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8 July 2004 Edition

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'The best of times and the worst of times'

Sinéad Moore and Mairéad Farrell

Sinéad Moore and Mairéad Farrell in the yard at Armagh Gaol

This week, a feature film, based on the struggle of republican women prisoners in Armagh Jail for political status, has been running in Dublin. Although conceding the good intentions behind the project, women POWs who were in Armagh have criticised Silent Grace's portrayal of their part in the prison struggle. Here, former POW Sinéad Moore, Mairéad Farrell's longtime cellmate, tells JIM GIBNEY what it was really like.

"We were living under military siege. All that was missing was a declared curfew by the British Army. Everything else was there.

The British had occupied people's homes, a block of flats and a part of St Oliver Plunkett Primary School.

Hundreds of British troops patrolled the streets on foot or in these huge Saracen and Saladins which crawled slowly about the area.

Gun battles between the local IRA and the British Army were a frequent occurrence, as were IRA sniper attacks.

When this wasn't happening there were riots in the streets. Homes were being raided and ransacked all the time. Internment was at its height, so anyone, from teenaged schoolchildren upwards, was plucked off the streets and thrown into jail for years.

Mass arrests and screening of local people happened regularly."

This was Lenadoon Estate in West Belfast in August 1972 in the immediate aftermath of one of the British Army's biggest military manoeuvres since the Second World War.

They called it 'Operation Motorman'. Thirty thousand British troops, led by tanks and armoured vehicles, invaded nationalist areas across the Six Counties.

They built their military fortifications in schools, people's homes, parochial halls, football grounds owned by the GAA, on recreational grounds, at the corner of streets; anywhere they thought it would give them a vantage over the local community.

The scene was set for violent confrontation, which would see deaths of civilians, IRA Volunteers and British soldiers.

The streets, once a safe playground for children and a meeting place for teenagers, were transformed overnight into dangerous and unwelcome places.

This was the background against which Sinéad Moore, then a 13-year-old, grew up.

Before her 18th birthday, in 1977, when she was arrested, charged and put in Armagh Women's Prison, Sinéad was arrested on three occasions and screened.

She described being 'screened'. She was 15 and walking with five of her girl friends in Lenadoon. A gun battle between the IRA and the British Army had just ended.

They were snatched off the street by British soldiers and taken two miles away to Fort Monagh. There they joined another 15 people.

"We were all spread-eagled against a wall in a line. You weren't allowed to move, or talk, or turn your head left or right or stand upright.

You waited your turn against the wall to be interrogated and photographed and fingerprinted.

The longest they could keep you was four hours and they were a long four hours against a wall, especially if it was cold or raining.

When they were finished they threw you out onto the street to make your own way home. On that occasion my daddy called to collect us at the barracks gate.

We all walked home in the snow."

This was life in the occupied areas for young teenagers of either gender.

"Everyone was active in some way. Most young girls were in na gCailíní, most young lads in na Fianna.

They socialised together and were well used to people being arrested or homes being raided and wrecked. It was a way of life for us growing up then."

It was a way of life that led to a prison cell for nearly ten years for Sinéad.

Life under military occupation in Lenadoon, bad as it was, did not prepare Sinéad for life in a decrepit, dull, cold, dirty and uninviting prison.

But her first steps inside Armagh Prison were a relief:

"I was glad to get to Armagh Prison because of the interrogation I had gone through at the hands of the RUC over a three-day period. Mairéad Farrell was the first person I met; the first smiling face I saw when I landed in 'A' Wing. She welcomed me into the prison. At the start it was bewildering but you had to get on with it. You were there and that was that."

For the next seven years Sinéad and Mairéad were constant companions, sharing a cell together through some of the most difficult times for republican prisoners.

They knew each other on the outside, so it was renewing old acquaintances.

The protest for political status was taking place in Armagh Prison and the H-Blocks. The prisoners in Armagh were divided into those with political status; those sentenced and protesting for political status and the rest, like Sinéad, on remand awaiting sentence.

Those protesting for political status were locked up most of the day. The remand prisoners would see them briefly between 5pm and 8pm, when they were allowed out to wash and use the toilet.

It was during this period that cigarettes, food, toiletries and other necessities were smuggled by the remand prisoners to the protesting prisoners.

The food was particularly welcome because the quality of the prison food was atrocious.

"The protest for status had been on for over a year and I could see the effects it was having on the women. They looked terrible and had lost a lot of weight."

