Sinn Fein hosts fascinating ‘Living History’ talk on the 1981 hunger strikes
Organized by the Sinn Fein cumann in Cloughaneely, an engrossing talk by former Irish Republican prisoners, Danny Morrison and Breige Brownlee took place at The Yard, Falcarragh, Donegal this weekend as a ‘Living History’ event about the tragic 1981 hunger strikes.
Focusing on the deaths of 10 young men 35 years ago in the H-blocks (it’s shocking to think it was so long ago), the two speakers captivated their audience with their personal, graphic accounts of life behind bars during one of northern Ireland’s most turbulent eras and of the awful circumstances that led to those brave men giving up their lives in such an agonizing way to achieve political status. The event also featured screening of the documentary, “The Blanketmen.’
In face of mind-numbing prison conditions including humiliating bum searches and other abuse at the hands of prison officers and the awful stench of shit-smeared walls as part of the ‘no blanket-dirty protest,’ one had to marvel (regardless of political views) at the absolute resilience of this body of women and men enduring years of confinement, many incarcerated without trial, resolutely united in a common cause – the reunification of Ireland.
One also has to admire their abiding sense of humor – something not easy to muster in such despairing circumstances – that helped Irish Republican prisoners deal with the dark, depressing moments that must have visited them often in their cells, especially with ‘screws’ dragging them into toilets to shear off their hair and wash them in freezing cold water or when they heard about the slow deaths of their comrades, the first being Bobby Sands on the 66th day of his hunger strike.
Brownlee talked about life in Armagh prison, with both pathos and humor, about how women there reacted supportively to events in the H-blocks and were determined to show a united front to the authorities, especially as one of the women was partner to a hunger striker. “It was an awful time, for all of us, but we knew we couldn’t let the men down,” she recalled.
At times, Brownlee added humor to her recollections, saying, ‘with my luck, I was the first person needing to go to the toilet after we women decided to join the dirty protest. It wasn’t easy to wipe it (her own shit) all over the walls of my cell but someone had given me a bottle of expensive perfume as a present so I sprayed it everywhere afterwards. It stunk to high heaven, the perfume more than the poo.” She also talked about how, having gotten used to wiping their shit on the walls, she and her comrades would create ‘masterpieces’ of art, Sistine Chapel- Michelangelo-style, then admired and laughed about each other’s artistry, or lack thereof. “It helped ease the terrible tension and stress we were all facing and helped keep up our morale,” she explained. Brownlee is now working in support of diverse community projects.
Morrison, who was public relations director for Sinn Fein and editor of ‘An Phoblacht’ newspaper and is now an author and creative writing coach (he was guest trainer and speaker at northwest Donegal’s annual Ireland Writing Retreat) talked in detail about the reasons for the prison protests and how they developed. He offered powerful insights into the detailed discussions that took place among prisoners on the ‘inside’ and their comrades outside the H-blocks, as well as negotiations with various bodies, including the British Government and various peace, justice and human rights groups such as the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace.
As the only leading Irish Republican allowed into the prison to talk to the hunger strikers, the Falls Road man painted a striking picture of himself seated among six or seven of the hunger strikers – even pointing in the air to where each person was positioned around him in the prison hospital, including one, Joe McDonnell, in a wheelchair as he explained how negotiations on the prisoners’ demands were progressing. It must have been unenviable, utterly heart-breaking position for him to be in, seeing his friends’ bodies ravaged by hunger and sickness, some with mere days to live. Unfortunately, most of those men listening to him in that room, giving their views, would die. “To my mind, those Irish hunger strikers were just as heroic as the Irish leaders who died in 1916,” Morrison said.
Reflecting on how some people compare (unfairly in his view) the IRA of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to the rebels of 1916, he added, “If Republican leaders one hundred years ago had Semtex, they’d have used it, if they’d had cars that could be used as bombs, they’d have used them too,” he said.
