Seamus P. Metress Ph.D.

Chapter 1--  The Ideology and Impact of the Irish Hunger Strike


The Sociohistorical Context of the Hunger Strike

The Hunger Strike is an ancient Irish custom that was used for solving serious personal and social problems.  The concept was originally an Indo-European method for fighting injustice.  However, in Celtic times, in Ireland when one was up against a more powerful adversary on could literally starve oneself on the adversary’s doorstep.  This situation would hopefully shame or scare an individual into concessions.

The Hunger Strike was codified in the early Brehon Laws of Celtic Ireland. The process of fasting was knows a Toscad.  It was usually employed against a chieftain by someone by someone of lower class.  The plaintiff had to serve notice to the defendant before commencing a fast.  In fact, the defendant of starvation was supposed to fast along with the plaintiff.  If the plaintiff died of starvation the defendant had to pay an indemnity to the plaintiff’s relatives and could be subjected to fearful supernatural penalties.

 St. Patrick used fasts on several occasions in the fifth century in order to stamp out heresy.  In one case he employed it to force King Trian of Ulster to treat his slaves better.  Other Irish saints such as St. Edna, St. Deelan, St. Brendan and St. Comgall practiced the hunger strike.  Douglas Hyde in the Literary History of Ireland relates to a story of how several holy men commenced a co-operative hunger strike against the King of Connacht.

Though the hunger striking is not an exclusively Irish weapon against injustice, it has been used since 1916 by Irish Republicans in their struggle for freedom and social justice in Ireland.  Patrick Daly first used it in North Wales prison in 1916 but Tom Ashe in 1917 was the first to die on hunger strike, after being force fed by the authorities.

It would seem though that Terrence MacSwiney is the “patron saint” of hunger strikes.  MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork and an IRA man, died on October 25, 1920 in London’s Brixton Prison after a 74-day hunger strike.  MacSwiney was protesting his unjust imprisonment by a government, which he did not recognize as legitimate.  The same government, I might add, whose emissaries murdered MacSwiney’ s predecessor, Mayor Thomas McCurtain, in front of his family.

MacSwiney’ s inaugural address hints at his philosophy of resistance and resolve to persevere.  The following quote will serve as a brief example:

This contest on our side is not one of rivalry or vengeance but of endurance.  It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most, who will conquer.

During the course of the hunger strike the British Home Secretary, Short, informed MacSwiney “the consequences of refusing to take food would rest wit the faster.” MacSwiney replied:

 The consequences will rest with you…that I would be free alive or dead will be fulfilled…knowing the revolution of the opinion that will thereby be caused throughout the civilized world and the consequent accession of    support  to Ireland in her hour of trial, I am reconciled to a premature grave.

Even in death he stood firm, MacSwiney’ s last recorded words spoken to his sister shortly before the end were:

I want you to bear witness that I die a soldier of the Irish Republic. God save Ireland.

MacSwiney’ s death shocked the world and turned public opinion against the British.  For example, the London Times, certainly no friend of the Irish, editorialized:

The death of MacSwiney will have an effect, which will not be confined to the British Isles.

The times of Brooklyn, N.Y, wrote “He has done more for the cause for which he fought for that a thousand rifles” In France Le Rappel pronounced “a ruder blow to England than the loss of a whole battalion.”  Finally, an editorial from the Charleston-American in South Carolina:

In this very hour when all the world is watching with surpassing wonder the struggles of a heroic people for their freedom, other men are slowly dying the deaths, which only saints can die.  As the great leader of his people, Terrence MacSwiney must and shall be given the place of honor, as that place is by his right.  Bu the humbler patriots shall not be forgotten.  These men are dying for a land whose ground has been made       holy by the blood of saints and martyrs.  To be a martyr in that land is not remarkable.  For centuries, its men, women, and little children have suffered the torments of an earthly hell, established by the most monstrous government that the world has ever known, because they have dared to be        loyal to their country.  Until the chains of tyrants of England are forever removed from the bodies of these heroic people, they will continue to struggle for liberty, and will die as the men within the walls of British prisons are dying.

The sacrifice of the Lord Mayor undoubtedly played a significant role in hastening the eventual British withdrawal from at least part of Ireland.

