In the spring of 1981, I was a senior in high school. The restaurant I was working at was about to close down, but with graduation near I was relieved that my last few months of school were going to have one less to obligation.
On 1 March 1981, I heard on the news that Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer from Belfast, had begun a hunger strike. He was going to be the first of many republican (IRA) and republican socialist (Irish National Liberation Army, INLA) prisoners in the H-Blocks at Long Kesh in Northern Ireland. They were going to strike until their demands were met, or die.
From 14 August 1969 through 10 April 1998, the Six Counties of Northern Ireland were ripped apart by a civil conflict known as The Troubles.
On one side were the republican and republican socialist paramilitary groups and on the other side the British Army, Royal Ulster Constabulary, Special Branch, and loyalist (anti-republican) paramilitary groups (Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association).
After the Irish War for Independence, from 21 January 1919-11 July 1921, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921, the island of Ireland was split into two political entities. In the south there was the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland), and in the northeast there was the semi-autonomous province of the United Kingdom named Northern Ireland.
Republicans, in the Irish context, were those waging an armed conflict to reunite the south with what they called Northeast Ulster or the Six Counties. Republican socialists also emphasized social justice, economic democracy, and equal rights. For simplicity’s sake, after this I’ll use republican to include both.
Prior to 1 March 1976, both republicans and loyalists were interned under Special Category Status in the Cages, groups of Quonset huts surrounded by chain-link fence topped with razor wire, at Long Kesh. Within each of the cages, prisoners wore their own clothes, were allowed liberal visitation with family and friends, held classes, had large libraries, and had their own officers to govern both their separate huts and over the entire cage. They even carried out military drills.
Early in 1981, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees, decreed that those arrested for paramilitary-related activities, republicans and loyalists, would after that date be treated as an ordinary criminals.
They would have to wear prison clothes, follow a prison-mandated regimen, and served their time in the newly built H-Blocks. The eight H-Blocks at Long Kesh were each four wings of twenty-five cells, steel and concrete with a central control facility, and were run like a maximum security prison.
They were to be treated as ODC’s (ordinary decent criminals) under the new policy of “criminalization”.
“Ordinary criminals” convicted in special courts set up to try them under special rules designed to rob them of their rights and ensure not a fair trial but their imprisonment. They had one judge and no jury, sometimes no attorney, and could be convicted on mere hearsay of one person and shoddy evidence.
The first republican to be sent to Long Kesh under the new rules, Kieran Nugent, refused to wear a prison uniform, saying those were for criminals and he was a political prisoner. The guards beat him, threw him into his cell naked, and gave him a blanket to wear the next day.
Thus the blanket protest began.
Soon some forty republican and republican socialist prisoners were “on the blanket”. Even some loyalists in the H-Blocks joined the blanket protest for themselves. In time more than 300 republicans and over 50 loyalists were on the blanket.
Men on the blanket at Long Kesh, and women on the blanket in Armagh Prison, were refused exercise, reading and writing materials, and access to news. They were kept in their cells twenty-four hours a day, cells meant for one person which now most often housed two. In addition, they were frequently treated to beatings, maltreatment, harassment, and other abuse by the “screws”, the prison guards, in the corridors from their cells to the toilets and showers or when taken to the offices between the wings.
To keep their minds active and their spirits up, they learned Irish shouted through the doors, sang, held political discussions, and told stories, either from their own lives or from well known authors. Bobby Sands was famous for reciting all of Leon Uris’ novel Trinity.
In March 1978, men on the blanket in the H-Blocks, and some of the women at Armagh, began to refuse to go to the showers or the toilets to escape the abuse to which they were subjected on their way to and from those places. They were given chambers pots to urinate and defecate in and bowls to wash up with. They demanded showers in their cells so they could clean themselves adequately and without fear of being attacked. The screws stopped giving them water for their bowls.
Thus began the no wash protest.
A couple of months later, the screws began refusing to let prisoners on the blanket “slop out”, or empty their chamber pots. The blanket men (and women) smashed the glass in the windows of their cells and threw their urine and excrement out of the windows. The screws boarded those up.
