Tales of Troubles

The “Troubles” of the late twentieth-century continues a legacy of Irish rebelliousness that stretches back hundreds of years into the past. There have been sporadic Irish rebellions between the date of the Norman invasion of the Irish lands in the twelfth century and the twentieth century Northern Irish Troubles. David Beresford’s Ten Men Dead: the story of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, and John Conway’s Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life, show the historical legacy of Irish rebelliousness culminating in the Irish Troubles of the late twentieth century.

Ten Men Dead focuses on the 217-day Irish hunger strike that occurred between March 1and October 3, 1981, after ten Irish nationalist prisoners had starved themselves to death in protest against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the British government (Beresford 324). Beresford tells the stories of the IRA and INLA men who went on hunger strike through the many letters written by prisoners in Long Kesh Prison.  He especially draws from the letters written by IRA leader McFarlane to a Sinn Fein official known as Liam Og. Beresford also uses family members of the hunger strikers as primary sources to give readers a sense of being in the hospital room with the protesters on their deathbeds. Beresford's display of the men’s last moments allow a detailed look at the deterioration caused by starvation and shows the resolve and determination of the hunger strikers and their families.

Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life, follows the experiences of Conroy, a reporter working for the Chicago Daily News and the Alicia Patterson Foundation from the late 1970s to the early-to-mid 1980s (viii). In his book, Conroy dives right into the war between the Protestants and Catholics of Belfast. He reports on the movements of the police, military, Protestant paramilitary groups and the IRA, INLA and other Catholic paramilitary groups. While Beresford comments on events within the prison during the hunger strike, Conroy reports on the city of Belfast’s response to the deaths of the men.

A Brief Irish History

Conroy begins his book by attempting to trace the origin of the Troubles through Irish history. Conroy says that five historical periods are important for understanding the Northern Irish Troubles: “the seventeenth-century plantation of Ulster and the upheaval that followed; the formation of the Orange Order in the 1790s; the 1916 Easter Rising and the partition of Ireland; the growth of the civil rights movement in the late1960s; and the state’s slide into violence after August 1969” (Belfast Diary 19). These events placed Protestants politically above Catholics and led to Catholic responses, such as the civil rights movements and rebellion.

The plantation of Ulster that Conroy mentions as the first historical period occurred after the Nine-Years War, beginning in 1593 and ending in 1602. Hugh O’Neil, a man skilled in both diplomacy and battle, led the Gaelic north of Ireland into rebellion. His loss of the Nine-Years War, and his subsequent flight from Ireland, left the northern lands open to the English. The English decided to subdue the Irish with the 1610 Articles of Plantation. Conroy informs the reader that, “The Articles of Plantation were designed to displace the rebellious Irish by confiscating their land, giving it to loyal Englishmen and Scots, and confining the native Irish to less fertile lands” (Belfast Diary 19).  The plantation in Ulster drastically changed the attitude and make-up of the region. According to Conroy, Ulster, a stronghold of Gaelic Catholics and the ancient seat of Irish High-Kings, was ushered by the English government into the hands of Protestant settlers who built fortifications to defend their newly acquired land against the Irish that had been forced from their homes (Conroy Belfast Diary 19). Bands of Catholic Gaelic-Irish warriors of the seventeenth century, known as Wood Kerns, like the IRA and other Catholic paramilitary groups during the 20th century, fought the Protestant residents in Ireland, which they perceived as invaders.

The plantation of Ulster was followed by the arrival of Oliver Cromwell after the English civil war in the mid-seventeenth century. Conroy notes: “Oliver Cromwell arrived in 1649, and in Drogheda killed 2,000 Catholic men, women, and children, and in Wexford 2,000 more” (Belfast Diary 20). Cromwell subdued Ireland in under a year and expanded policies of plantation over the whole of Ireland. Catholics throughout Ireland were pushed to the least fertile parts of the island.

The Orange Order, the second historical period on Conroy’s list, is a brotherhood that pays homage to William of Orange, who defeated the Stuart King, James II. Conroy says that the Protestant Dutchman, William of Orange, arrived in England to take the throne in 1688 with the support of the English Parliament. Two years later, he defeated the ruling monarch, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne. In remembrance of King William and his victory over the Catholics, Ulster Protestants created the Orange Order in 1795 and hold a parade every July twelfth in celebration. (Belfast Diary 20). The divisions between the north and the south of Ireland could already be seen in William’s Glorious Revolution. The Catholic south of Ireland largely supported King James II, but many Protestant northern cities in Ireland resisted James and supported William.

