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John McDonagh (JM) and Martin Galvin (MG) talk to former blanketman Richard O’Rawe, (RO) the PRO during the 1981 hunger strike, via telephone from Belfast about the film, Bobby Sands:66 Days. (begins time stamp ~ 20:57)
MG: And we’re going to be going now, just in a minute, to get Richard O’Rawe. Richard was the PRO (Public Relations Officer) during hunger strike. And he had to, within the cell – and these were cells that were filled with human excrement because the prisoners were beaten if they left their cells to try to use toilets – the cells became filled with human excrement. They would have to smuggle out press statements. They would get that to the outside world. Richard O’Rawe, as the PRO during the hunger strike, would be the person to compose those press statements, that strategy, get it out. And somehow, this group – inside a prison, inside those conditions, with no access whatsoever to the outside world – were able to beat back everything that Margaret Thatcher and the British government had, all the resources they had in terms of…
JM: …And Martin, those messages that came out from him made its way to you that you were able to do press conferences here and state what was going on in Long Kesh because they would have had a tough time in Ireland getting the word out with Section 31 in the Twenty-Six Counties and the BBC just banning anybody from the Republican Movement. So a lot of that was geared to get it out to New York.
MG: Well what happened was press statements would be sent, they would get them to the Republican Press Centre in Belfast, they would put them out but the first place that they went were New York and we, in the Irish Northern Aid office or Irish People office – it was my job as the head of the National Publicity Director of Irish Northern Aid to get those messages around the country, to get the materials through the Irish People, through other sources around the country – and it became so effective, it became so emotional that thousands of people, each and every day, from five to seven o’clock on weekdays after work and from three to five on the weekends, would demonstrate – day after day after day – month after month – and when Prince Charles came to New York, as you remember, John, thirty thousand people were out there at Lincoln Center. Police officers from New York City who guarded him came to a demonstration afterwards apologising and said that they had to guard world criminals, they mentioned Idi Amin and some others, but they had never been so ashamed as when they had to guard Prince Charles and Lady Diana and gave interviews, put on IRA buttons at that time – that shows you exactly where the feelings were.
JM: Yeah, and with us on the line is Richard O’Rawe who was issuing those statements. Richard, when you were issuing those statements during the hunger strike did you know that they were ending up in New York and that Martin Galvin was holding press conferences about them?
RO: Actually John, I only found out the other day about how important that end of it was. You see where we were in Long Kesh – I was in the wing with Bobby and it was sort of a leadership wing – and it was actually a factory for churning out messages of sympathy around the world but seventy percent of the messages – we had been writing maybe two or three different comms a day and they were going out to the Press Centre and as you said, they were then going over to New York. We had been writing in to all the universities in America. America was always, in terms of the blanketmen and in terms of the message that we needed to get across, America was the number one priority. And we wrote to all the unions. We wrote to all the universities. We wrote to all the politicians. We were getting a list of people of influence who were from America and we literally just worked down the list and there was about maybe ten of us in our wing and that’s what we did. We had little cigarette papers, you know – that you’d roll a cigarette in – and the writing was minuscule and we wrote our message out – we’d have wrote our comm, we would have appealed for support and we’d have smuggled it out of Long Kesh, usually up our nose or in other more ‘intimate places’ but we smuggled them out and then they’d have went to the Press Centre and then they would have taken it on from there. And as Martin said they ended up on his desk in New York. So that was the process but it was crucial – you now, we were told at the time that it was crucial, that these comms were having a real effect – these little messages appealing for support so we were aware that it was an important aspect of the whole protest.
