Ciaran Quinn, Sinn Féin’s North American representative, reviews Jaz McCann’s prison memoir, 6000 Days, which was published earlier this year to widespread acclaim and takes its rightful place in the canon of enduring Irish republican prison writings.
It is always a risky idea to review a book by a friend and someone you respect. I have no worries in this regard to 6000 Days by Jim (Jaz) McCann.
The book is a memoir of his seventeen years served in the notorious Long Kesh prison. It begins with his arrest as an IRA Volunteer in 1976 while still in his early twenties.
His arrival in Long Kesh coincided with the ending of Special Category Status. This status reflected the fact Irish republicans were political prisoners, arrested, charged, and convicted in special courts under special legislation.
In ending Special Category Status the British government refused to recognize republicans as Prisoners of War. The British believed they could delegitimize and break the republican struggle by criminalizing the prisoners
The new regime was implemented with extreme brutality. The prisoners resisted. They refused to wear a prison uniform and were left naked, but for a blanket. They would face daily degradation, humiliation, and beating.
The book details the routine brutality of the regime, the deepening of the protest to a no-wash protest through to a harrowing and heartbreaking account of the hunger strikes. In particular, Jaz details his friendship with Joe McDonnell who died after sixty one days on hunger strike.
The ending of the hunger strike and the gains made did not end the protests. The resistance of Irish republican PoWs took on new forms until all the original demands of the prisoners were met.
In one of the most exciting sections of the book, Jaz details how he and thirty seven other republican prisoners escaped in 1983.
Jaz is searingly honest in his self-doubt, uncertainties, and fear as a young man facing a cruel prison regime. It is this insight that makes the book special. It makes real the sacrifice and courage of the prisoners, standing naked and unwashed against the will and force of the entire British government.
Courage is found in the overcoming of fear. Hope is realized in the knowledge that the human spirit cannot be broken.
The book is a must-read for anyone interested in modern Irish history and a fitting tribute to Joe McDonnell and the 1981 hunger strikers.