21 April 2006

1981: Lest we forget


West recalls memories of hunger strikes in run-up to Sands' anniversary

by Francesca Ryan

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usSunday past saw republicans across the world pay homage to the leaders of the 1916 Rising on the 90th anniversary of the rebellion.

The sacrifice of the hunger strikers was also remembered in public orations given on Sunday including the lengthy speech given by Gerry Adams at the republican plot in Milltown Cemetery where the three Belfast hunger strikers are buried.

During his speech, the West Belfast MP slammed the British government for “cruelly and cynically allowing ten of our comrades to die" and accused the Irish government of letting the hunger strikers and their families down.

Mr Adams then called on republicans to “tell a new generation of Irish republicans the story of 1981 alongside the history of 1916."

As 25th anniversary commemorations to remember the hunger strikers continue, the Andersonstown News took to the Kennedy Centre to ask locals to share their memories of the dark days of 1981.

“I vividly remember the rioting that took place throughout the hunger strike," said Andersonstown's Brian McCullagh.

“You could feel the tension in the air, you could really feel it hanging over the whole of West Belfast.

“I was living in Twinbrook at the time and the whole estate was united in outrage and grief when Bobby Sands and the rest of the boys died.

“By the time he died, it wasn't a surprise but it was very sad.

“We all knew Thatcher was going to let them die but it was still a shock when it actually happened.

“It was sad that we had to go that far to get the five demands."

Brian's wife, Liz McCullagh, said the deaths were unnecessary and laid the blame solely at the door of Thatcher and the British government.

“The rest of the world recognised the boys as prisoners of war as did a lot of the British people, but it was the British government that wouldn't recognise their POW status and it was the British government that let them die."

Andersonstown's Pauline O'Neill was busy rearing her family at the time but recalls her memories of that sad era in Irish history.

“I remember the rioting, it was a constant thing, every day there was something going on and people were getting hurt.

“I was bringing up a young family then and was constantly worrying about them. I would never let them out in case anything would happen to them, it was a depressing time."

Falls Road man Pat Clarke was a friend of Joe McDonnell's family, he says his sympathy lies with the families of the hunger strikers just as much today as it did in 1981.

“Joe's mother was born in the same street as me and his brother worked with me for years.

“I knew Joe quite well and knew of Bobby, they were extremely dedicated lads.

“I remember being at the funerals of all three Belfast hunger strikers and there was a really tense atmosphere.

“I remember as clear as day the guard of honour waiting to fire a volley of shots over the coffins, the place was silent, they were well organised funerals."

Pat said that looking back, it was hard to believe that the hunger strikes happened and he hopes that nothing similar ever happens again.

“It was a tough time and I dread to think it could happen again.

“I still feel sad for the families, everyone gets on with their lives but the relatives are the ones that have to live with the tragic loss forever."

Frank Maginn remembers the whole place being in disarray and he's not convinced that we have advanced too far politically since 1981.

“Utter disruption, that's how I would describe it," said the Ladybrook man.
“People were sad, angry and frustrated and showed their outrage by rioting on the streets.

“I was living in Lenadoon at the time and I remember there was no transport, if you wanted to get to work, you had to walk.

“When you think about it, here we are 30 years on and there isn't any real change.

“I admit there have been some achievements but, despite the efforts, we haven't moved on that much, there certainly hasn't been any change in my circumstances."

Joesphine O'Neill from Turf Lodge made a point to get to the funerals of the hunger strikers, those in Belfast and beyond.

“It was a terribly sad time for people living in estates across West Belfast.
“There was non-stop rioting almost every other day and an overwhelming sense of sadness.

“I was busy rearing my kids but I made sure I got to the funerals of the three Belfast hunger strikers and some of those in the country."

Josephine is one of the many who still harbour resentment and anger at Margaret Thatcher for letting the young men die.

“People were so angry with Thatcher, they still are.

“I'll tell you one thing, she'll never die in her bed for the way she let those young fellas die."

Journalist:: Francesca Ryan

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