10 May 2001 Edition
Saturday 5 May was the 20th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands and throughout Ireland over the weekend commemorations were held to remember, honour and also celebrate the lives of twelve brave men - the ten who died in the H Block hunger strike and Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg, who died on hunger strike in jails in England.
Belfast honours the hunger strikers
Addressing over 1,000 republicans on Friday evening, 4 May, the Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams spoke of Bobby Sands as ``an ordinary man who if he was here tonight wouldn't stand out in the crowd, but in extraordinary circumstances human beings can and do do exceptional things. That is how we should see the hunger strikers as ordinary people who rose to the challenge in an extraordinary situation.''
The occasion of Adams address was the 19th Bobby Sands Memorial lecture, and he used the occasion to urge his audience to ``do that little bit extra for the struggle. We may well look back at this year, the 20th anniversary of the hunger strike and say, that is when I got my second wind''.
Adams also urged people to tell their own story about that period, stressing that, ``republicanism is not just about the leaders. It is about everybody telling their story and playing their part.
``Their deaths were the culmination of a British policy that had been put into place in the mid-seventies, designed to criminalise the Irish struggle for freedom.
``To have crushed the hunger strike would have been a massive victory for the British. As it was, the hunger strikers set a moral standard for the conduct of the struggle for the rest of us''.
The Sinn Féin leader stated that while the British had their strategy based on their Ulsterisation and Criminalisation policies, republicans hadn't developed a thought out response.
``It wasn't until Ciaran Nugent, the first blanket man, told the British that if they wanted him to wear the prison uniform they would have to nail it to his back that republican resistance took shape''.
Meanwhile at a ceremony in the Roddy McCorley Club, on Saturday, 12 oak trees were planted in memory of each of the 12 hunger strikers.
Chrissie McAuley, a Sinn Féin councillor and one time journalist with An Phoblacht, paid tribute to the ``courage and dignity of the families of the hunger strikers''
McAuley said it was difficult to ``understand the sheer scale of the brutality inflicted on the prisoners''. And if the British were prepared to inflict a regime based on ``sheer brutality' on the prisoners they were also eagerly willing to inflict a similar brutality on nationalists throughout the North.
Children, women and men were cut down as crown forces personnel fired over 6,000 plastic bullets in their attempt to repress nationalist anger and resistance to Thatcher's savagery, she said.
Singer Christy Moore, who attended the ceremony, sang one of his most emotional songs in tribute to the hunger strikers, The Time Has Come.
The song, which went to Number 1 in the Irish charts in 1981, was banned under the Dublin government's anti-republican censorship laws when they realised that it was about the hunger strike.
Up to 2,000 republicans gathered in the Short Strand district of East Belfast on Sunday 6 May to remember the 1981 hunger strikers. The march was held in the Short Strand after the National 81 Committee postponed its main march due to the Foot and Mouth crisis.
Sunday's march was also a belated Easter Parade given that local republicans cancelled their Easter Commemoration because of the threat on the Ormeau Road due to the threatened Apprentice Boys march down the Ormeau on Easter Monday.
Gerry Adams was the main speaker, while Joe O'Donnell, the Sinn Féin candidate in the Westminster and local government elections, also addressed the crowd.
Many young people from the district also took part. A large contingent of young Irish dancers accompanied the march and members of the Sean Martin GAA club also took part. The GAA club is named after a local Volunteer Sean Martin who was killed in the district in the 1940s, when he dived on a grenade to smother the blast as the device exploded, saving the lives of other Volunteers in the house at the time.
Mrs Eileen McDonnell, Joe's mother, travelled into the district to attend the parade.
``The struggle isn't over, there is still so much to be done'' - Former POW Bernard Fox.
Addressing the huge crowd of Derry people who turned out for the unveiling of a memorial to the H Block hunger strikers in Derry last Saturday 5 May, former POW Bernard Fox insisted that the struggle for freedom wasn't over and that there was still much to be done.
In a moving speech Fox, who spent 22 years in jail during four terms of imprisonment and who was himself on the 1981 hunger strike, said that sometimes people ask him ``if the hunger strike was worth it.
