On May 5 it will be twenty-five years since the death of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. This prompted me to pull out some old writings and papers, and take a stumble down memory lane (or the cobblestones of Beacon Hill, to be more precise).
Twenty-Five years ago I was a teenager living in Boston. It was my first year away from home, and I was working as the editor of an underground newspaper. I was also the main writer, photographer, typist, and production staff, but that's how these oh-so-glamorous jobs went. Our office was in the cramped, damp basement of a stately old building that happened to be within a block or two of the British Embassy. And, of course, this being the spring and summer of 1981, there were protests happening.
Though I grew up in a largely Irish/Scottish family in the Midwest, I don't recall much discussion of the struggles in the North when I was a small child. People in my family were more concerned about Viet Nam, actually, as no one in the family was being drafted to go fight in Ireland. There was some mention of The Troubles, of course, but no deep analysis in my earshot, and no horrible fights like in some families. Unlike my mother's generation, or some of my friends, I wasn't forbidden from wearing orange, hit for saying the wrong thing, nor had I (yet) been stopped in the street and quizzed about my religious affiliations.
But Boston was different. There was Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic) grafitti in the subways, and packs of surly Irish youths wandering the streets of our Dorchester neighborhood. Many people were fresh off the boat, and support for both Sinn Féin and the IRA was strong. Though New York has a higher total number of Irish, Boston has a higher percentage of the population, and this is especially apparent in the South Boston neighborhoods where we lived. And, of course, there were the protests.
I became friends with a guy who was very active in Irish politics, and attended some Sinn Féin actions with him. He wrote some articles for the newspaper I edited - coverage of the hunger strikes, the blanketmen, and basic history of the conflict for an American audience that was largely ignorant of the struggle. Reading them now, they seem so basic, so neutral. True, they are mainly from the perspective of Irish children and youths, describing the terror of having their neighborhoods attacked by British soldiers, and vivid descriptions of what the men and women in the prisons and internment camps were facing, but the overwhelming plea throughout is for peace and justice. After publishing these stories I was accused by some liberals of spreading "IRA Propaganda."
I have to admit I am just as puzzled by this accusation now as I was then. I think, like bringing up Israeli military actions at the Seder table, it's just one of those issues that provokes fights whenever it arises. Maybe not so much now, but certainly then.
I think most of what I did during that time was pretty benign, and what most leftists, let alone Irish-American leftists, were doing to support a variety of struggles worldwide. In looking back on those days, I find my thoughts turning more to the changes in our communities here than the changes in the North of Ireland. Well, this is where I live now. Since moving back to the country, I feel very out of touch with the Irish political scene. I keep up with things online, but it's really not the same as working with people in person. I have my opinions on the peace process, and the changes in the movement and organizations, but it seems less urgent now to state them publicly. Perhaps this is what it means to have twenty-five years distance on anything, really. And what it means to be a forty-something instead of a passionate teenager, ready to take on the world, with every moment a life or death battle.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Propagandist
(but willing to be brought out of retirement for a good scuffle)