14 October 1999 Edition
The burning of the Cages 25th anniversary special
by Laura Friel
The history of British rule in Ireland is littered with the struggle of Irish prisoners against repressive regimes within the jails. In 1974, the H Blocks were already under construction when republican POWs held in the Cages of Long Kesh prison camp resisted an attempt to undermine their morale and status as political prisoners.
The methods used by the prison authorities against the prisoners within the Cages was to be a forerunner to the British government's attempt to criminalise the republican struggle through the removal of Special Category Status in 1975. The ability of the POWs to resist, which was forged in the Cages, was later to be tempered in the Blocks.
Many of the prisoners involved in the burning of the Kesh were subsequently imprisoned in the H Blocks; a few were amongst those who died on hunger strike. As with the H Block blanket protest, the story of resistance in the Cages is remarkable, in both the courage and the determination of the prisoners involved.
Tom Boy Loudan
``Comradeship was our first and last line of defence,'' says Tom Boy. ``We stuck together and that's how we got through it.'' Tom Boy was only 19 years of age when he and his fellow republican prisoners fought a pitched battle with hundreds of baton-wielding, rubber bullet-firing British soldiers on the football pitches of Long Kesh prison camp.
It was October 1974. It was also the largest single engagement between the British Army and republican Volunteers during the last 30 years of struggle. The Volunteers were unarmed, courage in one hand and very little else in the other. The British soldiers were fully equipped with the riot control weaponry of the day.
The spark which lit the touch paper of confrontation between the prisoners and camp authorities began as a minor dispute in one of the prison compounds, Cage 13. Long Kesh was an old army camp conscripted into use as a detention centre to house the sudden influx of male political prisoners arising out of the conflict in the North. Female POWs were dispatched to Armagh.
In the Nissen huts and wire enclosures of the Kesh, the overwhelming majority of prisoners, over 1,000, were nationalist and republican. ``There had been an ongoing struggle within the Kesh,'' says Tom Boy, ``ostensibly around the issue of conditions but essentially over the question of political status.''
In the early 1970s after a protracted period of struggle within the jails, Special Category Status had been begrudgingly conceded as a distinction between prisoners involved in the `Troubles' and criminals. POWs in the Cages had their own command structures, wore their own clothes, were not required to do prison work, received food parcels and were entitled to receive an unrestricted number of letters and one weekly visit.
``Conditions in the camp were dire,'' says Tom Boy, ``and concessions minimal.'' But any concessions to Irish republicans were resented by both the prison authorities, mostly unionist and their political masters, the British government. Robert Truesdale was the camp governor. ``It was like talking to a brick wall,'' says Tom Boy. ``We made banners which read `Truesdale must go' and hung them on the wire.''
Every evening, two prison wardens patrolled once around each Cage. It was little more than a token gesture. The prisoners did not acknowledge the wardens either by word or gesture. Inside the Cages the prisoners adhered only to their own command structures. Any dealings with the prison authorities were conducted through the POWs own Commanding Officers.
Periodically the British army raided the camp. ``It was pretty regular, at least once a month,'' says Tom Boy. ``The raids began around dawn. You'd wake up to a Brit standing beside your bed barking orders.'' The prisoners were strip searched and then ordered into the hut which served as a canteen. Armed with batons and dogs, soldiers lined the route between the dormitory and the canteen.
``You ran the gauntlet,'' says Tom Boy. ``We were usually beaten and sometimes savaged by the dogs.'' The prisoners were locked in the canteen for up to eleven hours while the British army rampaged through their living quarters. ``We returned to find most of our stuff smashed and destroyed.''
Protests by the prisoners against raids by the British army finally led to a negotiated agreement with the prison authorities that British soldiers would no longer be deployed within the Cages. On 14 October 1974, that agreement was broken. When a dispute arose in Cage 13 between a prison warden and a number of prisoners, Truesdale insisted that the POWs involved were to be ``handed over''. The camp OC David Marley refused and offered to resolve the problem through negotiation.