With no other recourse, other than to surrender and accept the designation of them by the state as criminals, they got rid of their bodily waste the only way they could. They poured their piss out on the floor of their cells and smeared their shit on the prison walls.
Thus began the dirty protest.
Periodically the guards would enter the cells and clean the prisoners and the cells—with fire hoses and disinfectant. In between those loving sessions of tenderness and care, they lived with piss, shit, maggots, and flies, with only a single blanket to clothe themselves with and a thin mattress on which to lie or sit.
In the midst of the indignity in which they lived, these prisoners clung to the dignity of their right to be recognized as the political prisoners they were and treated accordingly.
After nearly three years of going to great lengths to resist and enduring tremendous deprivation, forty-five republican prisoners declared a hunger strike on 27 October 1980. Three women at Armagh joined them on 1 December, with dozens more men in the H-Blocks soon on 15 December.
They had five demands:
(1) the right not to wear a prison uniform;
(2) the right not to do prison work;
(3) the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organize educational and recreational pursuits;
(4) the right to one visit, one letter, and one parcel per week;
(5) full restoration of remission of sentence lost through the protest.
Six prisoners from the loyalist group Ulster Defence Association (UDA) began a hunger strike on 12 December calling for their segregation from republicans and return of political status, but called it off five days later on 17 December after appeals from the (Anglican) Church of Ireland.
As one prisoner, Sean McKenna, neared death, the British government told the republican prisoners they were prepared to grant their demands on a phased basis. The prisoners voted to end their hunger strike on 18 December, after 53 days.
And the British government reneged on its deal.
The Hunger Strike of 1981
The prisoners made the decision to conduct another hunger strike. Only this time instead of a mass protest, one prisoner would be going on hunger strike at a time, followed by another a couple of weeks later, staggering out the number and enabling them to carry out a prolonged campaign.
On this round, only those who had not been involved in notorious incidents were allowed, they had to be in good health, and they had to discuss their decision with their families or loved ones.
As I mentioned before, Bobby Sands of the IRA began his hunger strike on 1 March 1981, the anniversary of the beginning of criminalization.
Francie Hughes of the IRA followed him on 15 March.
Patsy O’Hara of the INLA and Raymond McCreesh of the IRA joined them on 22 March.
On 9 April, Bobby Sands, IRA prisoner on hunger strike, was elected to the House of Commons for the seat of Fermanagh-South Tyrone. I remember being overwhelmed with relief, thinking, “Now she’ll have to give in, at least part way,” she being Maggie Thatcher, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
But Maggie the Hen did not have the shred of humanity I assumed she had, and Bobby Sands MP died at the age of 26 on 5 May after 66 days on hunger strike.
The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran renamed Winston Churchill Boulevard, where the British Embassy still sits, as Bobby Sands Street.
I heard the news on the car radio while driving on the interstate. I had to pull over, and couldn’t stop crying for ten minutes. I had to circle my car and smoke a cigarette before I could concentrate on driving again.
Each time the rest of the summer, no matter where I was, I had to stop and take a few minutes whenever I heard the news about one of them.
Joe McDonnell of the IRA joined his comrades on 8 May.
Francie Hughes died at the age of 25 on 12 May after 59 days on hunger strike.
Brendan McLaughlin joined his comrades on 14 May.
Patsy O’Hara died at the age of 23 and Raymond McCreesh at the age of 24 on 21 May
after 61 days on hunger strike.
Kieran Doherty of the IRA joined McDonnell on 22 May.
Kevin Lynch of the INLA joined his comrades on 23 May.
Brendan McLaughlin was taken off hunger strike after 12 days when he suffered a perforated ulcer and internal bleeding on 26 May.
Martin Hurson of the IRA joined his comrades on 28 May .
Tom McElwee of the IRA joined his comrades on 8 June.
On 11 June, hunger striker Kieran Doherty of the IRA and blanketman Paddy Agnew of the IRA were elected TD's in the Republic of Ireland.
