Things have got a bit heated here over the past day or two, me included. One thing came across clearly. There is a serious difference in understanding about who did what and why over the last 80 odd years. There are also strong feelings about. Our Unionist contributors have taken a lot of flak but stood their ground well in my opinion. Fair play. I am clear in my own opinions but I do respect those I disagree with as long as they respect my own views. That is what we are achieving here, a degree of respect, even if we disagree. Mind you, it is great reading…….
Ok, Here’s a Republican perspective from tonight
Pat Sheehan MLA for West Belfast was the main speaker at the annual Fergal O’Hanlon Lecture last night in Co.Monaghan.
THE SPIRIT OF FREEDOM
I was asked to speak here tonight because of my involvement in the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes. I replaced Kieran Docherty on August 10 1981 and remained on hunger strike for the next fifty-five days until October 3 when the hunger strike finally came to an end.
When Caoimhín invited me to speak he also asked me for a title for the lecture and without much thought I decided on the title ‘The Spirit of Freedom’. Not a very adventurous title for a gathering of republicans, I grant you. After all, we know what it is. Most of us have seen it in action, or we have heard stories, songs or poetry that proclaim the spirit of freedom.
It seems to be such a simple concept that requires little or no definition. However it is such an important ingredient in all freedom struggles that I have decided it will be the main theme running through my thoughts tonight. That said, I recognise not everyone understands the importance of the spirit of freedom and I also want to address that for a short while here.
I spent over eighteen years in prison. I was first imprisoned in 1978 for causing an explosion in Belfast and was sentenced to fifteen years in gaol. I was released in 1987 and immediately went back on active service with the IRA. Unfortunately for me I was captured again in 1989 and sentenced to twenty-four years.
It was while I was on remand in Crumlin Rd prison that time that I read an article in the Irish Times by Conor Cruise O’Brien.
O’Brien, for those of you who don’t know of him, had been a member of the Labour Party and a minister in the Dublin government. He was often portrayed in the Dublin media as being an intellectual heavyweight and modernising liberal. What that really meant was that he was vehemently anti-republican, and as a matter of fact he was the minister who introduced Section 31, the broadcast ban that prevented republican voices being heard in the media in this state.
O’Brien was also an academic who opposed the academic boycott of apartheid South Africa, and it was while he was on a speaking tour of South African universities that he wrote the Irish Times article to which I have referred.
In his article, which was written in 1989, he said there was no prospect of Nelson Mandela being released from prison any time soon and that the apartheid regime would be there for another twenty years at least. The Cruiser could not have been more wrong. Mandela was released in 1990 and was President of the new South Africa by 1994.
So how did this supposed intellectual get it so wrong?
Quite simply, he hadn’t factored in the spirit of freedom of the South African people and other freedom loving people throughout the world.
You see, the spirit of freedom isn’t just a desire to be free, it also means acting on that desire, often in a courageous and selfless manner.
There is a message in that for all of us not to pay too much heed to the so-called experts. In particular, the ones who tell us we will never see a united Ireland. They just don’t understand the concept of the spirit of freedom.
We have seen the manifestation of the spirit of freedom over decades and centuries of struggle here in Ireland.
The person in whose honour this annual lecture is held – Fergal O’Hanlon – possessed the spirit of freedom. He was a young man with a promising future in front of him yet the most important thing for him was the freedom of the Irish people. To that end he and his comrades in the Pearse Column set out to attack the enemy, an operation that ended with Fergal and Seán South losing their lives.
I wonder how Fergal O’Hanlon felt as he was preparing to go out on that operation. Was he nervous? Did he feel fear? And in the split seconds after he was wounded what were his thoughts?
You know, being imbued with the spirit of freedom doesn’t mean you don’t feel fear or experience doubts about what you’re doing.
When I first arrived in the H Blocks after being sentenced in 1979 I can tell you I was very apprehensive. We had heard the stories in the Crum about the horrendous conditions on the blanket protest, and the beatings and brutality. On reaching reception I was given a prison uniform which I refused to put on and so was taken to H Block 4, one of the blanket blocks.
