Childhood Memories of the H-Block Hunger Strikes
As many people in Ireland, the USA and further afield, are aware, the year 2019 is the 38th anniversary of the H-Block Hunger Strikes of 1981. In that momentous but tragic year, 10 brave Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) members, who were incarcerated in the infamous H Blocks, of Long Kesh concentration camp, laid down their lives in the struggle to achieve recognition of their political status as combatants. The Hunger Strike of 1981, which followed the earlier, equally determined but sadly unproductive 1980 Hunger Strike, was the zenith of the blanket and no-wash protests that had begun in 1976, following the summary removal by the British occupational administration of Special Category Status from all Republican and Loyalist prisoners, by the British Labour government.
Personal Memories of 1981
In 1981, I was still a schoolkid, and the mass media then was a lot less comprehensive and pervasive than it is now. Nevertheless, and despite fairly heavy-handed censorship, the Hunger Strike was never far from the headlines and from the people's consciousness. In Republican/Nationalist/Catholic areas, especially in the North of Ireland, Hunger Strike posters, rallies, marches and vigils were very much in evidence, and I distinctly recall that people who had never been overtly 'political' quite noticeably became involved due to the groundswell of H Block-related activism.
Even as children, myself and my late twin brother, Seán, attended Hunger Strike rallies, which were nearly a daily occurrence, during the stailc. Gaelic sports matches and tournaments were all postponed for the duration of the Hunger Strike, in solidarity, more as a response from ordinary players than from the upper echelons of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
The Deaths of the Hunger Strikers
The Catholic Church, who most Republicans nominally were members of, behaved shamefully, in our parish at least, and did it's best to ignore the momentous events that were unfolding. To add insult to injury, the local priest offered prayers for slain members of the British occupational forces but omitted any mention of the Hunger Strikers, even as they died. Pro-British Unionist politicians and their supporters predictably behaved ghoulishly and as the Hunger Strikers died they were openly jubilant in the media.
I can remember being awakened early on the morning of May 5th, by my late Father, and hearing the first local radio news bulletin of the day, announcing that Volunteer Bobby Sands, the first of the Hunger Strikers who had actually been elected as a Member of Parliament, had been allowed to die. Like many people, I could not really comprehend immediately that Margaret Thatcher, the far right-wing British Prime Minister, had actually let Bobby die.
The first television pictures of the day showed a British soldier getting a direct hit from a petrol bomb, in Belfast, during the intense rioting that swept Republican districts of Ireland in the aftermath of the tragic news. Black flags were flown from homes and lamp posts in working-class Republican areas, which were a symbolic reflection of the overwhelming atmosphere of anger, mourning and disbelief.
There would have been a realisation, even at that early age, that the Thatcher regime was determined to face the Hunger Strike down, combined with a realisation that this particular colonial administration were extremely poor students of Irish history. The 100,000 mourners, at Volunteer Bobby Sands' funeral, were the largest demonstration of Irish Republican sentiment, ever seen in Ireland since the executions of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916.
As more Hunger Strikers steadily died, there was a perception, at least, that media coverage was deliberately playing down the significance of these brave men's deaths. In news bulletins, the death of a Hunger Striker was often the second or third story. The funerals of the Hunger Strikers were regularly attacked by the British Army and the locally recruited paramilitary police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
As well as there being anger, there was a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness and this was reflected in the steadily, diminishing attendances at Hunger Strikers' funerals. Still being a child and being very far from the hub of the H Block Hunger Strike, there was a definite perception of the state of stalemate, that existed, and that if Thatcher had allowed 10 Hunger Strikers to perish, then her administration could maintain that position indefinitely.
The end of the Hunger Strikes, as I recall, seemed a foregone conclusion, as the news that families were increasingly taking their loved ones off the stailc' when they reached a critical condition. When the official announcement of the end of the Hunger Strike reached the outside world, it was met by a mixture of relief and sadness. Certainly from a child's perspective, at least, the campaign had lost much of its original momentum, people were worn down, in an unequal battle, where the Hunger Strikers had only their own weakened bodies to combat the might of the British military-industrial complex.
Aftermath of the Strikes
The names of each of the 10 Hunger Strikers, who died, were indelibly imprinted in the minds of those who were old enough to remember the events of 1981 and even as a child I could recite each of Hunger Strikers' names, home towns and the dates of their deaths sequentially. As is true with all momentous historical events, in our own lifetimes, such as '9/11' or the Kennedy assassination, I will always remember where I was when I first heard of the first Hunger Striker, Bobby Sands MP's death.
The 10 Hunger Strikers' bravery, dedication and selflessness were an example to young and old; friend and foe, and indeed the world, that they were political prisoners and should be treated as such. As a child, I attended H-Block Hunger Strike rallies and now 38 years later I still try to attend Hunger Strike commemorations. We all may be a lot older plus (theoretically) wiser and times have changed nearly beyond recognition since those dark days of 1981, but the memories of the brave example and courageous dedication set by the H-Block Hunger Strikers will never change in the Irish psyche.
“After we are gone, what will you say you were doing? Will you say you were with us in our struggle or were you conforming to the very system that drove us to our deaths?” —INLA Hunger Striker, Patsy O'Hara