Gernika: The beginning of aerial terror

Gernika Belfast

A mural of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica in Belfast

The following excerpt on the 1937 attack on the Basque village of Gernika is taken from an incomplete history piece on the Basque Country, from a chapter on the Second Republic and civil war. Tomorrow (April 26) is the 80th anniversary of the bombardment.

In early 1937, with Madrid still putting up a stiff resistance, Franco set his sights upon Bilbo with the aim of capturing the city’s iron ore and heavy industry to support his war effort. The Francoists quickly planned a northern offensive to be led by General Emilio Mola, who issued an ultimatum on 31 March in broadcast and printed leaflets dropped on Bizkaian towns saying: “If submission is not immediate, I will raze Vizcaya to the ground, beginning with the industries of war. I have the means to do so.” Most of the infantry on Franco’s side were raised from Nafarroa. The 50,000 heavily armed troops in four Nafarroan brigades were backed up by two Italian divisions, the Spanish Air Force, the Italian Aviazione Legionaria and the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe. Mola had 120 aircraft and 45 pieces of artillery at his disposal. The Republican Army in the North had almost as many troops but far less firepower, half the artillery and just 25 ineffective aircraft. The offensive began with an act of brutality when the village of Durango – not on the front line and undefended – was bombarded for four days by the Luftwaffe, with 248 civilians killed. Republican positions were falling fast and on 20 April 1937 a new Francoist offensive began in Bizkaia.

Gernika has long had a sacred status among Basques as the site of the ancient Basque parliament of Bizkaia, the Casa de Juntas, and of the legendary Gernikako Arbola (Tree of Gernika), an oak tree that has been a symbol of Basque sovereignty and the rights of the Basque people for close to a thousand years. In 1937 the town had a population of around 7,000 people, and Monday 26 April was a busy market day in the town centre. At 4.40pm the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria launched an aerial bombardment of the town that lasted for three hours, with waves of planes hitting the town centre every 20 minutes with high explosives and incendiary bombs of up to 1000lbs. each. Those who tried to run from the town or hide in the fields were machine-gunned. At 7.45pm, after the last planes had dropped their bombs, the centre of the town was destroyed. The assault killed 1,654 of the town’s 7,000 inhabitants. Gernika was 30 kilometres from the front. The Casa de Juntas and the Tree of Gernika had incredibly survived untouched.

A report by British journalist George Steer, war correspondent for the London Times, was published in the Times and the New York Times on 28 April. Steer had rushed to the town the evening of the attack to interview survivors and witness the devastation firsthand, and reported: “The most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders.”  His report from Gernika was all the more significant because Franco’s forces claimed the Basques had burned the town themselves as a propaganda stunt; then they claimed the Communists had bombed it. Franco denied that German forces were even participating in Spain’s Civil War. In response to the Nationalist propaganda, Basque lehendakari (president) José Antonio Aguirre made a public declaration : “I maintain firmly before God and History, who will judge us, that during three and a half hours German planes have bombarded the defenceless civilian population of the historic town of Gernika, pursuing women and children with machine-guns, and reducing the town itself to ashes. I ask the civilized world whether it can permit the extermination of a people who have always deemed it their duty to defend their liberty as well as the ideal of self-government which Gernika, with its thousand-year-old Tree, has symbolized throughout the centuries.” Franco replied: “Aguirre lies. We have respected Gernika, just as we respect all that is Spanish.” Mola was more forthright, saying: “It is necessary to destroy the capital of a perverted people who dare to oppose the irresistible cause of the national idea.”

Basque priest Father Alberto Onaindia witnessed the carnage in Gernika and wrote in desperation to the Primate of Spain, Cardinal Gomá: “I have just arrived from Bilbao with my soul destroyed after having witnessed the horrific crime that has been perpetrated against the peaceful town of Guernica… Senor Cardinal, for dignity, for the honour of the gospel, for Christ’s infinite pity, such a horrendous, unprecedented, apocalyptic, Dantesque crime cannot be committed.” He begged the Cardinal to intervene to sure the Francoists’ threat – that Bilbo was next – was not implemented. Gomá responded by insisting that Bilbo must surrender. Referring to the Basque Nationalist Party’s (PNV) loyalty to the Republic, he added: “Peoples pay for their pacts with evil and for their perverse wickedness in sticking to them.” Francoist forces viewed the scene a few days later, and a Carlist soldier reportedly asked a senior officer in Mola’s staff: “Was it necessary to do this?” The lieutenant colonel replied that it had to be done in all of Bizkaia and Catalunya. In 1970  PNV member Joseba Elosegi, one of the Basque soldiers from the Battalion Saseta which had withdrawn to Gernika for a period of recuperation and was present on the day of the bombing, carried out an act of self-immolation in a protest against Franco in Donostia, shouting “Gora Euskadi Askatuta!” (Long live the free Basque country!). Elosegi was badly burned but survived and described his protest as the desperate act of a man who had “obsessively remembered” for more than three decades the scenes he witnessed at Gernika.

