of many other units put together he became the "most wanted man" in the Six Counties. So feared was he that his comrades recalled recently in Republican News one UDR patrol recognised him once at a checkpoint but fearful (wisely) of a shoot-out they waved him through.
Francis Hughes is now doubly famous and revered. His hunger strike to the death was just the ultimate proof, if any were needed, that his determination and actions in the field were inspired by a profound political motivation.
If the entire body of self-seekers now scrambling to retain their seats in the Dail possessed between them just a portion of the guts and conviction that Francis showed there might not be the need for the ending of many young Irish lives.
Songs of Resistance
BALLAD OF FRANCIS HUGHES
With the wind that blows down through sad Derry
Came a Volunteer brave and so bold,
He took on the might of the British
For the honour of Ireland to uphold.
He led a brave column of volunteers
Against foreign soldiers of scorn,
And in the little town of Bellaghy
Francie Hughes, Hunger Striker, was born
So let’s sing of this brave gallant soldier,
Who on Hunger Strike proudly did stand,
With his comrades McCreesh and OHara,
Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Bobby Sands
We heard how he marched o’er the mountains,
Always ready to meet with the toe.
And how he attacked on a hillside
Then vanished with the winds that blow
So let’s sing of this brave gallant soldier,
Who on Hunger Strike proudly did choose,
To stand for the rights of his comrades,
We remember you, brave Francis Hughes
The wind still blows down through sad Derry,
And it echoes in valley and glen,
And high round the hills of Bellaghy
Francie Hughes watches over his men
Bobby Sands Commemoration 2005
Speech From Bobby Sands Commemoration
Today we remember Volunteer Bobby Sands who died on hunger strike for the sake of his comrades and for the cause of the Irish Republic on May 5th 1981. What better place to remember one of the greatest heroes of the All Ireland Republic than at this spot where Pearse proclaimed the Republic and where so many brave Irish men fought and died defending it?
Bobby Sands was born in Rathcoole, North Belfast in 1954. His twenty seventh birthday fell on the ninth day of his hunger strike. Bobby was to experience the realities of living in a sectarian partitioned state at an early age when his family were forced out of their home in Abbots Cross, Newtownabbey by pro British loyalists in 1962. He was to experience bigotry, hatred and harassment on many occasions in his young life such as when he was forced out of his apprenticeship and in 1972 when his family was again intimidated into moving home this time from Rathcoole to Twinbrook. Bobby was later to describe the effect this evil that pervaded the six north eastern counties of Ireland had on him in the following way: "I was only a working class boy from a nationalist ghetto, but it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom. I shall not settle until I achieve liberation for my country, until Ireland becomes a sovereign independent socialist republic". It was in this year of 1972 that Bobby aged only 18 yet seeking the liberation of Ireland and the establishment of a 32 county socialist republic took the brave decision to join the Irish Republican Army.
Bobby's commitment to the All Ireland Republic of Pearse and Connolly led him to become an inspired and an inspiring volunteer. In October 1972 he was lifted and charged with possession of weapons. At his trial being a loyal Republican Volunteer he refused to recognise the legitimacy of the court. He was sent to Long Kesh for three years where the prisoners had political status.
On his release Bobby immediately reported back to his unit of the IRA for his treatment at the hands of the British had done nothing to quell his love of freedom. He was straight back into the fight for the All Ireland Republic, the honourable war against the Brits, the occupier and the real terrorists in our country. Six months later Bobby was lifted again, this time following a bomb attack and gun battle. Now unfortunately he was sent to the torture chambers of Castlereagh for interrogation. For six days they beat and tortured Bobby and his comrades. For those six long days despite their tortures the Brits couldn't break Bobby. In all that time he told them nothing except his name, age and address. Bobby was to write of his experiences in Castlereagh in a poem in 1980
entitled "The Crime of Castlereagh".
They came and came their job the same
In relays N'er they stopped.
'Just sign the line!' They shrieked each time
And beat me 'till I dropped.
They tortured me quite viciously
They threw me through the air.
It got so bad it seemed I had
Been beat beyond repair.
The days expired and no one tired,
Except of course the prey,
And knew they well that time would tell
If I had words to say,
Each dirty trick they laid on thick
For no one heard or saw,
Who dares to say in Castlereagh
The 'police' would break the law!
Bobby was imprisoned on remand until his trial in September 1977 where he again refused to recognise the court. This time Bobby was on trial with three other men and they found themselves sentenced to fourteen years each for the possession of one handgun. This was and is typical of the treatment handed out by Britishpolitical courts to Irish patriots. While the agents of Britain can murder at will Irish men and women can expect special sentences for special offences in the special courts. And although he received a politically motivated sentence by a politically appointed court Bobby was refused political status as part of Britain's attempt to criminalise the Irish freedom struggle.
Having spent 22 days in solitary confinement in Crumlin Road Bobby was moved to the newly built H-Blocks where Republican prisoners were engaged in the Blanket protest for the restoration of POW status. Bobby's commitment to the cause and his keen mind was recognised by his fellow volunteers and he became PRO for the Blanket Men. Like Pearse before him Bobby was a gifted poet and writer as well as an Irish revolutionary. While Pearse's political writings appeared in such publications as An Claidheamh Soluis, the sword of light, which he edited, Bobby's writings appeared in the Republican papers of his day; Republican News and An Phoblacht under the nom de plume Marcella, his sister's name. The letters he wrote were of necessity written in tiny handwriting on toilet paper and smuggled out of the jail.
Bobby and his fellow Blanket Men suffered under a brutal regime imposed by the Brits in an attempt to break the prisoners' resistance to the policy of criminalisation. But the prisoners refused to be broken. They knew that if they allowed themselves to be labelled criminals then the struggle for the All Ireland Republic would also be labelled a criminal act. The H-Block was another front in the war against the Brits. The prisoners knew that although they had no guns or bombs their determination to resist was their weapon that would see them victorious. Famously Bobby was to say "I am, even after all the torture, amazed at British logic. Never in eight centuries have they succeeded in breaking the spirit of one man who refused to be broken. They have not dispirited, conquered, nor demoralised my people, nor will they ever".
In April of 1978 the protest was intensified with the commencement of the No Wash protest against the treatment dealt out to prisoners going to the toilets or to the showers. And in case they be forgotten, the women in Armagh Jail joined this protest when they suffered under similar conditions in February 1980.
The No Wash protest had been ongoing for two and a half years in the H-Blocks when in October 1980 seven prisoners began a hunger strike. Bobby was appointed OC as Brendan Hughes his predecessor was on the strike. The strike was called off in December as it was believed that a deal had been reached. But the Brits, being without honour, reneged on the deal just as Bobby was negotiating with the prisoner governor. Bobby was to write 'We discovered that our good will and flexibility were in vain. It was made abundantly clear during one of my co-operation' meetings with prison officials that strict conformity was required. Which in essence meant acceptance of criminal status".
There was no way now that the prisoners were going to accept criminalisation after all they had endured. On March 1st 1981 Bobby began a Hunger Strike in the full knowledge that it could and probably would lead to his death. "Of course I can be murdered", he said, "but I remain what I am, a political POW and no-one, not even the British, can change that".
