Old Comrades Reunion


Jim Gibney writes about a unique reunion of former prisoners – those who took part in the protest for political status in Armagh Jail and the H-Blocks between 1976 and 1981:

There have been many episodes in the conflict over the last fifty years when republicans were called upon to perform feats of considerable human endurance.

Many of these episodes are linked to one kind of imprisonment or another. Sometimes the individual was pitted against interrogators and had to withstand the brutality and cruelty of a protracted interrogation as in the case of those republicans who became known as the ‘hooded men’, who were arrested after the introduction of internment in August 1971 and were especially selected for torture. Other times it was the feeling of isolation, the loneliness of a prison cell, surrounded by hostility as experienced by republicans who spent long years in jail in prisons in England, the US and Europe. Or the experience of those republicans who were forced to live in exile, away from their family and friends, and had to cope with all manner of loss, including family bereavement or missing out on joyous family occasions.

Of all of the challenges faced by republicans the period which demanded more from them in terms of commitment, endurance, single-mindedness and dedication was the period between 1976 and 1981. This was the period when the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher set out to use all the resources at her command, and that the British state possessed, to try to crush the republican struggle by trying to criminalise republican prisoners. The struggle inside the prisons, the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s Prison, were epic in terms of their longevity, the personal cost to each of the prisoners involved and their families and the significant political changes that arose out of the prison protest.

The protracted clash between the republican political prisoners and the British government produced a David versus Goliath contest. In the words of Bobby Sands – what was won in the prison protest and what was lost was won and lost for ‘the republic’. That outlook was the defining psychological context for the prisoners. They were defending Ireland’s ancient claim to nationhood, to independence, to freedom, from occupation by our nearest neighbouring island – Britain. Bobby Sands’ remarks symbolised where the prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s Prison stood. Margaret Thatcher symbolised the stance taken by the British government perhaps none more so than in her comments inside Stormont – then viewed as the seat of unionist one-party rule – when the hunger strike was at its peak. She said the IRA was playing its last card!

So it is hardly surprising that those who took part in that protest would be proud of themselves for doing so and for inflicting a defeat on Thatcher and the British government. On Saturday 8th October several hundred people gathered in Belfast to honour the memory of the ten hunger strikers who died during the protest and Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg who died on hunger strike in English jails, and to acknowledge all those blanketmen and women protestors who spent years in cellular confinement and experienced appalling levels of deprivation and brutality by prison warders.

It was the rarest of rare nights. So rare in fact that it took over thirty years to organise the gathering. It was a special night. A night when men and women, now in their middle years, brought their children to witness a reunion of old comrades who formed enduring bonds of friendship and comradeship in the most extreme and personally challenging circumstances. They were joined by several of the hunger strikers’ relatives and women like Maura Mc Crory and Lily Fitsimmons whose sons were on the blanket protest and who led the popular protest movement on the outside in support of the prisoners. At the time they were joined by other mothers and stood in prominent public places clad only in a blanket on the streets of Belfast, Dublin, Paris and New York.

It was a night when all republicans on the protest were remembered. This was reflected in the imagery around the hall: on stage was a portrait of Brendan ‘Darkie’ Hughes, Mairead Farrell and Kieran Nugent, the first man to wear a blanket and refuse to wear a prison uniform.

A medal struck for the occasion was presented to the ex-prisoners by relatives of those who died on the 1981 hunger strike. It was received with pride and was shown to others as a badge of honour of recognition for participating in a gruelling yet worthy and noble self-sacrifice, the influence of which is still being played out politically to this day.



‘John Lennon’s Dead’

Veteran republican Gerry O’Hare reviews former POW Síle Darragh’s memoir of life for imprisoned women during the struggle for political status:

It is a grey hulk so familiar to us all.  Armagh Women’s Gaol.  The very name is redolent of another age. But, it has to be said, mystery still surrounds what it was like to be incarcerated behind its walls. No book has ever been written, to my knowledge, from the perspective of an actual republican woman prisoner. Several have been written by outsiders, albeit sympathetic outsiders, but none by a republican insider.

Until now.

