For Michael and Frank

March 13, 2010 · Print This Article

Gerry Kelly, the former IRA hunger striker, escapee and currently the Sinn Féin MLA for North Belfast, was arrested in England in March 1973 and sentenced to two life sentences and twenty years. He and three of his comrades went on hunger strike seeking repatriation to a prison in the North, closer to home, but were brutally force-fed. Kelly recalls: “They started force-feeding me around the 19th day and I was force-fed 167 times over 200 days. You’d frequently vomit and that too would be forced back down your throat.” A few weeks ago he wrote a poem about his hunger strike and two IRA comrades who had been imprisoned earlier, who also went on hunger strike, and were to die at the hands of the British government.

For Michael and Frank

It was not the hunger Though it gnawed its way Through slim pickings of fat To muscle tissue

And into every dream So that in the most outlandish Or exotic of images Central to its theme was...food

It was not hunger After nineteen foodless days This usurper of senses Had been usurped by fear

For several hours since The dapper doctor announced That he would return To force-feed the prisoner

(He later changed this to ‘Artificially feed the patient’) Fear had feasted On his self doubt

From the ballad of his schooldays From the archives of his mind The spectre of Tom Ashe’s Force-fed death appeared

The dramatisation Of the brutal process By cynical warders Ate at his mind

The clinical recitation Of dangerous possibilities The tube entering the lung ‘By mistake of course’

But most acute The fear of failing Once the gauntlet Was thrown down

So when the trolley Rattled to the door The young man Lotus-like on the bed

Faced them, bone naked To the blanket round his waist Talisman of rosary-beads About his neck

The key turned With a clack Churning in his gut An intrusive unknown

Twelve-handed they entered In an angry flood Frothing hospital white Over incriminating blue

While the doctor From deep-seated elitism Affected detachment In civilian hue

The initial resistance Was painfully brief Control achieved  In a practiced way

Man-handled and Stripped to helplessness Then stretched To hopelessness

Under doctor’s orders Trailed up the bed With jack-knifed body To the high end

For a throat to stomach line That would be straight and true His hair-pulled head forced back His wholeness held in human vice

All of which, the doctor Hypocritically explained Was for his own good To save his life

Fear fought dedication In the rebel’s heart As his breath battled Through locked teeth

‘Now’ came the order ‘Open your mouth’ And so it began In clenched mute refusal

When naivety left the naked To join the clothed And both discovered the power Of the jaw muscle

Forearm anchored forehead Knuckles into jaw joints Heel- hand on nose and face Soft with blood

Forceps scraping gums Ryle’s Tube searing nostrils Till the soft membrane Is red-hot with pain

Yes, jaw muscles are strong But far from strong enough As his mouth is forced open A horse-bit fills the void

No time for self pity As the bit is adjusted To feed a tube Down famine throat

A motionless dread In the pinioned body Movement is rebellion And therefore suppressed

No speech is possible Nor motion of limbs All protest undiluted In dilated eyes

This is the scared-stiff Experience of nightmares Where great fear Invokes paralysis

The tube knocks heavily At the swing door in his throat One way to the stomach The other to lung-filled death

Tom Ashe Tom Ashe A pounding drum Comfort and fear Beating in his head

Then the flap swings right The tube rams down And a dam-burst of liquid Distends his shrunken belly

Just as the pain ebbs And relief tingles In his sweat beads The stomach heaves back

With involuntary spasms A thick white eruption On chin and chest And uniforms

Until some clever man Wielding a kidney-dish Collects the dripping remains Of this expensive fare

Which the doctor described Without hint of irony As equivalent to ‘A meal at The Savoy’

For his final trick With nausea on the wane The chef returned the contents To the prisoner’s stomach

And so it ends for one day Business-like, with a hasty exit Of the tube from the throat And the squad from the cell

Leaving the Irishman To clean up the mess To recover his dignity And fret about the many next times

In fairness to the doctor in charge Known by the official title of ‘Principle Medical Officer’ He was affected by the scene

Thereafter he developed the habit Of entering the cell, only after The jailers had subdued the prisoner For entry of the feeding tube

A man of intellect and eloquence Who spoke of Arthur Koestler, Oliver St John Gogarty, (among others) And his own flag-waving youth

While he worked at his task

- Gerry Kelly, 2nd February 2010

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