In the final article of a series marking the 30th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike, ‘Journal’ reporter Michael McMonagle spoke to Foyle Sinn Féin MLA RAYMOND MCCARTNEY about his memories of a year of reflection, the ongoing legacy of the period, and how the hunger strike era will be remembered in the future.
For Derry man and former hunger striker Raymond McCartney the events that took place in Long Kesh and on the streets across Ireland in 1981 are not just historical events; they are a continuing source of inspiration.
Over the last eight months, dozens of commemoration events have been held in the city and throughout Ireland to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike when ten republican prisoners died protesting for political status.
Looking back on the commemoration events, which included marches, lectures, workshops, mural unveilings, film screenings, and drama, Mr McCartney said the events were held not just to remember those who had died, but to analyse the continuing legacy of the hunger strike period.
“This year, to mark the 30th anniversary, we set out to try to ensure that there was a fitting tribute made to the sacrifice of the ten men who died on hunger strike.
“Of course it was about commemoration, but it is also about trying to put the events of 1981 into the context of the time. By doing that we get an understanding of the importance, and continuing importance it has. Every day were are still analysing the importance of the 1981 hunger and its importance,” he said.
Mr McCartney also said that while the memories of the hunger strikers was foremost in all the commemorations, many of the events allowed others to share their own memories of the turbulent period.
“The commemorations ensured that throughout the year and at all events that there are families who carry this with them every day of their lives.
“Other events allowed the discovery of new stories and allowed people to explain their own personal memories of the time. I am particularly proud that in Derry a number of events were organised which allowed people to think about the period from personal experience.
“It is amazing how individuals relate to this period through all the individual personal stories. I now know people who are republican activists who have talked about being at school during the hunger strike and wearing black armbands at a time when it was frowned upon,” he said.
Mr McCartney also said that while in the past many of the events remembering the hunger strike have focused on what happened in Long Kesh, he added that it is also important to recognise what happened outside the prison.
“The story of that period goes beyond the prison walls.
“While the prisoners in the H Blocks and in Armagh were protesting, the story was taken beyond the prison walls by the National H-Block/Armagh Committee.
“That organisation came together as a group of dedicated women relatives who formed the Relatives Action Committee and decided that the wall of silence needed to be broken.
“These groups started off small but within a number of months they had widespread support. I remember the image of Mary Nelis and other women standing outside the cathedral in blankets.
“That was a very courageous thing to do at the time. Contrast that with the photograph of Bobby Sands’ funeral coming down from Twinbrook with 100,000 people. That epitomises what it was about. Individual action combining with collective actions,” he said.
One of the largest commemoration events held in the city saw thousands of people take to the streets on May 1st for a march from Creggan to the Bogside and Mr McCartney has described the event as a particular highlight for him. “Thousands of people came together showing the esteem in which the ten men who died are still held.
Mr McCartney also said he believes the commemorations go beyond party politics. “At the time people came together to support the prisoners and take part in solidarity actions even though they may not have agreed with their politics but they knew they were political prisoners.
“I still see that at commemoration events. Not all the people who attend these events are Sinn Féin supporters,” he said.
The former hunger striker said the number of young people who attended this year’s commemoration events indicated the level of interest in the hunger strike era. “One pleasing aspect of this for is that there is a younger generation who are keen and eager to understand their past.
“When we look at the history of Ireland over the last 40 years the one thing that stands out from the pages is that ten men died on hunger strike in 1981.
“People, particularly young people, ask why.
“They are keen to understand. Even people who were silent or politically opposed to the prisoners at the time are starting to acknowledge the courage required to sacrifice yourself,” he said.
The Foyle MLA said that looking back at the hunger strike era has led people to question how the past is viewed.
“One of the more interesting events I took part in during the year was an interview with myself and Pat Sheehan on the Miriam O’Callaghan show.
“She allowed us to get behind the headlines and she allowed the story to be told rather than challenged.
“From a republican perspective, we have a growing understanding that there are many perspectives, and indeed competing perspectives on history and we have to acknowledge that.
“The way we commemorate the hunger strike has changes down through the years.
“First and foremost in all events will always bee remembering the sacrifice of those who died and their families.
“Even in the prisons we used to commemorate it with military parades but then moved into more of an exploration of why it happened.
“The hunger strikes will always be remembered and commemorated but those commemorations have change,” he said.
Mr McCartney also thanked all those who organised and took part in commemoration events throughout the year. “I would like to congratualte everyone who cme out onto the streets to remember the hunger strikers.
“In Derry the 1981 Committee and Tar Abhaile have done an excellent job and I am sure that the families of the hunger strikers will appreciate all the time and effort that people have taken,” he said.