The criminals weren’t in prison. They were in Westminster.

Sinn Féin members and Republicans from all over Tipperary prepare to march through the town of Clonmel.
Cllr Malachy McCreesh speaks of how his brother Raymond died on hunger strike in 1981.

“The criminals weren’t in prison. They were in Westminster”.

So said Cllr Malachy McCreesh on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Clonmel. He was speaking at the commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strikes, which saw 10 men die – including his brother – through starvation in order to regain their status as political prisoners. The May sunshine stood as a stark contrast to the dark days of 1981, when British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher tried and failed to criminalise the prisoners in the H-Blocks.

The H-Blocks were so named because of their distinctive shape
The H-Blocks were so named because of their distinctive shape. They also became a by-word for British cruelty and for Irish Republican resistance.

The toll in human suffering was immense.

Apart from the men who died, there were hundreds of affected relatives, and many more dead and injured as a result of the widespread rioting which erupted in protest at the treatment of the prisoners.

One of the relatives who was affected was Malachy McCreesh, who is now a councillor in Limerick. His brother Raymond was among those who died.

Jimmy Farrell of Clonmel Sinn Féin holds a photograph of Raymond McCreesh as Malachy McCreesh speaks.

The 1981 hunger strikes made international news as one by one the men died rather than submit to being criminalised by the British prison system. But it was the death of Bobby Sands which drew the most attention, and it is his name that is first on most persons lips when they speak of 1981.

Bobby Sands stood as candidate in a by-election for Westminster while he was on hunger strike. The nationalist community rallied to the cause and he was elected. He died less than a month later, after 66 days without food, aged only 27.

The treatment of Sands was international news of the most embarrassing kind for the British, and drew enormous media attention, as Thatcher allowed an elected Member of her Parliament to die. It is for this reason that Sands’ name is the first remembered, as the first of 10 to make such a painful sacrifice.

But Sands was not the only H-Block martyr. Among those that followed was young Raymond McCreesh, who was just 24 when he died. His brother Malachy spoke in Clonmel on Saturday afternoon.

Coming through the West Gate from Irishtown.

Saturday’s commemoration was organised by the Clonmel cumann of Sinn Féin. It progressed from Convent Bridge to the Manchester Martyrs monument on the Clonmel Quays. People in Clonmel have rarely seen Republicans march through their town in such a fashion, and many will never have heard a Republican marching band.

Speaking after the laying of wreaths at the monument, Cllr McCreesh said “The international media were able to see that the criminals weren’t in the H-Blocks, and they weren’t in Armagh prison. They were in Westminster, and in all the other political establishments that allowed this situation”.

“At the funeral of Bobby Sands, everywhere we passed an RUC man, they turned their back. There was no respect whatsoever for the Republican community. There never was. We’re still struggling.”

Joan McDermott, Paddy O’Donoghue, Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Carey, marching on Emmet Street.

“At the funeral of Francis Hughes the RUC would have hijacked the hearse, but the driver wouldn’t let them in, and his brother put the keys of the hearse in his mouth.”

“There are problems in Maghaberry prison even now.  I hope that all sides will work together to make sure there is never a need for another hunger strike.”

Kevin Brunnick, Cahir; Liam Walsh, Carrick-on-Suir; Seán Harty, Thurles.

Secretary of Clonmel Sinn Féin Paddy O’Donoghue said “we’re immensely pleased with the turn out today. That so many of our comrades came to commemorate these brave men in our town is very gratifying. We had TDs and councillors and many long-serving activists attend and take part in the march, which was led by the Carrick-on-Suir Republican Flute Band. To hear their proud and echoing drumbeat going through Irishtown was a memorable experience”.

Cllr Seán Tyrell and Kathleen Funchion TD.

Keynote speaker was Sinn Féin Vice-President Mary Lou MacDonald, who said “the human courage of the hunger strikers was immense and the courage of their families is beyond description. They endured sectarianism, harassment, discrimination, house raids, internment, and collusion between the establishment and unionist paramilitaries.”

“Some things don’t change. 35 years on and some in the media carry on where Thatcher failed. They still try to criminalise our struggle. But it is not they who can inflict the most, but they who can endure the most who will conquer.”

“Bobby Sands said he took the advice of a sound man, who said that everyone – Republican or otherwise – has their own particular part to play. No part is too great or too small. No one is too old or too young, to do something.”

Cathaoirleach of Clonmel Sinn Féin, Morris Cagney, lays a wreath at the Manchester Martyrs monument.

“Our job now is for each to play their part to finish the job that Bobby and his comrades died for.”

The 1981 hunger strikers took part in the ‘blanket protest’ against their mistreatment, represented here by Danny Carroll of Cahir. Noel Skehan of Carrick-on-Suir carries a black flag that dominated the northern street-scape at the time.

“Sinn Féin is the undisputed voice of Republicanism in the North. In the South we are the only credible Republican voice fighting the cronyism, corruption, and the mé féinism of a failed political establishment. An establishment that has failed you, failed Ireland, and failed the Republic. All of us have our part to play. Republicanism is now stronger than ever, and Republicanism is more organised. We still strive to achieve the ideal of the 1916 Proclamation.”

“100 years on, and 35 years on, one thing is clear: you can kill the revolutionary, but you cannot kill the revolution.”

“You cannot kill a dream.”

“We continue that fight, to the bitter end. To Irish unity, and to Irish freedom.”

The table below lists the hunger strikers who died; clicking on the name will bring you to the Wikipedia page for each martyr.

There is a full photo gallery below that.

Name Paramilitary affiliation Strike started Date of death Length of strike
Bobby Sands IRA 1 March 5 May 66 days
Francis Hughes IRA 15 March 12 May 59 days
Raymond McCreesh IRA 22 March 21 May 61 days
Patsy O’Hara INLA 22 March 21 May 61 days
Joe McDonnell IRA 8 May 8 July 61 days
Martin Hurson IRA 28 May 13 July 46 days
Kevin Lynch INLA 23 May 1 August 71 days
Kieran Doherty IRA 22 May 2 August 73 days
Thomas McElwee IRA 8 June 8 August 62 days
Michael Devine INLA 22 June 20 August 60 days

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