Irish Prisons: Bodies in Resistance



It is I think no exaggeration to say that the prisons of Long Kesh / H Blocks, Crumlin Road Gaol and Armagh Gaol were the places in which the most spectacular, the most violent, the most heartrending, the most degrading and the most uplifting actions took place during the Troubles in the North of Ireland, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. These prisons are physical reminders of the recent turbulent past in this part of Ireland and they remain touchy subjects because of the current inability to address the past in any meaningful way. Although all three started out as regular prisons, they became, in the 1970s, more and more overpopulated as the British government became increasingly interventionist in the conflict. Neither Armagh Gaol, built in 1780, nor Crumlin Road Gaol, built in 1843-45, nor Long Kesh, originally a government site used during World War II and made up of Nissan huts, had the necessary infrastructure to deal with the influx of prisoners triggered by new British government policy to curb the growing conflict. In August 1971 “Operation Demetrius” was launched and the extremely controversial internment without trial came into being. On the first night alone, 342 men living in Nationalist areas were lifted and held, and as internment continued, the compounds in Long Kesh could no longer contain all the prisoners, and Crumlin Road and Armagh Gaols, as well as the prison ship HMS Maidstone, also began to be grossly overpopulated. Many prisoners were imprisoned for months on end before being released without even being charged. Many more were charged, found guilty, and sentenced, although not before being tortured and subjected to “inhuman treatment,” as the European Convention of Human Rights qualified the recourse to the notorious five techniques: hooding, wall standing, deprivation of sleep, deprivation of food, and drink and subjection to noise, all of which are depressingly familiar in our post 9/11 world.

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Crumlin Road Goal in Belfast / Image from Bing (2016)

All three prisons housed both Republican and Loyalist prisoners, although the former were by far more numerous as the efforts of both the local security forces (the RUC) and the British army were largely deployed against Republicans. Republicans were (and continue to be) mainly militant Catholics who initially came together to protect their communities from loyalist attacks, but the ideology gradually morphed into that of a liberation movement contesting the legitimacy of British presence in this part of Ireland and targeting anyone involved in the apparatus of the state (the police and army, judges, etc.). Civilian Protestants were also targeted at times. Loyalists, on the other hand, although ostensibly also protecting their Protestant communities from Republicans, also colluded with the security forces, targeting Republicans and indiscriminately killing Catholics, often with the benediction of the British state. All three sites also had among their inmates prisoners who were prepared to go on hunger strike. In 1972, a hunger strike carried out by Republicans in Crumlin Road Gaol for Special Category Status (ie. political prisoner status) ended in victory for all prisoners, including Loyalists. The prisoners then organised themselves along sectarian lines, taking over separate levels of A wing, but nevertheless sometimes encouraging interaction and discussion among Loyalists and Republicans.

Armagh Gaol was where women prisoners were detained and, within it too from 1972 onwards, prisoners organised themselves and developed internal command structures, which the prison authorities accepted. The Nissan huts in Long Kesh were also organised along sectarian lines and command structures put in place. All three prisons became spaces of historical and political education, drilling, and entertainment and culture, but Long Kesh in particular allowed the prisoners substantial autonomy. However, everything changed dramatically in 1976 with a significant shift in British policy and the abolition of Special Category Status. It is from this point onwards that the reconfiguration of both the prison space and the political landscape changed utterly.

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Long Kesh H Blocks prison / Photograph by Brendan Rankin (2007)

As part of a new, long-term strategy for dealing with the Troubles, the British government announced that from March 1, 1976, anyone convicted of “scheduled offences” would no longer benefit from Special Category status and would instead be treated as ODCs (Ordinary Decent Criminals). In preparation for this the Maze Prison, dubbed the H Blocks because of their shape, was built extremely quickly using prefabricated structures: built on a cellular structure designed to limit all contact among prisoners, the eight H Blocks were concrete one-storey buildings each with four wings and a central corridor which was perpendicular to them. The first prisoner to arrive there after the new legislation was brought in, Kieran Nugent, refused to wear the standard prisoner uniform, stated he was a political prisoner, and was given a blanket with which to cover his naked body. So began the blanket protest, which over 300 prisoners would eventually join. The blanket protest morphed three years later into the No wash protest: locked into their cells for three days and unable to slop out, the prisoners emptied their urine onto the cell floors and smeared their excrement onto the cell walls. This revolt was originally part of a strategy to force the British government to grant the five demands: the right to wear one’s own clothes, the right to one letter, parcel and visit per week, the right to free association, the right to abstain from prison labour, the restoration of remission lost as punishment for being on the protest. Nevertheless, the blanket and no wash protests became a way of living that was at odds with the architecture and ideology of the H Blocks, designed to prohibit collective action and break the collective spirit of the dissenting prisoners. Far from impeding the formation of a collective dynamic, the excessive surveillance, beatings, strip and mirror searches, forced washes and general humiliation of the prisoners by the prison guards galvanised the former into a strong collective movement of solidarity.

