A contested past: the histories of the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes

We still lack a hunger strike history that incorporates all available sources. Our project seeks to address this deficiency by assembling scholars from disparate fields

You’d be hard pressed to find someone on these islands who doesn’t have an opinion on the hunger strikes. The 1980 and 1981 republican hunger strikes in Long Kesh/Maze prison represent a contested past, a lived history. Their impact and legacy cannot be easily or neatly defined.

The strikes filled column inches at home and abroad and were the ultimate propaganda tool as the prisoners’ final attempt to raise awareness of their struggle.

There is little consensus among historians when analysing the crisis of 1980-81. Our microsite on today’s Irish Times features two articles by leading academics Dr F Stuart Ross and Dr Niall Ó Dochartaigh who account for the 1980 strike in very different ways. As these two articles demonstrate, there is no agreed upon history. The waters remain murky.

Much of the debate among scholars on the hunger strikes stems from a variety of sources – often conflicting – available to scholars. While this is a problem faced by all researchers, it is particularly relevant to recent conflicts such as the Troubles, where scholars are divided over the value of “human” sources, such as oral history, as opposed to archival documents. As Boston College and other recent projects have shown, there are ethical and legal repercussions involved in publishing such material. Further, who we choose to interview, and the information that person chooses to disclose, can lead scholars to very different conclusions.


We still lack a history of the hunger strikes that incorporates all of the sources available: media, government and personal archives; and oral testimony and memory from individuals on all sides. Our project, Rethinking the 1981 Long Kesh/Maze Prison Hunger Strike: 35 Years On, seeks to readdress this deficiency, by bringing scholars together from disparate fields to assess the cultural, political and religious impact of the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes both at the time and also over the last 35 years.

Three very different books on the hunger strikes appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s. First was Tom Collins’ The Irish Hunger Strike (1986) which retells events of that period, mainly examining published sources such as contemporary newspapers. While giving a fairly sympathetic view, Collins fails to interpret the conflict and its wider meaning. Then came David Beresford’s Ten Men Dead (1987), still widely regarded today as one of the best works on the subject. Beresford’s most important material comes from republican communications, or “comms”, which were slips of paper smuggled in and out of the prisons discussing Provisional IRA policy and giving a story of what went on “inside”. Finally, Padraig O’Malley’s Biting at the Grave (1990) argues that hunger striking remains an historic Catholic tradition and that the IRA used the tactic for propaganda gains.

There was quite a lull in academic literature until F Stuart Ross’s Smashing the H-Block (2011), the most comprehensive academic work on the subject so far. As well as analysing the struggle inside the prison, Ross examines the work of grassroots campaigners outside. Without the Anti-H Block campaign, Ross argues, the political success of the hunger strikes would have been less. His book follows the protests from their beginnings in 1976 through to 1982 and the changes made in prisons after the conclusion of the hunger strikes.

The most recent work comes from Thomas Hennessey. His book Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle with the IRA 1980-1981 (2013) looks at British government opinion on the protests from recently released material available at the British national archives in London. Hennessey is interested in communications between MI6 and the Provisional IRA during this period and provides a new perspective from the British government to the academic debate. However, again, this book must be read in conjunction with other works for the fullest picture of the strikes.

Of course, general histories of the Troubles have also added to our understanding of the hunger strikes. Richard English’s Armed Struggle (2003), Ed Moloney’s Voices from the Grave (2010) and David McKittrick’s Making Sense of the Troubles (2000) all discuss their political impact on the republican movement.

Testimony from former republican prisoners can be found in Brian Campbell, Laurence McKeown and Felim O’Hagan’s edited collection Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H-Block Struggle of 1976-1981 (1994). Equally, hunger strikers’ thoughts can be found in Hunger Strike: Reflections on the 1981 Hunger Strike (2006), a collection edited by Danny Morrison. The republican women of Armagh Prison share their accounts in In the Footsteps of Anne (2011); it should be noted, however, that academic work on Armagh Prison is still severely lacking.

There are also biographies of the key players involved in these strikes, including Denis O’Hearn’s Nothing but an Unfinished Song: The Life and Times of Bobby Sands (2006).

Possibly the most controversial memoirs come from former republican prisoner Richard O’Rawe in Blanketmen (2005) and Afterlives (2010). Both works challenge the traditional viewpoint that the strikers themselves were in total control of their protest, and that members of Sinn Féin rejected a deal from the British government to end the strikes in the summer of 1981. Instead, according to O’Rawe, they held out for further gain at the expense of others’ lives. The hunger strikes provided Sinn Féin with electoral success, pushing the party from a fringe minority to a significant player in Northern Irish politics.

It is ironic that the controversy ignited by O’Rawe currently dominates non-academic discussion of the events of the prison protests. The divisions currently defining writings on the hunger strikes are not between British and Irish or unionist and nationalist perspectives. They reflect fierce antagonisms within republicanism, and are also related, albeit in complex ways, to the political divide between those who support the current Sinn Féin leadership and a variety of dissenting viewpoints.

I have presented only a small amount of work on the hunger strikes in the space provided here. There is much more to explore – not only in books and academic journals, but in podcasts, documentaries, blogs and edited collections. However, to date, there has been no truly comprehensive volume on this crisis and its legacies on regional, national and international levels. Dr Alison Garden and I hope to explore these legacies both through this Irish Times series, and our symposium at Notre Dame’s London Campus in June next year.

Maggie Scull is a graduate history student at King’s College London