In addition to the impact on world political opinion, MacSwiney’ s death raised some major moral issues among theologians.  The British exerted a great deal of pressure on Pope Benedict XV to declare his death a suicide.  But the Pope made no statement; although it was rumored the internationally respected Belgian theologian Arthur Vermeersh gave Rome an informal opinion in the favor of MacSwiney.  The powerful political influence of the Irish church in the Vatican also may have forestalled a papal opinion.  The Irish hierarchy in general did not question MacSwiney.  He was hailed as a hero and martyr for country, liberty, and God.

Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne, Australia, enroute to Ireland made a public statement in support of MacSwiney and against British terrorism in Ireland.  His remarks so upset Whitehall that a destroyer was sent out to meet his ship and prevent him from landing in Ireland.  He was removed at sea and transported to London.

In September of 1920, P.J. Gannon, writing in the prestigious Irish journal, Studies, defended the morality of the Hunger Strike.  Gannon said:

In a righteous cause a man can risk his life though he may not take it… No hunger striker aims at death, quite the contrary, he desires to lives.

Further on Gannon states,

His object is to bring the pressure of public opinion to bear upon an unjust aggressor to secure his release and advance a cause for which he might face certain death on the battlefield.

During the strike, the Revue de Clerge in France commented,

The reasons, which motivate his conduct, are certainly grave enough to justify it.  It is a case of an individual life sacrificed for the life of a nation, the common good preferred to a particular good.

In the United States, the editors of America, on September 11, 1920, insisted that suicide could not describe MacSwiney’ s action.  They argued in favor of MacSwiney based on the following four points:

1.         fasting itself is not evil in a hunger strike the good effects are as immediate as the bad effects, revealing injustice and tyranny, renewing the moral strength of persecuted fellow citizens, etc.

2.         the objective of MacSwiney’ s fast was in proportion to the gravity of the ach.  Namely, the vindication of a people’s rights.

3.         his intention was upright, he did not seek to destroy himself but to live in a just society

The controversy over MacSwiney’ s death continued for a number of years afterward.  As late as 1933, S.J. Hogan authored The Ecclesiastical Review on Morality of Hunger Strike.  In this work, Hogan reviews most of the theological evidence for and

against MacSwiney’s case.  Hogan rejects the opponents of MacSwiney and suggests “that hunger strike until death is lawful for proportionate grievance and that it is lawful for a man to declare he will fast until death in protest against injustice.”  To Hogan, the death of the hunger striker is “never antecedently certain and is never more than probable…because there are conditions which, if fulfilled, will break the fast.”

In all, twenty-two Irishmen have died on Hunger Strike from 1917 to 1981.  The Hunger Strike has been used against not only the British, but the Irish Free State as well.  The Free State, like Britain, has allowed Irish patriots to die for their political beliefs.

Republican prisoners during this period have shown the following common characteristics:

1.          they did not recognize the legitimacy of British rule of Ireland (or for that matter “Free State”)

2.          they considered themselves soldiers involved I war with all rights of prisoners of war

3.          they were using the only weapon still available to themselves in order to fight social injustice and unjust imprisonment

In 1973-74 on of the most publicized hunger strikes occurred in England, when four Irish Republican prisoners demanded transfer to a prison in Ireland.  Dolores and Marian Price, Hugh Feeney and Gerald Kelly were force fed for 200 days until the government agreed to transfer them.  A song “Bring Them Home” relates the plight of the Price sisters and connects them historically to the Lord Mayor of Cork.

“In the jail that held MacSwiney

In the prison where he died

Lie two daughters of old Erin

And they fill my heart with pride.”

More recently Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg died in the Parkhurst and Wakefield British prisons in June of 1974 and February of 1976 while fasting for political status.  Gaughan’s death was commemorated in the song Take Me Home To Mayo:

My body is cold and hungry

In Parkhurst jail I lie

For the loving of my country

On Hunger Strike I die

The return of Gaughan’s body to his native Mayo was the occasion for a massive republican funeral.

Stagg’s death and burial was accomplished by both governmental and family intrigue.  An attempt was made to prevent the fulfillment of Stagg’s last request, a republican funeral and burial.  The funeral was aborted by the Irish government as they hijacked the body and buried it under a great quantity of concrete.  However, a republican burial detail accompanied by a priest, dug up his body on night and reentered it in a republican plot in Ballina, County Mayo, near his comrade Michael Gaughan.

In 1972, in British-occupied Ireland, a mass hunger strike for political status was called off on June 20 after twenty-six days, when William Whitelaw announced concessions leading to special status.  These concessions were terminated by the British Labor government on March 1, 1976.  The government was attempting to criminalize the participants in the war of freedom.

