2001-06-09 / Columnists

Failte By James Conway Sullivan

Failte By James Conway Sullivan

Recently, many in the New York City Irish community had a very somber twentieth anniversary to recall the anniversary of the deaths of the brave hunger strikers in prison in Northern Ireland. It was a very tumultuous time in the North, one that culminated in the election of Bobby Sands as a member of the British Parliament. Yet, ten brave men gave their lives in this battle in the struggle for freedom, equal rights and liberty in occupied Ireland.

Most of those brave young men had been sentenced to 30 and 40 year sentences by Britain’s infamous diplock courts – cited by the Helsinki Watch, Amnesty International and many other human rights organizations as a chief cause of violence in the North. Lord Diplock’s courts were non-jury trials headed by a British magistrate in Ireland and one that convicted more than 98 percent of the Irish Catholic’s coming before it.

These young men, having been deprived of their freedom and facing decades in a British prison, feld they had to press the issue and they did in a most bold and serious way – the old Irish hunger strike.

Prior to British rule in Ireland, the land was ruled, for a time, by the Celtic Brehon Laws, which dictated not only settling disputes, but had laws of divorce, hospitality and old age pensions, even before the time of Jesus.

Under Brehon Law, one way of settling disputes was hunger strikes. If you had, for example, a very serious dispute with a neighbor that was unresolved, you could place yourself just outside the property line and go on a hunger strike.

Usually, realizing the seriousness of the grievance, the neighbor assisted in resolving the problem. Many leaders copied this ancient Irish idea – Martin Luther King, Gandhi and others utilized the hunger strike as a weapon to solve serious issues, as did the martyrs in the prison in 1981.

Led by Bobby Sands, a republican, community activist and poet, these young men were trapped in a British jail with no recourse, tried before non-jury courts and summarily sentenced, perhaps to die in prison.

They decided to strike back with the only weapon they had – their bodies. The world took note of their plight for a while and after their deaths their demands were met – but at such a price.

This took place in the period when Britain was found guilty of torture. Beatings, drugs, electric shock and other tortures were routinely used on prisoners, notable Catholic prisoners.

This is not the Britain that our daddies fought in WW I and WW II to "save democracy" and the "right of small nations to be free," or was it?

The big power’s list did not include Ireland or a nation that later gave France and the United Sates some payback for ignoring its right to freedom (or, servitude), namely, Vietnam.

All we can do now is whisper a prayer and redouble our efforts to secure peace, liberty and freedom for the Irish people. We can also remember the heroic efforts of the hunger strikers and Bobby Sands.

I can clearly remember such locals as John Baxter, Mary and Paddy Leahey and their entire family manning the picket lines daily outside the British Embassy in Manhattan. Fair play to ye! You see, some good deeds do go unpunished and are remembered!


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