11th of July, 28 years ago was to be my last full
day spent as a special category prisoner. Two weeks
earlier my escape bid collapsed; aborted in the
jail reception area where I was apprehended with
an imitation firearm made by the late Larry Marley.
'What's in your shoe?' asked the screw who searched
me. 'The same as is in the other one', my nonchalant
reply as I tried to bluff my way and reach Belfast
Appeal Court where security would be more lax and
an escape bid doable.
retort was ill-appreciated. He soon discovered that
the realistic looking weapon, equipped with cocking
mechanism, was broken down and spread between the
two shoes. 'Funny fornicator' would be a polite
way of describing what he called me. He felt he
had the last laugh. I would now make the transformation
from political prisoner to common criminal at the
stroke of some NIO bureaucrat's pen. That's how
simple it was. Due process was a foreign language
in the NIO in those days. A prison uniform was more
foreign to me. I would never wear one.
the 12th of July the door in the punishment block
opened and a screw said 'know where you are going?'
Trying to sound indifferent and eager to deflate
his joyous role as the bearer of bad news, I merely
replied 'the blocks.' The thought that I was keeping
him away from an Orange march was small consolation
as I made the short journey to H4 and a new life,
vastly different from the laid back existence of
Cage 11. Small wonder early internees would term
Long Kesh the 'Lazy K.'
no wash protest had already begun and my fear was
that I would retch and vomit once placed in a 'leaping'
cell, embarrassing myself in front of any new cell
mate and screws alike. The anticipated stench failed
to materialise. Covering the walls with human waste
would not become part of the protest for a further
two months. Wearing the blanket was strange at first.
Wrapped around the waist like a woman's maxi skirt,
it would become the potent symbol of one of the
most determined protests ever to confront the penal
systems of Western Europe. By the time I discarded
it over three years later, I felt uncomfortable
in my own clothes.
from some screw flexing his muscles as I entered
the block I reached my new abode without any hassle.
The dreaded beating didn't occur. The screws on
the wing were laid back, even polite. A further
two months would elapse before I would experience
the violence of the NIO's enlightened and humane
minutes of my arrival in Cell 15, C Wing, H Block
4, a prison governor arrived to 'award' a punishment
for my refusal to wear prison uniform. My cellmate
hooted and tooted, all the time banging his chamber
pot on the wall to drown out the governor's voice,
urging me to do likewise. It was part of life in
a Brave New World that I wasn't prepared for just
yet. My reticence to scream and scowl gave the governor
his opportunity. He put his mouth to my ear and
shouted, 'if you stay here you'll be as mad as him.'
I feared he might be right. By the time a week had
passed I knew he was. It was the madness of the
defiant dammed. And we would be dammed in hell before
the governor or his brutal minions would get us
into that prison uniform and concede that republicanism
was a criminal enterprise.
Nugent, the first blanket man, was on that wing,
as was Tom McElwee who would later die on hunger
strike. Their names became immortalised because
of the roles they played in the protest. But there
were others on the same wing who wore the blanket
for years on end and who also died prematurely.
Men like Jimmy Conway and Harry McKavanagh from
Ardoyne, Sam Marshall from Lurgan; men who suffered
the vicious truth that lay behind Britain's PR facade.
back, it was arduous and brutal. Apart from each
other our only companions were the omnipresent trepidation
and tedium. Yet I don't regret a day of it. It was
an honour to drink at the well of integrity and
human decency that spouted from the pale bodies
of those republicans who fought the malign might
of Britain with nothing but a blanket. Tom, Kieran,
Sam, Jimmy, Harry, the valiant spirits of 'our wing'
in H-Block 4.