25 September 2023
Recording of the week: Recalling the 1981 Hunger Strike at Maze Prison
Photo of the inside of Maze Prison, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
The clips for this Recording of the Week come from Pat Sheehan’s 2019 interview in the Voices of Our National Health Service collection.
The 3rd October 2023 marks thirty-two years since the end of the 1981 hunger strikes at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland (also known as Long Kesh). These hunger strikes began when Bobby Sands refused food on 1st March 1981. The hunger strikers were on strike in demand of the reintroduction of special category status for Irish Republican prisoners (a status that had been removed by the British Government in 1976).
Pat Sheehan was twenty-three when he began hunger strike on 10th August 1981 and survived on just water and a small daily amount of salt for fifty-five days. In the first clip that I’ve selected, he talks about his rapidly deteriorating health in the last few days on hunger strike, as well as his mental determination to see the strike through.
In this next extract, Sheehan talks about how some of the strikers’ parents authorised medical intervention and the impact that this had on the effectiveness of the strike. The clip provides a rare insight into the discussions going on amongst the hunger strikers at the time, and their commitment to their protest.
Sheehan explains that the hunger strikers were examined every day by a doctor, their weight was taken and blood pressure checked. I imagine it must have been extremely difficult for the doctors to have to stand back and witness the hunger strikers’ deteriorating health, unable to act and going against the very basics of healthcare. By contrast I can only imagine the relief of the doctors and nurses at being able to treat the strikers and do their job when the strike came to an end.
Pat Sheehan’s interview is just one of over 1300 oral history interviews in the Voices of Our National Health Service collection, which collects testimonies of healthcare across the UK. In the rest of the interview, Sheehan describes the healthcare he received in hospital once the strike had ended, his later experiences as Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on health and his interactions with the health service in Northern Ireland when his late wife Siobhán O’Hanlon was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002.
Listen to the full interview at British Library sounds. The interview can also be found in the Sound and Moving Image catalogue by searching C1887/686.
This Recording of the Week was selected by Hannah Tame, Oral History Cataloguer: Tony Benn Audio Visual Archive.