This important smuggling operation came to an end when the remand prisoners were moved to another part of the prison, further isolating the protesting prisoners.

Remand time is an uncertain and uneasy time for prisoners and so Sinéad looked forward to being sentenced and joining the protesting prisoners. She knew exactly what to expect because she had been on the landing above the protesting prisoners for nearly a year.

"I never had any doubt but that I would join the protest for political status when I was sentenced. I realised what I would be losing because I saw it at first hand. But the battle for status was too important."

Those on protest were locked in their cells for over 20 hours a day. Between 5pm and 8pm 30 women had to share these hours to get washed clean out their cells and spend sometime in association together in the TV room.

They had one hour's exercise together every day in the prison yard. They also had a visit a month and a parcel a month, which included fruit, tissues and shampoo.

For every day on the protest, the prisoner lost a day's remission. Sinéad's sentence of ten years meant just that unless she ended her protest.

But things got worse after an attack on the women by the prison warders following a commemoration they held following the death on active service of Kevin 'Dee' Delaney in January 1980.

On the pretence of raiding for the black clothes the women wore at the parade, the warders assaulted and badly injured many of them before corralling them in the TV room.

The warders then wrecked their cells and left. For two days, the prisoners were denied access to the toilets and this was when the 'No Wash' protest began in Armagh Prison.

The prisoners were then locked in their cells 23 hours a day. They received a change of clothes every three months and every month sanitary towels were provided.

"The situation was very unhealthy. A lot of the women were physically sick and weight loss was serious. We had no mirrors so you couldn't see how you looked yourself, only how the others looked. It was a very difficult time. But we stuck together. It was both the best and the worst of times. The comradeship was brilliant. To this day there is a bond between those of us who went through those awful days."

And though those days were awful, there was worse to come as the reality of a hunger strike drew nearer.

"A hunger strike was always being talked about. We didn't know, because of our small numbers and the poor quality of the women's health, whether we could sustain one. A lot of women were not in good physical shape to go on a hunger strike."

Mairéad Farrell, Mary Doyle and Margaret Nugent went on hunger strike. Within days, their condition deteriorated rapidly. They had been weakened by the years of protest and deprivation.

The confused ending of the first Hunger Strike in December 1980 caused a bit of demoralisation among the prisoners but they could not afford to dwell too long in such a mood because a second hunger strike was being prepared.

Looking back on the second hunger strike, in 1981, Sinéad believes the right decision was taken not to put women on it. Their numbers were too small and the women's health was too weak to sustain a hunger strike for long enough to allow pressure to grow on the authorities.

It was difficult for them to accept the decision but they faced it with the same fortitude as they did other difficulties. They continued their protest for political status and supported the hunger strike in the H-Blocks through a letter writing campaign to people of influence at home and around the world.

For Sinéad:

"It was my worse time in prison. Comrades were dying and there was nothing we could do about it sitting inside a cell."

Difficult though it was to deal with the deaths of their comrades in the H-Blocks, the women never gave way in their protest to restore political status.

When the second Hunger Strike ended, they engaged in a campaign of disruption and sabotage in the prison workshops. They fought for segregation from loyalist prisoners and maintained their republican discipline throughout.

The evening before Sinéad was released, in August 1984, she was accused of being involved in a fracas by the warders and locked up. She never got the opportunity to say goodbye properly to her comrades, with whom she had been through nearly eight years of battles, big and small, to achieve political status.

Asked to sum up those years, Sinéad said:

"I would do it all again. They were not lost years or a waste of time. They made me what I am today. I am a stronger person because of what we all went through then. Whatever problems I face today I do so against a background of what happened during those years and I am more able to deal with situations."

SinÉad Moore married Seanna Walsh 18 months after she was released from jail. They had two children, Caoimhe and Mairéad. Caoimhe was 18 months and Mairéad was two-weeks old when Seanna was arrested and spent the next 11 years in jail.

Mairéad was brought to visit her daddy in Crumlin Road Jail in her christening robe. Times were tough, especially financially, for Sinéad and the children.

It was also difficult to keep their daddy part of the children's lives because they were so young when he went in.

"My republican instincts got me through those years. They were difficult but not as bad as Armagh Prison and I drew strength from that."

Since Seanna's release following the Good Friday Agreement, another daughter, Reina, now four, has joined the clan.

