Hands Off Ireland - H-Block: The struggle goes on


Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no 3, March/April 1980

370 men are enduring the barbarity of British imperialism in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh concentration camp. Throughout the history of British oppression in Ireland, the struggle in the prisons has been a central part of the fight for Irish freedom. Today, once again, Irish prisoners of war are fighting the British imperialist prison system.

On 1 March 1976 the right of special category status was withdrawn for all those convicted of offences after that date. Special category status was a covert recognition that Irish freedom fighters were political prisoners. It had been won by a Republican hunger strike. In March 1976 the British state began its long struggle to criminalise the Irish war of national liberation. This effort to brand Irish Republicans as criminals is a major part of British imperialism's war effort.

In September 1976 Kieran Nugent became the first man to be imprisoned under the new regulations. He refused to wear criminal uniform or do criminal work. He demanded recognition as a prisoner of war. He was given a blanket to wear. And so the struggle of the blanketmen began.

The British criminalisation campaign had gone into action — backed up by the specially constructed H-Blocks, the non-jury Diplock courts and systematic torture in the interrogation centres of Castlereagh and Gough barracks. This vast and ruthless engine of oppression has completely failed. Today 370 men are continuing the struggle for prisoner of war status backed by the 48 women on protest in Armagh jail. The conditions in the H-blocks are graphically described in the letter from the H-Block prisoners.

These prisoners stand in a long tradition of prison struggle in Ireland. Indeed the history of Ireland under British rule could be written as a history of prisons. The letter from O'Donovan Rossa confirms this. Between 1866 and 1870 (when Rossa’s letter was written) twenty Fenian prisoners died or went mad in British prisons. To the infamous list of Mountjoy, Kilmainham, Chatham, Millbank, Frongoch, Portlaoise, can be added Long Kesh, Armagh, Hull, Winson Green, Wormwood Scrubs — the list is endless. Whilst on the banks of the Thames MPs may chatter about the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, the Irish people see the reality. British imperialism as the mother of prisons, concentration camps, ‘protected’ villages, famine, torture, terror and war. As Marx, who worked tirelessly on behalf of Irish prisoners in the 1860s and 70s, pointed out in 1869:

‘In fact England never has and never can . . . rule Ireland otherwise than by the most abominable reign of terror and the most reprehensible corruption’

‘I repeat that political prisoners are not treated anywhere so bad as in England’

The struggle in the H-Blocks is part and parcel of the struggle for national liberation. As long as British imperialism exists, the prisons will exist and the barbarity and brutality will continue. As Joe O’Connell said at the Balcombe Street Siege trial in 1977:

‘We admit to no ‘crimes’ and to no ‘guilt’ for the real crimes and guilt are those of British imperialism committed against our people. The war against imperialism is a just war and it will go on, for true peace can only come about when a nation is free from oppression and injustice. Whether we are imprisoned or not is irrelevant for our whole nation is the prisoner of British imperialism.’


I have already told you about the hypocrisy of these English masters who, after placing me in a position which forced me to get down on my knees and elbows to eat, are now depriving me of food and light and giving me chains and a Bible. I am not complaining of the penalties which my masters inflict on me — it is my job to suffer — but I insist that I have the right to inform the world of the treatment to which I am subjected, and that it is illegal to hold back my letters describing this treatment. The minute precautions taken by the prison authorities to prevent me writing letters are as disgusting as they are absurd. The most insulting method was to strip me once a day for several months and then examine my arms, legs and all other parts of my body. This took place at Millbank daily from February to May 1867. One day I refused, whereupon five prison officers arrived, beat me mercilessly and tore off my clothes.

Once I succeeded in getting a letter to the outside, for which I was rewarded by a visit from Messrs. Knox and Pollock, two police magistrates.

How ironical to send two government employees to find out the truth about the English prisons. These gentlemen refused to take note of anything important which I had to tell them. When I touched upon a subject which was not to their liking, they stopped me by saying that prison discipline was not their concern. Isn’t that so, Messrs. Pollock and Knox? When I told you that I had been forced to wash in water which had already been used by half a dozen English prisoners, did you not refuse to note my complaint?

Edward Duffy and John Lynch murdered

One day I caught sight of my friend Edward Duffy. He was extremely pale. A little later I heard that Duffy was seriously ill and that he had expressed the wish to see me (we had been very close in Ireland). I begged the governor to give me permission to visit him. He refused point-blank. This was round about Christmas ‘67 — and a few weeks later a prisoner whispered to me through the bars of my cell: ‘Duffy is dead.’

How movingly this would have been described by the English if it had happened in Russia!

If Mr Gladstone had been present on such a sad occasion in Naples, what a touching picture he would have painted! Ah! Sweet Pharisees, trading in hypocrisy, with the Bible on their lips and the devil in their bellies.

I must say a word in memory of John Lynch. In March 1866 I found myself together with him in the exercise yard. We were being watched so closely that he only managed to say to me, ‘The cold is killing me.’ But then what did the English do to us? They took us to London on Christmas Eve. When we arrived at the prison they took away our flannels and left us shivering in our cells for several months. Yes, they cannot deny that it was they who killed John Lynch. But nevertheless they managed to produce officials at the enquiry who were ready to prove that Lynch and Duffy had been given very gentle treatment.


