9 March 2006 Edition
National Hunger Strike Commemoration
Interview: Jim McVeigh, National Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee
The Hunger Strikes - this generation's 1916
An Phoblacht: What do you think the Hunger Strikes represented in terms of the Republican struggle?
Jim McVeigh: Well I think it is true to say that they represented the 1916 of our generation. They radicalised both the older and younger generations. Tens of thousands of young people got involved at the time.
What really puts this in perspective is a very famous picture of a group of young people gathered at Martin Hurson's graveside. Years later many of these people had been imprisoned or were dead. It was a monumental event and had a huge effect on public opinion. It brought a whole new generation into the struggle.
In terms of the present, do you see a role for these commemorations in reaching out to today's youth?
The committees are pretty broad based and have people who are not involved in party politics and this gives them a reach greater than Sinn Féin. Young people are increasingly disillusioned with establishment politics. They are looking for role models, someone they can look up to and hold out as an example. They certainly can't look up to anyone in the current Irish political establishment.
I think the Hunger Strikers were such models of bravery and integrity that they certainly can become an icon for a new generation. We intend to be outside or inside any event that attracts young people. We will be leafleting and inviting these young people to attend events in their local area. We should be active on this in every college in the country and the local committees should target colleges and schools in their areas. Some of the youth have very little memory of Bobby Sands and the rest of the Hunger Strikers. Even if we can get them to ask who these people were, it will be a significant achievement.
One of the events organised is a travelling exhibition of H-Block artefacts. Can you tell us about that?
Yes, it's a very interesting exhibition. It is definitely one for the schools and colleges and is a compelling demonstration of bringing history alive. Some of the really interesting things on this exhibit include communications between the prisoners and the outside, comms as they were called.
There are also miniature An Phoblachts that had been smuggled into the prison for the prisoners. My own personal favourite is the Maggie Taggart. This is the nickname given to small homemade radios that the prisoners used to keep themselves informed. It was named after a prominent journalist of the time. It has been out now for about three weeks and has already been to about a dozen places including Ballina, Navan, Carrickmore, Belfast and Dundalk. I would urge all local areas to investigate the possibility of having it exhibited in local colleges. It takes you right into the Blocks with the prisoners and is absolutely fascinating.
Events and exhibitions are planned for all over the country. These will include films, dramatisations, vigils and lectures. On 9 March in St Mary's College Belfast we will see the launch of Denis O'Hearn's book, Bobby Sands: Nothing but an Unfinished Song.
On 11 April the third James Connolloy memorial lecture will take place in Dublin, in Wynn's Hotel and it will focus on the 1981 Hunger Strikes.
On 30 April a commemoration has been organised at Fords Cross Hunger Strike Memorial by the Newry and South Armagh Committee.
I don't want to offend areas by leaving them out, but obviously I cannot list all the events. For a full catalogue of events you can log on to www.hungerstrike81.com or phone 028 9074 0817.
Could you describe the overall tone of the commemorations?
These are very sombre and tragic events that are being remembered. Nevertheless, I think it is extremely important that these commemorations should be a positive celebration of the lives of these people and a celebration of their vast contribution to the struggle. This is about bringing in a new generation and advancing the struggle. Events should be occasions that unite republicans, socialists, radicals and liberals, in celebration of the Hunger Strikers.
How significant is it that these commemorations will be happening in tandem with the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising?
I think that is very significant. Like the Volunteers of 1916, the Hunger Strikers were fighting for the Republic, not just political status. As I have already said, the Hunger Strikers were this generation's 1916. Like those who participated in the Rising, they inspired a whole generation to strike out for the Republic. We will be making this point all the time and we will be drawing clear parallels between the two events. I think it is a very positive thing that these two landmark anniversaries fall together. It certainly adds a context and a historical continuity to the events.
Another very obvious connection between the two is the Irish language. Many of those who were out in 1916 had played a significant role in revitalising the Irish language through the Gaelic revival movement. Similarly the prisoners in the Blocks and former prisoners, played a major role in revitalising the Irish language in the Six Counties.
