Carved in time: the craftwork legacy of the hunger strikes

Throughout the Troubles a wide range of craftwork was manufactured by prisoners, much of which remains today as powerful material reminders of its time


While the Long Kesh/Maze prison was synonymous with protest and hostility, a quieter, more benevolent activity also took place within its walls. Throughout the Troubles a wide range of craftwork was manufactured by prisoners, much of which remains today as powerful material reminders of its time. A substantial body of these artefacts links directly to the hunger strikes of 1981, connected through their period of manufacture or with the enduring use of visual iconography.

Within the boundaries of the Long Kesh/Maze site two very different prison systems ran concurrently. There were the Cages, known officially as the Compounds and the H-Blocks, less frequently referred to as Maze Cellular. All those imprisoned before 1976 were held in the Cages and granted “special category”/political status, which allowed for limited activities and free association among themselves.

Handicrafts became a productive way of filling the day. They were made for gifting; which commonly took place within prisoner family structures, and for fundraising; by way of a raffle or “ballot”. Organised by the Prisoners’ Dependants Fund, it was a unique system evolved to provide financial aid for prisoners’ families. Their manufacture had strong historical links to earlier prison campaigns and imagery of Irish national identity was handed down through family and comradeship.

A large and diverse range of objects was fashioned, from dark, mahogany high crosses and harps carved with Celtic knot-work, to humble, felt-tip decorated handkerchiefs, nostalgic thatched cottages and leather wallets. Hunger strikers who had spent previous terms in the Cages – Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell, Patsy O’Hara, Ciaran Doherty and Martin Hurson – would all have had ready access to handicrafts. A harp made partly by Martin Hurson in the Cages before being transferred to the H-Blocks is displayed in the Eileen Hickey Museum, Belfast.

The H-Blocks were built in 1976 to house an increasingly large prison population. Violent confrontation and challenges to regulation began almost immediately. During these long years of acute protest, which culminated in 1981 with the hunger strikes, little or no craftwork took place as manufacture was only offered to those who chose to conform to the prison system.

A year later, after further protests, handicrafts were introduced. Although not one of the five demands for which the hunger strikers and others protested, they were included under free association, which allowed access to recreational pursuits. It was a pastime that was taken up with vigour. Dr Laurence McKeown, author, playwright and former prisoner, notes, “There was a wild load of stuff churned out in that one year,” and he goes on to remember an unforeseen hazard of the job; after hours of hand sanding, everything in the cell was left covered with heavy layers of dust.

During this period craftwork was constructed and carved from solid wood, usually mahogany, sent into the jails by the supportive nationalist population on the outside. This burst of production embodied a natural human frustration with the incessant lack of interesting, physical materiality. In an environment with little to look at except concrete walls and straight lines, being able finally to create, decorate and even touch something hand-crafted must have lifted morale.

Handicrafts had traditionally been embellished with imagery of historical republican heroes. The death of the hunger strikers added significant new iconography to this genre. The smiling, pre-prison photographs soon became fixed in the public mind. They were often incorporated with the poetry and metaphors of Bobby Sands, for example, the skylark was a frequent motif in his writings to symbolise struggle and freedom. Rules stated that no handicraft could display political references but the prisoners, keen to decorate their work with images which related to their cause, overcame this in any way they could.

While handkerchiefs could be smuggled out, larger wooden artefacts required prison system contact as they left the jail. Hunger striker images had to be concealed under false panels or spaces could be left for photographs to be added on the outside. Handicrafts flourished in the H-Blocks from 1982 until September 1983, when their manufacture was dramatically cut short by the escape of 38 men from the prison. Their subsequent ban, outlined in the Hennessey report, was inevitable as tools and equipment had been used in the escape.

After the breakout the prisoners’ command structure found itself protesting once more as they continued their campaign for better living conditions. They argued that the wing would function best if everybody’s personal development and well-being was catered for, and the reintroduction of crafts became a priority.

It was important for the men to give something back to their families and to have material evidence that conditions inside the prison had improved. Knowing that what was being made could be auctioned for fundraising afforded an effective means to keep contributing to their cause, even in this small way. When manufacture resumed in the mid-1990s a continued ban on equipment allowed only for craft constructed from lighter media, such as lollipop sticks, matches, plywood and soft toy kits. Interestingly they are similar in style to those made by women prisoners, for whom, as revealed by Brid Brownlee, a former prisoner in Armagh, the only construction tools offered were knitting, crochet and sewing needles.

During the years of craftwork curtailment in the Northern jails, Portlaoise Prison became a richer source. In Portlaoise rules surrounding the referencing of military events were relatively relaxed and the amount of artefacts representing the hunger strikers increased. Many different designs were fashioned. Placing 10 photographs of the men into a circle or H shape was a popular ways to develop the composition, with the face of Bobby Sands, often the most recogniseable and well known, usually found at the top or first towards the left. The tricolour or hunger strike memorials were also often incorporated. Commemoration is a powerful component of our culture and by the 20th anniversary hunger strikers’ visual iconography was embedded within the nationalist community, with the image of Sands in particular becoming prominent.

Within the homes of the wider nationalist community prison handicrafts were sought-after political identifiers of family ties and comradeship and were proudly and publicly displayed. Today, whether they bring too many memories of a traumatic past, display overly explicit political symbolism or perhaps just because their solid masculine style clashes with the furnishings, they are no longer on show in many homes. This said, they are usually saved: the new generation has discreetly moved them out of sight into attics or black bags under the stairs. The inherited handicrafts are too poignant and full of family memories to be sold or discarded. They are part of many Irish families’ public and private histories and usually considered to be singular or unique objects which, despite the allures of eBay, remain priceless.

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