From the belly of the beast
Mick O'Brien tells Roisín de Rossa of his time in English jails and
his hopes for the struggle today
``I heard the miners' songs coming up from the valley. I love those
Mick, in excruciating pain, was out on the moors for three days,
above Pontefract, hostile territory, travelling nights, trying to get
away. ``We were in a corn field. They were just a few feet away. We
could hear everything - what they were and weren't going to do to
d of course they did all those things when Mick and his comrade,
Paul `Dingus' Magee, were finally captured, but Mick doesn't speak
about it. Gentle, quietly spoken and thoughtful. The same man as we
all saw on tele that terrible day, running down with a very brave
few, chasing Michael Stone as he fired shots and threw grenades at
the mourners in Milltown Cemetery.
After his arrest and sentence Mick and the other POWs campaigned to
be transferred to Ireland. ``Then one day a screw came in the cell at
6am. `O'Brien, on your way,' he said. Seeing me ready with a bag
packed, the screw asks, `Are you going somewhere?' `Back to Ireland,'
I said. The screw slams the door to. We hear them on the radios,
foostering about. `They know. They know.' Panic.''
Some minutes later the screw returned. ``How did you know?'' he asked.
``Sure the IRA knows everything,'' Mick replied.
``We thought that we were going for a 28 day lay down (punishment in
solitary). Derek (Dempsey), Padraig (MacFhloinn) and myself. We
didn't know where we were going. Another jail?'' Transported in the
van, each in a two foot square box, they tried to catch the road
signs through the narrow slits.
Leeds Airport? They passed Leeds. Maybe Frankland.
Manchester, and then, surrounded by a circle of 30 cop cars, all of
them out with their Uzis and Heckler and Kochs, they saw the Free
``We left. The Brits looked sick. We were back. Portlaoise - it's hard
to come to terms with it. It is so different. For the first time you
didn't have to watch your back. Over there there was always a screw
who made it his special treat to make your day a misery. But here,
some of the screws were saying, `Jesus, lads, great to see you home'.
It's the psychology of it. Tommy Eccles, or Liam O'Dwyer, who would
have been in the jail 15 years back, knew them for what they were.
When they got a little bit up the ladder, with the changing times,
and when they know they can't get away with it, they turn about face.
But we didn't know. Were they winding us up?'' Mick, Derek and Padraig
landed to a tumultuous welcome.
``We got a visit the next day. It was unbelievable. The relief for the
family. You could feel it. You could see it in their faces. No more
travelling. No more of those terrible trips over to see you.''
``But we never believed we'd get out.'' Nor did his younger son. When
are you going back? he kept asking. Mick pointed to Sky News. ``Look!
They're saying I'm out. That proves it. I'm really out.'' But Conor
was still very worried. He had told his pal up the street that his
dad had a night-time job at the airport. Now he had to go round and
tell him that Mick was back. He'd lost the job! He brought his friend
to the house. ``My daddy's inside. You can come in and see him if you
In Portlaoise, Mick got into studying. He'd been doing an Open
University recognised course in business studies, computer training,
and a couple of courses to qualify as a physical training instructor.
Then he took over as OC and didn't have much time. ``Some 32 County
people came into the jail. A group of us invited them up onto our
landing to talk to them. `Tell us where you are coming from. What are
you doing? Why? How do you propose to go about it? If these fellows
had gone off and split, and we'd have been in England, we'd have felt
gutted - in England it was talk, talk, talk between the POWs whenever
we got to see each other. Maybe of a Sunday. It was different in
Portlaoise, but we re-started a SF cumann, and men could join if they
``I was coming from a Sinn Fein background as well - knocking doors,
selling papers. Army work or Sinn Fein work - I don't see them as all
that different. If anything, it's harder. You had to be up front.
Deal with things day to day. The change of phases of the struggle
shouldn't be so hard. After all what does `free the people' mean if
it's not to better your area? If we're going to go forward, we have
to deal with it. No one should ever see one phase or type of struggle
as more real, or better. All the brave people in 1923 didn't see any
other role and they headed off to the States or wherever. This time
Mick spoke at a social down the country. ``The organisers said they
weren't expecting many. Maybe fifty. But it was black. People don't
see the opportunity that is there. We felt terrible frustration at
seeing that there weren't crowds of new members all over - that
things were maybe just the same when we came back.''
As a child Mick had holidayed in Mayo with relatives and he'd come
back on the boat train to Dun Laoghaire. ``We'd see the terrible
sadness, people with their bags, and no money, the children crying.
Leaving. This wasn't the Ireland that people fought for. I suppose
that is what got me into the struggle first.''
Mick first joined the Brits Must Go Campaign, in 1978, and then the
Relatives Action Campaign. ``I remember meetings in Derry to broaden
the campaign. Suddenly people got a brainwave, that the RAC women had
been right all along, we had to go to all of the people, There was
massive support out there - if you went out looking for it. Couldn't
fill the buckets quick enough''.
