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Kevin Myers: Let's honour the glorious living and not dead hunger strikers

There was something weirdly apposite about Sinn Fein launching its campaign to have Cork Airport renamed Terence MacSwiney Airport just as the European Transplant Games were getting under way in Dublin.

No doubt if they are successful -- and the Shinners usually are in their cultural wars -- then they can move on to our other airports: Dublin Airport can be named Thomas Ashe Airport, and Knock can be named Frank Stagg Airport, and Shannon can be rebranded as He Who Dies for Ireland Lives Hub.

Meanwhile, people who know the meaning of life are pushing themselves to the very limits at Dublin City University in the flight-path to what is still Dublin International Airport. All of them, without exception, are alive today because of technologies which have been developed since Terence MacSwiney died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison. Few phenomena stand in such stark contrast in this year of 2010: the life-worshipping heroism of the athletes in DCU this week, and the obsession with voluntary death, as represented by Terence MacSwiney. He wasn't the first hunger striker to die by any means -- Thomas Ashe predated him by three years -- nor the last, as we know. I differ from many people -- perhaps most: I really don't know -- on the matter of Terence MacSwiney. I regard such voluntary deaths as revolting, barbaric and useless.

The argument that is usually presented in MacSwiney's favour is that his death mobilised popular opinion against the British. No doubt it did. But what did it actually achieve? Were the Troubles shortened by a day, or was a life saved? Was the united Irish Republic born from the sepulchre that carried his famished bones? Or did more people die because of the emotions that his entirely voluntary self-sacrifice aroused?

We have a culture that disdains emotional continence and barely notices the inconspicuously brave. In a way, the Irish invented celebrity culture, making it possible for otherwise invisible and ordinary people to become famous. Connolly, Pearse, Barry, MacSwiney, Collins, Stagg, Sands: their rockets leapt through the skies of world-awareness, and were then forgotten, to be remembered only in their homeland, for no other real reason than that they either killed or they died. But none achieved the ambitions for which they gave their lives, and nor could they, because the cult of death that they embodied is also the cult of failure.

If your political purpose is the taking of life -- yours or your enemy's -- that is your political purpose. No other intended result can ensue. To be sure, other things will happen: but not the ones you want. Once you take life, then you unleash emotions that have no focused political end, and that can only result in more chaos, more murder, more tragedy. This was true in 1920, it was true in 1981, and is true today. And while people continue to revere the hunger strike, and the martyrdom that results, then they are not revering life, or the things that people love, but are performing grisly rituals at the altar of political necrophilia.

The deaths of hunger strikers are never neutral events. William P Kennedy, a farmer and businessman, refused to close his medical hall in Borris, Co Carlow, on the death of MacSwiney in 1920, and Sinn Fein began a boycott of his shop. He took legal action against the leading pickets on his premises, employing the solicitor Michael John O'Dempsey, a well-known athlete, nationalist and member of the United Irish League. A high-court writ issued on Kennedy's behalf was violently seized from O'Dempsey's hand as he left court in February 1921, and he petitioned for a fresh writ the following March 15.

The two men returned to Kennedy's home in Borris that evening, where they were ambushed by gunmen. Kennedy was killed instantly, riddled with bullets, and O'Dempsey was fatally wounded, dying in the early hours of St Patrick's Day. Naturally, O'Dempsey is forgotten in his hometown Enniscorthy, where councillors earlier this year agreed for a memorial to be erected to honour five IRA men killed in an explosion in Edentubber in November 1956: their intended target was, charmingly, a Remembrance Sunday service in Northern Ireland.

That we are still erecting memorials and contemplating renaming airports to honour the cult of the dead is simply diseased and demented. Meanwhile, before our very eyes, we fail to see and to celebrate the cult of the gloriously living. Thus the unsung woman athlete who each day rises to swim and cycle and run before lying down for eight hours' dialysis; the young mother whose cardiac muscle was eaten overnight by a virus, and now, with a transplant, is an athlete every triumphant second she breathes.

If we are to name things anew, then let those names personify the life, and joy and happiness of people like those heroic athletes in the transplant games. Give me those who daily seek the wonders of the rising sun over those who revel in an early nightfall: for the sorry history of this melancholy isle tells us that a premature dusk never falls singly upon any man.

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