Peter Kavanagh

Anthony McIntyre writes about former blanketman Peter Kavanagh who died in April of this year.

Peter Kavanagh

Other than by reputation I never came to know or meet Peter Kavanagh, the former blanketman who died in April of this year. It is possible that I passed him going to and from the rare visits during the protest but there were so many blanketmen in the other blocks I had not yet the pleasure of meeting, there is simply no way of knowing.  I had been doubled up with his older brother John in Cage 11’s Gaeltacht in 1978 only to abruptly lose political status two days after turning 21. I ended up being dumped in the H-Blocks on the blanket protest, where Peter and others were already holding the line against British criminalisation polices.

Thinking I had a handle on the world’s problems and a means to solve them, the blanket protest was another challenge that would just have to be met head on. These days, to fall back on an old saw, I am glad I am not young enough to know everything.

If I felt I was young, Peter Kavanagh was considerably younger than me when he arrived on the blanket protest – a mere 16. Not that tender years would have protected him from screw brutality. And H3 was full of it as Micky Fitzsimons, a close friend of Peter explained to the Andersonstown News. "Micky Fitz", despite experiencing enough of the violence of H4, nevertheless described H3 as “a bad, bad block to be in.” Overseen by the late Paddy Joe Kerr, H3 was a cauldron of prison staff brutality, a strong sense of which can be gleaned from Laurence McKeown’s powerful film of the same name. I can recall the involuntary shudder that would ripple through me on hearing of more beatings in H3, including one where Martin Hurson had his toes broken during a beating by a gang of screws. Martin would later die on hunger strike.

Despite being offered early release and a sure escape from the squalor of his situation, if he would just "wear the gear" for a short while, Peter held out and then walked out of the prison having lost every day of his remission but none of his determination or dignity. It led to former blanketman, Martin Livingstone describing his power of endurance as “unbelievable”. 

Peter arrived in H3 in January 1978. He had been convicted for something relatively minor about which his brother John said he was not responsible. As an innocent, he would not have cut a lonely figure in the British jails of the North at the time. The attitude of the cops to those who were not guilty was akin to that of the Saigon police: If they are not guilty beat them until they are. It meant a busy conveyor belt from barrack to jail.

Although not a member of the Republican Movement, with no concomitant organisational obligation to embroil himself in an arduous IRA managed venture, he felt he had every reason to wear the blanket. He was not a criminal and the state that imprisoned was certainly not behaving justly. Peter Kavanagh at that tender age had a sense of solidarity with the men and women from his community who stood wrapped in nothing more than a blanket defying the British state and drawing down widespread ridicule and opprobrium on its labelling of those who opposed them as criminal. 

Released during the 1980 hunger strike, Peter was met by former blanket men at the gates of Long Kesh and immediately began campaigning for those left behind in the blocks. In later life he met his partner and became father to three children. Micky Fitz said "he always had to be working and made sure everything was perfect for the kids, that everything was ready."

When diagnosed with cancer in 2014, he declined to retreat into a mental cell, choosing instead to broaden his horizons.  Determined to see capitals of the world before he died, two of the cities he managed to make it to earlier this year were Paris and Moscow. He also learned to fly, soaring like a lark beyond any sense of confinement.

Another thread in the blanket was pulled the day Peter Kavanagh died.

Peter Kavanagh on his release from the H Blocks in 1980

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

16 comments to ''Peter Kavanagh"

  1. Sounds like Peter Kavanagh had his youth stolen from him. As you say, AM, he wasn't the only one. Activists and the uninvolved were brutalised.

    One reason why they should have a museum at Long Kesh would be to have a tangible reminder of this brutality. Something physical to remind people of the sacrifice. A story like Peter's reminds us of the indomitable spirit of humankind. And the cruelty of the screws.

    Some would re-write history to depict the screws of Long Kesh as benevolent carers, kind-hearted buddies and gentle humanitarians. But why would they be any different from screws the world over?

    So many individuals passed through the gates. Some would like nothing better than to sweep away the blocks and the stories therein. Some for genuine reasons but nevertheless we need to understand those stories from the Blocks and cages out of respect and to educate.

    The stories of Republicans, Loyalists and prison staff need to be told. Ignorance may be bliss but it's self-defeating.

    I am glad Peter got to travel. I am sorry cancer struck him down at such a young age. R.I.P.

  2. AM

    a fine and tender tribute to a man who evidently lived with dignity through tumultuous times.
    Condolences to those that grieve for Peter.

