Monday, August 22, 2011
The H-Block Hospital Visit
Mickey Devine was the last of the hunger strikers to die. His 30th anniversary was on Saturday. He left us after sixty-six days on hunger strike.
I remember meeting Mickey three weeks before he died when I visited the H-Block prison hospital on Wednesday July 29th along with Owen Carron, Bobby’s election agent and now Fermanagh South Tyrone candidate, and Seamus Ruddy of the IRSP.
A week later – August 8th - An Phoblacht carried an article by me in which I reflected on that visit. In the intervening days Kevin Lynch and Kieran Doherty died, and on the day the article was published Tom McElwee died.
In memory of those inside and outside the prison who died during that tragic summer I am posting that article.
Brendan McFarlane, Tom McElwee, Laurence McKeown, Matt Devlin, Pat McGeown, Paddy Quinn and Mickey Devine were assembled in the canteen of the prison hospital when Owen Carron, Séamus Ruddy and I arrived.
Paddy Quinn was in a wheelchair and sat with the others around two tables which had been pushed together in the centre of the room.
Brendan, Pat McGeown and Matt had been taken from their cells to the prison hospital while the others, dressed in prison-issue pyjamas and dressing gowns had been brought from their cells in the prison hospital itself. Kevin Lynch and Kieran Doherty could not attend the meeting, but Brendan McFarlane made arrangements for us to see them later.
It had taken us an hour to pass through the various security checks from the main gate of Long Kesh to the prison hospital, as the screws, sullenly resentful of our presence, quizzed our escort and driver.
I had mixed feelings going into the prison, though it held not secrets or surprises, for I had been a reluctant resident there on a number of occasions in 1972.
Also, I knew both Kieran Doherty and Pat McGeown, two of the hunger-strikers, and Brendan McFarlane, O/C of the Blocks, and had written to or read notes from, most of the other hunger-strikers. No, apart from a slight feeling of déjà vue, the prison itself, and its permanent prisoners, the screws and armed British soldiers, didn’t disturb me, tho’, in its grey hostility, Long Kesh is a forbidding and intimidating place.
It was a feeling of apprehension about the physical state of the hunger-strikers, and a fear that our arrival would falsely raise their hopes which disturbed me, as Owen, Séamus and I were introduced to the boys.
They all looked rough, prison-pale skin stretched across young skull-like faces, legs and arms indescribably thin, eyes with that penetrating look which I have often noticed among fellow prisoners in the past, and which Bobby Sands has described as ‘that awful stare of the pierced or glazed eyes, the tell-tale sign of the rigours of torture’. Someone else wrote that our eyes are the windows of our souls. The eyes of the blanket men, the hunger-strikers, are the unshuttered, unveiled, curtainless windows through which one can see reflections of the intense cruelties they have endured.
As they smiled across the table at us, all my fears and apprehensions vanished when Big Tom (McElwee) offered me a just of spring water.
“Ar mhaith leat deoc uisce?”
“Ba mhaith”, arsa mise.
“Lean ar aghaidh, tá á lan uisce san ait seo,” duit sé, grinning at me.
There were a number of small while jugs of spring water, and two or three blue plastic mugs of ordinary tap water, on the table. The lads sat, as pensively as wine tasters, as I took a delicate swig from one of the white jugs.
“Cad é a sileann tú faol sin?”
I took a longer slug, “Hold on,” said big Tom, “It costs the British government a lot of money for that stuff.”
The screw at the large peep hole at the end of the canteen, peered in a the outburst of laughter which follow Tom’s slagging. His appearance was greeted with bantering, in both Irish and English among the boys. Otherwise the screws were ignored and spoken to, politely, only when necessary.
We were left along again and then went on to discuss the hunger-strike, the campaign outside, the British government’s position and the hunger-strikers’ personal attitude to events.
We outlined the clergymen’s proposal to them. The lads were fully aware of all developments, but we persisted in detailing in a factual and harsh manner, everything which had happened over the past few weeks. They sat quietly, smoking or sipping water, listening intensely to what we had to say.
Occasionally Paddy Quinn, who sat beside me, used the spittoon which he held on his lap. Paddy heavily bearded, was by far the worst looking of the hunger-strikers.
