A tribute to the Relatives Action Committees on this 40th Anniversary year of the 1980/81 Hunger Strikes – by Mary Nelis

They stood in the square in Sligo, shivering not just from cold but from fear and worry, for they had no experience of this way of life. They pulled the old grey blankets around them lest some of their nakedness might show to the small curious crowd who had gathered, albeit at a distance away from them. They were well past the age of high jinks, these women in bare feet, holding placards proclaimimg a place called H Blocks. Few of the people watching had ever heard tell of the place.

A woman from the travelling community moved towards them and pressed a ten pence piece into the cold trembling hand of the Mother. Her face registered concern that these women appeared worse off than those of her own community.

It was 1977 and the woman standing that day in Sligo were members of the Derry Relatives Action Committee who were going from place to place in Ireland to inform the people of the brutal conditions of prisoners in the H Blocks, Long Kesh.

They would tell you they were just ordinary women and in most respects they were. They had married young, had children, and their lives evolved around the unending struggle of rearing a family and keeping a roof over their heads. Many had also to work outside the home in the shirt factories, for those were the days when work for men in the Nationalists community was scarce.

Most of them had never had a holiday outside of their honeymoon and recreation was the odd trip to the pictures or a day out in in Buncrana during the August holidays.

They were of that generation literally tied to the kitchen sink. For they lived through the hard times that was the North of Ireland under Unionism.

That they now found themselves thrust to the forefront of a campaign defending not only the rights of prisoners but the rights of their own communities which the British Government had labelled subversive and criminal, was something that they had neither contemplated nor were prepared for. Yet women from every Nationalists County in the North would in times ahead, become the vanguard of a struggle that would end with the deaths of ten men on hunger strike.

They were the generation that had lived through the sixties as the Nationalists people struggled to get off their knees. They had watched the Derry Housing Action Association begin to challenge the discrimination in housing. They supported the Civil Rights Association for they instinctively knew that the generation to come, the children now growing up in Derry, would not accept the second class citizenship that had been foisted on their generation.

They trembled as the Unionist regime violently resisted the attempts to peacefully resolve the grievances of their communities and they felt real fear when the B Specials came on the scene as they knew the history of this sectarian militia.

The events of August 1969, the Battle of the Bogside, and the attacks on the Catholic community in Belfast, heralded the beginning of desperate times, but they still tried to hold the line and persuade their children and husbands that non- violence was the way ahead, even when British soldiers were turning their communities into prison camps. They knew after Bloody Sunday that it was not just their friends and neighbours that had been murdered but the non- violent Civil Rights Association as well. In their hearts they feared that military action would become the only form of resistance by the Nationalists population, yet they hoped the war would not come to their door.

But it did. First through Internment without trial, and then in 1976 when the British Government removed Special Category Status for those arrested and convicted of political offences. They watched as their sons, daughters and husbands were dragged from their beds in the six o clock early morning house raids. They would find out in the months ahead that those they loved were being kept naked, in solitary confinement cells and at the mercy of sectarian prison officers, in this place called H Block.

They now understood  that the wall of silence around the H Block, had to be broken and that they the relatives would be the sledge hammer that would take on the British and Unionist establishment.

The kitchen sinks were abandoned, as Mothers, wives, sisters and brothers joined the late Barney Mc Fadden on Saturday afternoons on Waterloo Place. The emergence of the Relatives Action Committee and the megaphone diplomacy of women who had rarely been out of their homes would be the first chinks in dismantling the wall of silence.

Relatives took over Council meetings, confronted politicians, blocked roads and generally became the most disruptive force in Irish society.

In March 1977 the Mothers of the prisoners stood outside British Embassies in Brussels, the Hague and Geneva. In Paris, traffic on the Champs de Elysees came to a standstill as the women stood in front of a huge mural with French captions depicting the plight of prisoners and the torture in RUC interrogation centres. Another group of relatives travelled to the USA and despite concerted efforts by British and to their shame, Irish diplomats, the Mothers became the front page story in ‘The Washington Post’. In New York, a group of women inspired by The Relatives Action Campaign  mounted a daily picket on the British Embassy forcing the staff and Maggie Thatcher when she visited the Embassy to be flown in by helicopter.

The women of the Relatives Action Committee became skilled orators, standing on platforms in the now recognisable grey blankets in major cities all over the world.

At the end of the day they would walk broken hearted behind the coffins of the dead hunger strikers. But they would go on using the skills they learned in their campaign to work and to dream of an Ireland where young people would never again die in places like the H Blocks.  They were ordinary women living in extraordinary times .

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