11 October 2001 Edition
A Fitting Tribute
BY MICHAEL PIERSE
"The memories of the hunger stike are as fresh as if they happened last week. It is that close in our hearts." - Bik McFarlane
Between 10,000 and 15,000 people marched through the streets of Dublin on Saturday in a colourful and fitting finale to the year of events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1981 Hunger Strikes.
Led by young people who recalled the anti-criminalisation protest from 1976-'81 by walking barefoot, wearing nothing but blankets, the march wound from the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square, through O'Connell Street, up to Leinster House and back to the GPO.
Even marchers were surprised, if pleasantly, when the tail end of the march could not be seen as the front end made its way back past Trinity College. Despite this (very) obvious indicator of the huge march attendance, RT… news estimated that merely 'hundreds' had attended, while the Sunday Independent were, uncharacteristically, a little more generous, estimating an attendance of 4,000.
But no-one could deny the atmosphere. It was electric. Children carried crosses depicting each of the hunger strikers, marching bands played up a storm and there was a sense, later articulated by former Long Kesh IRA OC Brendan 'Bik' McFarlane, that this was indeed a 'fitting' tribute to the hunger strikers.
Õte NÌ Cionnaith of the 1981 Committee chaired the proceedings at the GPO. She drew attention to the fatal hunger strikes of Frank Stagg and Michael Gaughan, saying that their sacrifice was also being marked by the commemoration. She also recognised the sacrifice of the men in Long Kesh and women in Armagh Jail in 1980, who also undertook a hunger stike and, she said, also believed they would die. "NÌ cinneadh Èasca È dul ar stailc ocrais (It's not an easy decision to go on hunger strike)," she said.
Tony McMahon and DÛnal Lunney, two renowned Irish traditional musicians and republicans, played some poignant airs for the post-march crowd that blocked off O'Connell Street. McMahon prompted a loud cheer as he commended the current leadership of the Republican Movement, saying that, in his opinion, they excelled anything that had gone before them.
Following some theatrical readings, and a rousing reading by Dublin actor Jer O'Leary of the list of republican revolutionaries who have died on hunger strikes during the last hundred years, Michell Gildernew MP took to the podium.
Gildernew emphasised the correlation between the events of 20 years ago and Sinn FÈin's surge in political strength in recent times.
"In my opinion, it is not an accident that I am standing here before you as MP for the historic constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone. It is no accident, because it is the 20th anniversary of the election of Bobby Sands to Fermanagh/South Tyrone. And, as you all know, Owen Carron, Bobby's Election Agent, was also elected to that constituency after Bobby's death. I hope that I can honour Bobby's memory by ensuring that I do my level for the people of that constituency.
"Earlier this year I had the privilege of accompanying Gerry Adams, Gerry Kelly, Bik McFarlane and others on a visit to Long Kesh. We toured the Cages, the Blocks and ended up in the hospital wing. As I listened to Bik describe Bobby's last days in the cell where he died, I and others had difficulty holding back the tears. It was one of the most poignant and emotional moments of my life, a day I will never forget."
Following Gildernew's well-received speech, Bik McFarlane himself spoke of emotions and memories that had been evoked and recalled during the year's events.
McFarlane said that Dublin, and particularly the GPO, was a fitting place to commemorate the hunger strikers. The legacy of the 1916 Rising was similar to that of the events of Long Kesh in 1981.
"In 1981, a statement was made by ten very courageous and brave men in the H Blocks of Long Kesh, a statement similar to that of 1916, which said, quite simply, we'll not be criminalised, we will not be defeated and we will have our republic."
The former Long Kesh OC, who took over the position from Bobby Sands when he went on hunger strike, paid tribute to the Dublin '81 Committee for its diligence in organising the event. He also paid tribute "to the people from all over Ireland and further afield who organised talks, events, and other similar events.
"For me this has been a moving experience today, not just today, but this year, because I've attended so many commemorations with so many thoughts.
"I remember on one or two occasions that I listened to former hunger strikers speaking. I remember in a hotel in Belfast, early on this year, Laurence McKeown speaking. There were a number of ex-prisoners in the hall at the time and none of us could speak after it - because he spoke of the time when he was transferred from the H Block Hospital to Musgrave Park Hospital, which is the military hospital in Belfast.
"And he was lying in a cell on a day like this, a sunny afternoon - it was so quiet and silent - and he heard children playing, outside the walls of the hospital, outside the security fence, in a small park. He heard them laugh and he thought about it and he thought about Bobby Sands' quote about 'our revenge will be the laughter of our children'. And he thought that it was the first time in five years that Laurence himself had actually heard children laughing. And then he thought of Joe McDonnell and he thought that the first time that Joe McDonnell had heard his children laughing - or had heard his children - was the day they were on the visit, when he told them that he was going to die on hunger strike.
"Instances like that... there were so many stories. Every time there is a commemoration like this one here today, something new comes up, some new nerve is touched. There are so many people here, so many young people - people who weren't born when the hunger strike took place.
"People who are in universities today maybe treat it, simply, as an element of history. I would just like to say, that although it's 20 years ago, the families of the hunger stikers who are here today know - and I know this from my heart - the memories of the hunger stike are as fresh as if they happened last week. It is that close in our hearts."
Hunger strike poster wars
"They said that we could have pretty much unlimited resources. It's not my call, we're being put under severe political pressure from Fianna Fail and Labour. They're telling us they have to come down". These were the words of a member of Dublin Corporation's waste management service, last Wednesday, 3 October.
Just three days prior to the main hunger strike commemorative event of the year in the South, a panic attack apparently set in among the establishment parties. The official from Dublin Corporation visited Sinn FÈin head office to pass on what amounted to a blatant act of political censorship; that the posters advertising the event were to be torn down at the whim of Fianna F·il and Labour.
Informing a representative of the Dublin 1981 committee that severe pressure was being put on the Corporation to make sure the posters where dealt with, the official said that "unlimited resources" had been offered to assist in the job. The unfortunate soul chosen to deliver the message explained: "We have our orders, we're to clear the entire city of all posters." This is democracy, Labour/Fianna Fail style.
The city manager's office was immediately contacted, and despite the allegations being denied, legal advice was sought and a 'cease and desist' letter was immediately despatched to Dublin Corpo. It apparently worked, as the majority of posters stayed put.
Ironically, subsequent media coverage of the poster controversy served to further advertise the parade. The huge interest shown by young Irish people in the hunger strikes, so obvious the length and breadth of Ireland this year, has obviously proven deeply worrying for the establishment parties but this hamfisted attempt at censorship failed miserably.
Peter Graves, a spokesperson for the Dublin '81 committee, under whose auspices the posters were put up, drew parallels between the attitude of the Fianna F·il-led establishment of 1981 and of this year. "Fianna F·il tried to silence the issue of the hunger strikes. Through media censorship and manipulation a conspiracy of silence was created. Twenty years later, elements are still trying to silence the issue of the hunger strike. Well, they will not succeed."
Commenting after Saturday's hugely successful parade, which attracted over 10,000 people, Graves said: "Despite all the censorship both then and now, the ordinary people of Dublin responded today as they did in 1981."
Cork hunger strike commemoration
Republicans in Cork will commemorate all those republicans who have died on hunger strike with a ceremony in the city on Saturday 20 October, asembling at the National Monument on the Grand parage at 1.30pm and marching to the republican plot at St Finbarr's cemetery via the family home of Joe Murphy, who died on hunger strike in October 1920. A headstone in memory of the men will be unveiled by Mary Wilkinson and Malachy McCreesh, sister and brother of Tom McElwee and Ray McCreesh, respectively.