A few days after he commenced his strike Frank Maguire an independent MP who supported the prisoners cause died forcing a by-election in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency. Dáithí Ó Conaill, the late vice president of Republican Sinn Féin proposed at an Ard Comhairle meeting that Bobby Sands should run as an abstentionist candidate to highlight his plight. Bobby agreed to this and an intense election campaign was begun. On April 10th he was elected thanks to the support of the nationalist people for his struggle. Bobby was not now an MP. He had stood on a Republican ticket and was endorsed by the people of Fermanagh-South Tyrone. He was a TD and would only have taken his seat in a 32 county All Ireland Dáil had circumstances allowed. The election victory was a great boost to the struggle. Support for the prisoners and for Irelands cause was now building on a world
wide scale. But the British were oblivious to the shame being heaped upon them and on May 5th, the sixty sixth day of his hunger strike Bobby Sands joined the ranks of Irelands martyred dead. Over the next few months while the streets of Ireland ran with blood and fire the Brits remained impervious to world opinion and nine more brave men were to sacrifice themselves just as Bobby had done.
Following the deaths of the 10 Hunger Strikers it was clear that Britain's shameless intransigence could not be overcome by the deaths of more Irish men. The strike was called off in October. But the Brits had been stung by the hunger strike and the turning of world opinion against them. Rather than risk a repeat of the protest, effective Political Status was introduced without fanfare on the quiet.
Bobby is a true hero of the Republic in the same way that Pearse and Connolly who fought here are. Not only did he gallantly fight the enemy on the field of battle but through his struggles and sacrifice his name has become synonymous with resistance to oppression the world over. He has inspired this generation of Irish men and women the same way the men who fought here at the GPO inspired previous generations. I know that he has inspired me. I remember well that day we marched to the British embassy in Ballsbridge and were baton charged by the Free State police. I can clearly remember thinking "this is what the hunger strikers are fighting against". And though I was afraid, being only nine years old, I knew that the fear I felt was nothing compared to the fear felt every day by the men in the H-Blocks and the women in Armagh. Yet I would have gladly endured that fear a hundred times over if only we could have had Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers back again.
Now twenty four years later we stand here humbled by the greatness of the Hunger Strikers and the Heroes of 1916. But that which they fought and paid for so dearly is still not achieved. Britain still rules in six Irish counties and a puppet regime administers her rule in the other twenty six. The goal of the Republican Movement remains today the same as it was on Easter Monday 1916. We aim to establish an All Ireland Republic free from foreign oppression and interference where the common name of Irish Man replaces the labels of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. This was the cause for which Pearse and Connolly fought. This was the cause to which Bobby Sands and the other H-Block Hunger Strikers dedicated themselves and for which they eventually gave their lives.
Bobby Sands and the Hunger Strikers of 1981 have inspired a generation of Irish men and women. Their brave sacrifices showed that there was still honour and nobility in the world. They have proven that The Republic which has been struggled for by so many gallant men and women is indeed worth the heavy price paid. We must ensure that the price paid by the blood Irish martyrs is not wasted. It is up to us to ensure that the Irish Republic of Pearse, Connolly and Sands is finally enthroned.
Bobby is often quoted as saying, "Everyone, Republican or otherwise, has his or her own part to play". What will your part be? Will you be content to sit on the sidelines and criticise while darkness slowly descends on the Republic? Or will you join in the struggle? Will you stretch forth your hand and grasp "an claidheamh soluis", the sword of light, and drive back the darkness of British rule, defeat the shadow of Imperialism? The day of the Republic is only dawning and so long as we stand united and sing of the glory of Pearse and Connolly of Bobby Sands and the All Ireland Republic then night will never fall.
An Phoblacht Abú
- Fergal Moore
7 May 2005
Click on thumbnail to view CRAZYFENIAN's photo of the Joe McDonnell mural.
IRISH HUNGER STRIKE 1981 MEMORIAL WEBSITE
**Please visit this excellent site to read Joe's biography, originally published in IRIS November 1981. This site is a personal tribute by the webmaster, well done with lots of information and photos and very moving.
Began Hunger Strike 9 May 1981 - Died July 8th, 1981
'A deep-thinking republican with a great sense of humour
THE FOURTH IRA Volunteer to join the hunger-strike for political status was Joe McDonnell, a thirty-year-old married man with two children, from the Lenadoon housing estate in West Belfast.
A well-known and very popular man in the Greater Andersonstown area he grew up, married and fought for the republican cause in, Joe had a reputation as a quiet and deep-thinking individual, with a gentle, happy go-lucky personality, who had, nevertheless, a great sense of humour, was always laughing and playing practical jokes, and who, although withdrawn at times, had the ability to make friends easily.
As an active republican before his capture in October 1976, Joe was regarded by his comrades as a cool and efficient Volunteer who did what he had to do and never talked about it afterwards.'
by Brian Warfield
Oh my name is Joe McDonnell
From Belfast town I came
That city I will never see again
For in the town of Belfast
I spent many happy days
And I loved that town in oh so many ways
For it's there I spent my childhood
And found for me a wife
I then set out to make for her a life
Oh but all my young ambition
Met with bitterness and hate
I soon found myself inside a prison gate
And you dare to call me a terrorist
While you look down your gun
When I think of all the deeds that you have done -
You have plundered many nations
Divided many lands
You have terrorized their people
You ruled with an iron hand
And you brought this reign of terror to my land
Through the many months internment
In the Maidstone and the Maze
I thought about my land throughout those days
Why my country was divided
Why I was now in jail
Imprisoned without crime or without trial
And though I love my country
I am not a bitter man
I've seen cruelty and injustice at first hand
And so one faithful morning
I shook bold freedom's hand
For right or wrong I tried to free my land
Then one cold October's morning
I was trapped in the lion's den
And I found myself in prison once again
I was committed to the H-Blocks
For fourteen years or more
On the "blanket" the conditions they were poor
Then a hunger strike we did commence
For the dignity of man
But it seemed to me that no one gave a damn
Oh but now I am a saddened man
I've watched my comrades die
If only people cared or wondered why
Oh may God shine on you, Bobby Sands
For the courage you have shown
May your glory and your fame be widely known
And Francis Hughes and Ray McCreesh
Who died unselfishly
And Patsy O'Hara, and the next in line is me
And those who lie behind me
May your courage be the same
And I pray to god my life was not in vain
And though sad and bitter was the year of 1981
All was not lost, but it's still there to be won
© Brian Warfield
**From the great Larkspirit site, THE IRISH HUNGERSTRIKES--A COMMEMORATIVE PROJECT (more images on site):
(last updated 20 November 03)
Bobby Sands' funeral
|BOBBY SANDS' FUNERAL - 7 MAY 1981|
**Right-click on photo for source
Video clip of funeral from Bobby Sands Trust
From In Memorium: Bobby Sands
Well over 100,000 people marched behind Bobby Sands' coffin through his own Twinbrook Estate to Milltown cemetery. A lone piper marched at the head of the procession, playing a song made famous by the hunger strikers: "I'll wear no convict's uniform, nor meekly serve my time, that Britain may call Ireland's fight 800 years of crime.'' At the end, three IRA volunteers, amidst the cheers and tears of those around them, fired the volley that is the traditional republican tribute to the fallen hero.
