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John McDonagh (JM) interviews Martin Galvin (MG) in the studio about his involvement in the film Bobby Sands: 66 Days.
(begins time stamp ~ 18:45)
JM: Now a topic that’s coming up in Galway: There’s a film out called 66 Days Bobby Sands and it’s about his diary when he was on hunger strike and they made it into a film. But there’s a little re-writing of history that’s going on about Bobby Sands. We’re going to play the trailer and then talk to Martin Galvin who was part of the process for the film but didn’t quite make it in.
Audio: Trailer for film, Bobby Sands: 66 Days, is played. (trailer ends time stamp ~ 21:18)
JM: And that is the trailer from 66 Days which is debuting at the Galway Film Festival. I would recommend go watch it because in it it’s strange how they use a picture of Bobby Sands in Long Kesh with his arms around Denis Donaldson who turned out to be an MI5 informer who worked here in New York City for a little while. And also one of the little clips shows the Union Jack being burned on 3rd Avenue at the British Consulate so you can see it in ties in New York with what was going on in Belfast. And someone that was instrumental in what was happening here in New York and organising the demonstrations down at the British Consulate was Martin Galvin. And Martin, you were approached to be in this film. Were you?
MG: John, I did hear about the film. I was contacted to be in the film. I had been the national Publicity Director of Irish Northern Aid from 1979 onward. And when I was appointed to that position what I was told from people from Belfast is that the situation in Long Kesh was critical, that prisoners were at a stage where they had asked for support. They wanted support from America and that if this situation with the five demands, where the British were trying to make these prisoners dress up as criminals so they could say to the world that there were no more political prisoners in Ireland, there was no real conflict or struggle. It was just an inordinate number of criminals in the North of Ireland and that’s what Britain was fighting against.
And Bobby Sands, Brendan Hughes, the other prisoners – three hundred spartans as my friend Richard O’Rawe called them in his book – refused to do that. The British, beginning with Kieran Nugent who was one of the people who was out here who had toured about that protest – and what had happened is gradually the British tried an escalating system of pressure to break their determination. They would be confined naked except for a blanket, they’d be denied visits, they’d be denied remission, they would be subjected to beatings, they would be subjected to brutal searches, mirror searches, beaten up, bones broken – all of that gradually to force them to accept wearing a criminal uniform and be a prop in the propaganda war of Margaret Thatcher to label the Irish Republican cause, the Irish Republican resistance to British rule, as criminal. So in 1979 it was at a critical stage. America – people were sent from Ireland to America to say we had to play more of a part in exposing this – that America could actually make the difference and be the difference in breaking the determination of the British and forcing them to have some sort of honourable compromise which would have resolved this sort of a hunger strike. And so gradually we started up, we started to publicise what was going on in the H Blocks at that time, the significance was not understood, was not known – I gave one of my first major speeches in Ireland in 1979 in Casement Park in the anniversary of internment.
But what we were doing was building up so that if there was a hunger strike we would be ready. We would have demonstrations in front of British Consulates not only in New York but around the country. We would have people who would be prepared and informed enough and committed enough to go in front of the British Consulates, talk in British areas around the country and then do that on a daily basis. And we had a professional – I had gone back to train actually at the Belfast Republican Press Centre – wanted to have something – a professional press office, a professional publicity office, a professional political lobbying office as best that we could without money. And so we did that. We began to organise that. And as we moved gradually towards 1980 and the first hunger strike those things that we set in motion so when the first hunger strike began it would be coordinated, there would be a national campaign, it would emanate from Irish Northern Aid, from the office on 207 Street, the Irish People office, and I was the person chosen to run that campaign in America.
JM: So did they approach you? You knew about the movie being made – who was approached and what happened?
MG: Well I was approached to generate that because the American impact in the hunger strike – it was unbelievable! People would demonstrate day after day, they did this month after month, you’d be there at the British Consulate five o’clock to seven o’clock on weekdays after work. You’d then go from three to five on the weekends. There were actually, when a hunger striker died, there would be individuals who would build a coffin, have it in front of the British Consulate, stand guard for twenty-four hours a day until the individual was buried. All of that – the press – the publicity they were able to do, news people came into America day after day. So as a result of that, as the leader of that campaign in the United States, I was asked by the film crew, I think Richard O’Rawe gave them my name, I was asked to do an interview. I was happy to do it because I just thought – not for anything that I did but I think it’s important to highlight what America did and I think that the full impact of what we had will never be fully appreciated. We later saw that there were individuals in the British Consulate who complained about having to go to work every day with demonstrations – being criticised – being called murderers – all of that had. So the film crew came, they asked me to do an interview and I did – a lengthy period – it was supposed to be for about a half hour, an hour – they ended up keeping me for a long period of time.
JM: And it was filmed here in New York.
MG: It was filmed here. It was done in the Irish Consulate. They did interviews – I was able to talk – just funny stories about people coming out – what made them come out day after day. How many people – thousands of people had come around. How the county associations, the AOH divisions, fought – they stood up and said our banners are not there as much as other counties – so much so. And how – what would happen when a hunger striker died: I would get a call at my home at five o’clock. I would go to the office. We would put out a press statement. I would call individuals from Irish Northern Aid in the New England states, in Pennsylvania, in California in San Francisco, in the Mid-West in Chicago, and they would circulate so that everybody would be alerted. There would be demonstrations that day across the country that would be escalated because a hunger striker had died.