It was Sinéad who took the famous picture of her good friend Mairéad Farrell in her cell during the protest. Mairéad was shot dead by the SAS, along with Volunteers Dan McCann and Seán Savage, in 1988, while the three were on active service in Gibraltar. All three were unarmed at the time. "Her death affected me terribly. We were great friends in jail and outside. She was Caoimhe's godmother. She lived beside me. She would often call. The day before she left she called to give me back a few things I lent her. I had invited her to a party but she was too busy. The day before she left it was her birthday, the 3rd of March. I threw a card through her letterbox. She never got it. She is never far from my thoughts."

pening there were riots in the streets. Homes were being raided and ransacked all the time. Internment was at its height, so anyone, from teenaged schoolchildren upwards, was plucked off the streets and thrown into jail for years.

Mass arrests and screening of local people happened regularly."

This was Lenadoon Estate in West Belfast in August 1972 in the immediate aftermath of one of the British Army's biggest military manoeuvres since the Second World War.

They called it 'Operation Motorman'. Thirty thousand British troops, led by tanks and armoured vehicles, invaded nationalist areas across the Six Counties.

They built their military fortifications in schools, people's homes, parochial halls, football grounds owned by the GAA, on recreational grounds, at the corner of streets; anywhere they thought it would give them a vantage over the local community.

The scene was set for violent confrontation, which would see deaths of civilians, IRA Volunteers and British soldiers.

The streets, once a safe playground for children and a meeting place for teenagers, were transformed overnight into dangerous and unwelcome places.

This was the background against which Sinéad Moore, then a 13-year-old, grew up.

Before her 18th birthday, in 1977, when she was arrested, charged and put in Armagh Women's Prison, Sinéad was arrested on three occasions and screened.

She described being 'screened'. She was 15 and walking with five of her girl friends in Lenadoon. A gun battle between the IRA and the British Army had just ended.

They were snatched off the street by British soldiers and taken two miles away to Fort Monagh. There they joined another 15 people.

"We were all spread-eagled against a wall in a line. You weren't allowed to move, or talk, or turn your head left or right or stand upright.

You waited your turn against the wall to be interrogated and photographed and fingerprinted.

The longest they could keep you was four hours and they were a long four hours against a wall, especially if it was cold or raining.

When they were finished they threw you out onto the street to make your own way home. On that occasion my daddy called to collect us at the barracks gate.

We all walked home in the snow."

This was life in the occupied areas for young teenagers of either gender.

"Everyone was active in some way. Most young girls were in na gCailíní, most young lads in na Fianna.

They socialised together and were well used to people being arrested or homes being raided and wrecked. It was a way of life for us growing up then."

It was a way of life that led to a prison cell for nearly ten years for Sinéad.

Life under military occupation in Lenadoon, bad as it was, did not prepare Sinéad for life in a decrepit, dull, cold, dirty and uninviting prison.

But her first steps inside Armagh Prison were a relief:

"I was glad to get to Armagh Prison because of the interrogation I had gone through at the hands of the RUC over a three-day period. Mairéad Farrell was the first person I met; the first smiling face I saw when I landed in 'A' Wing. She welcomed me into the prison. At the start it was bewildering but you had to get on with it. You were there and that was that."

For the next seven years Sinéad and Mairéad were constant companions, sharing a cell together through some of the most difficult times for republican prisoners.

They knew each other on the outside, so it was renewing old acquaintances.

The protest for political status was taking place in Armagh Prison and the H-Blocks. The prisoners in Armagh were divided into those with political status; those sentenced and protesting for political status and the rest, like Sinéad, on remand awaiting sentence.

Those protesting for political status were locked up most of the day. The remand prisoners would see them briefly between 5pm and 8pm, when they were allowed out to wash and use the toilet.

It was during this period that cigarettes, food, toiletries and other necessities were smuggled by the remand prisoners to the protesting prisoners.

The food was particularly welcome because the quality of the prison food was atrocious.

"The protest for status had been on for over a year and I could see the effects it was having on the women. They looked terrible and had lost a lot of weight."

This important smuggling operation came to an end when the remand prisoners were moved to another part of the prison, further isolating the protesting prisoners.

Remand time is an uncertain and uneasy time for prisoners and so Sinéad looked forward to being sentenced and joining the protesting prisoners. She knew exactly what to expect because she had been on the landing above the protesting prisoners for nearly a year.

"I never had any doubt but that I would join the protest for political status when I was sentenced. I realised what I would be losing because I saw it at first hand. But the battle for status was too important."