The republicans answer came when Kieran Nugent refused to accept criminal status and would not don prison clothes.  The British response was to confine Nugent in a cell in the H-Block 5 of Long Kesh without clothes and only a blanket to cover himself.  Thus began the courageous H-Block protest.  Prisoner after prisoner followed Nugent on the protest until the numbers grew to over 400.  the “Blanketmen” as they became to be known, lived with no clothes, horrible abuse, and unbelievable filth over four years.

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Chapter 2 -- The Ideology and Impact of the Irish Hunger Strike

The Hunger Strikes of 1980-81

In the autumn of 1980, protesting republican prisoners in the H-Blocks chose to use the hunger strike as the ultimate political weapon.  A hunger strike began on October 27/1980 and ended December 18, 1980 when the British agreed that prisoner’s demands for special status would be met.  The apparent settlement occurred as Sean McKenna, 53 days into his hunger strike; lay in a coma and close to death.  The settlement allowed the British to avoid death during the Christmas season.  This hunger strike also included three of the protesting women prisoners from Armagh Jail; Mairead Farrell, May Doyle, and Mairead Nugent.

However, attempts to hold the British to their promises of 1980 failed in early 1981.  The British, of course, claimed they had never made a promise of concessions, but even Cardinal O’Fiaich, the High Primate of Ireland, confirmed that they had.  In response to the British deceit, a second hunger strike was initiated on March 1, 1981 by Bobby Sands.

Bobby Sands and his comrades sought basically the same demands as the earlier H-Block hunger strikers:

1.       the right not to wear prison uniforms

2.       the right not to do prison work

3.       the right to associate freely with other political prisoners

4.       restoration of the right to earn remission of sentence

5.       the right to a weekly visit, letter and parcel, and the right to organize their own educational and recreational  pursuits.

Given the situation in British occupied Ireland there were certainly just demands, Republican prisoners in British occupied Ireland are charged under special laws that allow them to be detained for 1 or 2 years without trial (remand) and are tried in special Diplock courts with no jury.  Only a judge presides in these courts where all the normal rules of evidence are suspended.  They are also held under special prison conditions in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh.

The H-Block Protest and ultimately the Hunger Strike were a direct result of the overall British policy in British Occupied Ireland for the past sixty years.  The British have allowed as fascist statelet to exist that has denied nationalists equal voting rights, access to fair housing and employment and the basic rudiments of social justice.  They have also propped up, with both money and military force, the gerrymandered statelet whenever it was in danger of disintegration.  The troops that were supposedly sent into Ireland in 1969 to protect Catholics were in reality sent to support the crumbling state.

Northern Ireland was founded through and insidious system of gerrymandering in 1921---the process was known as partition.  After 80% of the people of all of Ireland voted for a united and independent Ireland in the election of 1918, Britain responded as usual with as show of military force and intimidation.  When military forces failed due to the innovative and courageous resistance of the IRA, they chose to divide the island by a treaty, which was signed under the threat of savage reprisals by the British Empire. 


In order to assure that their partition would succeed, the kept only 6 of historic Ulster’s nine countries.  This gerrymander assured a two to one loyalist majority in the 6 remaining counties.  This majority was allowed to deny the most basic human and civil rights to the nationalist minority.  Further, the Intolerable socio-political situation in Northern Ireland has encouraged greater emigration from the nationalist community, thus helping to perpetuate a loyalist majority.

When the peaceful civil rights demonstrations of the late 1960’s were destroyed by loyalist violence, the government fell.  Once again, the British army arrived to play its role as a protector or loyalist privilege and bigotry.  On August 9, 1971, they introduced internment without trial resulting in hundreds of people being jailed and harassed.  In 1973, they introduced juryless Diplock courts with power of convicting solely on the basis of a confession signed by a suspect while in police custody.  Lord Diplock, the originator of this system, feels that justice is a “matter of gut feeling.”  Amnesty International has shown that most confessions were obtained by torture.

On March 1, 1976, as previously mentioned, the British made an attempt to criminalize the prisoners and began to deny special category status to political prisoners.  The prisoners would have to wear prison uniforms and accept prison work assignments.  This was the beginning of the H-Block protest.  The prisoners refused to wear the uniform and were placed in a cell with only a blanket and denied all privilege ordinary accord prisoners.

