The Hunger Strikes

From Lawrence McKeown, “Taking Up Arms”, in Marie Smyth and Marie-Therese Fay (eds.), Personal Accounts from Northern Irland’s Troubles:  Public Conflict, Private Loss (2000)



Lawrence McKeown was imprisoned at the Maze in 1977 for having planted a bomb in a failed Provisional IRA attempt to kill a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.  He participated in the blanket and dirty protests, and volunteered to go on hunger strike in 1981.  His case was one of the first in which family members, under pressure from various quarters, intervened to force feeding after a hunger striker slipped into a coma.  He spent a total of seventy days on hunger strike.


The second hunger strike started really slowly. There was very little in the papers about it. Winning the election just really took us from a low point but generally it was felt it was going to be at the end before attention is focused here. It took us to new heights of saying, ‘Bobby is now elected.’ Surely they couldn’t turn round and let him die on an issue where he is saying he is a political prisoner, there’s thirty-odd thousand people who voted him in as their MP and therefore, obviously regard him as a political prisoner, and a Member of Parliament at Westminster. Maybe there was a bit of naïveté in that because within a week or two you were saying, well, ‘They are intending that all right.’

I suppose for the few days prior to it you were just listening to the radio and knew we would get the report down from the hospital about the various states Bobby was in. It had actually been the next morning before we heard, our wing didn’t have a radio at that stage. Bobby died early in the morning, it was two o’clock or round about then, and we sort of figured something when the screws came in that morning. They were very, very quiet. Brendan Hughes came up to the door and said, ‘Bobby’s dead.’

I think that day the wing was just totally silent. You heard people speaking out the windows a bit but there was none of the general noise or commotion. Everyone was generally just subdued.

By the time I joined it all four original hunger strikers had died. I joined it in June, the 29th of June.

My mental condition varied, you knew your blood was going to become clearer but as time went on a weakness impinges upon it – you just get weaker and weaker. But initially the only thing is feeling fairly cold because you were meant to drink only water

…Yes you felt an emptiness in your stomach for the first few days and after that your stomach starts to shrink down. After the fortieth day, the eyes started to get fuzzy, you have double vision, and then you wake up blinking into them.

We were moved to the hospital after thirty days. We were still locked in the cells during the day in the hospital but you were allowed out in the evening for association. You were allowed out during the day for an hour’s exercise. You would walk down slowly. People just don’t sort of deplete immediately once they stop eating because they obviously have all them reserves and they are not going to do anything really strenuous. I was on it seventy days, but up until about sixty-five days I still would have got out of bed. By that stage you were literally just getting out of bed to sit in an armchair at the side. You weren’t really walking anywhere. If you were walking anywhere somebody was assisting you, but you could put your arm around somebody’s shoulder and you could walk that distance….

Well, my father was totally opposed to it. My father hadn’t visited me in jail. That was the first I had seen of him when I was on hunger strike, coming into jail. It was a combination of not sharing those political beliefs but I think just the whole thing of dealing with me in prison. He couldn’t come to terms with me being in jail. ‘Your mother is heartbroken.’ It was a mixture of sadness and anger. ‘Would you not think about this again?’ I can’t remember his exact words, but it was that he didn’t agree with me, whereas my mother, who was the only other person I had spoken to, accepted the fact that I was on it….

A lot of people were becoming sick, vomiting a green bile liquid that would come up but it would wreck people, being constantly sick all the time, and their families watching them. I didn’t have that sickness up until the very last three or four days. I suppose I watched my whole self and modelled it on other people like Tom McElwee who had been the same size as me and about the same weight when he had gone on the hunger strike. On the morning Tom died I had spoke over to him. He was sitting up in bed smoking a cigarette and about five minutes after that he just died. It must have been a massive coronary so I thought, this is the way I’m going to end up going here.

You could see the impact it was having on people. My family got in on the Friday and I remember talking to them that Friday night. And on the Saturday morning I was talking to them but I don’t recollect it. And Sunday morning apparently they asked me questions. I was talking to myself or people were talking to me and I was answering. By that stage you are just totally fatigued.

I must have been slipping into a deeper level of something. Obviously, my parents had come in, my brother was back from England and they were all asking me if I wanted to change my mind. It was my mother, who had been the closest to me, who said, ‘Look, if it ends up the decision is mine then I’d like to save you.’ It appeared that I had lost consciousness round about dinner time on the Sunday, and my mother authorised intervention, medical intervention.

What they do in hospital is get big massive syringes and fill them with vitamins. I was rushed out to intensive care in the Royal. I came round in the Royal, and after that, it’s history.

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