The Long Kesh Hunger Strikers: 25 Years Later

By Howard, Paul | Social Justice, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Long Kesh Hunger Strikers: 25 Years Later

Howard, Paul, Social Justice


ON MAY 5, 1981, TWO YEARS AND TWO DAYS INTO THE FIRST THATCHER government, Bobby Sands, Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, died in the prison hospital of the H Blocks, Long Kesh Prison, in the North of Ireland. His was the first of 10 deaths, a consequence of the hunger strike protest for Irish Republican prisoners to be granted political status (see Campbell et al., 2006). As prisoners of war, Irish Republicans refused to accept the label "criminal." But the British government had removed special category status for those sentenced for crimes related to the conflict after March 1, 1976. All convicted prisoners were then incarcerated in the 800-cell H Blocks. Following the imprisonment of Kieran Nugent in the Blocks in September 1976, and his refusal to wear prison-issue clothes, the blanket protest began. Covered only by a single blanket, prisoners were held in solitary confinement and exercise and basic "privileges" were withdrawn. The blanket and no-wash protest was followed in 1978 by the Dirty Protest. Prisoners daubed their cells with excreta. In 1980, Republican women prisoners at Armagh jail also joined the Dirty Protest.

On October 27, 1980, seemingly no closer to achieving political status, seven men began a hunger strike. Expecting some form of resolution with the British government, the strike was abandoned on December 18. But the expected concessions were a false dawn and on March 1,1981, Bobby Sands refused food (O'Hearn, 2006). It was exactly five years to the day since the abolition of special category status. The prisoner's five demands encompassed five political fights: not to wear prison-issue uniforms; free association with Republican political prisoners; not to participate in prison work; access to, and self-organization of, education and recreation; and one weekly visit, letter, and parcel. The Thatcher government was unmoved. Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Kieran Doherty, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Thomas McElwee, and Michael Devine all died. Protests erupted around the world. Eventually, with more men replacing those who died, the Thatcher government made concessions and the Hunger Strike ended on October 3, 1981 (see McKeown, 2001). Twenty-five years on, survivors of the Hunger Strike reflect on the struggle, the implications, and the consequences of their and their comrades' actions. (1)


Matt Devlin never welcomed reliving his days on hunger strike. But on the rare occasions he mentioned it to his friends, he talked about a swarm of bees he was convinced had infested his head while he lay, wasting away in the prison hospital. Their steady and insistent thrum almost drove him mad in the hours before he finally slipped into a coma and his family--against his wishes--asked doctors to intervene to save him, after 52 days without food.

Almost 25 years later, in the last days of his life, the same continuous low murmur returned. He died three days after Christmas in 2005, aged 55, at the end of a long battle with stomach cancer, an illness that may or may not have had its seed in the 1981 prison protest. In a final twist to his life, he spent his last month on an enforced fast, too sick to allow anything to pass his lips for 32 days. The bees, he told friends at his bedside, were back. Yet he clung grimly to life, right to the very end. The doctors told Geraldine, his partner and the mother of his four-year-old son, that he seemed to be railing against the inevitable. Throughout his battle with cancer, she remembered, he swore that however and whenever the end came, he would live to see Margaret Thatcher die first.

In his final hours, his family told him Thatcher had been taken to hospital, was seriously ill, and would not last the night. That day the bees stopped and Matt Devlin died. At his funeral in his native Tyrone, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said Matt never fully recovered from the 1981 hunger strike that defined him forever in Republican eyes. …

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