Step up Síle Darragh from Belfast who served a sentence of five years for allegedly planting incendiary devices in a Belfast business. The title appears, at first sight, to be a strange one for a book about the women prisoners in Armagh. There is an explanation ­ but I won¹t spoil it for you. You will have to read on for yourselves.

The book is centered on the struggle of women in Armagh in parallel with the blanket protest and H-Block hunger strikes and focuses particularly on the women’s 1980 hunger strike ­ something that tends to be overlooked when considering the enormity of what was endured by Bobby Sands and his comrades.

Síle Darragh became the OC of the jail after Mairead Farrell, Mary Doyle and Margaret Nugent joined the hunger strike that had been begun by seven men some weeks earlier in the H-Blocks.

Síle’s story begins after she is, firstly, remanded and then sentenced to five years for membership of the IRA – the maximum possible sentence for that conviction at the time.

Brought to Armagh Gaol she quickly settles into the mundane and boring daily routine of life in prison. She explains how the prisoners followed IRA discipline within the jail walls and under the command of Mairead Farrell (later brutally assassinated by the SAS in Gibraltar).

The minds of mere males cannot even begin to imagine the tough conditions the women of Armagh suffered on the no wash protest. Whilst enduring awful conditions with their excrement on the walls, they also had to contend with the added problem of their monthly periods. I found it difficult to come to terms with what they endured.

Síle recalls vividly the brutal assaults carried out during the protest by the screws and the vicious attacks inflicted on them by the RUC. This all stands as no credit at all to an uncaring prison governor or to the prison doctor at the time. Their behaviour borders on criminal neglect.

The pattern in Armagh was, in many ways, similar to that endured by male prisoners in the Blocks and they suffered for the same number of  years, between 1976 and 1981.

Father Raymond Murray, the prison chaplain, emerges with integrity. He is referred to in the book with affection and his efforts to ease the women’s sufferings are well-documented.

Síle writes, as I presume she speaks, with descriptive brilliance. Her work will stand testament to all the women prisoners.

I read the book in one sitting; such is its simplicity and conviction. It is a tale told with compassion and pride. It is a miracle that they all came through it.

I have to say that, with every passing chapter, I was waiting for an explanation for the book¹s title. It comes near the book’s finale. Suffice to say, Síle cursed the late Mairead Farrell at the time the eponymous words were spoken in Armagh. And so did I!

On a separate note I once had the pleasure of meeting the late John Lennon during a trip to New York in 1972 to raise funds for internees. I found Lennon intensely interested in the conflict and the plight of prisoners and their families. The former Beatle was anxious to do whatever he could to help – although proposals for a special concert came to nothing (partially because the frantic onward rush of events at the time did not allow for a consistent follow-up process). At that time Lennon was reluctant to leave the USA, was fighting deportation and feared that if he did leave then the immigration authorities would refuse him re-entry.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted.  Republican women will not be alone in squirming at some of the details of the narrative but it is, nevertheless, a worthy testament to what they experienced and suffered and what they endured.

Books are available through the following: 

‘Beyond The Pale’ in reception area,  5-7 Conway Street, Belfast and/or peter_btp@hotmail.co.uk Tel – 07770811042/02890329646
Republican Merchandising Belfast Ltd., 52/53 Falls Road, Belfast, BT12 4PD, Ireland. Tel [028] 90243371

North Belfast Sinn Féin Bookshop, Teach Carney, 291 Antrim Road, Belfast, BT15 2GZ. Tel [028] 90740817

Sinn Féin Bookshop, 44 Parnell Square Dublin 1, Ireland. Tel [353)] 1 8726100/8726932
An Ceathrú Póilí [Culturlann Bookshop] Belfast, Tel [028] 90322811

Read Ireland book distributors – 048 90438630 and website www.readireland.ie and email gregcarr@readireland.ie





BBC History of 1981

The BBC has produced a website dedicated to the story of the protest for political status, including the blanket protest and the two hunger strikes, involving footage that has been rarely seen. Five short videos are used to illustrate the atmosphere between 1976 and 1981 and can be viewed here.