John Arnold: I’m still bothered and bewildered thinking of those brave Irish men

It’s 100 years ago this week since Michael Fitzgerald, Joe Murphy and Cork Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney all died on hunger strike, writes John Arnold
John Arnold: I’m still bothered and bewildered thinking of those brave Irish men

Terence MacSwiney and family. Source: Cork Public Museum

I BOUGHT a small leather camel in Morocco in 1981. It was in the month of May and we were on our honeymoon in Fuengirola in southern Spain and took a trip across the water to Tangier. We travelled by — I think ‘twas called a hydrofoil, over the waves on a 50-mile trip.

Tangier was a different world, narrow bustling streets, steep steps all over the place and crowds upon crowds of ‘hawkers’ everywhere. They were selling watches ‘real’ leather belts, shoes, sandals, wallets and of course camels. They lived off tourists — following us around with the shout directed at me ‘Buy something for the lovely lady’. She was lovely then and still is today.

The poor leather camel, we still have him, but like me he’s lost nearly all his hair!

Any shop or stall where we stopped they asked where we were from. When Ireland was mentioned the instant reply came ‘Ireland, ah Bobby Sands’. Not so much in Fuengirola had we heard his name but that day in Morocco the dead hunger striker was on everyone’s lips. That was around May 20, 1981 and Bobby Sands had died on May 5. He had refused food for 66 days and before the year was out nine other comrades of Sands had died. He was just 27, three years older than I was at the time.

I’ve often thought about hunger striking as ‘weapon’ used in warfare against an oppressor, and this week especially.

It’s 100 years ago this week since Michael Fitzgerald, Joe Murphy and Cork Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney all died on hunger strike.

In normal times we would have had major events commemorating all three and also earlier this year to remember the murdered Lord Mayor Tomas Mac Curtain, but all these have been curtailed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

I have to admire anyone who gives his or her life for a cause which he or she passionately believes in. Dying by starvation must surely be the ultimate badge of bravery in my opinion.

It’s seldom enough I am walking around in Cork city but by chance I was there just a few weeks ago. I always try and pass by the City Hall and pause in silent prayer by the busts of Mac Curtain and MacSwiney. They were friends in life, proud Corkmen, both republicans with a yearning for Irish freedom. Both were Irish volunteers but also wished to follow the path of what is called constitutional nationalism.

When Tomas was murdered in his Blackpool home in March 1920, on his 36th birthday, Terence was elected to succeed him as Cork’s First Citizen. One murdered and three deaths on hunger strike of prominent IRA volunteers and activists was a terrible loss to the Irish nation. Then that year of 1920 was one when the Irish War of Independence turned into a bloody guerrilla confrontation between freedom fighters and the British Empire.

Should we think of Bobby Sands as being in the self same mould and tradition as Fitzgerald, and MacSwiney? I just don’t know the answer to that question and it troubles me - especially in a week like this.

I was only nine when Ireland as a nation marked the 50th Anniversary of the 1916 Rising. I remember Eoin O Súilleabháin playing the part of Padraig Pearse in RTÉ’s epic Insurrection which re-enacted the happenings of Easter Week, 1916.

There seemed to be no problem talking about and discussing the IRA and its role in the fight for Irish Freedom. The ‘Boys of The Old Brigade’ were honoured in Croke Park that year. They were men in their late seventies and eighties — men who soldiered alongside the four brave Corkmen I write of.

Some claim the 1966 Commemorations sparked the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland while others claim the ‘Troubles’ which erupted in the late 1960’s were inevitable. For decades Catholics in the North were treated as second class citizens in a Unionist dominated regime. Within a few years the IRA and the Provisional IRA, the Provos, were movements we were all aware of but we didn’t know how to react so we kind of blotted them out of modern Irish ‘history’.

The IRA and later Sinn Fein claimed to be the true successors of Griffith’s Sinn Fein and the IRA so beloved of Collins and de Valera in the 1920’s. They claimed legitimacy and said they were simply continuing the fight for a United Ireland - in the tradition of Tone, Emmett and Pearse. I found it hard to get my head round the puzzle of the ‘Old’ IRA and the military force in the Six Counties from the 1960’s onwards.