And hero he was. He towers over those who sent him to his death. He was murdered because he wouldn't buckle in the face of injustice. In Bobby Sands' own words: "If they aren't able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won't break you. They won't break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show.
It is then we'll see the rising of the moon."
7 May 1981 - Over 100.000 people
Part 2 of 'My Brother Bobby'
**continued from yesterday
My Brother Bobby
by: Bernadette Sands
An Phoblacht/Republican News
May 9th, 1981
'We are not criminals, but Irishmen'
May 5th, 1981 - Bobby Sands Dies
"We refuse to lie here in dishonour! We are not criminals, but Irishmen! This is the crime of which we stand accused..." - Bobby Sands
**This is a nice article on Bobby because you can click on many links within it to learn more about
Bernadette Sands: 'My Brother Bobby'
My Brother Bobby
by Bernadette Sands
An Phoblacht/Republican News
May 9th, 1981
photo source: Ireland's OWN
24 years ago today
by Jack McKinney
[Our old friend [retired Philadelphia Daily News columnist] Jack McKinney has begun to release all his archival stuff on the 1981 H Block Hunger Strike.... This article from five years back really sets the tone. It has, if I may say so, a certain lyricism that is absent from his powerful reportage in 1981.Well, watching friends and comrades starve to death doesn't exactly evoke lyricism, rather rage and sorrow.....--Roger Collins]
I wrote [this] spontaneously one night in May, '96, after reflecting on the fact that a lot of younger people who didn't actually experience that protracted nightmare would find it difficult, in reading the inadequate existing literature, to get a sense of what it was like emotionally. As you'll see, I was also pissed --as I still am in retrospect-- at the cowardice shown by Yank news photogs generally, and the Phila Daily News cur particularly, when they got the 'action' they'd been clamoring for.
A Cairde: There's few memories I'd like to share before calling it a night.
The evening of May 4, 1981, my mate Seamus and I were heading back up the road to Andytown when we saw a white-line vigil a short stretch beyond the Kennedy Way roundabout. White-line vigils were a common sight in West Belfast that Spring, just as a common sound was the plaintive tenor voice of Francie Brolly and his H-Block Song, wafting through open windows from record players in at least one house on every street in the district. No one was hoping anymore. Only wondering. When?
An APC overtook us and pulled alongside the single column of young people in the vigil. The Brit up front swung open the door and slung the greasy remains of a fish'n'chips take-out among them, shouting: "'ere! Run this up to yer boy Bobby!" You never got to read about the countless nightly provocations like this.
Sure, at least some of you are probably fantasizing right now about what you would have done. Maybe about how you would have scooped up the garbage and flung it right back in the face of the taunter.
If one of the vigil-keepers had surrendered to such an impulse, a 7.62 round would have thumped into its target, leaving globs of pink-stained grey matter mixed in with the remains of the fish'n'chips.
The lance corporal would have said the Yellow Card gave him the right to fire when confronted with lethal force and his fellow squaddies would have sworn they saw the others in the vigil passing off a weapon, hand by hand, till it disappeared in the angry crowd that seemed to gather from nowhere.
That you would have read about.
* * * * *
Downtown Radio had signed off with its usual, seductive "Chariots of Fire" tape and it was going on 2 a.m. when I heard Seamus's wife rapping softly on my bedroom door, whispering so as not to wake the kids.
"Jack. Bobby's dead."
No matter how long you'd been expecting to hear that, it still felt like a cannon ball tearing through the gut when the news actually came.
* * * * *
Already the bin lids were dinning through the estate. Protesting. Denouncing. Lamenting. Summoning. People were gathering on Andytown Road. Cursing. Crying. There was the harsh sound of glass shattering and the squeal of metal drums being dragged up from the Busy-B for barricades.
A crew of American press photographers had been staying at the little hotel that used to be right down from the Felon's Club. One of them liked to swagger around wearing a cowboy hat, demanding to know when the action was going to start. The others didn't have cowboy hats, but every last one of them had a safari jacket adorned with press tags in several different languages and scripts, which they thought gave them a license to swagger and make the same complaints about the lack of action.
I now banged on one's door and told him to roust his chums because the action they'd been so desperate for was already underway down at the foot of Clonard. He stuttered as he tried to paraphrase the bulletins he'd heard on the radio warning everyone to stay off the streets. Having taken this as sound advice, he and his colleagues had decided to "stay put until the British army has the situation under control."
* * * * *
Down at Sinn Fein Headquarters (the old one, before Connolly House) some staffers were trying to discourage the wee lads from making Kamikaze petrol-bomb-runs at a Brit roadblock on the bottom of the Springfield Rd. The message didn't sink in till one wee lad got hit with a sniper's bullet high on the inside of his thigh, near the groin.
This couldn't have really happened, of course, because none of the American photographers was there to snap a picture of the boy being carried off the road with his blood pumping out in gulping spurts. But a French TV crew wheeled in from Leeson St. and was starting to set up till Seamus and I persuaded them to put the victim in their maroon van and rush him over to Royal instead, because the high velocity bullet had destroyed the major artery in his thigh and even with his belt cinched above it, he'd be dead in a few more minutes.
The Frenchies didn't get a picture, either, but they had something ticking inside that doesn't seem to come with safari jackets and cowboy hats.
* * * * *
About an hour later, a call came in to SFHQ. Bobby Sands had finally been brought home and Jimmy Drumm had to speak to his parents about the Republican funeral arrangements.
But the Brits had Twinbrook sealed off from below. Could Seamus and I find another way to get Jimmy in? We could and did, taking back roads and a couple of fields to loop up and around Lisburn and come back down to Twinbrook from there.
Bobby didn't look anything like the broadfaced, beaming young man the world knew only from that picture taken years earlier in Long Kesh. His hair was neatly trimmed and parted on the left side, and he looked more like the young accountant he might have become. His cheekbones, always prominent, were now the most dominant feature of a face that remained handsome even in its shrunken state.
* * * * *
There was one moment so almost overwhelmingly poignant that I can still close my eyes and summon it in vivid detail. A ringlet of hair lay across Bobby's upper right forehead. His younger brother Sean, who idolized him stepped unobtrusively behind the casket and, reaching in, tenderly brushed back the stray locks.
John Sands, prematurely whitehaired at 57, tightened his arm around wife Rosaleen and sighed.
"We should have a photo of how he looks now. If only we had a photographer." Seamus and I exchanged glances. We had both been thinking the same thing.
Bobby Sands was defiantly elected to the British Parliment by the people of Fermanagh-South Tyrone while on hunger strike. The Speaker's announcement of his death in that body pointedly excluded the traditional condolences to the family on the death of a Member.
