Anthony McIntyre ✒ casts his mind back forty years to the 1981 hunger strike.

Yesterday I addressed a small May Day event in Dublin. I chose to speak ad lib, interested in what might come out, off the cuff; what my unpolished thoughts would be. 

From my well-fed and overweight body I stood at the feet of a statue of James Connolly and spoke of the emaciated Bobby Sands who four decades earlier had only days to live, while my union colleague Damien Keogh laid a wreath. Both men, 65 years apart, died in British custody.

Forty years ago today it was a Saturday in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. Physically, the environment was more comfortable than the three preceding summers when the No-Wash protest was at first underway and then in full throttle. Greater physical comfort could never make up for the deficit caused by the  mental anguish that accompanied it. Bobby Sands was right at the edge of life, and we all knew it. It was just a waiting game. Even those who believed in miracles understood there was no turning this around.

Dixie Elliot writes with passion and intensity about the events of the time. At different points he shared a cell with two of the men who would later die, Bobby Sands and Tom McElwee. I cannot read Dixie Elliot’s reminiscences without at the same time hearing the shouting on the protest blocks. His writing has an auditory impact on me. Shouting was how most of our conversation was conducted. It was the only way to be heard in a world of concrete walls and steel doors. We would call a fellow blanketman somewhere on the wing with the universal protest opener: “are you listening?” A reply in the affirmative was the green light for the shouted conversation to begin. And when a number of them were going on at the same time … the din.

A heavily subdued silence descended like fog the day Bobby died.  

That Saturday I was in the cell with Laurence McKeown, his mood no lighter than my own. Laurny, as we knew him - or occasionally “the Big Pharoah” because of his height and the shape of his beard - would later embark on hunger strike. But for the intervention of his mother, Margaret, he would have died. He had gone 70 days without food before she acted out her words to him just before he lost consciousness: ‘You know what you have to do, and I know what I have to do.’ 

Later, she visited me in prison. A reserved, discerning and determined woman, I was not surprised she did what she had to do. Yet, I feel the stress of the hunger strike took its toll on her and she died much too soon, just two short years after it had concluded. The one consolation, if such a word is appropriate, is that she left this life without having to experience the loss of her son.

My own mother would later tell me that in the closing days of Laurny’s hunger strike she heard bin lids banging in the Twinbrook Estate where she lived and where Bobby Sands was waked and buried from. She began to cry, thinking he had died.

I knew Laurny well. His was not a game of brinkmanship or subterfuge. That he is alive today, was his mother’s choice rather than his. At the end of his hunger strike he was comatose and incapable of making any choice.

Dixie Elliot has made the point about the aborted 1980 hunger strike that he would never criticise those people who, unlike Laurence McKeown, exercised a choice not to take the final step. It is a sentiment I readily endorse. For those that did not die, but who endured 53 days of starvation, that alone merits my deepest admiration. There is no right we can assert for an obligation on their part to have died on our behalf, any more than we can fashion from their having survived a rod for their backs.

The above fleeting thoughts, and more, have fed in no particular order of priority into a loosely structured and incomplete memory of the time. As we approach the 5th of May, Bobby’s anniversary, a recurring thought is moving more to the fore. Richard O’Rawe has long disputed the narrative that the prisoners controlled the hunger strike, arguing persuasively that the clear wishes of the prison leadership were dismissed in order to allow some other agenda to proceed. The evidence for that is rooted in the events surrounding the death of Joe McDonnell and the subsequent hunger strikers. Now, it seems very much that the wishes of Bobby Sands too were ignored.

Bobby Sands’ sister, Bernadette, in an eulogy to their mother after her death in 2018 stated:

Likewise in the days that followed Bobby's death, she placed her trust in those whom he too had trusted. Leaving them to organise his funeral. Trust is the pertinent word and it was that trust that years later was betrayed when our family recently came to learn through documents viewed in the National Archives that Bobby's final burial wishes, which were not made known to us at the time, were not fulfilled and this added to the family's sorrow.


The coffin of Bobby Sands should have been carried exactly in accordance with his wishes; not on the instructions of a cabal of coffin surfers using him to carry them. 

 ⏩Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.

May 1981 ➖ Forty Years Ago

Anthony McIntyre ✒ casts his mind back forty years to the 1981 hunger strike.

