Dungiven National Hunger Strike Rally
There is a presumption often made by republicans that when we hold commemorations or someone of my generation mentions in passing some past event that others who are listening connect immediately.Mention August 1969 and they remember or can picture in their heads the pogroms of that month in Belfast or the Battle of the Bogside in Derry. Mention internment 1971 and the mental image unwinds of barricaded streets, the sound of gun battles and exploding bombs, and the sights and sounds of hundreds of young men fighting, sometimes hand to hand with British squaddies on the streets.
Talk of collusion and reference the MRF – the Military Reaction Force – and we assume that our audience understands the use by the British of paid agents and counter gangs to kill citizens and stoke the fires of sectarian conflict.But the fact is that many of the faces looking up at me in public conferences and speaking engagements across this island were not alive when many of these remarkable events took place. The first IRA cessation took place 18 years ago this month. Many were only babies or small children or not even born when the H-Block protest took place or when 10 men died on hunger strike.
While a big part of our endeavour and strategizing has to be about looking forward it is also true that we need to understand our past. You will understand nothing about our history if you don’t examine it in its context.This is especially true of the hunger strike. Why would 10 men refuse food and die? Why would others participate in the hunger strike or stand ready to join it? Why would countless tens of thousands across this island and around the world find inspiration in the courage and valour of the men and women political prisoners?
In the here and now it seems inconceivable. But viewed in the context of the time and of the experience of the prisoners and it becomes clear. If you want to know that context then pick up anything written by Bobby Sands. He lived and breathed and suffered in the H Blocks. His smuggled comms- letters; poems; articles; creative pieces; and stories - written on scraps of torn bible pages or cigarette papers using the infill of a biro, and all wrapped in cling film and hidden in his naked body, tell you more about the brutal reality of life for political prisoners and the nature of the northern state than anything else I can think of.These are not the invented musings or a plot device of a clever writer. They are the daily experiences of hundreds of men and women over five terrible years.
There is a premonition of personal tragedy running through Bobby’s writings: that his H Block cell will, literally, become a tomb. His admiration for his comrades and his feelings for supporters and for oppressed people outside of the prison emerge in the words which he expertly uses as a weapon against a regime which is trying vainly to break and dehumanise him.The recent national hunger strike march in Dungiven brought all of that back for those who were in the prisons or part of the H Block/Armagh campaign. For those who weren’t there I thought it would be appropriate as we celebrate the lives of the hungers strikers and their comrades and their contribution to the struggle for freedom that we should reflect on what made them heroes.
In this short extract from his breath taking ‘One Day in my Life’ Bobby describes one 24 hour period in the H Blocks. The brutality, viciousness, inhumanity and sadism of the blocks and of the prison regime jump off the page as does the sense of courage and fearlessness and commitment that marks the men and women political prisoners of the H Blocks and Armagh.
One Day in My Life:“I mumbled a “Hail Mary” to myself and a hurried “Act of Contrition” as I heard the approaching jingle of keys. Several gloved hands gripped and tightened around my arms and feet, raising my body off the ground and swinging me backwards in the one movement. The full weight of my body recoiled forwarded again, smashing me head against the corrugated iron covering around the gate. The sky seemed to fall upon me as they dropped me to the ground. …
Every part of me stung unmercifully as the heavily disinfected water attacked my naked, raw flesh. I made an immediate and brave attempt to rise out of the freezing, stinging water but the screws held me down while one of them began to scrub my already tattered back with a heavy scrubbing brush. I shrivelled with the pain and struggled for release but the more I fought the more they strengthened their iron grip …They continued to scrub every part of my tortured body, pouring buckets of ice-cold water and soapy liquid over me. I vaguely remember being lifted out of the cold water – the sadistic screw had grabbed my testicles and scrubbed my private parts. That was the last thing I remembered. I collapsed…
It was cold, so very, very cold. I rolled on to my side and placed my little treasured piece of tobacco under the mattress and felt the dampness clinging to my feet.That’s another day nearer to victory. I thought feeling very hungry.
I was a skeleton compared to what I used to be but it didn’t matter. Nothing really mattered except remaining unbroken. I rolled over once against, the cold biting at me. They have nothing in their entire imperial arsenal to break the spirit of one single Republican political prisoner-of-war who refuses to be broken. I thought, and that eas very true. They can not or never will break our spirit. I rolled over again freezing and the snow came in thew window on top of my blankets.“Tiocfaidh ár lá,” I said to myself. “Tiocfaidh ar lá.”