Getting my Irish Up

15 Mar

St. Paddy’s Day an’ all that.   When every one is Irish, at least for one night.  Me?  I’m Irish every night. 

Tonight I watched the film “Hunger” (2008),  depicting the 1981 hunger strike of the Irish rebels held in Long Kesh Prison in Northern Ireland during the height of “The Troubles” between the IRA and the British government.  It is not for the weak-stomached (my roommate had to leave the room), as director Steve McQueen does not allow his audience to turn away from the blinding light of Truth he shines relentlessly in our eyes.  Holding our fingers down on the firey braille of history, McQueen’s unflinching lens forces us to bear every hate-driven blow, gag on the stench of every feces-covered cell, until the fire that smoldered in every prisoner’s belly is ignited in our own.  Indeed, sickened as I was to witness what they had endured, I was compelled to not blink a single “no-washed” scene.  It seemed the least I could do.

I knew how the film was going to end:  Bobby Sands’ death after 66 days of hunger strike.   Twenty-seven-year-old Sands had determined the only way to penetrate the pity-proof armor of the Iron Lady herself–PM Margaret Thatcher–and her resolute refusal to grant Irish prisoners political status was to launch the deadly mission from which there would likely be no return.  Hunger strikes had been initiated before—Sands had even volunteered for one—but they had failed, as the participants had capitulated before their terms were met.  Sands was committed to seeing this one through to the end, hoping his death alone would induce English negotiation.  Nine others had to die following his death on May 5, 1981, before the British government caved to every stipulation.  (Technically, Thatcher never publically acknowledged the political standing requested of the prisoners, but she did give in and grant all other demands, including their wearing their own clothes instead of prison uniforms, an outward indication of their political and not criminal identification.)

I remember watching the news in Kentucky that spring of 1981.  I was 25—just two years younger than Bobby Sands—a young bride and fledging high school teacher.  This countdown to death on the nightly news was the first time I had really paid attention to what was going on in Northern Ireland, and I had as many questions as I had loyalties.   Anglo-Irish myself (father English-mother Irish ancestry), I found myself torn between the rousing Republicanism of the Irish rebels and an established allegiance to all things British—tea and crumpets, God Save the Queen, an’ all that—as any Anglophile English teacher would be.   I knew a little Irish history—my great-great-great had come over during the Potato Famine of the 1840s, for example—but that was about it.  I knew much more British history—we studied it, not Ireland’s—in school, and I guess I felt I shared a common sense of decency with that which seemed to emanate from the most civilized country in the world.  Or so I thought.

I remember thinking at the time, “She will not let him die.”  She, Mrs. Thatcher.  Terrorist or not, that boy will not be allowed to starve himself to death.  Surely she will intervene.  If not as the powerful Prime Minister of the former Empire, then as a mother—a Christian mother, denominations be damned.  Civility would prevail.  This was England after all. 

She did, though—let him die, that is.  She did not—intervene.  The world tilted on its axis a bit, and I felt it spin around me. 

Ten years later, while on a Fulbright to England in 1991, I would find myself in the middle of a riot.  Walking back from the Birmingham Theatre to our car, a group of protesters rushed out of the dark night, pushed a flyer in my hand:  “Free the Birmingham 6,” it read.  Who?

By the faint light of the car dash on the way home, I combed the leaflet, learning the “6” were six innocent Irishmen,  incarcerated since 1975 on trumped up charges they were responsible for bombing two Birmingham pubs in which 21 people were killed and countless others injured.  These six, guilty of nothing but their Irishness, had taken the fall because, in the wake of such tragedy, all England had demanded justice and the British courts could no longer be embarrassed by the lack of arrests.  And though the real culprit—a true IRA terrorist—admitted to the crime soon after their indictment, that evidence was suppressed, lest more rotten egg run down the cracked face of British justice.  Until 1991.  Not long after I returned to Kentucky when my Fulbright assignment was finished, the “6” were released, their sentences quashed.  A couple of years later, Irish director Jim Sheridan exposed their ordeal in his film, Image“In the Name of the Father” (1993), starring the inimitable Daniel Day-Lewis.  You can bet I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

I filled the following years investigating all things Irish; the more I learned, the more my loyalties shifted.  Just discovering how the English let the Irish starve during the Famine years would have been enough—but there were other atrocities:  Sands, the “6,” and many more.  And they weren’t all Irish:  Princess Diana’s trial by fire may have scorched the last shreds of any British allegiance; her death certainly put the last nail in that coffin.

Another trip across the pond—this time to Ireland, of course—and I insisted on standing on Northern Irish soil.  I roamed Belfast’s Falls Road, taking rolls of pictures of the infamous protest murals emblazoned with the once-smiling face of a young Bobby Sands.  I drove by Long Kesh Prison, slowly, the details of its terrible secrets as of yet unknown to me.  Turning south, I climbed the hills of the Republic, tracing the steps of possible ancestors as they had laid the stones of the so-called “famine fences,” ending abruptly nowhere but where they had fallen, dead. 

There’s more.  So much more.  But it’s the eve of March 17.  Time to turn one’s Irish eyes to smilin’ or something.  I’m afraid I am a bit immune to leprechauns and pots of gold, green beer and “Danny Boy” —but–Happy St. Patrick’s Day.  Erin Go Bragh.  An’ all that.

*This blog is dedicated to my cousin Pat Flowers who died today; he was one of the most Irish Americans I’ve ever known.  RIP, Pat.  We’ll miss you.

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4 Responses to “Getting my Irish Up”

  1. Luttrell, Jennifer (LRC) March 15, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

    Love this!

  2. brileyrebecca March 15, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    Thanks, Jenni! xoxox

  3. lanerobles April 22, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

    That really is an incredible way of getting involved in your heritage…it’s definitely important to know where you come from and respect those who helped shape who you are. As far as the Iron Lady goes (as callous as this sounds), I’m actually not surprised she held out as long as she did–an anecdote that comes to mind to describe her perfectly is her actions during the Falkland Wars. Argentinians invaded and held some islands (I can’t remember who they belonged to, unfortunately), refusing to budge. Thatcher dispatched her fleet at half speed, and called them in the morning, telling them to get off her land or she’d kill them. They refused. She repeated this process every morning for about a week, ending roughly with, “I’ll kill you when I get there.” The morning the fleet arrived, she positioned them just outside the Argentinian’s missile range (they had 10km, the British had 12 or 13km) and bombarded the snot out of them without calling. They surrendered soon after. I say all this to point out my admiration for her steely will…one that was forced to bend by the irrefutable will of a few good patriots who were willing to go the distance. That’s a heritage to be proud of.

    • brileyrebecca April 22, 2013 at 9:24 pm #

      Generally I do respect Thatcher and her resolve and usually supported her politics. This was just one that really hit me somewhat personally. As for the Falklands, yes, the British did hold them-still do–but they belonged to the Argentines first….Just saying.

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