New Island, £9.99
Next year it will be the 25th anniversary of the H-Block hunger strikes in Long Kesh (Maze) prison. 25 years. In a person’s life, it's an eternity. In a political struggle, it's somewhat less. So it's no surprise that time hasn't dimmed the reverence in which republicans hold Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Micky Devine.
These ten young Irishmen died on hunger strike between May and August 1981. The human tragedy of it all brought a nadir in the relationship between Ireland and England, while the perceived intransigence of the British provided the republican movement with its most valuable breakthrough in the battle for hearts and minds. What the IRA lost in numbers, they gained in sympathy.
So any attempt to shine a light on the less airy aspects of the hunger strikes and the political machinations that surrounded them was bound to create noise. Richard O’Rawe's 'Blanketmen' has done just that. Leading republicans like Danny Morrison and Brendan McFarlane vehemently dispute O'Rawe's version of events. Others, such as author Ed Moloney, are less sceptical. The debate rages because of O'Rawe's major controversial contention – that the IRA refused a British settlement offer after the death of the fourth hunger striker and prolonged the hunger strike to maximise political capital for the republican movement.
The seriousness of this claim cannot be underestimated, as the hunger strikes provided the sole impetus for the subsequent rise of Sinn Féin and what became known as the peace process. And what of the human cost? Did six men die despite an acceptable offer being on the table? Who was mainly responsible, Margaret Thatcher or the IRA leadership? Difficult questions, and in the mind of O'Rawe – who was spokesman for the IRA prisoners in the Maze – troubling answers.
In fairness to the author, his account is not deluged with bitterness, but more of a genuine sense of loss and self-examination. He lets the story tell itself, even if he does confuse things in certain instances by scrambling the chronology of events. But 'Blanketmen' is a gruelling read, if a compelling one. There are graphic depictions of the dirty protest, and of the physical and mental degradation that the prisoners endured. Yet there are also moments of light and humour, and of Shawshank-style male bonding. Sadly though, there were no Hollywood endings here.
Regardless of what did or didn't happen in that bleak summer of 1981, 'Blanketmen' leaves you with the indelible impression that the hunger strikers were a remarkable bunch of men. Rightly or wrongly, they made the ultimate sacrifice and died for their beliefs. Almost a quarter of a century later and their memories still, and rightly so, burn bright. But perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, unlike many other victims of the Troubles, they got to choose their own destiny.