July 1981

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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Dramas out of crises

Dramas out of crises
Two new books offer compelling material to potential dramatists
Henry McDonald
The Observer, Sunday 1 May 2005 02.33 BST

Two hundred and ninety-two years separate the Siege of Derry from the second hunger strike in the Maze. Books out this year concerning these two key events not only shed new light on our history but also provide a challenge for screenwriters and television producers.

Carlo Gebler’s The Siege of Derry is a masterful and meticulously structured account of the 105-day struggle against the besieging Jacobite armies in 1689, while Richard O’Rawe’s Blanketmen gives a painfully honest insider’s view of the 1981 death fast. The one thing the two works have in common is the dramatic tension contained in the narratives, which are full of tragedy, sacrifice, endurance and political opportunism.

If commissioning editors, especially at the BBC and RTE, are really serious about producing more high-quality drama on the small screen at the expense of reality TV, makeover shows and other trash, they could do no better than read these books.

Gebler’s story of the siege is more epic in scale, with reconstructed battle scenes, smaller-scale salvos headed by fanatically courageous adventurers and gritty tableaux of human suffering and deprivation inside the disease-stricken city. His sweep through those hard months of siege throws up larger-than-life, complex characters such as the city’s hero the Reverend George Walker, whom even after victory some still suspect of having been prepared to ‘sell out’.

There are also swashbuckling figures such as Colonel Adam Murray, a Protestant loyal to William’s cause, whose courage inspires Derry’s citizens but also provokes jealousy among the ruling class inside the gates. On the other side, there is the dithering, ultra-cautious and haughty James II, a host of colourful French generals allied to the Jacobite cause and Tyrconnell, the redoubtable leader of the Catholic Irish hoping desperately to re-establish their lost hegemony.

Gebler also brings to life the figure of Lieutenant-Colonel Lundy, who stands forever damned in Ulster loyalist eyes for trying to sue for peace and open Derry’s gates to the Jacobites. A fascinating postscript to the siege and the victory of Derry’s Protestants is Lundy’s fate after the Williamite wars. Despite being sent to the Tower of London under threat of execution, Lundy is spared by the intervention of Walker, who argues against sending him back to Derry and certain death.

A career soldier, Lundy eventually persuades the new crown to let him join the pro-British Portuguese army and is taken prisoner once more in the continental struggle against France. He dies, still in the King of England’s pay, in 1717. One can imagine any costume drama on the siege starting from Lundy inside the condemned cell at the Tower or perhaps on his deathbed flashing back to the events of 1689 and his fate to walk the earth forever as a personification of treason.

blanketmenBetrayal is also the overpowering theme that runs through Blanketmen. O’Rawe was the spokesman for IRA prisoners inside the Maze during those horrible months in 1981 when 10 republican prisoners died in their struggle for political status.

O’Rawe’s central claim is that, after the fourth hunger striker died, the British offered a deal that more or less met all the IRA and INLA inmates’ demands. However, external pressure from the IRA and Sinn Fein leaders, who were more concerned with winning the Westminster byelection caused by Sands’s death, kept the hunger strike going. Thus, six more died needlessly so Owen Carron could be elected MP and the Sinn Fein political bandwagon could gain momentum.

Since the book was published, O’Rawe has experienced a siege of his own, with Sinn Fein’s former publicity director, Danny Morrison, and Brendan McFarlane, the IRA’s ‘commanding officer’ in the prison at the time, leading the charge. Morrison and McFarlane dispute O’Rawe’s version of events, which others such as Ed Moloney, the leading authority on the IRA, say are true.

Indeed, members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party have said privately that as far back as 1981 they suspected that by the fourth death, the prisoners were being used in a wider political game. Moreover, they and O’Rawe point out the IRSP representatives going into the prison during the strike knew nothing of a British negotiator codenamed ‘the Mountain Climber’ and what he had to offer the prisoners in early to mid-July.

Drama often tests the validity of a version of historical events better than a documentary; at other times, it can bend and twist the truth. None the less, there is tragedy, skulduggery, pain, dedication and bitterness in O’Rawe’s book. It is a much more compressed, claustrophobic world compared even to a city under siege in the late 17th century.

These two impressive works form the bedrock for two illuminating dramas into events that still shape Ireland today. The question is: do broadcasters, production companies and studios have the guts as well as the imagination to tackle them?

· Carlo Gebler’s The Siege of Derry is published by Little, Brown, £18.99; Richard O’Rawe’s Blanketmen is published by New Island, £9.99

Sourced from The Guardian website

Category: 2005, Book Reviews, IRSP, Media, News articles

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