by Mary Nelis
On Wednesday the 5th May, as I reflected on the 40th Anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands on hunger strike in Long Kesh, I received the news that John Elliott, a distant relative and a prominent Attorney at Law in Philadelphia, USA, had died. The death of anyone is a sad occasion but the news of John’s death coming on the day that it was, provoked in me a deep sense of grief and sadness. For it was the desperate plight of prisoners In the North of Ireland and the death Of Bobby Sands that took me 3000 miles across the Atlantic to meet the Elliott family whose ancestors long ago had left Derry and settled in the USA.
In 1975, the British Government announced the ending of Special Category Status for prisoners arrested and convicted of what they termed ‘scheduled’ offences. Special Category Status had been granted in 1972 after a prolonged hunger strike in Crumlin Road prison in Belfast. Its removal by the British in 1976, was designed to change the perception of the ongoing conflict in the 6 Counties, not as a struggle for justice and freedom but a criminal conspiracy by criminal elements within the Republican /Nationalists communities.
The people meeting in a house in Derry in the Autumn of 1976 had little or no understanding of what the removal of special category or political status as it became known, would mean for them and for their communities, in the days and months ahead.
It was a sombre meeting. Most of us present were still reeling from the shock of the six o clock knock at doors and the horror of seeing children, husbands, brothers, being dragged out of their homes by British soldiers and taken to the notorious RUC interrogation centres at Castlereagh or Strand Road. The shock was only matched by the knowledge as we learned later, that many of those arrested would end up in the newly built high security prison, the H Block, named for its design in the shape of a H.
Nor did we realise that it would be the beginning of years of brutality and torture for our sons and husband and brothers who would lie naked in maggot filled cells within the barbed wire and look out towers of the H Blocks.
A wall with watch towers and guards with machine guns and search light had been built around this high security prison but a greater wall of silence would conceal the horror of the ill treatment of the mainly young prisoners by hostile prison officers determined to enforce the policy of criminalisation by forcing prisoners to wear prison uniforms.
Those arrested in the years after 1976 were mainly young people from Nationalists/Republican areas of the North. They were arrested under special laws, interrogated under special legislation and tried in special non-jury Courts. As such they regarded themselves as Irish Republican prisoners of war determined to resist the attempts by the British to criminalise the age-old struggle for Irish Independence. The punishments for not conforming in the H Blocks, were swift and merciless. Prisoners were left naked in their cells and beatings and other harsh measures were frequent. No visits by relatives were allowed.
Shortly after my son was sentenced in November 1976, I received a message from a Belfast priest who had been permitted to visit young prisoners in H Block 3 and who told me he was appalled at the sight of young prisoners naked and with what appeared to be cigarette burns on their backs.
It was the knowledge of this torture and out of a sense of desperation that we Derry Relatives at that meeting took on the responsibility to tell people of the ongoing horror that was H Block. We planned a campaign of street protests, interruption of civic meetings, placards and writing letters to anyone whom we thought would help especially relations abroad.
I was tasked with writing to a man from Derry, Danny Harkin, a relative of the late Eileen Harkin who had lived in Philadelphia for a long number of years. I was delighted to get a response some weeks later from Danny who informed me that he had met my cousin John Elliott in downtown Philadelphia and showed him my letter. He suggested I write to him. I was not aware that the Elliott family in Derry had connections in Philadelphia. But I wrote anyway. I never received a reply but two months later I received a plane ticket from Aer Lingus for a flight from Shannon to Philadelphia courtesy of John Elliott.
For someone who had never been further than Buncrana, the idea of going to America filled me with apprehension, but in March 1977, I found myself on a plane to meet an extraordinary man, my distant cousin John Elliott, an attorney and historian and a man who had never lost track of his roots in Derry or Ireland and a man I knew nothing about.
The story of the four Elliott brothers, from the lowlands of Scotland who arrived in Derry sometime in the 1700s, on the run as deserters from the British Army, is a story in itself as I learned from John Elliott when we eventually met in Philadelphia. It was the stuff of block buster film. The brothers were silversmiths by trade but on arrival in Derry became blacksmiths One of them opened a blacksmith at Warbleshinney in Ardmore, remembered to this day in the names of Elliott’s Brea and Forge Road. Two of them subsequently emigrated to the US and one to Canada.
Those who left Derry found work in the coal mines of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania and would later open their own blacksmith shop in that area. When I met John in his law office in Philadelphia his pride of place was the anvil from that blacksmith shop.
This amazing intellectual man who would become President of the Molly Maguire Society and recipient of numerous academic awards welcomed me, a relative stranger to Philadelphia and arranged meetings with various individuals and groups. The situation in the North and the treatment of prisoners in the H Blocks would be told to the numerous Irish American organisations in Philadelphia and to the media and TV. I met the Philadelphia Law society, The AOH, The Brehon Law Society and many other distinguished Irish American organisations, a situation that did not go unnoticed by the British Consulate in Philadelphia. The pro-British elements of a group called the Christian Science Monitor repeatedly interrupted my talks on various Radio programmes.
On my return from Philadelphia, I learned that the naked prisoners in the H Blocks had been given blankets. The wearing of grey blankets would become symbolic of protests by relatives and supporters outside of the H Blocks and all over Ireland and Europe. The wall of silence had been broken but the brutality would increase as the prisoners escalated their protest, to no wash in 1978. The inevitable outcome would be the Hunger Strikes.
So forty years on I mourn the death of Bobby Sands and his comrades and I mourn the death of that amazing generous man John Elliott whom I met through the goodness of another Derry exile, Danny Duffy. The simple message going out from that meeting of relatives that Autumn evening 40 years ago would help to break the silence around the H Blocks and it would connect the Elliotts with their roots in Derry. From across the Atlantic, John Elliott, lawyer, historian and defender of human integrity would open his door and his generous Derry heart to me, and those who lay naked and cold in British prisons. John remembered the struggle by his forefathers for justice and dignity for the human beings in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. And I remember a man of integrity whose roots still lie in the green fields around Warbleshinney.