Steer immediately understood the significance of the attack on Gernika, and in his Times article he wrote:  “In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind the lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.” His report was reprinted in the French communist newspaper L’Humanité on 29 April, where Pablo Picasso read it. The artist captured the international outrage over the attack in his world-renowned painting. He had been commissioned earlier that year by the Spanish Republican government to paint a mural for the Spanish government building at the World Fair in Paris. On 1 May 1937, he dropped his original plan and produced his most famous work, Guernica, instead.

Dublin Lockout: The Risen People

Bloody Sunday baton charge

Bloody Sunday baton charge

Published in the CFMEU WA Branch Journal in September 2013

Irish trade unionists are marking the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, the most significant labour dispute in Irish history. Led by ‘Big Jim’ Larkin, the people of Dublin’s slums fought a five-month battle with the city’s major employers over the right to union recognition. It was a fight that affected 20,000 workers and their 80,000 family members, and included deadly street battles with police.

The Lockout, which began in August 1913, was no spontaneous dispute. It was a conscious attempt by businessman and media magnate William Martin Murphy to nip the growing power of the newly formed ITGWU in the bud. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union was formed by Larkin in 1909 and by 1913 it had won several improvements for members across Ireland.

Ireland in the first two decades of the 20th century was experiencing major political upheaval, with suffragettes, radical nationalists and republicans organising powerful movements for change. With brutal working and living conditions, the radicalisation among working people that took place in Dublin during this period – led by Larkin and fellow socialist and trade unionist James Connolly – was little wonder.

Slum city

Dublin in 1913 was a city of slums – of impoverished people living in squalor in over-crowded tenement housing. Shortly after the Lockout began in August 1913, two overcrowded four-storey tenements on Church Street collapsed, killing seven people.

An inquiry into the disaster reported on housing conditions in the city the following year, stating that of the 400,000 residents of Dublin, almost 90,000 lived in tenements in the city centre, with 80% of these families living in a single room. The Church St disaster inquiry reported that: “We have visited one house that we found to be occupied by 98 persons, another by 74 and a third by 73.”

Overcrowding, malnutrition and poor sanitation meant disease thrived, with the most dreaded being the deadly tuberculosis. A Census in 1911 found that Dublin had a mortality rate as high as Calcutta’s, and that one in five deaths that year was of a child under the age of one.

Larkin forms ‘One Big Union’

Dublin lacked an industrial base and its workers were mainly unskilled and employed on a casual basis. Around 50,000 people depended on work on the docks, in transport, the building trade and a limited number of factories and workshops.

Labourers could be replaced at a moment’s notice from a pool of thousands, many from the countryside, who carried with them the recent memory of the Famine. There was a readiness to work for any wage and in any conditions. Unemployment was 20%, and workers were often paid their wages in pubs.

This was the city into which Larkin arrived in 1909. Born in Liverpool, Larkin joined the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) in England. He led the successful dockers’ and carters’ strike in Belfast in 1907 – during which the display of Protestant and Catholic working-class unity shook the Belfast establishment. Larkin fell out with the NUDL leadership in 1908 and set up the ITGWU in 1909. By 1913, the ITGWU operated out of Liberty Hall in Dublin with a membership of around 10,000, and The Irish Worker, launched in 1911, had a circulation of 90,000.

Larkin was a charismatic and powerful orator who was fiercely loved by Dublin’s working people. A syndicalist, Larkin was especially adept at using the ‘sympathetic strike’ to win better conditions for workers. The sympathetic strike was when workers acted in solidarity with striking workers by refusing to deal with companies whose employees were on strike, and the tactic was effectively used by the ITGWU between 1909 and 1913 in Cork, Derry and Wexford.

One major employer who was paying close attention to the ITGWU’s success was businessman William Martin Murphy. Murphy owned the Irish Independent newspaper, Clery’s Department Store, the Imperial Hotel and the Dublin United Tramways Company, among other interests. In 1911, Murphy formed the Dublin Employers’ Federation which drew together more than 400 bosses into a powerful organisation intent on smashing the ITGWU.

‘Your union or your job’

Murphy fired the first shot in the dispute in 1913 by sacking around 40 workers in the Irish Independent after literally offering them the choice: “Your union or your job”. In July he forbade transport workers in the Tramways Company from being ITGWU members. He warned his staff a strike would fail, saying company leaders would have three meals a day regardless of the outcome, but “I don’t know if the men who go out can count on this”.

In a planned challenge to the ITGWU, on 21 August more than 100 workers at the Tramways Company received a dismissal notice. As large numbers travelled to the Dublin Horse Show on 26 August, drivers and conductors stopped the city’s trams and walked off. Larkin called on workers in other companies owned by Murphy or dealing with him to join the strike in solidarity. James Connolly, then ITGWU secretary in Belfast, was brought to Dublin to help run the strike.

On 31 August, Larkin addressed a banned demonstration on Sackville St – now O’Connell St – from the balcony of Murphy’s Imperial Hotel. Connolly and other leaders had already been arrested, and Larkin too was immediately. The Dublin Metropolitan Police baton-charged the crowd so violently that the day became known as Bloody Sunday – the first of three ‘Bloody Sundays’ in Ireland in the 20th century.

