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17 December 1998 Edition

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Our prisoners come home

Rosena Brown 

Family, friends and comrades

Republican POW Rosena Brown spoke to Ned Kelly about her gradual reintegration into the community in the run up to her release

``One of the hardest things,'' said Rosena, ``is the disorientation, new estates and concrete everywhere. It makes you nervous finding your way about, never mind the traffic.''

Rosena also spoke of the need to find a routine to replace prison where ``every hour is accounted for''.

The need to find housing also contributed to a sense of ``drifting'' during Rosena's paroles. Uncertainty and worries over money are compounded by a bureaucracy that blocks POWs organising benefits or accommodation before their release.

Rosena sees going and talking to one of the ex-prisoner groups, for example Tar Anall, as vital. She said, ``I've only just gone for the first time and it's wiped away a lot of uncertainty about housing and finance. It gives you a bit more confidence. Also you see that your fears are no different from anyone else's.''

Former comrades, her family and her partner, who is currently in Portlaoise, are also important to Rosena. ``They have all really helped me. I feel the need to be with people who understand exactly the emotions and feelings. Again it's realising that you're not isolated and it's easier to share and relate to others who have been through the same things. But saying that, the community embraces you and I've made new friends and old friends.''

But, added Rosena, ``I'm on my guard not to offend people and there's an eagerness to please other people and it's embarrassing not remembering names when everyone is so friendly and familiar. I'm not ready to deal with the noise or the crowds. I can't really hear what people are saying.'' Rosena is deaf in one ear due to an infection the prison authorities neglected for four and half months.

Rosena's comrades in Maghaberry are also important to her. ``My comrades felt it was hard for me being a parent, but I felt it was harder for them being so young and missing out on such an important part of their life,'' she said.

``What helped me in jail was the fact that my family continued to support me. The strength and collective strength of my comrades in Maghaberry was also important. It saw you through everything. When I had a bereavement they gave me the strength to cope.''

This was a strength the prison authorities were unable to defeat. ``Even within the prison system we moved mountains. The fewer of us the greater the strength,'' Rosena said.

The initial transition back into the community was difficult. ``It was different from what I expected. I thought I had it all together but on my first few paroles I was very nervous and my confidence was shattered. As time passes things get a little less hectic and it gets easier. When I'm with people I prefer to let them talk, I don't feel confident enough to talk about my time in prison or know how to interact. I'm not sure what they want to talk about but I also feel a real need for people to sit back and let me talk.''

She added, ``you need to talk. If you push all the dark moments and thoughts to the back of your head, they will come out or manifest themselves. People suppress a lot and it has to come out. It also makes me feel better admitting that I found prison hard.''

The sense of belonging, so central to Irish culture, has also caused problems for Rosena. She said, ``there's a feeling of not belonging here or there, maybe when I get out for good it'll have a more stable effect.''

``Coming back out I feel I'm disrupting the lives of my family and friends again. The lives of those around me were disrupted when I went to jail, and then they supported me all the way through it, and now I'm getting out their lives are being disrupted all over again.''

Rosena hopes to settle down and get to know her grandchildren, born while she was in prison. She worked as an actress before her arrest and she wants to get back to the theatre: ``Community theatre more than anything else, bringing something back to the community.''


Joe Doherty

The rubberband will snap

Ned Kelly speaks to recently released Republican POW Joe Doherty about the pressures returning POWs face

``Despite the euphoria and the handshakes and hugs every POW will come back down to earth eventually,'' Joe said. ``It might take three days, three weeks, months or even years.''

Joe Doherty, who has been incarcerated for much of the past 27 years, and been (officially and unofficially) through the process of leaving prison four times, said, ``this time is different, before it was always back out to war but now I've finally come home and am trying to re-integrate myself back into the community.''

Joe added: ``It's about getting a routine going. Even if I'm out in the night, no matter what, it's up in the morning for a run then onto the gym and a sauna. I spend a lot of time watching, reading, talking and learning about community development. It's a continuation of my degree studies.''

Joe insists that one of the most crucial aspects of returning to the community is to ``get the head down and find yourself''.

