Today we visited the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. The easiest way to give you the backstory of this place…is the movie Hunger.
Well that is simply the trailer, and the movie is extremely gripping, as well as emotionally trying. Be warned, but I still highly recommend it.
So we visited today, and I remember feeling a chill run down my spine as we rolled up in the van. The first thing we saw, was a concrete wall, standing twenty-four feet tall, and laced, like lights on a christmas tree, with razor wire. The guard towers stood stalwart at equal distances along the wall, much like sad giants who had witnessed terrible woes inflicted on those who had graced Long Kesh with their presence. I remember that the first thing I said, when we drove up, was “there are ghosts here.” I don’t even believe in ghosts, but that is the feeling that swept over me as we got out of the van.
As we walked through the air-lock gates-double door systems for checking cars at points of entrance-it set in that this wasn’t a normal tour. I could feel the tension in the air, and you could just imagine guards stationed at each locked door, each tower, and each guardhouse. There was even a military pillbox outside of the front gate. The whole situation became even more real, if that were possible, when we stepped into the H-Blocks. These blocks are in the shape of an H:
These blocks were designed in America-eke-and built to accomodate 100 prisoners in four separate wings, with a conjoining recreation center, and two separate yard areas. Well as we know in America, the nicety of prison planning is not so appreciated by its inhabitants. The IRA prisoners would be brought in, in their minds as POWs, and instead be treated as common criminals. In protest, the men would refuse to don a prison uniform, and were instead stripped of their clothes and offered a blanket. This is how the term “blanket men” came around. The next step when the protest escalated was the “dirty” protest in which the men would defile their cell walls with excrement. They lived in these conditions for sometimes up to 16 years, and their cells would be routinely cleaned, only for them to proceed to dirty them up again. The purpose of these protests was that the IRA wanted political prisoner status for their interred prisoners, but Margaret Thatcher and the British government would not treat them as anything but common criminals.
When it appeared that both the blanket and dirty protests were not making any headway, the IRA escalated their tactics, and initiated a Hunger strike. The first attempt failed when one of their members succumbed to a coma, and the strike was called off. However, under Bobby Sands leadership, the IRA initiated a second Hunger Strike, in which teams of men would systematically starve themselves to death until the British government granted them political status. Bobby Sands, the main character of Hunger, succumbed to starvation after 66 days. Many men followed. But eventually, the British government quietly gave in and granted the IRA political status.
I think that the Hunger Strikes exemplify how a people who have made a resolve, say freedom from tyranny at all costs, will do whatever it takes to ensure that end. Bobby Sands for example, was convinced along with many others at Long Kesh, that their sacrifice would evoke change both in the prison system, as well as in the entire UK regarding Ireland. The men who died in the H-Blocks were convinced that they were stronger than the British government, and that eventually Northern Ireland could, and would be free.
How the men lived in those small cubical spaces, smeared their walls, and lived without any activities besides pacing their rooms, is beyond me. I was informed that when your mind is so set on a goal, you find the innate ability to zone out all of your surroundings, and all of the violence around you. This was the only way that they made it, their dream for a united and free Ireland.
“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”