Two men – James Nolan and John Byrne – had their skulls fractured by police batons and later died. An ITGWU representative from Dun Laoghaire, James Byrne, died in November following a hunger strike in Mountjoy jail. Another striker, 16-year-old Alice Brady, was shot dead by a scab as she returned to her home with a donated food box.

Tension between the police and workers rose, with police smashing up the tenements by night. Rioting and street battles with police took place across the city throughout the Lockout, leading Connolly to found the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) as a workers’ self-defence organisation. At a time when women in Ireland were still fighting for the vote, the ICA accepted women as full and equal members.

As thousands of workers were attending the funeral of James Nolan on September 3, the Dublin Employers Federation met and issued the “pledge” document – which employees would be forced to sign or face immediate dismissal – and the strike became a lockout.

The pledge read:

I hereby undertake to carry out all instructions given to me by or on behalf of my employers, and further, I agree to immediately resign my membership of the ITGWU (if a member) and I further undertake that I will not join or in any way support this union.

Thousands of workers refused to sign – including many who were not ITGWU members. Rosie Hackett, a co-founder of the Irish Women Workers Union in 1911 with Delia Larkin, Constance Markievicz and others, organised women in Jacobs’ factory in support of the strike. Other major bosses joined the Lockout and by the end of September, 20,000 workers were locked out for refusing to sign the pledge.

Hunger sets in

The ITGWU paid strike wages but it wasn’t enough and hunger and desperation set in. Soup kitchens were run from Liberty Hall, union headquarters. The British Trade Union Congress voted in September to provide food and material assistance, with more than £150,000 donated from unions in Britain, the US and Australia. On 28 September a ship arrived from Britain with 60,000 ‘family boxes’ of food for the striking workers, which provided a vital morale boost.

James Larkin

James Larkin

Larkin spent several brief periods in jail for sedition and incitement, and between these periods he spent time in England in September and November trying to organise support. Connolly continued the organisation of the strike at home. While sympathetic strikes took place in several English cities, the British trade union leadership failed to call a general strike as advocated by Larkin and Connolly.

Conferences took place between workers, bosses and a union delegation to try to resolve the dispute, but failed as a result of the employers’ refusal to recognise the ITGWU. The workers faced the full force of the police, backed up by the military, as well as a fierce campaign of vilification of “Larkinism” by the clergy and media.

A hollow victory

Hunger spread as winter deepened, and there was simply not enough resources to sustain so many workers and their families, who were beginning to starve. By January the striking workers had lost all hope and began to file back to work, with the ITGWU deciding on 18 January to end the strike. The union advised workers to return to work without signing the document if possible, but in most cases it wasn’t.

But Murphy’s victory was hollow. He believed he had smashed the ITGWU but within a short period workers who had signed the pledge never to join the ITGWU did just that. The union did not have official recognition but employers were not willing to risk another lockout of union members and by 1920 the ITGWU had 100,000 members, 10 times more than in 1913. The attempt to destroy trade unionism in Ireland had clearly failed.

The Lockout was a defining point in Irish history and is rightly commemorated as such 100 years later. Poet Austin Clarke wrote that Larkin’s name endures, “scrawled in rage by Dublin’s poor”. This roar of the city’s impoverished workers meant the brutal conditions they endured could no longer be ignored and began to change.

Crucially, the fight put up by these workers meant that at this turbulent point in Irish history, the working class had a political voice – a voice that influenced middle-class nationalists such as Pádraig Pearse, who together with Connolly led the Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland in 1916. Both were executed within weeks of the Rising.

Unfinished business

In O’Connell St today stands a monument to Larkin with his famous phrase from the Lockout period engraved in the stone: “The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.”

The question of union recognition remains unresolved in Ireland today, which is one of only three EU states that lacks a legislated right to collective bargaining. Poverty, unemployment and emigration have soared after five years of austerity, and the injustice of the massive public debt undertaken by the government’s bailout of corrupt banks is bitterly felt. Austerity is not working for workers and their families right across Europe, and the Murphys of today should take note.

The centenary commemorations of the Lockout during the current crisis are helping a new generation understand the meaning of the central slogan used by the striking workers in 1913 – that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ – as they organise to defend hard-won working and social conditions.

‘Bobby dreamed of a better future’

Séanna Walsh

Séanna Walsh

Friend and former cellmate of Bobby Sands speaks

Published in the West Belfast News & An Phoblacht in May 2011

On the 30th anniversary of the May 5, 1981 death on hunger strike of Irish republican prisoner Bobby Sands MP, the West Belfast News’ Emma Clancy spoke to Sands’ close friend, former prisoner in the Long Kesh H-Blocks along with Sands and leading Belfast Sinn Féin activist Séanna Walsh about the man who has become a revolutionary icon around the world.

Discussing the impact of the 1981 Hunger Strike on the course of recent Irish history, Walsh said: “I believe that people who went through this period and had these experiences have an obligation to tell a new generation about it – to ensure that this crucial period in Irish history isn’t left to be rewritten by the ‘experts’ and academics but is actually recounted by the people who lived it.”

Walsh first met Sands on remand in Cage 8 of Long Kesh before being moved to Crumlin Road jail in January 1973.

“Although I was 16 and should have been sent to a juvenile institution, I was sent to a standard remand jail,” he said.