The analogy he uses is one discussed with comrades in Long Kesh. ``It's like an elastic band,'' he explained, ``it keeps getting tighter and tighter. Eventually it will snap.''

Joe remembers a time shortly after escaping from jail in 1981 when, ``I was just sitting in a car and I started crying and crying. No-one knew what was wrong with me and they just put me to bed. The next day I got up and felt a whole lot better. It was just about the release of tension.''

Joe also spoke of the importance of group counselling both inside prison and back in the community. He said, ``we've all been through it, and we can appreciate what it costs in personal terms. We can relate to each other.''

Another serious problem many POWs face is the ``distance between themselves and other people''. Joe continued: ``Of course ex-prisoners want a recognition of what they did for the community but they don't need to be put on a pedestal. And then that often stops after the first wave of adulation but POWs are still left needing help and understanding.''

``One of the big changes in recent years is the creation of community infrastructure;'' added Joe: ``Not only have the communities developed and important victories been won on the ground but there is also a wider appreciation of and support for the needs of former political prisoners.''

Joe stressed, ``while undoubtedly there are pitfalls ahead, the rubberband snapping and the euphoria ending, and just because I haven't felt it yet doesn't mean that in four weeks or four years I won't, the fact that I thought through my release and talked it through with my family and friends has meant a lot. It's about planning, about structuring the day but not being too rigid.''

Getting to the crux of one of the biggest problems, Joe said, ``I talked with people about with how scary it would be without the war but the struggle is definitely not over, there is a better alternative. It's bringing confidence back into the community.''

In remembering the 10,000 Nationalists subjected to the British prison system over the past 28 years, Joe said: ``It's not just those recently released or the high profile ex-prisoners but we all have a role in sharing our experiences and supporting each other to bring that confidence back into the community.''


Mick O'Brien

From the belly of the beast

Mick O'Brien tells Roisín de Rossa of his time in English jails and his hopes for the struggle today

``I heard the miners' songs coming up from the valley. I love those songs.''

Mick, in excruciating pain, was out on the moors for three days, above Pontefract, hostile territory, travelling nights, trying to get away. ``We were in a corn field. They were just a few feet away. We could hear everything - what they were and weren't going to do to us.''

And of course they did all those things when Mick and his comrade, Paul `Dingus' Magee, were finally captured, but Mick doesn't speak about it. Gentle, quietly spoken and thoughtful. The same man as we all saw on tele that terrible day, running down with a very brave few, chasing Michael Stone as he fired shots and threw grenades at the mourners in Milltown Cemetery.

After his arrest and sentence Mick and the other POWs campaigned to be transferred to Ireland. ``Then one day a screw came in the cell at 6am. `O'Brien, on your way,' he said. Seeing me ready with a bag packed, the screw asks, `Are you going somewhere?' `Back to Ireland,' I said. The screw slams the door to. We hear them on the radios, foostering about. `They know. They know.' Panic.''

Some minutes later the screw returned. ``How did you know?'' he asked.

``Sure the IRA knows everything,'' Mick replied.

``We thought that we were going for a 28 day lay down (punishment in solitary). Derek (Dempsey), Padraig (MacFhloinn) and myself. We didn't know where we were going. Another jail?'' Transported in the van, each in a two foot square box, they tried to catch the road signs through the narrow slits.

Leeds Airport? They passed Leeds. Maybe Frankland.

Manchester, and then, surrounded by a circle of 30 cop cars, all of them out with their Uzis and Heckler and Kochs, they saw the Free State chopper.

``We left. The Brits looked sick. We were back. Portlaoise - it's hard to come to terms with it. It is so different. For the first time you didn't have to watch your back. Over there there was always a screw who made it his special treat to make your day a misery. But here, some of the screws were saying, `Jesus, lads, great to see you home'. It's the psychology of it. Tommy Eccles, or Liam O'Dwyer, who would have been in the jail 15 years back, knew them for what they were. When they got a little bit up the ladder, with the changing times, and when they know they can't get away with it, they turn about face. But we didn't know. Were they winding us up?'' Mick, Derek and Padraig landed to a tumultuous welcome.

``We got a visit the next day. It was unbelievable. The relief for the family. You could feel it. You could see it in their faces. No more travelling. No more of those terrible trips over to see you.''