  3. That is simply sad and depressing. They were some bunch of bhoys them blanket men.

  4. Simon

    recording the history of the conflict like many other things in Norn Ireland will most likely be contentious. The pitfalls are many and hence little likelihood of anything more than a shallow insipid and stilted version of history ever arising.

    If the function of history, whether in the individual or collective sense, is to affirm past successes and to remind us of the lessons of past mistakes and missed opportunities then I'm all for remembrance. In such contexts remembrance is adaptive but only so to the extent that there is a substantive collective agreement as to the valid learnings of our history. And that's still a far way off in Norn Ireland. Its even a distance off in the 26 counties too. For example there's still no great consensus in the collective consciousness even in this centenary year as to the fact that the leaders of the 'Rising' had no feasible programme of how to allay Unionist fears or how to tackle Unionist opposition to their proclaimed All-Ireland Republic, save but the record that exists of Connolly's order that no shots be fired in the North and his deferral that Ulster would be dealt with later.
    One hundred years after the Rising most southern nationalists still find it challenging to stand outside the narrative of their 26 county founding myth. In similar vein there's little depth to changes in consciousness north of the border either among republicans or aspiring nationalists. And its probably equally challenging for Loyalism and Unionism to transcend their limitations either.
    Until we can include and transcend the actuality of the past there may not be much benefit to centres such as the 'Long Kesh Project'. As you and I have discussed recently the actuality of the past included Hume's concerns about the 'Bloody Sunday' anti-internment march. A full telling and examination of history yes must include outrages such as 'Bloody Sunday' and the enormity of the consequences but the history of moderation too such as Hume's attempt to influence his colleagues in the NICRA to have the march called off and his decision to absent himself from it ought be told alongside. The sacrifices in the prisons needs to be told also ... but not in isolation.
    If history is to be educational it must provide opportunities to re-imagine alternative narratives. Both remembering and forgetting can both be adaptive given the right context. Denial on the other hand, like partial story-telling, tends to be mal-adaptive.

    My concern on this one Simon is that the motives of the proposers of such remembrance schemes will be more 'indoctrinational' rather than educational. Failing to make a distinction between education and indoctrination is a pit-trap we need to avoid.

  5. Henry JoY,

    I don't mean an "official version" or narrative. We already have history books on the conflict. There cannot be an agreed history on anything as people have different biases and perspectives. Let people write what they will and let people make up their own minds. Any history has to be studied in whatever depth and your own evaluation of what you read evolves the more you study it. The value of having a museum or a tangible, physical structure is that it prompts people to learn and to investigate that part of history. The prison element of the conflict was a prominent one and to have something physical to remind future generations of what happened and to learn from and remember those who were incarcerated or worked there is vital, from whatever perspective.

    The centenary celebrations and the history of that period is contentious but you have many history books written on that era and by reading those you can work out yourself your own narrative by deciding what is likely to be true and what is likely to be false. For example we have many revisionist works and many from the socialist school etc. By reading these and the critiques made of them we can come to a decision on what weight or trust we would place on whichever author.

    For example the manipulation of history by revisionists when challenged by others can be self-defeating as people are less likely to value revisionist material. For example who would bother reading a book by Peter Hart now his academic credibility has been undermined so thoroughly?

    Allow everyone's voice to be heard, all the participants, the historians and politicians and allow intelligent human beings to come to their own conclusion.

    When the DUP attacked films like Hunger and H3 for portraying the screws in a poor light or when unionists historians write about ethnic cleansing of course their constituency will believe them. However, the independent mind can sift through the facts and make their own conclusions. I suppose this is why we need the opposite of an agreed history and need as many perspectives as possible so that people can soak up as much as possible and decide for themselves what is likely to be true and what is not.

    We had the creationist exhibit at the Giants Causeway. That is a demonstration that even pre-history can be divisive. Is it a reason for not having a visitors' centre on the site? Of course not but people went and made up their own minds to the extent that that aspect was changed. Sometimes a narrative so unbelievable has to be sidelined but any historical narrative backed by evidence should be listened to and considered.

    Any historical narrative designed to indoctrinate will be exposed as such by the conflicting narratives and by the mind of the reader. The Troubles exhibition at the Ulster Museum may be a decent model for a general informative piece at the Long Kesh site. When it comes down to the detail we need the perspectives and the more we have the better.