Truesdale threatened to send in the British army. If troops were deployed, the Kesh OC warned, the prisoners would destroy the camp. ``Truesdale was very pig headed,'' says Tom Boy. As thousands of British soldiers began to amass, the prisoners responded with the only weapon they had. ``We burnt the camp.''
In his account `And the Gates Flew Open', Jim McCann remembers the night of 14 October as the kind which ``follows a pleasant autumn day. The sky was a deep blue, splattered with stars.'' After the initial burning of the camp, which was done with ``disciplined efficiency'', inside the Cages it was strangely quiet. A silence only broken by the endless drone of British army troop carriers bringing thousands of soldiers to the Kesh. The proverbial lull before the storm. ``It was surreal,'' says Jim.
The situation unfolding before the prisoners was daunting. Overwhelmingly outnumbered and virtually defenceless, the odds against surviving, let alone putting up a fight, were slim. But there they were, the vast majority only teenagers, dressed in jeans and Ben Sherman shirts waiting to take on the might of one of the most brutal imperialist armies in the world.
As they waited, the arrival of comrades from the internee Cages provided a welcome distraction as old friends were reunited. ``We sat in the Prison Hospital, which was close to the recently liberated cages and even more recently charred remains of Long Kesh, reminiscing,'' recalls Jim.
Having secured the perimeter of the jail, the British army waited until dawn before launching their offensive. As they massed at the entrance, one Volunteer was sent to offer negotiations to a British army officer. ``Tell your OC we'll see him on the football pitches,'' came the terse reply. ``When they finally came in,'' says Jim, ``they came in from every direction.''
On the football pitches, hundreds of rubber bullets were fired and thousands of canisters of CS gas were released by the British army as the soldiers and POWs fought hand to hand. ``For hours the battle was intense,'' says Jim. ``The Brits gained ground then lost it just as quickly.''
Suddenly, the British soldiers donned face masks. The Volunteers, already exhausted after hours of fist fighting, were drenched with CR gas. ``It was dropped by overhead helicopters,'' says Jim. ``The canisters were like cluster bombs exploding into pellets which released the gas.'' Many of the prisoners had experienced exposure to CS gas in riot situations prior to their capture. No one was prepared for the impact of CR gas. ``I thought they were using flame throwers and I was on fire,'' says Jim. ``Everyone who could was screaming.''
The gas induced an intense burning sensation to any exposed skin. The pain was overwhelming. ``I could hardly breathe,'' says Jim, ``and felt like vomiting.'' Those exposed to CR gas describe being totally immobilised and a sensation of intense disorientation. ``I was paralysed,'' says Jim. ``It was as if time stood still.'' The British army regained control of the camp. Captured POWs were beaten, brutalised and humiliated. Later the British government denied using CR gas.
A junior MoD minister, in a written answer to a question tabled by Ken Livingstone, claimed CR gas had never been used. But republicans imprisoned in the Kesh at that time insist that CR gas was deployed against them by the British army. Clearly marked canisters littered the pitches. ``A few weeks later, medical teams were sent into the jail and blood samples were taken from the prisoners,'' says Jim. ``We were never told why and the results of those blood tests have never been released.''
For many, the secrecy surrounding the deployment of CR gas is telling in itself. ``Do the British have something to hide?'' asks Jim. Some suspect that CR gas was developed as a combat rather than as a riot control weapon. ``Did the British deploy a chemical weapon against unarmed prisoners?'' asks Jim.
``We heard it on a radio,'' says Eileen. Lock up in Armagh women's jail was bleak at the best of times. It was 10pm. Dark outside, inside perpetually cold. In the cells, republican POWs, some sentenced, some on remand, others interned, listened as the news of the Kesh burning was relayed throughout the jail. For many women it came as a double blow. Afraid for their comrades, fearful for their kinfolk too. ``Many of us had husbands, brothers and fathers imprisoned in the Kesh,'' says Eileen.