According to journalist David Beresford in his book Ten Men Dead: The story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, "a news agency photographer [later] offered the Sands family 75,000 for a picture of Bobby in his coffin. During his time in internment a group photograph had been taken of him and fellow prisoners, with a smuggled camera, and the blurred picture had become one of the most famous in the world. His family turned down the offer of a new one."
'Bobby Sands joins Connolly, Pearse and Tone'
Irish Hunger Strikes Chapter 25
Tuesday, 1:17 A.M., 1981
Bobby Sands Joins Connolly, Pearse and Tone
At 1:17 on the morning of Tuesday, 5 May 1981 Bobby Sands died for Ireland. At 1:52 A.M., the Northern Ireland Office released this terse statement: "He took his own life by refusing food and medical intervention for sixty-six days."
Bin lids, riots, and plastic bullets
By 2 A.M., women were on the streets in Nationalist areas banging bin lids on the concrete, like primitive drums to announce and keen Bobby’s death to the gods above and the natives alike, and in defiance of the gathering, ever present enemy army and foreign regime.
By morning, riots spread throughout the north, barricades went up, lorries hijacked and torched. This was quickly met with crown force actions against neighborhoods with armored vehicles and plastic bullet attacks on the people. Armed men and women were silently in place to protect against large scale loyalist murder squad invasions -- the oft spoken of total "civil war" scenario. Bread was hoarded in Catholic homes.
The Speaker of the House of Commons rose to make the following announcement to parliament: "I regret to have to inform the House of the death of Robert Sands Esquire, the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone." And that was that. I am sure he did regret to have to inform the House. He pointedly deleted the customary extending of sympathy to the family.
World wide reaction
The reaction elsewhere in the world was more impassioned. The US Congress and state and local governments passed resolutions honoring Bobby’s sacrifice and sent letters of condolence. The NJ state legislature noted his "courage and convictions."
NY Cardinal Cook offered a mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The New York Times, the country’s premier newspaper, editorialized: "Despite proximity and a common language, the British have persistently misjudged the depth of Irish Nationalist."
In Rome, the President of the Italian Senate did what the Brit Speaker couldn’t bring himself to do by expressing the Italian government’s sympathies to the Sands’ family. Five thousand protesters burned the Union Jack in Milan. Thousands more marched in Paris behind a large portrait of Bobby chanting "The IRA will conquer." In Le Mans they named a street after him. The British embassy there call it an "insult to Britain."
Even Hong Kong, a British direct colony, was outraged by Bobby’s death. The Hong Kong Standard said it was "sad that successive British governments have failed to end the lst of Europe’s religious wars." The Hindustan Times remarked that Margaret Thatcher’s allowing a fellow Member of Parliament to die of starvation was an act which never had occurred before in a "civilized country." Iran announced it would be sending its representative to Bobby’s funeral in West Belfast.
Protesters in Oslo, Norway, hurled a balloon filled with tomato sauce at the English Queen Elizabeth, there on a state visit. In India, the opposition party in the Upper House stood for a minute of silent in tribute [Indira Gandhi’s ruling party refused to stand.] The members of the opposition party also stood in the Portuguese legislature. It seemed that parties in power feared Brit anger. But in Spain, the Ya newspaper said Bobby’s death was "an act of heroism." Pravda called his death "another tragic page in the grim chronicle of oppression, discrimination, terror and violence" in Ireland. Poland’s Lech Walesa paid tribute, "Bobby Sands was a great man who sacrificed his life for his struggle."
Bombs on European Midland
Bombs were heard exploding in Toulouse at the British owned Dunlop tire warehouse; in Milan a bomb blew a hole in the Brit Chamber of Commerce; and in Lisbon a bomb exploded outside the Royal British Club. A parcel bomb was detected before it could be delivered to the Prince of Wales.
Cardinal Basil Hume: "It’s suicide"
The West German paper, Die Welt, however, said that the Brits were correct in allowing Bobby die and not giving in to "political blackmail." The Spanish conservative paper ABC said he was "a political kamikaze" who got his strategy wrong. But the most bitter reaction must be accorded to the English Catholic Cardinal, Basil Hume, who called Bobby’s death "suicide."
British army Lt. Colonel Dr. Thomas: "No. Bobby was like a soldier."
Hume’s callous stupidity was answered best by Dr. Michael Thomas in the August edition of the British Medical Association’s News Review. Thomas was the chairman of the Association’s Ethics Committee and a serving lieutenant-colonel in the British army. His remarks were made all the more poignant considering his stature and his professional background. He said Bobby was "like the piper walking in front of a highland battalion, the bloke who was prepared to be shot down first."
Specifically to Hume, Dr. Thomas wrote: "Is it suicide for a soldier to charge a machine-gun nest, knowing that he was almost certain to get killed? Isn’t it what we describe as laying down one’s life for a brother? That’s what Bobby Sands was doing..."
Screws: "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning"
Meanwhile inside the Kesh, the screws didn’t know how to act. Several made their delight evident; one serenaded the Blanketmen in his wing with his rendition of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning". But the general reaction of the screws was to let it pass, no doubt under orders not to cause a problem or for fear of getting the contents of slop out pots in their faces.
"Old Bobby" -- The Protestant Hospital Orderly
Not everyone on the so called "other side of the religious divide" in the prison was a monster, although most certainly qualified. Good people are everywhere and even those that disagreed with Republicans or their methods could appreciate the bond of a common humanity.
Such a man was "Old Bobby", a Protestant man in prison for tax irregularities. He was a hospital orderly during the hunger strike years of 1980 and 1981. Raymond McCartney recalls how he meet Bobby H., " a very warm and genuine man", the year after the hunger strike deaths when he was in the prison hospital himself. Old Bobby, who they also called the Old Man or "Sean Fhear" in Irish, gave Raymond a heart wrenching tour of the rooms where the ten men died and told stories of those terrible times. But there was good humor too and unexpected human kindness under horrific circumstances.
The Sean Fhear was probably the human being closest to the men as they died in at least a physical sense, and he a Protestant "ordinary criminal". He was approached by the British and Irish press for interviews after his release. He told Raymond that he told those media people, "What I shared with the hunger strikers was not for selling newspapers." He affirmed that he witnessed "unparalleled courage." He would sneak in books, papers, tobacco, or anything that he could to make the last days of the hunger strikers easier. He told of how Bobby Sands’ was using package after package of "fag papers" and yet the tobacco that was smuggled in to him was hardly touched. Old Bobby H. was concerned that Bobby Sands was eating them or was engaged in some other dangerous pursuit. Imagine how the two laughed when Bobby explained to Old Bobby that he was using the paper to write comms on. Old Bobby also got the screws angry on occasion, such as when he commented to one that he had to clean up Bobby’s hospital room really well today, "After all, we have an MP in the wing now." Old Bobby’s good nature didn’t spare him the glares of the prison personnel who heard that remark.
"May God forgive them"
On the day before Bobby Sands died, and he was coming in an out of coma, Old Bobby, the Sean Fhear, was in the TV room while the Sands family were by Bobby’s side. Bobby asked for Old Bobby and once he recognized him, said, "Bobby, I’m going to die but I want to thank you for all you have done for me and the other lads, We will never forget you; you are a real gentleman." Old Bobby held young Bobby’s hand and cried.