As I talked, or listened to Owen Carron or Séamus Ruddy talking, I couldn’t stop my eyes straying below the tables where the scrawny legs of the hunger-strikers were stretched. We smoked in relays, in the absence of matches keeping our cigarettes alight by ensuring that somebody was always smoking, thus avoiding having to ask the screw for a light.
When we had finished our lengthy piece, a discussion involving everyone commenced. All the lads were crystal clear in their attitudes.
There was no basis for a settlement. They British government were stil persisting in their refusal to move meaningfully on work, association, or segregation. The prisoners’ July 4th statement outlined their position.
Yes, they knew they could come off the hunger-strike at any time. Yes, they knew the Movement would have no difficulties in explaining the end of the hunger-strike.
If there was an alternative to the strike they wouldn’t be on it. Five years of protest was too much. A reasonable and commonsense approach by the British would end, permanently, all the prison protests.
No, they weren’t motivated by a personal loyalist to Bobby, Raymond, Francie, Patsy, Martin or Joe. They knew the score, they didn’t want to die, but they needed a settlement of the issues which caused the hunger-strike before they would end the hunger-strike.
No, they weren’t driven by a personal loyalty to each other. Regardless of what the others did, each was personally committed to the five demands and to the hunger-strike. They weren’t under any duress.
Apologetically, at first, because I knew all those things myself, I told the lads that I felt duty bound to satisfy the clergymen and all those who were pressurising their families.
I painted the darkest and blackest picture possible: between ten and twenty prisoners dead, nationalist Ireland demoralised, and no advance from the British government.
“You could all be dead. Everyone left in this room when we leave will be dead.”
“Sin é” said somebody. “They won’t break us. If we don’t get the five demands then the rest of the boys and the women will.”
“We’re right.” declared another. “The British government is wrong and if they think they can break us they’re wrong twice. Lean ar agaigh.”
By this time I was starting to feel absurd, but I persisted in probing them harshly, questioning them all, outlining the Republican attitude to the hunger-strike, explaining that we could go out and announce it had ended, or that any one of them had finished it; but the lads, individually and collectively, remained unmoved.
By this time I had emptied two jugs of Tom McElwee’s spring water, much to the amusement of Lorny McKeown and Matt Devlin.
“We’re not letting you in again,” said Tom, as he went to get a refill.
“What about Danny Morrison?” somebody asked. “We heard he was sick.”
“Working his ticket.” I replied.
“And your brother? How’s he?”
“Cad é faoi wee Tommy agus Fiery Joe. Tell Spike to do is whack. Do you ever hear from him. Fear go h’iontach”.
“How’s my mother holding up?”
“Is Pauline okay?”
“Can you get me in the ‘Irish Times’. Ed Maloney’s cat, but there’s plenty of reading in it. Any chance of a copy of ‘Magill’? How’s the Phoblacht’s sales doing?”
“Cad faoi mo clann?”
“What about the SDLP? Get them off the councils… And Fermanagh/South Tyrone? How come Owen always wears a suit?”
Our gathering was starting to dissolve into a bantering session. Tom McElwee was trying on my glasses. Somebody was seriously and genuinely concerned that Brendan McFarlane had missed his tea. We were inundated with queries about the struggle outside, about their families, about fellow prisoners, about the women in Armagh, the lads in the Crum.
Paddy Quinn informed us that his sight had gone since the meeting started. I spoke to him privately.
“Na bac,” arsa se. “Lean ar aghaidh.”
Brendan arranged for us to go and see Kieran Doherty. I told the lads that I wouldn’t tell Doc of their position.
“He knows it anyway,” someone said. “We saw him last night after Fr. Crilly’s visit.” “I know.” I said.
Doc was propped up on one elbow, his eyes, unseeing, scanned the cell as he heard us entering.
“Is mise,” said Brendan McFarlane.
“Ahh Bik, Caide mór ata…?” arsa Doc.
“Níl ro dona, agus tú féin?”
“Tá me go h’iontach, tá daoine eile anseo? Cé…?”
“Tá Gerry Adams, Owen Carron agus Séamus Ruddy anseo. Caithfidh sibh a bheith ag caint leath.”
“Gerry A, Fáilte.” He greeted us all, his eyes following our voices. We crowded around the bed, the cell much too small for our visitors. I sat on the side of the bed. Doc, who I hadn’t seen in years, looked massive in his gauntness, as his eyes, fierce in their quiet defiance, scanned my face.
