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11 May 2000 Edition

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Kieran Nugent dies

The first H Block blanket man


There's a story of Kieran Nugent escaping across the border and driving with both legs in plaster down to Dublin. The fellas who had rescued Kieran, having succumbed to the rigours of celebrating as soon as they reached Dundalk, left the injured escapee to drive the vehicle for the rest of the journey south.

There was a kind of reckless determination about Kieran Nugent. And it was this very quality which in 1976 proved to be the most dangerous weapon in the republican movement's arsenal against British rule in Ireland
I don't know if this story is true, but what it might lack in clarity of detail it regains in the simple truth it conveys about Kieran Nugent. There was a kind of reckless determination about him. And it was this very quality which in 1976 proved to be the most dangerous weapon in the republican movement's arsenal against British rule in Ireland.

It was with great sadness that last week republicans learned of the untimely death of their comrade. A father of two, Kieran was found dead at his home in Andersonstown on Thursday 4 May after suffering a heart attack.

News of his unexpected death seemed all the more poignant in a week when republican communities across the north were remembering the H Block hunger strikers. Kieran died on the eve of the 19th anniversary of Bobby Sands' death. Hundreds of former blanket men and women attended the Requiem Mass in Poleglass' Church of the Nativity.

``Kieran was a teenager when the British government decided on its strategy of criminalisation. He was a teenager when the British government decided that republican prisoners were to be broken as a means of breaking the republican community,'' Tom Hartley told mourners at Kieran's burial last Saturday.

``He was still a teenager when on 14 September 1976 he was flung naked into a H Block cell. All the powerful repressive machinery of the English state in Ireland set out to crush a young republican from the Lower Falls.''

When they presented him with a convict's uniform, Kieran Nugent had told the prison wardens, ``they'll have to nail it to my back.'' In recognition of their status as political prisoners, prior to 1976, republicans wore their own clothes in jail. A warden threw a blanket into Kieran's cell.

And there it all began, with Kieran Nugent, the first protesting republican blanket man. Reckless in relation to his own safety and well-being, determined in his resistance to criminalisation, confident in his own identity as a political prisoner, committed to the struggle for Irish freedom.

``Isn't it wonderfully ironic then, that the one major flaw in British strategic planning was their inability to read the minds of republican remand prisoners. In the cells of the Crumlin Road jail and Armagh women's prison, young republicans had decided to resist any attempt to treat them as criminals,'' said Tom.

``In the simplicity of his defiance, alone and in the vulnerability of his nakedness, Kieran refused to be broken. If ever we need an example of the power of the human spirit, we should reflect on that moment when the dignity of this young man broke the power and inhumanity of the British state.

``At that very moment with their first H Block prisoner, when they thought themselves all powerful, the British government in Ireland had already lost their attempt to criminalise the republican people and their struggle,'' said Tom.

The future may well record that moment, culminating in the hunger strikes of 1981, as the moment that Britain lost its war in Ireland. As Danny Morrison put it, ``those cocky prison administrators expected him to `see sense' and the rest is history. Bitter. Sore. Angry. Our 1916.''

In a tribute, Danny recalled the moment in 1976 when Kieran's parents came to the Republican Press Centre on the Falls Road and spoke to Tom Hartley. ``He took their details and called me down from the attic where I was editing Republican News.Their son had gone missing. They didn't know where he was. He had been sentenced to three years in jail a few weeks ago.''

``It is hard to believe, but we hadn't followed the case,'' said Danny. ``We knew about the Diplock courts. We knew that anyone convicted for an offence committed after March 1 would not get political status, but what that meant hadn't really dawned on people outside the jail.''

In 1976, Marie Moore was working in the POW Department. She recalls attending pickets protesting against the removal of political status, but ``we never imagined how pivotal to the struggle the issue would become.''

For Kieran, the removal of political status was an attack on his personal integrity, says Marie. ``He was a stubborn man, but that wasn't his only significant quality. He had the ability to face adversity without allowing it to overwhelm him. Kieran could always find the humour in a situation.''

Marie remembers seeing Kieran on a visit during the blanket protest. ``He had the long hair and beard of all blanket men,'' says Marie. Protesting prisoners were kept naked, confined to their cells and denied basic toilet and hygiene facilities. Unkempt and unshaven, their image became almost as biblical as their martyrdom.

Visiting a prisoner who was ``on the blanket'' was formidable. It was often a harrowing ordeal for family, friends and comrades as physical conditions in the jail deteriorated and the impact on the POWs was etched into their gaunt appearance and failing health.

``But their morale was amazing,'' says Marie. ``Kieran always sent me home from a visit laughing and reassured. That was the measure of the man.''

``Kieran Nugent was not raised to become a heroic figure of the republican movement. He was an ordinary young man raised within a loving family,'' Tom Hartley told mourners.

``His destiny was to become, in his time, the very first of an heroic generation who sought through protest and hunger strike, to assert the moral strength of their community in the face of a brutal onslaught by an amoral government.''

In the words of a former blanket man: ``It was like this, when I arrived at the H blocks and joined the blanket protest it was already nine months down the line. It was brutal. It was scary but someone had been there before you, you knew what to expect.

``It takes a particular kind of courage to be the first to initiate struggle. Kieran Nugent was alone and isolated. For weeks no one knew where he was let alone what he was doing. Regardless of the consequences he dug his heels in and made his stand. He'll always be remembered for that.''

Like John the Baptist, within the international political arena the name of Kieran Nugent anticipated that of Bobby Sands. Outside the north of Ireland, Kieran may not be so well remembered now but his legacy continues to shape the struggle towards Irish freedom and self determination today.

In South African Nelson Mandela and his fellow ANC prisoners exposed the brutality not only of the jail in which they had been incarcerated but also their jailers, the Apartheid regime.

Like Robben Island, the H Blocks of Long Kesh became a worldwide touchstone for oppression and injustice. In 1976, with the removal of political status, the British government had sought to criminalise the republican movement. In the event, Kieran Nugent, and those who followed after him, criminalised the British government.

An Phoblacht
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Dublin 1