``I answer them by saying that their question can't be answered yet as it is being asked in the wrong tense. Asking that question in the past tense is wrong the struggle is still going on so until the struggle is over the question can't be answered properly''.
Fox, a modest, quiet man, but a very committed republican, told those couple of thousand who attended the Derry rally that he was ``honoured to have been asked to speak. But it is not about me or the 22 years I spent in prison. It is about the struggle and it is about making sure that we achieve the victory that the hunger strikers deserve. It is up to us to keep going until we win''.
The dedication of a memorial stone took place at the 20th anniversary of Sand's death in Fermanagh. This followed a Commemorative Service including Mass in the Church of Mary, Queen of Peace, Garrison, and a candlelit procession by approximately 250 people from the church to the site in the village.
Cllr Stephen Huggett who spoke at the commemoration, said that ``Bobby Sand's and the other hunger strikers' and prison protesters' great service to us was the defeat of the attempt to criminalise the whole struggle of the Irish people for self-determination, and we in return can be mindful of perhaps Sands' greatest saying - that ``everyone has a part to play, no matter how small''.
Local republicans in Derrylin unveiled a mural painted by Belfast artist Danny Devenny last week, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hunger Strikes.
A weekend of event had been planned for the beginning of March, but due to the outbreak of foot and mouth they were cancelled. Further events have been planned for the county throughout the year.
The historic Taibhdhearc Theatre in Galway, Ireland's National Irish language theatre, was the venue on Saturday 5 May for a bilingual night of remembrance of the Hunger Strikes, organised by Cruinniú, the ex-prisoners' group in the West.
The evening began with an exhibition of prison memorabilia, posters, comms, photographs and paper cuttings from the period. A ballad singer performed some of the songs most reminiscent from the period and former Blanketmen Jim Clarke from Donegal, who escaped from the Blocks in 1983, and Eoghan Mac Cormaic, talked about the events leading up to the Hunger Strikes and the legacy of the Hunger Strikes.
Galway Sinn Féin held a vigil in Galway city centre during the day. In Connemara Theas, Sinn Féin has added a fifth white cross to the huge roadside display near Baile na hAbhann, marking the beginning of Joe Mc Donnell's hunger strike. The first cross, in memory of Bobby Sands, has been draped in black to mark his death.
In Ballinasloe, the local cumann erected a Hunger Strike mural, painted by local students, in the centre of the town. One sour note in all this was the response of the G‡rdaí, who visited the owners of the building and intimidated them over the use of the gable site for the mural.
A crowd of over 200 people marched from the Roger Casement Memorial in the seaside village of Ballyheigue, Co Kerry, to honour the memory of Volunteer Bobby Sands. The march was led by a cage on a trailer, symbolising the conditions in which the blanket protestors in Long Kesh and Armagh jails were held. 10 people draped in blankets also marched along the route, on which poles were adorned with pictures of the ten hunger strikers.
Local Sinn Féin representative, Riste‡ird Ó Fuar‡in, said that the turnout was encouraging. ``It is fantastic to see such a great turnout here in Ballyheigue today to pay tribute to the courage and dedication of Bobby Sands and his comrades. They were engaged in an age-old struggle for Irish freedom and democracy which was as important then as it was back in the era of Wolfe Tone and rpublicans of times past. Margaret Thatcher did her utmost top criminalise these brave men, but today Bobby Sands is held in the highest esteem, while Thatcher is seen as a right-wing ally of fascist dictators like Augusto Pinochet.''
A crowd of 300 people marched from Moyderwell Corner to the 1798 Memorial in Denny Street, Tralee. As with the march in Ballyheigue, 10 people, barefoot and draped in blankets led marchers along the route.
Councillor Martin Ferris addressed the crowd. ``It is incumbent on each and every one of us to ensure that we honour the memory of Bobby Sands by standing true and faithful to the principles for which he and others stood,'' he said. ``Let us not fail in this obligation. Onwards to victory.''