Old Bobby, the sean fhear, told Raymond McCartney: "Despite all his own suffering, the prospect of imminent death, this man whom I met hardly a month before this remembered me and thanked me. For what? A bit of tobacco and some papers. For a man so noble and brave that he gave his life for his friends and in a strange was, even for me, they let this man die. May God forgive them."
The Dublin government’s reaction?
In March 1982, the year after Bobby Sands’ passed into Irish history, he was selected Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City. A prominent Irish born businessman praised Bobby’s selection and saluted his sacrifice for Ireland in a paid advertisement in the Irish Echo. The man did a lot of business with the Irish government. He soon received a call implying that he had insulted Dublin by honoring Bobby and was losing his Irish business connections.
A friend of the Irish American businessman intervened on his behalf with Sean Donlon, then Irish Ambassador to the US, to get things straightened out. Donlon told the friend what the businessman, who dared to honor one of the greatest Irish heroes of all time, could do to get back into the good graces of the Irish government: "He can crawl."
TEN MEN DEAD
This chapter is taken from the book:
Ten Men Dead:
The Story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike
by David Beresford (1987)
SOLDIER: You mean to starve? You will have none of it?
I'll leave it there, where you can sniff the Savour.
Snuff it, old hedgehog, and unroll yourself.
But if I were the King, I'd make you do it
With wisps of lighted straw.
- The King's Threshold, by W. B. Yeats
The day was marked by Sinn Fein with a march through West Belfast. It was a cold Sunday and it was raining. Four months before, about 10,000 had taken part in the march which had marked the beginning of the first hunger strike; Bernadette McAliskey, watching it, had had tears running down her face, of pride and excitement, believing she was watching the birth of another mass movement like the civil rights demonstrations eleven years before. Today only 3,500 were taking part and giving little cause for excitement; more for regret at lost opportunities, and a reflection of the sense of déja vu in a tired community. There were some fine statements, of course. One was read out to the demonstrators on behalf of the prisoners, declaring: 'We have asserted that we are political prisoners and everything about our country, our interrogation, trials and prison conditions show that we are politically motivated and not motivated by selfish reasons for selfish ends. As further demonstration of our selflessness and the justice of our cause, a number of our comrades, beginning today with Bobby Sands, will hunger-strike to the death unless the British Government abandons its criminalization policy and meets our demands.'
* * *
Inside H3 Sands was preparing his statement for posterity, a diary which the external leadership had asked him to try and keep. 'I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world,' he carefully wrote on a scrap of toilet paper. 'May God have mercy on my soul.'
He also made a present for one of his friends among the prisoners, Ricky - in the Irish, 'Risteard' - O'Rawe, who had taken over as public relations officer for the IRA men. The gift was the lyrics of a song he had written, which he carefully etched on cigarette paper. 'A Sad Song for Susan', it was called - a song replete with his own feelings of emotional loss.
I'm sitting at the window, I'm looking down the street
I'm looking for your face, I'm listening for your feet.
Outside the wind is blowing and it's just begun to rain
But it's being here without you that's causing me such pain.
My mind is running back again to when you were here
And I wish I had you now, I wish you were near.
Remember the Winter nights when you warmed me from the cold
And the Spring when we walked through green fields and skies of gold
You're gone, you're gone, but you live on in my memory.
At the end of it he scribbled a note to O'Rawe: 'There you are Risteard, fresh from the heart for what it's worth. I wrote it one rainy afternoon on remand in H1 when I had the fine company of a guitar to pick out the tune. So Sine e.'
On the eve of the 24th anniversary of Bobby Sands' death
WE WHO BELIEVE IN FREEDOM
Reflections on the H Block/Armagh prison struggle
Sinn Féin's electoral strategy began 17 years ago during the 1981 hunger strikes. Since those painful days and emotional election victories - beginning with Bobby Sands's historic win in Fermanagh/South Tyrone - Sinn Féin's election successes have brought the prize of freedom ever closer. Now, as the party fights another historic election, Laura Friel reflects on the terrible prison struggle which gave birth to the republican electoral strategy.
``Do you remember asking me that March Sunday morning at Mass, ``Have you thought about what you'll do after I'm gone?'' That was painful. I didn't think you realised how much that tore through my emotions..... Yes, I know, I did look lost at the time. But could you blame me? Did you expect me to say that I'd always find someone to replace you? I could only say that you shouldn't be concerned about that and that I'd manage alright. Wish I hadn't had to manage.''
Reflecting on the death of Bobby Sands nine years later, Bik McFarlane addresses his late comrade as if in person. ``It seems like yesterday,'' says Bik, ``it will always seem like yesterday.''
On the eve of the 1981 hungerstrike, Bik McFarlane took over as OC from Bobby Sands. It was a position at the heart of one of the most intense periods of the current phase of the struggle.
``By 1980, death, and prison and grief, pain and loss were part of everyday existence for the whole community,'' writes Bernadette McAliskey in a foreword to `Nor Meekly Serve My Time' an eyewitness account of the H Block Struggle. Bernadette was a key activist in the political campaign outside the jails in support of the prisoners. Although we are all ``marked'' by the long struggle towards Irish freedom, says Bernadette. ``Nothing has marked me in all that long sorrow as indelibly as the deaths of 10 young men whom I didn't know personally. No deaths have been harder for me to come to terms with than the deaths of the hungerstrikers.''
In these extracts both Bik and Bernadette acknowledge personal truths, universal for many of those who lived through the nightmare of those days. It seems like yesterday to all of us.
It would be all too easy in retrospect to present the history of the Blanket struggle against the backdrop of careful prior analysis on our part. Such was not the case....Our response was more instinctive than analytical. We knew only that we would not be criminalised, and so began our protest.
Republican POWs H Blocks Long Kesh, March 1994
As Republicans move into another period of intense political struggle, they will draw upon many of the strengths and insights generated by the campaign around political status in the H Blocks of Long Kesh and in Armagh jail in the late 1970s and early 80s. If it seems like yesterday, it is not just because of the immediacy with which the hurt and anguish inflicted upon Northern nationalists is still recalled, but more significantly because the dynamic of contemporary Republicanism was spawned in the filth of British intransigence almost two decades ago.
In a poem about the Easter Rising, WB Yeats noted all had changed, ``changed utterly''. The 1916 rebellion, culminating in the brutal execution of its leaders, unleashed forces which drove British imperialism to the brink of outright capitulation. Sixty years later, a prison protest in the Six Counties, culminating in the deaths of ten hungerstrikers, marked a similar watershed in contemporary Irish history. Post hungerstrike the political landscape had been ``changed utterly'', weakening Britain's hold on Ireland and unleashing forces yet to be fully played out.
``We who believe in freedom cannot rest,'' runs the chorus of a South African resistance song. In 1981 the world watched as ten young people courageously gave their lives, minute by minute in the slow motion death of hungerstrike, so that others might be free. ``Let our revenge,'' wrote Bobby Sands, ``be the laughter of our children.''
