Still rethinking the 1980/’81 hunger strikes

Hunger strikes ended 35 years ago today but legacy lives on in ‘twilight zone between history and memory’. Academics behind this Irish Times series reflect on lessons learned

Irish identities, Ian McBride argues in History and Memory in Modern Ireland, are “constructed upon a grid of talismanic dates”. The commemorative practices, and heritage industries, that have developed around such dates – 1690, 1798, 1848, 1916 – have become potent markers of contemporary politics and telling indicators of how Ireland views itself.

In our current Decade of Commemorations, this performance of the Irish past has often seemed triumphant; nowhere is this more apparent than 2016, the centenary of one of the most auspicious and dramatic episodes in Irish history. Despite the apparent success of commemorating 1916, however, there is palpable anxiety about how the official state narrative will commemorate the upcoming centenaries of the War of Independence and the Civil War, let alone Partition. Commemoration involves decisions about what, who and where is worthy of remembrance. At this point, with more contested narratives of the past on the near horizon, should we be asking: how does the North fit in with these “national” memories?

2016 also marks 35 years since the 1981 Long Kesh/Maze hunger strikes. On this day, October 3rd, the hunger strikes were called off, after the deaths of 10 men: Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Michael Devine. While these men fasted inside the walls of the prison, outside the Long Kesh/Maze complex, violence raged, resulting in 61 deaths, including 34 civilians. This final, fatal protest was the culmination of five years of protest action that included the blanket and no-wash protest.

Our project, which includes this Irish Times series, a conference that took place in London at the University of Notre Dame and a special issue of the academic journal, The Irish Review, has sought to reassess the events of 1981, and their legacy, 35 years on. However, in the long and tumultuous history of the relationship between Ireland and Britain, 35 years –a little more than a generation – is a short period of time. A key question for us as organisers of this project has been, is 35 years too soon to begin explicating what these events have meant and could mean? After all, the running of this series for the Irish Times was controversial in itself and several of the articles also provoked debate.


Indeed, fresh controversy has erupted this year over the strikes following the release of previously classified British government documents, which suggested a second "good offer" to end the strikes was on the table in July 1981. Former blanketman, Richard O'Rawe, has requested an apology from Gerry Adams and former Sinn Féin publicity director, Danny Morrison, because the rejection of this offer led to continuation of the strike and four more strikers' deaths. O'Rawe claims the strikers were never informed of the second offer, and thus the controversy over the ten strikers' deaths persists. Yet the other side of the debate maintains that these archival documents support their point, and that no better deal existed as Sir John Belloch, key adviser to British prisons minister Michael Alison, said the gulf between republicans and the British government was too wide for concessions. The battle of words continues.

However, what is less controversial, and less discussed, is those who died outside the prison during the hunger strike. Little has been done to remember their story, with Lost Lives, a record of every Troubles related death, filling in the gaps. People like Protestant mother-of-one Joanne Mathers, who was shot by an IRA gunman while assisting a resident to complete a census form, which the IRA boycotted against the background of the hunger strikes. Or Paul Whitters, a teenager killed by RUC plastic bullets during this time of heightened emotion. These other deaths fade into the background, adding to the silent majority that constitute the greater part of the anonymous Troubles dead. Their faces will not adorn murals and they will not be commemorated in this same way; their passing noted only in the grief of their surviving loved ones, who keep their memory alive by campaigning for justice.

Indeed, the hunger strikes and their legacies are living history; this project has been enormously enriched – and, at times, complicated – by the memories, stories and reflections of those who lived through these events. The historian Eric Hobsbawm noted the "twilight zone between history and memory", a zone that seems peculiarly thin within these islands and particularly anxiety-inducing for scholars. Human recollection is fallible and memories of events likely to change over time; how we interpret the past is also an individual process and an evolving one too. These memories are projected onto serious political differences. In his recent interview for the Irish Times, Laurence McKeown, suggests "We can tell [our stories], certainly, and we should tell ours, but there are going to be other stories". Our project has highlighted such examples of these different stories, with Stephen Hopkins'  article exploring the tensions and complexities within republican memory (and memoir), with reference to the incendiary debate sparked by O'Rawe's Blanketmen (2005).

This year has highlighted the major exclusion of women from discussions of the hunger strikes and the Troubles more broadly, in both academic scholarship and popular culture. Dr Emilie Pine's article discusses the "glaring absence" of women from cinematic depictions of the hunger strikes. The women's prison protest and 1980 hunger strike have been whitewashed from cultural memory, replaced with a "male only" version of history. As Dr Caroline Magennis discussed at our June symposium, the hunger strikes manifest themselves in curious ways in the transgressive fictions written by women about the conflict. Whereas Hunger aestheticises blood lost by Sands as sacrificial, a young incarcerated woman's menstrual blood is met with disgust by her female warder in Brenda Murphy's novel The Female Line (1985).

We know that women make history. But, whether as female inmates, prison warders, politicians, wives, mothers, daughters, their voices have been excluded. Women also write history, and this project has sought to include female academics from a range of disciplines. With this project, we sought to complicate and augment the pre-existing narrative.

The hunger strikes are a painful chapter within the Irish and British past and, as one within living memory, it is no surprise that those who were affected most deeply by these events feel a sense of ownership over them. Whether intellectual, as demonstrated through the dispute initiated with the publication of the Bobby Sands: Freedom Fighter graphic novel and the Bobby Sands Trust, or emotional, the strikes have been marked as republican territory. Fighting between republicans about the hunger strikes has reached deafening volumes. Yet silences remain in this overall narrative. Our series sought to introduce new topics for discussion. Dr Connal Parr and Dr Aaron Edwards incorporated loyalist and unionist responses to the prison protests and strikes. Dr Maria Power's piece examined the 1980 hunger strike in Armagh prison, while Dr Oonagh Murphy and Bronagh McAtasney gave us the teenager's perspective through the engaging twitter account @NrnIrnGirl1981.

In seeking to reassess the legacy of the hunger strikes, we also wanted to address what might happen to the prison complex where such pivotal historical moments occurred. Several of our articles explored this issue and the complex debates surrounding the Long Kesh/Maze site. For the site has a unique ability to animate a range of emotions and political charge; Dr MK Flynn's contribution  assessed precisely this point. Dr George Legg perceptively probed at the parallel impulses from the Northern Irish government both to commemorate the Troubles and to monetise the site; parallel impulses that are, however contentious they may be, vital to Northern Ireland's "post-conflict" economic and political progress.

We end this project looking to the future. Including the hunger strikes in the calendar of Irish commemorative events forces us to think about the future of such commemorative practices, and what they might look like in 65 years' time, marking the strikes' centenary. So much of the narrative of the Troubles focuses on the ownership of these events and who has the authority to speak about the past. But as the years go by, and those witnesses pass on, what will happen to this history? We hope this series, as well as our Soundcloud page with the audio from our June symposium, and our forthcoming issue of the Irish Review, leaves an archive on how the hunger strikes were discussed 35 years on. The perceived ownership of this history by individuals and communities who lived through the hunger strikes means that the inclusion of these events in academic discussions is sometimes met with resistance. Part of dealing with a difficult heritage is engaging with and valuing a wealth of new material. Academics, through cultural analysis, material studies, archival research and interviews, add to the story and our understanding of what has come before us.