A REFLECTION BY TONY SEED
Mac-Talla, annual Gaelic supplement of Shunpiking Magazine, May 2006
THE 90TH ANNIVERSARY of the Easter Rising in Dublin and 25th anniversary of the H-Block hunger strikes in Belfast have become times of great celebration for the Irish people and are being commemorated throughout the world, including Canada. Activities include marches, seminars, public meetings, plays, films and exhibitions. The actions of those who stood up and fought for independence in 1916 and the courageous sacrifice of the ten hunger strikers who gave their lives in 1981 represent the best of Ireland. They typify a valiant spirit that has endured much suffering over the centuries of armed British colonial occupation.
The parallel between the two events is very real. The actions of those who fought in 1916 charted the path that led to independence for 22 of the 29 Irish counties in 1921, while Bobby Sands and the Irish patriots who gave their lives for their rights as political prisoners began the move toward a democratic renewal of the political process. The soldiers of the Easter Rising and the hunger strikers also shared the vision of an independent and united Ireland, free of foreign rule.
Huge crowds attended the 90th anniversary events on 15 April throughout Ireland. Many towns and cities saw the largest demonstrations in recent years. Speaking at the plot in Milltown Cemetary in West Belfast where hunger strikers Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty are buried, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said the British government had “cruelly and cynically” allowed ten men to die while the Irish government “stood back.” Adams called on republicans to tell a new generation of Irish republicans and especially the youth the story of 1981 alongside the history of 1916.
Quoting Padraig Pearse, Adams said the 1916 leader had got it “exactly right” when during his court martial he described the republican desire for freedom as unstoppable. “To us it is more desirable than anything in the world. If you strike us down now, we shall rise again to renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland. You cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom,” Pearse had said.
James Connolly of the Easter Rising and the H-Block Hunger Strikers shared another vision; the renewal of An Ghaeilge, the ancestral Irish language as the right of an oppressed nation and the vessel of Irish thought and outlook, and the philosophy of Irish freedom. “It is well to remember,” declared James Connolly, “that nations which submit to conquest or races which abandon their language in favour of that of an oppressor do so, not because of the altruistic motives, or because of a love of brotherhood of man, but from a slavish and cringing spirit. From a spirit which cannot exist side by side with the revolutionary idea.” (James Connolly: Sinn Féin And Socialism, 1908)
One of Bobby Sands’ important and most positive features was his stand on Irish language and the fine, positive traditions, culture and heritage of the Irish people.
He was a talented and prolific author of prose, songs, and poetry (compiled in ‘Skylark Sing your Lonely Song: An Anthology of the Writings of Bobby Sands’), a magnificent oral storyteller (as in the “telling” of books from memory through the cell door after the screws left the wing), and tradition bearer.
For Bobby Sands, language, culture and heritage was not something iconically detached from the Irish people – all the people of Ireland – nor as something nativistic, and its renewal was linked with freedom and empowerment. Throughout the course of his political development, he opposed the cosmopolitan, nihilist culture of British imperialism which, with related edicts as the Statutes of Kilkenny (1649) and the consequent dispersal of the Irish clans and the dismantling of the Irish system of communal land ownership, aimed to destroy the Irish nation, assimilate and Anglicise the Irish people, disinform their world outlook, foster sectarianism and make Ireland “loyal” once and for all. Bobby Sands saw language renewal as a prominent component in the project of nation building of a united Ireland based on equality, justice and peace, and to empower and inspire the Irish people to reclaim their national identity regardless of age, class, creed or political outlook on the path of ending the exploitation of man by man.
Here is the real spirit of the Irish, for whom education under the Conquest was an offence against the law, where a price was put upon the head of a schoolmaster who was hunted as eagerly as a wolf and the priest. Still, in the depths of the Long Kesh and Armagh prisons the hunger for learning persisted, and overcame the most dehumanizing brutalization of the British occupiers and the Loyalist screw. In their solitary cells, deep in these militarized fortresses, young Irish men and women, garbed only in a blanket, deprived of clothes and later even of washing and toilet facilities, strove to snatch illegally the education and language denied them by the British occupier.
Bobby Sands learned Irish in his first term in Long Kesh. He indefatigably taught his mates their national language in prison hellholes without the benefit of any writing material or tapes. It was not only a means of communication impenetrable by prison screws but to reclaim a stolen heritage. This too was a source of great spiritual strength. Says Gerry Adams, a leader of the H-Block campaign in 1980-81, cell-mate and friend: “the Irish language was one of the few aspects of prison life that helped the prisoners lift their spirits above the horror that was all around them and helped them resist the brutal oppression that was being inflicted upon them.”
It is widely acknowledged that the transformation of the jails into Gaeltachts (Ghaeilge-speaking areas) greatly raised the profile of and created new space for the Irish language and its revival, as had the stands of James Connolly and other leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916 for the An Ghaeilge.
Scores of youth joined Irish language classes as a measure of solidarity. Said one: “Maybe your best friend went to jail and came out as an Irish speaker and that would influence you, you know what I mean?”
At that time, as today, the British did their utmost to pretend that the cause of Bobby Sands and the Irish patriots had “no support” and mercilessly crucified them with unparalleled virulence as “criminals” and “thugs.”
Political prisoner Bobby Sands was elected to the British House of Commons by the Irish people in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election on 10 April 1981 with 30,492 votes. He died in Long Kesh prison on 5 May 1981 at the age of 27 on the 66th day of his historic Hunger Strike. One hundred thousand attended his funeral.
On 11 June the Irish people elected two of the nine political prisoners who stood for the Irish Dail (parliament): Paddy Agnew and Kieran Doherty. Though MPs of a foreign state, the British allowed both to die.
Twenty five years later it is the name, memory and noble ideals of the 1916 and 1981 heroes who are commemorated the world over.
Wrote Bobby Sands: “We the risen people, shall turn tragedy into triumph. We shall bear forth a nation!”
“Tiocfaidh ar la! Our Day Will Come!”
 English soldiers received a bounty of £5 for the head of a “rebel” or priest (£1 less than they received for the head of a wolf). During this period, known as the Cromwellian settlement, the population was reduced by about half. Over a third were killed, while another 100,000 were sold into slavery in the West Indies and the American colonies. The remaining third (Catholics not involved in the revolt against English domination) were to be driven to the marginal lands of the extreme west of the country.
Author’s note. There are several versions of this article on the Internet and in print. As well, it has been translated into Gaelic, French, Turkish, Japanese, and possibly other languages. This is the original, which restores several sentences edited out of the original print edition of Mac-Talla, May 2006. Mac-Talla was published by Shunpiking Magazine in partnership with the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia as an annual Gaelic supplement from 2001 to 2008.
In May 2009, the publishers suspended publication of Mac-Talla rather than agree to an attempt to change the editorial policy, replacing the democratic demand for language right with the neo-liberal concept of “diversity” and voluntarism, in collusion with editorial interference by the Province of Nova Scotia regarding the magazine’s call for Nova Scotians to endorse the Edward Cornwallis petition.
Last Updated July 1, 2011