Their emaciated bodies, we buried, but until the joy of future generations is ringing in our ears, we cannot lay them to rest. To borrow the words of our ANC comrades, ``We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.''
I am dying not just to attempt to end the barbarity of the H Blocks, or to gain rightful recognition as a political prisoner, but primarily because what is lost in here is lost for the Republic and those wretched oppressed whom I am proud to know as the `risen people'
Bobby Sands, March 1981
As Principal of a remote rural school life has come ``full circle'' for Owen Carron, at least in a private sense. In 1981, Owen was a primary school teacher when fate unexpectedly plucked him from obscurity and thrust him into the forefront of a political struggle. Today, sitting amidst the 17 pupils of Drumnamore School, Owen remembers the moment which turned his life upside down as a pivotal moment in the continuing dynamic towards Irish reunification and democracy.
``If Frank Maguire hadn't died, if he had died a few months earlier or a few months later,'' says Owen, ``history would be different, I'm convinced of that.'' The by-election prompted by the sudden death of the sitting MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, called as Bobby Sands' hunger strike approached crisis point, was seized upon as an opportunity to save his life.
``We thought we could save him,'' says Owen, ``we thought if we could get Bobby elected, the British couldn't just let him die.''
As his election agent, Owen secured regular access to Bobby Sands during the last few weeks of his life. ``I don't think Bobby was ever naive about his chances of survival. I remember him as unwavering, committed and very focused. I think he knew the Brits would let him die.''
The decision to stand Bobby Sands as a candidate was taken at a time when even the idea of standing a Republican as a candidate, let alone an imprisoned IRA Volunteer, was anathema to the Republican movement. Developing an election strategy required ``a leap of faith'', says Owen. ``For some Republicans it was a leap they initially couldn't quite make.''
Sinn Fein's election strategy was born in the front room of a tiny house in Enniskillen. Denied access to the town's commercial premises, Maud Drumm offered Sinn Fein the use of her parlour as an election headquarters.
The labour was short (there were only ten days in the run up to the election), intense (as republicans flocked into the area to assist the campaign) and at times painful (as disagreements within the party were slowly resolved). The delivery was euphoric. Danny Morrison was roaring and shouting. The hall was in uproar as the electoral officer announced Bobby's election victory,'' says Owen, ``it was a victory but it didn't save his life.'' Bobby Sands' death less than three weeks later was a ``bitter pill''.
Retrospectively Owen sees the election of Bobby Sands as a watershed in the current phase of the struggle. Within Republicanism it was a decisive break with the past, it overcame the movement's psychological fear of electoral defeat, and it demonstrated the power of popular mobilisation around Republican demands, says Owen. ``In time I think we'll look back and identify the struggle around political status and the subsequent election of Bobby Sands as a defining moment in the struggle against British rule in Ireland. Since 1981 Sinn Fein's electoral strategy has developed from strength to strength. Thatcher's criminalisation strategy never recovered and subsequent British governments continue to pay the price of that defeat.''
When Mary Nelis says she remembers the first visit with her son Donnacha after he was sentenced to sixteen years imprisonment, ``as if it were yesterday'', the blink of tears in her eyes confirms that she is speaking quite literally.
In the small constituency office of Derry's Cable Street, Mary packs documents into an oversized briefcase, ``I've a full council meeting at two,'' she says. Today, as a Sinn Fein councillor, Mary's timetable is very busy but still not as hectic as the punishing schedule of pickets and rallies with which her political life emerged almost two decades ago.
It began with a telephone call from a Catholic priest. Sentenced just two months after Ciaran Nugent, Mary's son Donnacha was one of a handful of protesting Republican prisoners jailed immediately after the removal of Political Status. Prisoners refusing to wear a uniform were not only left naked and confined to their cells, they were also denied contact with their families. Donnacha was barely eighteen and no one had seen him for months. ``Fr Cahal told me he hadn't been allowed to see Donnacha and the other protesting prisoners, other prisoners were worried because they hadn't seen any of them either.''
The priest's worst fears were later confirmed. Donnacha was brought before him naked, he was badly bruised from head to toe with what appeared to be cigarette burns to his back. As a mother she must do something, Fr. Cahal told Mary. It was an act of desperation but one which would be repeated by Mary, and many other mothers, wives and sisters, thousands of times in towns and cities throughout Ireland, Europe and America during five years of intense political campaigning. For women who had previously lived all their lives within the modest confines of home and church, it was an act of great personal courage which transformed their relationships both within the family and with the Catholic heirarchy.
``There were three of us,'' says Mary, ``we took off all our clothes, wrapped ourselves in a blanket and called a taxi.'' As Derry's Cathedral bells rang out in support of a rally organised by the Peace People, the three women protested at the chapel gates. ``My son is lying naked in a cell. Do you care?'' read Mary's placard. And at first it seemed as if very few people cared.
Looking back, Mary sees the key lessons to be drawn from that period as the ``long hard haul'' of building mass support around a political issue and strategic flexibility which allowed the Republican campaign for political status to align with the humanitarian agenda of five just demands.
Mobilisation was door to door, street by street, village, town, city. The campaign took Mary throughout Ireland, across Europe and to the United States. ``There were no short cuts,'' says Mary. ``For months at a time we thought we were making no headway.There was a wall of silence surrounding the protest in the jails, it was demolished brick by brick.''
As a candidate in the forthcoming Assembly elections, Mary has no illusions about the Good Friday document. Sinn Féin is facing another ``long hard haul'' and Mary Nelis is ready to meet that challenge.
Travel anywhere in Ireland with Bik McFarlane and there will be people there eager to greet him. The publication of `comms' (communications written on tissue paper and smuggled out of the jail) written by Bik as OC during the hungerstrikes remain the most poignant testimony of the unfolding tragedy in which ten men lost their lives.
In the tenderness of a note written immediately after the death of Bobby Sands from ``Bik to Brownie'', the personal and political are inextricably intertwined. In itself this tells us more about the struggle in the H Blocks than many thousands of words of annalysis written retrospectively.
When Bik's words recently appeared painted two storeys high on a gable wall in Dublin city, it seemed wholly appropriate. Bik McFarlane belongs where the private and public domains collide. We may not know him personally but our knowledge of him is personal. No wonder he evokes the affection of strangers.
``Nothing in the history of the Anglo-Irish conflict has ever been conceded by the British or attained by the Irish without recourse to long, arduous and often bitter struggle,'' says Bik, ``the hungerstrike of 1981 was no exception.''
Bik McFarlane has spent more than half of his adult life imprisoned by the British. In over two decades, he has known only three short years of relative freedom. Bik was one of 38 Republican prisoners to escape from the H Blocks of Long Kesh in the Great Escape of 1983. He was recaptured in Amsterdam in 1986. Only recently released after serving a life sentence, Bik's future still remains uncertain. On the day he was officially released on license by the British, Bik was arrested by the Garda in Dundalk. He is currently signing bail.