A crowd of over 50 people assembled outside the 1916 monument on Sarfields Bridge in Limerick City on Sunday last (6 May) to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands.
Pat O'Connor, chairman of the Limerick 1981 Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee and who was highly active in the H-Block/Armagh Committee in Limerick city 20 years ago, chaired the proceedings.
A wreath was laid by Ger Malone and the crowd was addressed by independent city councillor John Gilligan, who was the PRO of the Limerick H-Block/Armagh Committee in 1981. Cllr Gilligan spoke of the necessity of observing the legacy of Bobby Sands and his nine comrades who died on hunger strike in the H-blocks of Long Kesh.
At 10pm on Saturday, Longford Ô81 Committee held a candelight vigil to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Bobby Sands' death. A large crowd attended, with people coming from surrounding areas including Westmeath and Leitrim.
Paddy Kelly recited Bobby Sands' poem, ÔRhythm of Time', following which a lament was played by a lone piper.
A vigil to commemorate Bobby Sands' death took place on the Bridge of Peace in Drogheda on Saturday 5 May. The commemoration was well received by local people.
Around 60 people from the Carrickmacross area attended an hour-long vigil in the town last Saturday 5 May to mark the twentieth anniversary of Bobby Sands MP.
Local Sinn Féin councillor, Matt Carthy, said that the calibre and sacrifice of the hunger strikers was an inspiration to republicans today. ``As Christy Moore states in his recent autobiography: while Bobby Sands was dying for Ireland, Haughey and Burke were
opening Offshore bank accounts,'' he said.
``The people of Carrickmacross played their part in 1981 to ensure the election of Kieran Doherty as a TD and to exert pressure on the British government to accede to the just demands of the Republican prisoners.''
The Monaghan Ô81 committee would like to express its thanks to all those who participated in the vigil. Black flag vigils were also held in Clones, and Monaghan town.
The 20th anniversary Hunger Strike Commemoration in Sydney on 5 May was an outstanding success, with more than 350 people braving monsoonal type rain to get to the Gaelic Club to commemorate the death of Bobby Sands and pay tribute to the 1981 Hunger Strikers.
Three people who flew down to Sydney from Brisbane for the function, and others travelled hundreds of miles from regional centres in New South Wales - Goulburn, Newcastle, Wollongong, Blue Mountains, Portland and Wee Waa.
Maurie O'Sullivan, General Secretary of the Public Service Association and a member of AAI, officially launched a commemoration booklet. AAI President Paddy Gorman chaired the evening and spoke on the Hunger Strikers legacy and the importance of supporting Sinn Féin and joining AAI.
The Australian poet Denis Kevans read one of his works dedicated to the Irish freedom struggle. Ned O'Connor, who embarked on a solidarity 37-day hunger strike in Sydney in 1981, read out the names of the 10 in a moving ceremony in which 10 young people each carried a placard of each Hunger Striker onto the stage. Australian Aid for Ireland is compiling a Memorial Book of signatories dedicated to the Hunger Strikers that will be sent back to Ireland.
Four bands later gave their time for free and providing a great session.
The Australian author, Thomas Keneally, who wrote Schindler's Ark - the book that Speilberg made into the film Schindler's List - signed a dedication to the 1981 Hunger Strikers in his book on Irish history, The Great Shame, for AAI to use as a fund-raiser.
Over 100 people gathered on Sunday 6 May in Montreal to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands and honour the sacrifice of the Irish Hunger Strikers. While many of those present were from the Montreal Irish community, striking testimony of the international respect won by Sands and his comrades was evident from the presence of supporters from the East Indian, Chilean and Quebecois communities. A speaker from the Montreal Coalition for Peace in Ireland, which organised the event, recalled the 800-strong demonstration in the city when Bobby Sands died, that forced the closure of the entire building where the British Consulate was located. The event was enlivened by the presence of Belfast singer, Cormac, who entertained the crowd with songs new and old of the Irish freedom struggle.