The blanketmen were locked up naked for 24 hours a day and subjected to total deprivation of exercise, fresh air, the company of other humans, and reading material.  When the prisoners came out to wash, they were beaten and humiliated by the guards and not even allowed to wear their blankets.  So they decided not to wash.  When the guards started to do the same thing when they went to the toilet, the prisoners started to use the chamber pots in their cells.  When the guards wouldn’t let them empty the pots, the prisoners dumped them out the window.  But the guards shoveled it back into the cells or dumped the pots on the cell floor.  The men then began to smear the waste on the walls in order to keep the floor on which they sat, ate, and slept clean and dry.

The situation in the H-Blocks was described by Cardinal O’Fiaich as unbearable and like the sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta.  It was from over 4 years of these conditions that, eventually, the hunger strikers emerged.  After years of degradation, beatings, filth, poor food, and general abuse, the men used the only weapon available to them to fight the system, and that weapon was their lives.

A common misconception perpetuated by the media was that the IRA ordered the hunger strike.  It was also hinted that if a hunger striker gave up the fast, he would be harmed.  However, in Ireland, it was a well-known fact that the IRA was against the initiation of a hunger strike.  The leadership felt it would divert important resources from the war effort.

Once the hunger strike commenced, the IRA supported the strikers and their families without reserve.  Throughout the fast, the IRA repeatedly stressed the voluntary nature of the operation.  Further, three of the dead hunger strikers were members of the Irish National Freedom Liberation Army, a distinctly separate revolutionary group.

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Chapter 3 -- The impact of the hunger strike

Skeptics may suggest that only minimal concessions have been made. Thus, what has the death of ten young men accomplished. Th e courage and idealism of the hunger strikers has resulted in many former apologists questioning both the British presence and the system of justice in Northern Ireland. On May 31, 1981, the London Sunday Times published a major international survey that concluded:
the hunger strikers have rekindled a flagged interest in Ulster and its problems, as a result, world opinion has begun to shift away from the British government and in favour of the IRA.

The Sunday Times of Rome reported:
that the television coverage of the hunger strikers funerals had brought home to many Italians the fact that the IRA was not the Ulster equivalent of the Red Brigade terrorists. No Red Brigade terrorist could make an appearance in public like the IRA men did at the hunger strikers funerals. For many Italians the sight of hooded gunmen bearing forbidden arms parading before television cameras in front of the whole world, relying on the protection of the crowd, meant that the writing was on the wall for the British in Ulster.

In the United States, Prince Charles' June, 1981 visit to New York became a political disaster. Protestors from all walks of life harassed him and his party and disrupted his itinerary. Princess Margaret's planned visit was cancelled for fear of a similar reaction. The state legislatures of Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, California and Pennsylvania passed resolutions in support of the hunger strikers demands, as did many municipal governments and labor unions. Around the world messages of support ranging from left-wing revolutionaries like the Sandinistas to the highly volitile government of Iran were forthcoming. For example, in Portugal, the parliament passed resolutions during both hunger strikes condemning Thatcher's handling of the situation and supporting the prisoners demands. During the first hunger strike Thatcher threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with Portugal, but the parliament persisted in its support during the second hunger strike as well. At the same time Lisbon's right-wing newspaper carried the
Thatcher Murdered Bobby Sands

In Spain both the Catalonian and Basque parliaments extended their support to the hunger strikers. In France all four major trade union federations supported the prisoners demands and President Mitterand sent condolences to Bobby Sands' family. All the major Indian newspapers attacked the British actions in Ireland.

At home, in occupied Ireland, the H-Block protest and the hunger strike brought together many factions of the nationalist community. Groups that had not effectively worked together in the past came together in massive display of solidarity. The Catholic church was not part of this solidarity. The hierarchy especially did nothing to apply pressure to Margaret Thatcher. In the end it was the church that was instrumental in pressuring the families of the remaining hunger strikers in order to end the hunger strike.

The hunger strike highlighted four other facts of life to the nationalist people:
I .that Irish "Free State" politicians were afraid to confront Margaret Thatcher and in many cases took a collaborationist posture.
2. that the SDLP was not a political party representative of the nationalist people of northeast Ireland
3. that the British still had little concern or respect for the lives of Irish people
4. that the Catholic church hierarchy was too timid to confront the British in the arena of world opinion and for the most part adopted a collaborationist posture.

