July 1981

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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Read between the lines and shine Ghost Light on Gaza

Read between the lines and shine Ghost Light on Gaza
By Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph
Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Nothing beats a book. Other presents might elicit a squeal of delight when the wrapping is removed, or spark an appreciative thought that this could come in handy over the year, maybe. But a good book is a joy to be savoured at leisure. Here, in my personal, eccentric opinion, are five to fit the bill.

Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light is a beautiful thing, eloquent, profound, affecting, told in the voice of Molly Allgood, a girl from the Dublin tenements of the early 20th century who becomes an accomplished actress and forms a passionate, unsatisfying attachment to playwright John Synge.

Molly has been virtually ignored in the many accounts of literary Dublin in the period. None of her hundreds of letters to Synge survives.

But O’Connor occupies her mind – or plausibly conveys the impression that he does. The last 10 pages – an imagined letter found after her death in dire poverty in London – is as touching as anything you’ll read.

Gideon Levy is a former Israeli army major whose columns in the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’aretz I have been reading on the web for years.

He has a huge and heartfelt empathy with the beleaguered people of Palestine and is surely the only Israeli writer who can naturally use the phrase ‘Gaza, my beloved’.

His writing will do your heart good, and break it. The Punishment of Gaza is a collection of his columns.

You won’t find Larry Kirwan’s Rocking the Bronx easily. But ask around: it’s a blast of a book, well worth searching out.

It tells of Sean from Dublin, who travels to New York, “Clash LPs stuffed beneath my oxter, hair oiled back pre-army Elvis”, having divined that “all was not well with my love in America”.

It inhabits a dimension of Irish-America that we rarely hear of, because it doesn’t fit into any approved category.

None Of Us Were Like This Before, by Joshua Phillips, is a tour de force of investigative journalism, based on interviews with men who had tortured detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo and with the victims of the same torture, a journey into darkness at noon in America.

Phillips shows that Abu Ghraib was nothing out of the ordinary, that most torture was perpetrated as a matter of routine for reasons which arose not from any need to dig out information, but because soldiers were bored and angry, frustrated that they hadn’t experienced the sort of exhilarating action they had psyched themselves up for, and assumed – reasonably, Phillips shows – that savaging Iraqis they had in their power was their order of the day.

Dangerous a thought as it might be, what emerges is that, while the suffering of the victims was, of course, overwhelmingly out of proportion to the subsequent pain of some of the perpetrators, torture can inflict wounds on the torturer, too.

A remarkable percentage became addicted to drugs, were hospitalised for depression or committed suicide back home. This is a vivid account of the price of empire, paid for mainly by subjugated peoples, but also on occasion by the poor bloody infantry.

Richard O’Rawe’s Afterlives is the story of reaction to his first book, Blanketman, published in 2005. If you have ever wondered what the phrase ‘spitting nails’ looks like, stand alongside O’Rawe as he encounters a supporter of the Provisional leadership of the hunger-strike era.

His thesis is that the 1981 fast could have been ended on an honourable basis after four deaths, but was allowed by the Belfast IRA leadership, for political reasons, to continue through the deaths of six others.

O’Rawe was the prisoners’ PRO at the time. I interviewed his Long Kesh cellmate for the Telegraph after publication of the book.

Within hours of publication, men from Belfast descended on him to suggest that he deny that he’d said what I quoted him as saying. What they obtained fell far short of repudiation.

O’Rawe – perhaps like Ed Moloney – stretches his argument too far in suggesting that Gerry Adams personally drove the decision to keep the strike going in order to build Sinn Fein’s support. Personalising the debate around the Sinn Fein president does little to advance understanding of the factors in play.

Still, Afterlives sheds harsh light on a murky area and on the cold calculations of some who have since risen high in respectable society. O’Rawe’s story – and O’Rawe himself – are entitled to more serious attention than they have been accorded so far.

So, if there’s someone you have to buy for and can’t for the life of you think what, get them a book.

First published in the Belfast Telegraph


Other year end mentions for Afterlives:

Malachi O’Doherty (59) is writer-in-residence at Queen’s University. He says:

Afterlives by Richard O’ Rawe (Lilliput Press) is the history of the deal that could have ended the hunger strikes in 1981 and is the book no historian of the period will be able to ignore.

O’Rawe makes a contribution to history that is substantially greater than anything we’ve had to date. His style is both forensic and logical and also conversational. He would make a brilliant barrister but also a brilliant journalist.

O’Rawe faces a moral challenge to tell the truth as he sees it while going easy on the men with him in prison. What’s impressive is that generosity coupled with the ruthless pursuit of the argument.”

Martin Lynch (60) is a playwright. He says:

“Tim Parks’ Teach us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing (Harvill Secker) is a book he wrote about suffering very bad abdominal pain for 10 years that became an amazing bestseller. He’s normally a novelist and he writes it beautifully with literary and artistic references throughout. At one point he says he regards himself as the young boy taught by the senior water-carrier in a famous painting. It’s about vipassana meditation, a method that Parks found in holistic medicine rather than conventional medicine. And he got better, although it hasn’t helped my back yet.

The other book was Richard O’Rawe’s book Afterlives — he’s such a good writer.”

Excerpted from: Chapter and verse on all of those great reads

Category: 2010, Belfast Telegraph, Commentary, Media

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  1. […] a recent column in the Belfast Telegraph, Eamonn McCann said of my 1981 hunger strike book, Afterlives: “O’Rawe – perhaps like Ed Moloney […]

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