Using mattresses to transform a prison cell into a recording studio, a smuggled tape recorder, and look-outs to ensure their success, six prisoners captured the essence of an event that still defines the Republican community today. In 1981 ten Republican volunteers began a hunger strike in Long Kesh prison to regain political status for paramilitary prisoners, and counter the efforts of the British government to criminalize the Republican fight for a united Ireland. Ten years later, their comrades secretly compiled a cassette tape from within the prison to commemorate the hunger strikers’ sacrifice.
I met co-producer of ‘Music from the Blocks’ and Officer Commanding during the 1981 hunger strike Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane in a pub in Belfast four years ago. I was a sophomore in college, conducting an independent self-designed study on the effects of politics on music. When I asked if he could perform a political song for me, he sang instead about a friend who died during the struggle and the power of that man’s memory to guide his community towards a brighter future. McFarlane wrote ‘Song for Marcella’ for the prison tape in 1991 to commemorate his comrade Bobby Sands, and the song has maintained the ability to reach out to people wherever it is performed. It was, for me, the inspiration for my work in Northern Ireland because it captured an element of the time that spoke volumes to me about a world light-years away from my own set of experiences in life. For a moment, something so distant became very close and I realized that I could use the power of music to unveil elements of this country otherwise invisible to the world today.
‘Song for Marcella’ is one of eighteen works recorded on ‘Music from the Blocks.’ Each song, poem, and statement tells a piece of the prisoners’ story and unearths glimpses of the ten men who gave everything for a cause they believed would change the future of their struggle and their country. Seven of the eighteen songs are written by prisoners, both past and present, about their experiences, their creative reflections, and the memories of their comrades. Other songs capture the nature of the times such as ‘Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Russian Roulette.’ Some songs reflect historical significance about the Irish struggle from earlier uprisings such as ‘The Foggy Dew,’ written about the 1916 Easter Rising. One is dedicated to the women of Ireland or, ‘Mná na h- É ireann’ and their role throughout the struggle. The ‘Closing Sequence’ is a collection of statements by the prisoners on the experience of creating the tape.
The tape, now a CD, collectively captures the emotions, mentality, and popular response during the time of the hunger strike, an era which led to the development of elements of politics and society that are still crucial to the movement forward today. Bobby Sands was elected a Member of Parliament during his hunger strike, and this bold move opened the door for politics to take a larger hand in problem solving than violence. The popular campaign to support the hunger strikers and their cause was one of the largest mobilization efforts in the country. The faces and quotes of the ten men are incorporated into murals around North and West Belfast keeping the memory of their sacrifice fresh in the minds of the community. The memory of the ten hunger strikers is also kept alive in songs played around the city and in the ‘Music from the Blocks’ CD.
For more information on the hunger strike and the ‘Music from the Blocks’ CD please visit here.