The First Word:
Hunger and Silence
“People think [the Irish] are such great talkers, but there is so much silence in Ireland about certain issues.” – Fionnula Flanagan
The image of Michael Fassbender on our cover is very different to how he was seen in Hunger, the 2008 movie in which he played Bobby Sands, leader of the 1981 hunger strike in Northern Ireland.
Fassbender, a Kerry native whose mother is from County Antrim and whose father is German, portrayed Sands in the last six weeks of his life. His performance is especially gripping as he shows the physical decline of Sands in his last days. It is said that the actor existed on a diet of berries and a few nuts to get down to starvation weight for those scenes, in which he looks like a Holocaust victim.
Hunger, directed and conceived by Steve McQueen, is a truly painful film to watch. It’s excruciating as it shows the conditions in the Maze prison prior to the hunger strike, where, for four and a half years, in a sharply escalating power struggle between rights taken away and rights sacrificed in protest, the prisoners went naked or wore blankets instead of prison uniforms (they sought to be characterized as political prisoners), and lived in the midst of their own waste.
Except for one central scene when Sands talks about the morality of what he’s about to undertake with a priest played by Liam Cunningham, Hunger is almost a silent film although it is so visual and visceral that the message is loud and clear.
The lack of dialogue seems appropriate. The hunger strike, in which 10 men died, Bobby Sands being the first, is not an easy topic to talk about. And like so much of our Irish history, especially as it pertains to the North, it often gets the silent treatment in the south of Ireland. (Fionnula Flanagan who played the mother of a hunger striker in Some Mother’s Son, says, “People think [the Irish] are such great talkers, but there is so much silence in Ireland about certain issues.”
The national silence also applies to the Irish Civil War (1922-23). The conflict over the partition of Ireland took a terrible toll – more lives were lost than in the War of Independence – splitting families and pitting former comrades against each other. Perhaps that’s why in the ensuing years, the south, in the main, left the Northern nationalists to fight their own battles.
During the latter-day Troubles in Northern Ireland, which escalated with Bloody Sunday (January, 1972), the Irish government reacted with a broadcasting ban that prevented Sinn Féin members from having access to the media. The ban, called Section 31, lasted from 1971 until 1993, when it was lifted by Michael D. Higgins (now the president of Ireland, then the Minister for Arts, Culture & the Gaeltacht).
For much of the Troubles, I was in the United States and thus looking at it from afar, but also partaking in the debate, as it was more freely discussed over here than in Ireland. In 1991, I happened to be in Belfast as a tourist when an opportunity came to interview Gerry Adams for this magazine. I was happy to report back that Adams said it was time for political talks. And indeed, largely thanks to President Clinton and Irish-American involvement, the ensuing years brought talks, and the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1998.
I find myself reflecting back on this particular time in Irish history, not just because Michael Fassbender is on our cover, but because I was recently in Ireland. I discovered that the Irish are deeply divided on the hunger strike – and on the North in general – and that any mention of a desire for a united Ireland is liable to get one labeled as a rabid republican or worse, a terrorist.
As part of the induction ceremony into our Irish America Hall of Fame, Fionnula Flanagan talked about her part in Some Mother’s Son, the story of the hunger strike told through the eyes of two mothers. The movie was slammed in the Irish papers as well as the British tabloids as “provo propaganda,” and both Fionnula and Helen Mirren, who played the other mother, were vilified for taking part in the movie. On its release in 1998 it received scant distribution (you still can’t rent it on Netflix). I don’t think I was imagining the silence in the room when, after she was asked why she became involved in the project, Fionnula answered, “Ten men died.”
All of this looking back on our history reminds me of how much blame and pain had to be put aside for the recent handshake to take place between Martin McGuinness and the British Queen (whose favorite cousin, Lord Mountbatton, was blown up by the IRA).
“All those people killed, I can’t believe McGuinness had the audacity to shake the Queen’s hand,” is one comment I heard in Ireland.
McGuinness, meantime, is forthcoming on his handshake with the Queen, while making it clear that he is still a republican (see page 80), and he has called for further dialogue as a way forward towards the goal of a united Ireland.
“For too long, successive Irish governments have paid lip service to partition. They have tolerated the division of our country and people which has resulted in Ireland as a nation not reaching our full potential. In future, ending partition, and national reunification, need to become Irish government policy, not merely an aspiration goal,” he said.
I think he’s right. Ninety years after partition, isn’t it time for talks, even if it means breaking the silence and disturbing the ghosts of the Civil War?