A review of the autobiographical book ‘Sisters in Cells’ by Bernadette Hyland, for her blog, lipstick socialist.
Áine and Eibhlín Nic Giolla Easpaig are unique in several ways. They were republican women political prisoners in the 70s – the first women of that era to be imprisoned in England, while their autobiography ‘Sisters in Cells’ is one of the few jail journals that has been written by women, telling their story of growing up in Manchester in the 60s and 70s and their experiences as innocent people in the prison system.
The sisters were born in Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. It was a republican area where people spoke Irish as their first language and were closely intertwined with the politics of a united Ireland. They grew up there until the 1960s when their parents, like many Irish at that time, decided to seek work in England.
Their new life was a massive cultural change; they were now living in urban Manchester, part of a large Irish community whose lives centred around the church, community centres, and pubs and clubs designated as Irish.
The sisters were unusual in that they spoke Irish as their first language – most Irish children and some adults quickly lost their accent so they could assimilate into a hostile environment with its everyday anti-Irish racism.
The sisters got their first taste of this at school by a nun who made fun of their accents. The girls got up, put their coats on and left the school. Their mother went back in to see the teacher, the nun apologised and they returned to school.
The sisters were shocked by the attitude of the second generation Irish girls they went to school with. “Most of the girls received very little insight into their Irish heritage from their parents. They knew very little about Ireland or the Irish situation and very few of them came back to Ireland.”
As the sisters say, even in a school predominantly made up of Irish born and second generation there was no recognition of the Irish language, in fact the opposite; “ A teacher wrote to our mother asking her not to speak Irish at home any more as it was retarding our progress!”.
The sisters left school and got jobs, Eibhlin as a nurse in the local hospital, Aine as a model and then hairdresser. They took part in the usual activities of young women except that they were also political activists as members of Sinn Féin.
Politics were rapidly changing for Irish people in Britain as events in the North of Ireland entered a new chapter. The Civil Rights Movement in 1968 brought Catholics out on the streets demanding the vote and the rights of citizens. But the reaction of the British state led to Bloody Sunday and a deepening crisis within the statelet.
Over the water in England the state responded harshly to people who objected to Britain’s war in the north of Ireland. Conspiracy charges were used in Irish cases against people who organised to support nationalists in the North. Victims of this included Father Fell of Coventry, who organised a local Northern Relief Committee, and with others was arrested and charged with conspiracy to cause explosions and found guilty along with a number of other people.
Organisations such as the National Campaign for Civil Liberties spoke out about the police raiding the homes of Irish people who were activists to gather information. Journalist, Chris Mullins, in his book about the Birmingham 6, wrote about the first Manchester unit of the IRA which was set up in the summer of 1973.
This is where the sisters enter the story. On 27 February 1975 they were sentenced to fifteen years in prison for conspiring to cause explosions. Aine was twenty five years old while Eibhlin was twenty two. They both denied the charges and later on alongside the Birmingham 6 and so on the evidence used against them was discredited. Too late for them as they were released in 1983.
The sisters lived in a house they shared with their parents and their brother Eoini. When a gun was found there Aine was arrested and charged with illegal possession of the gun. The police told her it was her brother they wanted to interview and she was released on bail. When her brother returned she advised him to leave for Ireland which he did.
When the sisters went to retrieve their brother’s car in Withington on 26 April 1974 unbeknown to them two men were making explosive devices in the house. A bomb went off setting the house on fire and a man was injured. The sisters then decided to return to Ireland but in their brother’s car. They were arrested in Holyhead and two days later were charged with conspiracy to cause explosions.
The sisters sum up their experience in court as an “Irish” trial at a time when the atmosphere was particularly bad and the on-going IRA campaign in Britain meant that maximum pressure was on the police to get results – any results. Results which meant “show trials and irrationally long prison sentences for anybody who can be plausibly convicted.”
Their trial took place in November 1974 against the background of the Birmingham pub bombings by the IRA. It was followed by the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which was designed to curtail political discussion and activity within the Irish community in Britain, including powers to stop and surveil thousands of Irish people as they travelled back and forth to Ireland and hold people for seven days without a solicitor.
Their jail journal details how they survived eight years as “special category” prisoners held in one of Britain’s oldest prisons; Durham. Their parents, now elderly and fragile physically, had returned to Donegal and visiting their daughters was not just difficult but expensive. Transfer back to a prison in the north of Ireland was denied them, as was any special category or recogniton that they were political prisoners.
“Sisters in Cells” is a well written and insightful account of the lives of two republican women. They were caught up in a period of history in this country where being Irish in the wrong place, at the wrong time meant you could be locked away as a political prisoner for a long period - even if publicly the government did not want to recognise them as such.
What makes this book different from many other prison diaries is that it is from two women’s point of view. The sisters have a strength of character that was forged by their background, family and political views and one which was not going to be crushed in the British jail system. They were released in August 1983 and were given a heroines welcome in Ireland.
* “Sisters in Cells” was originally published in Irish in 1986. An English edition came out in 1987. They are no longer in print.