Rethinking the 1980/1981 hunger strikes

A hunger strike began 35 years ago today which led to many deaths but set Sinn Féin on a path to peace and power-sharing. Academics will explore this legacy in The Irish Times over coming months ahead of a major symposium in London next summer

We are now at a key moment in the decade of centenaries that will commemorate Ireland’s difficult, contentious and protracted struggle for independence. While a huge amount of attention has been, and will be, given to commemorating and reflecting upon the centenary of the Easter Rising, 2016 also marks 35 years since the 1981 Long Kesh/Maze hunger strike.

During the 1981 strike, 10 republican prisoners in the Long Kesh/Maze prison starved themselves to death in an effort to increase pressure on British politicians to return their “special category” status. This strike was preceded by another hunger strike in 1980, during which seven men started the fast for the same cause, with dozens joining them by the strike’s conclusion. In fact, it was 35 years ago today that these seven men – chosen to echo the seven signatures on the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic – began their strike.

In December 1980, three women from Armagh Women’s Prison joined them in their fast. All the strikes, but the 1981 Long Kesh/Maze strike in particular, generated an unprecedented amount of attention, at the time and subsequently, from the public, journalists, politicians, artists and academics alike.

Over the course of the next year, The Irish Times online will be publishing a series of articles by established and upcoming academics, exploring the strikes and their legacies from a huge range of perspectives, as well as republishing articles from its own archive and looking back from today’s standpoint with the intention of shedding new light on a seminal event in recent Irish history and familiarising a younger generation with this complex and contested episode.


In 1976, the British government removed special category status for prisoners convicted of Troubles-related offences. Since July 1972, special category prisoners had additional privileges due to their status as "political detainees": effectively, political prisoners. Yet after March 1st, 1976, those convicted of paramilitary-related activities became ordinary prisoners, a policy referred to by paramilitary groups as "criminalisation". The loss of personal clothes, which were replaced with standard issue uniforms, caused the most unrest. In September 1976, republican paramilitary prisoners, members of the Provisional IRA and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), refused to wear this uniform and only wore the prison-issued blanket. This action caused guards to confine prisoners to their cells for 23 hours a day. Thus, the blanket protest began.

In March 1978, the prison protests escalated to the “no wash”, or dirty protest, which saw prisoners refusing to wash or “slop out” their chamber pots. In addition, prisoners began to smear their excreta on their cell walls in an effort to break down the rancid smell.

In a final escalation of the prison protests, seven prisoners began a hunger strike on October 27th, 1980. They made five demands: one, the right not to wear prison uniforms; two, the right not to do prison work; three, the right to associate freely with other prisoners; four, the right to a weekly visit, letter and parcel; and five, the right to organise educational and recreational pursuits.

On December 18th, 1980 the hunger strikers ended their first protest when strike leader Brendan Hughes called off the strike as Sean McKenna grew close to death, believing the British government had conceded on several demands. When the prisoners realised all five demands were not being met, they began to organise a second hunger strike.

A second hunger strike, led by Bobby Sands, began on March 1st, 1981 to mark the five-year anniversary of the removal of special category status. This strike lasted eight months, ending on October 3rd with dozens of prisoners striking and the deaths of 10 men. A battle also raged outside the prison, with 61 murders during this period, 34 of them civilians. As with the introduction of the internment without trial policy in 1971 and Bloody Sunday in 1972, Provisional IRA recruitment soared. Furthermore, Bobby Sands' electionas MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone delivered an electoral boost for the republican movement. However, the British media painted the end of the strike as a win for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

It was this second strike, and Bobby Sands especially, that caught the public’s imagination. The 1981 strike has inspired a huge range of artistic responses, from murals across Belfast and Derry, Peter Sheridan’s play Diary of a Hunger Strike (1982) and Steve McQueen’s film Hunger (2007). The body of the hunger striker resurfaces in contemporary Irish literature in strange and haunting ways that are not always immediately apparent, from Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man (1994), Anna Burns’ No Bones (2001) and Colum McCann’s novella Hunger Strike, from his collection Everything in this Country Must (2000).