The lies of our English oppressors exceed one’s wildest imagination.

If I am to die in prison I entreat my family and my friends not to believe a word of what these people say. Let me not be suspected of personal rancour against those who persecuted me with their lies. I accuse only tyranny which makes the use of such methods necessary.

Many a time the circumstances have reminded me of Machiavelli’s words: ‘that tyrants have a special interest in circulating the Bible so that the people understand its precepts and offer no resistance to being robbed by brigands’.

So long as an enslaved people follows the sermons on morality and obedience preached to them by the priests, the tyrants have nothing to fear.

If this letter reaches my fellow countrymen I have the right to demand that they raise their voices to insist that justice be done for their suffering brothers. Let these words whip up the blood that is moving sluggishly in their veins!

O'Donovan Rossa

Political prisoner sentenced to hard labour



This letter comes to you from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh Concentration Camp on behalf of the P.O.W’s from this area, in a further attempt to inform you of our deteriorating situation. At present, 360 men — 17 from this area — are involved in the protest against the removal of our status as political prisoners. As a result of this protest we have been reduced to live in conditions unimaginable to anyone who has not seen them.

Cardinal Ó Fiaich after his visit said that the closest comparison which could be made to these blocks was ‘The Sewer Pipes of Calcutta.’

We live two to an empty cell, the walls of which are covered with human excreta. Maggots and other disease carrying insects breed in the pile of rotting food which lies in the corner of our cells, causing a nauseating smell and also a very serious health hazard.

We have no furniture as it has been taken from us. The only thing we have is a filthy piece of damp foam which serves as a bed, chair and table, upon which to eat food. It is usually damp due to the regular hosing down of the cell by the screws. We have no defence against this, and as the heating system has been turned off, we cannot fully dry them.

The Governor has recently deemed it necessary to cut down on our air supply. This was done by the placing of a covering on the outside of the windows and a grill on the inside which causes severe strain on our eyesight.

We are unable to wash, shave or have our hair cut, and now our long greasy hair hangs down filthily over our thin rash infected bodies, which have been reduced almost to skeleton-like figures due to the special diet of cold, sometimes uncooked food, which we receive.

Exercise is non-existent and we are locked up in this slime for 24 hours every day, seven days a week.

Contact with our families is limited to one visit per month. While this is in progress, several screws listen in, and at the first mention of conditions the visit is ended. This means that even for this brief half-hour visit, we have no privacy with our mothers, wives or children.

On going to and from visits, we are put through the ‘Mirror Search’ (this is being forcibly bent over a mirror while naked) whilst screws mock us in a further attempt to humiliate us. The risk of being assaulted is ever present. This rigorous, vicious search has led many men to stop taking these visits — Can you blame them?

Can you imagine how we feel while undergoing this? What would you do? Would you be prepared to have your buttocks searched or have fingers probe inside you? This is what we must do to see our families.

You can look around you and see your family and friends. When we look around, all we see is dirt, filth, slime and squalor. The only people we come in contact with are the sectarian uniformed bigots. The proper name for these is ‘Prison Officers’, or so we are informed.

These bigots take sadistic delight in beating us daily for no reason at all. As a direct result of these beatings many of us have spent lengthy periods in hospital.

Books, newspapers, radios, T.V., cigarettes, clothes, letters, association with other prisoners and medical treatment are all denied to us. They are what the Brit Government class as ‘Privileges’. Our health is steadily deteriorating and already several have suffered from malnutrition. How long will it be before one of us dies? It could be me, it could be the fella in the next cell, it could be any one of us, but no doubt if this keeps up one of us will die!

Ask our families to bear out the truth of what we say. Ask them of the suffering they themselves go through, and the daily anxiety they endure while they wait and worry not knowing what will come next.

What we the POWs of Lenadoon want to know is — Do You Care? You know us all as individuals, so it is as individuals that we ask for your support. We ask for your help in ending this hell in which we live. That help may be little or large, it might just be going to the local marches or putting a 'Smash H-Block' notice in your window, but every bit will count. Act now before it is too late, if you do, you could be saving our lives. Through your support behind us, we promise we will not fail to secure our victory, for the words of Terence McSweeney ring clear in our ears, as he said: They may break us in body, but never in spirit.

GERRY McCONVILLE, H.5                                                              BENNY LYNCH, H.5
BRIAN GILLEN, H.5                                                                          JIM McCANN, H.5
JOE McDONALD, H.5                                                                      SEAN LAVERY, H.5
JIMMY BURNS, H.5         `                                                              PAT LIVINGSTONE, H.5
EAMONN COCHRANE, H.5                                                           AIDRIAN McKEE, H.5
SEAMY FINUCANE, H.4                                                                  MARTIN LIVINGSTONE, H.4
SEAMY KEARNEY, H.4                                                                    MICKY FITZIMMONS, H.4
TOMMY GORMAN, H.4                                                                 PAT LAVERY, H.3


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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