The implementation of the British government's criminalisation policy in the late 1970s became a living reality for Bik McFarlane one April morning in 1978. Bik was ``on the boards'' in the punishment block following an escape attempt when he was told his `special category status' had been withdrawn by the NIO. Instead of returning to the cages Bik was trailed into the Blocks. The no-wash protest had begun a month earlier. He was naked and the wing stank. The transition from political prisoner to the brutality of criminalisation had taken less than five minutes, the time it took to cross from Cage 12 to H3.
``The British government intended the H Blocks to be the `breakers' yard' for the Republican Movement,'' says Bik. ``They saw prisoners as the most vulnerable section of the movement and they set out to break them.''
Naked in a prison cell, vulnerable, isolated and subjected to a brutal prison regime, the British imagined the prisoners had been stripped of all means of resistance. They were wrong. In what still remains one of the most remarkable stories of human endeavour, the prisoners organised and maintained a collective campaign of defiance.
``The maturity of the prisoners' analysis underpinned their ability to resist,'' says Bik. ``We were confronting a prison regime but we were exposing British rule in Ireland.''
Bik identifies the emergence of Sinn Féin's electoral strategy during this period as a fundamental breakthrough. ``The reluctance of Republicans to engage in electoral politics in the 1970s left the field open for the SDLP to exploit,'' says Bik. ``Since then we have constantly had to deal with the potential of the SDLP being co-opted into a British agenda.''
The election of Bobby Sands ``opened the door for building a political movement which played the Brits at their own game. By standing candidates in the Assembly elections Sinn Fein is undercutting any attempt by our opponents to retreat and retrench. Republicans have the ability and the confidence to pursue their objectives in all arenas,'' says Bik, ``the struggle continues.''
When Chrissy McAuley began working for Republican News in 1978 it was a punishable offence. In her early twenties and a political prisoner just released from Mountjoy, Chrissy was tasked with thwarting British attempts to curtail the production of the Republican Movement's weekly underground news sheet. ``It wasn't easy. It was my job to keep the paper resourced despite constant raiding by the British army who were determined to locate and close us down,'' says Chrissy.
Although continually under pressure, the paper appeared every week and always met its printing deadline. The handful of staff who doubled as journalists, photographers, typesetters and distributors, were well known by the Crown forces and they were routinely targeted for harassment. ``They tried to follow us everywhere,'' says Chrissy.
Today, sitting in the comfort of her back room, Chrissy can laugh about the antics of those early days, forgetting just for a moment the hardship of those difficult years. ``The no-wash protest had already begun and it was clear that we were facing a protracted prison struggle,'' says Chrissy. Of the hunger strike period Chrissy primarily recalls the anguish of the families with whom her role in the paper meant she had personal contact. It remains ``too painful to think about,'' says Chrissy. ``I still consciously block it all out.''
It was a time not only of deep emotional turmoil but also of intense ideological struggle as British propaganda tried to redefine the conflict as a ``criminal conspiracy''. With state censorship both sides of the border, Republican News played a key role in ``getting the truth out,'' says Chrissy. Copies of the papers printed in 1981 remain a fitting record of the dedication of the staff who reported with meticulous detail not only the lives and deaths of the hunger strikers but also the impact of that unfolding tragedy within nationalist communities across the North.
In the end British propaganda collapsed under the weight of contradictions exposed by the steadfast refusal of Republicans to be criminalised. ``By the time Bobby Sands was elected his name was known throughout Ireland and the world,'' says Chrissy. The electoral mandate Sands secured shattered the myths perpetuated by British propaganda. ``Britain's criminalisation strategy lay in tatters,`` says Chrissy. The subsequent deaths of the hungerstrikers were ``the price Thatcher extracted,'' says Chrissy. A vindictive act of revenge.
Chrissy sees the genesis of the current Peace Process in the hungerstrike period. ``The emergence of the Peace People in the late 1970s was used by the British as a counter-insurgency tool,'' says Chrissy. Peace was defined in terms of defeating republicans and was used to legitimate mass repression. Sinn Féin peace strategy developed out of this period, renegotiating the popular understanding of peace, in terms of `a lasting peace'. ``A lasting peace is secured by addressing the causes of conflict,'' says Chrissy, ``it involves dialogue and a dynamic for change.''
As a candidate in the forthcoming Assembly election, Chrissy sees Sinn Fein's role as confronting the denial of real democracy. ``British interference in Ireland has created a democratic deficit,'' says Chrissy, ``nationalists will not tolerate second class citizenship.''
It is difficult to imagine how the slow agonising tactic of a hunger strike could be seen as inevitable, but that was how it was in the H Blocks in 1980-81. The resort to hunger strike was a measure of the intensity of the battle for the Republic. The desire for justice, the courage and the undiluted determination never to give in were awe-inspiring.
Editors of `Nor Meekly Serve My Time', Belfast July 1994
``My resentment...,'' writes Peadar Whelan recalling the end of the second hunger strike in `Nor Meekly Serve My Time', ``was as great as my relief.''
Sentenced to life imprisonment in January 1978, Peadar had joined protesting prisoners in the H Blocks on the eve of the no-wash protest. Four years of intense struggle was to follow, escalating into two periods of protracted hunger strikes and the death of ten prisoners. Confessing to the ambiguity he felt after the end of the hunger strikes, Peadar mirrors the response of many Republican prisoners at that time. ``Despite my relief that no one else would die I still felt gutted because ten men had died and we had not won our demands,'' writes Peadar. ``My morale was never as low.''
But the story didn't end there. In its own way what followed was as remarkable as the struggle which preceded it.
The eldest boy in a family of seven, Peadar was reared in one of a row of narrow terraced houses built directly under the shadow of Derry's city walls. Until it was demolished by an IRA bomb in 1974 the view was dominated by a statue of George Walker, Governor of Derry during the Siege and icon of the Apprentice Boys.
Growing up in a nationalist city gerrymandered to secure unionist domination, Peadar was always aware of sectarian discrimination. It was brought into sharp focus in October `68. ``My family's life was shaped by the routine of work, home and chapel,'' says Peadar. When his relatives - ``aunts and uncles'' - decided to support the first civil rights march in Derry, it ``spoke volumes about the legitimacy of their grievances''. When they were beaten off the streets it ``spoke volumes about the legitimacy of the Unionist state''. Drenched by water cannon and chased by the RUC, they returned in relative safety to their homes. It was a defining moment for their 11-year-old nephew. Fourteen years later that same sense of resentment and relief would revisit Peadar, this time in a H Block cell. ``In the immediate post hungerstrike period there was constant discussions to find answers to the questions we faced,'' says Peadar. ``It boiled down to two choices, should we stay on protest or go into the system and work it to our advantage.''
Confounding their enemies, Republican prisoners began entering the system. Their strategy of subversion gained such a momentum that within less than 12 months they had not only secured more concessions than their initial expectations but had gained sufficient knowledge of the jail to implement a successful mass escape.
