Hunger strike exhibition launched
BY PEADAR WHELAN
``Impressive'' was the general response to the National Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee's exhibition, launched in the Europa Hotel Belfast on Tuesday 20 March.
Containing many items that had probably not seen the light of day for 20 years, the opening day seemed to draw crowds from everywhere. That the venue for the launch was the Europa Hotel also marks the way in which Belfast City Centre, previously a no-go area for republicans, is fast becoming familiar territory.
As for the photographs in the exhibition, mostly from the archives of An Phoblacht, there is a depth and breadth of images that will move even the hardest heart.
Comms, short for communiqués, from the prisoners to their families and from the jail leadership to the leadership outside, were also on display.
However, it would probably be fair to say that the collection of ex-POWs and others visiting the exhibition was as unique a sight as any.
The honour of opening the exhibition fell to Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Féin's National chairperson. He stressed his wish that the exhibition would promote awareness of the republican struggle. ``It is crucially important that people should remember the hunger strikes and the sacrifices that families made and the positive challenge republicans developed,'' he said.
The Sinn Féin representative said also that schools sshould visit the exhibition, as many people want to know what the hunger strike was all about, particularly young people.
Artists capture spirit of struggle
The centrepiece of the National Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee's exhibition to remember the 1981 hunger strikers will be three original works of art.
Commissioned by the National Committee, the pieces are the work of Belfast-based artists Raymond Watson, Hugh Clawson and Farhád Nargol-O'Neill.
Watson, an award winning sculptor whose workshop is in Conway Mill, spoke to An Phoblacht about his piece, a carving titled Spirit of Solidarity.
Six weeks in the making, the carving, made of yew and set on a sandstone plinth, stands about four feet high.
``The piece combines three topics'', said Raymond. ``What the hunger strikers achieved was really amazing but I wanted to show the sacrifice of the families and the support of the people outside. Without that solidarity, the protest wouldn't have achieved what it did''.
The figure Raymond carved depicts a blanket man and a woman standing back to back. The woman represents both the women on protest in Armagh jail and women campaigning in support of the prisoners' demands on the outside. The hands of the sculpture are cupped and holding a flame above the heads. On the torso of the figure are carved 32 heads.
The number 32 was coincidental but each head is of different people, young old; male female, with beards and without beards. One is a parent with a child and they are individually carved. ``I wanted the piece to be right'', said Raymond, ``at first I wanted the carving to be more dramatic but the piece has really grown on me and I'm happy with it''.
Hugh Clawson's work is made of concrete and bronze and is called Smash H Block.
Hugh has created a work that sums up the political mood of the time by using materials that are commonly associated with prisons and repression, concrete and metal.
He cast a concrete H Block with ten bronze larks escaping from it. Protruding from the Block is a clenched fist, epitomising the Smash H Block slogan and the determination of the prisoners. More specifically, the piece represents the smashing of Britain's criminalisation policy while each of the larks represents the freedom of the ten hunger strikers who died in 1981.
Farhád Nargol-O'Neill, who has recently been working with metals, created his contribution out of copper and steel.
His work is based on extracts from WB Yeat's The King's Threshold in which the poet describes a hunger strike to redress a wrong. The hunger striker sits at the king's door. In the story the king tries to buy the hunger striker off by offering him an apple but is rebuffed.
Yeats' work was based on the ancient Celtic tradition of hunger striking to demand justice. In Celtic Ireland, hunger striking was seen as a legitimate and acceptable form of protest. To be prepared to die in pursuit of justice suggested the cause must be just.
The work shows ten bearded faces of men looking in at a prison door. On the doorway is carved extracts from the Yeats play, but depicted as comms smuggled out of the Blocks. ``I thought that the tradition of hunger striking and the fact that through the years people have used hunger strike as a legitimate form of protest would give the piece an historical perspective,'' said the artist.
All three pieces are on show with the National Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee's exhibition.
Mrs Dale or Maggie Taggart?
It was a case of they knew that we knew that they knew, on the day Bobby was elected as MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone.
During the day of Friday 10 April, the prisoners, like so many others, anxiously awaited the result of the election.
The votes had been cast on Thursday 9 April but the count didn't take place until Friday. The indicators from the constituency were good, that the nationalist electorate had come out to vote for Bobby in the face of underhand SDLP tactics and a lukewarm reaction by the Catholic church.
In the Blocks, where each wing had its own radio, code named Maggie Taggart after a Downtown Radio news reader from the period, or Mrs Dale, after Mrs Dale's Diary, the prisoners were able to keep up with developments as they tuned in during lock up periods.
To this day there is still the potential for argument as former Blanket men defend the merits of Maggie Taggart or Mrs Dale.
Rumour has it that Sinn Féin's Tom Hartley coined the name Mrs Dale, a rumour that has some standing given that Mrs Dale reputedly was being broadcast in the 1940s when Tom was just a lad and the rest of us hadn't been born. I mean just who is Mrs. Dale?
Meanwhile as that Friday back in 1981 dragged on and the keepers of the radio updated the rest of the prisoners on developments, it became clear that, whatever the result, it was going to scare the daylights out of the British, the unionists and the Catholic establishment. As for winning, the pundits put it too close to call.
As it neared the teatime lock up the OC sent word down the pipes that if the result, which was due at between 3 and 4 o'clock, was announced no one was to bang the door or shout out. This was so mas not to alert the screws to the fact that the prisoners had radios.
Of course King Canute had more chance of turning back the tide than the OC had of stopping the celebrations when the result everybody wanted came through. Doors were almost kicked off their hinges and the sound reverberated throughout the Block. So, of course, when the screws came back, they knew that we knew the result.
As every door opened and every prisoner asked the question, ``what was the result of the by-election?'' the slamming shut of the door said everything. ``No eyes'', (a screw whose nick name derived from the Guard who wore the heavy reflective sunglasses in Cool Hand Luke) was not a happy camper.
Needless to say, on more than one occasion a prisoner got a hiding from screws intent on capturing a radio during a lightning raid on a cell. But the satisfaction of being able to get information that the screws tried so hard to deprive us of, was brilliant.
So, whether it was a Maggie Taggart or a Mrs Dale, this little instrument, smuggled into the Blocks in their dozens, played its own particular part in the struggle.