“Bobby wasn’t in the same hut but he sought me out when I arrived, I suppose because I was so young. Bobby was 18 and had been on remand for around four months.

“He took me for a dander around the yard explaining the daily routine of the jail, the dos and don’ts, filling me in on how to arrange visits from family and generally what was what in the jail.

“He was very much one of ‘us’, an ordinary guy who loved a bit of craic, kicked a football, had a sleg and a laugh.

“Within a week or two I was moved to Long Kesh with the other Crumlin road prisoners on remand or awaiting trial.”

While he was in Crumlin Road jail Bobby got married and his son Gerard was born.

“Bobby was sentenced to five years and sent to Long Kesh in March or April of 1973, while I was soon to follow in May”, Walsh said.

“We met up again in autumn of that year, around September, when I was moved from Cage 18 to Cage 17 in Long Kesh.

“The warders had done away with the open layout of the Nissen huts and had partitioned them on the inside into cell-like structures. We called them cubicles or cubes. I was put into Bobby’s cubicle for around a year until we prisoners burnt the camp in October 1974.

“I was from the Short Strand and there were a lot of Short Strand guys in Cage 17. Bobby was from Rathcoole originally, and then moved to Twinbrook after the summer of 1972. He became part of our circle, those of us who were mainly from the Strand.

“We were all learning Irish together. I would have had around GCSE-level Irish before I was caught. I don’t think Bobby had any Irish when he went in but he very quickly caught up.

“A fellow prisoner was great guitarist and blues musician Rab McCullogh. He taught Bobby how to play guitar around that time. He was always down at our cubicle or else Bobby would be up in his learning how to play different tunes.

“Bobby would sing a lot of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and early Rod Stewart stuff during this period, as well as a lot of songs in Irish.

“He read and absorbed books hungrily – political and historical books about British involvement in our country and the resulting resistance to that involvement, as well as the struggles of other oppressed peoples throughout the world, throughout history. But he also read novels.

“When Bobby was released in early 1976 he was coming out determined to reorganise the republican base in his area, Twinbrook.

“He reorganised the army, the auxies [auxiliaries], na Fianna [republican youth group] and Sinn Féin, but then he took things a step further.

“He organised republican involvement in the tenants’ associations and pushed republicans to become involved in the everyday battles with the British Direct Rule administration and unionists on Lisburn Council.

“After six short months, however, he was back inside and I was already there too, waiting on him coming back.

Bobby Sands in Long Kesh before the withdrawal of political status

Bobby Sands in Long Kesh before the withdrawal of political status

“The rules were different this time though, with the denial of political status after March 1976 the prison warders were attempting to impose a punitive regime of criminal status on us.”

Resisting criminalisation

“Bobby was at the forefront of resistance to Britain’s criminalisation policies on remand in Crumlin Road jail and then once sentenced, in the H-Blocks,” Walsh said.

“He had been involved in writing a local weekly news-sheet before recapture and he decided to continue writing for it in jail. After a while he started writing for Republican News, soon to become An Phoblacht/Republican News.

“He was now like a man possessed; it was his job to tell the story of every brutal assault, every sadistic attack on the naked prisoners in the H-Blocks.

“The horrendous conditions in which we suffered meant nothing if the world outside of our immediate families knew nothing about them. Bobby was central to getting the word out, first of all to the republican base and then to the wider community.

“As the crisis in the H-Blocks dragged on from 1979 into 1980 and we went through different avenues to move the British on the political status issue, it became clear that we would be left with one last option – the hunger strike.

“The hunger strike of 1980 ended with British doublespeak and bad faith and it quickly became apparent to a number of us that a second hunger strike was inevitable.

“With Bobby leading the charge in the face of justified concerns and worries from the army leadership outside, we pressed our case. We were successful.

“Bobby organised for himself to be the first man on the strike, the first then to die, the two-week gap before Francie Hughes joined him giving the British space to move, to make concessions once Thatcher had her pound of flesh.”

Election campaign

Walsh recounted the events that led to Bobby Sands being elected as MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone while on hunger strike.

“When it was announced in 1979 that Bernadette McAliskey was to stand on an Anti H Block/Armagh Platform in the European elections, we discussed the decision in jail and put out a public statement voicing concerns that the election campaign a distraction from the task of mobilising people in the street campaign in support of political status for republican prisoners.

“We viewed it as a distraction from the armed struggle.

“However, when Bobby’s name was put forward for the 1981 by-election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, we vigorously seized on that notion and weighed in behind it, not as an alternative to the armed struggle at the time, but as a way of mobilising people around the issue of political status.

“It was a means of allowing people to publicly claim their support for the prisoners.

“The media was ignoring or downplaying the street campaign in support of status, so in that context the election campaign seemed like a good way to put it on public record that there was a high level of support for the prisoners and for our demand for political status.

“Once the idea was raised to put Bobby’s name forward for the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election, there wasn’t universal support for the move in the jail.

“Some prisoners were concerned that the election campaign would be a distraction from the street campaign in support of political status, or that participating in the electoral system would somehow contaminate our republican credentials.

