4 May 2006 Edition
Remembering 1981: Former Hunger Striker Laurence McKeown's story
"He's My Son"
25 years ago this week Bobby Sands died after 66 days on Hunger Strike. Laurence McKeown also took part in the 1981 Hunger Strike, going for 70 days without food. Here, he talks to An Phoblacht's ELLA O'DWYER about his own background, jail experience, his impressions of Bobby Sands and the affects of a prolonged encounter with death at such an early age.
"I was born in the village of Randalstown, County Antrim, a rural place where, typical of the times, there was no water or electricity. Ours was a relatively non-political household. My parents were quiet, unassuming people who lived in a mixed community of Protestants and Catholics, all knowing each other on first name terms".
In 1969 Laurence was 12 years old: " Bernadette Devlin, John Hume etc. were on TV regularly and, like many people of his generation, my father was fired up by the Civil Rights campaign. It touched a nerve. It was a time of heavy discrimination, most obviously in terms of housing. My father and a Protestant neighbour he worked with had submitted identical building plans to the local council. My father's was knocked back and the Protestant's accepted."
Around this time, young Protestants with whom Laurence grew up were joining the Ulster Defence Regiment. "At about 15 or 16, myself and my mates would be stopped by these same recruits who in, the reality of rural Antrim, were neighbours.
"In the beginning they were embarrassed at asking us what our names were and where we were going . They knew our names; they had grown up beside us. They knew exactly who we were. A pattern emerged where these former acquaintances were ordering us out of cars and lining us up against walls. It wasn't about religion. It was about one side being armed while the other wasn't". This was a turning point for Laurence and, at the age of 16, he became actively involved in republicanism.
"I was arrested on 2 August 1976 and taken to Castelreigh holding centre. This was at a time when Ulsterisation, criminalistaion and normalisation was the policy under a Labour government; a time when powers of arrest and detention were extended and the non-jury Diplock courts were introduced.
"When it came to interrogation, the police had a free hand and people could be sentenced to life on the basis of statements, oral or signed. I was ill-prepared for what faced me in Castlereigh."
The physical and psychological torture endured by those who passed through Castlereagh is well documented. " The uncertainty, the unknown, the waiting" and the inevitable brutality. Whether through physical or psychological pressure, the interrogating team aimed to get results. After three days In Castlereagh McKeown was charged with attempted murder of an RUC man and causing explosions. He was then taken to Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast and subsequently to the H-Blocks at Long Kesh. He was sentenced in a non-jury Diplock court to life imprisonment. At this time other republicans were on the same path, many of whom would subsequently end up on hunger strike, people such Bobby Sands, Tom McElwee, Joe Mc Donnell and Kieran Doherty.
I asked him how he felt. Recalling the atmosphere of the non-jury court, he said: "The worst of it was that my mother was there. The judge asked if anyone present had something to say in favour of the defendant. I heard this woman's voice, my mother's saying: "He's my son". It was 1978 before he saw her again.
McKeown's arrival at the H-Blocks at the age of 19 was as confusing and torturous as the interrogation period, again the encounter with "uncertainty, the unknown" and an inevitable period of waiting. Following in the steps of Kieran Nugent, he became a blanket man. "Kieran was probably a good man to start the protest. He was, that sort of ...not a hard man, not macho, but solid".
Instead of being delivered to the protesting block at H5, McKeown was taken to another block simply because, as he later discovered, the protesting block H5 was full up- full of blanket men. More and more people were joining the protest. This was a "lonely time" as the lone protesting prisoner in H2.
He was taken down to the circle and ordered to take off his clothes. He stripped to his underpants when a screw shouted, "I told you to fucking take off the heap".
"The first days were the loneliest, I was naked and confused as to why I wasn't with the other protesting prisoners in H5"- again the uncertainty, the unknown and the waiting. "Waiting on a beating was worse. There's a kind of relief when it's over".
Bibles are a compulsorily feature of all British prisons. On arriving in his H Block cell Laurence spotted the inevitable Bible the bedside locker. "I opened the book in a haphazard way and found myself reading from something called the Book of Sirach. The line I was looking at simply stated that 'gold must be tested at the heat of the furnace'. I took some inspiration from the quote".
As it happened this interview took place in the small garden at the front of Laurence McKeown's home. In a strange twist of events just as we spoke, a team of Bible enthusiast neighbours called by to talk about the good book. As their offer was declined, Laurence McKeown had a flash back to a scene in the Blocks. The phantom of the 'prison visitor' had come to mind. Prison visitors, quite like the Bible loving neighbours, work in teams of usually well intentioned, ungrounded people with little grasp on reality and too much time on their hands. He described how prison visitors had visited a blanketman's cell one day: A woman came into the cell which was "riddled with shit, rotten food and maggots". This messenger of God didn't ask him how he was coping, how his family fared or how he could possibly survive in such horrific circumstances. 'Where is your Bible' she demanded, to which the young man replied: 'I fucked it out the window'.
