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Hunger striker in fight for sight

(Allison Morris, Irish News)

The leader of the IRA prisoners in the Maze in 1980 has undergone an operation to save his sight, badly damaged by 52 days of starvation during the first Hunger Strike.

Brendan 'The Dark' Hughes underwent a cataract operation on Wednesday to save the sight in his left eye.

He will have to undergo a second operation in two months to restore sight to his right eye.

Doctors have told the former republican prisoner that his eyesight has been badly damaged due to the time he spent on hunger strike while a prisoner.

Speaking from his home in Divis Tower in west Belfast the 58-year-old said the lasting mental and physical effects of the prison protests are the true untold legacy of the time.

"I'm not unique, there are hundreds of men out there carrying around problems from that time," he said.

"If not physical problems there are men with mental problems, alcohol problems, depression, trouble holding down a job or a relationship.

"The lead up to the Hunger Strikes was well documented we were brutalised, our food was urinated on we were beaten and tortured.

"It came to a point where men were coming off the protest because they just couldn't take any more, it was considered our last option.

"I led the first hunger strike and was also responsible for calling it off, I've been criticised for that by certain people but if the truth be told, and I have never said this before, not one of those men was prepared to die.

"Before Sean McKenna went into a coma he said to me, 'Dark don't let me die' and I promised him I wouldn't.

"They were putting him onto a stretcher to take him to the hospital, we thought an agreement was on the table and I just shouted up the corridor, 'feed him' and with those two words the first hunger strike was over.

"I weighed about five stone at the time, you could smell the rotting bodies in the hospital ward, I was very conscious of the smell of my own body eating itself.

"The doctor told the orderlies to feed us scrambled egg and toast, you'd think you wouldn't be able to eat after all that time but you can and so that's what we ate; scrambled egg."

The men were kept in the prison hospital until they had gained enough weight to be returned to the H-blocks

Hughes says that almost immediately he noticed a problem with his sight and went from having perfect vision to needing glasses.

"During hunger strike you notice first your sense of smell and taste go, then your vision, my sight suffered and that has been degenerative.

"About 18 months ago my vision became badly blurred, like a spiders web over your eyes I was lucky to get a cancellation for the cataract surgery this week and so that's one eye done, hopefully it was successful.

"I've also got arthritis and chest problems but it is the mental problems that are the most debilitating.

"I've never been able to settle, I don't like being around crowds of people.

"The only reason I think I settled in Divis Tower is because it's quite cellular, I suppose that's what I respond to."

Strongly opposed to the second hunger strike Hughes says he feels many ex-prisoners have not been given enough help to adjust following their release from prison.

Released from prison in 1986 having served just over 13 years in jail, he says he has struggled with life on the outside and at times turned to alcohol.

"I argued strongly against the second hunger strike but by then I was no longer OC, I was just an ordinary volunteer. Bobby [Sands] knew he would die but he thought his own death would be enough to force the Brits into a settlement, we know now that was not to be the case and 10 men were to lose their lives.

"There are men still suffering in silence today, the recent commemoration events to mark the 25 anniversary of the Hunger Strike didn't even touch on that terrible legacy.

"Ex-prisoners groups are fine as long as you conform to the present political situation – if you voice dissent then you're cast aside.

"They are not doing enough because they are too selective as to who they'll help.

"Painting murals on walls to commemorate blanketmen after they have died a slow and lonely death from alcohol abuse is no use to anyone.

"I would hate for young people now to have this romanticised versions of the events of that time and what went on in the prison, the truth is so very far removed from that and I suppose I'm living proof of that."

October 7, 2006
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This article appeared first in the October 6, 2006 edition of the Irish News.


This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News



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