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40th Anniversary of Internment: Letters from Long Kesh August 9, 2011

Posted by Garibaldy in Irish History.
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Today marks the 40th anniversary of the introduction of internment without trial. Even by the standards of the late 1960s and early 1970s (batoning civil rights marches, August 1969, the Falls curfew, Bloody Sunday to name but a few), internment was immensely reactionary and incredibly stupid. The introduction of internment against not just Republicans and Provisionals but a wide range of civil rights activists and perceived opponents of the regime resulted in a swift escalation of violence, deepened divisions, and proved just how politically and morally bankrupt the Unionist regime was. The fact that the British Army took the opportunity to test sensory deprivation on a dozen prisoners (as well as more run of the mill forms of torture being applied on a more widespread basis) just made matters worse. For anyone interested in the details of internment and the torture experiments, I’d recommend reading online the now-deceased ex-internee and anarchist John McGuffin’s books Internment (1973) and Guinea Pigs (1974, 1981).

As we know, internment provoked widespread opposition. Just how widespread was shown by the fact that from January to July 1972, the Irish Times carried a regular column from inside Long Kesh (the Letters from Long Kesh), written by Des O’Hagan, a member of the NICRA Executive and leading member of the Republican Clubs in Belfast. 22 Letters appeared. This outraged some of its more traditional constituency, including one member of the board of O’Hagan’s employer before he was lifted, Stranmillis College, who wrote to the Irish Times to say that he was a life-long reader, but now would stop buying the paper due to the publication of the Letters from Long Kesh. Douglas Gageby, however, kept publishing them regardless. On the other hand, another correspondent believed that the humanity, eye for detail, and sense of humour in the Letters betrayed signs of genius, and stated that

I would think that a collection of some kind of O’Hagan’s prison journals would be one good thing that could be salvaged from Internment.

And (better late than never) the Letters from Long Kesh are being republished for the 40th anniversary of internment. From the press release:

The Letters are a unique and invaluable contemporary account of life among the internees. They recount the reaction of the internees to some of the major events during the most bloody and tragic year of the Troubles, including Bloody Sunday (which occurred during an anti-internment march), the escalating bombing campaign, and the suspension of Stormont.

They also reveal the daily rhythm of life as an internee – the cold, the banter among the men, the battles with the authorities for better facilities, the close friendships, the political debates, the sense of helplessness as events spiralled outside the prison walls, the efforts
to ensure the availability of drink for St Patrick’s Day, the struggle against depression, the arguments over who made the tea – all told with compassion and an engaging sense of humour.

The Letters (which have an introduction and annotations) cost a fiver, and more information can be got by writing to longkeshletters@gmail.com

I am including one of the Letters below, from February 19th 1972.

SECURITY AS USUAL DURING IMPROVEMENTS
(OR THE CASE OF THE BOOKLESS LIBRARY)

The celebration of the first six months of internment (one sincerely hopes that this is not going to be a spectacular bi-annual event competing with Easter parades, the Twelfth and other illegal promenades) has prompted me to review the improvements in the amenities of Long Kesh; possibly also readers are interested in the ethos of the camp as I understand it, and this, I can categorically state, has not altered in any way.

Let me say at the outset that I now feel, as one of the reluctant pioneers of what I am afraid must be regarded as not an entirely successful project, a certain attachment – or rather a faint quickening of Behan’s “curious quickening” – for my present home.

On that account my judgments may tend to lack objectivity, but I hope that these proffered comments are not construed as simply malicious or vindictive. In a sense then, this is in the nature of a half-term report which could be of some use to future architects of similar schemes (though I would be the first to recommend that any tentative plans be scrapped and a less contentious form of public diversion be substituted). There is probably some demand for another Stormont, a minor royal residence or a new employment exchange.

