Men and women engaged in different aspects of the 1981 Hunger Strikes shared their stories before a large audience in “Remembering the Hunger Strikes”, an evening of discussion organised by Abhaile Arís, the centre for republican ex prisoners in Letterkenny.
The wide-ranging discussion, marking the 30th anniversary, addressed life in the prison for those on the blanket and later on hunger strike; families whose loved ones were in prison; and first-hand accounts of negotiations with British authorities that were intended to secure prisoners’ demands and bring an end to the hunger strikes.
There was also a discussion of the broad impact of the 10 hunger strikers who died and their legacy.
“Nineteen-eighty-one would have been our 1916,” said Sinn Féin Cllr. Gerry McMonagle, outreach worker with Abhaile Arís. “It reignited the flame for a united Ireland.
“Unfortunately, 10 men had to die to do that,” he said. But the sacrifices the hunger strikers made “generated so much commitment in people,” he said.
Mary Nelis, a founder of the Relative Action Committee and the National H-Block/Armagh Committee in Derry, spoke of how her life was changed. Mrs. Nelis, who had two sons on the blanket protest, came from an SDLP background and was active in her church and the Creggan tenants’ association.
She became involved in the relatives’ committee to highlight the prisoners’ situation, and committee members travelled around Ireland, Britain and Europe to speak on the subject.
In one protest, Mrs. Nelis, then in her mid-40s, and three others wrapped only blankets around themselves and stood in front of the cathedral asking, “Does the bishop know about my son?” Mrs. Nelis went on to become a Sinn Féin councillor and MLA.
“These were people who were thrown into the deep end of the protest at that time,” Cllr. McMonagle said. “They were extraordinary times.”
People found different ways to support the hunger strikers. Some met “with whoever they could” or wrote letters, Cllr. McMonagle said. Others would gather on street corners in the evening to say the rosary. Younger people marched. During the hunger strikes, “a whole lot of people found different roles,” Cllr. McMonagle said. It was massive.”
Mary Doyle spent two terms in prison, and was accorded political status the first time but not the second. She joined the hunger strike on Dec. 1, 1980. Ms. Doyle, mother of two and full-time Sinn Féin activist in North Belfast, spoke of the experience of women prisoners and hunger strikers. The women also engaged in the no-wash protest that the men had begun.
When British government stripped political status from the prisoners -- the decision that led ultimately to the hunger strikes -- strip searches increased and prisoners were increasingly placed in isolation, Ms. Doyle told the audience.
The move “was about criminalising our struggle and portraying the quest for freedom as a criminal conspiracy,” Cllr. McMonagle said.
Seanna Walsh, an IRA Officer Commanding in one of the H-Blocks during the hunger strikes who spent 22 years in prison, explained the arbitrary nature of the decision to strip political status in this way: if a republican “on Feb. 28 at 5 minutes to 12 was caught with 10 rifles”, they would have had political status. If the same person was caught on March 1, they would not have.
Still, there were flashes of dark humour even as the panelists recounted harrowing stories. When Mr. Walsh was awaiting sentencing, he said he heard stories of brutal treatment of prisoners. A local priest told him it was nothing worse than a student would receive in a Christian Brothers School. When Mr. Walsh was finally thrown into his cell on his first night in prison, bruised and bleeding after being beaten, he told the audience he had thought to himself, “I wonder what Christian Brothers school he went to.”
Danny Morrison served in the H-Blocks after the 1981 protests. He was instrumental in Bobby Sands’ successful election campaign and a major strategist for the republican movement in the early years of the peace process. In response to a question from the audience Mr. Morrison offered a detailed chronology of the negotiations that he said were mischaracterised by ex prisoner Richard O’Rawe. Mr. O’Rawe had suggested that the republican leadership outside the prison had rejected acceptable terms offered by the British because of the political value of the hunger strike.
But Mr. Morrison, who was sent into the prison to discuss the terms with the hunger strikers, said that was never the case. Rather, he said, the hunger strikers were wary in the summer of 1981 because British authorities had reneged on a number of earlier offers. With four hunger strikers already dead, those remaining refused to call off the strike until a British official came to them in the prison to grant assurances that the offer was legitimate. This never happened, and the hunger strikers said they would continue their protest.
“The thing that annoys republicans is the hurt he caused the families,” Cllr. McMonagle said of Mr. O’Rawe’s claims. “We know we did everything we could to stop the hunger strike.”
The discussion, held at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Letterkenny, was accompanied by the National Hunger Strike Exhibition, which features artifacts from the time and personal effects of hunger strikers. Cllr. McGonagle said he hopes to have the exhibition returned to Donegal in the future.
The participants in “Remembering the Hunger Strikes” -- Mr. Morrison, Ms. Doyle, Mr. Walsh and Mrs. Nelis -- each shed light on a different part of those turbulent years.
“There were very personal stories and wider political stories,” Cllr. McMonagle said. “It was a good session.”