From the Armagh Prison to the H-Blocks, the Body Rebellion of Irish Political Prisoners


Envisioned as a pillar of this issue, we commissioned this conversation between former political prisoners Síle Darragh and Laurence Mckeown, which was recorded on October 9, 2023 at the James Connolly Centre in presence of Funambulist past contributor Sara Greavu, who asked them the questions Léopold had prepared. In this dialogue, they discuss the many corporeal (and gendered) ways through which the prisoners’ resistance against British prisons in Ireland: carrying objects and messages in their rectums, practicing “no-wash” protests or, the ultimate body weapon, hunger strikes.

Frankie Quinn Funambulist 1
Daisy Mules and Martha McClelland speaking at a protest outside Maghaberry on International Women’s Day in 1988. / Photo by Frankie Quinn.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: You both have been political prisoners in the context of the anti-colonial struggle in the north of Ireland. Can you describe the relationship between your body and the carceral architecture and its intense violence?

LAURENCE MCKEOWN: For us, the protest both in the Blocks and Armagh jail was very much about the body. Everything that we possessed, generally, had to be hidden in our bodies.

The pen that Bobby Sands used to do all his writing during the protest had to be hidden in his body, the paper that he used to write on had to be hidden in his body.

Whatever he wrote had to be wrapped and concealed inside his body. So, the body became center stage and the first introduction of that for me was, arriving down at the H-blocks after I was sentenced.

I arrived into the Block and was told to face the wall and strip. I went over, faced the wall, and stripped down to my underpants and you’re waiting on a beating all the time, that’s what you were expecting. And life’s going on around you: there’s other prisoners, conforming prisoners, orderlies, there’s screws. You’re standing semi-naked and then this screw came up behind me and says: “I said strip, get the fuckin’ heap off!” And that was my introduction to it. Then they’re taking you down the wing and there’s obviously other prisoners about and I’m walking down with these two screws… and the thing that really was in my mind was that my hands felt like lead weights because you didn’t want to walk and put your hands over your privates… that looked as if you were embarrassed or ashamed or something, when I wasn’t in that sense. But at the same time you weren’t going to walk with arms swinging, sort of cavalier style. And I suppose that experience was the first ever of your body…