8 March 2001 Edition
Vigils mark 20th anniversary of hunger strike
Throughout Ireland last Thursday and over the weekend, the 20th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike was remembered as thousands of people took to the streets.
A public meeting in Dublin on Thursday, 1 March, at which the Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and former hunger striker Laurence McKeown spoke, was attended by over 1,000 people.
In Derry City, last Thursday 1 March, ten oak trees were planted in Rossville Street in memory of the ten hunger strikers who died in 1981. Members of the families of those who died attended the ceremony, as did former hunger strikers Raymond McCartney from Derry and Jackie McMullan from Belfast. Prior to the tree planting ceremony, Sinn Féin's Cathal Crumley, the Mayor of Derry, hosted a reception for the relatives in the Mayor's parlour in the Guildhall.
In County Tyrone, hundreds of people attended candlelit vigils in various towns and villages. Around 300 people were present at Donaghmore, just outside Dungannon, to hear Sinn Féin's Francie Molloy describe the 1981 hunger strike as ``a period of great pride and great sorrow for republicans''. Simultaneously, people were gathering in Stewartstown, Dungannon and Coalisland. Michelle Gildernew, the party's candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, addressed the large crowd at Coalisland RUC barracks.
``The hunger strike was a defining moment in modern Irish history. It brought the fight for Irish freedom once more onto the international arena and focused world attention on the plight of the prisoners''.
In Belfast, Gerry Adams officially launched the new Web site set up by the National 1981 Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee.
Accompanied by Brendan Bik McFarlane, the OC of IRA prisoners in the H Blocks during the hunger strike, Adams commended the work of the `81 Committee in putting together the Web site.
Meanwhile, the St James Commemoration Committee had erected a makeshift H Block cell at the corner of the Falls Road and the Whiterock Road. Committee members staged a 24-hour token hunger strike. Among those taking place was former hunger striker Bernard Fox from the area and Gerry `Blute' McDonnell, who spent up to 18 years in British prisons, many of them in the H Blocks. It was so cold in their `cell' that the water the token hunger strikers had to drink froze in its bottles that night when the temperature dropped below zero.
Between 7 and 8pm that night, hundreds of people, young and old, lined the road from the Poleglass roundabout to Albert Street in the Lower Falls.
At Carrickhill, a small nationalist enclave sandwiched between Clifton Street and the Shankill Road, hundreds of people also took to the streets. ``I've never seen so many people on the streets in years'', one of the organisers told An Phoblacht.
Over in East Belfast, in the Short Strand, again hundreds of people attended a vigil before going to the community centre for a public discussion on the hunger strikes.
Bik McFarlane, who an hour earlier spoke at a rally in Ardoyne, was on the panel along with former hunger striker Leo Green from Lurgan. Síle Darragh, OC of the women republican POWs in Armagh during the 1980 hunger strike; Seanna Walsh, a former prisoner from the area and close friend of Bobby Sands; and Jim Gibney, one of the key activists in the anti H Block/Armagh Committee, also spoke.
Earlier in the day, Bernard Fox was interviewed on Triple FM radio about his time spent in jail, almost 18 years in all. He was asked to put it all in context.
``The struggle isn't over'', said Fox. ``The struggle has to achieve its goals of a 32-County socialist, democratic republic. So in one respect it is hard to answer that question but on the other hand I am focused on what we have to achieve and the need to continue until we have fulfilled our goals.''
Hunger Strike Commemoration kicks off in Dublin
Any of you here this evening could have been a Bobby Sands. People are not born heroes: the hunger strikers were ordinary men who, in extraordinary situations, brought the struggle to a moral platform which became a battle between naked men and the entire might of the British state.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD spoke of the sacrifice of the H Block men who, at enormous human cost had beaten Margaret Thatcher's criminalisation policy. He paid tribute to that small handfull of TDs who had come out in support of their fellow deputy, Kieran Doherty, as he approached death. Ó Caoláin was Kieran Doherty's director of elections.
The intransigence of Thatcher, who let these men die is mirrored today in those very same elements still existing within some sections of the British Establishment which hold up the development of the peace process, he said.
Seamus Healy recently elected TD in a by-election in South Tipperary, a republican, he said, from the Connolly tradition, pointed out that the hunger strike had ``moved every person who believed in fairness and justice'' to support the hunger strikers. He recalled the tremendous support the H-Block struggle had among trade unionists, evidenced in marches, work stoppages and motions of support, in every part of the country.
Ella O'Dywer talked of how the political culture of revisionism had ostracised, suppressed and even tried to ignore the momentous events of the hunger strike.
