Thirty-two years ago, a protest by Irish republican prisoners ended in one of the most courageous and tragic events in Irish history. It began 9 years earlier in July 1972, when Political Prisoner Status was introduced after a hunger strike by 40 IRA prisoners led by Billy McKee. It meant being treated as prisoners of war and not having to wear prison uniforms nor do prison work. In 1976, the Brits decided that disagreeing with the government was a crime and political dissidents were criminals just as thieves, rapists and murderers. They ended Political Prisoner Status; prisoner’s clothes were taken and prison uniforms issued. Refusing to wear convict uniforms and brand themselves and their cause as criminal, nationalist prisoners wore nothing but a blanket through the brutal winter in a cold stone cells. In retaliation, the Brits began to beat them as they left their cells to empty their chamber pots. Fearing to leave their cells, they smeared their excrement on the cell walls to make it dry quicker and reduce the odor. By 1980, it was decided on another hunger strike. It was an age-old Celtic method of redress whereby one could force justice from a more powerful adversary by attracting public opinion to their cause by showing their sincerity.
There were plenty of volunteers but only seven were selected to match the number of men who signed the Easter 1916 Proclamation of the Republic. In December, the Brits conceded and said they sent a proposal to Stormont; the strike ended after 53 days. By January it was clear that the demands would not be met. On February 4, the prisoners declared yet another hunger strike. This one began on March 1, 1981 – the fifth anniversary of the withdrawal of political status. It was led by former commanding officer Bobby Sands.
It should be noted that starvation is not an easy end. By the time death comes, starving people are blind, deaf, speechless, and in a coma. Throughout the horrid ordeal, their limbs are bloated and their abdomens swollen. Their hair falls out, their gums ulcerate, their tongue is swollen and their teeth loosen. They suffer dehydration from bouts of nausea and diarrhea; whatever the temperature, they shiver with cold; their skin is shriveled and scaly and they are as dry as old parchment, no longer able to muster enough fluid to even cry. The agony is staggering to imagine.
Fully aware of the consequences, other prisoners joined one at a time at staggered intervals, to arouse maximum public support to pressure PM Thatcher. A sympathetic public even elected Bobby Sands to the British Parliament during the strike, prompting media interest from around the world. Tomas O’Fiaich, Archbishop of Armagh, visited the prison and condemned conditions there. After two more prisoners were elected to office, the Brits rushed through an Act preventing prisoners from running in elections.
But neither public pressure, the value of Irish life nor the cause of patriots refusing to be labeled criminals swayed the Iron Maiden from her stubborn refusal to grant the simplest of concessions. 32 years ago on May 5, Bobby Sands was first to die. Then one by one nine more young men starved to death rather than criminalize Ireland’s fight for freedom. Sands’ funeral was attended by more than 100,000 people; it wasn’t just about wearing jeans.
The strike was called off on October 3. Three days later the prisoners were allowed the right to wear their own clothes and one by one all the demands were met, but to save face, the Brits refused to officially recognize the men as political prisoners. Thirteen other strikers who had been saved by the ending of the hunger strike, still suffer to this day from the effects of their ordeal, with digestive, visual, physical and neurological disabilities.
In the final analysis, the Brits paid the price of having world pressure focused on what, until then, had merely been an internal struggle that they had been able to conceal from the world. Ireland’s 10 new martyrs had made their cause a world issue and their sacrifice was verified for it paved the way for Sinn Fein’s entry into the political arena and the subsequent Peace that followed.
They were our bravest and best which is why they had to die, for because of them the cause of a united Ireland is sacred. As we prayerfully remember with love and pride the names of the martyrs of 1916, let us also remember the names of:
Bobby Sands (age 27), died 5 May after 66 days; Francis Hughes (age 25) died 12 May after 59 days; Patsy O’Hara (age 23) died 21 May after 61 days; Ray McCreesh (age 24) died 21 May after 61 days; Joe McDonnell (age 29) died 8 July after 61 days; Martin Hurson (age 24) died 13 July after 46 days; Kevin Lynch (age 25) died 1 August after 71 days; Kieran Doherty (age 25) died 2 August after 73 days; Thomas McElwee (age 23) died 8 August after 62 days and Mickey Devine (age 27) died 20 August after 60 days. They sleep with the patriots.