All we want is the truth about the hunger-strike on 30th anniversary
(Suzanne Breen, Sunday World)
This week is the 30th anniversary of the start of the hunger-strikers’ deaths. Award-winning journalist Suzanne Breen speaks to the mother of one of 10 dead men and a prisoner who was on the IRA fast.
She had no intention of letting him die. "I was horrified when other mothers didn't take their boys off the hunger-strike as they neared death," says Peggy O'Hara.
"I told Patsy, 'I don't care about Ireland or the world, I'll save you.'" He took a heart attack after eight weeks of refusing food in the H-Block protest, drifting in and out of consciousness.
"He whispered to me 'I'm sorry mammy, we didn't win. Let the fight go on.'" And so Peggy O'Hara honoured his wish. "Watching him die was wild hard. He was only 23.
"I sat beside him, moistened his lips and stroked his hair. Every Derry mother thinks her son is gorgeous but Patsy was. He had lovely dark eyes. In the end, he couldn't see out of them."
This week is the 30th anniversary of the death of the first hunger-striker, Bobby Sands. Patsy O'Hara died 16 days later and the deaths continued until August 1981. But anniversaries mean nothing to his mother. "Patsy is with me all the time," she says.
Aged 82 and immaculately dressed with a jet black beehive hair-style, Peggy O'Hara sits in her living room which is a shrine to her dead son. A gold crucifix Pope John Paul II sent him before he died is her proudest possession.
Ideological contradictions abound. A painting of Patsy O'Hara – a member of the Marxist INLA – hangs on a wall beside a dozen pictures of Padre Pio, the Blessed Virgin, and the Child of Prague.
The family pub had been blown up by the IRA and Peggy O'Hara certainly hadn't urged any of her sons into politics or violence: "When I heard one of them was at a civil rights' march, I went straight down, took the placard off him, went over to the man who gave it to him, strung it around his neck and hit him with my umbrella."
She began attending the marches herself, to keep an eye on her boys: "I saw peaceful protestors beaten to the ground and that changed me politically." In 1979, Patsy O'Hara was jailed for eight years for paramilitary offences.
Peggy remains "very proud" of her son but believes she should have taken him off the hunger-strike: "Patsy died for a socialist republic, not for what we have now. He didn't die for Stormont, a re-branded RUC, or accepting British rule."
Understandably, there is no sympathy for the hunger-strikers or their families in the unionist community. The 10 men who died had killed or were heavily involved in paramilitary activity. 'The slogan, 'The hunger-strikers had a choice, their victims had none', encapsulates that feeling.
But in the nationalist community, the hunger-strikers are generally viewed with either sympathy or support. Their deaths remain an open wound with some republicans believing the last six men could have been saved had an offer from the British been accepted.
Gerard Hodgins, then aged 22, was 20 days on hunger-strike when the fast was finally called off in October 1981. Every time he visits Milltown Cemetery – where Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell, and Kieran Doherty are buried – he knows he could be lying there too.
"I was totally prepared to die. The first few days on hunger-strike were the hardest. After that, it gets easier physically and the battle is in your head. Though, the food we were offered in the H-Blocks improved hugely in an attempt to tempt us off.
"Tomato ketchup suddenly appeared on our pies. It was the first time in six years in jail, I'd ever seen tomato ketchup!"
Hodgins was worried his parents would take him off the protest when he lost consciousness: "I thought about a marriage of convenience to an IRA girl who would then become my next of kin and let me die."
Thirty years later, he has "no regrets" about his choices and speaks of the "tremendous courage" of the 10 men who died. But he questions Sinn Féin's account of events.
Richard O'Rawe, the prisoners' publicity officer during the hunger-strike, has claimed the British made an offer effectively granting four of the hunger-strikers' five demands but the proposal was rejected by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and their 'kitchen cabinet'.
Hodgins initially didn't believe him: "I called Richard a lying b******. On release from jail, I'd worked in the Sinn Féin press office in the late 1990s. I wasn't anti-Sinn Féin.
"But then, at a meeting in Donegal, I heard Richard answering every question thrown at him from the floor. I began to think, very reluctantly, 'this man is telling the truth'. I started looking into it myself. I listened to the leadership's shifting stories.
"British government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act supported Richard's account. I showed up at a Sinn Féin briefing on the hunger-strike in Gulladuff in 2009 – they wouldn't even let me in."
Richard O'Rawe says Hodgins is one of a growing number of former blanketmen who believe him: "After I first spoke out in 2005, I had pariah status in West Belfast. Now, so many ex-prisoners come up, shake my hand and tell me they've had their eyes opened.
"The hunger-strikers' faces are constantly before me. It's a horrible story of a small Sinn Féin clique deciding that my comrades had to die to open up the way for Sinn Féin in elections."
Gerard Hodgins believes the truth about the "murky world" of negotiations between the republican leadership and the British during the hunger-strike wouldn't hurt Sinn Féin politically but that the leadership fears it may "tarnish their reputations in the history books".
He is urging Sinn Féin to release details of all British offers – verbal and written – and all internal republican documents, from 1981. "On the 30th anniversary of the hunger-strikers' deaths, that would be a fitting tribute," Hodgins says.
"It would mean far more than Munich-style marches carrying hunger-strikers' pictures, or the crocodile tears about their sacrifice, or the fancy wall murals. All we want is the truth."
I came to know Peggy O’Hara and her son Tony through her brother, Joe McCloskey who is a very dear friend and Brother Hibernian. I have visited Peggy in her home in Derry on several occasions when I was visiting Joe. On those visits we spoke of many things including the story of Patsy’s involvement in the republican movement, his arrest and incarceration, his participation in the blanket protest, and finally his decision to join the hunger strike in 1981 which culminated in a horrible death by starvation along with nine other brave young Irish Patriots.
I have read Richard O’Rawe’s book “Blanketmen” which is a first hand, “blow by blow” account of the miserable conditions that these men were exposed to and what caused them to make the decision to embark on what they considered was the last avenue left open to them - the Hunger Strike of 1981. After reading the book and subsequently receiving first hand information from Patsy’s family and from “Mags” Devine Thompkins, sister of Mickey Devine, the last hunger striker to die, I have concluded that there could very well be reason to doubt Sinn Fein’s account of the Hunger Strike. “Mags” Devine married Billy Thompkins, a friend from Boston who was also a very active member of FOIF. She and the Devine family, including Mickey’s son, Mickey Jr., shared the same views as Richard O’Rawe, the O’Hara family, and IRA legend Brendan Hughes. I believe that “Blanketmen” and Brendan Hughes’ book, “Voices from the Grave” should be mandatory reading for anybody who wishes to learn all aspects of the armed conflict in Ireland and its effect on the participants.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has called for an Independent Truth Commission to investigate state sponsored murders during the armed conflict for some time now. A very simple yet very pertinent question arises if a Truth Commission is ever convened: Will the truth about the events surrounding the Hunger Strike of 1981 be thoroughly and impartially investigated and will their “unvarnished conclusions” be made available to the families of the hunger strikers and the general public? Surely, the families of these brave young men deserve to know all of the facts surrounding the death of their loved ones. The truth shall set us free!
Jack Meehan, Past National President
Ancient Order of Hibernians in America