Friday, March 4, 2011
Memories of the H Blocks
The legacy and memories of the H Blocks of Long Kesh were very present this week for this blog. On Monday, in my first official role as a TD for Louth and East Meath I spoke at the removal from Dundalk of my good friend and comrade and H-Block escapee Peter ‘Skeet’ Hamilton.
The next day was the 30th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike and along with other ex-prisoners and family members I was present in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast for the opening of an exhibition marking the hunger strike.
Martin McGuinness and Mary Lou McDonald formally launched the exhibition.
It is a remarkable collection of photos and memorabilia of that time. It sets the prison struggle in the context of the wider freedom struggle, the British criminalisation policy and events inside and outside of the prison.
It includes original comms written by Bobby Sands, Ciaran Doherty and Mairead Farrell and others, on tiny pieces of paper which were smuggled out of the H-Blocks and Armagh women’s prison.
H-Block and Armagh prisoners were denied reading material, newspapers, radios, television, books and any mental stimulation. The object was to break their spirit. It was also an effort to impose an extreme form of isolation to break the prisoners and to convince them that they were alone, that no one cared.
But republican prisoners found innovative ways around the brutal and harsh regime of the prisons.
This blog remembers once upon a time in the cages that an elaborate system of coded semaphore signals was developed. This involved a prisoner standing precariously on a chair, on top of a table, on top of a hut, ands using small flags to send messages to another prisoner similarly precariously balanced in another part of the jail.
In the H Blocks the favoured method for sending messages was comms. Tiny pieces of paper, usually cigarette roll-up paper or bits of the bible were the favoured material, covered in cling film and swung on lines outside windows between cells or under doors. Comms were also smuggled in and out of the prison despite harsh searches for prisoners and their visitors.
Prisoners endured beatings and degrading mirror searches as the prison system tried to cut communication as well as break the prisoner’s morale.
One unique method adopted by the prisoners was the use of small crystal radios that were made on the outside and smuggled into the Blocks so that the prisoners could listen to the news and keep up to date with developments.
Their existence was a closely guarded secret. But on display in the new exhibition is the ‘Maggie Taggert’ a small crystal radio that was used by the prisoners. It was so-named after a BBC reporter who was frequently on the radio at that time.
Mrs Dale was another code-name – Mrs Dale’s Diary being a long time BBC radio programme.
Maggie Taggert Radio
The exhibition is the work of the National Hunger Strike Committee and is available for display. It will be travelling across the island in the course of this year but anyone interested in displaying it in their local area should contact the committee through its email firstname.lastname@example.org
Francie Hughes sisters Vera and Dolores
Joe McDonnell's sisters Maura and Eilish
Peter Hamilton was in the cages during the hunger strike. His dedication, loyalty, and activism over 40 years of struggle is the stuff of legend. Hundreds gathered in bright sunshine in Dundalk on Monday afternoon to pay their respects. And many more attended his funeral in Belfast on Thursday.
Peter came at his republicanism and life in the same way that he tackled his illness. He refused to allow it to depress or get him down.
Two weeks ago his friends organised an event for him in the Star in Ardoyne.
Friends and comrades from far and wide came to demonstrate their solidarity with Peter and to enjoy the craic.
In the Star he joked that he was the only one he ever knew who went into Drogheda hospital with a hernia and came out with cancer.
Peter was from Ardoyne and hugely proud of his local area. Like many others he had been influenced by the pogroms of 1969 in which unionists mobs had burned out whole streets in Ardoyne. Peter joined the IRA.
He was a fearless and determined republican activist. Later he was arrested and spent several years in Crumlin Road prison and then in the cages of Long Kesh before his release in early 1975.
Peter returned to the struggle and in the summer of 76, along with Bik McFarlane and Seamus Clark he was back in the cages. That’s where I met him for the first time. I had been sentenced for trying to escape from internment and Skeet was arriving in for his second time in the cages.
Peter ended up in the middle hut along with Cleaky, Big Deuce and Moke – all of them have now died from cancer, a cause for concern for many former political prisoners and sourced by some to the use of CR gas by the British Army in October 1974 when Long Kesh was burned down.
Peter was full of energy, was hilarious company and helped make the hard time go easier. He was always looking for ways to escape. He was involved in the digging of more than one tunnel.
And in 1982 himself and Gerry Kelly, Francis McIlvenna and Ned Maguire succeeded in getting outside of their cage but they were caught before they could exit stage left. Or right.
They were transferred to the H Blocks where a year later Peter played a key role in the great escape of 1983. He was one of those who had the job of securing the Block. He was recaptured along with Big Bobby, Sean McGlinchey and Joe Simpson hiding in the river and all three were among those who were viciously beaten afterward.
Peter was eventually released. Between his two periods of incarceration he spent almost 20 years in prison.
He was totally behind the peace strategy. And when I visited him in Drogheda hospital during the election campaign he told me not to worry that I would be elected. And he was determined to play his part in that. On polling day he went to the polling station when it opened and cast his vote. Then he went home and died.
Peter was a solid republican activist who demonstrated time and time again, and not least when he was ill, great strength of character.
On behalf of all those who had the honour to know him and the many republicans who didn’t this blog extends sincerest sympathies to his brother Denny and sisters Mary and Eileen and especially his sister Kathleen who looked out for him through all his years in prison and from whose home he was waked and buried.
I also want to thank all of Peter’s friends in Dundalk who were with him through his long illness and who looked after him. Especially Mackers.