The following is an oration by Sean Doyle of the Wicklow 1981 Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee, delivered at the Billy Byrne Monument, Wicklow Town on the 11th May 2013.
As hunger strike has been one of our much recourse for justice through the centuries against British occupation’s relentless quest to criminalise our freedom struggle it reminds me of the poem “The King’s Threshold” by W.B.Yeats:
King … He has chosen death refusing to eat or drink that he may bring disgrace upon me for there is a custom, an old and foolish custom that if a man be wronged or think that he is wronged and starve upon another’s threshold till he die, the common people for all time to come will raise a heavy cry against that threshold even though it be the King’s.
This year we commemorate the 32nd anniversary of the ten young hunger strike martyrs of ’81. The children of 1969 ranging from 30 years old to only 23, the eldest Joe Mc Donnell was only 18 in ’69. The youngest Thomas Mc Elwee was only 11 years. Youth sapped by war, witnesses to discrimination, state enforced and sponsored vicious sectarianism and ultimately for them their resistance struggle by decree of the British regime was to be criminalised.
Nothing has changed since The Fenians of 1860 in the British attempts to break the will and spirit of Irish freedom fighters, if anything it has become more refined in its cruelty, prisoners were and still are subjected to a savage regime which aims to break the body and spirit and make them conform and renounce their political convictions.
Throughout our history Irish political prisoners have fiercely resisted these attempts to criminalise them and their struggle from the Fenians of 1860 the Irish Republican Brotherhood. O’Donovan Rossa who had been sentenced to life imprisonment was kept for 35 days in a dungeon with his arms chained behind him day and night. He was not even unshackled to eat the food which was left for him on the floor.
But just let’s briefly illustrate the background and circumstances that surrounded the decision to embark on the extreme sacrifice of a hunger strike by these ten young men in 1981. As I alluded to earlier, the prisoners in the H-Blocks and women in Armagh were mainly the children of ’69 who lived with daily attacks on their homes and communities by unionist mobs aided and abetted by the RUC.
In August 1969 nine people were killed in the occupied 6 counties. More than 500 houses were gutted by petrol bombs and thousands fled south of the border as a result of the unionist mobs led by the force of law and order British occupation style. Attacks on the Nationalist communities of Belfast and Derry – unlike previous onslaughts on the Nationalist population: this time the eyes of the world were watching through the media of television as the attacks continued.
By this time civil rights was gathering momentum and marches were growing. The Civil Rights march of the 5th of October 1968 by peaceful students was set upon by the RUC. The march from Belfast to Derry in January ’69 was attacked in an organised fashion by loyalist elements with the RUC joining in. The attacks escalated in the Bogside from August the 12th to the 14th and the invasion of Nationalist areas of Belfast August 13th to the 15th: 1500 people were forced from their homes and 9 people killed.
Five people were killed by the British in July 1970, 2 in Derry city in 1971 and one in August of that year. On August 9th 1971 almost 300 men were arrested in dawn swoops which signalled the introduction of internment without trial under The Special Powers Act. 8000 refugees fled the British army terror and sought refuge in the 26 Counties. After the introduction of internment human rights violations became the norm, cruel methods of torture, repressive laws and unjust political courts were condemned by human rights organisations at home and abroad. But worse was to come. The civil rights campaign suffered a fatal blow in January ’72 when the paratroopers murdered 14 civilians on Bloody Sunday in Derry. Also in 1972 the prisoners went on hunger strike in Belfast gaol and secured recognition as political prisoners. However after phasing out of internment without trial under pressure of international opinion the British embarked on another attempt to break the spirit and will of the prisoners. A royal commission was appointed in 1975 to prepare what became known as criminalising the prison system and was chaired by Lord Gardiner, recommending that all people convicted of political type offences alleged to have been committed after March the 1st 1976 would be described and treated as criminals, totally reversing conditions hard won by the hunger strike of 1972.
Another phase began known as the conveyor belt of torture from the interrogation in Castlereagh and other holding centres, imprisoned on remand which could be up two years. Does this ring any bells? And then through the Diplock courts to the H-Blocks and the rest is history. These non jury Diplock courts act as sentencing tribunals and not courts.
Ciaran Nugent was the first sentenced after September ’76. He got 3 years. He and other comrades who followed refused to exchange their own clothes for prison uniforms or do prison work because they could not concede to criminality. The British were determined to break the strike. The men were locked up 24 hours a day naked but for the blanket which they wrapped around them, loss of remission, radio, television, newspapers, books, parcels, cigarettes were forbidden, denied association with one another. Outdoor exercise was forbidden but after 17 months they became too weak for physical exercise due to the deprivation and regular beatings which led to the ‘dirty protest’ as a result of restrictions. The National H-Block Committee was formed soon after in ’76. Committees were formed throughout the 32 counties. We too had a very successful committee in Wicklow and the banner here today is from that period. Massive marches were held all over the country in support of the prisoners and to expose the abuse and conditions they were subjected to.