``The hunger strikers were, and are, icons of selflessness in a squalid world of political corruption,'' she said. She spoke of how the hunger strike had punctured the politics of revisionism and politicised a generation of young people - her own generation.
That evening, several hundred people lined either side of O'Connell Street opposite the GPO, with black flags, in a candlelit vigil to mark the start of the hunger strike. As they stood in silence, people remembered the days when hundreds assembled outside of the GPO, night after night, to hear the terrible announcement of the deaths of each of the hunger strikers.
Many people had then stood, in front of the GPO, carrying the poster of the day, ``Mrs Thatcher wanted for Murder''. They were days of inexpressible tragedy, when every face wore a glaze covering peoples' feelings of powerlessness and frustrated anger, that what claimed to be a government of the Republic had let yet another brave young man die. They were hard times, which people, many of them very young, commemorated last Thursday evening outside the GPO.
Then to the Irish Film Centre, where the Dublin 1981 Committee had organised a showing of Sonia Gillespie's documentary, ``I gCillín an Bháis'', with a discussion, led by Brian Campbell, on how the history of revolution can be written and recorded.
Brian Campbell and Laurence McKeown, (who co-directed this documentary), are currently completing a feature film on the H Block Struggle, which is expected to be released this September. ``Usually history is written by the victors, and rewritten to suit their ends,'' said Camnpbell. ``This film is written by those who experienced the struggle themselves, those who made that history.''
The documentary told the history, in the words of people who made it, people like McKeown himself, Jackie McMullan, Leo Green.
Unfortunately the snow prevented Sonia Gillespie being a part of the discussion which Brian Campbell and Mícheál McDonnacha, both ex-editors of this newspaper, led, raising questions of how art, and in particular film, records history.
As Laurence McKeown stepped up to the podium on Friday evening, hundreds of people, many of them young people who were not even born at the time of the hunger strike, rose spontaneously to acclaim the hunger strikers. The meeting filled one huge auditorium, then another, and even still there were people who could not get in. The 1981 Committee, which organised the event, estimated that there were well in excess of 1,000 who came, from all over the country, to attend this historic events.
Laurence McKeown: Margaret McAuley, a sister of Mickey Devine, the last man to die on the hunger strike; Damien Kiberd, editor of the Sunday Business Post; Patricia McKenna, Green Party MEP; and Gerry Adams spoke. The meeting was chaired by Ita Ní Cionnaith.
Laurence McKeown recalled Gerry Adams coming into the jail after six men had already died and speaking with those who were on the hunger strike, inviting them to end it. ``If we did not agree to end it, then everyone at this table, in a matter of weeks, would be dead,'' he recalled. ``I was 19 at the time of my arrest. Others were schoolchildren, like Kieran Doherty, who when first interned had been one of the so-called `schoolboy internees'.''
Over 100 POWs had volunteered to go on the hunger strike. Why? ``I was young, single, sentenced for a long time, and certain that this was the only way,'' said McKeown. ``It was far from a death wish. We were eager to get involved in it. We lived one day at a time. The hunger strike showed what we were capable of doing. It took our struggle to a far higher level of political status and broadened the base of our struggle far more than perhaps any of us had seen as possible.''
Margaret McAuley, sister of Mickey Devine, told her heart-rending story: ``Mickey was over four years on the blanket. All the time I could only think of those poor people. One day on a visit he seemed agitated. Then he said `I will be going on hunger strike. Will you stand by me?'
``It was a total shock. He told me not to tell a soul. On the visits we would sit, hold hands, talk. `How are you?' always, always he kept asking me. We brought his two children up on a visit. He took them on his knee and told them how much he loved them. As we left, I looked back. Tears ran down his face. I'll, never forget.
``If I urged him to come off, then who was I doing it for? For me? He would never forgive me. Twenty years later, was it worth it? I can't answer that, but they thought so. That is part of my story. Every one of us has a story.''
Gerry Adams then spoke. ``War,'' he said ``is very different to a hunger strike. With war you can plan it and execute it. On hunger strike you are on your own, you can't be ordered or instructed.
``It is important to know where we have come from, if we are to know where we are going. After partition, nationalist people were abandoned. In the late `60s, the period of the Civil Rights marches, the state could not absorb their demands. It led, in 1972-'73, to a popular uprising. The government fell. There was an Intifada on the streets, which the state set about to crush, through their pacification programme.
``One leg of this strategy was to criminalise the struggle, to make the struggle out to be a criminal conspiracy, and the government here colluded in that lie. Ending political status was part of that lie.
``Bobby Sands was ruthless in the way he constructed the hunger strike. He was prepared to die. He knew that he would and that he could. But he didn't want to die.
