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
“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
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
“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
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.”