Last year on St. Patrick's Day, I blogged about the movie Hunger, about the 1981 hunger strike in The Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. A friend told me then that he thought it would make a good op-ed, and so I did some editing and rewriting and submitted it last week to The Philadelphia Inquirer, and they picked it up. It is in today's paper and is available online too. Update 4/9/2011: I was reading the contract for my sale of this story, and I am apparently allowed to republish it myself at this point, so here it is:
A hunger for justice rendered starkly real
March 17, 2011, in The Philadelphia Inquirer
My parents are both half-Irish. But their upbringing, as well as mine and my brothers', was almost all Irish. Every March 17, my mom cooks a pot of corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage. Sometimes there's soda bread, sometimes rye. Until I moved away almost six years ago, I always made sure I was home for that.
In fact, I owe my existence to my Irish heritage. My parents met 30 years ago while organizing a boycott of British goods in Philadelphia, which was prompted by a hunger strike at Northern Ireland's Maze Prison.
The men in the Maze wanted to be recognized as prisoners of war, not criminals. The British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, wouldn't allow it.
Some of the prisoners had engaged in violence as members of the Irish Republican Army, but others had simply marched, organized, and spoken out against the British presence in Northern Ireland. "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," my dad explained. In Northern Ireland, he added, "It didn't matter if you were a sniper or a librarian."
The prisoners refused to wear the uniforms of criminals, wearing only blankets. They were beaten when they left their cells to empty their chamber pots or bathe, so they refused to leave or bathe, and smeared excrement on the walls. And as of March 1, 1981, led by prisoner Bobby Sands, they refused even to eat. A hunger strike at the Maze the previous year had ended without any deaths. But this time the prisoners were fully committed. Sands died after 66 days; he was 27. Nine more prisoners died over the course of seven months before the strike was called off.
The hunger strike renewed worldwide attention to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In Philadelphia, my parents began working separately on boycotts. My dad came to the cause from a political background, my mom, from a cultural one.
That was the thing about the hunger strike: The IRA and its violent methods had divided the Irish American community, but the strike and the boycotts "kind of unified the spectrum," from conservative Catholics to the far left, my dad recalled. They brought in people who had been interested mainly in Irish culture - "the dancing people and the people who were learning to speak Irish," as my mom put it. The boycott committee was even added to Philadelphia's St. Patrick's Day Parade - a big deal, because political groups weren't usually allowed to march.
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. My genesis, my history, and my political consciousness are tied to Ireland through them.
On St. Patrick's Day a year ago, I watched the 2008 film Hunger, which tells the story of the strike. There's almost no dialogue in the movie, and although it's only 90 minutes long, it feels like an age because of the stark degradation and brutality depicted.
The hunger strike occupies the last 20 minutes of the film, and those are the most brutal of all: a silent, time-lapse portrait of a man starving to death for what he believes in.
Earlier in the film, there's a scene in which Sands talks to a priest about the coming hunger strike. They argue about whether it will accomplish anything and whether Sands is only seeking martyrdom. "When your answer is to kill everything, you've blinded yourself, and you're scared to stop it," the priest says. "Afraid of living, afraid of talk and peace."
After further argument, Sands says, "Putting my life on the line is not just the only thing I can do. It's the right thing."