Hunger Strikes

The use of hunger strike as a form of protest has a long tradition in British and Irish prisons. For example, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, died whilst on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in 1920. In the early years of ‘the Troubles’, a hunger strike in Crumlin Road Gaol in 1972 by republican – and some loyalist – prisoners resulted in the granting of special category status for political prisoners. The removal of this status in 1976 led to five years of protests by Irish republican prisoners, including the Blanket protest and the no wash protest. A hunger strike in 1980 was also undertaken by seven men in the H-Blocks and three women in Armagh Gaol, but it ended on 18 December after 53 days, without any gains for the prisoners.

The 1981 hunger strike marked the escalation of the five year protest by Irish republican prisoners in response to the withdrawal of special category status for political prisoners in 1976. The aim of the 1981 hunger strike was the reinstatement of political status for republican prisoners and the meeting of ‘five demands’: the right of prisoners to wear their civilian clothes at all times; the right to free association within a block of cells; the right not to do prison work; the right to educational and recreational facilities; and the restoration of lost remission of sentence.

The 1981 hunger strike began on 1 March 1981 when Bobby Sands – the PIRA’s leader or ‘Officer Commanding’ in the H-Blocks – refused food. He was followed on the strike by 22 men, each joining one at a time, at staggered intervals. On 9 April, whilst still on hunger strike, Bobby Sands was elected a Westminster MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in a by-election, which served to focus the world’s media on the hunger strike. Another hunger striker, Kieran Doherty, was elected as a TD to the Dail (parliament) in Dublin. However, despite international pressure, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to grant concessions.

On 5 May Bobby Sands died after 66 days on hunger strike. Nine further men – six IRA and three INLA – were to die during the hunger strike before it was called off on 3 October. (By this stage of the protest, the families of the hunger strikers had begun to intervene to prevent further deaths.) Three days later, the British government announced a series of concessions to the prisoners which included the right to wear their own clothes. Although these concessions did not formally grant the prisoners political status, they did meet many aspects of the ‘five demands’.

In the short term, the calling off of the hunger strike was billed by the British press as a victory for Thatcher and a defeat for the PIRA. However, in the long term, the hunger strike boosted support for and recruitment to the PIRA. The republican movement gained a great deal of international sympathy and Bobby Sands became known as an Irish republican martyr (with 100,000 lining the route of his funeral). In addition, Bobby Sands’s election victory was a key catalyst for Sinn Fein’s move towards electoral politics and its emergence as a mainstream political party in NI and, eventually, the Republic of Ireland.

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Source
Article

CAIN

Campbell, B., McKeown, L. & O’Hagan, F. (Eds.) (1994)

Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H Block Struggle, 1976 –1981. Belfast: Beyond the Pale Press.

Parallel Stories

Bobby Sands’s death was I think one of the great watersheds of the conflict
Peter

Play Film

What conditions do you think led to the hunger strikes in both Maze and Long Kesh Prison and Armagh Gaol?

You would need to have a heart of stone not to feel some sympathy
John

Play Film

It was terrible to see an emaciated man lying on a bed in a cell
Danny

Play Film

Watch the clips of Danny and John. How do their perspectives differ? Why?

I put my name forward
Mary

Play Film

He knew what was ahead of him
Brendan

Play Film

As the eyesight went, sense of small became more acute
Laurence

Play Film

Watch all of the clips. What were the consequences of the 1981 hunger strikes? List those mentioned in the clips.

Gusty Spence was on hunger strike
Bobby

Play Film

Links to NI Curriculum

CCEA GCSE History: Unit 1; Section B; Option 2: Changing Relations: Northern Ireland and its Neighbours, 1965–1998

Questions based on GCSE CEA history exam papers

01.
Using the clip of Peter and your contextual knowledge, do you agree that Bobby Sands’s death in 1981 was a key turning point of the conflict in Northern Ireland? Give two reasons.

02.
How useful is the clip of Brendan for an historian studying the 1981 hunger strike? Explain your answer, using the clip and your contextual knowledge.

03.
How useful is the clip of Laurence for an historian studying the 1981 hunger strike? Explain your answer, using the clip and your contextual knowledge.

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Transcript

Peter

“Bobby Sands’s death was I think one of the great watersheds of the conflict. And it was no ordinary death and Sands was no ordinary prisoner and no ordinary man, because he was an elected member of parliament. And it was a combination of his readiness to sacrifice his life for the cause in which he believed, plus the fact that he had been elected to Westminster in London, democratically elected, that raised the level of the conflict and the level of understanding of the republican cause to an entirely different level. And of course nine more hunger strikers died after Bobby Sands. And it is the great watershed, the great pivot of the conflict.”

