Hunger Strikers

30 years ago, a five-year protest of Irish republican prisoners ended in one of the most pivotal events in recent Irish history. It began when the Brits withdrew Political status from Republican prisoners. In July 1972, Political Prisoner Status had been introduced after a hunger strike by 40 IRA prisoners led by Billy McKee. It meant being treated as prisoners of war and not having to wear prison uniforms or do prison work.

In 1976, as part of a policy of “criminalization”, the Brits ended Political Prisoner Status. Prisoner’s clothes were taken and prison uniforms issued. Refusing to wear convict uniforms and brand themselves and their cause as criminal, they wore nothing but a blanket through the brutal northern Irish winter in a cold stone cell. After men leaving their cells to empty their chamber pots were beaten, prisoners feared to leave their cells and covered their cell walls with excrement. In 1980, it was decided to embark on an age-old Celtic method of redress – the hunger strike, whereby one could force justice from a more powerful adversary by attracting public opinion to their cause by demonstrating their sincerity. There was no lack of volunteers but only seven were selected to match the number of men who signed the Easter 1916 Proclamation of the Republic. The Brits appeared to concede and said they sent a proposal to Stormont; the strike ended after 53 days in December. In January it became clear that the prisoners’ demands had not been met. On February 4, the prisoners declared another hunger strike. This one began on March 1, 1981 – the fifth anniversary of the withdrawal of political status – led by former commanding officer Bobby Sands refusing food.

It should be noted that starvation is not an easy end. By the time death comes, starving people are blind, deaf, speechless, and in a coma. Throughout the horrid ordeal, their limbs are bloated, their abdomens swollen, and their tongues are thick and bright red. Their hair loses its color and falls out, their gums ulcerate, and their teeth loosen. They suffer dehydration from constant bouts of nausea and diarrhea; whatever the temperature, they shiver with cold; their skin is shriveled and scaly and they are as dry as old parchment, no longer able to muster enough fluid to even cry. The agony is staggering to imagine. After losing about 1/3 of his body weight, a more serious weight loss begins when the body begins to consume itself. First the brain, which uses 65% of the glucose in the bloodstream and 45% of the oxygen, turns on other organs to keep itself alive when food is denied. The liver, which normally supplies the all-important body sugar, is forced to break down the protein in body tissue and muscle into glucose, leaving the victim light-headed. Next the body consumes its own fat. The resulting imbalance of fatty acids (ketoacidosis) results in nausea, vomiting, extreme thirst, and hunger for air. To preserve energy, the body slows down all of its functions: heartbeat, breathing, metabolism, etc. As protein supplies are reduced and not replenished, antibodies and white blood cells, needed to fight infection, drop in number so that wounds don’t heal and there is no resistance to infection. The depletion of proteins from the muscle tissue continues until, in the end, they are pulled out of the muscles which sustain life – the heart itself and the muscles involved in breathing. Near the end, the bones often pierce the skin at the joints.

Fully aware of the consequences, other prisoners joined one at a time at staggered intervals, to arouse maximum public support to exert pressure on PM Thatcher. A sympathetic public even elected Bobby Sands to the British Parliament during the strike, prompting media interest from around the world. Tomás ÓFiaich, Archbishop of Armagh, even visited the prison and condemned conditions there. Other prisoners ran for office and after two were elected, the Brits rushed through an Act preventing prisoners from contesting elections. But neither public pressure, the value of Irish life nor the cause of refusing to be labeled criminals swayed the Iron Maiden from her stubborn refusal to grant the simplest of con-cessions. Bobby Sands was first to die. Then one by one nine more young men had starved to death rather than criminalize Ireland’s fight for freedom; it wasn’t just about wearing jeans. Sands’ funeral was attended by 100,000 people.

The strike was called off on October 3. Three days later the prisoners were allowed the right to wear their own clothes at all times and gradually all the demands were met, but without formal recognition of political status. Thirteen others who had been saved by the ending of the hunger strike, still suffer from the effects, with problems including digestive, visual, physical and neurological disabilities. In the final analysis, the Brits paid the price of having world pressure focused on what, until then, had merely been an internal struggle that they had been able to conceal from the world. Ireland’s 10 new martyrs had made their cause a world issue and verified their sacrifice by paving the way for Sinn Fein’s entry into the political arena and the Peace that followed.

