Hunger strikers’ contribution will endure

BY Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

Sean McKenna died on December 19 2008. On December 19 1980, with hundreds of others, I had huddled in the biting cold outside the Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) listening with dread to the rumours that swept through the crowd that the same Sean who had been rushed to the hospital from the H-Blocks the night before had died.

There were other rumours that Sean was alive, that he had been brought from the prison where he had been on hunger strike for 53 days for political status wrapped in a special body-bag to preserve his body temperature.

No-one knew for sure what to believe that cold winter night as we dispersed, uncertain of Sean’s fate. Sean survived that ordeal although the priest at his funeral Mass said that Sean had been ‘clinically dead’ for four seconds in the prison hospital before being moved to the RVH and that he lived a difficult life with health problems thereafter.

The circumstances were entirely different when I saw Sean McKenna for the first time in 1973. We were interned in Long Kesh. Sean was 17 or 18, similar in age to myself. He wore denim: jacket and jeans, a checked shirt and Dr Martin boots. He looked like a pop star with his spiked hair and lean frame.

He was strikingly handsome with distinctive eyes.

The next time I saw Sean I did not recognise him. It was late 1984. We were in the H-Blocks in separate wings. I saw him through a series of grill bars. Gone were his lean frame and his striking looks. He was overweight due to the daily medication he had to take as a result of his hunger strike.

His eyesight was poor but he could see you if he raised his eyes looking upwards which revealed the whites of his eyes - a sight which left you aching with sympathy for him.

Sean McKenna’s difficult life mirrored that of his father, also called Sean. Both were illegally arrested on the first day of internment, August 9 1971, and interned for several years.

Sean senior was selected for special torture by the RUC. He was one of the ‘hooded men’ - a group of republicans used as guinea pigs and experimented on by interrogators who used inhuman and degrading treatment against them.

He never regained his full health and died shortly after being released from internment.

The McKennas are republicans. They believed partition was wrong and actively opposed British occupation. They paid a high price for their political convictions.

There were other reminders of the consequences of partition over the festive season. On Christmas Eve I attended the funeral of Robbie McDonnell, the father of Joe McDonnell, one of the 10 republicans who died in the H-Blocks on hunger strike.

The McDonnells are another republican family which has paid a heavy price for their beliefs.

Not much was said in the media about the McKennas or the McDonnells. I did not read any obituaries examining the hurt caused to either family. No analysis of why state forces should arrest a father and son, torture the father and permit the circumstances where defenceless prisoners should end up on hunger strike with 10 dying.

There was, however, lots of media for the contrived furore sponsored by the SDLP when minister for education Caitriona Ruane correctly praised Bobby Sands when she attended St Colm’s school in Twinbrook, where Bobby Sands had lived.

Similar public commentary greeted the passing of Conor Cruise O’Brien a few weeks ago.

O’Brien was in a very privileged place in Irish society, put there by those men and women who fought and died for Irish independence and secured a measure of it in the setting up of the 26-county state.

O’Brien started out his political life as a liberal, crusading for justice, for oppressed people around the world, yet the injustice of partition meant little to him.

Ending that injustice was left to families like the McKennas and McDonnells and others.

And it is their contribution to that end which will endure and make the difference to peace, justice and freedom - not that offered up by Cruise O’Brien.

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© 2009 Irish Republican News