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