Cover image for Biting at the grave : the Irish hunger strikes and the politics of despair
Biting at the grave : the Irish hunger strikes and the politics of despair
O'Malley, Padraig.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Beacon Press, [1990]

Physical Description:
xiv, 330 pages ; 24 cm
Reading Level:
1410 Lexile.
Format :


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Material Type
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HV9649.N67 O43 1990 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A book equal to the pity and terror of its subject, Padraig O'Malley simplifies nothing and scrutinizes everything. This is not only a heartfelt narrative but a sustained exercise of moral and political intelligence.--Seamus Heaney

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1981 the conflict in Ireland's northern counties was marked by the hunger strikes of IRA prisoners pursuing status as political prisoners. Ten men died in the strikes; one, Bobby Sands, an unseated member of Parliament, in death assumed heroic dimensions at home and abroad. Pinpointing how the hunger strikes ``exposed the contradiction at the core of the Catholic nationalist psyche,'' O'Malley, an Irish citizen and author of Uncivil Wars: Northern Ireland Today, assembles strands of elitism, nationalism and the peculiar sanction of the dead into a powerful and passionate chronicle of a people's yearning. This masterly survey of Ireland's multifaceted political history is given human scale in poignant interviews with the strikers' survivors. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

It would seem impossible for O'Malley to match the depth and insight of his first book on Northern Ireland, Uncivil Wars ( LJ 10/1/83), but he's done it in this book on the 1981 hunger strike in the Maze prison. He balances the stories of the hunger strike, the strikers, their families, leaders, goals, and strategies against the larger picture of the bitter politics of Northern Ireland. It is this context that is the strength of this work, and the book complements the more detailed study of the strikers' positions outlined in David Beresford's Ten Men Dead ( LJ 4/1/89). O'Malley's analysis of the power of myth and tradition enslaving the politics of the whole island, dooming it to tragic repetitions of violence, exposes the very core of the conflict. Highly recommended.-- Richard B. Finnegan, Stonehill Coll., North Easton, Mass. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

O'Malley's volume is a work of unusual power and insight. Perhaps the most prominent student of "the troubles" in Northern Ireland, O'Malley seeks in this new book to uncover the meaning of the hunger strikes conducted by Bobby Sands and several other Republican prisoners in the Maze/Long Kesh prison on the outskirts of Belfast. Yet this is not simply a study--although it is an especially compelling one--of how the blanket protest became the dirty protest and then, almost inevitably, the hunger strikes. O'Malley places these most recent of hunger strikes in historical context, showing how the device of the hunger strike--and how the myth of the hunger strike--have come to figure so prominently in Irish history. The author is also careful to show how the hunger strikes became a multicolored canvas on which several recurrent themes of Northern Irish politics were splashed. We see how, for example, the hunger strikes exposed rifts between constitutional nationalists and Sinn Fein, as well divisions within both camps. We see too the sorts of dilemmas the strikes caused in the Republic. And we are reminded of the signal importance religion and religious myth play in the "victim-bonded society" that is Northern Ireland. This is, simply, the best book available on the hunger strikes, and it is likely to remain so for a very, very long time. -J. E. Finn, Wesleyan University

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Chronology of Eventsp. xi
Part 1 Hunger Strikesp. 1

p. 3


p. 9


p. 25


p. 34


p. 65


p. 87


p. 102


p. 117


p. 128

Part 2 Reactionp. 135

p. 137


p. 153


p. 160


p. 171


p. 189

Part 3 Consequencesp. 209

p. 211


p. 221

Part 4

p. 235


p. 237


p. 243


p. 251


p. 260

Notesp. 289
Indexp. 321