Between Hope and History

Tom Hayden, a former state senator, is the author of several books, including the forthcoming "Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish America" (Verso)

Twenty years ago tomorrow, a 10th and last Irishman starved to death in Northern Ireland in the 20th century’s most riveting hunger strike. He was 27-year-old “Red Mickey” Devine, nicknamed not for his politics but for the flaming color of his hair. Many stereotypes continue to linger and blur those events, which underscore the value of memoirs like “Out of Time,” by Laurence McKeown, a hunger striker who happened to survive. It is simply one of the most illuminating books ever written about the experience of political prisoners.

The effect of the 1981 Irish hunger strikes has grown with time. Bobby Sands, the first to die, on May 5, 1981, certainly has achieved a greater iconic status than then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who asked at the time if it was virility the Irishmen were trying to prove. The hunger strikes ended in a tactical failure in one sense because the British government refused to budge on the strikers’ demands to be recognized as political prisoners instead of common criminals. But the 10 traumatizing deaths from May to August of that year produced a huge groundswell of public support for Sinn Fein, then a small and isolated political party engulfed in an ugly guerrilla war. Shortly before Sands’ death, 30,492 people in County Fermanagh-South Tyrone voted him a member of the British Parliament in abstention, shocking the political establishment from Thatcher’s London to Ronald Reagan’s Washington. Two more hunger strikers, Paddy Agnew and Kieran Doherty, were elected to parliament in the southern Republic of Ireland as their bodies wasted away. Tens of thousands of nationalists braved heavy rains and repression to attend the funerals for Sands and his comrades.

The hunger strike prompted a process of gradual reform as well. To contain the growing support for Sinn Fein, the London and Dublin governments in 1985 produced a diplomatic agreement which, though quite modest, recognized a role for the Dublin government in representing Catholic nationalist rights in the British-controlled North. Almost two decades later, Sinn Fein has become the largest nationalist party in the North, and Gerry Adams, the group’s leader, tops the political popularity polls in the southern Republic. The 1981 hunger strikes were fully vindicated by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which, recognizing the status of hundreds of political prisoners, released them back to their communities despite their life sentences.


McKeown, who joined the IRA at 17, was arrested in 1976 and sentenced to life imprisonment and went on a hunger strike after Sands’ death. After passing into a coma on the 71st day, he was given medical treatment and survived. He served 16 years in prison altogether. During imprisonment, he obtained a bachelor’s degree from an open university. After release, he spent five years at Queens University, Belfast, getting his PhD. His doctoral thesis, titled “Unrepentant Fenian Bastards: The Social Construction of an Irish Republican Prisoner,” eventually became “Out of Time.”

The widespread image of the “hard men” of Irish paramilitary culture is belied by the McKeown one meets in his memoir. He is a man who has been to death and back. Today, he is 45, active in a former prisoners’ self-help group in Belfast, and lives with his longtime partner and community developer Deirdre MacManus, raises two daughters and is building a home at the base of the legendary mountain of Slieve Gullian. His life reflects the long arc from war to politics being traversed by many in Northern Ireland.

“Out of Time” begins as the 1981 hunger strike was winding down. Ten men had died; McKeown was in his final days of fasting. When he slipped into a coma, his mother intervened under a provision of British law that allows the next of kin to force-feed a prisoner back to health. McKeown tells the fascinating story of how the prisoners changed strategy after the strike. The strike that left 10 men dead was, in McKeown’s mind, comparable to an all-out physical confrontation on a battlefield. Afterward, the IRA prisoners shifted to a more flexible strategy of working to undermine the prison system from within. They sought and achieved the segregation of their comrades in a wing of their own and began to build a community based on the participatory learning methods of Brazilian educator Paulo Friere. They created a book fund. They continued learning the Irish language, often one word at a time, shouted from cell to cell. They agreed to perform prison labor but subverted the process by stealing tools and making handicrafts for sale on the outside. They smuggled poetry and political communiques to the outside world “bangled” in their rectums. They began a public journal whose first editorial reflected their evolution from a military mind-set: “[T]he state is not sustained by force alone,” it began, going on to propose a political organizing strategy. Here was the embryo of what would become the IRA shift from war to nonmilitary forms of struggle in the future.

But they never abandoned the goal of liberation. Using surprise tactics, the prisoners achieved a legendary, unprecedented mass escape in 1983 from a prison considered the most secure in Europe. Nineteen [escaped. Fourteen years later, even as peace negotiations were proceeding, prison authorities accidentally discovered a 200-foot underground tunnel the prisoners were laboriously digging. In December 1997, a prisoner escaped in the disguise of a woman attending a holiday party.