In H4 I was brought to C wing and directed in to what was known as the ‘big cell’. This was where the uniforms were kept and it was also the place where the notorious mirror search was carried out and where many of the beatings were handed out.
What occurred to me initially was that the wing was so quiet. I had expected a warm welcome from my comrades and when I didn’t get that it reinforced my sense of isolation and vulnerability.
I was roughed up a bit in the big cell although it wasn’t by any means the worst beating I received during my time in the Blocks. However, the effects of it were probably intensified by this sense of isolation.
But as I stepped out on to the corridor I heard a shout from behind one of the cell doors, ‘fear nua ar an sciathán’ (new man on the wing) and at that all hell broke loose. The noise was unbelievable, people were banging the cell doors and shouting and roaring at the tops of their voices, tiocfaidh ár lá, up the Ra, yee ha and so on. The only experience I could imagine that would come close to this would be to run out on to Croke Park on all-Ireland final day representing your county. You know, when the teams sprint out from the tunnel on to the pitch and a massive roar erupts from over 80,000 people.
There were only between forty and fifty men in that wing but the hair stood on the back of my neck and by the time I reached my own cell the sense of isolation had evaporated. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.
What welcomed me to that wing in H4 that day was the embodiment of the spirit of freedom: men who wouldn’t or couldn’t be broken, irrespective of what indignities or brutality they would be subjected to. And of course their courage helped sustain me and give me hope and reassure me that I wasn’t on my own.
When I volunteered for the 1981 hunger strike it wasn’t a decision I arrived at easily. In fact it was made all the more difficult when shortly before Bobby embarked on his hunger strike I received the news on a visit that my sister, Louise, who was a year older than me had been diagnosed with leukaemia and was terminally ill.
My father implored me to withdraw my name from the list of volunteers for the hunger strike.
To say I was devastated by the news about Louise would be an understatement and by the time I got back to my cell my head was spinning. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what the right thing to do was.
After much thought, I came to the conclusion that every prisoner could have a sad story in his or her family and I decided that I would leave my name on the list of volunteers.
Some have said that to put my parents through that was a cruel and selfish decision. And cruel it may well have been, but how can anyone describe hunger striking to the death as selfish? It’s the very antithesis of selfishness.
As events moved on in that summer of 1981 and hunger striker after hunger striker died I was selected to replace Kieran Docherty.
Kieran, as you know, had been elected as TD for Cavan/Monaghan. He was also one of the larger than life figures in the H Blocks at that time and it was a great honour and privilege for me to take his place on the hunger strike.
I was informed I would be replacing Kieran in a comm I received from the leadership of the Army. The comm was addressed to Volunteer Pat Sheehan and that was the first time I had seen ‘Volunteer’ in front of my name. It actually made me feel good because I had always been proud of being a volunteer in Óglaigh na hÉireann and proud to have taken up arms against the British occupation.
However, it quickly occurred to me that usually the only time you see ‘Volunteer’ in front of someone’s name is on a gravestone or in the obituary columns.
The comm went on to say that if I followed through with my commitment to join the hunger strike I would be dead within two months.
That rocked me back on my heels. There it was in black and white – I would be dead in two months.
However, there was a way out. The comm stated that by embarking on this course of action I would be bringing the movement in to direct confrontation with the enemy and, therefore, if I had any doubts I should stand aside and nothing less would be thought of me.
Did I have doubts? Well I wrote back saying I had none. However that wasn’t exactly true, I did have some doubts. I was as sure as I could be that I would see the hunger strike through to the end if that was what was required of me but I was going in to unchartered territory and so did not know how I would react when faced with death.
Ironically, the weaker I became physically the stronger I became mentally and psychologically.
And that’s not to say that I didn’t question what I was doing.
I was twenty-three years of age. Even though I came in to prison when I was nineteen I had played senior hurling and football for my club St Galls in Belfast. I played minor football for Antrim and captained an Antrim under 19 Vocational schools team to an ulster title.
Yet here I was in a cell in the prison hospital almost totally blind, weighing about seven and a half stone, constantly retching and vomiting green bile with my liver on the brink of shutting down completely. Four days before the end of the hunger strike a consultant from the City Hospital in Belfast told me that even if I ended my hunger strike right then there was still no guarantee that I would survive.