Yesterday I addressed a small May Day event in Dublin. I chose to speak ad lib, interested in what might come out, off the cuff; what my unpolished thoughts would be. 

From my well-fed and overweight body I stood at the feet of a statue of James Connolly and spoke of the emaciated Bobby Sands who four decades earlier had only days to live, while my union colleague Damien Keogh laid a wreath. Both men, 65 years apart, died in British custody.

Forty years ago today it was a Saturday in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. Physically, the environment was more comfortable than the three preceding summers when the No-Wash protest was at first underway and then in full throttle. Greater physical comfort could never make up for the deficit caused by the  mental anguish that accompanied it. Bobby Sands was right at the edge of life, and we all knew it. It was just a waiting game. Even those who believed in miracles understood there was no turning this around.

Dixie Elliot writes with passion and intensity about the events of the time. At different points he shared a cell with two of the men who would later die, Bobby Sands and Tom McElwee. I cannot read Dixie Elliot’s reminiscences without at the same time hearing the shouting on the protest blocks. His writing has an auditory impact on me. Shouting was how most of our conversation was conducted. It was the only way to be heard in a world of concrete walls and steel doors. We would call a fellow blanketman somewhere on the wing with the universal protest opener: “are you listening?” A reply in the affirmative was the green light for the shouted conversation to begin. And when a number of them were going on at the same time … the din.

A heavily subdued silence descended like fog the day Bobby died.  

That Saturday I was in the cell with Laurence McKeown, his mood no lighter than my own. Laurny, as we knew him - or occasionally “the Big Pharoah” because of his height and the shape of his beard - would later embark on hunger strike. But for the intervention of his mother, Margaret, he would have died. He had gone 70 days without food before she acted out her words to him just before he lost consciousness: ‘You know what you have to do, and I know what I have to do.’ 

Later, she visited me in prison. A reserved, discerning and determined woman, I was not surprised she did what she had to do. Yet, I feel the stress of the hunger strike took its toll on her and she died much too soon, just two short years after it had concluded. The one consolation, if such a word is appropriate, is that she left this life without having to experience the loss of her son.

My own mother would later tell me that in the closing days of Laurny’s hunger strike she heard bin lids banging in the Twinbrook Estate where she lived and where Bobby Sands was waked and buried from. She began to cry, thinking he had died.

I knew Laurny well. His was not a game of brinkmanship or subterfuge. That he is alive today, was his mother’s choice rather than his. At the end of his hunger strike he was comatose and incapable of making any choice.

Dixie Elliot has made the point about the aborted 1980 hunger strike that he would never criticise those people who, unlike Laurence McKeown, exercised a choice not to take the final step. It is a sentiment I readily endorse. For those that did not die, but who endured 53 days of starvation, that alone merits my deepest admiration. There is no right we can assert for an obligation on their part to have died on our behalf, any more than we can fashion from their having survived a rod for their backs.

The above fleeting thoughts, and more, have fed in no particular order of priority into a loosely structured and incomplete memory of the time. As we approach the 5th of May, Bobby’s anniversary, a recurring thought is moving more to the fore. Richard O’Rawe has long disputed the narrative that the prisoners controlled the hunger strike, arguing persuasively that the clear wishes of the prison leadership were dismissed in order to allow some other agenda to proceed. The evidence for that is rooted in the events surrounding the death of Joe McDonnell and the subsequent hunger strikers. Now, it seems very much that the wishes of Bobby Sands too were ignored.

Bobby Sands’ sister, Bernadette, in an eulogy to their mother after her death in 2018 stated:

Likewise in the days that followed Bobby's death, she placed her trust in those whom he too had trusted. Leaving them to organise his funeral. Trust is the pertinent word and it was that trust that years later was betrayed when our family recently came to learn through documents viewed in the National Archives that Bobby's final burial wishes, which were not made known to us at the time, were not fulfilled and this added to the family's sorrow.


The coffin of Bobby Sands should have been carried exactly in accordance with his wishes; not on the instructions of a cabal of coffin surfers using him to carry them. 

 ⏩Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.