Those on protest were locked in their cells for over 20 hours a day. Between 5pm and 8pm 30 women had to share these hours to get washed clean out their cells and spend sometime in association together in the TV room.

They had one hour's exercise together every day in the prison yard. They also had a visit a month and a parcel a month, which included fruit, tissues and shampoo.

For every day on the protest, the prisoner lost a day's remission. Sinéad's sentence of ten years meant just that unless she ended her protest.

But things got worse after an attack on the women by the prison warders following a commemoration they held following the death on active service of Kevin 'Dee' Delaney in January 1980.

On the pretence of raiding for the black clothes the women wore at the parade, the warders assaulted and badly injured many of them before corralling them in the TV room.

The warders then wrecked their cells and left. For two days, the prisoners were denied access to the toilets and this was when the 'No Wash' protest began in Armagh Prison.

The prisoners were then locked in their cells 23 hours a day. They received a change of clothes every three months and every month sanitary towels were provided.

"The situation was very unhealthy. A lot of the women were physically sick and weight loss was serious. We had no mirrors so you couldn't see how you looked yourself, only how the others looked. It was a very difficult time. But we stuck together. It was both the best and the worst of times. The comradeship was brilliant. To this day there is a bond between those of us who went through those awful days."

And though those days were awful, there was worse to come as the reality of a hunger strike drew nearer.

"A hunger strike was always being talked about. We didn't know, because of our small numbers and the poor quality of the women's health, whether we could sustain one. A lot of women were not in good physical shape to go on a hunger strike."

Mairéad Farrell, Mary Doyle and Margaret Nugent went on hunger strike. Within days, their condition deteriorated rapidly. They had been weakened by the years of protest and deprivation.

The confused ending of the first Hunger Strike in December 1980 caused a bit of demoralisation among the prisoners but they could not afford to dwell too long in such a mood because a second hunger strike was being prepared.

Looking back on the second hunger strike, in 1981, Sinéad believes the right decision was taken not to put women on it. Their numbers were too small and the women's health was too weak to sustain a hunger strike for long enough to allow pressure to grow on the authorities.

It was difficult for them to accept the decision but they faced it with the same fortitude as they did other difficulties. They continued their protest for political status and supported the hunger strike in the H-Blocks through a letter writing campaign to people of influence at home and around the world.

For Sinéad:

"It was my worse time in prison. Comrades were dying and there was nothing we could do about it sitting inside a cell."

Difficult though it was to deal with the deaths of their comrades in the H-Blocks, the women never gave way in their protest to restore political status.

When the second Hunger Strike ended, they engaged in a campaign of disruption and sabotage in the prison workshops. They fought for segregation from loyalist prisoners and maintained their republican discipline throughout.

The evening before Sinéad was released, in August 1984, she was accused of being involved in a fracas by the warders and locked up. She never got the opportunity to say goodbye properly to her comrades, with whom she had been through nearly eight years of battles, big and small, to achieve political status.

Asked to sum up those years, Sinéad said:

"I would do it all again. They were not lost years or a waste of time. They made me what I am today. I am a stronger person because of what we all went through then. Whatever problems I face today I do so against a background of what happened during those years and I am more able to deal with situations."

SinÉad Moore married Seanna Walsh 18 months after she was released from jail. They had two children, Caoimhe and Mairéad. Caoimhe was 18 months and Mairéad was two-weeks old when Seanna was arrested and spent the next 11 years in jail.

Mairéad was brought to visit her daddy in Crumlin Road Jail in her christening robe. Times were tough, especially financially, for Sinéad and the children.

It was also difficult to keep their daddy part of the children's lives because they were so young when he went in.

"My republican instincts got me through those years. They were difficult but not as bad as Armagh Prison and I drew strength from that."

Since Seanna's release following the Good Friday Agreement, another daughter, Reina, now four, has joined the clan.

It was Sinéad who took the famous picture of her good friend Mairéad Farrell in her cell during the protest. Mairéad was shot dead by the SAS, along with Volunteers Dan McCann and Seán Savage, in 1988, while the three were on active service in Gibraltar. All three were unarmed at the time. "Her death affected me terribly. We were great friends in jail and outside. She was Caoimhe's godmother. She lived beside me. She would often call. The day before she left she called to give me back a few things I lent her. I had invited her to a party but she was too busy. The day before she left it was her birthday, the 3rd of March. I threw a card through her letterbox. She never got it. She is never far from my thoughts."


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