And more than once I asked myself the question, ‘Pat, what the hell are you doing here? You should be out playing hurling and football, enjoying the craic with the lads, chasing girls or whatever else you do when you’re a young fit twenty-three year old.
I don’t know whether those who died on hunger strike asked themselves the same question or had similar thoughts to me. But if they did I presume they came up with the same answer as I did, that not only were we right in what we were doing but that we were also fully justified in doing it.
Bobby captured it much better than I could in his poem ‘The Rhythm of Time’. I’ll read a short excerpt:
There’s an inner thing in every man,
Do you know this thing my friend?
It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is ‘the undauntable thought’ my friend,
That thought that says ‘I’m right!’
Of course Bobby himself personified the spirit of freedom. And as well as writing poetry he also wrote and sang songs and saw that as part of his responsibility to give others a sense of this phenomenon that is the spirit of freedom. Given the weekend that’s in it I think it’s only fair that I give some mention to Bobby Sands.
Although 1981 is fresh in the memory of those who were involved in the hunger strike campaign, either inside or outside the prison, in political terms it is light years away. It is right therefore on occasions like this to reflect on the courage and heroism of those who died in the H Blocks and the sacrifice they made for all of us. Quite simply, it’s the enormity of that sacrifice that will continue to nourish the spirit of freedom among our future generations.
So let’s think about the sacrifice, for example, that Bobby Sands made.
Bobby was our leader in the H Blocks and he decided that that he would lead the 1981 hunger strike out front on his own. He made that decision because the way the previous hunger strike ended led him to believe that someone would inevitably die on the second hunger strike. Bobby was adamant that it would be him. Even after his election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone when many believed Thatcher might move to resolve the issues around the hunger strike, Bobby never wavered in his belief that he would have to die.
Two years ago I had the honour of unveiling a mural in Ballymurphy. The mural depicted that iconic scene when Bobby’s funeral stopped on the Andersonstown Road and a firing party of IRA volunteers stepped forward and fired a volley over Bobby’s coffin. In the mural it is easy to pick out some well-known faces in the background. What the mural does not depict is that Bobby’s eight year old son walked behind his coffin that day. In fact it was actually his eighth birthday that day.
Bobby sacrificed the opportunity to see his son grow up, to spend time with him and to do the things that fathers do with their sons. He did that in the belief that his actions would benefit everyone else’s children. That’s the type of man that Bobby Sands was and that’s why he wrote that ‘our revenge will be the laughter of our children’. You see the spirit of freedom is also filled with generosity.
I wasn’t a father at that time. I am now and I don’t know if I could have made the sacrifice that Bobby made. And of course Joe McDonnell was also a father, as was Micky Devine.
I just wanted to use that example to illustrate the enormity of the sacrifices that have been made throughout the history of our struggle for Irish freedom.
Today we don’t want or need our young people to go out on active service or to hunger strike in prison cells. But we do want them to possess the same spirit of freedom that was the hallmark of our patriot dead.
I see that all around me. I see it in my own city where second-class citizenship is not even on the radar of our young people. Young people who have no experience of armed struggle or naked oppression yet are committed to spending their lives in political struggle to end all the injustices that exist on this island. Young people like Niall Ó Donghaile are stepping forward and giving leadership. Similarly, here in the South our party is on the march, building support where we never had it before and being given leadership by young people like Catherine Reilly who are full of energy and enthusiasm and a determination to bring our struggle to a successful conclusion. They are the people who know and understand the spirit of freedom.
I just want to finish with a few lines from a song by Bruce Springsteen called ‘We are Alive’. It’s not about Ireland but it is in a way connected to what I have been talking about tonight and I think it’s appropriate.
“We put our ears to the cold gravestones
This is the song it sang
We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here, in the dark
Our spirits rise, to carry the fire and light the spark
To stand shoulder to shoulder in hard times
We are alive
We are alive.”
A chairde, the spirit of freedom is alive and well. It is that spirit of freedom that inspires and motivates and that will eventually bring us to a new, united, independent Irish republic.