The summer of 1981

Twenty-five years after the IRA hunger strikes, Colum McCann remembers the hot summer the ten men died and questions the prevailing silence about the anniversary

Twenty-five years have passed since the week Bobby Sands died on hunger strike. How strange it is that so much time has gone by – and yet it seems stranger still that so much time has disappeared.

I can hardly recall what happened to me yesterday, but it's easy enough to remember the summer of 1981 – the gangly embarrassment, the flare-out of anger, the revulsion, the sadness at what was happening up north, and then the retreat back upstairs to my suburban Dublin bedroom to study Lord of the Flies, or The Merchant of Venice, or The Great Gatsby, or whatever was on the agenda for school the next day. One thing that was not on the school agenda was the issue of the hunger strike. In fact the silence in the schoolyard and the classroom was stunning.

Dublin was light years removed from the Kesh. It was, according to some, another country. I had cousins up north and in a way I envied them the terror of those days. I recognised the swell of anger when I watched Maggie Thatcher lean into the camera. I felt the brief thump of adolescent satisfaction whenever the Brits took another hit. I wondered what it might be like for a rubber bullet to thump the chest. But it was complicated – terribly, terribly complicated – and I was hardly built for riots.

So I lived my quiet Blackrock adolesence and, like many teenagers at the time, wondered if Bobby Sands would break the record, as if his hunger might be a feat designed for the Guinness Book of Records. Then it happened. After 66 days. The news came on. And it came from all over. Rome. Paris. London. New York. Tokyo. Sydney. Cairo. Bobby Sands was dead. They had allowed him to starve. Belfast was burning. And the thorn had entered the skin.

Still, my life went on. Still, they died, the hunger strikers, one after the other. Still, the days lengthened, long evenings of shadows.

I only wore an armband once that summer. I was in Paris for a month and felt a pang of strange shame when I saw Parisians wandering around with strips of black cloth around their arms. A young man asked me to explain the politics behind the hunger strike and I couldn't. Another asked me to name the hunger strikers and I was at a loss. But the news that summer was filtering through more and more. I began to listen. I heard they used Patsy O'Hara's body as an ashtray. I heard that Francis Hughes' 72-year-old father had been pulled from a funeral cortège and was thrown to the ground for requesting that the car not go through hostile loyalist areas. I heard they used helicopters to drown out the funeral services. I even heard that after one autopsy they had secretly stitched the Union Jack in the stomach of one of the hunger strikers.

I heard all this, outside of Ireland, and for some reason it seemed even more raw than ever.

The day Kieran Docherty TD died, I tore up a black t-shirt, pulled it tight enough that the blood in my arm thumped, and I walked down the Champs Elysees in tears.

It could have been just teenage hysteria, but it struck me then, as it struck me at no other time, that our stories were international, that we weren't just Irish anymore, that we lived everywhere, and, in a curious way, it seemed to me for the first time, at 16, that being from our small island actually mattered.

What was going on up north, for all it confounded me, was also creating me.

Who is taking this time machine from the past into the present?

On realising that it was the anniversary of Sands' death I thought that – given the length of time that has passed – I'd surely have made my mind up, that I could make some simple assertion that would put it all in perspective, that time would have made sense of it for me, that the meaning and consequences of the Hunger Strikes could be located, dissected, made sense of by the passage of time.

After all, 25 years is a long time indeed. So I took a stroll from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to East Harlem, where, on 123rd Street, in the shadow of the police precinct station, hangs a giant Hunger Strike mural on mesh cloth, slightly faded. A strange thing to find in New York, of all places. It was put up in 2001, just before the towers fell. Sands is painted there, with Martin Luther King, Leonard Peltier, Mairead Farrell, Nelson Mandela, Frank Stagg, Mahatma Ghandi. Strange bedfellows.

It quotes Sands: "All things should come to pass as one/ so hope should never die/ there is no height of bloody might/ that a freeman can't defy/ there is no source or foreign force/can break one man who knows/that his free will no thing can kill/and from that freedom grows."

The word Saoirse is etched across the top of the mural, looking over the heights of Harlem and, across the street, a junkyard called The Demolition Depot.

And so what was all this? What sense could be made of it now? Could anyone put a finger on the pulse?

Were they terrorists up there, on that mural, beside proponents of peace? What, in the end, came out of the hunger strikes? Was the Anglo-Irish agreement born from it? Even the very peace process itself? Did the hunger strike transform Sinn Féin? Did we finally understand that nobody, British or Irish, would win this supposed war? Was it then that the leaders in Sinn Féin realised that they would one day be grandfathers? Did the true value of life get recognised in an act of self-starvation?

Did they use their bodies like suicide bombers? Did the thirst for power come when a nation saw another nation allow a member of parliament starve to death? Did Bobby Sands actually make the IRA redundant? Who won the tactical victory? Who won the moral one? Did the conflict finally move into the 20th century realm of propaganda? Did it achieve peace? Was it just about criminalisation or was the whole history of the Troubles on the line? Who was going to mourn for the British army soldier gunned down on the Falls? Who was going to remember the 12-year-old who took a rubber bullet in the chest? Who was still going to carry her small coffin?

Who will talk about the years of patient silence that the quiet ones endured? Weren't those nationalists who triumphed a peaceful parliamentary solution the real martyrs of the Troubles? Was the election of Sands a mandate for violence or an act of history in advance? How is it possible to explain that one supported the hunger strikers but didn't support the IRA? Did the Americans learn what the British should have learned when they started force-feeding in Guantanamo, or will history judge them even more harshly? When Margaret Thatcher finally goes down will she know what that hunger felt like? Whose country was this, anyway? Whose story?

The more you ask, the more you ask.

Perhaps in the end the Hunger Strikes will be remembered and examined, not for their clarity, but for how perfectly they capture the ambiguity of all that has gone on since the late 1960s. The silence that surrounds them, even this week, in the Irish media, seems incredible after the hullabaloo of the 1916 commemorations. I do not use this as a moral comparison. Then again, maybe I do. Whatever you say, say nothing.

On 6 May 1981, the morning after Sands' death, a Belfast wag wrote on a brick wall: "We will never forget you, Jimmy Sands."

I recently asked around amongst friends, scholars, colleagues, about what they thought the hunger strikes might have achieved. The strongest common denominator amongst the responses was that the hunger strikes were a watershed, but it makes no political sense for anyone to talk about them, or to sanction them now, or to even mention them. They are still raw. The wound pulses. It will take even more time to tell.

Ten men dead. Twenty-five years. These stories last a long time.

I stood under the Harlem mural and thought it a disgusting act of manipulation. I also stood under the mural and felt a curious thump of nationalist pride. For a moment, that I was 16 again: no questions answered. And then I walked home, through the streets of Harlem, back to my own little safety nest on the Upper East Side, a little bit afraid that I've come so far and am really back in the same place once again.

Colum McCann's column for Round Midnight with Donal O'Herlihy RTE 1 (11.40 pm) goes out every Tuesday night