The Easter Rising of 1916, the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960’s, and the escalating violence in 1969 go hand-in-hand. Irish Catholics continued fighting for political equality as they had since Ireland was treated like a plantation in the seventeenth century. By the time World War I began in 1914, the members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) wanted independence from the United Kingdom. In the middle of the Great War, the extreme Irish nationalists made their move. Conroy says, “In Dublin on Easter Monday of that year, a group of about 1,000 men took over several strategically placed buildings, including the General Post Office, and proclaimed a Provisional Government of the Irish Republic” (Belfast Diary 21). After the rebellion was subdued and the leaders began to be executed by the British government, the Irish public, which had not supported the rebels, became furious with the British. Sinn Fein, previously a peaceful party, allied itself with the IRB and won “72 of 105 Irish seats in the British Parliament” in 1918 (Belfast Diary 21).

By 1921, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had emerged from out of the IRB. After a guerilla war with a police force fresh from the trenches of WWI, a treaty was signed that created the Irish Free State. Modern-day Northern Ireland was left within the United Kingdom, but the majority of Ireland was given British Dominion status. The Catholics in the North of Ireland were stripped of many of the political powers and human rights granted to them by men such as Daniel O’Connell and Charles Parnell. The Protestant northern Irish government “gerrymandered election districts” to assure their control over their area of the land (Conroy Belfast Diary 24). This sparked a new wave of Catholic efforts for civil rights reform, which led to increased tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Conroy notes that by 1967 Catholics were protesting for an end to government abuse, such as gerrymandering and anti-terrorist laws, and they wanted the B-Specials, a police force responsible for the Catholics, dissolved (Belfast Diary 26). The more Catholics fought for rights and equality, the more Protestants resisted Catholics and their demands.

Humanizing the Fighters

By 1981, the IRA was still fighting the British. Those caught in Northern Ireland were jailed in the Long Kesh Prison, also known as the Maze. Cardinal O’Fiach visited the prisoners and commented, “I was shocked by the inhuman conditions prevailing in H-Block 3, 4 and 5, where over 300 prisoners are incarcerated. One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions… the remains of rotten food and human excreta scattered around the walls were almost unbearable” (Beresford Ten Men Dead 139). Ten hunger strikers of Long Kesh, Bobby Sands, Frank Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy Ohara, Kevin Lynch, Tom McElwee, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kieran Doherty and Michael Devline systematically starved themselves to death in protest in efforts to obtain political status.

The British, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady,’ steadfastly pointed out that “The solution does not lie in our hands. It lies with the hunger strikers themselves, their families and advisers” (Beresford Ten Men Dead 148). Thatcher was verbally assaulted by the Irish-Americans Ted Kennedy, Daniel Moynihan, Tip O’Neill and Hugh Carey, known as the ‘Four Horsemen,’ in their statement that accused Thatcher of “inflexibility” and asking for her to solve the “unnecessary crisis” (Beresford Ten Men Dead 148).

Thatcher argued, as David Beresford indicates in Ten Men Dead, that families of the hunger strikers did have power to end the strike. Yet to do this they had to go against their loved one’s wishes and undercut the hunger strikers’ cause. Many families suffered the agony of watching their kin starve to death, but others decided the fight was not worth sacrificing a son or husband.

David Beresford illustrates these dramatic moments in Ten Men Dead. The prisoners’ hunger strike began to fall apart when wives and mothers began taking their husbands and sons off the strike once the strikers deteriorated to the point of a coma. After Paddy Quinn became delirious, his mother told the wives of the other hunger strikers that she was “’ taking him off,’” but the mother of Kevin Lynch responded, “I gave Kevin my promise and I’ll not be breaking it” (Beresford Ten Men Dead 275). Paddy Quinn was ultimately taken off the hunger strike by his mother, but the majority of the families of the hunger strikers let the strike continue. Many families were swayed by the statements of the hunger strikers, like Patsy O’Hara, who said, “’I’m sorry Mammy we didn’t win. Let the fight go on’” (Beresford Ten Men Dead 163). David Beresford describes many of the mothers of the hunger strikers as having “a will as steely as that of Mrs. Thatcher” (Ten Men Dead 155).

By October 3, the hunger strike was ended. During the process multiple hunger strikers were elected as Sinn Fein members of Parliament. When Bobby Sands was elected as a Member of Parliament before his death, Beresford notes, “It undermined the entire shaky edifice of British policy in northern Ireland, which had been so painfully constructed on the hypothesis that blame for the ‘Troubles’ could be placed on a small gang of thugs and hoodlums who enjoyed no community support” (Ten Men Dead 85). The Irish were willing to show their frustration with the British government through political means, just like they showed their frustration after the Easter Rising by supporting Sinn Fein.

The Irish have been in constant rebellion with Britain and have been fighting amongst themselves for hundreds of years. The tensions between Catholic-Protestant relations date back to the war between William of Orange and James II. The Anglo-Irish tensions can be traced back to the Norman invasion of Ireland. As John Conroy’s landlady says in Belfast Diary, “’The Troubles’ have been a way of life for millions of people for hundreds of years” (19).

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