Last week I wrote a little about Brendan Hughes, and coincidentally, today is the commemoration of the start of his hunger strike. Their troscad – which is the Celtic name for a fast that was employed to draw attention to insult or to fight injustice – began 35 years ago today.
Seven men refused to eat on October 27th, 1980. There were seven to represent the seven signatories on Ireland’s Proclamation of Independence. Brendan Hughes also took part in the strike, even though he was the commanding officer in the prison. The Irish Republican leadership on the outside were opposed to the idea and did not support it – especially at the beginning. In fact, Brendan’s good friend, a young man by the name of Gerry Adams, went on record for the IRA and said, “We are tactically, strategically, physically, and morally opposed to a hunger strike”. Brendan went ahead with the other men and began the strike anyway. After five years of various protests, they knew they had to do something drastic to try to force change.
Their demands were simple. They wanted to be seen as political prisoners instead of criminals. To insure this distinction, they wanted to be able to wear their own clothes instead of a prison uniform. They wanted to be able to opt of of prison work, and they wanted the right to freely associate with one another. They wanted to be able to set up educational and/or recreational facilities and they wanted at least one letter, package, or visit per week. These were the same demands that prisoners had been fighting for already through the blanket protests and the dirty protest, but neither had worked. This time the prisoners escalated and tried to force a compromise by going on a hunger strike.
The strike went on for 53 days. Three female prisoners joined it on December 1st as well and it appeared to garner a compromise from the English authorities. All of the men on the strike were hospitalized, and Sean McKenna was very near to death by the time Brendan called it off. He did so in good faith, believing that the strike had succeeded in changing their status – but he did not wait for the paperwork. McKenna, and a few of the other men, had made it clear at the beginning that they were not necessarily prepared to starve themselves to death. Hughes took that to heart, and he promised that he would keep them alive. After McKenna slipped into a coma and was on the verge of death, Hughes ended the strike on Dec.18th, 1980, without a guarantee.
The promised compromise did not exist. By the time the paperwork arrived, it was clear that very little would change and that the men had nearly killed themselves for naught. The authorities continued to criminalize them and their demands were ignored once more which led to another hunger strike just a few months later. It was led by the man who replaced Hughes as the commanding officer of the prison when Hughes began the first one – whose name was Bobby Sands. Bobby did not make the same promises that Brendan had. The second strike would continue, no matter who perished over the course of it. Ten men were dead by the time the second Troscad was broken – and still the authorities refused to compromise with the prisoners. The second strike garnered worldwide attention and international protests against Margaret Thatcher and the British government but it still didn’t succeed. Hughes, who had reopened the door to this kind of protest, did not join the second strike, since he and his men were still healing from the first, and were pretty sure (from firsthand experience) that it would not work.