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Long Kesh H Blocks prison / Photograph by Brendan Rankin (2007)

In Armagh Gaol, even though the architecture was different, there was a similar attempt to undermine the collective dynamic of the women prisoners. Overpopulation in both prisons meant that there were almost always more than one prisoner to a cell, and although the women prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes, they too ended up joining the No wash protest after an incident during which several women were assaulted by wardens and then locked into their cells without being able to slop out. The women then began their own no wash protest which was compounded by the addition of menstrual blood to faeces and urine. The British media sought to depict all these prisoners as feral animals in an obvious attempt to dehumanize them and prevent them from garnering any support. The very first British report filmed inside the H Blocks by the BBC (the report can still be viewed on the BBC website) goes out of its way to present the prisoners as alinguistic, atavistic creatures whose deliberate grunting and shouting in front of the camera is placed by the journalist on the same level as the Irish language. Their straggly long hair, beards and naked bodies standing or squatting in their cells smeared with shit are presented as so transgressive as to be beyond the boundaries of propriety and containment, and as evidence of the fundamental savagery of the Irish. What this report predictably fails to show were the ingenious alternative forms of communication developed by the prisoners, notably using their own bodies, in outright defiance of the foucaldian notions of coercion and surveillance of bodies within the carceral regime. As David Lloyd has suggested, by literally allowing their bodies to overflow into the cell and under the doors, the prisoners defied the authorities’ attempt to isolate and confine them, all the more so as the smell, by all accounts overpowering, particularly in Armagh, was uncontainable.

Sophisticated forms of smuggling in which the prisoners’ bodies were central were in place in the H Blocks and Armagh. Allen Feldman and David Lloyd have both noted how the practical use the prisoners (and their visitors) made of their bodies, dissimulating coms, poetry, drawings, and other items such as tobacco or pen refills in their nostrils, mouths, rectums, foreskins, and vaginas, effectively undermined and indeed reconfigured the spatial limits placed on them within the prison apparatus. According to Irish feminist Nell McCafferty, one woman even tried to smuggle parts of a gun into the prison in her vagina, a source of some embarrassment to the Republican movement when she was caught. The prisoners reimagined their bodies as a network which escaped surveillance and which, far from being contained as the British had hoped, was actually porous. Their bodies became, as Lloyd puts it, “the vehicle of a possible alternative sociality.”

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Long Kesh H Blocks prison / Photograph by Brendan Rankin (2007)

These impossible to regulate bodies were taken one step further by the prisoners as it became obvious that there was to be no softening of the British position. The reimagination and reconfiguration of the prison space in the blanket and no wash protests effectively ended with the organisation of two hunger strikes which took place in 1980 and 1981, the second of which culminated with the death of ten prisoners and a refusal by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to show any sign of relenting. Three women prisoners took part in the first hunger strike which was called off in a fug of subsequently denied British promises before any prisoners died. Their participation was subject to considerable debate within the IRA, but the fact that the women’s demand was granted by the external leadership, at least for the 1980 hunger strike, is evidence of a growing recognition of the prominent place women should be given in the struggle. The emphasis placed on the hunger strike as a final card to play was buttressed by the decision to end the blanket and no wash protest and this decision ultimately sounded the knell for the alternative reconfigurations of the prison space and, notwithstanding the death of ten prisoners between May and August 1981, marked the beginning of a period of negotiation with the state on its own terms which continued right through until the peace process of the 1990s.

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Long Kesh H Blocks prison / Photograph by Brendan Rankin (2007)

All three prisons mentioned here have since been closed down and controversy continues to rage over what to do with these sites which are so full of a contentious history that many would rather forget. Crumlin Road Gaol has been successfully restored and can now be visited. Aside from offering a tour of the prison, the underground corridor leading from the Courthouse across the road to the prison, and the execution cell, the site has also become a conference and concert venue, boasting everything from nocturnal paranormal tours to Queen and Elvis Presley tribute concerts. In other words, notwithstanding the historical interest of the restoration, the site has become utterly commodified and there are no limits, it would appear, to the gimmicks deployed to render it a profitable, commercially viable venture. Armagh Gaol, which has been closed since 1986, is also temporarily available to visit, although private developers circle like vultures and there has been talk of turning it into a luxury hotel and spa. Although £18m was pledged to the development of the Long Kesh/H Blocks site as part of the EU Peace III initiative in 2007, the Unionist First Minister, Peter Robinson, who has since retired, put an end to that in what is now referred to as his “letter from America,” in which he refused to endorse any project that would involve a heritage site, or, as he puts it, “a shrine” to all the Republican prisoners who took part in the blanket and no wash protests between 1976 and 1981, and, in particular, to the ten men who starved themselves to death there in 1981.

As Ireland prepares to celebrate this Spring the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, the question of how to deal adequately with the past (whether the very emergence of the Irish Free State or the more recent conflict in the North) continues to haunt the present. There is a general reluctance on the part of the powers that be to encourage too much excavation and interrogation of the past, and the debate is frequently (and expediently) perceived to be mired in a binary revisionist/hagiographic approach. Ongoing debates in the North over what to do with Armagh Gaol and Long Kesh/H Blocks appear to suggest, depressingly, that it is perhaps only in a commercial project that political consensus might be reached. If that happens, then, apart from the important work carried out by contemporary dark heritage archeologist Laura McAtackney (An Archeology of the Troubles: The Dark Heritage of Long Kesh/Maze Prison, OUP, 2014), the transformation of both sites into sports centers, hotels, apartments or shopping malls will be a reconfiguration too far, the ultimate depoliticization and containment of space.