Richard O’Rawe reflects on the 1981 hunger strike - ‘They were my friends. It breaks my heart that men like that are dead’

Richard O’Rawe says the planting of ‘Crann na Poblachta’ in memory of George McBrearty and Charles ‘Pop’ Maguire and the ten hunger strikers at the weekend was an extremely poignant tribute by the republican family.

Friday, 4th June 2021, 1:29 pm
Updated Friday, 4th June 2021, 1:37 pm
Independent Republican Richard O’Rawe speaking at the commemoration for the 1981 hunger strikers and the anniversary of Volunteers George McBrearty and Charles ‘Pop’ Maguire, held at Rathkeele Way on Sunday afternoon last.  DER2122GS - 009
Independent Republican Richard O’Rawe speaking at the commemoration for the 1981 hunger strikers and the anniversary of Volunteers George McBrearty and Charles ‘Pop’ Maguire, held at Rathkeele Way on Sunday afternoon last. DER2122GS - 009

The new ‘Tree of the Republic’ - a native silver birch - was embedded beneath the George McBrearty mural in Rathkeele Way to mark the 40th anniversary of the killing of George and Charles by undercover British soldiers at the bottom of Southway on May 28, 1981, at the height of the H-block protest.

Speaking to the ‘Journal’ this week, Mr. O’Rawe, said: “The whole commemoration was very poignant and moving. This one had something very special about it. It was so well done.”

Last year the Falls Road republican was asked by George’s brother Danny to take part. He said it was an honour to do so.

Bridie McBrearty, on the left, mother of Volunteer George McBrearty, and Anne Bell plant a Crann La Poblachta to commemorate the 1981 hunger strikers and the anniversary of George McBrearty and Charles ‘Pop’ Maguire, at Rathkeele Way on Sunday afternoon last.Photos: George Sweeney. DER2122GS - 001

In his address in Creggan on Sunday he recalled what had been a very testing period for republicans in Derry and all across Ireland.

“On the day that George lost his life, another brave young Irishman, Martin Hurson, was embarking on a hunger strike that would see him also forfeit his life.

“Today, on the 40th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike, we pay homage to our brave hunger strikers: Bobby Sands, Francie Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee, and Micky Devine.

“We also pay homage to the families of our hunger strikers who, down through the years, have carried themselves with great dignity. A chairde Gael, I am proud to say that I knew these men, that they were my comrades and fellow-Blanketmen. Like George McBrearty and ‘Pop’ Maguire, these valiant Irishmen stood in ‘An Bhearna Bhaoil’ [the gap of danger] when their people and country needed them most,” he told those gathered at the weekend.

IN PICTURES: Crann na Poblachta planted in memory of George McBrearty and Charles ‘Pop’ Maguire and the 1981 hunger strikersMr. O’Rawe had been incarcerated in the H-blocks at the time of the 1981 strike and had acted in the important role of the prisoners’ public relations officer.

He told the ‘Journal’ that recalling that period still brings back very powerful emotions.

“It’s very difficult for me. Even when I was reading it out [the oration] I felt as if I was going to fill up when I was talking about the hunger strikers because they were my friends.

“You look back and, unfortunately, I’m not too sure that the ten sacrifices were worth it. We still live in the United Kingdom.”

Mr. O’Rawe is now a respected author and has published two books about the 1981 protest: ‘Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-block Hunger Strike’ (2005) and ‘Afterlives: The Hunger Strike and the Secret Offer that Changed Irish History’ (2011).

He has made the contested claim that a deal to end the protest to the satisfaction of the hunger strikers had been arrived at in July 1981 but that this was rejected by the IRA leadership outside the prison.

“I’ve written two books about it so I know it inside out. It’s just one of those very sad events in Irish history.

“Here we are 40 years on and I see all their faces because they were all my friends. I knew these men. They weren’t faces on a wall to me. They were personalities and great figures and it breaks my heart if I’m being honest that men like that are dead.

“They died for so little. They thought that they were dying for a 32 County Socialist Republic and we are still living in Northern Ireland and that breaks my heart,” he maintained.

George’s brother Danny said he was grateful to Mr. O’Rawe and all the people who supported the landmark commemoration on Sunday.

“I want to thank the people on behalf of the family for making the event a complete success.

“I would like to thank all the families of hunger strikers for their support and attendance, either in person or by representation,” Mr. McBrearty told the ‘Journal.’

However, the well-known Derry republican, a former national chair of the Republican Network for Unity (RNU) which is strongly opposed to the PSNI and the operation of British intelligence services in Ireland, said he would have preferred if all republican organisations in the city had participated.

“One thing that stood out was that every grouping in the city sent a floral tribute with the exception of Sinn Féin. I’m a bit disappointed that Sinn Féin didn’t leave a tribute,” he said.

Mr. O’Rawe, meanwhile, told the ‘Journal’ that 40 years on from the hunger strike, he is upbeat about the future.

“1981 was a pretty dark time but there’s a whole change in society here and the change is demographic.

“The demographics are all indicating that sooner or later there will be a majority of nationalists in the north. The whole situation is very fluid. Within the next five years I think Scotland will be out of the United Kingdom,” he predicted.

He also considers it likely that after the next election the role of First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive will be held by a nationalist.

“I think the next First Minister could well be Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, in which case it would be a huge psychological blow to unionism.

“Nationalism, and the whole cause for a united Ireland, is very strong at the minute, and getting stronger. The dark days of 1981, when we couldn’t see any way forward, and even earlier when it was even darker, has been replaced with a new optimism.

“There is a huge movement towards a referendum and I’d be optimistic that in maybe ten, 15 years, even 20 - what is 20 years in the march of a nation? - there will be a referendum and I’d be fairly confident that people will vote to go into a unitary state within the European Union.”