The election of Bobby Sands to the British parliament disproved the British contention that the "men of violence" had little political support. Thatcher's reaction was to attempt to invalidate the result, a move that was thwarted by members of the Scots Nationalist, Welsh Nationalist and Labour parties. The republicans had used the ballot box and won. The British government's response seemed to confirm the nationalist contention that the electoral process counts only when it supports the government's position.

The Hunger Strike strengthened the resolve of nationalists to rid their country of British rule. This is
evident in the increased political activity, the balladry, and the murals and slogans along the streets of British occupied Ireland.

More recently, the election success of the Sinn Fein party may in part be due to the political base built during the hunger strike. The broad based community support exhibited during the hunger strike may have encouraged the republican movement in their new approach, based on the ballot as well as the armalite. The necessity for a political as well as an armed struggled emerged from the death camps of northeast Ireland. In the words of Bobby Sands:
It must be said that an armed people are by no means a sure guarantee to liberation. Our guns may kill our enemies but unless we direct them with the politics of a revolutionary people they will eventually kill ourselves. Guns don't win wars; guns and bombs may kill a man but they cannot lead a man ... nor will they ever coerce an unyielding man to yield.

There are moralists who would question the right of an individual to die in this manner. However, these same moralists would not think of questioning the early martyrs of the church who died for such things as their virtue, their refusal to deny papal infallibility or the seal of confession.
Some analysts have once again raised the spectre of suicide, an opinion generally more popular in
America and England than in Ireland. Father Salvatore Riccardi, CP writing in Sign Magazine, suggests that the hunger strike was not suicide because the purpose was to win rights, not die. Since the main thing intended was protest, he feels that this separates it from suicide. Furthermore, he feels that because the attainment of rights was uppermost, and death was "not willed" it cannot be called "a means" to the end. The possibility of death is accepted but not as an inevitable result of the action.

When Bobby Sands started his strike, Father Faul, the prison chaplain, asked him, "Bobby, why don't you go all the way and refuse to take water and salt?" Bobby answered, "Because I don't want to die." The hunger strikers did not intend to kill themselves but wanted to force better conditions for their comrades. They hoped that the threat of their death might pressure the establishment to grant their demands before they died.

Raymond McCreesh was quoted in the Irish Times of June 20, 1981, as saying:
My consciousness of my Irish identity is holding me together, giving me strength to go through with this, because to me nothing is more important than the freedom of my land.

Michael Devine, the last hunger striker to die, wrote shortly before joining the hunger strike:
There is nothing that any human being values more than life. Every man clings to it with every ounce of strength of his being. To willingly surrender it is acknowledged as the greatest sacrifice any man can make. Not only to die, but to choose a death which is slow and agonizing, further serves to illustrate the depths of courage and sincerity among the men in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. What it takes to willingly undergo this ordeal, willingly undergo suffering, none of us can possibly imagine ... We here are helpless. All we have to give is our lives.

Rev. John Foley, C.S.P. maintains that moral decisions faced by these men must not be treated as a matter of personal feelings, but as a means of achieving a greater good for a people who are still a part of 800 years of repressive colonial rule. He indicates that their sacrifice and the likelihood of resulting civil disorder may not be viewed as causing more harm than good in light of the long history of evil and the potential for future years of oppression. The hunger strikers would have to view their deaths as the beginning of the end to ongoing chronic violence, socioeconomic oppression, an unjust system of incarceration, and the killing of innocent people.

Reverend Denis O'Callaghan, professor of Moral Theology at Maynooth, was quoted in the Irish Press:
H-Block prisoners must endure intolerable conditions and do not have the opportunity for more normal forms of protest.

O'Callaghan rendered this judgment even though he is apparently not sympathetic to the republican

It is impossible to know intimately the motivation, ideology and general state of mind of each hunger striker. But the general theme of not wanting to die is common to all. All of the hungers strikers that expressed themselves on the subject seem to believe that this was their only weapon to fight an intolerable system. A system so intolerable that ten dedicated young men, in an effort to change it were willing to endure the horrors of a painful death by starvation where the body literally digests itself.

Those casting negative judgment on the morality of the hunger strike as a weapon of social dissent are victims of culture bound analysis. The hunger strike must be viewed in an Irish sociohistorical context and in the light of the cultural and psychological genocide that has characterized British rule in Ireland. Most critics who seem to dwell on the relationship of the hunger strike to suicide fail to address themselves to the reasons why young men must resort to such an avenue of social change. Rarely do they question the gerrymandered fascist statelet of Northern Ireland, a state that is based upon the institutionalized discrimination of the nationalist people.

