July 1981


Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Anthony McIntyre: A Spartan’s Story

A Spartan’s Story

Anthony McIntyre • Fourthwrite


Richard O’Rawe has come out from under a blanket of political and literary obscurity to pen arguably the finest book crafted by any living former republican prisoner. With no shortage of good authors, the competition has been formidable; Pat Magee, Laurence McKeown and Ronan Bennett to name but three. Blanketmen is the end product of three years writing. It is also the only logical terminus for its author to arrive at after two decades of internal turmoil resulting from the H-Block blanket protest and subsequent hunger strikes. Either he brought his journey to an end or he could circle endlessly around the totem of established wisdom, shouldering with him the baggage others, in his view, had expected him to carry in order to spare themselves unnecessary burden.

To write this book O’Rawe must have drawn on the depths of reserve that made him one of the H-Blocks’ 300 Spartans. He is aware of the history of threats and violence against those not of the dominant party persuasion in West Belfast where he lives. For all the put-downs that he sprang this book on an unsuspecting republican community, O’Rawe has revealed to Fourthwrite that over a year ago a senior figure in the republican hierarchy paid a brace of visits to his home making inquiries about it. Despite current allegations from that hierarchy that O’Rawe did not inform the families of dead hunger strikers of his decision to commit his reflections to paper, the senior republican was concerned only about the potential discomfort that Gerry Adams might face. The families were never mentioned.

The most contentious issue in Blanketmen is O’Rawe’s claim that both he and Bik McFarlane, the IRA leader in the prison during the hunger strike, agreed to accept an offer from the British that would end the strike before it claimed the life of a fifth prisoner. Someone outside the prison, purporting to represent the army council, instructed the prison leadership to reject the terms. As a result, Joe McDonnell and five others went to their graves.

O’Rawe’s Sinn Fein critics bolted out of the traps in a bid to savage his account. But huff and puff and bare their teeth as they did, none have yet managed to deconstruct the central plank of his narrative. McFarlane alone sounded plausible. But the gap between sounding plausible and being persuasive remains unbridged. There is a chasm separating McFarlane’s assertion that there was no offer made and O’Rawe’s documented account in a local newspaper detailing all those participants, senior republicans included, who claimed an offer had been made but that it fell short of the prisoners’ bottom line.

In defence of the decision to reject the offer, whatever it was, some of O’Rawe’s detractors have claimed that it was essential to have proper guarantees and guarantors because the British had reneged on a deal at the end of the first hunger strike. Maybe safeguards were needed, but not because of the way the 1980 hunger strike concluded. Those of us who were in the prison at the time know that no deal ever reached the prisoners prior to Brendan Hughes ordering its termination in order to save the life of Sean McKenna. The hunger strike collapsed. The British were indeed loathsome but only for being intransigent, not for reneging.

Blanketmen is about much more than the machinations and court politics that intertwined with the hunger strike. It is a riveting account of how 300 naked and defenceless men took on the ferocious might of Western Europe’s most repressive state and prevailed. It was a battle that produced the outstanding republicans of our generation including the jail leader Brendan McFarlane. He too should have his say.

Blanketmen – read it and weep.

Sourced from The Blanket

Category: 2005, Anthony McIntyre, Commentary, Media, The Blanket

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A day-by-day account of the events of early July, 1981.

There's an inner thing in every man,
Do you know this thing my friend? It has withstood the blows of a million years, and will do so to the end.