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- Page count
I often felt a bit self-conscious while reading Ten Men Dead on the crowded London Underground. The Troubles may have officially ended in 1998 and the hunger strikes in 1981, all of which seems long ago to someone who was on the other side of the world at the time, but to someone who lived through this, the sets of eyes I imagined boring into me on the Tube, these Troubles may not be so remote.
In Ten Men Dead David Beresford, a correspondent for The Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper, tells the story of the 1981 hunger strike by IRA and INLA prisoners in the Maze Prison H-Blocks seeking restoration of political status. (As an attempt to break IRA influence and prisoner morale, the UK adopted in 1976 a policy of criminalization in which all prisoners were treated as ordinary prisoners without special political status, leading to a series of prisoner protests culminating in the 1981 hunger strike.) Ten hunger strikers (beginning with Bobby Sands, who was elected to British Parliament during his hunger strike) died, and the strike provoked emotional reactions around the world. The strike was eventually called after 217 days as families intervened to save their sons (once a striker lapsed into coma, next of kin could authorise intravenous feeding) but shortly thereafter the government granted all five prisoner demands, effectively recognising their political status.
Beresford does a thorough job of representing the prisoners' side of the story — included in the text are communications smuggled out of prison from the inmates to IRA leadership — and capturing the mood both locally and abroad. Some historical and contemporary background into the Troubles is given (including a dissertation on how the hunger strike developed as a traditional and uniquely Irish weapon of protest), and many incidents — violence by both sides against the other, political movements such as the campaigns to get hunger strikers elected to Parliament, the various intrigues surrounding the Catholic Church and other groups' efforts to seek a solution, the war of words between leaders of the IRA and high-ranking British officials — are described with no attempt to conceal any ugliness or glorify either side. Yes, ultimately this is a rather one-sided account, but that's because it's the story of the hunger strikers' ordeal specifically and how they served as a focus for all that was happening in Northern Ireland at the time, not of the Troubles in general.
My friend, an Irish Catholic priest from County Sligo (or is it Mayo?), asked why I chose to read Ten Men Dead, and the answer is simple and non-political. I have been hearing about this thing called "The Troubles" ever since moving to the UK six years ago, but as this is something that was not taught in American schools I was completely ignorant. I decided I wanted to learn more and this book came highly recommended. The book was a starting point. I have also done some research on the web — did you know there were two Bloody Sundays, one in Dublin nearly 100 years ago and the more recent one in Belfast? — and have watched several movies in the past couple months. (There is no movie based on Ten Men Dead, but I have watched Hunger, which is about Bobby Sands; Some Mother's Son, about families responding to the hunger strikes; and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Michael Collins, Bloody Sunday, and The Name of the Father, which deal with other aspects of the Irish Troubles. I do feel I somewhat better understand what the Troubles were about, but there is still so much more I can learn.