BRAMPTON & OTTAWA
Danny Morrison, Secretary of the Bobby Sands Trust in Belfast, was the guest of the Emerald Isle Social Club in Canada to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hunger Strikes. In a thoughtful, detailed address, delivered in the Irish Centre in Brampton, Ontario, on Saturday 5 May and again in Ottawa on Wednesday 9 May, Morrison recalled the background of British bad faith and hypocrisy which led to the deaths of ten young men. ``British policy was riven with contradictions,'' he told his audiences. ``In 1972, a hunger strike by political prisoners in Crumlin Road jail had produced a British concession - special category status, which was political status in all but name, but then, on a purely arbitrary day in 1976, the British changed the rules again. Young Irish men and women who were arrested under special laws, held under special provisions, tortured and ill-treated in special interrogation centres, convicted in special non-jury courts by special Diplock judges and finally locked away in a jail specially built for them, and then the prisoners were told they were ordinary criminals.''
In common with anti-colonial liberation struggles around the world, the Irish struggle, said Morrison, was always fought on several fronts, including especially the politics of language. The hunger strikes were a critical turning point marked by seemingly small shifts, as for example when the New York Times, in 1981, started referring to the IRA as ``guerrillas'' instead of ``terrorists''. The seismic shift, said Morrison, was the high-risk opportunity presented by the sudden death of the prisoners' friend Frank Maguire, MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone. ``Bobby Sands' victory in that contest opened a new political front to the struggle,'' he said, ``which continues to gain strength to this day.''
A commemoration of the hunger strike was held on Rue Bobby Sands in Saint Denis, France, on 5 May. The event was organised by the Paris-based support group ``Solidarité Irlande'', gathering around 20 people. It will be followed by a larger campaign with information and posters in universities, Irish cultural centres and pubs in Paris.
On 4 May, US House of Representatives Member Michael Capuano introduced House Resolution 132, ``recognising the historical significance of the sacrifices made by the Irish republican hunger strikers of 1981 and the subsequent political impact their actions had on the Northern Ireland peace process''. The resolution, which has ten cosponsors to date, will come before the House for a full vote later this month.
Demonstrators gather outside the British Embassy in New York City on 5 May.
Dublin remembers with pride
In amongst the graves of O'Donovan Rossa, of The O'Rahilly, of Muriel Gifford, Constance Markievicz, Thomas Ashe, Harry Boland, Joe Clarke, at the republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, many hundreds of people came last Saturday to commemorate the hunger strikers on the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands.
In bright sunshine, people came from all over the city. There were people from that generation who had tramped the streets, day after day, in bitter protest at the Dublin government's apparent willingness to collaborate with Mrs. Thatcher's determination to let the hunger strikers die. There were also hundreds from a younger generation, hardly born at the time of Bobby Sands' death, but who recognised, by their presence last Saturday, the significance in Irish history of the 1981 hunger strike.
They stood around the edge of history, just a part of the long history of painful extraordinary events, of which they too were a part, and will be a part in the unchartered future of the struggle for freedom in this country.
They came to hear a programme that was both heart-rending, full of memories of anger and tragedy, and also full of hope, not least because of the very youthful crowd of young men and women who take the struggle on today and who know and commemorate its history.
Íta Ní Chionnaith, a member of the National H-Block Armagh Committee at the time, introduced a programme of poetry and music. Cathal Ó Murchú laid a wreath.
Noel Hughes read the 22 names of those who had died down the century on hunger strike: of Thomas Ashe (1917), Terence McSwiney, Michael Fitzgerald and Joseph Murphy (192?), of Joseph Whitty, Denis Barry and Andy Sullivan, who died in 1923, under the Cosgrave's government, of Tony D'Arcy and Sean McNeela, who died under De Valera's government in 1940, of Sean McCaughey, who died after three years in solitary confinement in Portlaoise in 1940, and of Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg, who died in English jails in 1974 and 1976, respectively, and the ten who died in 1981.
Then, Néillidh Mulligan played a beautiful lament on the uilleann pipes, music that withered the heart, as from across the hills.
Ulick O'Connor, poet and republican, read one of his poems and spoke of how those who rebelled against kings, from the earliest times of Irish history, had sent their message across the world along the ``cable of the spirit''. It had reached far and wide, even to a street called after Bobby Sands in Tehran, where the British embassy to Iran is sited.
