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12 April 2001 Edition

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The Argenta: A monument to failure

BY JIM GIBNEY

There was an unusual convergence of time, language and memory in Belfast's Linenhall Library last Wednesday night, 28 March. The occasion was the launch of a book about the prison ship Argenta, which was used to intern hundreds of nationalists and republicans between 1922 and 1925.

The book's author, Denise Kleinrichert, a Canadian with Irish parents, speaking at the launch, described her decision to write the book as a ``journey'' to get to know the grandfather she never met. He had been interned on the Argenta and died young, when her mother was only seven. The family are convinced his early death was due to the appalling conditions he and the other internees experienced on the Argenta.

There were many others at the book launch also on a personal journey. They came from all walks of life, from across the Six Counties. They were there to ``bear witness to the suffering of their ancestors; to highlight for the first time the role the Argenta played in terrorising the nationalist people of the Six Counties'', said Belfast Sinn Fein Councillor Tom Hartley.

Hartley made the connection between the internment ships Argenta; the Al Rawdha, used in the 1940s; the Maidstone, used in the 1970s; and the H Blocks of Long Kesh. He told the audience that while on the Blanket protest, Bobby Sands wrote a song called ÔMcIlhatton'. McIlhatton was interned on the Argenta.

Looking around the library and listening to snippets of conversation, it was clear that the majority of people there didn't often frequent book launches. There was something special in the air. John Gray, the Linenhall Library's curator, said he had held many book launches in the library but ``none quite like this''.

In the packed room were the descendants of professional people, doctors, dentists, vets, teachers, solicitors and of course working class people: the backbone of the republican movement since and before partition.

It was a night for exchanging stories and of recalling memories, some long since buried, like those from the Argenta, and others of more recent vintage, eagerly told. One elderly woman from Belcoo in County Fermanagh whispered in my ear that her father died young because of the conditions on the Argenta. He was 22, a veterinary student in Dublin when he was interned. Her uncle John, a dentist, was also interned. He lost his business.

I overheard another elderly man say his father was interned but he never spoke about it to his family and that he was at the book launch to get a feel for the times.

The historian Eamon Phoenix, who was thanked by the book's author for his help, recreated those times for those in attendance. He described them as dark days. Partition had given way to bloodshed across Belfast, with hundreds of people, mainly nationalists, being killed.

The Treaty negotiations and the Civil War had left the nationalist/Catholic population in the Six Counties very vulnerable and isolated. After the collapse of the Boundary Commission, set up to decide the area covered by the border, nationalists in the North felt abandoned by the Free State government and the newly emerging political establishment there.

The first Executive act by the unionist government was to resort to internment. Hundreds of people across the Six Counties were interned; the identified and unidentified leaders of the nationalist people were crammed into ``cages'' below the deck of the Argenta. Those who killed and terrorised the nationalist people did so with the assistance of the unionist administration, no internment for them.

The full military weight of the unionist government, state forces and their loyalist allies was used to try to crush the nationalist people and the Argenta was used to further humiliate them. But as Tom Hartley told the gathering, ``the unionists failed on both accounts''.

There were many direct connections from the audience to the Argenta. Dickie and Francie Glenholmes, both interned in the early 1970s, were at the launch. Their father Dickie had been interned on the Argenta. Gonne Carmichael, a founder member of the Green Cross, was also there. Her father Robert, then only a young man and his two brothers William and Jack, from the Bone area of Belfast, were all interned on the ship. Liam Shannon, also a 1970s internee and one of the Ôhooded men' (so-called because he was selected with others for torture) was there and he had a small booklet from the Argenta with many signatures and political messages from those held there.

Belfast republican Leo Wilson, gaoled in the 1940s and his son Padraig, gaoled twice through the Ô70s, Ô80s, and Ô90s, was there, as was Seanna Walsh. Walsh was gaoled three times for a total of 20 years since the early 1970s.

I was also pleasantly surprised to meet Noel Maguire, the brother of Frank Maguire, former MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone. The last time I was in his company was in the kitchen of his brother's Lisnaskea home. Gerry Adams and myself were trying to convince him to stand aside for Bobby Sands. He bravely did so. In his quiet manner he described those times as ``very difficult''.

Indeed they were. Just like the days when the Argenta was moored in Belfast Lough.
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