Hearts, Hands & Empty Stomachs: The Cahersiveen Hunger Strikers

-Stephen Moynihan, with additional reporting from Alana Daly Mulligan, Niamh Browne and Emer Walsh 

“Start not, Irish born man, if you’re Irish true, we heed not race, nor creed, nor clan, we’ve hearts and hands for you.” – Thomas Osborne Davis

When we as a country think of the hunger strike movement, we are pulled deep into our revolutionary past; whether that be the H-Block strike in 1981, Terence MacSwiney’s death during the War of Independence, or further back, we are a people with fires in our bellies that we would happily go hungry for – or so we’d say. With that in mind, our need as a nation to strike with our guts up until recently was something restrained to history book pages and not to our present day. However, the events that unfolded in the Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre in Cahersiveen have proven otherwise. 

On 28th July at 10am, Azwar Fuard and 27 other residents at the Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre in Cahersiveen refused food in protest against the substandard accommodation they were provided with.

“Residents had suffered a trauma for four and a half months, we had gone through a bad time and felt it was the only option we had”, Azwar said. “We used several other methods to highlight our plight but none of them worked”.

Azwar has told Motley that a hunger strike was their last resort.

The beginnings of their “trauma”, as Azwar refers to it, was when the four groups who were to become the residents of the Skellig Star facility were moved from Dublin at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 54 rooms were split between 110 residents, with individuals often sharing with non-family members and given no space to self-isolate. “Any person without medical knowledge could understand that this was dangerous”, he attests.

It is clear that this is a fair criticism considering what then unfolded. 

By mid-May, 25 residents had been forced to move to a hotel in Cork to self-isolate after contracting the virus. Azwar tells Motley, a further 30 who “couldn’t continue psychologically” with life within the Direct Provision Centre left due to the poor living conditions they experienced. He remains unsure of where some of those who left the Centre are currently situated. 

The poor conditions included the refusal to provide residents with extra food if desired, and also the rationing of water following a boil water notice on 19th July.  

However, Azwar was clear that he doesn’t blame the staff for these conditions: “The staff were supportive but helpless because management was in charge. For example, before the hunger strike, they were only allowed to give one burger to each person. They were forbidden to give out two to any individual”.

Despite the difficult time he has experienced in the Skellig Star Hotel, Azwar continues to hold an affinity toward Ireland. “I really like this country, the people are really good. I have been to many places and the Cahersiveen and the Ring of Kerry area has the best community”.

“We were supported by the community, the general public and the media. The people of Cahersiveen have been very good to us; when they realised the Direct Provision Centre was unsuitable, they stood with us”, he continued.

Azwar, a business and marketing graduate with experience as a consultant, criticises the Direct Provision Centre for not allowing asylum seekers to gain financial independence from the State. “Asylum seekers want to contribute to the economy, they want to start their own lives. They don’t want to be dependent on the State.”

He also criticised the Direct Provision system for “only helping individual people and business owners to earn money, a better system would be for money instead to flow into the local economy, benefiting the community and not just individuals or business owners”.

Azwar emphasised the importance of Ireland’s democratic system in ensuring that the residents of the Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre could have their demands acquiesced to. He highlights that democracy is not something asylum seekers from some parts of the world would be accustomed to but believes “a small course would be helpful to give the people who are asylum seekers knowledge about democracy”. 

This is in line with many other asylum models in Scandanavian countries like Norway who coordinate culture and values training courses for those seeking asylum. Something like this is an attainable sustainable solution that aims to include asylum seekers in the conversation about their immersion into a society that no doubt feels foreign to them.  

“We have done everything according to the law, followed democratic principles, and achieved our goals”, he concluded. 

With that, we must remember the essence upon which this country was brought to life, filled with a people so hungry for freedom that they could not, nor would not sit still, something it seems our deep-pocketed politicians continue to forget regardless of whose portrait they hang in the office of An Taoiseach. Right down to our flag, we are people that have paved for peace one stitch at a time. 

So now, we must hark back to our troubled past, remember that we made ourselves citizens of the world when we were unwillingly exiled from this island for lack of love and money from our governments, and the world gave us a space to wear our identities on our chests. We must pay it forward, for to be Irish is an attitude to never surrender in the face of injustice. It is, quite simply, a mentality of feeding the world. 

The government announced on 30th July that the Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre will close on a phased basis in the coming months, with families first being moved. The Skellig Star residents have asked for families to be moved to Mosney Direct Provision centre in Co. Meath; families and individuals to Tullamore, Co. Offaly; and to the Central Inn in Dublin for those with underlying medical issues. They believe that spaces are available to accommodate them in these facilities.