It is in the nature of things where one day is remarkably like another that small changes should assume major dimensions. For example the decision by someone up there that boots should be provided for the internees is a welcome index that our dialogues with the camp bureaucrats actually do at times go beyond the barbed wire boundaries. Complaints, demands, requests are normally met by an intransigent negative, regularly described in the phrase “for security reasons.” But the boots are more important in another, far more serious, sense because of the gigantic international plot revealed by Dr. Paisley some years ago, when he divined in the Civil Rights Association a conspiracy born from the Machiavellian marriage of Moscow and Rome. Dr. Paisley was as usual correct, as I discovered last week.

TRUTH DAWNING

When I was forcing on what were described on the box as “work laced boots, of leather, oil, benzene firm sole, made by “Grunit”, I was genuinely amazed to read the country of origin – the German Democratic Republic, here in Long Kesh, a Commie boot. It was almost like learning that Governor Wallace had enlisted in the Black Panthers. My immediate reaction was not really on the conspiracy lines already mentioned, but rather one of righteous indignation that local-made footwear was not being used – Banbridge Chamber of Commerce should immediately raise this issue with Roy Bradford, our globe-trotting Minister of Commerce. But as I waited on the cage gates being opened, the real truth suddenly dawned on my addled brain. The warder’s numb fingers were having difficulty with the padlock and he naturally proceeded to blast the civil servant who had ordered inferior foreign locks.

There, stamped across the base in brazen letters, was “Made in Italy.” The conclusion is patently obvious. The five hundred or so internees will be smuggled in the Papish keys and, well shod in G.D.R. boots, will appear jovially leading a Civil Rights demonstration. Collapse of Stormont, the end of freedom, religion and laws.

Having mentioned security (which understandably is rather a touchy subject at the moment) I must add that the frustrations engendered by the word enrage most of the local staff as well as ourselves. In these circumstances it would be exceptionally difficult for a philosopher in the Wittgenstein tradition to maintain his belief in the aphorism “the meaning of a word is its use.” In fact, I am not entirely unconvinced that the whole of modern linguistic philosophy may not have to be reworked in the light of our experience.

Security, it seems, is an infinitely elastic concept owning not even contestable boundaries. It is easy to appreciate that there will be a wide range of matters which will naturally fall under this heading, varying only according to the stringency of the criteria employed. A Hippie colony, one would imagine, would represent an extremity on a continuum, and Fort Knox the other. Long Kesh in this respect is definitely unlocateable. This is not, may I say, a recent phenomenon arising from the departure of one Francis McGuigan, an event which, as far as I can gather, is not as yet entirely believed by the authorities. There is a haunted feeling, one detects, among the prison officers that he might suddenly reappear as magically as he departed. Rumour has it that if a certain local newspaper had not telephoned Stormont inquiring into an anonymous tip-off, his absence would, as yet, have remained unnoticed.

NOT CONTEMPLATED

Some may be feeling that I am in the process of destroying my own case; the fact is that physical security was considered to be so satisfactory that none dared to contemplate even a single exception. Equally when the camp authorities are unable, unwilling, find it difficult to answer a question or are being bloody-minded they chorus “security.”

There are literally fantastic examples of this non-rational, illogical behaviour. The bookless library (honestly) constitutes a prime example.

Long Kesh geographically embraces a number of separate cages, an administrative area, visiting block and a virgin all-weather playing field. There is doubt about the football field; some claim that it is, in fact, a heliport as ’copters land there regularly, while the goalposts, we are reliably informed, are still being hand-carved elsewhere. At one end some months ago a large caravan was placed; this was to be our library, a prelude to a central education area proper. The prescient Mr. St. John Stevas, had indeed informed a spellbound Westminster that library facilities were being improved. Although not short of reading material, thanks to our many friends, we patiently awaited the arrival of a stock of books: so far there is not even the faintest suggestion that the Ministry of Home Affairs are aware that Caxton ever existed. Requests were then made that the caravan be made available as a study area, in particular for those preparing for examinations. In fairness it must be said that the bearer of ill-tidings blushed when he informed us that security demanded that the hut be surrounded by another wire fence before it could be used. Overshadowed by a gun-tower, surrounded by what would be six wire fences, clearly it is the Ministry’s intention that when we have the opportunity to study that no-one will disturb us.

