20 December 2007 Edition
Vintage stuff from English jails - Ella O'Dwyer and Martina Anderson recall Christmas and other 'happy' times as republican POWs
ELLA O’DWYER is from County Tipperary. MARTINA ANDERSON is from the Bogside in Derry. Both were arrested in Glasgow in June 1985 with Gerry ‘Blute’ McDonnell, Peter Sherry and Pat Magee, ‘The Brighton Bomber’. Ella was 26 years old. Martina was 23.
The following year, on 11 June 1986, all five were given life sentences at the Old Bailey in London for planning IRA attacks. Ella and Martina served their time in Brixton Prison and Durham Prison before being transferred to Maghaberry Prison, near Derry, in 1994. After serving 13 years in jail, they were both released on 10 November 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
Ella is now a staff writer with An Phoblacht and her book, The Rising of the Moon: The Language of Power (Pluto Press, London), on literature, language and Irish history, is based on the MA and PhD she completed in jail.
Martina got a first class honours degree in social science while in prison. She was elected as a Sinn Féin Assembly member for Foyle earlier this year and is a member of the Policing Board. She is the party’s spokesperson on Equality.
BEARING in mind that it’s 22 years since Gerry McDonnell, Pat Magee, Peter Sherry, Martina Anderson and myself were arrested, some of the finer details, especially of Christmases, are lost on me, and it wasn’t from hooch – at least not until the Christmas of 1994 when we were transferred back to Ireland where our comrades in Maghaberry Prison had prepared a party of note.
We were lifted in Glasgow in June 1985 and transferred to London.
Our first night in Brixton Prison was awesome. I had a real bed and a room with a view. Just as I was bedding down for the night I heard a voice from the cell below asking me if I wanted a fag. He advised me to unravel threads from the blanket, knot them together to make ‘a line’. I did just that and dropped the line down to the window below and, a few seconds later, I was smoking blissfully to the tune of, “Every little thing is gonna be alright,” rendered by the Good Samaritan below.
As far as the prison regime was concerned, Martina and I were persona non grata. When an alleged spy from East Germany called Sonia arrived at Brixton she was told as much. If she kept away from us she’d be ‘all-rightish’, but if she befriended us she’d get the same treatment as we were getting – up to five strip-searches, around six body-searches a day, relentless cell-searches and usually 23 hours’ lock-up a day. Sonia befriended us nevertheless, right to the end. She was with us for our first Christmas in Brixton Prison and it snowed that morning. We got out to the yard and, like mad children, drew Christmas messages on the snow to people who’d never get to see them. We exchanged presents and read the greetings in An Phoblacht – Ann and Rab of the POW Department, our families and God knows how many others. We even got our faces on the front page of the paper one Christmas. What a blast!
But Brixton wasn’t exactly a pantomime. As one member of the Board of Visitors said: “The only thing you are entitled to here is to be fed, wear clothes and get an hour out of the cell per day.” And that basically was our gettings. But my mother used to always tell me growing up that a bit of hardship toughens you for things to come. She was always a bit of a wizard that woman and, sure enough, Brixton was the training ground for even bigger things – H-Wing, Durham.
In our naiveté we’d been kind of looking forward to the move to H-Wing after the ongoing conflict with the screws in Brixton and the sometimes very abusive manner of the male prisoners there. My first sighting of H-Wing gave me the distinct impression of a big dirty chimney but I still didn’t know how the hell Santa Claus was ever going to get down it.
The first person I remember seeing as we went onto the wing was an old lady of about 70. She was remarkable for the fact that she’d push a sweeping brush a few feet, stop suddenly and say, “Half-past four,” in a broad Cockney accent then continue to push forward another bit.
The word ‘smoke’ must have been written on my forehead even then because she made a beeline for me to ask for a light. No problem, I thought, until a screw came up and told me she was an arsonist and not to be given a light under any circumstances!
The ‘half-past four’ thing emerged from the fact that she was meant to have been hung a number of years previously at half-past four and got reprieved to Durham. Some reprieve.
Soon we had two Martinas with the arrival of Dubliner Martina Shanahan, one of the Winchester Three, in 1987.
We were thrilled at the arrival of one of our own but a bit despairing too in the knowledge of what lay ahead of her. We three became close – she was our baby though she had more sense than the two of us put together.
Martina Shanahan was only in the place a day or two when Anderson and myself were for the block for something we’d done before her arrival. Shanahan was inconsolable: her two closest friends in the place were being locked up and she wasn’t. We’d a bit of a job convincing her of the importance of the responsibility we were now placing on her young shoulders. She’d have to be out on the wing to write out letters about our ‘dreadful’ plight and hold the fort ‘till our ‘release’ while we suffered great toils and torments! We could hardly hold the laughter in. Pretty soon, she was for the block too.
Then the Winchester Three won their appeal in 1990 and we were wracked by conflicting emotions: joy at seeing her released and yet the sadness of letting her go.
There were times throughout the Durham period when we’d have run-ins with the other prisoners but we made it clear that neither the system nor the prisoners could come between us - and that clarity was sometimes delivered in less than gentle ways. They say that if you’ve a reputation of getting up early you can get up at mid-day.
But this again is a Christmas tale and when we were transferred to Maghaberry we had a Christmas never to be forgotten.
We were met on the first visit with the delighted faces of our families – the people who had gone through so much hardship on our behalf for all those years.