In closing let me recall the words of Padraic Pearse, the Irish poet, the Gaelic scholar and the murdered Irish revolutionary of 1916:
1 will take no pike. I will go into battle with bare hands. 12

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Chapter 4 --Songs of the H-Blocks and the Hunger Strikers

Irish resistance to British oppression has always been documented and handed down to later generations through the medium of folksong. The H-Block and Hunger Strike protests were not exceptions. Christy Moore, one of Ireland's premier traditional musicians, wrote and sung the song Ninety Miles From Dublin. It is a haunting song that describes the torture, abuse and the courageous resistance of Irish prisoners of war in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh concentration camp.

Prisoners of War is what we are
And that we must remain
The Blanket protest must not fail
British torture is in vain.

Moore describes the process of interrogation, convictions and daily abuse that are the lot of Irish republican prisoners. He also exorts the people of the south of Ireland to force the government of Ireland to challenge the British treatment of their countrymen.

Francie Brolly, a school teacher who was interned during 1973-75 in Long Kesh, wrote and sung a defiant ballad H-Block. Francie's brother Eunan was a comrade of Kevin Lynch in H-Block 3. This was a ballad heard over and over at the funerals of the Hunger Strikers.

I'll wear no convicts uniform
Nor meekly serve my time
That Britain might, brand Ireland's fight
Eight hundred years of crime.

Mick Hanly, another traditional singer composed and sung a lament On the Blanket.

And if we stay silent we're guilty
While these men lie naked and cold
In H-Blocks tonight remember the fight
Of those on the blanket

With the death of Bobby Sands, the Ballad of Bobby Sands appeared, originally sung by a group called the Irish Connection. It tells the story of not only Bobby but Frankie Hughes, Ray McCreesh, and
Patsy O'Hara locked in ultimate combat with the British oppressors.

An Irish soldier to the last
A criminal he would not be cast
And so began the long death fast
Of Bobby Sands from Belfast

It also bitterly highlights British intransigence.

Proud Britannia hide your face
Throughout the world you are a disgrace
How many more must take the place
Of 13obby Sands from Belfast

Kieran's Song, in honor of Kieran Doherty, starts off with:
He was born in Belfast
In Andersonstown
Brought up without fear
Or respect for the crown
and further in the chorus
God keep you Kieran
We pray every night
And bless all the young men
Who keep on your fight

A song about the legendary Francis Hughes tells of how Hughes Lives on Forever.

The Role of Honor is a stirring tribute to all the dead hunger strikers. It exhorts:
Read the role of honor

For Ireland's bravest men
We must be united
In memory of the ten
England you're a monster
Don't think that you have won
We will never be defeated
While Ireland has such sons.

New verses for old songs were penned such as for Ireland's Fight for Freedom:

Oh Bobby Sands from Belfast Town
He kept Tone's ancient vow
To fight till death the ancient foe
That cursed English crown
So he died a martyr's death alone
To free the Northern Gael
In England's concentration camp
That grim, dark H-Block cell.

Finally, Christy Moore recorded a song, The Time Has Come. It is a subtle story of the hunger strike. So subtle is its message the Irish Radio didn't realize that it was a political song. When they were finally alerted to its real meaning the song was banned from the airwaves. Its third verse appears below:

How the Sorrow touched us all
In those final days.
When it was time
She held the door
And touched his sallow face.
The flame he lit while leaving
Is still burning strong.
By the light it's plain to see
The suffering still goes on.

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Chapter 5 --  The Republican Martyrs of 1981


Bobby was born March 9, 1954 in Abbots Cross, North Belfast. He was only fourteen when people began marching for civil rights in Belfast. He observed first, the beating of peaceful civil rights demonstrators, and later the burning of his neighbor's home by roaming Orange mobs. Bobby watched his practically defenseless community attacked and terrorized. Bobby's own family was driven from its home by sectarian hate mongers and he was driven off his job at the point of a gun.

The British Army arrived to supposedly keep the peace but simply added to the establishment's political punch. First came internment without trial and then the murder of innocent civilians by British paratroopers on "Bloody Sunday" in Derry 

At eighteen and one-half, Bobby joined the IRA and by the autumn of 1972 he was arrested. He refused to recognize the court and served a 31/2 year sentence in Long Kesh under special category status. Upon his release in 1976 he rejoined the IRA but was recaptured within 6 months. After  11 months on remand, he was sentenced by a Diplock court to 14 years imprisonment. 