In the autumn of 1974 Eileen Hickey was OC in Armagh jail. She was only 23 years of age but of the hundred republican women imprisoned there, ``few were older''. The youngest internee was Tish Holland from Belfast at just 17 years old but there were women younger still. A handful of girls from Derry were only fifteen and sixteen, technically too young to be incarcerated in a women's jail but with nowhere else to be put. ``It was a long night,'' says Eileen. ``No one slept.'' Bernadette O Hagan began to say the Rosary, and her comrades joined in.
At 8am the cell doors were opened. Eileen quickly organised a staff meeting with the wing OCs. ``We agreed something had to be done,'' says Eileen, ``to support the POWs in Long Kesh.''
There was little official information and none coming out of the Kesh from the prisoners themselves.
``We knew the camp had been destroyed and the British army had been deployed in force,'' says Eileen. In such a scenario, injuries would have been inevitable, fatalities possible, but for the moment no one knew. What the POWs in Armagh did know was they would have to act quickly and decisively.
At mid morning, the prison governor, Cunningham, accompanied by two female prison wardens, was on the wings for a routine inspection. Rioting had been dismissed by the POW officers as `futile'. ``Our numbers would have been insufficient to hold the British army at bay for long,'' says Eileen, ``we would have been thrown back in the cells, locked up and isolated fairly quickly.'' Desperate times require desperate measures. The decision was taken. The prison governor would be kidnapped and held as a hostage. ``It all went very smoothly,'' says Eileen.
It took only a handful of women to capture the governor and his staff. Their hostages secured, the POWs put their plan fully into action. Only a few of the prisoners had prior knowledge of the kidnapping - now it was vitally important to mobilise everyone swiftly. ``The wing OCs allocated different jobs to each group of Volunteers under their command,'' says Eileen. The main gate leading onto the wings was barricaded to stop the alarm being raised too quickly. On each wing, the cell doors were smashed to impede the authorities regaining control of the jail. Loyalist prisoners on A1 wing were told what was happening and invited to participate.
``The UVF refused but UDA prisoners were concerned about loyalist prisoners in the Kesh and decided to take part in the protest,'' says Eileen. The protesting prisoners made their way to A3. With only one stairway entrance, this wing would be the easiest to barricade and hold. ``We used everything, beds, chairs, blankets, lockers, anything available to block the stairwell,'' says Eileen. ``In fact I think we were too enthusiastic,'' she laughs. Only one toilet was working. There was no food and no water.
The Armagh POWs demanded confirmation that their injured comrades in Long Kesh had access to proper medical treatment. Meanwhile, the prison administration at the Kesh had battened down the hatches, refusing to release information to even the families of injured prisoners. It was late in the evening before confirmation was given to the women in Armagh. ``Fr. Murray assured us the prisoners in the Kesh were receiving medical treatment,'' says Eileen, ``including treatment at hospitals in Belfast for the most seriously injured.''
The governor was released and the women returned to their wings. A guarantee had been given there would be no retaliatory action taken against the protesters. Widely covered in the media, the protest in Armagh highlighted the treatment of the POWs in Long Kesh, breaking the blanket ban on coverage sought by the authorities.
``They beat us, starved us and left us without proper shelter,'' says Paddy, ``but they didn't break our morale.'' In 1974, Paddy Mulvenna was one of the OCs in Long Kesh. In Belfast, relatives and comrades of the POWs in Long Kesh had watched the night sky light up as the prison camp burned. In the week that followed, friends and families desperately sought information from the prison authorities. None was forthcoming, but inevitably some details slowly began to trickle out of the jail.
``There were over 180 prisoners seriously injured,'' says Paddy. ``They were taken to hospitals all over the north.'' Seventy prisoners were treated for serious injuries in West Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, 109 were treated at Musgrave in North Belfast, and the rest were flown to Altnagelvin in Derry. The figures were released by the medical not the prison authorities.