These strikes had an international impact too, from petitions in Denmark, France and the US to a street in Tehran being named after Bobby Sands and a mural in commemoration of the hunger strikers in Cuba.

But how has our understanding of these strikes changed over the course of the past 35 years? What has recent scholarship unearthed about the impact of these strikes on the contemporary political environment in Ireland and Britain? What impact have these artistic depictions of the strikes had on our memory of them? Is it time to reassess the legacy of the Armagh women prisoners’ strike? In addition to publishing these articles here on the Irish Times, our project, funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, of exploring the complex effects and afterlife of these strikes will also involve a symposium, where a group of academics and artists will come together to share their work. This will be held on June 27th, 2016, hosted by the University of Notre Dame's Global Gateway Campus in London and more information will follow in due course. Over the coming months, we shall publish articles from practitioners and academics working across the fields of political, religious, medical and art history and literary, theatre and cultural studies discussing how our perception of the strikes has changed, and how we, as a society, remember the events of 1980 and 1981.

Click here to book a place at the symposium:

Rethinking the Hunger Strikes: a list of contributors to next year's symposium and their proposed topics

The 1981 Hunger Strike and the Irish Catholic Church

Maggie Scull (King’s College London, History)

Negotiating the 1981 Hunger Strike

Niall Ó Dochartaigh (NUI Galway, Political Science)

An Archaeology of Long Kesh/Maze

Laura McAtackney (Århus University, Archaeology)

Hunger Striking and Medical Ethics during the Troubles

Ian Miller (University of Ulster, History of Medicine)

‘The Hunger Strike Terrorists’: The British Press and the 1980/81 Hunger Strikes

Roseanna Doughty (Edinburgh University, History)

The Prison Memory Archive

Cahal McLaughlin (Queen’s University Belfast, Film studies)

Representing Hunger: Silence and History

Stephanie Lehner (Queen’s University Belfast, Cultural studies)

Bobby Sands and Chile: Carmen Berenger’s ‘Bobby Sands desfallece en el muro’

Bárbara Fernandez (Edinburgh University, Chilean Literature)

Did the Republican hunger strikers commit suicide?

Maria Power (University of Liverpool, History)

The Hunger Strike Murals

Edwin Coomasaru (Courtauld Institute London, History of Art)

Republic of Ireland Government and 1981 Hunger Strike

Shaun McDaid (Huddersfield University, Political History)

Labour Party and the 1981 Hunger Strikes

David Shaw (University of Liverpool, Political History)

Photographing the Hunger Strikes

Erika Hanna (Bristol University, History)

Queering the Hunger Striker plays

Cormac O’Brien (UCD, Theatre Studies)

Mediating the Memory of the Prison Protests and Hunger Strikes

Emilie Pine (UCD, Cultural Studies)

The Intelligence War and the Hunger Strikes

Thomas Leahy (King’s College London, Political History)

The Final Step?: The IRA and the 1980 Hunger Strike

F Stuart Ross (Queen’s University Belfast, Political History)

Republican Women and Hunger Striking

Maria Power (University of Liverpool, History)

The Future of the Long Kesh/Maze: Conflicting Interests in Arguing the Past

MK Flynn (Bard College, USA, Politics)

Prison paraphernalia at the Irish Republican History Museum

Katie Markman (Leeds University, History)

Gerry Adams in Long Kesh/Maze: History and Politics

Tommy Dolan (Edinburgh University, Political History)

Redeveloping the H-Blocks

George Legg (King’s College London, Cultural Studies)

Bodies as quotations of history: literature and the hunger strike

Alison Garden, (UCD, Contemporary Literature)

The Provisional Republican movement: 1916, 1981 and complex legacies

Stephen Hopkins (Leicester University, Political History)

Click here to book a place at the symposium: