In this article, part of an ongoing series marking the 30th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike, Derry republican Charlie McMenamin recalls the turbulent year on the streets of Derry and compares its impact to that of Bloody Sunday.
I thought I had seen it all by the time the Hunger Strike had come on the 1st March 1981. Pain, suffering, intimidation, injustice, raids, plastic bullets, and assassinations were already everyday occurrences for the Nationalist/Republican people of Derry.
However, nothing could have prepared anybody for the events of that year. But the republican Youth Against Oppression and also the not-so-youthful went into the thick of it regardless of the consequences.
We were already organised after the 1980 Hunger Strike and kept together by Sinn Féin, political education and Irish language courses we threw ourselves into the campaign like ducks to water. Maybe we were not as disciplined this time because of our anger and resentment at the way the Brits, and to some extent, the Irish Government handled the 1980 Hunger Strike.
The anger and hurt around the issue of how the prisoners were treated after the 1980 Hunger Strike must have been very raw for the prisoners in H-Block and Armagh because on the outside we could feel the determination and resolve through the type of statements coming from the prisoners.
When the Hunger Strike began on the 1st March things were fairly low-key and one of the first big marches during that period was in Belfast, the home town of Bobby Sands. There were that many marches and protests and it was always a bit of a respite to get out of Derry city to other demonstrations of support for the campaign. It gave a great sense of belonging to something which had support right across the island of Ireland and boosted morale at times of hopelessness.
People were really up for it this time. They knew that the previous hunger strikers had been deceived by the British with the help of the Irish government and other institutions and, as a result, the organisation seemed to be a lot better.
The younger generation were certainly prepared for whatever lay ahead; hail, rain or snow, plastic bullets, batons or beatings. There was a more aggressive air to this campaign and certainly one of pride and determination on me and my friends parts to do all that we could to help the prisoners cause.
When I think of 1981, and how old I was at the time, and the experiences I had that year I think of what it must have been like for the people of Derry on Bloody Sunday and the period after that because I was too young to take in the enormity or the pain of what Derry suffered at that time.
I heard the stories, had neighbours shot and killed, felt the outpouring of emotions through family experiences but it all went above my head, too young to comprehend. Maybe I dealt with it by throwing stones at the British Army and RUC.
I have worked in recent years with the Bloody Sunday Families and have heard a lot of their stories, experiences, and pain and I have gained a deeper understanding of what it was like for them as individuals, and as family members and consider myself honoured to have heard their stories.
I can personally say that 1981 should be described as ‘Bloody 1981’ because of the amount of deaths, both inside and outside of the prisons, both young and old.
Talking about this year is a painful journey for myself but one which needs to be shared so that our collective memories of the prisoners, their families, their supporters and campaigners of that period can be understood and talked about with pride by future generations.
There were many husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers who took to the streets during the 1981 period, many of whom who had been campaigning for years on prison-related issues, all of whom deserve credit for their determined and disciplined protests towards seeing an end to the prisoners’ suffering.
For many it wasn’t just about their own family member’s situation, it was about everyone who was imprisoned as a result of English laws and English rule in Ireland and the political circumstances that created conflict.
During all of the protests there were families who were prominent at protests like the Mc Cartneys, Nelis’s, Dohertys, McDaids, Moores, and McFaddens to name but a few.
Of them all there is one set of parents who I will always respect and never forget, Johnny and Susan Coyle from Duncreggan Road. There were plenty of other parents involved but the Coyles stand out in my memory. Their son, Patrick, and daughter, Marion, were both imprisoned; Marion in Limerick and Patrick on the blanket in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh.
Every protest or meeting I attended during the Hunger Strike period saw Johnny and Susan in the front line, never afraid to stand their ground and always voicing their opinions in very strong, dignified and responsible ways at meetings.
Susie and Johnny always had most of their family with them at protests so I am sure that the Coyle household got more than their fair share in financial penalties from the local magistrates court, as did we all, as well a lot of other families and individuals at the time.
When we blocked the roads around the city as protests gathered momentum the RUC moved in with force and lifted or batoned us off the roads. I remember one particular day when we blocked the Foyle Expressway, a main arterial route in and out of the city, the RUC moved in as usual and at the end of a whole struggle where people were manhandled off the road, one solitary figure was left sitting in the middle of the road refusing to move; it was Susie Coyle.
The cops all stood around her and I could hear her saying that she had another five minutes left before her hour was up. they all stood oppressively around her. Unafraid, this wee women sat them out and made her point before getting up and walking away to the applause and cheers of other protestors.”