The prisoners’ experience is a mirror to the outer world of the peace process. The IRA has maintained a cease-fire for almost seven years, adopting a new strategy of working at least transitionally within the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement. It is far from what the IRA and Sinn Fein once demanded--they never expected to be electing Sinn Fein members to sit in Stormont, the center of British rule, for example--but the process is achieving more than most observers anticipated. The lifting of censorship, the visas for travel to America, the official emphasis on equality and police reform and their electoral successes are major achievements.

They may never “decommission” weapons to British satisfaction--at least not until police reform, loyalist decommissioning and British demilitarization are also agreed upon--but they will increasingly emphasize the political path. However, that does not mean they will settle for a mere seat at the colonial table. If the strategy in McKeown’s book is any model, Irish republicans are “tunneling” under the provisional institutions of Northern Ireland toward their collapse and replacement with an island-wide nationalist government.

The stereotype of an IRA hunger striker is a deeply negative one of incorrigible fanaticism, perhaps compounded by a Catholic martyr complex. One book on the hunger strikers, “Biting at the Grave” by Padraig O'Malley, an Irish-born academic at the University of Massachusetts, argues that the Irish have a mystical death-wish. The same claim is routinely aimed at the martyrs of 1916, like the poet Padraig Pearse, whose suicidal uprising launched the beginning of the Irish state. A peculiar double-standard is at work here. Hunger strikers such as Mohandas Gandhi or Cesar Chavez are celebrated widely, but not so the Irish. Martyrs who die for Jesus--such as St. Teresa of the Little Flower, for whom the church I attended as a child was named--become saints. But hunger-striking for Irish freedom remains largely uncelebrated, defined as suspect or pathological.

If one reads the prison diaries of Sands or the history recorded by McKeown, however, the contrast could not be more baffling. Though Catholic symbolism was certainly apparent during the hunger strikes, neither Sands nor McKeown makes much mention of religion at all. They were fighting for dignity and, having been captured, chose to turn their bodies and souls into “weapons” rather than continue being stigmatized as criminals. And if they were psychopathic, what accounts for the stable accomplishments of a McKeown in today’s time of peace? McKeown’s book tends to downplay mention of the psychological adjustment problems that he works on as a counselor to former prisoners, but the book as a testimony to courage and sanity is impossible to refute.

The Irish, it is sometimes said, suffer from too much history. It could be equally stated that Americans suffer from too little. The act of a hunger strike is not an aberration in Irish history but an integral form of resistance. Hunger strikes were used by the Fenians in the 19th century, by Irish women suffragettes in the early 20th century and in every decade since by nationalists such as Terence MacSwiney, the mayor of Cork, in 1920. Arrested and taken to a British prison while he was chairing a council meeting, MacSweeney died Oct. 25, 1920, having declared, “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most, who will conquer.”

The hunger strike is in fact part of an ancient tradition known as troscad that was practiced not only in pre-Christian Ireland but in Hindu India. It was codified in the Brehon Laws of Ireland in AD 438. The protester tried to shame the oppressor into arbitration and redress. If he failed, a public moral judgment was inflicted on the wrongdoer until he or she compensated the family of the deceased. W.B. Yeats articulated the process in his play “The King’s Threshold” (1904), in which a poet named Seanchan (pronounced Shanahan) fasted on the King of Gort’s doorstep. Seanchan is protesting the king’s decision, based on “the needs of the state,” to terminate the “old right of the poets” to sit in government councils alongside bishops, soldiers and legislators. Sounding very much like Margaret Thatcher, the king complains that despite his good name’s being tarnished, he “cannot give way because I am King; because, if I give way, my nobles would call me a weakling and, it may be, the very throne be shaken.”

Yeats’ dying poet utters words of defiance known to every Irish rebel on hunger strike:

When I and these are dead

We should be carried to some windy hill

To lie there with uncovered face awhile

That mankind ... may know

Dead faces laugh, King! King! Dead faces laugh.

Despite this long and honorable history, the feeling remains widespread that hunger strikes to the death are irrational and repugnant. We will rock to the vicarious violence in movies, be drawn into lurid reports of serial killers, approve the automated bombing of faceless people and warmly applaud the heroism of those in combat in officially sanctioned wars. But the hunger strike, being a sacrifice of life in slow motion, is perhaps too real for today’s artificial world. The body slowly, systematically devours itself. When the glucose in the brain is used up, the body begins to take it from proteins in the muscle. Tissues disintegrate. An electrolyte imbalance triggers heart disorders. Blindness descends. Then come incessant vomiting, loss of hearing, delirium, coma and death.

If this description is difficult to read, one can only imagine the challenge of choosing such suffering for oneself and one’s family. It is easier for many to classify the hunger striker as a personality consumed by fanaticism than to understand and name the system that continues to create such desperate valor from the dried pools of hope. *