Bobby wrote about freedom and confinement from his prison cell under the pseudonym, Marcella. His essays and poems are both inspiring and analytical, displaying a broad world view, a keen grasp of history and exceptional insight into human nature 

He was the spokesman for the first group of Hunger Strikers, After the British reneged on their agreement of December 18, 1980, Bobby decided to lead a second hunger strike. He started his fast on March 1, 1981. Sixty-six days later on May 5, 1981, Ireland had lost a brilliant leader and a courageous patriot. During his fast he was elected to the British parliament from Fermanagh/South Tyrone. His election on April 9, 1981, was secured by twice as many votes as Mrs. Thatcher received in her election. But the ballot box was again ignored just as it was in 1918. However, Bobby's election destroyed the British myth that the IRA had no popular support 


Frankie was born on February 28, 1956, in Beliaghy, County Derry, the youngest of ten children. He formed his own independent service unit which joined the IRA in 1973. He became a legend throughout occupied Ireland and went on the run in 1975, seldom sleeping in the same place for long. Frankie would even phone the "Brits" to let them know where he was. He was responsible for the death of many British soldiers. For these reasons he was branded the most wanted man in northeast Ireland 

After a shoot-out with the Special Air Services (SAS), in which he was wounded, Frankie was captured on March 16, 1978. He was captured in full military uniform and therefore eligible for prisoner of war status according to the Geneva Convention of 1948. In February of 1980, he was sentenced by a Diplock court to life imprisonment. On March 15, 1981, Frankie joined Bobby Sands on hunger strike. He died 59 days later an May 12, 1981. After his death the Brits tried to arrest his body under the Flags and Emblems Act, even roughing up his aggrieved family. Even in death the most wanted man in Ireland was still feared by the British. Symbolically his death occurred 65 years later on the same day the British executed another great Irish soldier, James Connolly


Patsy was born on July 11, 1957 in Derry City. As a young boy he witnessed the brutal batoning of peaceful civil rights marchers. He joined the Fianna na Eireann and later the Patrick Pearse Sinn Fein Cumann in the Bogside. On January 30, 1972 he was an eyewitness to the "Bloody Sunday" massacre. In 1975-76 he was held on remand for 19 months, but was acquitted of what was a "frame up." After his release he joined the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) 

He was arrested in January, 1980 and sent to Long Kesh for eight years. The evidence consisted of the testimonies of two British soldiers who saw him throw something into the bushes. On March 22, 1981, he joined Bobby Sands and Francis Hughes on hunger strike. Sixty-one days later on May 21st he died on the same day as Ray Mc Creesh. Patsy's dead body was desecrated after death, his nose was pushed in and his body burned over fifty times with cigarette butts. Once again, convincing evidence of man's inhumanity to man, and the lack of British respect for the life of an Irishman 


Ray was born in Camlough, County Armagh on February 25, 1957. He lived and fought in an area of the six counties which the Brits themselves have half fearfully and half respectfully given the name "bandit country." In early 1973 he joined the Fianna na Eireann and later that year the IRA. He had an intense interest in Irish history and language. He was captured on June 25, 1976 after a shoot out with British Paratroopers and then beaten for three days before charges were filed. In March of 1977, a Diplock court sentenced him to fourteen years.

Even though he was captured at age 19 he had almost three years active military service behind him. Ray joined the Hunger Strike on March 22, 1981, and sixty-one days later on May 21, 1981 


Joe was born on September 14, 1951 on the lower Falls Road in Belfast. In 1970 he and his young wife, Goretti, were driven from their home in Lenadoon by a loyalist mob. He was interned in Long Kesh concentration camp in 1973 and upon release joined the IRA in West Belfast. The McDonnell home was frequently subjected to raids by British occupation forces. .

He was captured in October of 1976 and the following September sentenced by a Diplock court to fourteen years. The charge was the possession of an unloaded revolver. Actually, four men, including Bobby Sands, captured with Joe, were charged with the possession of the same revolver and sentenced to 14 years.

On May 9, 1981 he replaced the murdered Bobby Sands on Hunger Strike. While on strike he ran for the Irish Dail from Sligo/Leitrim and lost by only 315 votes. His campaign was waged by his courageous wife, Goretti. Sixty-one days later on July 8, 1981, another Irish soldier was dead. While the whole world watched on TV the McDonnell funeral procession was attacked by the British army of occupation 


Martin was born September 13, 1956 near Dungannon in County Tyrone. He was raised in an area where the social injustices of a fascist state were everywhere evident. Upon arrest on November 11, 1976 he was taken to Omagh Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Barracks for interrogation. He was severely beaten during a two day period of questioning in order to force him to sign a self-incriminating statement.