MG: Well Richard, you had gotten to the point from – I know when I was first asked to take over as National Publicity Director at Irish Northern Aid – at that time, of course, Brendan Hughes was in charge. He had made a special appeal. They wanted to go on hunger strike at that time. There was an initiative by Cardinal Ó Fiaich which broke down. And then they said: Look, give us time. Build up something in the United States and elsewhere – see if we can show enough support for the protest that we could win it without going on a hunger strike. And by 1980, the first hunger strike that was led by Brendan Hughes, and 1981, the feelings were so strong – it wasn’t just in New York with thousands of people every day. They would be there in Philadelphia. They would be there in Boston. They would be there in San Francisco, was a key area, they would be there across the United States. There were places where there were no British Embassies and people would be in front of places that sold British products demonstrating each and every day behind you. That was the feelings that Americans had. People were arguing – if you didn’t have your county banner there in front of the Consulate every day you would be embarrassed; somebody would shame you. That is the type of support which you and the men in Long Kesh, in the H Blocks and the hunger strikers particularly were able to inspire. And it just amases me that you, the other prisoners, in that small prison, locked away – Margaret Thatcher must have said you can’t ever do anything. She wanted to make everybody wear a criminal uniform and say that we now have no more political struggle or war or conflict or fight for freedom in Ireland. These are all criminals dressed up in criminal uniforms that we paraded before Diplock courts and been found guilty. And how was it that you and the other prisoners were able to beat all that, inspire such support in the United States and elsewhere and able to beat Margaret Thatcher on that?
RO: Well it all boils down to you, as an individual, and the collective. We were Republicans. We were Republican prisoners. We were fighting a war that was actually the second part of the War of Independence. The War of Independence was in 1919 to 1921 and it was a very bad settlement in terms of the people of The North. So this was the War of Independence Mark 2. We were political prisoners. We were never, ever going to wear the prison uniform. If we had got into that prison uniform the next day there wouldn’t have been no jail because we’d have destroyed everything in it. It would have been a tactic but we were never going to wear the prison uniform. We were Republicans. We were committed to the idea of a thirty-two county socialist republic. And when you have that sort of commitment you will die for it. And that is exactly what happened – ten men did die for it – and not just those ten men – hundreds and hundreds of other Republicans.
JM: Well Richard, what we’re waiting for now is the review and coming from your point of view. And I read Dixie Elliott from Doire and he said the two of you were going into like the lion’s den – and this is with other Nationalists to go see it! You weren’t on the Shankill going to see this movie! But you being so personally involved in this part of Irish history – what did you take away from the movie? How do you think it was done?
RO: Well John, I mean I think that Brendan Byrne did a very noble attempt to try and give a balanced account of what happened here. Over here Unionists, as you would expect, are saying that it was a pro-Republican movie. It actually wasn’t. I mean how could it be pro-Republican? You had the arch-Tory Charles Moore, Norman Tebbit, Thatcher’s best friend, you had Dessie Waterworth, a prison officer, you had people like that there so it was a very cross-party sort of narrative. However, from my point of view, and I have to say this – it was very moving. Bobby’s words were spoken by a helluva good actor – he’s actually from the Falls Road, Martin McCann. And Martin was, I don’t know, he didn’t actually…Bobby had a raspy voice but he wasn’t too far away. And it sounded to me almost as if Bob was speaking when he was saying the words and you know – I found it quite moving. And emotional. Yeah, certainly emotional. I mean it was actually – I was on the radio the other day in Dublin today for FM Today and they reminded me that this is history. This thing happened, this hunger strike happened thirty-five years ago and he says half the people in Ireland weren’t even born at the time. And from that point of view it is timely that this movie is out and I have to say…I don’t know..I always talk about my own, I don’t let anyone influence me – I think Brendan Byrne did a very, very noble job and I’m quite happy with it to be honest.
MG: Yes, how did he cover – one of the key areas was in the United States. We were always told the hunger strike would be won or lost in the United States – American pressure…
RO: …That was the way of it, yeah.
MG: And the amount of support, the people who came out here – it was unbelievable at that time – as I said Prince Charles comes out there’s thirty thousand people and police officers are ending up on the detail and coming over. How was that covered in the film, if it all?
RO: That was poorly covered I have to say. That wasn’t done. I mean, they brought on Father Seán McManus and there was a clip of the Four Horsemen, Tip O’Neill and those guys and Ted Kennedy and there was a sort of a clip of people marching along a street in New York and there was also a clip of people outside the British Embassy, etc. But I mean that could have been done far better in my view – that was a criticism I had of the movie. I don’t think that it adequately…I actually think, Martin, if you want to be honest, that that is a whole separate movie.
I think the American response to this is a totally separate entity and somebody really does need to sit down and put it together because people in Ireland don’t really know the extent of the effort that went on in America and the support that the hunger strikers had. I mean, it was America that broke Thatcher. Be under no illusions. It wasn’t Russia! It wasn’t Europe! It was America that broke Thatcher! It was America that forced Thatcher to come to us before Joe McDonnell died with an offer! Nothing else. The British couldn’t move in America and that was the reason why Thatcher was broke!