They were our bravest and best which is why they had to die, for because of them our cause was made sacred. As we prayerfully remember with love and pride the names of the martyrs of 1916, let us also remember the names of:

Bobby Sands (27), died 5 May after 66 days; Francis Hughes (25) died 12 May after 59 days; Patsy O’Hara (23) died 21 May after 61 days; Ray McCreesh (24) died 21 May after 61 days; Joe McDonnell (29) died 8 July after 61 days; Martin Hurson (24) died 13 July after 46 days; Kevin Lynch (25) died 1 August after 71 days; Kieran Doherty (25) died 2 August after 73 days; Thomas McElwee (23) died 8 August after 62 days and Mickey Devine (27) died 20 August after 60 days.

AOH/LAOH National Convention Homily

After National Chaplain, Father Tom O’Donnell, delivered the homily at the closing Mass of the AOH/LAOH Convention, his remarks were the talk of the convention.  There were so many seeking copies of his words that President Boyle authorized their reproduction on the front page of your National Digest.  We even procured a photo of Father Tom’s father, the patriot Bartley O’Donnell, as a young man.  This is what Father Tom had to say:

It is very appropriate that we are celebrating the closing Mass of the 2010 National AOH and LAOH Convention at this beautiful Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains. Just as St. Peter was held in chains by the Romans prior to his martyrdom, the Irish people have been held in chains far too long by the British government. Today we are celebrating this Mass for the intention of Peace and Reconciliation and to pray for the many thousands of Irish martyrs who have died as a result of British tyranny – the thousands who died of starvation in An Gorta Mor, the Great Irish hunger of the 1840’s, the heroes of the 1916 War for Independence, the fourteen martyrs of  Bloody Sunday of January 30, 1972, the ten Hunger Strikers of 1981 and the hundred of other innocent men, women and children who have died as a result of the troubles over the years.  All of these brave people had these goals in common – peace and justice, faith and freedom, and One Island, One Ireland with Justice for all.

There are not too many people, let alone a Catholic Priest, who would admit that their father spent time in jail. However, I am proud to admit that my father, Bartley O’Donnell, was incarcerated and was a prisoner 0f the British. When the Irish War for Freedom and Independence began on Easter Week of 1916, my dad was not quite sixteen years old.  He was saddened by the news that the uprising was crushed after one week and that the Freedom Fighters became martyrs for the sake of Irish Independence.  My father’s desire to be able to practice his Catholic faith and be free from British oppression inspired young Bartley and his brothers to join the Galway Volunteers, a provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army.  My dad and my uncles were motivated by the symbol and the words of the O’Donnell family crest which they saw tacked above the door of their humble farm home near Woodstock, in Galway.  The family crest contains a hand holding a cross with the words: ‘With this sign, thou shall conquer.”

For several years my young teenage father and his brothers engaged in commando activities.  My dad told me how they hid in the woods near their thatched room home and destroyed several British trucks which were carrying supplies and munitions back and forth along the main road from Clifden to Galway City. Eventually, the revolutionary activity of the O’Donnell brothers was reported by informers and my dad and my Uncle Tom were arrested by the Black and Tans and thrown into the Galway jail.  Dad and Uncle Tom tried to dig a tunnel to escape but the tunnel collapsed on them and they were recaptured. My father spent a total of six months incarcerated in the Galway jail. His faith and his desire for freedom sustained him during his time in prison.

The heroic efforts of the Martyrs of the Easter Rising and many young Irishmen like my father laid the foundation for the Anglo-Irish agreement and the establishment of the Irish Free State in   1922.  However, for all the Irish people the treaty was a bitter pill to swallow since the six counties of the Northern Ireland were separated from the twenty six counties of southern Ireland and remained handcuffed and in chains to the British reigns.

