Republican News · Thursday 26 October 2000

[An Phoblacht]

The nation stirs

A recollection of the first hunger strike


Almost ten years ago, I received a letter from Rita O'Hare, one time editor of An Phoblacht, requesting that I write a piece for a booklet being published to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1980-81 hunger-strikers. Rita's letter reached me in a prison cell in Germany where I found myself in the midst of a two-year trial on charges relating to alleged attacks against the British military on the continent.

In light of the circumstances, I was happy to comply with her request, given that the memory of the hunger-strikers and of the republican prisoners' struggle for political status in Long Kesh and Armagh all those years earlier, helped inspire and sustain me in my own struggle on behalf of the same cause.

Possibly out of consideration for the German authorities' penchant for seizing letters or articles as ``evidence'' to be used against us in our seemingly endless, Kafkasque trial, the article was more one of broad political analysis than personal recollection. Also, Rita had asked that everyone limit their piece to 600 words in the interests of space. Having spent so long amougst uniformed Germans, I took the order seriously. Unlike my co-contributors, who waxed ,lyrical and rambled through acres of print, I held rigidly to the 600 words with the result that I left the editors with a mere 1 1/4 pages of published print. They filled in the rest of the page with an elongated mugshot of me taken during the trial... even I thought I looked guilty!

While I don't recall the exact text of the article, I do remember having made the observation that even though ten years had passed, emotions were still raw regarding the hunger-strikes, and it was difficult to approach them in a purely objective mode. Time and events may have cooled passions somewhat, but even 20 years on, for those of us who lived through the period and were politically active, the hunger-strikes of 1980-'81 marked a watershed and will always retain a degree of emotion.

The first hunger-strike began on Monday October 27, 1980. I remember the previous Friday night arriving back in Dungannon from Dublin and soon ending up at a meeting with the local H-block/Armagh activists, including ex-POWs like Brian McKeown and Jimmy McGivern. I recall being very impressed by the level of energy and enthusiasum among those present. This was to be a hallmark of the Tyrone H-Block/Armagh Committee over the coming weeks.

The machine really kicked into action the following night, with a series of speeches to crowds at functions and dances across rural Tyrone, culminating in an early morning impromptu rally on the main street in Carrickmore. Judging by the response, it was already evident that support for the prisoners' cause was widespread and absolutely yearning for a means of manifestation.

That Sunday, following a whirlwind of after-Mass speeches, several of us joined the large Tyrone contingent which took part in the huge Belfast rally of nationalists from across the Six Counties and beyond in a show of solidarity for the prisoners and their families on the eve of the hunger-strike. No one knew for certain what the coming weeks would bring.

Undoubtedly, a sense of foreboding was shared by everyone, but for those of us who were young, idealistic, and rabidly anti-British, there was a whiff of revolution in the air. As we returned to Tyrone that evening, we determined to make every effort to raise support for the plight of Irish republican prisoners about to embark upon what would be a hunger-strike of historic proportions.

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