I agree. To my mind, such unfair commentary from people, which we also hear often from supposedly intelligent commentators on national airwaves and in the print media, reflects a classic case of what I term ‘moral anesthesiology of time.’ That’s the main reason why Michael Collins is considered a hero yet Gerry Adams is demonized by some. War is war is war, awful as it is always is.
Living in Andersonstown then (though born in Ballymurphy) and just beginning my journalism career, I remember vividly the night Bobby Sands died. While working full-time on minor issues for Belfast Telegraph newspapers, I was also covering the hunger strikes for international newspapers in Australia and the US. Hearing the crash of bin-lids being banged on pavements outside my door in the early hours of that fateful May 5th morning, I knew it meant only one thing – the death of the 27-year-old Twinbrook man. I recall jumping out of bed, getting dressed and rushing down the Falls Road and an American columnist for the New York ‘Daily News’ stepping out in front of me outside the former Lake Glen Hotel asking if he could come with me to ‘where the action was.’ Later, pushed up against a wall near the Royal Victoria Hospital for a body search by a British Army snatch squad, we were told of ‘burning barricades and snipers on roofs’ and warned we’d be ‘taking our lives in our hands’ if we went on.
We ignored the warning, crouched close to the wall and made our way to the makeshift barricade at the junction of the Grosvenor and Falls Roads, filing our separate articles for newspapers after dawn. But within 48-hours I was receiving trans-Atlantic telephone calls at the Telegraph’s small Carrickfergus office where I worked (not the safest place in the world then for an Irish nationalist to be receiving such calls) from major newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, from well-known writers as Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, asking if I was with the columnist that night and what exactly had happened.
Seemingly, the inexperienced columnist had made up stories – not just that we had both heard soldiers saying words like ‘Don’t waste bullets. Aim for the head’ (which I hadn’t) but even naming a regiment and a particular soldier that were not even operating in the North at that time. Such inaccurate reporting was used as propaganda by the British media, especially the ‘red-tops’ – led by the Express Mirror, Mail and Sun – which tried to spin this reporter’s ‘figments of imagination’ to claim other reporters’ articles sympathetic to the Irish Republican cause were also based on lies. It made the gargantuan efforts by an overworked and exhausted Morrison and his staff in the Sinn Fein press office even more difficult, especially as they were already faced with such anti-Republican reporters as Chris Ryder of The Sunday Times and a ranting sensationalist Kate Adie of the BBC who Morrison said at the Falcarragh event, quizzed him mere hours after Sands’ passing about how he felt about ‘starving his friend to death.’
I also recall clearly making my way up the road from my Andersonstown home to that of Bobby Sands in Twinbrook for the wake and, with a heavy heart, seeing him laid out his coffin in the living room, then a few days later joining the tens of thousands of mourners who walked solemnly behind the cortege the few miles to Milltown Cemetery.
In conclusion, the idea of ‘Living History’ events such as the one this weekend in west Donegal, chaired by Tommy Francis with fine organization by Eamon Jackson, his wife Eilis, and input by members of the Sinn Fein members including James Woods, is an excellent one. Wherever possible, we should have people involved in pivotal events in our nation’s history speak out about their experiences. It is a rare opportunity. This particular one on the 1981 Hunger Strikes, an event that attracted worldwide attention, was especially riveting and enlightening.
“With the hunger strikes now a topic on school curriculums, it was also an opportunity for young people to learn about specific aspects of our history straight from the mouths of those who were intricately involved and who are still alive to tell us what happened,” said Jackson.
It is my fervent hope that such community events will also encourage more Irish people to openly discuss political ideas and electoral choices. Having had the good fortune to have lived in other countries, particularly the United States, I remain disappointed by the lack of lively, open political discussion among ordinary Irish people about the reasons for their choice of candidates. The longer Ireland remains a relatively closed society where people consider talking about their voting choice as akin to discussing their most intimate sex secrets, the longer corruption will continue and unsuitable leaders remain in the higher echelons of our government and civil service. We’ll all simply remain paralyzed in a time loop, with the same old ideas, the same parties, ruling the roost.
And just look what that attitude has cost us already.