Paddy Quinn of the IRA joined his comrades on 15 June.
Mickey Devine of the INLA joined his comrades on 22 June.
Laurence McKweon of the IRA joined his comrades on 29 June.
On 5 July, through intermediary Brendan Duddy (codenamed “Mountain Climber”), Thatcher’s government offered the prisoners the right to wear their own clothes and made other concessions, and the prisoner leadership of the PIRA (Bik McFarlane, OC, and Richard O’Rawe, PRO) agreed to accept. After word passed outside to Gerry Adams and his “Kitchen Cabinet” (Martin McGuinness, Danny Morrision, Tom Hatley, and Jim Gibney), they vetoed the prisoners' acceptance and ordered them to continue. They gave the excuse that it more was needed, but the real reason was that Adams and the rest want to keep up political support for the upcoming August by-election for Westminister to fill the seat vacated at the death of Bobby Sands. Adams and the Kitchen Cabinet kept the contents from the leadership of the IRSP, who would have ordered their members off the strike, as well as from the candidate, Owen Carron.
Joe McDonnell died at the age of 30 on 8 July after 61 days on hunger strike.
Pat McGeown of the IRA joined his comrades on 9 July.
Martin Hurson died at the age of 29 on 13 July after 46 days on hunger strike. He had lost the ability to hold down water and died from dehydration.
Matt Devlin of the IRA joined his comrades on 14 July.
In the second half of July, Fr. Denis Faul, realized Maggie Thatcher had a head like the Rock of Gibraltar and was a bit lacking in the soul department, and would never express a gesture of humanity. A strong supporter of the prisoners in the H-Blocks and a frequent visitor to that hellhole, he began trying to convince the families of those on hunger strike to take their sons off once they lost consciousness.
Paddy Quinn lapsed into a coma on 31 July after 47 days, and his parents took him off hunger strike.
Kevin Lynch died at the age of 25 on 1 August after 71 days on hunger strike.
Kieran Doherty died at the age of 25 on 2 August after 73 days on hunger strike.
Liam McCloskey of the INLA joined his comrades on 3 August.
Tom McElwee died at the age of 23 on 8 August after 62 days on hunger strike.
Patrick Sheehan of the IRA joined his comrades on 10 August.
Jackie McMullen of the IRA joined his comrades on 17 August..
On 20 August, Owen Carron of Sinn Fein was elected as the Anti-H-block/Proxy Political Prisoner candidate to the Westminister seat of Fermanagh-South Tyrone vacated by Bobby Sands upon his death.
Pat McGweon lapsed into a coma on 20 August after 42 days, and his family took him off hunger strike.
Mickey Devine died at the age of 27 on 22 August after 60 days on hunger strike.
Bernard Fox of the IRA joined his comrades on 24 August.
Hugh Carville of the IRA joined his comrades on 31 August.
Matt Devlin lapsed into a coma on 4 September after 52 days, and his family took him off hunger strike.
Laurence McKweon lapsed into a coma on 6 September after 70 days, and his family took him off hunger strike.
John Pickering of the IRA joined his comrades on 7 September.
Gerard Hodgkins of the IRA joined his comrades on 14 September.
James Devine of the IRA joined his comrades on 21 September.
Bernard Fox was taken off hunger strike on 24 September after 32 days when his condition suddenly deteriorated rapidly.
Liam McCloskey took himself off hunger strike on 26 September after 55 days when his family made it clear they would intervene if he fell into a coma.
Patrick Sheehan (55 days), Jackie McMullan (48 days), Hugh Carville (34 days), John Pickering (27 days), Gerard Hodgkins (20 days), and James Devine (13 days) ended the hunger strike on 3 October after realizing their families, as well as those of potential strikers who have not yet joined, had listened to Fr. Faul.
For years afterward, Fr. Faul was known to republicans and republican socialists, especially among then current prisoners and ex-prisoners, as “Dennis the Menace”.
After the hunger strike ended, the British government, quietly and in stages, fulfilled all five of the prisoners’ demands, though not in writing. The concessions are exactly the same as those offered on 5 July.