Bobby Sands' name uttered with fondness by oppressed the world over
BY LAURENCE McKEOWN
All of us have a story to tell. There's few though whose life, cut short at 27 years of age, can be said to have impacted so dramatically on the course of Irish politics and to have become such an internationally recognised icon as Bobby Sands. Guerrilla fighter in the Irish Republican Army, he was elected a member of the British parliament shortly before his death on hunger strike in the H Blocks of Long Kesh on 5 May 1981.
I shared a prison wing with Bobby for several months in 1979. Later I joined the Hunger Strike that he had just died on. I approached Denis O'Hearn's biography of Bobby therefore with a little trepidation. I should not have been concerned. It is an excellent book. It tells, not just the story of Bobby, the prison protest and Hunger Strikes, but accurately captures the atmosphere of the prison - the good times and bad, the hopes and despair, the pain, the joy and the totally selfless love that is rarely witnessed between a group of males. The strength of the book is that O'Hearn does not attempt to tell what he thinks happened behind prison walls (as other academics have) or to interpret events within his own ideological paradigm. Instead he facilitates others - friends, associates and comrades of Bobby - to tell of the person they knew and allows that person to become alive and vibrant on every page.
Most importantly, the book traces the development of a very ordinary, young, politically naive, high-spirited boy from a working class background on the outskirts of Belfast, to the highly politicised, articulate, prolific, competent revolutionary that he became in later years. In this way O'Hearn informs a new generation of political activists in Ireland and elsewhere that they too can become a 'Bobby Sands' but hopefully never have to make the life and death decisions that he was faced with.
This year, the 25th anniversary of the Hunger Strike, it is timely for this biography to appear. It demonstrates the global interest that is retained in events that happened over a period of 217 days in 1981, when ten men died, one after the other, in prison cells in a struggle to be treated as the political prisoners they were. No wonder that states tremble before the power of such an idea that cannot be conquered, quenched, bought off or tortured into submission. No wonder that from the lips of oppressed peoples around the world the name, Bobby Sands, is uttered with such fondness and admiration.
Vigils mark Hunger Strike anniversary
Twenty five years ago on 1 March 1981, Bobby Sands began his historic Hunger Strike. The anniversary was marked by pickets, demontrations, exhibitions and candlelight vigils at various venues around Ireland and abroad last week.
Sinn Féin leaders,including Party President Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness joined a candlelight vigil outside the GPO in Dublin on Wednesday evening. The GPO was a focal point for H-Block campaigners in 1981, where signatures in support of the prisoners' demands were gathered and where information and literature was distributed to thousands of people throughout the course of the hunger strike, while the 26-County media and RTE in particular, played a shameful role in failing to adquately inform the population of the horror of the H-Blocks and the plight of the protesting prisoners.
The Patrician Hall, Carrickmore, County Tyrone was the venue for a National Hunger Strike Exhibition on Saturday, 4 March. Over 700 people passed through the exhibition during the course of the day, viewing posters from the time, contemporary newspaper articles, and a short film and photo exhibition.
A commemorative lecture was attended by upwards of 200 people. Danny Morrison provided a fascinating insight into the negotiations which took place outside the prison at the time. Barry McElduff MLA provided an overview and analysis, while former blanketmen Sean Coleman, Sean McGuigan and Bernard Fox held the audience in thrall with an account of their experiences in the Blocks. The most moving contribution came from Brendan Hurson, brother of hunger striker Martin. He spoke of the awesome responsibility himself and his brother faced as Martin's condition deteriorated and of the election campaign when Martin stood in Longford.
Chairing the proceedings was Sinn Féin chair of Omagh council Mickey McAnapsie, to whom organisers were particularly grateful, as he has only recently suffered a family bereavement.