MG: Richard, I was asked to do an interview. I agreed to do one. They kept me for about an hour and the reason I wanted to do the interview for the programme – they were going to show film, they were going to show clips, they said they were going to show me being interviewed at that time as the Publicity Director for Irish Northern Aid, the person who was directly in touch – if somebody died in Ireland, a hunger striker, I would get a call at five o’clock in the morning and be expected to go in and get the statements. And what bothered me – it’s not that I was cut out but that all of the people that worked, came out, day after day. I mean when somebody died there would be around the clock guards of honour around British facilities around the United States – twenty-four hours a day – stand at attention by coffins that they had made. The thirty thousand people who came out at Lincoln Center. The people who came out day after day. And even when the hunger strike in Ireland ended, I announced that the picket was now over, the daily pickets, and there was a complaint made. The women on the Long Green Line called Michael Flannery and said: We want to keep going. We want to keep supporting the prisoners. The British are still in Ireland. And they did keep going for years afterwards. And I was just concerned they edited that out and I’m told it’s because my political views now – that I wouldn’t be associated with Sinn Féin. Father McManus had nothing to do with those demonstrations. I don’t think he was ever at them. And more than that, Mario Biaggi and the other members of Congress who fought for us, who fought for the blanketmen, who fought throughout the hunger strike, they were the people who were involved and the Four Horsemen that you just mentioned – they were actually against us. I wrote editorials at that time, they’re there in the Irish People, that were done contemporaneously with the hunger strike saying that if they had spoken out, if they had done anything at that time – the Four Horseman – Kennedy, Moynihan and O’Neill (ed note- and Carey) – the hunger strike would have been ended – the British would have caved into that pressure.
And the Sands Family did not participate in the film and they said that some of Bobby’s comrades are genuine – their efforts to tell their story – however they believe that part of it was that people wanted to perpetuate a myth that had been crafted to undermine Bobby and what he had died for. And they said that the cutting room can edit, manipulate, the facts to weave a myth that serves others who have ulterior motives and that they were mindful – they sent that to Brendan Byrne before the film was done to say they wouldn’t participate. And when I heard that all of that great material that I gave that would show some film but that they didn’t have anybody speaking on behalf of all of the people who had demonstrated across the United States – as crucial as those were. They went to somebody who didn’t have anything to do with those demonstrations and mentioned politicians who were actually against it at that time. I had the feeling that somehow I was on the cutting room floor just because I just take a political stand that’s a little bit different from Sinn Féin’s now and unfortunately a great part of that story, a great part of the support behind that campaign, the ordinary people, like the Long Green Line, who came out day after day in America, they were being put on the cutting room floor through me and I was just very disappointed in that and I just want to get your feelings on it.
RO: Well I mean, I do think…I mean, see on the blanket…there were names that we were hearing regularly – one of them was Mario Biaggi, right? Obviously. Another one was Teddy Gleason. He was a name that was cropping up fairly regular. See, we used to get some sort of briefs from outside about how things was going – they were never big, elaborate things but we used to get briefings. And the other big one was yourself; those were the three names. And the other one was the Longshoremen – somebody told me they were dockers.
MG: That’s Teddy Gleason – he was the head of the Longshoremen and they had actually called a one day strike that they wouldn’t unload any British ships to support the blanketmen – that was before the hunger strike began – which had a tremendous impact on the British worldwide. That was Teddy Gleason. That was the Longshoremen. They said that no British ships would be unloaded. And I’ll tell you during the hunger strike you couldn’t find a British flag except one that was being burned in front of the embassies in New York. You couldn’t find people advertising British products because the feelings behind you – it was like: These are world criminals. We’re not going to support them – that’s what was going on and I’m just sad that that had to be put on the cutting room floor.
RO: Well I have to agree. I have to agree. I think that was an absolutely crucial part of the hunger strike history. As I said, Martin, we always viewed America as the cutting edge in terms of our fight against the British. It was never going to be won in Ireland. It was always going to be America – the United States and United States pressure – if the British were going to break they were going to be broke by America. And I just feel so sad that your contribution did not end up in the movie. I think it would have been a very valuable insight and I’m not saying that because I’m just talking to you – I really believe this. I think it would have revealed a very, very valuable insight as to what was really going on on the ground in America and how America was able to influence Thatcher ie through the Longshoremen, through the pickets, etc and that’s a pity – I’m really sorry and sad – it’s a pity that you weren’t in this programme because I think you would have been great for it.
