BITING AT THE GRAVE

The Irish Hunger Strikes

And the Politics of Despair

By Padraig O'Malley

Beacon Press. 330 pp. $22.95

It has been almost 10 years since a 27-year-old Belfast man named Bobby Sands starved himself to death in an Ulster prison. As a member of the Irish Republican Army, Sands was protesting being denied prisoner-of-war status; he was also affirming, by means of the most dramatic gesture available to him, a powerful, centuries-old vision of an independent and united Ireland -- a vision that lies behind much of the sectarian violence that has turned Northern Ireland during the past two decades into a guerrilla war zone.

The international media, ever on the alert for spectacle, swooped down on the Maze/Long Kesh prison, just outside Belfast, where Sands staged his fatal 66-day hunger strike in the spring of 1981. But as the spring turned to summer, coverage of the nine hunger strikers who followed Sands to their deaths shrank steadily; the last death, that of a young man from Derry named Mickey Devine, barely made the papers.

The media left behind several disturbing questions: What would drive young men like Sands and Devine to such drastic actions? Why was it not possible for someone, somewhere, to put an end to the strikes before anyone died? What would be the long-range impact of the strikes?

"Biting at the Grave," the work of Dublin-born historian Padraig O'Malley, provides answers to such questions, and much more. Relying on extensive printed sources and numerous interviews, O'Malley narrates the story of the Irish hunger strikes of 1981 with impressive and often moving detail, and traces the complex but ultimately futile negotiations that failed to end them. More important, he shrewdly assesses the psychological, cultural, religious and political forces that kept the hunger strikes going against all odds, and against all reason.

O'Malley's conclusions are hardly encouraging. In his view, the principal effect of the hunger strikes was to reveal just how wide the gaps are between Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist in Ulster, and therefore how little hope there is of resolving their differences.

A large part of the problem, as O'Malley demonstrates, is that those differences reach far back into the past, not only the past of history, but that of myth and legend as well. It is precisely this kind of distorting cultural memory that inspired the hunger strikers. Sands and his followers saw themselves as part of a pantheon of great Irish heroes, "a mystical body of the Republican movement," as O'Malley puts it, and their deaths were, for them, readily justified in the context of a long romantic tradition of unqualified commitment to Irish freedom, a tradition most powerfully embodied in the Easter Rising of 1916, but going back much further, receding finally into the mists of ancient Celtic lore. (The phrase "Biting at the Grave" is taken from a play by W.B. Yeats set in Ireland's heroic past and celebrating the courage of a hunger-striking poet.)

As the governments in London and Dublin quickly discovered, such attitudes do not lend themselves to negotiation or compromise, the tools of ordinary politics. Moreover, there was the other side, equally irrational, to deal with. As O'Malley shows, Ulster Protestants were prevented -- by the stereotypes of Catholics that their culture had been built on over the centuries -- from seeing the hunger strikes as anything but a particularly threatening instance of the evils of the IRA and the Catholic Church, presumably working in some kind of collusion to usurp the privileged status of Ulster Protestants.

The hunger strikes of 1981 eventually ended, but their legacy has not, unfortunately, faded. By exposing the unbridgeable distances between Catholic and Protestant, and by appealing to the most irrational, militant qualities of each, the hunger strikes badly polarized an already divided populace, and the violence that has come in their wake has been every bit as ugly and ferocious as that which preceded them.

The hunger strikes have also left a trail of individual human suffering, something often lost sight of amid the rhetoric and posturing of political advocacy. O'Malley ends his study, appropriately, with interviews of the strikers' families, many of whom were torn apart over whether they should intervene or honor the request of the strikers to let them die.

The damage at this level has been considerable. There is, for example, the story of Paddy Lynch, whose son Kevin died in Maze/Long Kesh after 71 days of fasting. Every evening at 5, Lynch walks across the street from his house to the cemetery where Kevin is buried, and remains there, maintaining his own private vigil of grief, for two hours. And there is the story of Maura McDonnell, whose brother Joe died in Maze/Long Kesh after 61 days without food. At the time, the family did not believe that Joe actually would die, and they still, after almost 10 years, have not begun to come to terms with their grief or their guilt. "We'll never get over our grief because it wasn't natural," McDonnell told O'Malley. "When you look around and see young men who are now out you realize that he would be out too. You keep waiting for him to come home and he never will." The reviewer is the author of "The Poetry of Austin Clarke" and "William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction."