John McDonagh (JM) gives us a review of the film, Bobby Sands: 66 Days and discusses the film with Co-Host Martin Galvin (MG). (begins time stamp ~ 7:09)
JM: And now the rest of the show is going to be about this documentary that’s out. It’s called Bobby Sands: 66 Days. It has a two week engagement from November 30th to December 13th at The Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, just west of 6th Avenue, and the screenings are at 12:30, 2:45, 5:10, 7:30 and 9:45.
I went to see it at a press screening on Thursday and here at Radio Free Éireann we covered the 1981 hunger strike starting in 1981 and really, based on the 1981 hunger strike, that’s how the radio show started here at WBAI. I went with David Rothenberg and when we came out of there, David had said to me – and it was good to talk to someone who wasn’t involved with the Republican struggle – he said that he only thought that Bobby Sands had died; he didn’t realise that nine other people died and he didn’t realise the role that Maggie Thatcher played in the hunger strike. And one of the things that came out in the documentary, because they have some people that worked in her Cabinet, is that Margaret Thatcher was in a tough place. It was the Labour government in 1976, there was what was known as ‘special category status’, which was political status for anyone that was in the IRA caught in the Six Counties they were arrested by the British Army, they went through a Diplock court, a special court, and then they went into special prisons where they actually ran the prisons.
At midnight on a certain date in 1976 doing the exact same, whatever you say, ‘activity’, you were now an ‘ODC’, an ordinary decent criminal as they called it, and Maggie Thatcher had no room to manoeuvre because she would have looked weak on terrorism had she tried to backtrack on what the Labour government brought in – it wasn’t her government that brought it in – she just kept it going so that was a very good historical point of view that they brought up. Also during that time, to show how sectarian the vote was: My aunt and uncle live in Co. Fermanagh. Bobby Sands ran for the office in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. My Uncle Peter and Aunt Julia – I called them up about the vote because then I went shortly over and I ended up living in Donegal with my uncle and I went to at least four of the funerals and wakes of the hunger strikers. My Uncle Peter, who’s more of a Nationalist and a Republican voted for Bobby Sands and I asked Julia: Who did you vote for? She said: I hate the IRA. I hate what Bobby Sands stands for. Well I said: Who’d you vote for? Well, I had to vote for him. I couldn’t vote for the other crowd – which was the Protestant crowd and it just showed how sectarian it was. Also when I was going to see the documentary, I went to the BBC Ulster website and the lead story was part of Long Kesh is now being turned into a heliport for medical reasons. So instead of turning into what Dublin did, Kilmainham, it is now being turned into anything than what Long Kesh was so I thought that was a bit of an irony about what was going on.
And I kept an eye out for artwork during it. And sure enough towards the end they showed a piece of Boston Irish Northern Aid and they went to a table where there was tee shirts and bumper stickers and there it was –
Brian Mór Ó Baoighill’s artwork on the table. And I always think: You cannot do anything about the 1981 hunger strike and not have some of his artwork in it.
What also struck me was everyone carrying the black flags – I remember when I was over there there was black flags literally from Dublin to Donegal on every telephone post – all the way up and it was very ominous when you were over there during the hunger strike on that.
One of the wishes – I wish it could have incorporated, although it’s an hour and fifteen minutes, is what happened outside of the prison – the diaspora of, in America – there’s a little piece on that – in London, in Scotland – but, I understand, you can only get so much in it. They had an interview with the prison guard and it was great to have his point of view because how he hated the men that were in there who were on the hunger strike and dirty protest because now he had to live through it and it was great to see his point of view. Now you can argue about a movie and an interpretation but here it was – a prison guard who actually was there – and his hatred of the IRA in the prison because, at that stage, they had killed ten prison guards and he goes into that – that that was his friends being killed.
Now Fintan O’Toole, who’s a writer for the Irish Times and used to hang out at Rocky Sullivan’s on Lexington Avenue, I met him a couple of times down there, he does the narration and puts it into an historical point of view. That is the one thing you could quibble about because it’s not actual facts – it’s his interpretation – how culturally Bobby Sands is looked at throughout the Irish culture and world culture. There was two people from the United States in there: It was Father Seán McManus, who runs a one-man show down in Washington DC called the Irish National Caucus (or something like that), he was in it and he had a good point of view and he stuck to it: That the people to blame for not getting the word out in the United States was the Irish government, particularly Seán Donlon, and what he kept saying is that anytime that he wanted to bring up something on Capitol Hill it was the Irish, Twenty-six County government blocking him. And then you go to Seán Donlon – and there’s a special place in Hell for him during this time period – he was talking about Irish Northern Aid and what was going on in the United States and he said that their slogan was very simple: Brits Out. And he said from our point of view, and he meant from the Twenty-Six County point of view, that was very difficult to counteract because the problem was ‘more complex than that’ – so that there was good to have. And then an other ‘Irish-American’ was an Italian guy from the Bronx and it was so good to see Mario Biaggi, Congressman Mario Biaggi, during the hunger strike talking about it at a podium in Congress. And if anyone should have been in that documentary, in Congress – and not Tip O’Neill and not Ronald Reagan and not Kennedy but it was our own Mario Biaggi from the Bronx.
The other thing is they put Bobby Sands in a world context of Che Guevara and Mahatma Gandhi and Terence MacSwiney and the effect that the hunger strikes had worldwide and I thought that was very good.
