H is for history
By PEADAR WHELAN
With the final closure of the H-Blocks of Long Kesh this week,
and the release of all but a small number of the remaining
republican prisoners in both the Six and 26 Counties, ex-prisoner
Peadar Whelan reflects on the toll of years, and of republican
lives, lost in those jails.
In their new video `100,000 Years' Coiste na
nIarchimí, the republican ex-prisoners'organisation, tells
us that republicans have served up to 100,000 years in British
prisons during the last 30 years of struggle. That 100,000 years
has been served by approximately 15,000 people.
Also listed on the video are the names of 24 people; it is the
Roll of Honour of those republicans who died in both British and
Irish prisons over the last three decades. They include 12 hunger
strikers. Volunteers Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg died in
English prisons. Volunteers Bobby Sands, Frank Hughes, Raymond
McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin
Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Mickey Devine died in
the H Block hunger strike in 1981.
Sinn Féin member Noel Jenkinson died in prison in
England, in Leicester jail in 1976.Volunteers Francis Dodds,
Teddy Campbell, Patrick Teer, Hugh Coney, Jim Moyne, Henry
Heaney, Sean Bateson and Pól Kinsella all died in Long
Hugh Coney was shot dead by a British soldier in 1974 as he
tried to escape from the Kesh and while their death certificates
might put the deaths of the others down to natural causes in most
cases there was deliberate medical neglect that contributed to
Jim Moyne from Derry City was interned when he died from an
asthma attack. Had the prison authorities rushed him to hospital
instead of taking hours to treat him he may be alive today. And
in the case of Pól Kinsella, the British refused to treat
his cancer and he died in December 1994.
Volunteer Paddy Kelly was similarly mis-treated. He was locked
up in an SSU in England and his cancer ignored. He died in 1997.
Volunteers Tom Smith and Brendan Seery died in Portlaoise. Smith
was shot dead by Free State troops during an escape attempt.
This Roll of Honour and the figure of 100,000 years of
imprisonment will come into sharp focus for republicans as
Britain's most notorious of prisons, Long Kesh, closes this week.
As renowned as Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned
for so many years, the struggle is now on to decide the future of
Former republican prisoner and now a Sinn Féin
councillor in Lisburn Paul Butler argues that part of the jail
should be kept as a museum. Not to celebrate the cruel and brutal
regime which flourished there but to commemorate those who fought
and died in struggles, often against all the odds, to maintain
their own dignity as human beings.
The British would probably prefer the place to be razed to the
ground. Built to be the ``breaker's yard'' for the Republican
Movement and the cause of Irish freedom, the H Blocks of Long
Kesh became the grave yard for Britain's criminalisation policy
in the North of Ireland. Those who argue that the place be
bulldozed dismiss the political and historical importance of the
It housed the first internees and became a by-word as a
concentration camp similar to those that housed prisoners of war
in the Second World War. The cages during the 1974 Burning, where
both sentenced prisoners and internees were held before the
British government's attempt to remove political status,
witnessed the biggest single engagement between republicans and
armed British forces throughout this phase of the struggle. Hugh
Coney from Tyrone was shot dead as he tried to escape three weeks
after the Burning and the effects the CR gas used on the
prisoners had is still being explored.
d as the 1981 hunger strike began and British Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher stubborn refusal to be moved by the heroism of
Bobby Sands and the other Hunger Strikers ensured that the
symbolism of the H Blocks is now steeped in images of courage and
fortitude. Thatcher is finished yet the commitment of all the H
Block prisoners is a potent political factor in the growing
strength of the republican struggle.
Whatever happens to Long Kesh on Friday the facts remain that
the place has affected the lives of everyone in the Six Counties,
and further afield, in one way or another. To destroy the place
would be to commit an act of gross political, historical and
cultural vandalism. ENDS