An Phoblacht/Republican News in 1981

An Phoblacht/Republican News in 1981

“Others were concerned not about the question of participating in the election, but of the prospect that Bobby might not win the seat, which would allow the British to present the outcome as a rejection of our decision to embark on the hunger strike, a rejection of the legitimacy of the protest and the five demands, and a rejection of the wider republican struggle.

“We were very clear about the dangers of the tactic of putting Bobby forward. Overall however, the majority verdict was ‘Yes, let’s go’.

“During the first hunger strike in 1980, and in the lead-up to it, we wrote to everybody we could think of – schools, credit unions, GAA clubs [Gaelic Athletic Association, which organizes tradition Irish sports], residents’ associations, celebrities and sports personalities.

“When the second hunger strike started we began the letter-writing campaign again. Once Bobby allowed his name to go forward for the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election, we went into overdrive. There was a huge effort by the prisoners.

“Despite initial reservations about the tactic among some prisoners, there was rapid acceptance and understanding of the value of using this tactic once we had made the decision.

“When Bobby began his hunger strike, I was certain that he was going to die. He was certain of this too.

“But when he was elected as MP, I started to hope the situation had changed – that the British could not allow him to die.

“I don’t believe Bobby was in that frame of mind though. Despite his election, he didn’t allow himself to have heightened expectations about the outcome of the hunger strike.”

Political machine

“We hoped that Bobby’s election, and the clear signal this sent that republicans had significant public support, would put pressure on the British to meet the prisoners’ demands,” Walsh said.

“It’s hard to put yourself back in that mind-frame without viewing events through the prism of the past 30 years. But undoubtedly a major lesson for republicans at the time from Bobby’s election in April 1981 was that the nationalist people in the North were willing to support and vote for republicans.

“That didn’t mean people were at that stage voting to support the armed campaign, or even a United Ireland. But given the right set of circumstances, the nationalist people would vote for republicans and our politics.

“It was, as I said, a major lesson. It indisputably opened up that arena to a generation of republicans who previously had no regard, no expectations, and no aspirations to do anything around electoral politics.

“It hadn’t entered our world, but after Bobby’s election our world had changed.

“During the long, dark days of the blanket protest, we kept up morale by learning Irish and sing-songs and some of the guys even ingeniously fashioned a game of bingo out the door to keep the wing entertained.

“Our other main preoccupation was with politics – discussing, arguing, and debating the politics of the world, and the politics and history of republicanism,” Walsh said.

“It was apparent for us during these discussions in the jail that in 1972, when the IRA had forced the British through force of arms to the negotiating table, we didn’t know what to do when we got there.

“In 1974 and 1975 when the IRA had again forced the British to the negotiating table, we didn’t have the political machine nor the political operation in place that would allow us to move into that space once the IRA had created it.

“There was an acknowledgement of these limitations in the mid to late 1970s, not right throughout the movement but certainly within a section of it.

“Among a section of prisoners in Long Kesh there was an understanding that regardless of what the IRA did in the armed struggle, in the short, medium and long term there was a need to build a political vehicle, an effective political machine, and to build up an alternative political infrastructure in our communities.”

Determination

Walsh described the “blanket protest” that developed after the removal of political status as being “like a political crucible, or a pressure cooker in which all of the politics, the mayhem of that period of the late 1970s and early 1980s was concentrated”.

He said: “This experience created a very strong comradeship and a bond among the prisoners. It created a determination among many of us to see this struggle through to the end – throughout the twists and turns of the struggle, a sense that you would never walk away from it.

“It produced a caucus of politicised, committed, determined lifelong activists.

Bobby Sands' mural on the gable wall of Sinn Féin's Belfast office on the Falls Road

Bobby Sands’ mural on the gable wall of Sinn Féin’s Belfast office on the Falls Road

“The prison protests, and what men and women went through during those days, also caused immense damage to a lot of people in Long Kesh and Armagh jail.

“I believe that the brutality and indignities of that experience left deep scars across the entire republican and nationalist communities. It was not only the prisoners who were suffering but visiting relatives including children who endured the indignities of searches, the taunts of the warders and the sectarianism and petty-mindedness of the whole prison system.

“There is a reservoir of trauma under the surface and this is an aspect of the conflict that is still not recognised and rarely talked about. This needs to change if we are to cope with these problems individually and as a community.”

Bobby’s vision

“I was speaking earlier about Bobby’s love for music. When we were on the blanket protest after political status was removed, of course we had no musical instruments.

“Bobby was one of a couple of guys – him, Bik [Brendan McFarlane] and couple of others – who would get up and sing. They’d have a repertoire of around 30 songs or so and could sing away for an hour easily.

“The rest of the wing would be very quiet during those sing-songs, you’d close your eyes and listen and it’d take you away for awhile.

“Bobby used to sing a lot of Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen songs during that period, and a guy called Loudon Wainwright III.

“I was talking to Tom Hartley recently about that period – about the period of the hunger strike, Bobby’s election campaign and where we are today – and I was remembering the lines of one of those Loudon Wainwright songs that Bobby sang.

We’ve come a long way since we last shook hands
Still got a long way to go
We couldn’t see the flowers when we last shook hands
Couldn’t see the flowers on account of the snow.

