An Phoblacht 2 - 2022 small

29 April 1999 Edition

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They were ordinary and extraordinary

Laurence McKeown, one of those who took part in the 1981 Hunger Strike, shares his thoughts on the 18th anniversary of that terrible year of courage and struggle.

Bik (MacFarlane) phoned me up last week to ask me to write an article about the hunger strike for this week's edition of the paper. Bik's part of a committee that's organising commemorative events for this weekend and beyond. ``Write about the importance of young people'', Bik said, ``and about how the hunger strikers laid the foundations for later events both within the prison and outside. Mention the impact the blanket protest had on the culture.''

I've sat down a number of times now to write the article and yet still haven't been able to put down the words that I think would be appropriate. Maybe that's the way most people feel when they look back on those days. We all have our own particular memories and view of what lessons the events in the H Blocks hold for us. To jot down just a few of them seems to be giving them significance over others and yet if we are to build upon the sacrifices that were made then it is important to share our knowledge of those days with one another and with the youth of our community who only know of the events of 1981 from the stories they hear and what they read and see about that period.

     
The struggles in the H Blocks and Armagh prison have, I believe, contributed in no small manner to the efforts to create a society that promises much more for our children than the one which our parents had to endure. We should celebrate that fact. Celebrate the lives of those who were once so much a part of our community. Be proud that our community produced such people.
Often we can become nostalgic when we recollect the passing of close friends and comrades. It's only natural. But we must also celebrate their lives. Celebrate the fact that this community produced the calibre of people who were prepared to give their lives for their comrades and their community. Not a glorification of the act that led to their deaths or some mystification of their lives but a closer understanding of who they were and what they did while alive, because the names Bobby, Frank, Raymond, Patsy, Joe, Martin, Kevin, Kieran, Tom and Mickey are not just the names of ten men who died on hunger strike. They are the names of sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, friends and comrades. They are the names of people who laughed and cried, cursed and sang, were frightened and brave, loved a smoke, played practical jokes on one another, were boisterous and quiet. They were ordinary human beings. Real people, the people you see in your club, who live in your street, who you work with, play with, talk to. They were ordinary people, but in extraordinary circumstances.

Those circumstances were not brought about from our own choosing. We were thrown into them. We were young, in the early days, politically unsophisticated, naïve, and hopeful. Hopeful that somehow the situation in the H Blocks would be resolved if enough people on the outside made enough noise about our plight. We didn't just sit around though, waiting on that day to arrive. We organised ourselves. We wrote letters. We helped advise a campaign on the outside. We brought about a revival of the Irish language within the confines of our prison cells, an example that motivated other communities. We wrote stories, songs and poetry. We kept our morale high even during the darkest hours and most brutal periods. And when it came to the point where we knew that all other avenues had been exhausted but to no avail, we acted in the only way left open to us, not out of desperation but with a confidence and determination that came with a belief in ourselves and in what we were doing and why.

Before he died, Bobby Sands wrote: ``Let our revenge be the laughter of our children.'' Looking back on those days, I know that my thoughts at the time in relation to the subject of revenge were not so pure or so far-sighted. It was some years later before I came to realise the significance of what Bobby had said and appreciate the depth of humanity contained within his words. ``The laughter of our children.'' Maybe it's only when we become parents ourselves that we fully desire to create a world for our children in which they can laugh, not cry. Or maybe it's just that as we get older we begin to question just what we have put in place for the generation that comes behind us. Either way, the struggles in the H Blocks and Armagh prison have, I believe, contributed in no small manner to the efforts to create a society that promises much more for our children than the one which our parents had to endure. We should celebrate that fact. Celebrate the lives of those who were once so much a part of our community. Be proud that our community produced such people. Know them as real people who laughed and cried, cursed and sang, were frightened and brave, loved a smoke, played practical jokes on one another, were boisterous and quiet. Real people. People like you and I. People like that young person out on the street corner.


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