Addressing a Hunger Strike commemorative vigil in Dunloy, County Antrim on 3 March, Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí McKay said: "Wednesday 1 March 1981 marked the beginning of an emotional phase of the Irish revolutionary struggle on this island. 1 March, 1981 was the day that Bobby Sands embarked on his first day of hunger strike which aimed to highlight and break the British Government's policy of criminalising republicans in the prisons. At the time ,Bobby Sands was sharing a cell with Malachy Carey, a republican from Loughgiel who was later shot by loyalists in Ballymoney."
In cold and snowy conditions, a large crowd gathered to commemorate the 10 young men who died in 1981. The event is the first of a series of events to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Hunger Strikes across North Antrim that will be held over the next few months.
"The prison protests of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in particular the Hunger Strike of 1981, were watershed moments in Irish history. To many, it does not seem like 25 years ago when 10 republican prisoners lost their lives when faced with an intransigent British Government in London, and an Irish Government in Dublin more concerned with self interest than in seeking a resolution to the situation in the H-Blocks and Armagh prison", McKay said.
"This forthcoming year will provide an opportunity to reflect upon the ten volunteers who died, the contribution they made and the sacrifices made by their families during the summer of 1981. These events will be about more than just looking back. They must also be about looking to the future, exploring how best we move our struggle forward in the coming years and how best we complete the job of delivering Irish unity and independence.
"The commemorative calendar will also allow a new generation of Irish people, who weren't even born in 1981, to learn about the time and participate in mapping out the future. Irish republicans will never forget those terrible months from March to October when ten men died in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh and over 50 others died on our streets, but in marking the 25th anniversary of the Hunger Strike we have an opportunity to celebrate their lives, remember their sacrifice and rededicate ourselves to advancing the struggle for a United Ireland of Peace, Justice and Equality."
London republicans gathered in the snow and ice at Downing Street last Wednesday to take part in a candlelit vigil to commemorate the Hunger Strike, the first in a programme of events in England throughout the forthcoming year, which have been organised by the Wolfe Tone Society.
A delegation from the Society had earlier delivered a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, calling on the British Government to respect Sinn Féin's electoral mandate and implement the Good Friday Agreement.
Also at the vigil was Sinn Féin Councillor Matt Carthy, who told An Phoblacht that he was there, not only to support the event, but also as part of the party's renewed efforts to build closer relationships with supporters in Britain. He acknowledged the work of British-based Irish republican organisations such at the Wolfe Tone Society, Troops Out and the Connolly Association, particularly during the most difficult times of the conflict, when anti-Irish racism was endemic in British society and political activists experienced harassment by the authorities.
Addressing the London gathering, Carthy said: "Twenty five years ago Bobby Sands was elected as an MP and people honestly believed at the time that the British government and Margaret Thatcher could not ignore his electoral mandate. So it is ironic that we are here outside Downing Street on the anniversary of the start of the 1981 Hunger Strike and that a British Government is refusing to respect the mandate of Sinn Fein".
Ógra Shinn Féin at Dundalk Institute of Technology held a day long exhibition. There was a great interest in the exhibition from the students, most of whom were far too young to remember the events of 1981 and in many cases were not even born.
A book of condolence was signed by a number of students in honour of the Hunger Strikers.
Those involved in the Hunger Strikes of 1980 and 1981 were ordinary men and women who, in extraordinary circumstances and with the support of people throughout Ireland, defeated this policy.
A group of over 20 people from south Kilkenny held a silent protest on Waterford Bridge last week to commemorate the start of the Hunger Stike. Many local people remember the marches held in Waterford, including one of the largest protests held in all of Ireland at that time and the large tournout on the canvass trail for Hunger Strike candidate Kevin Lynch. The South Kilkenny crowd last week were joined in their vigil by many people from Waterford.
Castlebar to commemorate Hunger Strikers
Castlebar Town Council is to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strikes later this year. Sinn Féin councillor Noel Campbell successfully put a motion to the council calling on the authority to join with Mayo County Council in marking the anniversary.
Earlier this year, Sinn Féin Mayo county councillor Gerry Murray was succesful in getting cross party support in the chamber for his motion calling on that council to mark the extraordinary lives of the Hunger Strikers.