He left in 1982, feeling that it was just paper selling, that there
was nothing for doing. Then he met two local Republicans, who
convinced him how we were going to do great things, and he joined the
Clarke McVerry cumann, and went up to help in the `83 Assembly
elections in Armagh City. ``It was a great campaign You could feel the
buzz with everyone.''
After Mick's release, in November of this year, he had been at a
commemoration in Shanaghan Cemetery, at Shankill, for those who had
been members of the cumann and died since Mick was away - Mick
Cleary, Andy O'Connor, Liam O'Brien, Dick Farrell and Dermot McGurk.
``It was one of the hardest aspects of jail. You have to be reminded
that they are dead. When you are not there to grieve for them, they
are somehow still alive for you.''
In 1985 Mick stood for election in Ballybrack - first time SF ever
had a candidate in the area. He got 480 votes. ``We didn't know the
mechanics of elections, it was an entirely new ball game. But you
have to have the will - that you can win.'' He became SF organiser,
``in Belfast in the morning and Cork in the evening. It was crazy.
Just doing a fireman's job.''
After arrest Mick went to Belmarsh - his first time in jail. ``It was
never the beatings that was hardest - it was hearing the beatings. It
was a jungle. The ordinary crims, especially the London ones, the
older ones, they'd known Hugh Feeney, Gerry Kelly, Billy Armstrong,
Paul Norney and all them. They had terrific respect for our lads.''
Mick was in the `secure unit' at Full Sutton. ``We never saw any
further than 22ft. surrounded by walls in a cage, a steel structure
over our heads, which kept out most of the light. We were always in
``We'd fight to get over to the hospital just to see daylight. It was
terible confinement, but there was never one bad word amongst us.
Regulations said that prisoners were only to be in the secure units
for two months. They ignored it.
``Just before the first ceasefire two `suits' came down from the Home
Office and announced that `You lads are going to be treated
differently from now on in'. Was it for good or bad? `John Major says
there are no political prisoners in England!' Everything started to
change, under Mr Howard's [Home Secretary] personal attention.''
When they got to Full Sutton - Mick, Damien (McComb), Pat Kelly and
Felim O'hAdmhaill) - they could hardly walk they had been so damaged
from the beatings.
``The screws claimed to have found explosives in the prison - which
was lies. We were put on 24 hour lockup, from Stephen's Day `94 to
the following June It took a Judicial Review to get out.
``We were moved to Whitemoor for a few months. They had spent £3
million improving Whitemoor - to last, they said, till 2095. Screws,
dressed in riot gear, were specially picked to deal with IRA
prisoners, with a psychologist available to them at all times. One
time the shrink was hanging around the wing in civvies and a prisoner
asked to see him for a moment - `No, No', he replied, `I'm here for
There was no work, no phones, nothing, and for their families, still
less. The beatings were bad. Everything was white. Mick, Pat and
Felim went on dirty protest.
``Paddy [Kelly], who had been refused medical attention since `93, was
dying. He knew the doctor was not telling him the full story. They
wouldn't let the Irish Embassy official in to see him. Dick Spring
made a statement, and we got the visit. At least we got a wash out of
After six months of protest they were de-categorised and moved to the
main jail, where there was Noel Gibson, Sean Kinsella, and then
Hughie Doherty, Joe O'Connell and Eddie Butler. ``We got such a buzz
out of the way they handled themselves. You could just see them.
There were 500 in the jail. Everyone looked up to them. Any problem,
it was `Go see Hughie, or Joe, or any of them'.
``It was ironic in a way. When I'd first joined Sinn Fein, the cumann
members wrote to prisoners, and I'd been writing to Hughie. And now
there I was in the same jail.''
Pat Kelly (who died after his cancer was ignored while he was in
prison in England) and Mick were in cells opposite each other, a
prison within the secure unit, within a prison. There was just a bed
and a tap in one of them. ``Pat was a real country man - didn't think
bad of too many people. And at the same time he was very cute. He was
a great story teller, he told marvellous stories of going all over
Europe in his truck. When we'd nothing to do it was, `tell us that
story about Italy, or the Russian border'. We talked about where we'd
go when we got out and what we'd do. He and I were going for organic
farming. He came from Portarlington. He knew my grandparents (Tom
Maguire's sister) from Emo, where I used to holiday as a kid.
``Pat went out to hospital for an operation on the cancer. He came
back to the hospital and was chained to a bed. But they wouldn't hold
him there. And he returned to the cell, where they were on protest,
with dirt everywhere, cockroaches, with just a plaster covering the
wound. `Come off the protest till you get a bit stronger'. He
wouldn't. One day he said, `It's the first time I've ever been in
love'. A country fellow. He just came out with it. He was 44. I miss