I had almost forgotten about my original intention to give an account of advances in conditions due to what I now see is an obsession with security: the disease is contagious. The problem is that as I write I am becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that this latest message may never find its way to Dublin so that if it does appear there can be general rejoicing at another breach in the fences. But there have definitely been improvements; of that I am certain. It is only a question of getting my mind off this other issue, security. It must be even more trying for Mr. Faulkner.

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Comments»

1. Fran Donohoe - August 9, 2011

The Letter from Long Kesh series was actually begun by Seamus O Tuathail and continued by Des O’Hagan, so you should start with Seamus if you wish ro maintain the integrity of the series. I was actually talking to Des O’Hagan three hours before he was lifted, when he explained to me at length why Heath would never allow Brian Faulkner to introduce internment. He had me convinced but unfortunately he was not one of Heath’s advisors. we were supposed to meet in Kelly’s Cellars next day but he never showed up.

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2. Padraig Yeates (@PadraigYeates) - August 9, 2011

To avoid any confusion I posted Seamus O Tuathail comment that came up under Fran Donohue. Apologies, Padraig Yeates

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3. Garibaldy - August 9, 2011

Padraig,

My understanding was that Séamus Ó Tuathail had sent out from the Crumlin Road extremely important accounts that exposed the brutality that was being perpetrated on the prisoners during August 1971, and that the Irish Times printed in full or extracts from several of these. Ó Tuathail himself was released from internment in the Crumlin Road in September 1971. I’m not sure that he was ever in Long Kesh, but am more than happy to be corrected on that.

I see that there are similarities between the two cases, but I don’t think that O’Hagan’s Letters from Long Kesh were a direct continuation of something that Ó Tuathail had been doing.

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4. Jim Monaghan - August 9, 2011

Is there any truth that the Provos anticipated it and were not at home. Or was it just out of date files being used.

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Garibaldy - August 9, 2011

There was a lot of talk about it being introduced in the weeks and months ahead. For example, Clann na hÉireann warned it might be used in Britain just before it came in, and Eamon Melaugh addressed a CRA meeting in Derry on the issue on August 2nd. It’s true that lots of prominent and active provos were missed. But quite a few active ones were lifted that night too. There were a lot of targets missed – over 100 from the original list of 450. So I think it’s a combination of factors as to why any particular individual was missed.

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5. Organized Rage - August 9, 2011

Great piece, funny old world, for now in London politicians are talking up a curfew and some form of ‘internment.’

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6. Marxman - August 9, 2011

Hard to believe it’s 40 yrs since I was interned (1971/72) I was in a different cage from Dessie O’Hagan but saw him now and again at visiting times and he always was very upbeat with me (a 17 yr old, turned 18 in there) telling me internment will be over soon and not to worry! I met some interesting characters there, Ronnie Bunting (Major Buniting’s son) being one of them. He told me that when he was getting interrogated by two burly S.B. men, one of them, while punching him called him, ‘E.O. murdering bastard, Explosive Officer bastard’ the other Branch man stopped his mate and whispered, ‘ no Gordon, Education Officer!’ at that he shrugged his shoulders and continued his invective, ‘Education Officer bastard’ while still merrily punching away! Two songs stand out that instantly transport me back to those dark days are, ‘ Men behind the Wire’ and my favourite, ‘ Free the People’ with Luke Kelly and the Dubliners. I met Luke and his brother at an anti-internment fund-raiser in the Embankment, Tallaght along with Frank and Rebecca McGlade (who to me as a 17 yr old, were the esscence of NICRA) Frank was to be subsequently interned as well, one of the oldest internees. I sent Luke and Jimmy a couple of L.K. hankies (linen handkerchiefs with various political motifs inscribed on them by markerpens) and recieved a great series of letters from mostly Jimmy as Luke was busy with a well known groupI The return address for my censored letters was c/o McDaid’s Bar, Harry St.! I met some great republican socialists, socialists, communists and humanists but sadly some people who were to unleash some of the most revolting crimes on the general population all for nothing as subsequent events have shown us. In Long Kesh the leaders of these men hated anything to do with socialism and boycotted any talks or lectures given to the men and boys on radical republicanism or left-wing politics, this is not propaganda, I was there. When anyone was killed on the outside belonging to either OIRA or PIRA a parade was called outside of the huts to honour their memory, the Official O.C. used to eulogise the dead and say that he/she died to attain a 32 county, socialist and secular, democratic republic while the Provisional O.C. would say a 32 county republic and ‘now lets have a decade of the rosary in Irish’ A bit late in the day but I would like to thank, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and Gae Linn for suppling every cage with record players and a virtual library of LPs (some of which I’ve still got!) these generous gifts got us through the harder times and gave some very depressed family men a little light at the end of the tunnel. I lastly would like to thank Official Sinn Féin/Republican Clubs for the food parcel that arrived every week without fail and the couple of quid to my Mother that made all the difference. Go raibh maith agat! Onward to the Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic!

