Hunger strike message echoes down the years

By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)

“The Men of Art have lost their heart/They dream within their dreams./Their magic sold for price of gold/Amidst a people’s screams./They sketch the moon and capture bloom/With genius, so they say./But n’er they sketch the quaking wretch/Who lies in Castlereagh.”

This stanza is taken from Bobby Sands’ poem,

The Crime of Castlereagh.

He wrote it on cigarette paper entombed in his prison cell with the filling of a biro pen he kept hidden with other essentials in his back passage.

He was naked but for a blanket, locked in a cell 24 hours a day for five years. He spread his excrement on the cell walls and threw his urine out the cell door.

The prison regime deprived him and hundreds of other political prisoners of the sound of music, poetry books and literature, photographs of loved ones, letters home and visits.

When all this sensory deprivation and brutality failed they took his life and that of his nine comrades.

This and other of Bobby’s poems were about the silence of Irish artists, writers and poets in the face of the awful treatment of political prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s Prison.

In a new book Hunger Strike: Reflections on the 1981 Hunger Strike, edited by Danny Morrison, he examines this challenge as it is reflected in Seamus Heaney’s 1984 poem, Station Island.

In this poem Heaney, Ireland’s foremost poet, self-consciously struggles with a sense of guilt over whether in conflict situations the artist should be heard.

His inner voice tells him: “I hate how quick I was to know my place/

I hate where I was born, hate everything/That made me biddable and unforthcoming.”

But the ghostly voice of James Joyce reassuringly intones, “Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes/That subject people stuff is a cod’s game, infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage.”

Observing the outcome Danny Morrison says, ‘Shriven and advised by Joyce, the poet breathes a sigh of relief.’

And that is how it was for many Irish and indeed British artists and writers; those Shelley called, somewhat optimistically, the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Faced by the stench and challenge of the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s Prison their pens lay dormant, their canvasses blank.

There was, however, an honourable minority who did bear witness to the horrors inside the prisons holding political prisoners.

Some of them revisit those years in this essay-based book.

The contributors, 49 in all, are a mixture of political activists, poets, musicians, novelists, journalists, film-makers, playwrights writing in English and Irish about what one describes as a ‘cataclysmic event’.

It is a haunting tale of heroism and despair, of hope and disappointment, of desperation and determination by a group of men, ‘.....on the threshold of adult young so heartbreakingly young’ as one essayist writes.

A few of the authors explore themselves as they look down the telescope from maturity 25 years on, ‘When I think of the hunger strikers it is 1981 again’ said one.

A nagging question posed: ‘Did I do enough to try to save their lives?’ Good people doubting themselves for dark deeds done that left them powerless then and which they still feel now. In Iran’s capital Tehran a group of 14-year -olds rename the street housing the British embassy from Winston Churchill Avenue to Bobby Sands Street which it remains to this day. Pedram Moallemian describes their success.

A revolutionary poet facing death by firing squad in the Philippines in 1983 pleads with an Irish journalist to tell him about the hunger strikers. As Israeli tanks lay siege to Beirut in 1982 teenage PLO fighters chant “Bobby Sands! Bobby Sands! Bobby Sands!

Things we forgot.

Don Concannon, former NIO minister, visiting and telling Bobby Sands and Francis Hughes, “You have no support; you are going to die” and being told by Francis, “close the door on your way out.” Taoiseach Haughey, arm around Mrs Sands, telling her: “I will not let your son die.”

The people protested on the streets of Ireland, England, North America, France.

The prisoners died but a generation later as one contributor describes it, “....they shine a light that is purer than ever and that points a steady beam to our future”.

* Hunger Strike - Reflections on the 1981 Hunger Strike is published by Brandon. H/B #16 99; PB #10 99.

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