Long Kesh was the most secure prison in Western Europe. In a skilfully executed plan, prisoners secured H7, commandeered a lorry and drove through three security checks undetected. When a fracas developed outside the perimeter tally hut, prisoners abandoned the lorry, opened the main hydraulic gate, breached the outer gate and made their getaway on foot. It was the largest escape since the Second World War. If morale had reached an all-time low at the beginning of 1982, it was spectacularly restored in 1983.
Released on licence in 1992, Peadar Whelan joined the staff at An Phoblacht. Today, now Northern Editor, Peadar sees a parallel between the tactical flexibility which thwarted the operation of one of the most brutal prison regimes in the 1980s and the challenges facing Sinn Féin following the forthcoming Assembly elections. ``In the H Blocks and Armagh jail we began by confronting a prison regime but in the end we exposed the myths of British rule in Ireland,'' says Peadar, ``in the Assembly Republicans will be challenging a unionist regime and exposing the sectarian legacy of British interference in the Six Counties.''
``The key to the door,'' is how Colm Scullion describes the acquisition of the Irish language as a fundamental prerequisite in the exploration of his cultural heritage. Colm was lying naked in a H Block cell when he learned his first few words of Irish vocabulary.
When Colm had been captured with Thomas McElwee in 1976, he was barely 17 years of age. In the H Blocks of Long Kesh he was one of many young SOSP prisoners held in H3. The prison regime was systematicaly brutal in its dealings with the youngest prisoners. ``We were the guinea pigs,'' says Colm, ``any change in policy was tried out on us first. They thought the youngest prisoners would be the easiest to break but we held together and they never succeeded.''
The Irish language, both in its teaching and learning, played a key role in maintaining unity and morale. ``It was a way of keeping hold of your sanity,'' says Colm. ``We were locked in a cell with nothing to occupy us.''
Colm remembers listening to a lecture, delivered from behind his cell door, by Tom McKearney on the importance of the Irish language. Colm became ``determined'' to learn. ``Most of my Irish was taught to me by Bobby Sands,'' says Colm. A copy of the Bible was the only written material allowed in each cell. ``Bobby and Jake Jackson would shout out the reference to a passage in the Bible and we'd try to translate it into Irish,'' says Colm. When Colm and Bobby shared a cell, ``we made it a rule to speak Irish all day.'' Only after 11pm each night did they allow themselves to lapse back into speaking English.
In the isolation of the H Block cells the Irish language not only played a significant role in maintaining the prisoners' morale it was also a key organisational tool. ``Messages shouted in Irish wing to wing and cell to cell, allowed the prisoners to overcome their isolation, maintain a command structure and organise collective resistance,'' says Colm.
The utilisation of Irish within the jail impacted on the wider community outside. Once remote to many ordinary nationalists, the acquisition of their native language became a popular demand. In a survey carried out in the early 1990s, over 90% of parents in West Belfast said they would prefer their children to be taught through the medium of Irish. The seeds of that aspiration were germinated during the conflict within the jails.
Today, as a local historian and archaeologist, Colm Scullion devotes much of his time to restoring the cultural heritage within his community. For thousands of years generations of the Scullion family have lived in and around the town of Bellaghy. The name of the townland, Ballyscullion, reflects the long association the family has with the area. It's evidence of the kind of continuity which delights Colm. ``Traditional culture has always been preserved within rural communities,`` says Colm. ``Popular interest in the Irish language and culture reflects the optimism with which Irish nationalists see their future.''
In the past nationalists living in the Six Counties felt they should obscure their Irish identity, says Colm, now people are choosing Irish names for their children. ``It's an indication of growing confidence,'' he says, ``a confidence which is being reflected both culturally and politically.''
I wonder sometimes how many people stop to count how many seconds make up the minutes that make up the hours of the 66 days of Bobby Sands's dying or the 73 of Kieran Doherty's or the 46 of Martin Hurson's. How many seconds did it take all 10 to die? I think of the power of such love as will lay down its life so resolutely, and I am in awe and perhaps fear of it....
Bernadette McAliskey, 1994
March 1976: British end `Special Category Status'.
September 1976: The first Republican prisoner sentenced after the removal of political status refuses to wear a prison uniform. Ciaran Nugent is left naked with only a blanket. In the next five years over 1000 men in the H blocks and 30 women in Armagh will participate in the protest.
March 1978: Increased brutality and harassment by prison wardens escalates into a no-wash protest.
October 1980: Seven protesting H Block prisoners go on hungerstrike. They are later joined on hunger strike by three women in Armagh jail.
December 1980: The British present prisoners with a document which appears to offer a resolution to the crisis. First hunger strike ends.
January 1981: The ending of the no-wash protest by a section of the prisoners, as a gesture of good faith, is met by British intransigence on the clothing issue.
February 1981: A second hunger strike is announced in a joint statement by the blanketmen and women of Armagh.
March 1981: Bobby Sands begins his hunger strike as thousands of nationalists take to the streets of Belfast to demonstrate their support. The no-wash protest ends. Within a fortnight Bobby is joined on hunger strike by Francie Hughes. A week later Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O'Hara begin their hunger strike.
April 1981: Bobby Sands is elected as MP with almost 30,500 votes in a by-election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Paul Whitters from Derry is shot dead by a plastic bullet.
May 1981: The death of Bobby Sands prompts widespread rioting in nationalist areas. Tens of thousands of mourners attend Bobby's funeral. A week later a second hunger striker, Francie Hughes dies. Within five days two more hunger strikers lose their lives. Patsy O'Hara dies just a few hours after Raymond McCreesh. In Belfast Julie Livingstone (14) and Carol Ann Kelly (12), and in Derry, Harry Duffy, are shot dead by plastic bullets. IRA Volunteers George McBrearty and Charlie Maguire are killed on active service.
June 1981: The struggle is further endorsed as tens of thousands of nationalists vote in the 26 Counties general election in support of the prisoners' demands. Hunger striker Kieran Doherty is elected TD for Cavan/Monaghan and blanketman Paddy Agnew is elected TD for Louth.
July 1981: Fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, dies. Within hours of Joe's death, a member of the Fianna, John Dempsey (16) is shot dead by the British army in West Belfast, Nora McCabe (29) is fatally wounded by a plastic bullet and Danny Barret (15) is shot dead by the British army in North Belfast. Sixth hunger striker Martin Hurson dies.
August 1981: Seventh hunger striker, Kevin Lynch dies swiftly followed by hunger stiker Kevin Doherty who dies a day later. Within a week another hunger striker, Thomas McElwee dies. Liam Canning from West Belfast is murdered by loyalists. In North Belfast Peter Magennis is shot dead by a plastic bullet. Tenth hunger striker, Mickey Devine dies as Bobby Sands's election agent Owen Carron is elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone.
September 1981: Ending the hunger strike becomes inevitable as families begin to authorise medical intervention as more hunger strikers become critical.
October 1981: After 217 days of consecutive hunger strike involving 23 hunger strikers, many reaching the brink of death and ten dying, protesting prisoners announce an end to the hunger strike. Within weeks the blanket protest also ends as Republicans develop an alternative strategy of subversion which will eventually secure all their five demands and leads directly into the Great Escape of 1983.