Monday, March 06, 2006


Looking back at the Hunger Strikes

The men went through hellIt's 25 years since the Hunger Strikes took place and there's an excellent article in The Guardian by Melanie McFadyean, which can be read here, which details the great suffering these men went through.

Seven of the surviving Hunger Strikers agreed to be interviewed: Laurence McKeown, Paddy Quinn, Pat Sheehan, Jackie McMullan, Brendan McLaughlin, Gerard Hodgins and Brian (not his real name - his workmates know nothing of his past and his job takes him to loyalist areas).

I found Paddy Quinn's story particularly horrific:

"The first hunger strikers had what became known as the Five Demands: the right not to wear prison uniform, the right not to do penal work, the right to associate freely with other prisoners, the right to get one visit, one letter and one parcel a week, and the restoration of the remission lost on protest. Quinn joined the fast in June, by which time four men were already dead - Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O'Hara.

On his 19th day, Quinn was taken to the prison hospital. There he heard Joe McDonnell dying and his wife, Goretti, weeping. He remembers Martin Hurson's death on July 13: "I could hear his brother shouting, 'Martin! Martin!' I could hear Martin saying that the lights were out. Then it went quiet. The next day they put me into Martin's cell."

By that time Quinn couldn't keep even water down. "Maybe it crossed your mind to go off the hunger strike, but I wouldn't give up. You always had this thought - Maggie Thatcher wasn't going to criminalise me. Some time around then I came round in the intensive care unit. My lips were swollen, chapped and cut. They said I'd been biting them. I remember hyperventilating, my heart was going that fast, I could hear the scraping and screeching of the blood on the back of my brain, I could feel this terrible pain. A medical orderly was helping me to breathe, but I was hallucinating that the screws were trying to kill me, I could hear the noise in my throat, gasping for breath. You were watching the deterioration of your own body, thinking, 'I have to do this; I'm going to keep going.' It was just pain, day after day. Then one day I went for a shower, I collapsed in the shower, then there was the sickness.

"I remember looking at the jug of water and repeating to myself, 'I'm going to keep it down.' And it did stay down. That's when the walking stopped, I was in a wheelchair. My eyes had gone, all I could see were shadows. I had reached that point that I was looking forward to death. I felt a real sense of contentment. I had accepted I was going to die and I was happy with my decision. That was maybe after 43 days, in and out of consciousness at that stage."

Quinn had told his mother not to take him off the hunger strike when he lapsed into coma: "I says, 'You either back me or you back Maggie Thatcher.' I was weak, it was hard to talk, and she said there was no point going on with it."

Six of the seven Hunger Strikers support the current state of affairs but one, Brendan McLaughlin, does not:

"Only one of the men fails to welcome the political path taken by the republican movement. Brendan McLaughlin is still fighting the war in his head. He was on the hunger strike for 20 days, but had to abandon it due to a perforated ulcer. He is confined to a wheelchair in his council house in Gobnascail near Derry after a stroke six years ago. His fresh-faced 12-year-old son comes in and out. McLaughlin's former wife lives a few houses along but they're barely speaking. He's not complaining about that, he's complaining about Gerry Adams. "The Brits have no right to be in this country, never have, never will. McGuinness, Adams, I know 'em all - scum bastards. I fought for a 32-county republic, a united Ireland. They're selling out. I'll never change. The war will never end."

Sheehan disagrees: "There is no need for the IRA any longer. I grew up in a state that was unjust and oppressive. I was vulnerable to attacks because of the area I grew up in. I am proud that I took up arms; I believed it was the right thing to do. The situation is a lot different now."

None of the men however have regrets over the Hunger Strikes...

"Winning leaves you OK," says McKeown. "They tried to criminalise us but failed - they politicised us."


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