The sadistic prison regime refused to allow the prisoners leave their cells to go to the toilets unless they wore prison uniforms. Loyalist orderlies who were then given the work of emptying the toilet vessels began deliberately toppling the pots over the cells. The prison officers then joined in the tactic and started emptying them on the mattresses. The prisoners resorted to ridding of the contents by smearing the walls. They endured this confinement, beatings, squatting over mirrors and probing by the sadistic screws and only out of cells when dragged, singled out for tortuous beatings because they were sentenced after March the 1st 1976. Those before had the demands and recognition of political status and the 5 demands which were: the right not to wear prison uniform, the right not to do prison work, freedom of association amongst political prisoners, the right to organise recreational facilities, to one weekly visit, one letter in and out per week, to receive one parcel a week and lastly full restoration of remission.
After four and a half years of horrific brutality and degradation the prisoners decided on the ultimate sacrifice as the only solution in their circumstances and in a collective decision seven prisoners went on hunger strike on October 27th 1980. 35 days later in Armagh women’s prison 3 prisoners joined the fast. Before it ended there had been an additional 39 men from the H-Blocks. After much overtures by the British and documents on the way and a text of a speech Humphrey Atkins was due to make in the House Of Commons that day feeling assured with Sean Mc Kenna on his death bed with only hours to live and Tommy Mc Kearney not far behind, slipping in and out of consciousness, on December the 18th 1980 after 53 days the hunger strike ended. But the British reneged. The prisoners explored every avenue before giving in to exasperation and anger another hunger strike was announced to commence on the 1st of March 1981 five years to the day the British commenced their criminalisation in 1976.
The H-Blocks were full of young men who would have been interned in their late teens and early 20’s. If we are to believe Terence Mc Swiney’s thoughts would ring through: ‘It is not those that inflict the most but those who endure the most would have the victory.’ Then these men deserve our duty to push on and build a society of fair distribution of wealth, equality free from exploitation and foreign domination and state sponsored sectarianism in peace with justice.
Bobby Sands in his writings while incarcerated in the H-Blocks refers to a story his grandfather told him about a captured lark. The following is part of his piece The Lark and the Freedom Fighter.
My grandfather once said that the imprisonment of the lark is a crime of the greatest cruelty because the lark is one of the greatest symbols of freedom and happiness. He often spoke of the spirit of the lark relating to a story of a man who incarcerated one of his loved friends in a cage. The lark, having suffered the loss of her liberty, no longer sung her little heart out; she no longer had anything to be happy about. The man who had admitted the atrocity, as my grandfather called it, demanded that the lark should do as he wished; that was to sing her heart out to comply with his wishes and change herself to suit his pleasure or benefit.
The lark refused, and the man became angry and violent. He began to pressurise the lark to sing, but inevitably he received no result. So he took more drastic steps. He covered the cage with a black cloth, depriving the bird of sunlight. He starved it and left it to rot in a dirty cage, but the bird refused to yield. The man murdered it”.
“As my grandfather rightly stated, the lark had spirit- the spirit of freedom and resistance. It longed to be free, and died before it would conform to the tyrant who tried to change it with torture and imprisonment. I feel I have something in common with that bird and her torture, imprisonment and final murder. She had a spirit which is not commonly found, even among us so-called superior beings, humans”.
This brings me directly back to my own situation: I feel something in common with that poor bird. My position is in total contrast to that of an ordinary conforming prisoner: I am a political prisoner, a freedom fighter. Like the lark, I too have fought for my freedom, not only in captivity, where I now languish, but also while on the outside, where my country is still held captive. I have been captured and imprisoned, but, like the lark I too have seen the outside of the wire cage.
I am now in H-Block, where I refuse to change to suit the people who oppress torture and imprison me, and who wish to dehumanise me. Like the lark I need no changing. It is my political ideology and principles and principles that my captors wish to change. They have suppressed my body and attacked my dignity. If I were an ordinary prisoner they would pay little, if any, attention to me, knowing that I would conform to their institutional whims.
I have lost over two years remission. I care not. I have been stripped of my clothes and locked in a dirty, empty cell, where I have been starved, beaten, and tortured, and like the lark I fear I may eventually be murdered. But, dare I say it, similar to my little friend; I have the spirit of freedom that cannot be quenched by even the most horrendous treatment. Of course I can be murdered, but while I remain alive, I remain what I am, a political prisoner of war, and no-one can change that.
Haven’t we plenty of larks to prove that? Our history is heartbreakingly littered with them: MacSwiney’s, The Gaughans, and the Stagg’s. Will there be more in H-Block?
The answer is yes but they are in Maghaberry prison like Stephen Murney on trumped up charges awaiting a delayed trial conditions of bail impossible for a political prisoner to accept only suitable to a paedophile and the disgraceful detention of a very ill woman Marian Price to name just two.
But while the brutal prison system is allowed to this day continue its deprivation allowed by the comrades of the hunger strikers who shared cells and visions of a New Ireland allowed functioning below the radar to attempt to break the spirit and will of resistance. Connolly said “You can judge the progress or regress of a country by how they treat the most vulnerable”. Silenced by the new administration to the prison issue is no surprise but a sad indictment of the journey we still must travel.
Everyone who remains silent is guilty of complicity. Once you can live with that you are on the slippery slope and it may start in prisons but it will contaminate the total social order and corrupt every strand of your sense of justice and with any luck may come back to haunt you.