Monday, 13 December 2010

Report on United Irishmen discussion.

Friday night saw a highly informative and engrossing talk on the United Irishmen, with particular reference to Tyrone, at Quinn's Corner. Brendan Donaghy of The James Connolly Society got things started by introducing the panel and reading some comtemporary quotes from the United Irishmen which echoed tellingly down through the years to be particularly relevant today. The next speaker was John Gray, former Curator of the Linen Hall Library and former head of the Belfast United Irishmen Society. John spoke extensively giving a detailed and learned background to the local and global sociopolitical conditions and events that gave rise to the United Irishmen, the 1798 Rising and the reasons why the rising failed. A key feature of John's talk was the British policy of Sectarianisation which is still in effect today. Tommy McKearney spoke last and his talk complimented John's with a more particular empahasis on Tyrone and the way in which the United Irishmen were organised in the county as well as the acts of intimidation and terror carried out by the state and state-sanctioned Orange forces.
There was then a detailed question and answer session with some excellent questions coming from the floor and this could have gone on for hours but it was decided to wrap up around 23:15 after about 3 intense hours of historical analysis.
The evening was taped and dvds will be available in the future.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

1980 Hunger Strike discussion held 1-12-10.

The Greenvale Hotel, Cookstown was host to an excellent and informative talk on the 1980 hunger strike and the conditions which led up to it. The conference room was filled to capacity with 100 or more people in attendance. Given the condition of the roads across East Tyrone and the fact that there was little or no publicity this was an exceptional turnout and clear indication that the non conforming Republican community is far from defeated.

The panel consisted of Brian Arthurs, Joe Bell, Joe McNulty and Tommy McKearney and they spoke in that order. Brian Arthurs began  by asking for a minute's silence in memory of Barry Monteith's father who had recently died.

Brian then went on to give an account of the use of hunger strike as a tactic by Republicans in the 20th century and listed the names, anniversaries and length of fast of the men and women who had died on hunger strike; from Thomas Ashe to Mickey Devine. Brian then outlined the historical conditions which led to the 1980 hunger strike, going into detail regarding the Gardiner Report, the Ulsterisation-Criminalisation-Normalisation policies and the conveyor belt process from torture centre to Diplock court to Long Kesh where in most cases convictions were obtained on the basis of nothing more than forced 'confessions'. This opening presentation placed the protest in its historical context. Brian also paid tribute to the Blanketmen whose sacrifices and courage had ensured that subsequent POWs, himself included, could do their time with dignity.

Joe Bell gave an account of life on the blanket and the various strategies and tactics of communication and smuggling employed by the prisoners to resist the forced isolation and dehumanisation designed to break them. He also had harrowing accounts of the infamous 'mirror searches' which were nothing more than state-sanctioned sexual assault in the same manner as the continued strip searching of Republican prisoners today. Joe's captivating account illustrated the hardships endured by the Blanketmen and also their courage and determination not to be broken.

Joe McNulty, also a Blanketman, also gave personal accounts of the brutality and inhuman conditions including seeing Martin Hurson being kicked and beaten by 6 screws whilst on a stretcher awaiting transport to the hospital for treatment for a beating received just minutes before during 'forced washing'. Joe also spoke of the visit to the gaol of Thomás Ó Fiaich, which occurred in the cell he shared with Martin Hurson, and recalled how the Archbishop had smuggled in a large consignment of tobacco and how this boosted already high morale. Thomás Ó Fiaich's reaction to conditions in the gaol which he compared to the sewers and slums of Calcutta garnered much public attention and support for the Blanketmen's struggle. Listening to the accounts of the two Joes would have filled any objective observer with admiration for the Blanketmen and awe at the extent of their resistance and resolve. Joe McNulty concluded by quite rightly pointing out the hypocrisy of the leadership of the former Republican movement, the same people who told young Republicans not to wear the criminal uniform of the convict yet today encourage young people to don the criminal uniform of the crown forces.

The final speaker was Tommy McKearney who had been one of the 7 POWs who embarked upon the 1980 hunger strike. Tommy gave a great insight into the political motivations of British policy at the time within the context of Britain's capacity to commit deliberate and calculated violence and degradation. He outlined how British efforts to break the prisoners were part of an overall effort to break the 'risen and non-conformist Republican community', likening the POWs to the tip of a spear with the people as its shaft. Tommy observed that for so many to be gathered on a night of such bad road conditions was testament to Britain's failure in this regard. Tommy described in great detail the changes undergone by the human body as a result of hunger strike so as to better illustrate the condition that he and the 6 other strikers were in at the time when Brendan Hughes called a halt to save the life of Sean McKenna. Tommy himself was semi-comatose and on the danger list at this time. Tommy paid tribute to the courage and decency of Brendan Hughes, who led the protest as he described the difficult decision he was faced with; a decision which weighed heavy on Brendan for the rest of his days.

In conclusion this discussion was most valuable and informative, situations described in such books as 'Ten Men Dead' and 'One Day In My Life' took on new significance and realism when described first hand by men who were there. The courage and experience of those who would not 'meekly serve' their time stands as an inspiration and  lesson to us all. People should consider the sacrifices, degradations and deprivations they endured and the ease with which all they achieved was bargained away for so little by those who have profited most from the legacy of the Blanketmen.

Thursday, 18 November 2010


Welome to the James Connolly Society, Cill Íseal website; a place for discussion of issues and events relevant to Irish Republicanism.