FORTY years on from the deaths of the H-Block martyrs what is there left to learn from them?
Every year since their deaths, people throughout Ireland and across the world have remembered Bobby Sands
, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Mickey Devine in countless ways. There are also men and women who, every minute of every day, remember them as loved ones, friends, comrades.
Their sacrifice has been spoken of, sung about, documented, televised, mythologised. We have all marched, written, cried, raged and sung in their memory thousands of times. Still, there remains a need to mark this mammoth thing they embarked upon and seen through on behalf of their fellow prisoners and the oppressed people from which they came. Not to use as a millstone with which to weigh us down or as a stick with which to beat others, but as a reminder of the power that exists within a poor person who refuses to be broken.
The hunger strikers
were people of no property. They were, most of the time, unemployed young people regarded as suspect by the agencies of the state long before they even decided to take that state on. Some of them were driven from their homes as children and teenagers. Bobby Sands was stabbed by pogromists. Patsy O’Hara watched Bloody Sunday unfold while recovering from wounds caused by an earlier British army gun attack. Mickey Devine was brought up in the infamous Springtown squatter camp. These were people who lived the discrimination and humiliation of the northern state on a daily basis.
“I wonder what transforms ordinary young people into such universal defenders of human integrity,” was how Bernadette McAliskey posed the question 12 years on from their deaths.
Part of the answer to that question lies in what the H-Block martyrs did both in their communities and in the prisons. They organised. They built residents’ associations and underground newspapers, they learnt their native language and taught it to their friends, they strove in every way they could to make the Risen People a real, living thing.
We will not attempt to whitewash history. The H-Block martyrs
were freedom fighters – volunteers in the Irish Republican Army and the Irish National Liberation Army. They believed that the only effective way to topple the unjust status quo they faced was via armed struggle and they prosecuted that struggle to the utmost of their not inconsiderable abilities. That’s why they were imprisoned and that’s why they resisted to the very end.
The legacy they left us wasn’t a simple one. These were 10 human beings with all the infinite complexities and contradictions that exist in every one of us. But some things are indisputable. They believed in national independence and reunification. They believed in the right of poor people to resist oppression and exploitation. They believed in a better world than the one we inhabit today.
And in that spirit we will use 2021 to celebrate their memory and their victory over yesterday’s men and women who tried to criminalise them. What have we left to learn from the H-Block martyrs? Their belief in us, the people of no property, to take back our dignity.