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15 June 2006 Edition

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Remebering 1981: Activists share experience with new generation

Ita Ní Chionnaith chatting to Sinn Féin's Larry O'Toole

Ita Ní Chionnaith chatting to Sinn Féin's Larry O'Toole

Dublin remembers the Hunger Strike

BY SEAN MacBRÁDAIGH

A very well-attended public meeting last Sunday in Dublin's Liberty Hall, to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1981 Hunger Strikes, was also a coming together of republiacans from across the city of Dublin and further afield, including many faces from the heady days of the Hunger Strike campaign in 1981.

The atmosphere was at times emotional as activists from the 1981 period renewed acquaintances with each other and passed on their experiences to many others who attended the meeting and who were too young to remember the Hunger Strike or who were not even born in 1981.

Chaired by journalist Paddy Prendiville, the meeting was addressed by former Hunger Striker Laurence McKeown, Sinn Féin TD Séan Crowe, former H-Block/Armagh campaigner Ita Ní Chionnaith and Malachy McCreesh, brother of Raymond McCreesh who died on the Hunger Strike.

Ita Ní Chionnaith, a former president of Conradh na Gaeilge, reminded the meeting of Conradh's support at a local and national level for the Hunger Strikers and the 5 Demands. The organisation passed a motion at its Ard Fheis in 1981, following the death of Bobby Sands, which called for the granting of political status in the H-Blocks and Armagh jails and for the Irish Government to expel the British ambassador, recall the Irish Ambassador from Britain and withdraw 26-County troops from the border, in a concerted attempt to pressurise the British over the Hunger Strikes.

Commemorations encouraging

Ní Chionnaith said that the 1981 general election in the 26 Counties and the successes of Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew who won seats, and the impressive showing of all the other anti-H-Block candidates, showed the support that was there for the political prisoners and the 5 Demands.

Speaking to An Phoblacht, Ní Chionnaith said that she would never forget the morning that Bobby sands died: "The phone rang at 3am in the morning and I knew. Bobby sands had died. It had a huge affect. I can still hear that phone ringing", she said. Delivering the historic election broadcast on television and radio for the H-Block candidates in the 26 County general election was, she said, "one of the most important things in my life".

Malachy McCreesh said that the reason the Hunger Strikes ocurred was due to the policy of the British Government in attempting to criminalise the Irish republican struggle. He said that the Hunger Strike period was a time of anxious weeks that turned into anxious hours for each family. "Everyone was struggling against time knowing that the outcome could be death but always hoping that a breakthrough would take place."

Speaking to An Phoblacht McCreesh said that it was very encouraging to know that after 25 years the Irish people are still remebering the sacrifices made by the Hunger Strikers. "Some of the biggest opponents of the republican struggle tell us we should forget the past and move on. What they really want is that events in this long struggle are remebered to suit their agenda."

Transformed a generation

Sinn Féin's Seán Crowe was a leading anti-H-Block activist in Dublin in 1981. He told the meeting how the period changed his life forever. He said it was a period that Irish people should never have to go through again. It was important, Crowe emphasised, that people should pass on their memories of that time to others. "The legacy of the Hunger Strike is ongoing. It is vital that people get involved to end British rule and build an independent, free Ireland. Everyone has a part to play", he said.

Former Hunger Striker Laurence McKeown was warmly received by the large Dublin audience. He said that the Hunger Strike had transformed a generation. It changed minds and perceptions like never before. "It changed people's views on the Catholic Church, the Dublin government, constitutional politics, armed atruggle, the IRA, everything", he said. McKeown compared the effect of the Hunger Strike to slaves in the Southern United States in the 19th century standing up to the slave owner and publicly challenging him. "Because the slave owner might whip the slave, might hang him from the nearest tree, but something has shifted, something has shifted that can never be put back in place again. The slave has shown that the degree of power the slave-owner has is largely dependent upon the degree of power that we are prepared to give him. And if we decide that material conditions are irrelevant and that even death itself is irrelevant, then we have stripped the slave-owner of his power. We are free. And that's what the 1981 Hunger strike was about", he said.

The meeting featured an interesting questions and answers session with many people from the body of the hall recalling sad or inspiring moments from the H-Block campaign in Dublin city in 1981 while others urged involvement in republican politics to ensure that the cause for which the Hunger Strikers had died was pursued to victory.

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