Music From The Blocks

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.

9 thoughts on “Music From The Blocks

  1. Kyle, I was working in the Sinn Fein POW Dept on the Falls Road when the one and only original copy, straight from the H Blocks, of Music from the Blocks arrived on our desk. We had the double dilemna of how to get thousands of copies made and how to then get them sold world wide. There in lies the second half of the story of Music from the Blocks which invloves a fictious Ulster Loyalist called Robbie Wilkinson, DUP Councillor and now Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and Richard Mc Auley, who was Head of the Sinn Fein Press Dept at the time and is now personal PA to Gerry Adams. All played their part in ensuring that Music from the Blocka was one of the most successful financial enerprises ever under taken by the POW Dept. if you wish to know the detai ring the Sin Fein Centre at 90508989 and ask for Robert. Hope to hear from you soon.

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  2. Incredible Kyle!

    To explain such a meaningful CD, it’s participants, and the history and impact of the music itself, within just a few minutes is an astonishing accomplishment.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed all your video posts. This one however, is in a class of it’s own. Absolutely perfect.

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  3. Kyle

    Excellent job! Glad to have helped out. As Robert (in his comment above) says, it was not only a very important project in and of itself but it also helped the POW very significantly in terms of a finance! It didn’t happen quite as planned as Bik would make out though! Like many things during struggle a number of opportunities arise and you either take them or they pass you by. I had been made aware (because of the role I was playing on the prisoners’ camp staff) that facilities to audio had been discovered (using prison authorities equipment)and there were a number of good musicians in the wing at the time (especially Bik and Tomboy and Felim) so we went for it! We actually had to do a second recording as the first was a bit flawed and yet at the same time we were anxious in case anyone was moved off the wing in the meantime – and the rest is history as they say! We sent the master tape to two of the leading musicians in Ireland at the time to ask their advice as to whether or not other music should be added to it on the outside but their advice, which I think was accurate, was to leave it as it was as that way it was more authentic. The cover for it was designed in the Blocks and I wrote the text for it, which described, in a humorous manner, the ‘operation’ and also thanked a non-prisoner, Camillo, for the part s/he played in the operation. Good luck with it and your future studies.

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  4. Kyle, I can see that you poured your heart in this project. For a person with no knowledge of Irish history,you managed to grab my interest by incorporating it into beautiful nuggets with their ballads! Beautiful work!

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  5. What a creative and moving gesture of solidarity. Listening to the musicians talk about their experience in making the tape shows how much this project meant to them.

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  6. This video showed me a side of Ireland that I had never heard of before. It’s interesting to learn about the struggle that these men went through.

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