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15 October 2009 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The burning of Long Kesh

BY MÍCHEÁL Mac DONNCHA

BY October 1974, internment without trial had been in operation in the Six Counties for over three years and there was no sign that the British Government was going to bring it to an end, despite widespread national and international condemnation.
Most of the internees were held in Long Kesh where they were housed in Nissen huts within compounds surrounded by wire fences and known as ‘the Cages’.
Sentenced political prisoners were also held here and all had ‘special category status’, which had been won after a hunger strike in 1972 and was, effectively, recognition by the British Government that they were political detainees and not criminals. Republican prisoners were able to organise themselves, wear their own clothes and freely associate within the Cages.
While special category status had been won, conditions in the camp were appalling. The men were forced to live in damp, cold and unhygienic huts, on ground which became swamp-like in wet weather. Medical facilities were inadequate and men were subject to beatings during British Army raids on the camp. The Sunningdale power-sharing Executive had collapsed earlier in the year with no fulfilment of the SDLP promise that their participation would bring the end of internment.

REFUSED PERMISSION
Faced with the prospect of another winter in the Kesh, republican prisoners stepped up their protests and at the beginning of October seemed to have reached agreement with the authorities on improved conditions. However, this proved illusory, and when the IRA O/C in the camp was refused permission to visit one of the Cages where a dispute with the guards had erupted, the order was given to make the ultimate protest they had been holding in reserve – to burn the camp to the ground.
And so, at around 9.30pm on 15 October, hundreds of republican prisoners set fire to the huts and other buildings, demolishing as much as they could, including watch-towers where British soldiers were stationed.
Bobby Lavery, then a sentenced prisoner in Cage 13, recalled:
“In no time at all the whole camp seemed to be on fire. We were in control all that night. The next day we assembled on the football pitches with blankets draped over us with holes cut from the middle to put your head through. We were more like Mexican revolutionaries than Irish ones.
“It was fairly frightening, waiting to see what was going to happen next but when the fighting actually started the fear went out of you.”
At 11am, the British Army moved in.
From helicopters they dropped CR gas, the first time it was used, and it caused prisoners to fall unconscious.
“This CR gas just kept coming from above. They were throwing boxes and boxes of the stuff down on the pitches. When the Brits finally came in there were bodies piled three deep. Guys just passed out all over the place; you could hardly see your hand in front of you,” recalled Geordie Duffy (Cage 16).
Hundreds of British soldiers wearing gas masks then attacked the prisoners, firing volleys of rubber bullets and weighing in with batons and boots. The prisoners fought back but were overcome. Many seriously injured prisoners were transported to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
Protests took place in other jails and on the streets across the Six Counties when news of the fire and the assault on the prisoners emerged through the British-imposed news blackout.

The burning of Long Kesh and ensuing battle took place on 15 and 16 October 1974, 35 years ago this week.

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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