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Between Hope and History

\o7 The Brave Sacrifice and Desperate Valor of Irish Rebels With a Cause

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OUT OF TIME Irish Republican Prisoners Long Kesh 1972-2000; By Laurence McKeown; Beyond the Pale Publications: 264 pp., 10.99

August 19, 2001|TOM HAYDEN | Tom Hayden, a former state senator, is the author of several books, including the forthcoming "Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish America" (Verso)

Twenty years ago tomorrow, a 10th and last Irishman starved to death in Northern Ireland in the 20th century's most riveting hunger strike. He was 27-year-old "Red Mickey" Devine, nicknamed not for his politics but for the flaming color of his hair. Many stereotypes continue to linger and blur those events, which underscore the value of memoirs like "Out of Time," by Laurence McKeown, a hunger striker who happened to survive. It is simply one of the most illuminating books ever written about the experience of political prisoners.

The effect of the 1981 Irish hunger strikes has grown with time. Bobby Sands, the first to die, on May 5, 1981, certainly has achieved a greater iconic status than then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who asked at the time if it was virility the Irishmen were trying to prove. The hunger strikes ended in a tactical failure in one sense because the British government refused to budge on the strikers' demands to be recognized as political prisoners instead of common criminals. But the 10 traumatizing deaths from May to August of that year produced a huge groundswell of public support for Sinn Fein, then a small and isolated political party engulfed in an ugly guerrilla war. Shortly before Sands' death, 30,492 people in County Fermanagh-South Tyrone voted him a member of the British Parliament in abstention, shocking the political establishment from Thatcher's London to Ronald Reagan's Washington. Two more hunger strikers, Paddy Agnew and Kieran Doherty, were elected to parliament in the southern Republic of Ireland as their bodies wasted away. Tens of thousands of nationalists braved heavy rains and repression to attend the funerals for Sands and his comrades.

The hunger strike prompted a process of gradual reform as well. To contain the growing support for Sinn Fein, the London and Dublin governments in 1985 produced a diplomatic agreement which, though quite modest, recognized a role for the Dublin government in representing Catholic nationalist rights in the British-controlled North. Almost two decades later, Sinn Fein has become the largest nationalist party in the North, and Gerry Adams, the group's leader, tops the political popularity polls in the southern Republic. The 1981 hunger strikes were fully vindicated by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which, recognizing the status of hundreds of political prisoners, released them back to their communities despite their life sentences.

McKeown, who joined the IRA at 17, was arrested in 1976 and sentenced to life imprisonment and went on a hunger strike after Sands' death. After passing into a coma on the 71st day, he was given medical treatment and survived. He served 16 years in prison altogether. During imprisonment, he obtained a bachelor's degree from an open university. After release, he spent five years at Queens University, Belfast, getting his PhD. His doctoral thesis, titled "Unrepentant Fenian Bastards: The Social Construction of an Irish Republican Prisoner," eventually became "Out of Time."

The widespread image of the "hard men" of Irish paramilitary culture is belied by the McKeown one meets in his memoir. He is a man who has been to death and back. Today, he is 45, active in a former prisoners' self-help group in Belfast, and lives with his longtime partner and community developer Deirdre MacManus, raises two daughters and is building a home at the base of the legendary mountain of Slieve Gullian. His life reflects the long arc from war to politics being traversed by many in Northern Ireland.

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