There’s no doubt the men and women of 1916 wanted a 32 County Irish governed Ireland. The Anglo Irish Treaty changed all that. The original IRA were, in my humble opinion, the legitimate and legal Army of Dáil Éireann which had been elected by the Irish people.

When the ‘new’ IRA took up arms in the North I knew right well what their aims were but still I had my doubts. Where was their justification emanating from? In the late 60’s and 1970’s the IRA couldn’t claim to be the ‘military wing ‘ of any political or democratic party or movement.

In an ironic twist then, the deaths of the hunger strikers gave a great morale boost to the emerging Sinn Fein party. The SDLP abhorred violence yet in a few decades the dual policy of ‘Armalite and ballot box’ paid dividends and has continued to the present day.

Bobby Sands then was an enigma. An IRA activist he became an MP under most unusual circumstances. Four days after Sands had commenced his hunger strike Frank Maguire MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone died unexpectedly. In the April bye-election Bobby Sands garnered 30,493 votes, beating the Unionist candidate Harry West. The bye-election was on April 9, 1981, Bobby Sands was dead on May 4.

Nearly four decades later I am still bothered and bewildered thinking of Bobby and Terence and Michael and Joe. There’s no doubt they were all brave Irishmen. They all wanted freedom for Ireland. Though 61 years separated their deaths they all suffered, nay endured, that awful long, slow lingering suffering filled with pain and agony. Does the end always justify the means? ‘twould take wiser and more learned men than me to answer that one.

‘The body doesn’t accept the lack of food, and it suffers from the temptation of food and from other aspects which gnaw at it perpetually. The body fights back sure enough, but at the end of the day, everything returns to the primary consideration - that is, the mind.’ (Bobby Sands)

In a dreary Brixton prison

Where an Irish rebel lay

By his side a priest was standing

‘Ere his soul should pass away

As he faintly murmured Father

As he clasped him by the hand

Tell me this before I die

Shall my soul pass through Ireland

Shall my soul pass through old Ireland

And through Cork’s old city grand

Shall I see that old cathedral

Where St. Patrick took his stand

Shall I see that little chapel

Where I pledged my heart and hand

Tell me this before I die Shall my soul pass through Ireland

(Tribute to Terence Mac Swiney)

Young Tomás Mac Curtain on his way to school

Met a False Knight on the Road, False Knight, False Knight

On the old Mallow road under Mourneabbey

Down by the broken castle on the hill.

‘Where are you going?’ said the False Knight on the Road

‘I’m going to my school’ said the child and he stood

And he stood and he stood and ‘twas well that he stood

Down by the broken castle on the hill.

‘What are you carrying?’ said the False Knight on the Road

‘My bag and my book’ said the child and he stood and he stood

And he stood, ‘twas well that he stood

Down by the broken castle on the hill

The moon hung down like a reaping hook

On the old Mallow road under Mourneabbey

Down by the broken castle on the hill.

‘What light can you see?’ said the False Knight on the Road

‘The light of liberty and Ireland will be free’

Said the child and he stood, ‘twas well that he stood

Down by the broken castle on the hill.

‘I will hang you from that tree’ said the False Knight on the Road

‘On a strong branch under me’ said the child and he stood

‘I will cast you in the sea’ said the False Knight on the Road

‘And a good boat under me’ said the child and he stood

And he stood and he stood, ‘twas well that he stood.

Under Mourneabbey down by the broken castle on the hill.

Young Tomás Mc Curtain, on his way to school

Met a False Knight on the Road, False Knight, False Knight

Of the Order of St John of Jerusalem-‘long have we reigned’

‘You’re reign is wrong since the time of King John, time you were gone’’

Said the child and he stood, ‘twas well that he stood

On the old Mallow road under Mourneabbey

Down by the broken castle on the hill

Young Tomás Mac Curtain on his way to school.

(Newly composed ballad on Tomás Mac Curtain by John Spillane)

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