I spoke to him quietly and slowly, somewhat awed by the man’s dignity and resolve and by the enormity of our mission.
He responded to my probing with patience.
“You know the score yourself,” he said. “I’ve a week in me yet. How is Kevin (Lynch) holding out?”
“You’ll both be dead. I can go out now, Doc, and announce that it’s over.”
He paused momentarily, and reflected then: “We haven’t got our five demands and that’s the only way I’m coming off. Too much suffered for too long, too many good men dead. Thatcher can’t break us. Lean ar aghaidh. I’m not a criminal.”
I continued with my probing.
“For too long our people have been broken. The Free Staters, the Church, the SDLP. We won’t be broken. We’ll get our five demands. If I’m dead... well the others will have them. I don’t want to die but that’s up to the Brits. They think they can break us. Well they can’t.” He grinned self-consciously.
“How are you all keeping? I’m glad you came in. I can only see blurred shapes. I’m glad to be with friends. Cá bhfuil, Bik? Bik, stay staunch. How’s the boys doing?”
We talked quietly for a few minutes. Owen got another ribbing about Fermanagh and South Tyrone. We got up to go. I told Doc to get the screw to give us a shout if he wanted anything.
We shook hands, an old internee’s handshake, firm and strong.
“Thanks for coming in, I’m glad we had that wee yarn. Tell everyone, all the lads I was asking for them and…” He continued to grip my hand.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get our five demands. We’ll break Thatcher. Lean ar aghaidh.”
Outside Doc’s cell, the screw led us into speak to Kieran’s father and brother, who had just arrived to relieve Kieran’s mother.
We spoke for about five minutes. I felt an immense solidarity with the Doherty family, broken-hearted, like all the families, as they watched Kieran die. Yet because they understood their son, prepared to accept his wishes and completely committed to the five demands for which he fasted.
Talking to Alfie, his eyes brimming with unshed tears, in the quiet cells in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, I felt a raw hatred for the injustice which created this crisis. Alfie, concerned for us, had a quiet word with Bik McFarlane and left to sit with Kieran.
We went in to speak to Kevin Lynch’s family. The prison chaplains were with Kevin, and the screws had advised Brendan that Kevin should not be disturbed. We spent a few minutes with Kevin’s father and older brother. Kevin was totally determined to continue his fast, unless the five demands were conceded.
Kevin’s father, broken-hearted at his imminent death, told us of his anguish in the face of British intransigence. “To rear a son and see him die like this…”
We left, unable to speak with Kevin. I paused at the open cell door: the priest knelt at Kevin’s bedside, Kevin lay stretched on the prison bed. The screw closed the door on us.
Back to the canteen, Paddy Quinn by now restricted to his cell, was absent. The lads asked us about Kevin and Doc’s condition. Someone had heard on the radio that the press were outside. One of the lads suggested that the hunger-strikers write an agreed statement signed by them all.
“Send it out yourselves tomorrow. They’ll think we solicited it from you.” I advised.
“They’re still at that,” said some of the lads in disgust. “They must think we can’t write.”
I scribbled out an account of our visit and read it to the boys. They suggested that we put in two paragraphs calling upon the Catholic hierarchy, SDLP and Dublin government to publicly support and pressurise the British government into moving towards the July 4th statement.
“And tell them to get off our families backs.”
“Thank our supporters and all the prisoners’ families.”
They dictated two paragraphs to me on these issues, then, satisfied at the final draft, we spent the last few minutes talking. Matt Devlin and Owen Carron; Séamus, Paddy, and Mickey Devine; myself and Brendan McFarlane. Then a few words with Pat McGeown, Tom and Lorny.
“Before we leave, have any of you any questions? You might never see us again.” I looked around at the thin, half-starved defiant young men.
“Have we got any heavy gear yet?” one of them asked. “Get us our five demands.” Somebody else said.
“Beidh on bua againn. Brisfidh muid Maggie Thatcher.”
We all shook hands. “Mind yourselves, and tell our families we’re sound.”
“Beannacht dia duit,” arsa Bik, “agus be cúramach.”
We left by the same gates and watchtowers, Brit soldiers, RUC men and screws. Move the British government on work, association, and segregation. That’s what the boys said.
We went out the last gate to where the press were gathered. The huge double gates of Long Kesh slammed shut behind us. I never saw Kevin Lynch or Kieran Doherty alive again.