Timeline of 1981 hunger strike

February 5th: In a statement republican prisoners warned there could be further hunger strikes unless they were awarded special category status by the British government.

March 1st: Bobby Sands, the Commanding Officer of IRA prisoners in the Long Kesh/Maze Prison, refused food and so began a new hunger strike.

March 2nd: Republican prisoners call off the blanket and no wash protests as to not detract attention away from the hunger strike.

March 3rd: Then Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins reads a statement in the House of Commons reiterating their would be no political status for the prisoners, hunger strike or not.


March 5th: Frank Maguire, the Independent MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone died suddenly.

March 15th: Francis Hughes joined Sands on hunger strike.

March 22nd: Raymond McCreesh joined the hunger strike.

March 26th: Sands was nominated as a candidate for the by-election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Other nationalist candidates will withdraw their applications for candidacy in the following days.

April 9th: Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone following a final count on April 11th. Sands obtained 30,492 votes and Harry West, the Unionist candidate, obtained 29,046 votes.

April 20th: Three TDs visit Sands in the prison, after which the TDs called for urgent talks with the British government.

April 21st: At a press conference in Saudi Arabia, prime minister Margaret Thatcher declared the British government would not meet the three TDs. Further, she stated: “We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime, it is not political.”

April 23rd: Marcella Sands, Bobby’s sister, made an application to the European Commission on Human Rights, claiming the British government violated articles of the European Convention on Human Rights with their treatment of republican prisoners.

April 28th: A private secretary of Pope John Paul II, Fr John Magee (later Bishop of Cloyne), visited Sands in prison to ask him to end his strike. The next day, Magee met Humphrey Atkins in an effort to create negotiations between the British government and the hunger strikers, before seeing Sands again. Magee also gave Sands a gold cross as a gift from the Pope.

May 4th: European Commission on Human Rights announced it had no power to proceed with the case brought by Marcella Sands against the British government.

May 5th: Bobby Sands died after 66 days on hunger strike. He was 27 years old.

May 7th: An estimated 100,000 people attended Sands’ funeral in Belfast.

May 8th: Joe McConnell joined the hunger strike to replace Sands.

May 12th: Francis Hughes died after 59 days on hunger strike. He was 25 years old.

May 14th: Brendan McLaughlin joined the hunger strike to replace Hughes.

May 21st: Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara died after 61 days on hunger strike. They were 24 and 23 years old respectively. Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, criticised the British government’s attitude toward the strike.

May 22nd: Kieran Doherty joined the hunger strike.

May 26th: McLaughlin, who had joined the strike 12 days before, is taken off the strike after he experiences internal bleeding.

May 28th: Martin Hurson joined the hunger strike to replace McLaughlin. Thatcher visited Northern Ireland and called the strike the “last card” of the IRA.

May 29th: The names of four hunger strikers, as well as five other republican prisoners, were put forward as candidates in the Irish general election.

June 3rd: The Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP) issued a statement on the hunger strike. The organisation, established by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, asked for improvements in the prisons but denied political status.

June 8th: Tom McElwee joined the hunger strike.

June 11th: Ireland held a general election. Hunger striker Kieran Doherty was elected as an Anti H-Block TD for Cavan–Monaghan, and fellow prisoner Paddy Agnew was elected in Louth, ddenying Charles Haughey the chance to form a government, and enabling Fine Gael and Labour to form a government with Garret FitzGerald as taoiseach. The following day the British government published proposals to change the Representation of the People Act, disallowing prisoners to stand as candidates in elections.

June 15th: Sinn Féin issued a statement declaring a new prisoner would join the hunger strike each week. Paddy Quinn joined the hunger strike.

June 22nd: Michael Devine joined the hunger strike.

June 29th: Laurence McKeown joined the hunger strike. The following day the British government released a statement declaring once again that it would not grant special category status to republican prisoners.

July 4th: The hunger strikers released a statement

July 5th: A deal was possibly on the table between Sinn Féin and the British government, giving the hunger strikers most of their demands. Sinn Féin rejected this deal. However, this is contested. Controversy surrounds this event, as some republicans claimed to have a document from the British government setting out proposals to meet many of these demands.

July 8th: Joe McDonnell died after 61 days on hunger strike. He was 30 years old. The following day Patrick McGeown joined the hunger strike to replace McDonnell.

July 10th: Funeral of Joe McDonnell took place. The British government moved to arrest an IRA firing party at the funeral and seized a number of weapons. Rioting ensued.

July 13th: Martin Hurson died after 46 days on hunger strike. He was 29 years old. The following day Matt Devlin joined the hunger strike to replace Huston.

July 15th: Secretary of state Humphrey Atkins announced that the British government had invited representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to review prison conditions in Northern Ireland. Over the following days the representatives toured the prisons and met Atkins. The hunger strikers rejected attempts by the Red Cross to act as mediators between them and the British government.

July 18th: Clashes with republican demonstrators and gardaí following a demonstration outside the British embassy in Dublin. An estimated 200 people were injured.

July 29th: Representatives of Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) visited the hunger strikers, with the political groups suggesting the hunger strikers suspend their efforts for three months to allow a review of prison reforms. The strikers rejected this idea.

July 31st: The parents of Paddy Quinn asked for medical intervention to stop their son’s strike.

August 1st: Kevin Lynch died after 71 days on hunger strike. He was 25 years old.

August 2nd: Kieran Doherty died after 73 days on hunger strike. He was 25 years old. The following day Liam McCloskey joined the strike.

August 8th: Thomas McElwee died after 62 days on hunger strike. He was 23 years old. The following day outside the prison riots continued and two Catholic men were shot dead.

August 10th: Patrick Sheehan joined the hunger strike.

August 17th: Jackie McMullan joined the hunger strike.

August 20th: Michael Devine died after 60 days on hunger strike. He was 27 years old. Devine was the last prisoner to die as part of these protests. The family of Patrick McGeown agreed to medically intervene to save his life after 42 days on hunger strike. Owen Carron, Bobby Sands campaign manager for the Fermanagh-South Tyrone MP seat, won the by-election. A few days later Sinn Féin announced it would contest all Northern Irish elections in the future.

August 24th: Bernard Fox joined the hunger strike.

August 31st: Hugh Carville joined the hunger strike.

September 4th: The family of Matt Devlin asked to medically intervene to save his life after 52 days on hunger strike.

September 6th: The family of Lawrence McKeown asked to medically intervene to save his life after 70 days on hunger strike. The INLA announced it would no longer replace men on hunger strike at the same rate as before. John Pickering joined the strike the next day.

September 13th: James Prior replaced Atkins as secretary of state for Northern Ireland. The following day Gerard Hodgkins joined the strike.

September 21st: James Devine joined the hunger strike. The SDLP openly condemned the strike.

September 24th: Bernard Fox ended his strike on the 32nd day of his fast as his health deteriorated rapidly. Two days later, Liam McCloskey ended his strike on his 55th day after his family stated they would call for medical intervention to save him when he became unconscious.

October 3rd: The Republican hunger strike ended.