``Any of you here this evening could have been a Bobby Sands. People are not born heroes: the hunger strikers were ordinary men who, in extraordinary situations, brought the struggle to a moral platform which became a battle between naked men and the entire might of the British state.
``How can you understand it? You can't. Except the immediate outcome, which was that the British policy of criminalisation was smashed, not because the British accepted it, but because the people here knew they weren't criminals.
Ita Ní Cionnaith, in introducing Damien Kiberd, recalled how RTE had refused to interview Owen Carron or any one of those involved in the victorious campaign for Bobby Sands' election, but instead interviewed Ken McGuinness, the defeated candidate, a practice that became a habit in the following years.
Damien Kiberd took people back to the years of censorship and the huge damage that was done by Section 31. He recalled the days when the press was clamouring to talk to Bobby Sands on his election, and how no one had been permitted access.
He took us back to the years following the hunger strike, the years of the Anglo Irish Agreement, when ``Mrs Thatcher was sowing the seeds of the compromise that she and her ministers would have to make. He spoke of the enormous expenditure of funds, some £18 million, to employ 60 people in the British Embassy in Washington to promote British government propaganda.
But was it just censorship, and self-censorship, which meant that RTE ignored the hunger strike right up to Bobby Sand's election. Was it a lack of courage in the media or a deep-seated animosity to what the hungers strike was about? He asked. Their animosity, he said, meant that the government and media consistently underestimated the strength of support for the hunger strikers, and the anger of the people.
Patricia McKenna spoke briefly to end a meeting that had long run out of time. In a few sentences she spoke of the terrible disservice that censorship had done to politics in this country, but that despite the efforts of the British and Dublin government to prevent it, the name of Bobby Sands has gone around the world as an example of those who gave up their lives to change things.
The Dublin 1981 Committee's benefit gig in the Cobblestone Pub in Smithfield proved to be a great success, with a good mix of young and old republicans remembering 1981 while enjoying the music of artists ranging from up-and-coming star Damian Dempsey to legendary Dubliner Barney McKenna. The evening began with a series of reels played by Noirin Leach agus a Cairde. Johnny Collins delivered an emotional rendition of originally composed poetry and song. Then came the highlight of the night, when to the delight of the crowd Barney McKenna came out of retirement and, accompanied by Tony McMahon, played a moving set. They rounded off the evening by playing a lament, originally written after the death of Eoghan Roe O'Neill, in honour of Bobby Sands.
Historical tour of Glasnevin cemetery
Dublin's weekend commemorating the beginning of the 1981 hunger strikes ended with a walking tour of Glasnevin Cemetery, led by Noel Hughes, who gave visitors a thorough grounding in Irish history along the way. Among the many graves visited were those of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, Charles Stewart Parnell, Austin Stack, Joe Clarke, Volunteer Tom Smith, and hunger striker Thomas Ashe. In addition, the Republican plot and the monument erected in memory of the republicans who have died on hunger strike in the 2Oth century were visited. The tour was conducted with a good mix of humour and historical insight and is much recommended.
Thatcher's house picketed
The London branch of the 80/81 Hunger Strike Committee commemorated the beginning of the 1981 Hunger Strike on Thursday 1 March by holding a candlelit vigil on the doorstep of Margaret Thatcher's house in Chester Square, Belgravia in central London. They were also joined by several members of the Scottish branch, who had travelled down from Glasgow for the event. Despite the efforts of the Metropolitan police to persuade demonstrators to leave, they remained in place for over an hour. As a result, Thatcher, who was at home at the time, was obliged to leave the house through the rear entrance in order to get to her engagement.
One of the organisers, Nick Mullen, told An Phoblacht that as the 20 members of the vigil turned up, the police officer standing guard on the house, immediately radioed for help. In less than two minutes three laden squad cars and two van loads of policemen appeared, with the effect that the police almost outnumbered the demonstrators. One officer was ordered to investigate the ``substance'' seen under a huge Mercedes parked outside Thatcher's house. Pushing several demonstrators out of the way in order to get to it, he discovered that it was melted wax from one of the candles.
``They asked us what it was all about and would we mind standing on the other side of the road,'' said Nick Mullen. ``We said yes we would, because the whole point was to stand outside her house. It was to remind her that her policies have been rejected, but these men who she sought to criminalise will never be forgotten. We hold Thatcher and her intransigence a great deal to blame and she will eventually be held to account for her role in their deaths.
``I also told the police that we would see them again, in the same place, in 61 days, and that they would be seeing us in Chester Square at regular intervals during the next few months.''