My parents are half Irish, and that gives me and my brothers the same half-green blood. But for both generations, our cultural upbringing has been almost all Irish. Every March 17, my mom cooks a pot of corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage. Sometimes we’d have soda bread, sometimes rye. It was always something I looked forward to. I miss it now that I live in Kentucky. It’s because of that Irish heritage that I am here to write this blog. My parents met while organizing Philadelphia’s boycott of British goods in reaction to the 1981 hunger strike by political prisoners at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.
I don’t know as much about the strike as I’d like, so I decided to watch the 2008 movie Hunger today. It’s a dramatization of the strike.
The prisoners wanted to be recognized as prisoners of war, not as criminals. The British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, wouldn’t allow it.
The prisoners included men who were violent and members of the IRA, but they also included those had marched and organized and spoken out against the British presence in Northern Ireland. I was talking to my dad about it today, and he described it like this:
“It would be like if they took everyone who was against the war in Vietnam and had ever marched and put them in a cage. (In Northern Ireland) it didn’t matter if you were a sniper or a librarian.”
The prisoners refused to wear uniforms, because that would be accepting criminal status, so they wore only blankets.
The prisoners were beaten when they left their cells, even to empty their chamber pots or bathe, so they refused to do so and smeared their excrement on the walls.
And on March 1, 1981, Bobby Sands led the fatal hunger strike. There had been hunger strikes before, but no one died. This time, they fully committed. Sands died after 66 days, and nine more died over seven months before the hunger strike was called off.
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The hunger strike renewed worldwide attention on The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which began in 1969. In Philadelphia, my parents, who had yet to meet, began working separately on boycotts in 1981.
My dad came to it from a political background on Irish issues, my mom from a cultural one. But that was the thing about the hunger strikes and the boycott. There was a lot of division on the IRA and the violence during the Troubles, and a lot of Irish Americans stayed away from anything that had to do with the IRA.
But the hunger strike was different, and the boycott committee “kind of unified the spectrum” from conservative Catholics to those on the far left, my dad said. It also brought in people who hadn’t been very political before but were interested in Irish culture, “the dancing people and the people who were learning to speak Gaelic,” my mom said.
The boycott committee was added to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Philadelphia. This was a big deal because the parade didn’t allow political groups to march, only cultural and religious. But the hunger strikes and the boycott seemed to transcend politics for the Irish community.
My parents worked together on the boycott for a few months before they began dating. They were married in 1982, and I was born in 1983. So my history, my genesis, is tied into that of Ireland. That’s why I feel such a strong connection to my Irish blood, and not so much with the German and Ukrainian that it is mingled with.
Hunger was hard to watch. There’s almost no dialogue, and though it is only 90 minutes long, it feels much longer because of the stark degradation and brutality. The hunger strike only takes up the last 20 minutes, but that was the most brutal of all. No dialogue, just what amounts to a time-elapse film of a man starving to death for what he believes in.
Just before the hunger strike in the movie, there’s a scene movie with Sands talking to a priest. They argue about the hunger strike, about whether it will do anything, about whether Sands is seeking martyrdom. The priest tells Sands:
“When your answer is to kill everything, you’ve blinded yourself, and you’re scared to stop it. Afraid of living, afraid of talk and peace.”
They argue more, and then Sands says:
“Putting my life on the line is not just the only thing I can do. It’s the right thing.”