“For me these lines are a metaphor about the distance we’ve come. From where we were when Bobby used to sing those words, to where we are today – it’s just a world of difference,” Séanna said.

“It’s also a reminder of how, despite the fact that things can be so bleak at a given time, they can change, change utterly, for the better.

“That oft-quoted line from Bobby’s writings – ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children’ – is in the same spirit as this song, and I think it really does sum up Bobby’s vision – of daring to dream of a better future and of struggling for it with every ounce of his being.

“Building on Bobby’s example, his courage and single-mindedness, how can we fail to create a better Ireland? A better future?”

30 years on – the Armagh women’s hunger strike

A poster of Mary Doyle when she was on hunger strike in Armagh

A poster of Mary Doyle when she was on hunger strike in Armagh

Interview with former hunger striker Mary Doyle: ‘When your back is against the wall, you get the strength from somewhere’

Published in the West Belfast News in December, 2010

North Belfast republican Mary Doyle was first sent to Armagh women’s jail for republican activities in May 1974 when she was 18 years old.

“At that stage we had political status,” she told the West Belfast News.

In 1975, while Doyle was in jail, her mother was murdered by the UVF. She was allowed out for 24 hours on compassionate parole to attend her mother’s funeral, then returned to the jail.

“That was a very dark period for me, but the comradeship of the women got me through,” she said.

“I was released in September 1976 and political status for prisoners had been withdrawn in March that year. I was sent back to jail in September 1977 and the prison screws and governor took great pleasure in telling me that status was gone and that I was an ‘ordinary criminal’. I was on remand and then sentenced in December 1978.”

In 1977 the republican women POWs in Armagh refused to do mandatory prison work in protest at the withdrawal of political status. In response to the no-work protest, the women were kept in their cells all day during work hours and were allowed out between 5.30pm and 8pm in the evening to eat, wash and exercise.

Punishment for the work strike also included the loss of educational opportunities and remission. One visit a week was reduced to one visit a month.

Strip searches were a key weapon used by the prison authorities throughout this period in an attempt to intimidate and humiliate the republican women. This process, condemned as a form of sexual assault by the state, involved women being thrown to the ground and beaten if they resisted.

While the men in the H Blocks of Long Kesh prison had begun the blanket protest in protest at the British government’s criminalisation policy, refusing to wear the prison uniform, Armagh prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes.

The women wore IRA uniform items such as black polo neck shirts, black skirts and tights as a form of protest against criminalisation.

“We would organise commemorations in the yard wearing our uniforms if a Volunteer was killed,” Doyle said.

“In February 1980 a major raid was carried out on our cells by male and female screws. They moved us into two association rooms while they ransacked our cells. We didn’t have much but what we had – photographs, letters and personal items – they destroyed.

“We then had to walk back to our cells through lines of male screws on either side who came out with all sorts of abuse.

“We were locked up for 24 hours a day and denied access to toilet facilities. This went on for a few days and a small amount of cold food was thrown in now and then. We had a chamber pot in the cell and tried to empty it out under the door when it was full, but the screws brushed the waste back in.

“Mairéad Farrell, who was our OC, was protesting strongly to the prison administration, demanding that we be allowed out of our cells for an hour a day, which was our human and legal right.

“After a few days we were allowed out for an hour’s exercise, four at a time – but the toilet facilities remained locked.

“The no-wash protest was forced on the women in Armagh through the actions of the prison authorities.”

The republican prisoners were moved from B Wing to A Wing where they spent the summer of 1980. The men in the H Blocks had at this point been on the blanket and no wash protest for several years.

“There was great communication between the H Blocks, Armagh and the republican movement outside,” Mary explained.

“There were 30 republican women prisoners and we only got one visit each per month, so we made sure that a woman had a visit from the outside each day to keep up the communication.

“The question of beginning a hunger strike began to be discussed, and was firmly opposed by the leadership on the outside. But for us and for the men in the H Blocks, we felt our situation was intolerable and we needed to try to force a change in our conditions.

“The H Block leadership were opposed to women participating in the hunger strike. This wasn’t for any macho reason – their opposition was based on logistical issues. But the women were determined to participate as we felt we had an equal stake in achieving the five demands.”

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Doyle explained the process of deciding to volunteer for the hunger strike.

“I thought long and hard about volunteering for the strike before I put my name forward. My main consideration was my family. My mother had been murdered, my father was unwell and I had two younger brothers. I was approaching my 25th birthday.

“After a lot of consideration I took the decision to put my name forward. Seven men in the H Blocks began the hunger strike on October 27. On December 1, Mairéad Farrell, Mairéad Nugent and myself joined the hunger strike.

“Telling my family was very difficult emotionally.

“When there had been talk on the outside of a hunger strike, my father had said to friends and family: ‘Oh, our Mary will definitely put her name forward.’ They supported me – that was amazing, to have the support of family, friends and comrades.

“On the day we started the hunger strike, the three of us were moved to a double cell together, which was great for us in terms of morale. We would spend the days writing letters to anyone and everyone around the world about the plight of the prisoners.”

Doyle noted that “prison food is notoriously bad” and said that Armagh was no exception.

“The food was usually served cold and in small portions. But when we started the hunger strike, the screws would pass in plates overflowing with piping hot food,” she said.