In later years, the Church was to feature in the Hunger Strike, forming a pressure group aimed directly at the families of the hunger strikers.
It was clear that Laurence McKeown's prolonged engagement with death during the Hunger Strike was part of a journey through self awareness that began well before the Hunger Strike, through the conveyor belt of Castlereagh, the Crum and the Blocks. The blanket protest was a levelling and grounding period amongst protesting prisoners. By March 1978 there were a couple of hundred on the protest. Strip searches, abuse and beatings were the order of the day. "We were getting bad beatings, they thought to beat us off the protest. People were being allowed only two showers a week and were being stopped going out to the toilet". The prisoners decided to withdraw co-operation even further. The system retaliated with brutality and in a very short time things had spiralled into the 'no wash' protest. "Shit on the walls, rotting food and maggots occupied the corners of the cells". Yet, typical of the political prisoner, even in these dark circumstances they were actively challenging the system. By 1979 there were many protesting blocks.
The first time McKeown saw Bobby Sands was in H6. I asked him what he was like. " It was the first time I seen him. I might have seen him once or twice before. We'd been through a rough period. But that was a brilliant period in H6, Jackie (Mc Mullan) was there, Bobby Sands etc. People expect leadership people of such calibre to be somehow spectacular and exceptionally charismatic. I remember thinking he was charismatic, creative and all, but Bobby was also one of the Boys, one of us.
"Bobby understood the historical importance of the period. There were political lectures reflecting on various IRA campaigns, splits, the Civil rights movement etc. It was a major period of politicisation. We learned to think, question and reflect through discussion."
The Blanketmen and then the Hunger Strikers demanded the dignity and treatment due to political prisoners. This, as encompassed in the Five Demands, was crucial to the revolutionary process in Ireland. To criminalise the prisoners was to criminalise the conflict, to acknowledge political status was to admit that it was a war.
By the 1980's republican prisoners believed that a hunger strike was inevitable. "The idea of a hunger strike was always there in the background. In 1979, with the visit of Pope John Paul, the idea of hunger striking was under consideration". The reckoning was that the Church would have to deal with the hypocrisy of allowing such a scene of brutality and injustice to go on. Brendan 'the Dark' Hughes and Bobby had discussed the idea and raised it with the Movement outside. At that time the proposition was declined for the logical reason that there was not yet enough mobilisation outside. It needed more time. Soon the National H-Block Committee was set up and the time arrived in the early 1980s."
In the aftermath of the end of the 1980 Hunger Strike, when the British failed to deliver the Five Demands, people like Bobby Sands understood that the next time around, people would die.
Asked how he felt at the end of the first hunger strike and the start of the next, McKeown spoke again of a sense of relief. They were again doing something. The prisoners had become accustomed to biding their time, forever waiting for something to happen. Sitting with the "uncertainty, the unknown and the waiting. We had been in the eye of the storm, yet there was a kind of calm during that time". There had been a measure of hope when Bobby was elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone. That was swiftly deflated as Thatcher legislated against the possibility of any other political prisoners standing for election."
On 1 March 1981 Bobby Sands began a hunger strike to death, a commitment that he and others like McKeown had already made during the 1980 strike. Bobby Sands was dead almost 24 hours before word got to McKeown's landing. "Fr Toner came into the Dark's cell that morning. The Dark came to the door and shouted 'Bobby is dead'. It wasn't an angry time. It was more a question of who would take over after Bobby. Many of the screws were tamed down, I think even they realised they were living through the middle of something. The wing was quiet, the atmosphere sombre, even amongst the screws."
While Joe McDonnell lasted 61 days, others survived for a lesser time. "Mickey Devine went on strike a week before me". Devine was the last of the 'ten men' to die. It seemed like Laurence McKeown's time was up.
In the prison hospital he recalls the differing natures of the prison hospital staff. "While one might steal your hospital allowance of fags, other medical staff, though very clinical, were not brutal. Some of these went on to meet gruesome ends, committing suicide or being killed in driving accidents through excessive drinking. After 70 days, that same brave woman who stood in the Diplock court at her son's sentence, took him off the Hunger Strike. He remembers as he drifted into a coma her saying: "You did what you had to do and I have to do what I have to do". The family had come under that 'pressure group'- the church, some neighbourly and well intentioned and most ill-advised. Happily Laurence McKeown and his mother had two years of prison visits before his mother died. The same shy woman who had the courage to shout "he's my son"