It is forty years this week since Republican prisoners in the Maze prison announced their intention to resume hunger strikes. It was hard to imagine in February 1981 that the story would fill the headlines around the world.
It was late August of that year that I first set foot on Irish soil, the hunger strikes were as vital an issue as they had been that spring, black flags hung in Dublin and in the provincial towns through which we passed. An American visitor in the youth hostel in Mountjoy Square was reading a book about the blanket protest in Long Kesh, the whole matter was straightforward to her, to two twenty year old Englishmen just off the boat, the issued seemed a lot more complex.
Dublin in 1981 was a poor city. There seemed swathes of dereliction on the north side of the river and people living in housing that could have come from a documentary about the 1930s. Transport was on elderly brownish-coloured buses; the suburban train service was intermittent, dirty orange-black locomotives pulling rattling carriages with plastic seats, like chairs from an assembly hall, down either side.
We had come looking for the wrong things. Dublin was not going to yield a string of scenic tourist spots that might have filled the photograph albums of visitors to other European capitals, but it was a place full of experiences. There was the National Museum and the Botanical Gardens, but used to the museums of South Kensington and the gardens at Kew, there was not much that made a mark. The vivid memories of those times are the people whom we encountered; the world of O’Casey and Behan came to life in the streets around the youth hostel. Having done O’Casey’s ‘Three Plays’ for A level, O’Connell Street seemed like the set for a drama.
Being twenty and English and with short haircuts, our visit to Bowe’s in Fleet Street was brief. The barman told us that he didn’t want our sort in his pub. Returning later that evening, we were barely in the door before being shouted at again to leave. It was treatment that put the place on a lifetime blacklist so far as I was concerned. Bizarrely, a pub in the north inner city had no problems with our presence; a place where they came around collecting for the prisoners was a lot more welcoming than its city centre counterpart.
Dublin seemed a place of ambivalence, a place of contradictions; there seemed more character in the city in those times than in the age of the high street names and the bland shopping malls. To our English perceptions, the contradictions extended to our understanding of the dark events of 1981. The hunger strikers seemed to have garnered widespread progressive political support, yet their cause seemed to suggest that Northern Protestants should become part of a conservative Catholic, clerically-controlled state.
In the forty years since, Ireland has changed beyond recognition, but Brexit has reopened arguments unsettled since 1981.