Ella O'Dwyer, who herself took part in the H-Block campaign, who subsequently spent 14 years in an English jail, who has herself written and lived that ``inner thing in every man, which had withstood the blows of a million years, and will do so to the end'', read Bobby Sands' marvellous poem, The Rhythm of Time - ``It lights the dark of this prison cell, it thunders forth its might, it is Ôthe undauntable thought', my friend, that thought that says ÔI'm right'.''
Then two young women, Niamh Ní Dálaigh and Lorraine O'Donnell, read in Irish and in English from Bobby Sands' prison diary, of the unconquereable struggle for freedom. They were followed by Karan Casey, who sang, in a most beautiful clear unwavering voice, the song written by Ulick O'Connor, to the tune of Danny Boy, across those graves.
And then Séanna Breatnach spoke, quietly, almost informally, of those days in Long Kesh. He was altogether 21 years in jail, in the camps, the H Block blanket protest and then again from 1988 to 1998.
``In 1988 the OC of the jail asked me, as a part of the history programme they were running for people who had just come into the jail, to talk about the blanket protest. I said, sure no problem. I began. I broke down. I couldn't talk about it. It was so raw. These feelings come back to me when I come to a place like this.''
He told of the prison camp in the cages, with Nissen Huts, barbed wire and soldiers with machine guns who guarded the prisoners of war. ``The conditions in the early Ô70s, which followed Billy McKee's hunger strike in May and June 1972, were just as that portrayed in the films of the last world war prison camps,'' he said.
Then, arrested in 1976, Walsh was amongst the first to which Roy Mason's new prison policy to criminalise the republican struggle applied. ``I was 20 in 1976. We were kids. We hadn't the least idea what to do. But we decided we would not wear the uniform and we wouldn't do prison work.'' Kieran Nugent was the first to be sentenced and to move to the Blocks. ÔThey'll have to nail it to my back,' he said.
``It goes back to the time of O'Donovan Rossa, chained for years in Dartmoor prison, with his hands behind his back, forced to eat as a dog. We wouldn't allow our struggle to be criminalised. It is so important that young people today know of these times, that they get a sense of the brutality, of the suffering. It is so important that the hunger strike experience is not forgotten, that young people know about it. That's why I am here today.
``We were only youngsters. Often we were head to head with the IRA, who saw what was going on as a distraction and were terrified lest it would lead to a hunger strike.
``The hunger strike was as much about those who weren't on hunger strike, the women in Armagh, the thousands across the country who walked the streets day after day. This is Bobby's day, but we should not forget too Kieran Doherty and also Paddy Agnew were both elected TDs. When Kieran Doherty died, the Dublin government didn't even lower the Tricolour.''
He talked of the ending of the hunger strike. Laurence McKeown after 70 days went into a coma. His mother, just before, had said to him: ``You've done what you had to do. I'll do what I have to do.'' Seana Walsh urged people to go to the events around the hunger strike, many of which are coming up in the next few weeks.
O'Connell Bridge vigil
Many hundreds of people gathered on 5 May, the 20th anniversary of Bobby Sands' death, on O'Connell Street Bridge, in memory of those daily vigils 20 years ago as the prisoners faced death. Those vigils had brought people from all walks of life to protest their anguish at the recurring deaths, as the Dublin government watched and waited. Old and young attended the vigil, all with their different parts played or still to play.
Around 100 members and supporters of Sinn Féin held a vigil at Walkinstown Roundabout on Sunday 5 May, to commemorate the sacrifice of the 1981 hunger strikers.
Local Sinn Féin representative Aengus Ó Snodaigh praised the hunger strikers. ``Today 20 years ago the first of the ten young men, Bobby Sands, died after 66 days on hunger strike. We commend his courage and bravery in the face of British government intransigence and an agonisingly slow death.''
About 20 members of the original Drumcondra branch of the Anti-H Block/Armagh Committee staged a picket in their area in memory of the hunger strikers on 5 May.