"We here, in this land, have no deeper wish than that by the next St. Patrick's Day, if not before, the conflict and violence in North Ireland will have been replaced with reason and good will."
These were the words with which President Ronald Reagan toasted the Irish Ambassador to the United States on 17 March 1981. Little did he nor most Americans realize that a hunger strike - already in its second week - would shatter all semblance of "reason and good will" on both sides of the Atlantic for the remainder of that year.
In the Maze Prison (formerly Long Kesh) at Lisburn, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, twenty-three Irish nationalists participated in a hunger strike to press for political legitimacy within the British penal system. Ten of these men would die of starvation before the strike ended in October.
Media reports made these extremely public and controversial deaths, the latest battle in a propaganda war involving the British government and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland that had been escalating since 1969. In this struggle, the sympathy of the American public was an important prize.
The 1981 Hunger Strikes: America Reacts traces the evolution of public opinion in the United States from before the strikes - when few outside the Irish American community knew what the issues were in Northern Ireland - to their conclusion when public awareness was at its height. It also examines the degree to which the American media and the Irish American public gave the hunger strikers the legitimacy they needed to press their cause in Washington and London. The purpose of the exhibit is twofold. First, to present a body of new primary resources and, second, to inspire reflection on the very nature of public opinion making. There are four main sections:
In the retrospective attention paid to the 1981 Hunger Strikes, the American dimension is noticeably absent. But twenty years ago, the British government was facing a battle on two fronts. In the Maze, it was a test of wills with Irish Republican Army and Irish National Liberation Army prisoners which has been well documented. In the United States, it was a serious scramble for damage control as media coverage challenged the carefully constructed British image. Ultimately, it was this important American public relations dimension that set the 1981 Hunger Strikes apart from those that Irish nationalists had undertaken in the past. The autumn 1980 strikes did not garner the same headlines that filled American newspapers the following spring and summer. Why? The death of ten men is only a partial answer.
In the United States the 1980 census had recorded a figure of 44 million Americans claiming Irish ancestry. But in fact the active Irish American community was much smaller. At its core were 200,000 Irish-born residents, just over half of whom resided in five key metropolitan areas: Boston, Chicago, San Francisco-Oakland, Washington, D.C. and vicinity, and New York City-Long Island. These were the very same cities publishing the major organs of American public opinion: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and The San Francisco Chronicle. In addition, New York City published the Daily News (with nearly double the circulation of the Times) and four Irish American weeklies: the Irish Echo, the Irish Advocate, the Irish World, and the Irish People. All of these newspapers are represented in this exhibit, as are some key periodical articles from Time, Life, TV Guide, St. Anthony's Messanger, and the New York Times Magazine.
New York City bears some further comment because, alone of these five American metropolises, it played the most significant role in the 1981 Hunger Strikes. The headquarters of the United Nations and of the British Information Service were located there, as was one of America's premiere performing arts centers. The eyes of the world looked to New York City every week for some reason or other. There were 650,000 people there who had claimed Irish ancestry in the 1980 census and more than a third of all Irish-born people in the United States were living within the Greater New York area. Of these latter, most had emigrated after Ireland was divided into North and South in 1922, and thus, in the local ethnic scene, there was always a dynamic mix of the social and political. During the 1981 Hunger Strikes much of the grassroots response came from this segment of the City's population.
These Irish Americans belied the stereotype of the ignorant but sentimental supporter of Irish nationalism. Many were extremely well informed about critical aspects of the situation in Northern Ireland and they were aware of how politics and the media worked in the American context. Their actions were the antithesis of what journalist Padraig O'Malley describes as a "passivity" that enveloped Ireland, north and south, in 1981. The 1981 Hunger Strikes: America Reacts is unique in that it makes available resources that only exist in the United States to tell this other side of the story: the excellent photojournalism of Peter Dolan, the trenchant art of Brian Mór O'Baoigill, the advertisements and flyers of Irish Northern Aid, and the reporting of the Irish People, a thirty-year-old republican newspaper that has never been microfilmed.
This archival material is balanced by examples of every ideological stripe, ranging from the political analysis of columnists to the opinions of letter-to-the-editor writers, and from the perspective of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to that of hunger striker Bobby Sands. Throughout the debate being aired in the pages of the American press during the 1981 Hunger Strikes two distinct vocabularies emerge that illustrate the enormous power of words in this struggle for public sympathy: patriot vs. terrorist, activist vs. criminal, martyr vs. suicide artist. The way in which Americans viewed the entire situation in Northern Ireland was dramatically influenced as a result.
Using nearly 200 direct quotations from the American print media as well as approximately 50 images drawn from archival material produced by the Irish American community, The 1981 Hunger Strikes: America Reacts intentionally allows viewers to reach their own conclusions from this point on in the website.