“The cell would never be without food – the uneaten suppers would remain in the cell overnight and be removed only when breakfast was passed in. That was something really petty, really childish and vindictive, on the part of the prison authorities that I remember being disgusted with.”

As the three women entered their second week on hunger strike, they were moved to the so-called hospital wing – a double cell in another part of the prison. They were allowed use the bath facilities, which was a requirement for everyone entering the hospital wing.

“We had been on the no-wash protest since February that year and having a bath had been something we had been looking forward to so much, and talking about eagerly,” Doyle recalled.

“But by that stage we were actually too weak to really appreciate it.

“Communication with the other prisoners remained good as we were still allowed an hour’s exercise in the prison yard. But it was December and we were very conscious of the threat to our health from the cold, with our weakened immune systems. We wrapped up in extra blankets to try to keep warm.

“Despite the physical hardship, our morale was brilliant. Our only concern was the health of our comrades in the H Blocks who had been on hunger strike longer than us. Then we heard that Sean McKenna’s health was rapidly deteriorating.

“We had a small radio that we’d smuggled in to the cell that we listened to only at news time. On December 18 we heard an item on the nine o’clock news that said the hunger strike had ended. We thought we had misheard it but the same news was repeated the following hour.

“Danny Morrison had tried to get in to visit us that evening to inform us of the decision to end the hunger strike but the prison authorities and NIO officials refused to allow him in.

“The Armagh prison governor, George Scott, came in to us saying, ‘So, the hunger strike is over’. But we hadn’t had confirmation, so Mairéad said: ‘No. We’re still on it until we hear directly that it’s over.’

“After a visit by a republican to acting OC Síle Darragh the following day, December 19, we ended the hunger strike. Our immediate reaction was relief that Sean McKenna would live and a sense of happiness or satisfaction that our demands, as we believed, would be met.”

Mary recalled the rapid disillusionment in Armagh and the H Blocks as shortly after Christmas it became clear that the British had reneged on the agreement and had no intention of addressing the five demands.

“In January we began discussing a second hunger strike. I was all for it. I put my name down again as did a few others,” she said.

“My father had visited me after the hunger strike ended, and I will never forget the look of relief in his eyes.

“I thought about what it would mean to put him and the rest of my family through that again. It was a very difficult decision, and something that I felt and still feel truly terrible about, but I felt I had to remove my name.

“There were only 30 prisoners in our wing in Armagh jail, including some women who were not even part of the republican movement but who had been forced into signing confessions in Castlereagh. We made the assessment that we would not have the capacity to sustain a second hunger strike in Armagh.

“When Bobby Sands started the second hunger strike in 1981, the no-wash protest was called off in the H Blocks and Armagh so the POWs could focus on the hunger strike. We were still on the no-work protest so we were still locked in our cells all day but managed to keep up communication in our time out of the cells in the evenings.

“There was a huge buzz among us when Bobby was elected as MP in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election. We were convinced – certain – that there was no way Thatcher could let him die after that.”

She described the morning the Armagh women heard that Bobby had died.

“There aren’t any words to properly describe the way I felt. It was every emotion at once – heartbreak, shock, fury and frustration – and all the time you were locked in a cell all day, not able to take any sort of action like protesting on the streets.

“My heart ached for each of the families – the loss didn’t lessen as each of the 10 men died. The pain just grew and grew.

“But the comradeship sustained us. When we had nothing else, we had each other.

 

Former republican prisoners return to Armagh Women's Jail in December 2010 to mark 30 years since the women's hunger strike

Former republican prisoners return to Armagh Women’s Jail in December 2010 to mark 30 years since the women’s hunger strike

“Armagh jail was an old Victorian building. It was freezing. It wasn’t pleasant. The conditions when we were slopping out were grim and not something you thought you could ever get used to.

“But when your back is against the wall, you get the strength from somewhere. And republicans, we just get on with it. We always have.”

Mary was released from jail in 1983 and has been involved in republican activism since then. She is currently standing as a candidate for Sinn Féin in the upcoming Belfast City Council elections, and works for the party in the Teach Carney constituency centre in North Belfast.

She outlined the historic and current vital role of women in the republican struggle and the importance of acknowledging this contribution.

“I’m very proud of my past and my actions as a Volunteer. I have no regrets – my only regret, if you can call it that, is that I was born into a sectarian Orange state. I’m proud of the progress that has been in dismantling the Orange state and the role that republicans have played in this.

“The role that women have played, and continue to play, in the republican struggle is often not fully acknowledged. And it is not just women Volunteers, POWs or political activists that must be acknowledged, though of course these women have made enormous contributions.

“It is women who have been the backbone of the republican struggle. They kept up the strength and morale of the community in the face of fierce repression. When husbands, fathers and children were arrested, women were left to run homes, to bring up children, to put food on the table, to organise visits to jail and to organise the protest movement in defence of the prisoners’ rights.

“Women opened their homes to Volunteers to rest and eat. It was women, too, who drove the formation of the relatives’ action committees and the H Block/Armagh committees. I have absolute admiration for all of them.

“We need to acknowledge this massive contribution in all its forms not only because it deserves to be acknowledged, but also because it helps to show women today that they have a full and active role to play in building the republican movement.