While walking around that exercise in Durham under the dingey, grey chimney of H-Wing I’d sworn that if I ever got back under an Irish sky I’d kiss the ground on the first Christmas there. If the Pope was good enough to kiss it, so was I. And that’s how I’d begun Christmas morning, 1994. It was one hell of a Christmas.
I remember saying to the O/C, Mary McArdle, that people outside would have paid to come into a party like this. “I doubt it,” said Mary. Marie Wright (RIP) complained that the hooch was below par and nothing like the usual quality. Martina and I disagreed. It was like fine wine. 1994: a good year — vintage stuff.
BY THE TIME we arrived at Brixton, after ten days’ interrogation, I was shattered tired and couldn’t care less about my new surroundings. I needed sleep without expecting the door to open for more questioning. So while Ella was on a full-scale op’ trying to get fags through her window, I was out for the count.
We spent most of the next 13 months with no clothes on, with all the strip-searches we were getting. By way of protest we were for refusing to put the clothes back on after the next strip-search and just wear dressing gowns but for the wise intervention of Mitchel McLaughlin. More often than once, Mitchel helped us see the light during the many visits he made to us in jail.
Another time we refused to put our cells back together after two cell-searches in the one day and we spent the night sleeping on the heating pipes. But again we could see where that kind of protest would take us and we were still only on remand.
Then we wanted to batter – if not worse – one of the screws but were again advised against it. But we did have the consolation of seeing the state the screws would get into after a two-week shift on the wing. They’d be utterly shattered and couldn’t wait to get away form us. We were hard work all right.
My role in jail was of entertainer. I’d sing every night out the window in response to the endless requests of the men in the surrounding blocks. The acoustics of the exercise yard in A-Wing were a model for aspiring talent like mine but the next day the screws would come to the door and put me on report for ‘disturbing the neighbours’. They said there were complaints! The ingratitude of it all.
Myself and Ella were always a bit nuts so we can’t blame long-term imprisonment. We decided that for the last day of the trial at the Old Bailey we’d try and dress like Tricolours. We literally wore green, white and gold. Luckily nobody noticed! Boreham was the name of the judge handing out the life sentences and half the time he was asleep during the proceedings. He was so old he should have been at home praying for a happy death!
In the middle of the constant bombardment with strip-searches, cell-searches and ongoing harassment we found a friend, a woman called Nina Hutchinson, who has sadly died since. Nina visited us regularly and was the instigator of a strong campaign around prison conditions in Brixton and later in Durham.
As for Durham! It took me a whole week to realise I wasn’t in a hospital. In fact it took me a week to even talk really. But that wasn’t too bad. There was a woman who’d been there for years and she never spoke at all. Another woman used to burn herself with fags. There were so many unwell women in H-Wing who, instead of being sent to jail, should have been sent for psychiatric care.
One of the first people we met in Durham was Judith Ward [convicted of bombing a British Army coach on the M62 in England].
She bounced up to us and asked us if we’d like to come to her cell for a drink. A drink! Ella and I exchanged wide-eyed glances. Hooch, we figured. Could it really be? We moved swiftly to Judith’s cell. In fact, I think we got there before her. She produced a flask, three tea bags and a jar of coffee. Not quite the same thing as hooch but she did have some traditional Irish music that the Gillespie sisters had left with her on their release.
Another person we met the first day in Durham was a Scottish woman who greeted us with “I’m a prostitute, a lesbian and I’m in for murder – and how are you?” We became friends and, thankfully, she left it until the day before we left H-Wing for good to tell me she fancied me! I was a happily married woman.
Both Ella and I had jail weddings. Ella’s was a nice day but my wedding in 1989 [to IRA POW Paul Kavanagh] was more like an obstacle course. By the time I’d been driven a mile a minute on the four-hour journey to Full Sutton Jail, near York, vomiting all the way and given a couple of brief hours to get the business done and rushed back to H-Wing again, I was totally bewildered and upset. Ella jumped to the wrong conclusion at the sight of me. “Don’t worry, all’s not lost – we’ll get you a divorce!” That really did it and I didn’t sleep a wink that night.
We didn’t just celebrate weddings. We made a big thing of Christmases and birthdays. In fact, I remember Ella’s first mid-life crisis – she was 30 and was utterly miserable. On such occasions we’d exchange gifts and get spoilt by our families when they’d come on visits. If one of us got something, the other one did too. The Andersons to this day will never forget traipsing around the streets looking for prawns for Ella. Prawns! You can imagine the searching the screws did on the big basin of prawns that was enough to feed an army.
My mother, Betty, was the rock in our household right throughout my sentence. I will always love her.
But it wasn’t all partying and we spent the first six months of our time in Durham on ‘lock-up’, meaning everything, including the mattress, would be taken out of the cell and you saw nobody except the screw who came to let you ‘slop out’. We didn’t even get to see each other.
The governor let us know that he had been governor of Wakefield when Frank Stagg died and he’d happily send us home in boxes.
If you needed a lesson on the inhumanity and brutality at the core of imperialism you only had to look at the way prisoners were treated – even the sick and vulnerable ones we saw in Durham. We wanted to change it all, change the world we were living in, and in a way we did just that.
By the time we’d been transferred from H-Wing, the jail had been refurbished to a relatively habitable state with toilets and hand-basins in each cell. After threatening to wreck these pristine abodes if we weren’t allowed to inhabit the ones on the upper floors, they agreed to let us onto the top landing. So, for the first time in about eight years, we had a view of normal daylight from our cells. I remember waking up the first morning and banging on the door, shouting to the women to look out the window. It was a great big beautiful orange ball – the sun was rising. It was magic!