In other words, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee, and Mickey Devine died because Adams and his Kitchen Cabinet (McGuinness, Morrison, Hatley, and Gibney) were more interested in ephemeral political gain than in the health, welfare, and lives of republican prisoners.
Hunger strike in Irish culture
The idea of hunger strike in Irish culture is sacred. Its roots as a form of protest against transgression or for compensation of a grievance go back 2500 years. The practice was even codified into the system of ancient Irish law that later known as the Brehon Laws.
The Brehon Laws survived in parts of Ireland until 1625, mostly in the west (Connaught) and the north (Ulster). In the Highlands and the Isles of Scotland, the Brieve Laws (as they were called there) survived until 1746.
The only other culture known to have codified laws governing hunger striking is that of ancient India, where its roots go as far back as those in Ireland.
Hunger striking has been a form of republican protest since the early 20th (late 12th) century, and several republicans have died. The Irish, especially republicans and even loyalists, consider faking a hunger strike or bluffing about one an extremely grave transgression.
When Sean MacStiofain, chief of staff of the Provisional IRA and one of its founders, was arrested in Dublin and brought before the Special Criminal Court in November 1972, he defiantly told the judge that within six days he would be dead. Placed in jail, he immediately began a hunger and thirst strike. Under pleas from the Catholic Church, he ended his thirst strike, accepting juice and soup but no solid food.
MacStiofain remained on what he was calling a hunger strike for 57 days, when he was ordered off by the army council for bringing the IRA into disrepute by cheating on his fake hunger strike. After his release from jail, he found he had lost all credibility and status over the matter. He never again held a position of any rank with the republican movement.
Similarly, a former commander from the loyalist UDA imprisoned in the H-Blocks declared a hunger strike and was found to actually be gaining weight. He likewise lost all prestige and credibility with his organization.
During the Irish War for Independence, Thomas Ashe (1917), Terence McSwinney (1920), Joe Murphy (1920), Michael Fitzgerald (1920), and Conor McElvaney (1920) died on hunger strike.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest hunger on record without force-feeding lasted 94 days. It was carried out in 1920 at Cork Prison by John Crowley, Peter Crowley, Thomas Donovan, Michael Burke, Michael O'Reilly, Christopher Upton, John Power, Joseph Kenny, and Seán Hennessy.
The men were striking in support of Terence McSwinney, the lord mayor of Cork, who had been striking in Brixton Prison in England for repatriation. After he died, Arthur Griffith, acting Priomh Aire (Prime Minister) for the nationalist government, ordered the men in Cork Prison to cease their strike on 12 November.
After the Irish Civil War, Denny Barry and Andrew O’Sullivan died on a mass hunger strike by over 8000 IRA prisoners across the Irish Free State in 1923 in protest against their continued imprisonment. After their deaths, the strikers ended their protest.
During The Emergency, Ireland’s name for World War II, Tony D’Arcy (1940), Sean McNeela (1940), and Sean McCaughery (1946) died on hunger strike.
Sean McCaughey was the first blanket man. Imprisoned in Ireland for membership in the IRA in 1941 , he refused to wear a prison uniform and lived in a blanket for five years. In April 1946, he went on hunger strike, and after 16 days refused water. He died on 11 May at the age of 30 after 23 days of hunger then thirst strike.
Prior to the big one in 1981, two IRA volunteers died on hunger strike during The Troubles.
From 14 November 1974 through 7 June 1975, Marion Price and Dolores Price, along with Gerry Kelly, Hugh Feeney, Michael Gaughan, Frank Stagg, and Paul Holme refused food for 205 days and were force-fed 170 times. They were being held in English prisons and were striking to be repatriated to Ireland.
After one of these force-feedings, Michael Gaughan died on 2 June at the age of 24. They ended their strike when the British promised repatriation; the British reneged on their deal.
Two years later, Frank Stagg began another hunger strike demanding an end to his solitary confinement, no prison work, and repatriation to Ireland. He died on 12 February 1976 at the age of 33 after 62 days.