“Sinn Féin believes there is a vital need for women to be fully involved in public and political life and the decision-making process in order to advance towards a society of equals.”

Urging young people to participate in the series of commemorative events being held over the next year to mark the 30th anniversary of the hunger strikes, Mary said: “It is important that new generations learn about and understand this period in our history.

“We need to keep alive the memory of our comrades who made the ultimate sacrifice for Irish freedom. We also need to reflect on the role of this struggle in advancing our republican goals through ensuring our message was heard, and that our community could not be criminalised, isolated or broken.”

British Army/RUC attack on Joe McDonnell’s funeral recalled

Bobby Storey

Bobby Storey

Published in the West Belfast News in July 2010

 

Joe McDonnell died at 5am on Wednesday July 8. He was the fifth man to die on hunger strike in the 1981 protest in the H-blocks. As republicans prepare to commemorate the 29th anniversary of Joe McDonnell’s death with a series of events this week, Sinn Féin Belfast Chairperson Bobby Storey explained that Joe’s death and funeral took place in the context of a national and international outpouring of solidarity with the prisoners.

Bobby, who was involved in organising Joe’s funeral, said: “No doubt the British government and establishment were infuriated by the global media attention on the deaths of the first four hunger strikers. They were very concerned by the fact the funerals showed mass support for the prisoners, as could be seen in the 100,000 people who turned out to Bobby Sands’s funeral.

“They were also angered by the way the funerals were organised, which showed the seamless connection that existed between the prisoners, the vast republican community that supported them, and the IRA.”

Planned attack 

Bobby Storey said the previous funeral in Belfast – Bobby Sands’s – had been a huge embarrassment to the British establishment.

“The British government were determined to prevent a re-run of this. The attack on Joe’s funeral took place in this context. It was a political decision and a pre-planned act of aggression against the mourners by the British army and the RUC,” he said.

“Everyone will remember the courage and dignity shown by Joe’s wife Goretti and their children, the broader McDonnell family, and Joe’s comrades and friends as his remains were brought from the house on Lenadoon Avenue for Mass at Oliver Plunkett’s Church. On top of Joe’s coffin, which was flanked by an IRA Guard of Honour, were the black beret, gloves and tricolour of a Volunteer.

 

IRA Volunteers fire a volley over the coffin of Joe McDonnell

IRA Volunteers fire a volley over the coffin of Joe McDonnell

“Thousands thronged the streets – the people had come out to salute one of their sons who had died courageously resisting the criminalisation of republicans.”

As the cortege left the chapel, it made its way out of Lenadoon down the Shaws Road towards the Andersonstown Road.

“When it reached Sinclair’s Garage an IRA firing party in full uniform and armed with Garrand rifles emerged onto the road from the side of what is now Connolly House and took up a position waiting to salute their fallen comrade,” Bobby said.

“As the firing party waited for the cortege to arrive, republicans had to keep the media back, while three British army helicopters hovered ahead.

“When the cortege reached the firing party it stopped. The firing party fired a three-volley salute to Joe.

“With this accomplished they returned through the side of the house (now Connolly House) and into a house in St Agnes’s Drive.”

Bobby said that as the funeral moved on the British army and the RUC attacked.

“First they launched an attack on the house the firing party had entered but this quickly developed into a wholesale attack on the entire funeral cortege.

“The British soldiers – marine commandoes – smashed down the door of the house where the firing party and other republicans were located. The republicans attempted to escape out the back but the first one out of the house, Micky Brady, was arrested.

“Paddy Adams was shot in the back as he tried to get out the window with a rifle. The next two arrested were Seany Simpson and PB Rooney. PB endured a severe beating and was thrown down the stairs. Then Joe Maguire and Linda Quigley were arrested.

“In the back room upstairs were Geraldine Crawford and two other republicans who had barricaded a bedroom door with a wardrobe. The Brits began to fire live rounds through the door and the wall of the bedroom – between seven and 10 rounds. Geraldine was arrested but two managed to escape out the back.”

‘Firing indiscriminately’ 

“Then began the assault on the funeral itself that is still vivid in people’s memories. The British army and the RUC disregarded the sanctity of the chapel grounds and ran down through St Agnes’s grounds, and down St Agnes’s drive firing plastic bullets indiscriminately at republicans who had bravely come in response to the assault on the house,” Bobby said.

“As one republican put it, the image of the storm-troopers of the British army and RUC sweeping through the chapel grounds firing plastic bullets, and hundreds of people – men, women and children lying flat on the ground on the chapel steps on the Andersonstown Road – evokes scenes of persecution by military dictatorships around the world.

“At the same time we remember the courage and dignity of Joe’s family and friends, who stood by their loved one in the face of this ferocious assault. When the attack had ended, republicans continued on to do what they had set out to -bury their father, husband, friend and comrade with full military honours and with the appreciation of republican Ireland.”

Bobby said the attack on Joe’s funeral was the first of many attacks on republican funerals.

“It potentially shaped policy for the many assaults on republican funerals throughout the 1980s by a British government not prepared to allow such demonstrations of support for republicanism to proceed unhindered.”