‘Hunger strikes gave us back our pride’

Martha McClelland leading a hunger strike march through the Brandywell in 1981. (2511MM14)
Martha McClelland leading a hunger strike march through the Brandywell in 1981. (2511MM14)

Derry-based republican Martha McClelland has said the mass campaign on the streets during the hunger strike era gave the people of Derry back the confidence and pride which had been lost on Bloody Sunday.

Ms McClelland recalled how the campaign in support of the prisoners began with small groups of people and developed into a mass movement, the legacy of which is still felt today.

Martha McClelland. (2511MM20)

Martha McClelland. (2511MM20)

Explaining how she got involved in the campaign, Ms McClelland said; “I was here in 1973 but I emigrated to Derry in 1973 and joined Sinn Féin the following year. I had always been involved in political activism in terms of anti-war demonstrations before I came here.

During my time here I was involved in every level of political activity from acting as the local press officer to being a member of the party’s Ard Comhairle.

“It became obvious to many of us that a policy of criminalisation was being introduced and that it was not just directed against individual republicans but against the whole community that supported them.

“At that time I was going to Belfast for meetings and it became clear that the conditions in the H Blocks and Armagh were getting horrific, especially during the cold winter of 1974.”

Ms McClelland said that support demonstrations were taking place in Derry on a weekly basis at that stage but were only attended by republicans. “We had Barney McFadden’s protests every Saturday and we had a tape recorder playing rebel songs to attract people’s attention but it was mainly republicans who came along and at that time the republican community was quite small.

“Conditions in the jails got worse as the prisoners were not allowed to slop out and were forced to go on the no-wash protest. Our protests continued but it was hard to broaden them out beyond the traditional republican base,” she said.

The Derry-based campaigner said that the legacy of Bloody Sunday created a situation where many people were afraid to protest in public. “I was in Derry the summer after Bloody Sunday and the place seemed numbed. People were terrified to be on the streets after witnessing a large movement being shot off the streets. Many were afraid to protest.

“Those who attended Barney McFadden’s protests faced criminalisation, possibly arrest, house raids simply because they were republicans. Young biys and girls were being taken to the barracks and having confessions beaten out of them, followed by lengthy periods on remand before going in front of a Diplock court and being handed a long sentence. People were terrified and did not know what to do.

The veteran republican said that despite the fear, small groups of people banded together to support the prisoners. “The Relatives Action Committee started in areas across the North but was not co-ordinated. I was involved in co-ordinating the efforts of various groups, trying to bring them together into a movement that could attract popular support.

“Trying to organise separate groups and individuals was a difficult task in those days before mobile phones and emails, and many people did not even have phones. My greatest organisational skill in those days was working out who had a telephone,” she said.

Ms McClelland said the National H-Block/Armagh Committee was formed to bring all the groups together. “In April 1975 I was at the conference in the Greenbriar Hotel in Belfast to co-ordinate the campaign and was one of four Sinn Féin members elected to the committee. The big marches started after that. It gave people the opportunity to make their voices heard. At first it was mainly the relatives of the prisoners but others started coming forward as well.

“People found great courage at that very difficult time. Relatives of prisoners, some of whom had never been at protests and others who would never have dreamed of speaking publicly were now standing up, sometimes dressed only in a blanket, and making speeches in front of people and telling their own stories.

“Despite the media censorship and the opposition from the Church, and the political establishment, they got a great reception. Until that point we had been isolated and marginalised and for people to rise up and find themselves taking part in protests again was a quantum leap. The people did it themselves,” she said.

Ms McClelland said the protests became larger as the first hunger strike approached. “We began organising big marches but we needed to become a mass movement and go beyond the republican base. In 1980 we organised a huge march in Derry and we did something unusual; we notified the police and had a legal march. It was massive and was the biggest march in the city since Bloody Sunday.

“As the first hunger strike loomed towards the end of 1980 the protests increased and support was growing every day. When it started the first hunger strike really galvanised Derry. The Irish Times reported that during the 53 days of the strike that we held more than 50 protests on the streets of Derry. We turned up everywhere. Every time a minister came to visit we popped up with placards.

“I’ll always remember the official opening of Pilot’s Row Community centre because just before the mayor prepared to pull the cord to open the curtains on the brass plaque, I had already got there and stuck a H-Block poster on it and he opened the curtains to reveal a poster of a blanketman,” she recalled.

The campaigner said that a conscious decision was made to keep protests peaceful to ensure broad support. “After the betrayal which ended first hunger strike people were determined when the second strike began and we held huge protests in Derry. It was a terrible time. Every night you couldn’t get to sleep because you were half listening for the rattle of bin lids.

“One protest tactic that I’m particularly proud of from that period is the flying picket. We would block the bridge and the RUC would move in to arrest us but at a word we would melt away in different directions and then reappear 15 minutes later to block the Foyle Expressway. When the police turned up there we would do the same thing and block the Flyover. That form of protest started in Derry and then moved to other areas of the North and then the following year the miners took it up in England during their strike,” she said.

Ms McClelland said that despite the horrors of the deaths of the hunger strikers and the violence on the streets, the campaign in support of the prisoners empowered the people of Derry. “The hunger strike gave us back our pride; our belief in ourselves, in who we are and what we can do. It politicised young people and if you look around the community groups in working class areas today you can see the young people who were baptised by fire 30 years ago.

“That is the out working of the hunger strike. It gave people back the confidence to take to the streets again,” she said.