``But we never believed we'd get out.'' Nor did his younger son. When are you going back? he kept asking. Mick pointed to Sky News. ``Look! They're saying I'm out. That proves it. I'm really out.'' But Conor was still very worried. He had told his pal up the street that his dad had a night-time job at the airport. Now he had to go round and tell him that Mick was back. He'd lost the job! He brought his friend to the house. ``My daddy's inside. You can come in and see him if you like.''

In Portlaoise, Mick got into studying. He'd been doing an Open University recognised course in business studies, computer training, and a couple of courses to qualify as a physical training instructor. Then he took over as OC and didn't have much time. ``Some 32 County people came into the jail. A group of us invited them up onto our landing to talk to them. `Tell us where you are coming from. What are you doing? Why? How do you propose to go about it? If these fellows had gone off and split, and we'd have been in England, we'd have felt gutted - in England it was talk, talk, talk between the POWs whenever we got to see each other. Maybe of a Sunday. It was different in Portlaoise, but we re-started a SF cumann, and men could join if they wanted.

``I was coming from a Sinn Fein background as well - knocking doors, selling papers. Army work or Sinn Fein work - I don't see them as all that different. If anything, it's harder. You had to be up front. Deal with things day to day. The change of phases of the struggle shouldn't be so hard. After all what does `free the people' mean if it's not to better your area? If we're going to go forward, we have to deal with it. No one should ever see one phase or type of struggle as more real, or better. All the brave people in 1923 didn't see any other role and they headed off to the States or wherever. This time it's different.''

Mick spoke at a social down the country. ``The organisers said they weren't expecting many. Maybe fifty. But it was black. People don't see the opportunity that is there. We felt terrible frustration at seeing that there weren't crowds of new members all over - that things were maybe just the same when we came back.''

As a child Mick had holidayed in Mayo with relatives and he'd come back on the boat train to Dun Laoghaire. ``We'd see the terrible sadness, people with their bags, and no money, the children crying. Leaving. This wasn't the Ireland that people fought for. I suppose that is what got me into the struggle first.''

Mick first joined the Brits Must Go Campaign, in 1978, and then the Relatives Action Campaign. ``I remember meetings in Derry to broaden the campaign. Suddenly people got a brainwave, that the RAC women had been right all along, we had to go to all of the people, There was massive support out there - if you went out looking for it. Couldn't fill the buckets quick enough''.

He left in 1982, feeling that it was just paper selling, that there was nothing for doing. Then he met two local Republicans, who convinced him how we were going to do great things, and he joined the Clarke McVerry cumann, and went up to help in the `83 Assembly elections in Armagh City. ``It was a great campaign You could feel the buzz with everyone.''

After Mick's release, in November of this year, he had been at a commemoration in Shanaghan Cemetery, at Shankill, for those who had been members of the cumann and died since Mick was away - Mick Cleary, Andy O'Connor, Liam O'Brien, Dick Farrell and Dermot McGurk. ``It was one of the hardest aspects of jail. You have to be reminded that they are dead. When you are not there to grieve for them, they are somehow still alive for you.''

In 1985 Mick stood for election in Ballybrack - first time SF ever had a candidate in the area. He got 480 votes. ``We didn't know the mechanics of elections, it was an entirely new ball game. But you have to have the will - that you can win.'' He became SF organiser, ``in Belfast in the morning and Cork in the evening. It was crazy. Just doing a fireman's job.''

After arrest Mick went to Belmarsh - his first time in jail. ``It was never the beatings that was hardest - it was hearing the beatings. It was a jungle. The ordinary crims, especially the London ones, the older ones, they'd known Hugh Feeney, Gerry Kelly, Billy Armstrong, Paul Norney and all them. They had terrific respect for our lads.''

Mick was in the `secure unit' at Full Sutton. ``We never saw any further than 22ft. surrounded by walls in a cage, a steel structure over our heads, which kept out most of the light. We were always in semi darkness.

``We'd fight to get over to the hospital just to see daylight. It was terible confinement, but there was never one bad word amongst us. Regulations said that prisoners were only to be in the secure units for two months. They ignored it.

