By Jack Holland
The day before the 20th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands was unseasonably hot in New York City. Temperatures were in the 90s as I stood alongside one other journalist on East 124th street to gaze up at the 30-by-30 foot hunger-strike mural on a gable wall in this run-down corner of East Harlem. The high temperature was not the only unusual feature of the scene. It was probably the first Irish republican mural ever to decorate a Harlem wall. But one of the artists, Gerry Kelly from Belfast, saw no anomaly whatsoever. Kelly, who grew up in the Ballymurphy and Spring Hill estates in West Belfast, said he felt quite at home on 124th Street, among the disused buildings, the vacant lots and the tall, impoverished apartment blocks.
"There’s poor people on the street," he observed, "just like home." There were other murals also, just like home. A few blocks west on 124th Street was a mural by James De Vega. Entitled "Slaves of The Past and Present," it looked like an imitation Picasso, a hint of Guernica in the midst of a different kind of urban desolation. On it was written: "Be Free, My Friends, Be Free."
Kelly and his co-artist, Tom Billings, from East Chicago, believe that their mural, though in a very different style, shares that same theme. According to the "synopsis" of the mural, the hunger strikers died "for the cause of Irish freedom."
"This doesn’t just go back 20 years, it goes back 800 years," Kelly, who paints under the name Mo Chara, told a reporter.
Billings told me he did not know very much about Irish history, and had not heard about the hunger strike until three years ago, but had been reading a lot and he said working with Mo Chara had been a "learning experience."
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
There was another, somewhat anomalous feature of the site. The mural looks down over the courtyard of a precinct of the local housing police. A strange place for the activists of the INLA and Provisional IRA, who are depicted in the painting, it might be suggested. But Mo Chara thinks not.
"Nobody’ll mess about with it," he said pragmatically.
As we pondered it from different angles, I noticed there were heads on the mural that belong to people not usually associated with the IRA and INLA. There was Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Mo Chara had already painted a mural of Mandela, which used to adorn a gable wall near the Falls Road. He was on this mural because, according to Mo Chara, he was a "civil rights activist" and "long-term prisoner of the South African apartheid regime." He was also a leading member of the ANC, which, like the IRA and the INLA, resorted to violence to achieve their goal. The same cannot be said of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom were pacifists and outspokenly opposed to violence. Gandhi stoutly refused to endorse violence. He advocated passive resistance even when confronted by the prospect of a Japanese invasion. Yet there he was right alongside Francis Hughes, one of the Provisional IRA’s most feared gunmen, who also did a line in under-car booby trap devices which blew the legs off unfortunate members of the security forces. What linked Gandhi to the Irish prisoners was that he too used the hunger strike as a weapon against the British.
Yes, anomalies abounded, not only with the Harlem mural, but the public events which followed on May 5, the day of the actual unveiling of the work, which was the 20th anniversary of Bobby Sands’s death. Among the 150 or so people who attended were several politicians, including two New York mayoral hopefuls, Alan Hevesi and Peter Vallone. It was easy to forget, in the midst of their speeches in praise of the hunger strikers, that the Provisional IRA and INLA were organizations that were not exactly pro-political establishment. At the time, they were violent revolutionaries, proud of their links to the PLO, ETA, and the Sandinistas. Their ideologues would have had nothing but contempt for the sort of smarmy politics on display on 124th Street last week.
Representative Joe Crowley was in attendance. He said: "It is impossible to understand the pain, suffering and anguish [that is] the use of the hunger strike to right wrongs. They used the weapon of their mind, body and soul, and they brought down the moral authority of the Thatcher government."
Gandhi used the weapon of his mind, body and soul, and nothing else. But men like Bobby Sands and Patsy O’Hara had organizations standing behind them that were setting off large bombs. One week after Hughes died, a 1,000-pound land mine killed five British soldiers, two of them teenagers. In the general mayhem and upheaval that surrounded the hunger strikes, some 60 people died, including two Catholic girls, ages 12 and 14, who were killed in Belfast by soldiers firing plastic baton rounds, and a milkman and his 14-year-old son, killed by a crowd of stone throwers protesting the death of Sands.
Twenty years on, of course, with Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA deeply engaged in the peace process, and the Provisional IRA and the INLA on permanent cease-fire (except when they murder the odd drug dealer), it is easy to forget the historical context of the events of 1981. For instance, some commentators talk about how the hunger strike led to the peace process, as if somehow the current peace process is a fulfillment of the aims of the hunger strikers. In 1981, the Provisional IRA was not trying to start a peace process, unless it were one prefaced by the British government’s declaration of intent to withdraw from Northern Ireland. That was the Provisionals’ oft repeated aim. It and the INLA would have been dismissive of anyone who would have dared suggest that they become engaged in talks to set up another devolved government. In the end, that is what happened. But how it happened is far more complex than a simple linking of the hunger strike with Sinn Fein and the IRA’s current situation.
Likewise, comparisons, frequently made, between what happened in 1916 and 1981, have to be drawn carefully. They might well be comparable in terms of how both inspired Irish republicans. But 1916 led to the war of Independence which secured freedom for 26 counties. The year 1981 led instead to what we have now — a "conflict resolution" situation, the outcome of which is still far from clear.