by DENIS O’HEARN
When people ask me, “what is the most important thing you learned about Bobby Sands?” I tell them one simple thing. The most important thing about Bobby Sands is not how he died on hunger strike, it is how he lived.
The hunger strikes of 1980/1981, in which ten men including Bobby Sands died, are the most famous use of that political weapon. Yet hunger striking has a long history in Irish political culture. It is said that the ancient Celts practiced a form of hunger strike called Troscadh or Cealachan, where someone who had been wronged by a man of wealth fasted on his doorstep. Some historians claim that this was a death fast, which usually achieved justice because of the shame one would incur from allowing someone to die on their doorstep. Others say it was a token act that was never carried out to the death – it was simply meant to publicly shame the offender. In any case, both forms of protest have been used quite regularly as a political weapon in modern Ireland.
The history of Irish resistance to British colonialism is full of heroes who died on hunger strike. Some of the best-known include Thomas Ashe, a veteran of the 1916 “Easter Rising”, who died after he was force-fed by the British in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail. In 1920, three men including the mayor of Cork City Terence MacSwiney died on hunger strike in England’s Brixton Prison. In October 1923 two men died when up to 8,000 IRA prisoners went on hunger strike to protest their imprisonment by the new “Irish Free State” (formed after the partition of Ireland in 1921). Three men died on hunger strike against the Irish government in the 1940s. After the IRA was reformed in the 1970s, hunger strikes became common once again. IRA man Michael Gaughan died after being force-fed in a British prison in 1974. And Frank Stagg died in a British jail after a 62-day hunger strike in 1976.
Unlike in Turkey, the Irish make no distinction between a “hunger strike” and a “death fast,” although many hunger strikes have started without the intention of anyone dying. In 1972, IRA prisoners successfully won status as political prisoners after a hunger strike in which no one died. They were then moved to Long Kesh prison camp, where they lived in dormitory-style huts and self-organized their education (including guerrilla training), work (including cooperative handicrafts production), recreation, and attempts to escape and rejoin the conflict. The prisoners used their relative freedom to raise their collective and individual consciousness about their struggle against British occupation of Ireland. They read international revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Irish socialists such as James Connolly. This was, in turn, a foundation for rebuilding the IRA on a basis that included a less hierarchical and more participative structure, with a higher emphasis on community politics as a part of armed struggle.
As the IRA rebuilt their organization in prison the British government also changed strategy. The main pillar of the new strategy was a “conveyor belt” of security operations that included widespread arrests of young Catholic males, heavy interrogation including torture, and juryless courts in which a single judge pronounced guilt often on the sole basis of verbal or written statements under interrogation. Continue reading