That’s it, basically. On a documentary, I’m going to tell you, it’s very hard to argue with that person who says: ‘I was there’. This is not a movie. And I would recommend it because any time you can get out and have a debate on what happened in 1981 it’s a good day and to have people that were involved actually have the debate – particularly that we’re going to have on later, Dixie Elliott from Doire, about his impressions of the film itself. And I know Martin and Dixie were both filmed for it but, as I say, you didn’t make the final cut.
MG: John, one of the things that I was disappointed – I haven’t seen the film but just from what you’ve told me and what I’ve heard from others – is that the American dimension and all the work that was done in the United States – all of the people, the thousands who came out day after day was not fully taken into account because at the beginning of the first hunger strike – Brendan Hughes in 1980 – he had actually issued a special appeal to Irish Northern Aid saying that America was England’s weak point – that is something that Richard O’Rawe, who was the PRO (Public Relations Officer) for the hunger strike in 1981, the point that that made and everybody seems to indicate that that’s what the British were concerned about. They didn’t care how many Nationalists in The North of Ireland…
JM: …And the Irish government. Never mind the British government. And they didn’t even get into what the British were doing because they were saying: That’s an internal problem. It was the Twenty-Six County government.
MG: They were all concerned – we’ve lost our credibility – we can’t represent them – people are following them – Michael Flannery is going to be elected Grand Marshal in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade – it’s hard to imagine now but from every day of that hunger strike you would have, literally, thousands of people in New York, in Albany, in Boston, in Philadelphia, in San Francisco, in Detroit, in other cities around the country every single day – they would be out there. The news coverage would start with what was happening in the Irish hunger strike. The Northern Aid office – I would be up there at five or six o’clock in the morning to do press releases. We’d be there for the day. We’d do the newspaper. Brian did everything at night to try and get out/create posters. Mike Costello would deliver the newspapers – I’ll never forget. I thought he lived like a few feet away just over the bridge and it was hours away. Everybody, thousands upon thousands of people – if somebody died there would be people in front of the (British) Consulate hour upon hour until the burial.
JM: But Martin, that is a separate documentary. It wasn’t about America. It was about Bobby Sands – his sixty-six days. I mean what you’re talking about – that’s a documentary on its own.
MG: But that was the crucial thing through all that period of time that would have had an impact on the British, that would have had an impact on the government.
JM: The crucial thing was him being elected into Westminster – now come on. You’re giving what was going on in America – the fight was going on – there’s no fight going on there – if he doesn’t get elected into Parliament, and they get into the strategy – if he lost by one vote Maggie Thatcher would have been on TV saying: See, they have no support. And they get into the strategy that it was very risky because, as we know, you don’t know how elections go. I mean America played a role but the documentary is not about America. It’s about Bobby Sands and Long Kesh.
MG: I think if you look at this in reality America had a much stronger role than it did and, unfortunately, people like Tip O’Neill, like Ted Kennedy, the Four Horsemen. I remember writing an editorial (on page 4 -Ed.) – it’s in the Irish People – at the end of the first hunger strike – that if they had simply done anything it might have been enough so that there never would have been a hunger strike that Bobby Sands would have been on. It just brings back so many memories – you’re talking about Kieran Nugent as a young man being the first blanketman after being arrested after March 1st 1976. The reason that there was a publicity department I was asked to run, there was a re-organisation within Irish Northern Aid, was because of the appeal by Brendan Hughes and others who were on the blanket protest. So so much would have been different, so much was changed, so much in term of Irish-America in terms of the public reaction to British rule and our slogan at that time was not Brits Out – it was supporting the five demands. They wanted to end the hunger strike to get some kind of recognition or new conditions to stop the beatings, to stop the brutality because what Thatcher was doing, and what people should understand, she was trying to make people who were in jail for political offences, who saw themselves as a continuation of 1916 of the old struggle to be independent and free, she was trying to dress them up in a criminal uniform to say that they were now criminals, that the whole struggle was criminals, that everything was a criminal struggle, that anybody who was against British rule was a criminal. And that’s why Kieran Nugent went on protest. That’s why Bobby Sands and Tom McElwee and Joe McDonnell and the others died – that’s what sustained them throughout the beatings, throughout the protests, throughout everything that was inflicted upon them.
JM: Yeah so as you can see there was a lot of passion – it was a passionate time. What we want to do now is to go to the trailer to the movie, 66 Days, and when we come out of that we’re going to head over to Doire and speak to someone who was in the prison during the hunger strike and knew Bobby Sands and – oh, one of the other things: The most iconic photo of Bobby Sands is the one with his arms around Denis Donaldson. And they featured that in that and they said that was the photo of his image, although it’s cropped to just show his face, but when they show the actual photograph Bobby Sands went in one direction with the hunger strike and Denis Donaldson ended up being an MI5 agent working here in New York City. And that’s, Martin, when you see it you’re going to be picking out – Oh, look at that photo – Oh, I remember what happened that time – I remember the phone call you got at the office at that time – and that’s where it will bring back all the memories. But to get into what was actually going on in the prison we’re going to speak to Dixie Elliott in about two minutes.
Audio: Trailer for the film, Bobby Sands: 66 Days, is played. (ends time stamp ~ 22:33)