OVERCOMING THE FEAR OF DEATH
"Keep on marching, don't give up"
30 May 1981
This tribute to the detemination and spirit of republican resistance of the four dead H-Block hunger-strikers - IRA Volunteers Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, and Raymond McCreesh, and INLA Volunteer Patsy O'Hara - is written by Belfast republican Jim Gibney, who had the demanding, but privileged task of regularly visiting the former three in the H-Block prison hospital during their fast to the death for political prisoner status.
"I'm extremely weak, I'm blind, I can't see you. Tell the lads to keep their chins up. Don't be down-hearted. I'm hanging on in. I'll see this thing thru"
Bobby Sands, sixty one days on hungerstrike
"Thatcher will have coffins coming out of here because we are not giving in."
Francis Hughes fifty two days on hungerstrike
"Keep on marching, don't give up."
Raymond McCreesh, fifty four days on hungerstrike
These were the final words spoken on the last visits I had with three of the four dead hungerstrikers. (Patsy O'Hara was visited by representatives of his own organisation and I only saw him, briefly, once.)
Fromt he beginning of the hungerstrike on March 1st, I spent a total of six and a half hours with Bobby, Francis and Raymond: four half hour visits each with Bobby and Francis and five half hour visits with Raymond.
The conversations on those visits covered a multitude of topics ranging from Bobby's election campaign and victory, the various visits to the HBlocks by politicians and clergy, the IRA's campaign, the protest movement, and the state of health of the other hungerstrikers.
A measure of the prisoners' commitment during the hungerstrike can be guaged by the fact that not once did the hungerstrikers volunteer information about their own physical condition. Their deteriorating health did not preoccupy their minds. They used their bodies as weapons against British rule as coolly and calculatedly as they used guns and bombs before their imprisonment, but alas, on this last operation their "run back" led only one way: to the grave.
Having spent so much time (in terms of the visits they received on hungerstrike) with men whose bravery captured the imagination of the world, and who willingly died in the hope that their deaths would lead to a transformation in our struggle for national freedom, I feel both humble and privileged.
The inner political conviction, the will power, the personal heroism of the hungerstrikers, is inestimable. No matter what their opponents allege about their actions, no-one can rob them of the dignified manner in which they overcame the daunting fear of death. And while those moralists in State and Church bore us to tears with their view of the rightness and wrongness of the hungerstrike, the ordinary people know in their hearts and minds who is right and who is wrong, and act accordingly.
The four prisoners were held for two thirds of their hungerstriker in the prison hospital. The hospital contains eleven cells, six on one side of a smartly polished corridor and five on the other. Unlike the HBlocks, the cell doors in the hospital block are wooden. The block is spotlessly clean and has the smell and appearance of a normal hospital, but differs in every other way, with iron grills, and locked foors being the ingredient which change it into a prison.
My first visit to it was when Bobby Sands was thirty days on hungerstrike. Travelling with his mother, Rosaleen, and his sister Marcella, in the back of a prison minibus from the prison visiting area, my mind was abuzz at the prospect of what lay before me. Firmly planted in my mind was the wretched emaciated figure of the German hungerstriker Holger Meins, photographed shortly after dying on hungerstrike in a West German prison in 1972. So, when I saw Bobby, with a boyish style hair style, clean shaven, and slightly drawn, sitting on top of the bed, wearing a multicoloured dressing gown and greeting us with a smile, I was surprised at his reasonable appearance.
He was in good spirits and we talked at length about the situation inside the prison and outside. We discussed the protest movement and he cautioned against expecting large turn outs early in the hungerstrike. He believed that people would respond when the condition of the hungerstrikers worsened. "The people know when to come onto the streets", he said.
The visit was terminated all too quickly. I was pleased, leaving him, because I could see he was thinking ahead and was on top of the situation.