Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

"Hunger Strike", Everything in this Country Must (Colum McCann)


In Northern Ireland, a group of prisoners, members of the IRA, started a hunger strike in February 1981 in order to be recognised as political prisoners. Faced with the intransigence of Margaret Thatcher’s government, six of them died. The scene is set in Galway, County Galway, Republic of Ireland. The boy and his mother have come there from Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Will he die, Mammy?

Of course he won't, she said.

How do you know?

I don't, she replied softly.

There's four already dead, he said. Yes, I know.

The boy stared a moment beyond her shoulder and then bit his lip and walked away and she watched him go, the shirt moiling around him.

The sea wind blew bitter and she felt it cold at the edges of her eyes and she followed his movement, beyond the pier and up the far hillside, becoming just a small speck of white in the distance.

The boy wandered in a stupor for an hour, found himself by a barbed wire fence. Beyond the fence some sheep were daubed haphazardly with red. He flung stones at the sheep and, when they scattered, he twanged the barbed wire and wondered if the reverberation would connect with all other pieces of barbed wire, that the sound might carry, from fencepost to fencepost, all the way north to a squat grey building topped with razorwire.

Bastards, he shouted.

Later in the day, when he came back down to the town, the headline stared at the boy from the newsstands. The newspaper sported a bright purple banner head, but no photograph and it wasn't even the biggest headline, but he bought a copy anyway, tore out the front page, put it in his jeans pocket. He felt as if he were carrying his uncle at his hip, that he could stay alive in there and emerge when all of this was over.

The boy hopped the railing along the beach and landed soft on the sand.

In the rocks near the pier he lit a fire with the rest of the newspaper. He warmed his hands as the pages burned and curled. The smoke made his eyes water. He read through the article five times and was surprised to learn that his uncle was just twenty-five years old. He was one of four prisoners on the strike – already, for each man dead another had replaced him and the boy found it strange that the living were stepping into the bodies of the gone. The dying, he thought, could go on for ever. A phrase from the newspaper rattled around in the boy's head: intent to kill. He wondered what it meant. He let it roll beneath his tongue and he thought to himself that it sounded like the title of a film he had seen once on television. For a second the boy allowed his uncle to appear on a poster for a movie. An explosion lit the side of his face and a black helicopter cut the air. Beneath his uncle's chin soldiers were running scared. They were moving out of the poster and his uncle's eyes followed them.

The boy had never met his uncle – his mother never visited the prison ­­– but he' d seen photos and in those images the face was hard and angular with shocking blue eyes; the hair curled; the eyebrows tufted; a scar running a line of outrage across the bottom of his nose.

This was the face the boy would carry with him, even though he knew it had since become bearded, the hair longer and dirty and ringleted, that, before the hunger strike, his uncle had worn a blanket like many of the other men, that he had once lived in a cell where they smeared their own shit on the wall in protest. There had been a photo smuggled out of the H-blocks during the dirty protest – a prisoner in a cell, by a window, wrapped in a dark blanket, with shit in swirled patterns on the wall behind his head. The boy wondered how anyone could have lived like that, shit on the walls and a floor full of piss. The men had their cells sprayed down by prison guards once a week and sometimes their bedding was so soaked that they got pneumonia. When the protest failed, they cleaned their cells and opted for hunger instead.

The boy poked through the ashes of the fire and tucked the article into his pocket.

There was a slowness in his walk until he reached the far hillside overlooking the pier and then he ran up the slope, making his own path through the grasses and heather.

He kicked at the heather with violence and swung his arms through the air and spat at the sky and then he lay down at the top of the hill and he shoved his face into the grass. In the grass he found his uncle's face once more and it was hard and worn and looked like it belonged in some catechism. The beard went all the way to his chest. The skin had already begun to stretch across the cheekbones with this morning's first refusal of food. His eyes already seemed larger for the fact of his hunger. When the boy turned and looked up to the sky again he thought that if there really were a God he didn't like Him, he could never like Him.

He cursed aloud and his shout went out over the water - the horizon was already stained with sunset – and the water took the shout and swallowed it. He tried again. Fuck you God.

A flock of birds rose up and over him with thin calls and he put his face to the earth once more, cursing his father, gone in an accident years ago, and now his father's brother going too.

The boy thought to himself that the uncle he didn't know was all the uncle he'd ever know.


Colum McCann: “Hunger strike,” Everything in This Country Must. 2000.



29/11/2013
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