Transcript

John

“When I came in here I stood, perhaps unconsciously, with my back in actual fact to a certain part of the hospital. And perhaps for good reason. Because I’m not entirely sure that I can actually visit there because I was actually there on certain occasions during the hunger strike – I had duties to perform here. And it, I recall all too sharply and all too vividly some of the things that I saw at that particular time. They were dignified but they were very painful. And I cannot see a photograph of some of the lads who were here. I cannot even think of their relatives – their mothers, sisters, brothers – who I spoke to. And I know the sheer agony that they were going through. And you would need to have a heart of stone not to feel some sympathy for what was happening. We treated them with the utmost humanity and respect. And they reciprocated because they thanked the staff here for their many acts of kindness. And it was the sheer hopelessness and madness of it all that I think still touches us today.”

Transcript

Danny

“Well this is the hospital wing with the cells where ten men died on hunger strike over a seven month period in 1981. It’s hard for me now to remember which room, I mean I know the room at the very end on the left was where I visited Brendan Hughes. This might have been the room, or the cell, where myself and Mrs McKenna visited Sean when his condition deteriorated so rapidly. It was terrible to see an emaciated man lying on a bed in a cell, these dark slatted windows. And basically he had lost his sight and was delirious. And you had the prison officers coming in and saying ‘you have to save him, you have to save him, sign on the dotted line, sign on the dotted line.’ Because they were also involved in waging a war to defeat the hunger strike, thinking that that would defeat the IRA and the republican struggle.”

Transcript

Mary

During that summer of 1980 we had talked about, I mean what was the next thing? Because the men had been on the no wash in the blocks for a few years, and well we were saying this can’t go on without something else. And then the hunger strike, we started talking about it. So during that whole summer period we spoke about it and thinking that that was the only other alternative, that was the only other avenue left to us. So … there had been, there was daily communication between the OC of the blocks and the OC here, and what the men were discussing, and we were letting them know our discussions and what have you. So anyway it was decided then that there would be a hunger strike. Now the movement were opposed to it, they didn’t want a hunger strike. But we thought it was the only thing left for us so… then it was decided the… for to volunteer your name. So I put my name forward. I mean it wasn’t something I took lightly. I had to think of my father who wasn’t in the greatest of health and who had lost my mummy. And I had two younger brothers. But, at the same time, I wasn’t prepared to, to stay in the stalemate we were in. So I put, as I say, I put my name forward and was told that I could go on hunger strike.

Transcript

Brendan

“When he first went on the hunger strike there was…you didn’t… they didn’t go into the hospital for so many days like, I think it was maybe 20 days or, I don’t know, I’m not sure about that. But they were allowed visits. So I remember coming in here to the hospital along with my brother and sister in law, to visit Martin on one particular occasion, anyhow we must have got him off the hop, he was out of the bed. He must have been to the bathroom or something like that. And he was out of the bed. And he looked like an old man – very old man. The hair was shaved and face was drawn. But he got back into the bed again and he was in good form. And we told him, you know I explained to him like, you know, did he realise what was ahead of him and all this. ‘Ah’ he says ‘yeah’. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was determined to do what he wanted to do. He says that there was… the other, five other prisoners had died. He knew what was ahead of him. But he said that there was no way that they were giving in in any way. That it was their struggle. And the treatment that they got from they came into the prison, and the treatment by the RUC at the courthouses and all this like, there was no way that they were giving in, they had stood their ground and there was no way they were giving in.”

Transcript

Laurence

Round about 40 days my eyesight started to go. And I think that was the same with most people. So things like reading just didn’t become, were impossible. First of all you’d see double, you’d see very clearly double, but like two images side by side. And then it moved a more fuzzy type of thing. And then the lights started to annoy you, particularly them fluorescent lights. And if there was a flicker in them at all it would have drove you daft. And the other thing we noticed was that as the eyesight went, sense of smell became more acute. So there would be orderlies out here polishing the floor and the smell of polish, smell of the kitchens which are just across from us, would really, you know, it could be overwhelming at times. And the thing about the hunger strike was that food was kept in our cells: in the morning they’d bring in our breakfast, it sat on a table at the bottom of the bed, it sat there until lunchtime, they took the breakfast out and put the dinner in, dinner sat there ‘til tea time and they took the dinner out and put the tea in. But during the period of time that it sat there obviously the food cooled and congealed and the smell of it was obnoxious.

Transcript

Bobby

The loyalists went through same things exactly as republicans. People went on hunger strikes as well, thankfully none had to go as far as death. Lord forbid if that ever had happened, I don’t know what would have came out of that. I know Gusty Spence was on hunger strike for I think maybe 30 or 40 days, it was a long time.