15 January 2009 Edition
Fógraí bháis: Seán McKenna 1954 - 2008
BY SEANNA WALSH
I FIRST met Seán McKenna back in 1977 on the Blanket Protest in H-Block 5. He was about average height and build, small even, but what really struck me were his eyes. He had a look that would skin you but his eyes were very striking and made you aware that here was a person of depth. I didn’t share a wing with him for a while (I was on the young lads’ wing, of course) but in September ‘79 we were brought back from H6 and I ended up across the wing from Seán.
Seán was in charge of H5 at the time so he would have co-ordinated all the discussions and communications which we had about ways and means to increase the pressure on the British to concede political status and to inform the world about the torture and abuse which were ongoing in the prisons.
Inevitably, when you work alongside someone you develop a personal relationship with them and so conversation turned at times to the personal, and about his early involvement with the IRA. He told me about being active in the Army before the split with the Sticks, about his internment and return to the ranks of the IRA on release.
He told me about his father, who was also arrested in 1971, taken to Holywood Barracks and subjected to the hooded and white noise experimental torture techniques by British interrogators. He talked about his father’s funeral in Monaghan and the Garda attempts to disrupt the funeral and arrest the IRA guard of honour.
He told me how he was on the run in 1975 but was given permission to carry a personal firearm as part of the Truce arrangements between the British Government and the IRA. He spoke of coming up to Long Kesh during the truce to collect fellow Newry man and then O/C of republican prisoners to ferry him to meetings with the IRA leadership.
He talked of the hypocrisy and duplicity of the British during this period, how they negotiated the ending of political status while preparing their onslaught against the nationalist community and republican activists.
Once the truce ended and it became apparent that the plan all along had been solely a counter-insurgency strategy, Seán and his comrades in south Down and south Armagh were to the forefront in the resurgent IRA response.
He also told of his arrest and kidnap from a house in County Louth, how he awoke with a gun muzzle pressed to his forehead and his SAS captors, promising to assassinate him in his bed the way they had done the year previously with Óglach John Green in Monaghan and as they were to do a few months later with Óglach Peter Cleary. In the end, they bundled him across the border and even though they charged him with a series of attacks before 1 March 1976, when sentenced to 25 years in a Diplock court he was dispatched to the H-Blocks to serve his time.
Once there, Seán accepted a leadership role in helping to organise and consolidate the mainly younger prisoners and prepare them for the struggle to attain political status.
As we worked our way through various options and escalations inside the Kesh in our attempts to move the British, we finally arrived at the decision which all prisoners and our families had dreaded for four-and-a-half years: we would embark on Hunger Strike to win status as political prisoners.
Seán McKenna was one of the first names on the list volunteering for the Stailc. I remember a conversation with him where we talked of how difficult the Hunger Strike would be, given Thatcher’s clear hatred for Irish republicanism and her massive majority in Westminster.
Seán was at death’s door, clinically dead for a matter of seconds when Brendan Hughes, as leader of the Hunger Strike, ended it and Seán was rushed out to Musgrave Park Military Hospital.
As the Hunger Strike ended, the British produced a document outlining the basis for an end to the prison protests. Republican prisoners put the British proposals to the test. Two wings ended the protest as a trial. Within a matter of days, it became clear that the prison administration were intent on a continuation of their attempts to criminalise the prisoners.
With the pressure off, British ‘security experts’ were openly boasting that the prison protest had been defeated, that the IRA had played their last card and could shortly be defeated by a robust security response.
The wing shifts and the mirror searches and the beatings in the H-Blocks were stepped up at this time. Bobby Sands, the prisoners’ O/C, announced a second Hunger Strike. The rest is history...
Seán returned to the H-Blocks while the second Hunger Strike was already underway. He had suffered 53 days without food and his health had been damaged irreparably. He had difficulties with his sight, hearing, balance and general health. He had to take medication for the rest of his days.
I shared a wing with him again before I was released in March 1984. Despite the severe and permanent damage to his health, Seán complained little and settled quietly into the routine activity on republican wings following the Hunger Strike. We talked again about the past but more so about the future. His longing for release from the prison which had cost him his health and taken the lives of his comrades and friends increased as his time there came to an end. His dreams of home, the countryside, nature and fresh air sustained him.
When finally he was released he was to carry for the remainder of his life the scars of years on the Blanket Protest and his 53 days on Hunger Strike. He leaves a loving mother, brother and sisters who will miss him sorely. Hopefully, now he can have some peace.
I suaimhneas síoraí faoi dheireadh.