JM: Yeah Richard, all these years later now and you’re looking back at it, do you think it was it worth it? I mean now the way the manipulation of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – I mean, I read something in the Belfast Telegraph – they’re almost saying that Bobby Sands went on strike so we could get involved with elections and things like that. But now looking back all these years later do you think it was worth it to have ten men die and to end up with the border copper-fastened the way it is and the way that Sinn Féin has become this political machine?
RO: John, Bobby Sands wouldn’t have done two minutes in jail for what we have now. No Republican would! So it wasn’t worth it. None of it was worth it. It would have been worth it if we’d had been living in a united Ireland. You could say: Well, we achieved our objectives – and we have finally united our country. And in all struggles people suffer – but it didn’t happen. And we’re now in the situation where the border is more entrenched than it ever was and no one in their right mind could turn round and say that it was worth it because it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t. And I’m so sad – it’s so sad to see the way it all turned out.
MG: Richard, just even more that that – the hunger strike was about criminalisation. It was about the British saying that you, the other political prisoners, the other Republicans like Bobby Sands and the others who fought against British rule – you’re just a bunch of criminals, you should dress up in a criminal uniform – and it was there for propaganda purposes. One of the things that really saddens me: Today you have Sinn Féin in government, you have them on policing boards, you have people like Barra McGrory, who is the Director of Public Prosecutions, and when they put somebody like Gerry McGeough, that we heard from a few minutes ago, on trial for fighting against British rule in 1981, when they put somebody like Seamus Kearney on trial and put him in jail as they did Gerry McGeough, in Maghaberry, for fighting against British rule in 1980 as an IRA Volunteer and when they charge somebody like Ivor Bell, who is now facing charges for things that happened in 1972, it just seems to me as if Sinn Féin and some Republicans are being part of a system which is going to criminalise people who were part of that struggle, part of the same struggle that you were a part of, part of the same struggle that Bobby Sands was a part of and saying today: Now go to jail as a criminal and we’re standing with the administration that’s putting you there. What do you think about that?
RO: That’s self-evident. I mean that’s self-evident. Sinn Féin is the government. Sinn Féin and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) are the government. They’re the guys who’s running Northern Ireland. And the bottom line is: Everything, in terms of the law, in terms of the police, in terms of the structures of state – the only thing that they haven’t got total control over is the security services, MI5 etc, but everything else they have control over. And they have, they have…I’m not saying they have real powers but Sinn Féin have been very, very timid in relation to Republicans going into prison for historical charges. I mean, 1972 – this was forty years ago! And this guy, Ivor Bell, is being charged with a murder that happened in 1972 which he didn’t do – the man’s totally innocent – but Sinn Féin are right up there. They’re very, very quiet. The Sinn Féin of old, Martin, would have had their people on the streets, hundreds, thousands of people…
MG: …And as many in front of New York Consulate as well.
MG: There would have been that many in front of the Consulates around New York and around the country as well. They would have had everybody out there picketing and saying: Show them we can do this all across the United States and other countries around the world. They would have been protesting about Ivor Bell.
RO: Well absolutely. But they’re not doing that, straight? They’re not doing that and it’s disgraceful that they’re not doing it! Ivor Bell was one of their comrades whether they like it or not and so was Gerry McGeough. They were great guys when they were in the movement and they were doing their best to remove the British. But now that they’re not in the movement, now that they’re not on board they’re throwaways! It’s disgraceful! The Sinn Féin of old, the party of faith – of a wee bit of pluck – is gone! All they want now is Stormont and money. It’s all about money!
JM: But Richard, you’re not going to get your pay raise like Sinn Féin just voted in that you can’t live on an industrial wage as a Republican – you need the full whack as a TD and an MP and a somebody up on the hill – I mean, come on! How are you going to get pay raises if you’re talking like you’re talking?