``Just before the first ceasefire two `suits' came down from the Home Office and announced that `You lads are going to be treated differently from now on in'. Was it for good or bad? `John Major says there are no political prisoners in England!' Everything started to change, under Mr Howard's [Home Secretary] personal attention.''

When they got to Full Sutton - Mick, Damien (McComb), Pat Kelly and Felim O'hAdmhaill) - they could hardly walk they had been so damaged from the beatings.

``The screws claimed to have found explosives in the prison - which was lies. We were put on 24 hour lockup, from Stephen's Day `94 to the following June It took a Judicial Review to get out.

``We were moved to Whitemoor for a few months. They had spent £3 million improving Whitemoor - to last, they said, till 2095. Screws, dressed in riot gear, were specially picked to deal with IRA prisoners, with a psychologist available to them at all times. One time the shrink was hanging around the wing in civvies and a prisoner asked to see him for a moment - `No, No', he replied, `I'm here for the staff!'''

There was no work, no phones, nothing, and for their families, still less. The beatings were bad. Everything was white. Mick, Pat and Felim went on dirty protest.

``Paddy [Kelly], who had been refused medical attention since `93, was dying. He knew the doctor was not telling him the full story. They wouldn't let the Irish Embassy official in to see him. Dick Spring made a statement, and we got the visit. At least we got a wash out of it.''

After six months of protest they were de-categorised and moved to the main jail, where there was Noel Gibson, Sean Kinsella, and then Hughie Doherty, Joe O'Connell and Eddie Butler. ``We got such a buzz out of the way they handled themselves. You could just see them. There were 500 in the jail. Everyone looked up to them. Any problem, it was `Go see Hughie, or Joe, or any of them'.

``It was ironic in a way. When I'd first joined Sinn Fein, the cumann members wrote to prisoners, and I'd been writing to Hughie. And now there I was in the same jail.''

Pat Kelly (who died after his cancer was ignored while he was in prison in England) and Mick were in cells opposite each other, a prison within the secure unit, within a prison. There was just a bed and a tap in one of them. ``Pat was a real country man - didn't think bad of too many people. And at the same time he was very cute. He was a great story teller, he told marvellous stories of going all over Europe in his truck. When we'd nothing to do it was, `tell us that story about Italy, or the Russian border'. We talked about where we'd go when we got out and what we'd do. He and I were going for organic farming. He came from Portarlington. He knew my grandparents (Tom Maguire's sister) from Emo, where I used to holiday as a kid.

``Pat went out to hospital for an operation on the cancer. He came back to the hospital and was chained to a bed. But they wouldn't hold him there. And he returned to the cell, where they were on protest, with dirt everywhere, cockroaches, with just a plaster covering the wound. `Come off the protest till you get a bit stronger'. He wouldn't. One day he said, `It's the first time I've ever been in love'. A country fellow. He just came out with it. He was 44. I miss him greatly.''


Ella O'Dwyer

Back to Tipperary

Roisín de Rossa talks to Ella O'Dwyer about her years in prison in England and what it's like to be home in Tipperary

Crowds came out to welcome Ella O'Dwyer home - and they played Irish music all night.

``It's like you're on a bus and you see all the people waiting there, and you've been off somewhere, in between, and you come back and they are still waiting there - except they are younger.''

Ella O'Dwyer, strikingly beautiful, self-possessed, is in a big hurry.

On her release after 13 years in jail, mostly in England in appalling conditions, the world didn't seem to be much different - except the technology. When the mobile put up the message `check your mail box' that is exactly what she did. `You've only to read the instructions, you know, and do what they tell you,' her brother had said.

But that is exactly what Ella had forgotten how to do. ``If they said to us, `You can't write a complaint everyday', then next day we gave them two. We were unmanageable. Sure we had nothing to lose.''

Ella and Martina Anderson were sentenced to life, minimum 20 years, in 1985. For the first 13 months they were on remand in Brixton. Up to five strip-searches every day was normal. ``It was a very deep invasion of your most intimate self. Most of the time they didn't beat us like they did the men - that was the way they tried to prove to fellows they were powerless. With women it was to show us how we didn't have control over anything - not even our own bodies.