On Sunday, January 30, 1972 as the residents of Derry were engaged in a peaceful Civil Rights protest, fourteen people were murdered by the British paramilitaries.  Seven of the fourteen who were killed were teenagers, including six who were only seventeen. They were innocent of any wrong doing. On that Bloody Sunday a dark cloud descended over Derry City and remained for thirty eight years until Tuesday, June 15, 2010. On that day, about one month ago, the ghost of the British Army was banished from the streets and the dignity and pride of the people of Derry returned as the Lord Saville report exonerated the Bloody Sunday martyrs of any wrongdoing. Prime Minister David Cameron offered an extraordinary apology for the 1972 killings of the unarmed demonstrators by the British soldier saying that the long awaited judicial inquiry left no doubt that the Bloody Sunday killings were both unjustified and unjustifiable. Mr. Cameron went on to relate that there was no justification for the shooting of the civilian casualties. One of the most damaging sentences in the Saville report stated that one of the victims was shot while crawling away from the soldiers and another while he was lying mortally wounded on the ground.

The young Hunger Strikers of 1981 were all martyrs for the sake of their Catholic faith and freedom for all Ireland. These heroes were confined in the H-Blocks of the Maze prison, more infamously known as Long Kesh.  These ten Republican prisoners went on a hunger strike with five demands, the most potent being that they refused to be treated as criminals. After the hunger strike was completed these ten brave Irishmen had made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives for what they believed in – that they had the right to practice their Catholic faith and the right to be free Irishmen.

This hunger strike of 1981 was one of, if not the most influential periods in the Irish Republican Army’s long campaign to remove Britain’s role from Irish politics. It not only thwarted Britain’s plan to criminalize the IRA prisoners in the H-Blocks, but concentrated world wide media attention on the war in Ireland, paving the way for Sinn Fein’s entrance into the political arena and the electoral successes that have followed. These ten Republican volunteers paid the ultimate sacrifice in the summer months of 1981. Their names will be forever written in the hearts and minds of all people in Ireland and abroad.

As their lives were ebbing away, the Bloody Sunday Martyrs and the Hunger Strikers were sustained by their deep and abiding faith.  They had the same faith as St. Peter. When Jesus asked Peter; “Who do you say that I am? “  Peter replied: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Christ then said to Peter: “Upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  The martyrs of 1916 and the martyrs of 1972 and 1981 were sustained by their faith in Christ, the Son of the Living God, and their faith in their Catholic Church, a Church that will be here till the end of time and a Church that neither hell nor the British government can destroy.  For many centuries the British oppressors have tried not only to take away the freedom of the Irish people but their Catholic faith as well. But the words of Christ will always prevail “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” All of these Irish martyrs have given their lives to preserve the faith and the freedom of the people of Ireland.

Bobby Sands wrote in the last lines of his diary “If they weren’t able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won’t break you, they won’t be able to destroy me, because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people is in my heart. The day will dawn, when all the people of Ireland will have the freedom to show. It is then that we will see the Rising of the Moon.”

In the past thirty eight years since Bloody Sunday, there have been many significant gains and progress towards the freedom for all Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and its further implementation during the past several years is one step in the right direction. Unfortunately, sometimes with a measure of success, also comes apathy.  Some may think that the struggle for a peaceful reunification is over. However, we must remember that the dissidents will continue to fight to prevent and derail the unification process.  Therefore, it is of prime importance that we leave this convention with a new strength and purpose. We must continue to lobby our politicians on the National, State, County and Municipal levels to support the United Ireland Resolution, so that, God willing, we will have a United Ireland in 2016, the 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising.

As Irish American Catholics and especially as members of the AOH and LAOH we must continue the peaceful fight and hope for the day when all Ireland will be free  and the six counties of the North will be  reunited to the twenty-six counties of the South and there will be a One Island, One Ireland with Justice for all, Because if even one county is not free, if one town is not free, if one village is not free, if one neighborhood is not free, if one family is not free, if one man is not free, if one woman is not free, if one child  is not free, all of Ireland remains in chains.

All of these Irish martyrs and my father, Bartley, will be forever connected by their deep and abiding faith in the cross and the belief that “with this sign thou shall conquer; with this Cross thou shall conquer.”   The Sign of the Cross has triumphed in Galway.   In 1955 the Cross rose triumphantly on top of the dome of the Galway Cathedral. This beautiful Cathedral, dedicated to St. Nicholas and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was erected on the site of the infamous Galway jail where my dad and many other brave Irish men were held prisoner by the British.  This magnificent Cathedral and its cross will forever be a sign that good will triumph over evil and that “with this Cross thou shall conquer.”  In the words of late broadcaster Paul Harvey: “That’s the rest of the story.”