RO: Well, I don’t want no pay raises, John. I don’t work for them and never will and I’m quite happy with that but the point of the matter is: It’s all about money and it’s about career politicians. The very thing, the very thing that we always detested! We accused the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) – and it was one of our sort of a punch to hit them with: Youse are career politicians. Youse are in it for the money. And now, as you say, they’ve done away with their industrial wage, whatever that ever meant, and their politicians are getting the full whack and it’s disgraceful! In the meantime, Ivor Bell, Gerry McGeough and guys like that that are getting persecuted and they’re not saying a dicky bird about it!
MG: Richard, just, we’re almost coming to the end but just on that theme: I heard that there was mention of Brendan Hughes in the film, a treatment. Now Brendan was one of the first people who pointed out that people were getting too involved with positions and power within British administrations and money and prestige and ‘jobs for the boys’ type of thing and losing sight of the struggle. How was he treated in terms of the film?
RO: Well he was treated very badly if you must know. Laurence McKeown, an ex-hunger striker – he didn’t have much of a contribution to the movie – I think he was only on it once – but he was asked about Bobby and he said he wasn’t too sure if Bobby had the strength to be OC (Officer Commanding) – this was after the first hunger strike ended. And then he heard that Bobby told The Dark, told Brendan Hughes, that he had messed up – and I’m saying ‘messed up’- he used a stronger word than that – that he had messed up the hunger strike and then Laurence McKeown said he was happy with that. I mean, that’s a slur on Brendan Hughes. It’s a cheap shot at a man who can’t defend himself because he’s dead. The fact of the matter was Brendan Hughes had given his word to Seán McKenna that he wouldn’t let him die. And I had this conversation with Brendan before he died – actually getting a way down to it because I knew he was feeling it and me and him went through this in quite – I mean, a couple of hours we were talking about it – and I told him that had he let Seán McKenna die after giving Seán McKenna his word that he would not let him die – and Seán McKenna making it clear that he didn’t want to die, then in my view – and Brendan agreed with this – Dark agreed with this – he would have been committing murder. So Brendan Hughes did the right thing. He took a man off hunger strike who didn’t want to die. And not only did Seán McKenna not want to die there were others on that first hunger strike who didn’t want to die, either. He was in an impossible position. So he didn’t mess up. He done the only thing he could do. And it’s disgraceful – that the likes of Laurence McKeown is having cheap shots at him!
MG: And it was just brought in gratuitously. It didn’t have to be part of the film. I don’t know what it was like for Brendan – I spoke to him about it just briefly – he was still pained in his voice when he talked about it years later – about being on hunger strike himself, being in jail, being in the H Block, being on protest – these people saying he didn’t want to die and having to make that decision. And hopefully…
RO: …What was he going to do? What was he going to do, Martin? Say: ‘To hell with you. I’m going to let you die whether you want to or not!’? I mean – that’s murder!
MG: Look, the man was a hero during that campaign. If he hadn’t worked so hard and set up or helped set up the mechanism which you would be allowed to take advantage of Thatcher would have never been beaten and I think it’s just because Brendan’s politics now – I ended up on the cutting floor and he did not – he got a gratuitous shot.
Alright, Richard. And by the way, Richard’s book, the definitive work on the H Block protest, Blanketmen, I think it was just re-issued. Go to amazon.com you can get it. That’s amazon.com. Also, if you want to read about what was really happening in Ireland and in the United States during the hunger strike go to rfe123.org. Get the link to the Irish People newspaper. Go to the issues in 1980-1981 – read what was written about at that time. Alright, Richard, we want to thank you for coming on, doing this great interview…
RO: …Martin, can I just say just before I go – can I just pay homage to Sandy Boyer? He was a lovely man. He interviewed me, the only one…Radio Free Éireann was the only people from America that came to me when Blanketmen came out and I was fighting my corner against dozens, well not dozens, but numerous guys who were coming at me from everywhere. Sandy Boyer and John were the only guys that stood in and said: Come on – we’ll give you a hearing. And can I pay my respects to Sandy Boyer? He was a lovely man and he was a great friend and he was a great co-conspirator of Gerry Conlon who was my best friend and I’d just like to say that.
MG: (fund raising announcements) And Richard, we want to thank you for coming on and we look forward to reading the re-release of Blanketmen and hearing from you in future.
RO: Guys, it’s my pleasure. Thank you so much. (ends time stamp ~ 49:37)