14 comments:

  1. These were harrowing days for this member of the diaspora as we hung on any news we could get from the front lines.
    I watched my mother weeping and saying "What must their mamies be going through"?
    Ma knew as she had watched her own father doing a hunger strike when in prison on arms charges.
    Grand dad did 23 days on hunger strike before it was called off by the Irish Citizen Army
    So much was lost and so little gained but it rallied the diaspora like no other event.
    https://kevinhester.live/2016/05/21/my-tribute-to-my-comrade-patsy-ohara-and-his-family/

    ReplyDelete
  2. A great article as we approach 5 th of May. I remember wakening up to the news that Bobby Sands had died, my mother was praying in the kitchen in tears , as if it was a close relative had died,we were all devastated. I went to school and after the whole school had prayed for the Sands family and all Hunger Strikers in assembly, the majority of pupils walked out of school. I remember it all like it was yesterday.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The IRA threw away the "high moral ground" before and during the hungers strikes by their relentless murder campaign against prison officers. Kevin Myers wrote ("https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishman-s-diary-1.305685) "Before Bobby Sands began his hunger strike in January 1981, 20 prison officers had been murdered; another nine were to be killed in the course of the IRA prison campaign. According to Chris Ryder's excellent Inside the Maze, in the course of the Troubles, another 50 prison officers took their own lives."
    Had the IRA suspended its campaign of the murder of prison officers during the hunger strike, the twenty prison officer murders preceding the hunger strike might have been forgotten. Instead, the "moral victory " achieved by the death of each hunger striker was almost immediately cancelled by the "moral defeat" by the murder of another prison officer.
    In addition, it is usually forgotten that Bobby Sands seat in Parliament was back in Unionist hands (by Kenneth Wiggins Maginnis, Baron Maginnis of Drumglass) in a little over two years.
    At the time, the hunger strikes achieved very little, if anything. Nowadays, of course, they are part of myth and legend within Sinn Fein IRA - but are despised by the families of the twenty-nine prison officers murdered leading up to, and during, the hunger strikes and of course,the fifty officers who took their own lives.
    Did the hunger strikes bring the prospect of a united Ireland one day closer? Absolutely not. If a united Ireland ever comes about, it will be down to the behaviour two idiot British Prime Ministers - David Cameron and Boris Johnson

    ReplyDelete
  4. This is a powerful tribal, Anthony, so deeply heartfelt. Your decision to go ad-lib was well chosen as your thoughts are very moving.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I meant tribute, not tribal.

      Delete
    2. Geraldine - it was clear what you meant. Typos happen!

      Thank you

      Delete
  5. One of the most intriguing questions around the hunger strikes is that if Bobby Sands family had been aware of their rights to "Power of Attorney" when Sands became unconscious, would they have taken him off the hunger strike?
    At the end of the day, it was not the IRA who decided to call off the hunger strikes, it was not the British government who defeated the hunger strikers but it was the families of hunger strikers who used their legal rights to act on behalf of the hunger strikers. One by one, as the prisoners became unconscious, the families took the prisoners off the hunger strike. Not being prepared to go to court and to force families to allow prisoners to die, the IRA had no choice but to call off the hunger strikes.
    What difference did the death of ten hunger strikers make to the community at large? Not much, but it did form the basis for much legend and mythology within the IRA, Sinn Fein and their supporters. Perhaps the most significant acknowledgement of the failure of the hunger strikes to achieve anything significant was the fact that it was never repeated in the thirteen years leading up to the Belfast Agreement.
    Perhaps for Sinn Fein IRA the old adage still applies to the hunger strikes - "when the truth clashes with the legend, print the legend!"

    ReplyDelete
  6. The hunger strikers died in vain and anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. Likewise, all deaths in the troubles were in vain too.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Very true. The families of the hunger strikers could see that the prisoners were, literally, dying for nothing and so took them off the hunger strike

    ReplyDelete
  8. Whoever this Tonyal clown is, he thinks he knows a whole lot more than he actually does. No wonder he chooses to hide behind a pseudo name!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Maybe if you can challenge anything I have written, I will stop thinking you are the real clown.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Also, it seems that "compingforaliving" and "Boyne Rover" are grand pseudonyms as long as they support the IRA!




    ReplyDelete
  11. Apologies, my previous comment should refer to Boyne Rover and Green and not compingforaliving
    All the best
    Tonyol




    ReplyDelete