In the 1980s concerts by Christy Moore and the Wolfe Tones gave the Irish community somewhere to express their solidarity with the Republican movement. The venue was often the International club in Longsight (a largely Irish part of the city) which had seen better days but on those nights it was bursting with the Irish of all ages: my dad was in his 70s when he joined us one night to see the Wolfe Tones. People would decorate the balconies with Irish flags and there would always be the Irish anthem played at the end of the evening.
The Republican Hunger Strikes of 1980 and 1981 had enraged the Irish community across the world. In 1976 the Labour government tried to treat the situation in the North of Ireland as a security situation, rather than a political one and withdrew political status from republican prisoners. Previously they had been able to wear their own clothes, have free association, did not have to do prison work, could undertake educational activities and the prison authorities recognised their command structure. The men at Long Kesh (later the H-Blocks) and the women in Armagh Prison refused to wear prisoner’s clothes and sat in their cells in a blanket. Their visits from relatives were stopped and they lost remission. The action escalated as prison warders beat the prisoners who reacted by refusing to leave their cells and smeared their excrement on the walls. Tensions rose as publicity about brutality and torture by British forces was circulated, whilst the IRA started killing prison warders.
Outside the prison a national and international campaign began in 1979. It was led by the National H Block/Armagh Committee on which Bernadette Devlin was a leading member. On 27 October 1980 the men in the H-Blocks decided that a hunger strike was the only way to achieve their aims with Sinn Fein and the IRA reluctantly supporting them. Following negotiations with the Tory government the first hungerstrike was stopped, but there was no resolution. On 1 March 1981 Bobby Sands started a new hungerstrike followed by other men at regular intervals to pressurise the British government.
On 9 April, amongst enormous political tensions, Bobby Sands was elected as MP to the House of Commons for the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The death of Bobby Sands on 5 May led to widespread rioting across Northern Ireland in which British soldiers killed people. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral in Belfast. Nine other men died by the end of September and, with no signs of political concessions from the Tories, parents and families intervened to stop other hunger strikers dying. The hunger strike was halted on 3 October after 217 days, the British government seemed to have won. Yet over the next years all the prisoners demands were quietly met and they gained a great deal of autonomy in the running of the prison. Ironically Loyalist prisoners gained the same rights. At the same time Sinn Fein began winning seats on local council and in 1983 Gerry Adams begame the MP for West Belfast.
In Britain the hungerstrikes politicised a new generation of Irish people, including myself. Whilst Thatcher and the Tory Government were supported by the Labour Party leadership an angry national and local campaign to support the hunger strikers was started. As well as rallies in Manchester,London and Birmingham every time a hungerstriker died we would meet outside Chelsea Girl in Piccadilly carrying black flags and give out leaflets. We often met with abuse.
In 1981 the Irish in Britain Representation Group was set up. It reflected the growing numbers of Irish people who were no longer prepared to remain silent about human rights abuses in Ireland and against the Irish community in Britain.
Christy Moore was born in Kildare in Ireland on 7 May 1945.He is hugely popular in the Irish community in Britain because his songs reflect our lives. He supported the republican H-Block protestors in the 1970s and 1980s with the album H-Block in 1978 and the launch was promptly raided by the Irish Special Branch.
In 1986 he brought out Spirit of Freedom. “This album came about as the result of a trip I made to H Blocks. I left the Falls Road in a van that was clapped out. It was used daily to ferry prisoners’ families to and from the camp. I got the idea to try and raise money for a new van and that was the purpose of this album” says Christy.
The album is the stories of the hungerstrikers and most poignant is Christy’s homage to Bobby Sands in “The People’s Own MP”. Also included is a song written by Bobby Sands called “Back Home in Derry”. It also links up Irish struggles with the experience of Mexican workers in the USA in Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee”.
Listening to the album in 2012 it is of its era, but shows how important music and songs are in documenting the history of a people’s struggle. In May this year people in Ireland commemorated Bobby Sands life and death. And today Christy is still out there singing and championing the rights of people whether it is in austerity Ireland or the Palestinian cause.
Check out what Christy is up to by visiting his website
Read Michael Herberts’ The Wearing of the Green for the history of the Irish in Manchester for more information visit his website
For information about Bobby Sands visit this website