So I was able to talk about this and about one of the funniest stories I love repeating: When the hunger strike ended we announced, as we had planned to, that the demonstrations, the daily demonstrations, would stop. And we congratulated everybody, talked about how they had insured that the hunger strikers had won – that the world saw that these men were not criminals – that criminals don’t die such deaths for the freedom of their country. And I got a call when I got home from Michael Flannery and he started laughing and he said: Martin, you’ll never guess – there’s some complaints about you! And I couldn’t believe it and we were laughing about it because at that time I was thought very highly of – he said people complained – they want to keep on demonstrating in front of the British Consulate – they don’t want to stop just because the hunger strike has stopped. We were able to continue – the Long Green Line continued for a number of years. But stories like that – the impact – people going every day – people in front of the British Consulate every day – how you couldn’t fly a British flag anywhere in New York – anywhere in many places around the country – because it was a stain. Even, one of the best stories: How when Prince Charles and Diana, people weren’t lining up to shake their hands, they actually, when they came to New York – thirty thousand people went to Lincoln Center to be there with Elizabeth O’Hara, to be there with the family of Bobby Sands, the family of Patsy O’Hara, to be there with Maura McDonnell whose brother then was on hunger strike.
And we had one of the favorite stories: Police officers on the special squad who guarded Prince Charles came to the demonstration afterwards, asked if they could participate, one of them said his family was from Doire – another said his family was from Monaghan – they wanted to give interviews on the record saying that they had had to guard people like Idi Amin and other people, international criminals and pariahs, but they had never felt so ashamed about their job as that time – having to guard Prince Charles – that’s where they were. I put those interviews on tape, I was happy to do that and I thought that would make a tremendous impact, a tremendous addition to anything and you couldn’t tell the story of the hunger strike without having that and they had come to me because I was the person who was in charge of that who had all those stories.
JM: And what happened to the interview?
MG: Well when I was over in Doire I was at the demonstration or commemoration for George McBrearty and people who had been interviewed came to me and they said: You know what happened with that? Anybody, if you were seen as being not being fully supportive of Sinn Féin, other than Richard O’Rawe whom they needed and who had help them, everybody else who was not really supportive of Sinn Féin or fully in line with Sinn Féin was going to be censored out. And I said: Look. First of all I didn’t even mention anything about any difficulties or any criticisms of Sinn Féin. At the time of the hunger strike I was the person they were calling from Ireland to organise. Irish Northern Aid was the organisation they’d look to. I was the press officer, the national publicity director, the person in charge of all of this. So I said I couldn’t believe it.
And just to be sure I contacted the people who had done the film and said: Look, I got this crazy rumour that I was going to be censored out just because right now I’m no longer in line, I’m with people and groups like the 1916 Societies or I’m viewed as an independent Republican or I work with other organisations and not fully on board with Sinn Féin and I’m probably due to give the Brendan Hughes Commemoration speech – somebody (inaudible). And after a couple of days in following up I finally got something: Yes, you gave us great material and we’re going to include all this material about America in the film but unfortunately we couldn’t have you on it but we’re going to send you a copy of the video and we’ll let you know information about the premiere. I just said: Look! I’m very friendly with many of the hunger strikers’ families, I know the Sands Family did not want to be involved because of that reason – they thought there would be a political agenda behind it – there are other families who were not invited to be on and would not be on it because of that. And I said I’m sorry now that I did not listen to them, that I listened to you, that I sat down and did the interview and if you have a political agenda like that, that somebody like me can’t be on, then I think you’re doing a disservice to everything that Bobby Sands stood for. And I was told I was going to be censored out for that reason.
JM: Alright. So you know that film will be coming to New York at some stage and we’ll discuss it even more with Martin about how, if you’re not with the political process of Sinn Féin, you’re not even going to be written into the historical things that you were there part of.
And Martin, you were telling one story there, before we go to a song, about making the coffins. I was down at the British Consulate and Mike Murphy, who was a 608 carpenter, or 6R8 as he called it, was making the coffins at Clancy’s because Clancy’s was two blocks away from the British Consulate. And we got the wood by going out at night and stealing the wooden barricades of the NYPD, bringing them into Clancy’s and sanding off the blue paint and the NYPD and then chopping them up and making coffins out of it. And the cops could never understand where the wooden barricades were going because they would come back for the demonstration and say: ‘Jeez, who’s stealing wooden barricades?’ The next thing you’d see a coffin coming out of Clancy’s heading up to the British Consulate – so that was just one of those side stories.
MG: They may have let it go because the police – they used to shake our hands I mean they were – like I said – we had a demonstration in front of Lincoln Center – they’re coming over saying: ‘Can we put on IRA badges?’ and ‘Can we be interviewed to disavow anything that we just did?’ – they used to be great to us! (ends time stamp ~ 33:53)