O'Rawe has come out from under a blanket of political
and literary obscurity to pen arguably the finest
book crafted by any living former republican prisoner.
With no shortage of good authors, the competition
has been formidable; Pat Magee, Laurence McKeown
and Ronan Bennett to name but three. Blanketmen
is the end product of three years writing. It is
also the only logical terminus for its author to
arrive at after two decades of internal turmoil
resulting from the H-Block blanket protest and subsequent
hunger strikes. Either he brought his journey to
an end or he could circle endlessly around the totem
of established wisdom, shouldering with him the
baggage others, in his view, had expected him to
carry in order to spare themselves unnecessary burden.
write this book O'Rawe must have drawn on the depths
of reserve that made him one of the H-Blocks' 300
Spartans. He is aware of the history of threats
and violence against those not of the dominant party
persuasion in West Belfast where he lives. For all
the put-downs that he sprang this book on an unsuspecting
republican community, O'Rawe has revealed to Fourthwrite
that over a year ago a senior figure in the republican
hierarchy paid a brace of visits to his home making
inquiries about it. Despite current allegations
from that hierarchy that O'Rawe did not inform the
families of dead hunger strikers of his decision
to commit his reflections to paper, the senior republican
was concerned only about the potential discomfort
that Gerry Adams might face. The families were never
most contentious issue in Blanketmen is O'Rawe's
claim that both he and Bik McFarlane, the IRA leader
in the prison during the hunger strike, agreed to
accept an offer from the British that would end
the strike before it claimed the life of a fifth
prisoner. Someone outside the prison, purporting
to represent the army council, instructed the prison
leadership to reject the terms. As a result, Joe
McDonnell and five others went to their graves.
Sinn Fein critics bolted out of the traps in a bid
to savage his account. But huff and puff and bare
their teeth as they did, none have yet managed to
deconstruct the central plank of his narrative.
McFarlane alone sounded plausible. But the gap between
sounding plausible and being persuasive remains
unbridged. There is a chasm separating McFarlane's
assertion that there was no offer made and O'Rawe's
documented account in a local newspaper detailing
all those participants, senior republicans included,
who claimed an offer had been made but that it fell
short of the prisoners' bottom line.
defence of the decision to reject the offer, whatever
it was, some of O'Rawe's detractors have claimed
that it was essential to have proper guarantees
and guarantors because the British had reneged on
a deal at the end of the first hunger strike. Maybe
safeguards were needed, but not because of the way
the 1980 hunger strike concluded. Those of us who
were in the prison at the time know that no deal
ever reached the prisoners prior to Brendan Hughes
ordering its termination in order to save the life
of Sean McKenna. The hunger strike collapsed. The
British were indeed loathsome but only for being
intransigent, not for reneging.
is about much more than the machinations and court
politics that intertwined with the hunger strike.
It is a riveting account of how 300 naked and defenceless
men took on the ferocious might of Western Europe's
most repressive state and prevailed. It was a battle
that produced the outstanding republicans of our
generation including the jail leader Brendan McFarlane.
He too should have his say.
- read it and weep.