Integrity of 1981 hunger strikes came at high cost

Posted By: August 17, 2016

66 Days, the Bobby Sands film, will soon be released in the United States. It is a powerful work of art. Every Irish-American ought to see this film , at least once. However, a second viewing is probably needed to fully absorb the film in all its depth and greatness.

Fr. Sean Mc Manus, President of the Irish National Caucus, is the only Irish-American leader/activist who is interviewed—explaining the American reaction to the 1981 Hunger Strike of Bobby Sands and his nine colleagues.Fr. Mc Manus, himself did a 12-day fast right in front of the British Embassy in Washington to highlight the seriousness of Bobby Sands condition.When Sands died, Fr. Mc Manus ended his fast to be able to continue his work for the remaining nine Hunger Strikers. He brought to Washington  Oliver Hughes, the brother of Francis Hugshes the next Hunger Striker to die; and later Fr. Mc Manus also  brought to Washington  Mrs. Mc Elwee, the mother of Tom Mc Elwee, the ninth young man to die.


EMOTION: The film 66 Days reminds us how powerful human beings can be when faced with brutality and tyranny

Jim Gibney. Irish News (Belfast). Wednesday, August 17, 201

It is the words of Bobby Sands, written in his prison diary, in the last days of his young life, which provide the emotional power and captivating appeal of the new film 66 Days.

Those 66 days were part of an incredible seven months in 1981 during which nine others died on hunger strike: Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara, Raymond McCreesh, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty TD, Tom McElwee and Mickey Devine.

Bobby’s words are taken from his smuggled diary which he wrote during the first 17 days of his hunger strike.

There have been many films and books written about the 1981 hunger strike but this is the first occasion that I recall where the willpower, human spirit and moral authority of the prisoners is to the fore of this classic David versus Goliath life-and-death struggle.

David, symbolised by naked and defenceless prisoners using the only weapon left to them—their brutalized bodies, confined to a prison cell —hold the world’s popular imagination as they hunger strike to be recognised for what they are: political prisoners. In the prison cells ‘with’ them and on the streets of Ireland and further afield their families.

They slowly died while ‘Goliath’ in the persona of Maggie Thatcher struts the corridors of power in Westminster and Washington proclaiming ‘no surrender’ while two successive Irish governments look on, allegedly helpless but supporting Thatcher by default.

But Thatcher was powerless in the face of the moral conviction of the hunger striking prisoners which is summed up by Bobby in the last entry of his diary, on the 17th day, when he wrote about the need for a “strong mind to resist all”, a mentality he writes which comes “from one’s desire for freedom”.

The moral integrity of the prisoners – members of the IRA and INLA – is tested every minute of every day of the seven-month-long hunger strike.

The stakes could not have been higher.

The film admirably tells the history of the period and the epic struggle by republican prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s Prison to oppose the British government’s attempts to criminalise Ireland’s long struggle against British rule.

But it does so, intimately, within the moral parameters of Bobby’s words and the reality that 10 young men sacrificed their lives for freedom and in brotherly solidarity.

My one criticism is the glaring omission of the voices of the women who were in Armagh jail and of mothers.

The human instinct is to live not to die. Risking one’s life requires a very special, highly motivated and highly principled individual and of course a unique set of circumstances. And that is precisely what existed in the period examined by the filmmakers, Brendan Byrne and Trevor Birney.

The hunger strikers possessed the willpower to calmly cross over the threshold from life to death as did Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg who Bobby pays tribute to in his diary.

This is an amazing conviction which leaves the observer in awe and speechless. But also with a tremendous sense of sadness at such suffering given that all of their demands were conceded, but not until they died. Such was the vindictiveness of the British.

Bobby writes: “I am dying not just to attempt to end the barbarity of the H-Blocks, or to gain the rightful recognition of a political prisoner, but primarily because what is lost in here is lost for the Republic and those wretched oppressed whom I am deeply proud to know as the ‘risen people’.”

The loyalty the prisoners had to each other and their cause was incredibly matched by the loyalty of their families to them. A loyalty which is every bit as awe-inspiring. Their strength and their moral conviction was on a par with the hunger strikers.

The integrity of the struggle was maintained at a high, high cost to the prisoners and their families.

Just before I saw the film I heard that Fr John Murphy, a prison chaplin, had died. A saintly man he ministered to the prisoners from the earliest days of the prison protest for political status and was trusted by the blanket men.

The film 66 Days reminds us how powerful human beings can be when faced with brutality and tyranny.