After a year on remand he was tried and sentenced, but later won a retrial because of the procedures at Omagh. The second trial threw out the Omagh evidence, but convicted him by another forced statement made at Cookstown during a later interrogation. Martin was considered a criminal even though the four RUC men who interrogated him and fellow prisoner James Rafferty were later charged with assaulting Rafferty

Martin joined the Hunger Strike on May 27, 1981 when Brendan McLaughlin had to give up because of a bleeding ulcer. Forty-six days later as a result of medical complications, Hurson suddenly went into convulsions and died


 Kieran was born October 16, 1955 in the Andersonstown area of West Belfast. He came from a republican background but politics were not discussed in the Doherty home. Kieran moved toward active republicanism after observing the forced internment of his neighbors in 1971. He joined Fianna na Eireann and later the IRA.

He was interned without trial from February, 1973 to November, 1975. Upon release he went on the run and gained a reputation in the IRA as an excellent soldier as well as a perfectionist. He was captured in August of 1978 and although unarmed at the time, charged with possession. After 17 months remand in Crumlin jail, he was sentenced by a Diplock court to 20 years

While in prison Kieran became a fluent Gaelic speaker. In the fall of 1980 he joined the first hunger strike. On May 22, 1981 he replaced Ray McCreesh on the second hunger strike and 73 days later on August 2, 1981 he died. While on Hunger Strike he was elected to the Irish Dail by the voters of Cavan/Monaghan. So much for no support in the "Free State." 


Kevin was born May 26, 1956 in Portvillage, County Derry. He had a passion for the Gaelic games and was a member of the Gaelic Athlete Association (GAA). At fourteen he joined the Fianna na Eireann and later the Official IRA. In 1972 after the Officials declared a ceasefire, he left them and joined an independent active service unit. He worked for three years between 1973-76 in England, but upon returning to Ireland he joined the INLA.

In December of 1976 he was arrested and interrogated for three days at Castlereagh, followed by a year remand in Crumlin jail before being sentenced by a Diplock court to ten years. 

His total dedication to the blanket protest led to his putting up with a raging toothache for three weeks, rather than come off the protest to get dental treatment

Kevin joined the fast May 23, 1981 and 71 days later on August 1, 1981 he died. While on Hunger Strike he ran for the Irish Dail in Water- ford, a county far from Long Kesh. Still, he received 8% of the first preference votes (3,337).


 Tom was born November 30, 1957 in Bellaghy, County Derry. Frankie Hughes, the second murdered hunger striker, was his cousin. At age fourteen, he joined the Fianna na Eireann and later joined an in- dependent active service unit founded by Frankie Hughes. In 1973 the entire unit joined the IRA. On October 9, 1976 a premature bomb explosion injured Tom and his brother, Benedict. Tom lost an eye and after being released from the hospital he was sent to Crumlin jail a week before Christmas, 1976. In September, 1977 a Diplock court sentenced him to 20 years

Tom joined the first hunger strike in 1980 and immediately volunteered for the second one. He began his fast on June 8, 1981 and 62 days later, on August 8, he became the ninth patriot to die. Tom's coffin was carried by his eight sisters in a final tribute to their murdered brother.  


Micky was born May 26, 1954 in Springtown Camp on the outskirts of Derry. In Springtown the family lived under miserable slum conditions in a hut that leaked. In 1960 he moved to the Creggan where his father died, followed six years later by his mother. At fourteen he watched civil rights marchers beaten by the RUC in Derry, and he joined the struggle. In 1971 he joined the Official IRA and in 1972 watched British paratroopers murder thirteen civilians on Bloody Sunday. The sight of the wooden coffins convinced him that the violent overthrow of Britain was the only way

In 1974 he left the Officials and joined the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP). He founded the Peoples Liberation Army to protect IRSP members from the "Officials." In 1975 he was actively involved in the formation of the INLA. Micky was arrested on September 20, 1976 and after 9 months on remand, a Diplock court sentenced him to twelve years. Micky joined the strike on June 22, 1981 and 60 days later on August 20th, he became the 10th and last murdered patriot. The church denied him the right to a republican funeral, so his family buried him from home.

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