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7. Mark P - August 9, 2011

Thanks for that Marxman, very interesting.

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8. Garibaldy - August 9, 2011

Yeah, thanks for that Marxman. Great to read it. A lot of the stuff Marxman mentioned is reflected in the Letters. The Letters give a feeling that you are getting a real insight into life as it was. Marxman’s comment deepens that.

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9. Padraig Yeates - August 9, 2011

Sorry I stand corrected on Seamus. He did start letters in Crumlin Road, not Long Kesah, but nevertheless he started the series published in the Irish Times, which then agreed to take Des O’Hagan’s. I suspect the newspaper might not have run the series if they had not originated with a respectable journalist and civil rights activist such as Seamus. Once they did the Irish Times deserves full credit for continuing to do so and both men men made outstanding contributions to prison literature. So I think if you want to honour both the spirit and letter of the 40th anniversary you need to start with Seamus. Not that he would thank me for reminding everyone.

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10. Jim Monaghan - August 10, 2011

Would I be correct in thinking that it was the Irish Times of Gageby and Foley.

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11. Padraig Yeates - August 10, 2011

Yes it was the Irish Times of Gageby and Foley, not to mention Major Tom McDowell. On the Clanna na hEireann prediction on internment. That was just the usual ‘end is nigh’ stuff.

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12. Brian Hanley - August 10, 2011

Seamus Ó Tuaithail did write a pamphlet about internment, ‘They Came in the Morning’ which was published in 1972. Ó Tuaithail was involved with the National Athletic and Cycling Association and had actually cycled to Belfast from Dublin the morning in August 1971 before he was picked up.

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13. Padraig Yeates - August 10, 2011

When I described Seamus O tuathail as a ‘respectable’ journalist I meant of course ‘reputable’. I had forgotten about ‘They Came in the Morning’ which had a nice picture of Frank Kitson on the front if I remember correctly.
It might be worth considering a ‘Letters from Long Kesh’ collection that was an anthology of recollections.
I was only ever in the place once, as a visitor, so I don’t think that counts, but the thought does.

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14. Garibaldy - August 10, 2011

A few sample pages of They Came in the Morning, including the cover, here

http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/intern/pdfs/otuathail.pdf

It seems to me most of the writing about internment concentrates on the decision to introduce it, the raids on 9th August, and the subsequent torture. What makes these letters unusual is that they cover the humdrum of life inside the camp, while still touching on important issues going on outside.

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15. Jim Monaghan - August 11, 2011

A guy called Devlin wrote a wee book on his experience. Seagulls or something. I found it very good and human. He was a cousin of Paddy.

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ghandi - August 14, 2012

Is that the guy in the wheelchair, was in the RSM for a period, first name escapes me, stayed in his house one time, his mother was a sister of Paddy.

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16. John Dorney - August 13, 2012
17. John Moran - November 22, 2012

Now published – Long Kesh Letters by Des O’Hagan. This invaluable volume can be purchased for E12.00 from Citizen Press 48 North Great Georges Street, Dublin 1. ( the price includes postage within Ireland ). “..as relevant now as it was then “.

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18. Report of the High Court case in regard International Natural Energy (INE), Sept 7th 2012 | Dialogue Ireland - October 27, 2013

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