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28 July 2005 Edition

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H-Block memories

Arthur Morgan TD at the door of the first cell he occupied in H4

Arthur Morgan TD at the door of the first cell he occupied in H4

Arthur Morgan, Sinn Féin TD for Louth and party spokesperson on Enterprise and Employment, recently made a return visit to the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. Morgan was a political prisoner in the H-Blocks from 1977 to 1984, following his arrest by the British army aboard a boat in Carlingford Lough.

This week Arthur Morgan writes of the powerful memories generated by his return to Long Kesh.

BY ARTHUR MORGAN TD

It was at a homelessness conference in Brussels that it all began. Fra McCann and myself, housing spokespersons for Sinn Féin on both sides of the border, were in attendance at the request of Mary Lou McDonald MEP. Now, place any two republican ex-POWs together and inevitably the conversation will include a section on time in jail. And so it came to pass. The Blocks, in our case. "I can arrange visits" said Fra. "Excellent", says I. "When can we visit?".

It took Fra several weeks, but fair play to him, he was as good as his word, and we duly arrived at the infamous H-Blocks on the morning of Wednesday, 20th July. Fra was even on time which, in itself, was something of historical note.

Our team included Caoilfhionn Ni Dhonnabháin, my boss in Leinster House, Wendy Lyon and Shannonbrooke Murphy of the Leinster House team, Olive Sharkey who is my boss in Louth, and Marion, my wife and overall boss.

Never let it be said that I don't know my place. John Blackmore, an ex-POW was also in attendance.

We arrived at the H-Blocks and gathered in the car park. Several minutes later our guide arrived. He was quite unusual for a civil servant. For a start, he was quite pleasant and secondly, he had a first name that suggested he might follow gaelic football.

We piled in to the ubiquitous ford van, similar to those which ferried thousands of visitors to meet their imprisoned loved ones in the H-Blocks over many years through the height of resistance to Britain's occupation of Ireland.

First stop was the administration Block. Quite bleak at first sight, it is probably the only two-storey building on the 100-plus acre site at Long Kesh. Boy, when I think of how many of us would have given our right arm to get into this nerve-centre of control in its hey-day.

Anyway, here it was, lying open to the elements and bereft of the technological wizardry which helped the Brits keep some semblance of containment in the prisoner-of-war camp. Empty shelves, which once housed dozens of TV monitors, scrutinising virtually the entire camp, looked miserable.

In we went and, after some mild introduction, we moved to where we all wanted to see - the wards where the hunger-strikers were housed, many of them for their final days.

Ward Eight is where Bobby Sands died. We shuffled in, very respectfully and in silence, to stand by the bare bed in the centre of the otherwise empty room. The silence lasted for several moments, before someone asked if this was the actual bed once occupied by Bobby. Unlikely. However, we reflected on those painful, agonising moments that each of the hunger-strikers, their families and comrades endured during those most historic days.

After some time, we moved quietly down the hospital wing, looking into each of those small rooms and wondering how on earth they endured it. This was lump-in-the-throat time, big time. The empty medication trolley lying in the centre of the wing looked ghostly, and the peeling paint on the walls made it look like this was part of the dirty protest area, which of course it was not. Simply a case of time catching up.

Thoughts of the sadness and tragedy of those times, mixed with the progress and potential of these times. Mind racing. God it would take a book to hold all these thoughts.

After nearly half an hour, we slowly move on to our next stop, H-Block 4.

The visit should really call to H-Block 6 but, because of the killing of Billy Wright there, the scene remains sealed off. So on to H4.

This was most interesting for me, because here is where we -the 'Provo Navy', were deposited after being sentenced by a Diplock court in November 1978.

Memories came flooding back. Now I was walking through the open gate in the company of friends. In '78 we were driven through in a blacked-out prison van and being greeted by the sound of banging chamber pots on cell doors by the blanketmen.

Most memorable, for me, was the repugnant smell as soon as we entered the Block on that November night. Disinfecting agents mixed with the obvious odour of the dirty protest. And then there was the welcoming party - a gang of screws, handpicked to ensure we understood how things would be. After some roughing-up, we were sent to A-Wing, where Peter Dullaghan from Dundalk and myself were shoved in to cell 24 and the door slammed heavily behind us.

On this occasion, we wandered freely down the wing and inspected cell 24 - just for old times sake. The cell was even smaller than I remembered. A bit like going back to your first school and marvelling at the tiny seats, perhaps.

I recounted one of the more interesting experiences at this cell- the forced washing in late December '78. Prisoners were dragged from their cells, beaten, propped in a chair and hair and beards shaved, scraped off' might be more accurate, before being washed with scrubbing brushes and held under water in a bath.

Some blanketmen were really brutalised in this process. I recall Tom McElwee and Kieran Doherty were hospitalised after they lashed out at screws who were beating the younger prisoners particularly badly. Everyone from that time has a story to tell.

Anyway, these wings were now quiet and deserted. Fra McCann regaled the visitors with numerous stories, ranging from his days on the Maidstone prison ship, to the internment camp and the burning of the Kesh. I knew Fra was a fair big age - he has certainly been about a very long time.

We finished our visit with a walk around some of the infamous 'cages', where both internees and POWs were held at a time when Britain accepted our POW status.

The Hospital Block, together with H6 and one of the cages is to be retained. Rightly so. This jail resonates with the same sense of history as Kilmainham in Dublin, where the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion were imprisoned and executed. It is also yet another monument to the failure of successive British and Dublin governments to resolve Ireland's independence issue, once and for all.

Hopefully, our generation will ensure that there are no more Long Kesh camps.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

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