``Women in our society are supposed to be gentle, weak and submissive - the `weaker sex'. They knew that we wouldn't have been involved in the struggle at all had we accepted that role. Strip-searching is designed to force you back into the submissive role. Strip-searching was a way to impose subjection on us - to undermine our determination to play our part in the struggle against oppression. It was to rob you of the self-control that you had asserted in joining the struggle.

``Women differ from men: they talk more easily about things, and are perhaps more conscious of what is happening to them. Martina and I could talk to each other. She was brilliant. No one really can explain how you feel about comrades in jail. I just know that what they went through, the pain and the suffering, it brought out a deep humanity, and facing that reality - their optimism - that is the stuff of rebellion.''

Ella gives the example of Patrick Hackett (who, though terribly injured, endured many years of brutality in English prisons). ``Like Patrick. That kept us going. I'm so proud that he comes from Tipperary. And then the women in Armagh, men in the Blocks, the hunger strike...'' and she tails off, and resumes ``you wouldn't want to feel sorry for yourself - you'd be slaughtered.''

People who visited Ella said she'd apologise for causing them trouble. She says herself that she didn't like to send cards to people, all the hundreds of people who protested outside Brixton, Durham, and even came over to Maghaberry when she and Martina were transferred, cause she knew they'd send a card back with a tenner in it!

Independence is the name of the game. Ella was the youngest in a family of five brothers and one sister, on a small farm out in the country between Roscrea and Nenagh. ``We worked hard as kids, milking cows, cutting turf, feeding pigs, you name it.'' She determined to get education and out of poverty. She travelled alone to work summers abroad, in France, Greece, Germany, and Switzerland.

Ella was abroad when Bobby Sands' election hit the headlines all over Europe. She came back to Ireland, joined the H-Block campaign, and later joined a Sinn Fein Cumann. ``There is so much needing to be done down here. There is so much political support for Republicanism. Crowds came out to welcome me home. I was only the occasion, but it wasn't for me, or Patrick, it was for the struggle - for freedom, for equality.''

She went to UCD in Dublin and got a degree in English. Beckett, Yeats, Kavanagh, Hamlet, Strumpet City - she doesn't even pause to think who or which - and, always, love of Irish, and most of all, Irish music. ``When we landed into Durham, Judith Ward, who had been there already eleven years, who'd come in when she was just a teenager, she played us Irish music. It was marvellous - amidst all that cruelty, screams, emptiness, sadness and danger, why it was almost a touch of Ireland again. I'll never forget it. She was amazing - I really admired her greatly - just for surviving all those unjust years.''

Ella got parole a year before release. Her father had open-heart surgery.

``The family weren't Republican, but they stood by me - never questioned or criticised. I said to my father, when I got out that time, how I knew I had put them through so much grief, that I was sorry for that, although I would do just the same again, and he said, `I know. They are the most interesting people to me at the moment'.''

She talks about her time in Durham Jail. ``Durham conditions were disgraceful. There was a sewer that, when the pipes froze, overflowed into where we ate. They got the prisoners down on their knees to clean it up and then gave them a Mars bar. No way we would put up with that. We were expected to sew NATO uniforms - we refused. We were locked up for months on `cellular confinement'. There were old people - a 70 year old woman who said nothing but just kept repeating 4.30, 4.30, the time she was to be hanged; a young girl of 17, in isolation; the cockroaches; the doctor, ex-Territorial Army, who attempted to get the women to have hysterectomies. It was shocking - that they could do that to their own people, treat them like that.

``You are going to have to do something about this, we said. There are mentally disturbed people, sick people, who need treatment.''

They took on the fight. And they won. In the end they got representatives from the lifers, the Category As, the long-termers, the short-termers, the old and the young to meet together with the governor, put their case and demand that their needs be met. And slowly conditions for all the prisoners began to improve. They got washing facilities, toilets in the cells, they got computers, knitting workshops, and the prisoners got more confident. They got better education facilities and Ella was able to do her Ph D, which she finished back at Maghaberry.

When Ella and Martina were due to leave Durham for transfer to Ireland, the prisoners partied several nights in a row (their transfer was continually delayed). When the day finally came the prisoners all queued up to shake hands. Someone had to put a stop to them going round the queue again!


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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