``One prisoner had been hit in the face at point blank range with a gas canister,'' says Paddy. Three of his front teeth were lodged in his upper pallet and he required an emergency operation on one eye. Another prisoner drifted in and out of consciousness for several days while being treated for a fractured skull. Three others were treated for injuries caused by barbed wire which had been looped around their necks after they had attempted to escape from their British army captors.
``When we returned to the Cages, all we had were the clothes we stood up in,'' says Paddy. Using what debris they could salvage, the prisoners constructed makeshift shelters. For days, weeks, they were left without running water, very little heating and no toilet facilities. ``We spent all day hungry and all night cold,'' says Paddy. The prisoners were kept on a starvation diet for over a week. For the first three days they were given only a slice of bread and a cup of milk. On the fourth day, a cup of porridge and milk. The fifth day a cup of stew and milk.
A month after the burning, the POWs were rehoused in Cages at the lower end of the camp but conditions were still pretty bad. ``There were 80 men to a hut,'' says Paddy.
Outside, there weremass protests calling for a public inquiry, an end to internment and the resignation of British Secretary of State Merlyn Rees. Inside, despite everything, the morale of the POWs remained high. ``It was something you could just never forget,'' says Paddy, ``the solidarity of the prisoners inside and the support and generosity of people outside.''
The killing of Hugh Coney
``An escape had been planned from the very beginning,'' says George Gillen. ``As soon as the camp went up the digging began.'' George Gillen was OC for the Internees. Aware that they would take a ``terrible hammering'' after the burning of Long Kesh, the prisoners initiated an escape plan to go into operation immediately. ``It kept everyone's morale high,'' says George.
At 24 years of age, Hugh Coney from Coalisland was one of around 400 nationalists interned in the Cages of Long Kesh. Despite his youth, Hugh had already endured systematic brutality from his British captors on a number of occasions. His comrade Dessie Donnelly recalls a time in 1971 when, as young men, they were tortured in Gough barracks.
``We were held for five days,'' says Dessie, ``first in the local RUC barracks and then in Gough barracks in Armagh.'' At Gough barracks, the two men were kept in a refrigerated room and made to stand spread-eagled against a wall. ``If we moved at all we were beaten,'' says Dessie. ``We were stripped to the waist, the cold was intense.''
The two men were not hooded, but their ordeal bears all the hallmarks of the treatment of the `hooded men'. ``We were drugged,'' says Dessie. ``We were given a cup of tea and shortly afterwards we began to experience hallucinations.'' For Hugh, the hallucinations were particularly traumatic.
The brutality of the British soldiers intensified the sinister nature of hallucinations the two men were experiencing. The two detainees were deprived of sleep, forced to stand for many hours and denied food and water. ``We were thrown in and out of cold baths,'' says Dessie. ``We were blindfolded and thrown out of a helicopter in a mock execution.''
Hugh Coney spent 13 months on remand in Crumlin Road jail before the charges against him were dropped. Within a few months, Hugh was arrested again and interned without trial in Long Kesh prison camp. Within months of his internment, Hugh Coney was shot dead by the British army during an escape attempt.
``The tunnel was dug in Cage 5,'' says George. ``The initial plan was for two Cages of internees to escape but in the end it was decided Cages 3 and 4 would join 5 and 6 in the escape bid.'' This was going to be one of the largest mass breakouts in the history of Irish prison escapes. It was 6 November 1974 and the tunnel was ready.
``We waited until after nightfall,'' says George. ``The first squad got through but someone in the second batch of escapees was spotted.'' Shots rang out as the British army opened fire. ``We knew fairly quickly someone had been killed,'' says George. Twenty eight prisoners were caught within the perimeter of the jail.
Three prisoners successfully escaped from Long Kesh but were later recaptured on the outskirts of Dunmurray near Twinbrook. The prisoners involved in the escape attempt were very badly treated by their British captors. ``We could hear them screaming,'' says George. ``It was a terrible night, one young life had been lost and we feared for our other comrades.''