    In our school library we had an encyclopedia that described the Hunger Strikers deaths as the individuals committing suicide. In An Phoblacht which we read outside school it described the Hunger Strikers as bring murdered by Thatcher and describing them as martyrs. We don't necessarily need an agreed middle narrative which would be stale and uninformative but as many narratives as possible and we decide for ourselves. But you are right getting to the truth with as many subtleties as there are with the Troubles won't be easy. But that isn't an argument for not trying.

  6. Simon

    thanks for your fulsome reply. Having read and reread it and the totality of both our comments several times I can only conclude were not just on different orbits on this one but we're orbiting different stars also. If 'communication is what you get' then I accept responsibility for the confusion created.

    That said though, I'd like to clarify that nowhere in my contributions have I implied that everyone's voice ought not be heard. In fact I have clearly stated that partial story-telling is a mal-adaptive response as compared with either consciously remembering or consciously forgetting. This was the main thrust of my argument. It was the half truths of republican rhetoric that added petrol to the fire of emerging civil unrest arising from protests against Unionist discrimination. Those shiboleths and half truths resulted in so many being cajoled into such disproportionate responses that ultimately led to so many man-days, man-months, man-years, even man-decades in jail for so many. As Bernadette McAliskey said in some documentary that I watched "there was no mention of a United Ireland in 1968 or '69".

    If a prison historical interpretive centre is built then let comments such as Brendan Hughes's retrospective that "it wasn't worth getting out of bed for" be displayed on the wall of the cell he once occupied and let Anthony's retrospective summary that "republicanism could neither overthrow nor reform the Northern State" be clearly displayed on the walls of some of the spots he inhabited over his eighteen years of jail-time.

    Balance and accuracy is all I ask.

  7. Henry JoY

    I don't know how we're orbiting different stars. I thought we were mainly on the same page.

    We both want balance and accuracy. I know you didn't say that everyone's voice ought not to be heard. The dissenting voices and the indoctrinated voices should all be heard. With the contrast it's easy to see where people have thought and where people have been told what to think. We can sift through the unevidenced viewpoints, the lies and the fanciful by having alternative viewpoints. The average person can sort the wheat from the chaff.

    There has been conflict between Unionism and Republicanism since 1798 and between Catholics and Protestants before even that. We had riots at Orange marches over one hundred years ago. We're not arriving at a collective consciousness any time soon but by learning about the past perhaps we can avoid future conflict by increasing our understanding of ourselves and others?

    Your point about "substantive collective agreement as to the valid learnings of our history" is where we disagree I think. I don't think there are any examples of any historical period where there is substantive collective agreement.

    By being inclusive as you say with the examples in your last paragraph we can bring what many people took from the Troubles as learnings. We can have as many voices as possible from as many different perspectives as possible. In that way people can place weight on the more plausible voices.

    You mentioned there is no collective consciousness in the Republic on 1916 and that we're a long way off on these islands for one here too. We don't need a collective consciousness and we'll maybe never get it. That doesn't mean any attempt to educate will be insipid and stilted. In fact the opposite is true- it will inspire and it will be thought-provoking. People will have the opportunity to examine all perspectives. Discussion should be facilitated.

    As for accuracy, that doesn't necessarily mean something that's agreed. Different people hold different things as being accurate. Also, a collective understanding may arise that is inaccurate.

    This inaccurate collective understanding is more likely if we avoid contention before we educate. One persons past mistake is another's triumph. So be it. Let the observer decide what to take from it. Let the debate begin otherwise how do we learn? How do we arrive at a collective understanding if we don't educate first. It is through the procres of learning that we arrive at an understanding. Conflicting opinion is welcome.

    Maybe all of what is said will be contentious from some other point of view. That is where people will make up their own minds. It might lead to an agreed understanding rather than starting from a point of a collective consciousness and working backwards. Waiting for the collective consciousness before addressing the past is like putting the cart before the horse.

  8. Simon

    another fulsome response. Thank you.
    Its possible that there's not that much difference in our positions ... it could just be a difference in how we express our positions. But just in case let me clarify mine.

    When I speak of collective consciousness its in the sense that Durkheim introduced the term. Its the set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society.

    In my earlier post I said "If the function of history, whether in the individual or collective sense, is to affirm past successes and to remind us of the lessons of past mistakes and missed opportunities then I'm all for remembrance. In such contexts remembrance is adaptive but only so to the extent that there is a substantive collective agreement as to the valid learnings of our history."

    My contention is that the collective consciousness of the 26 county state, and by over-spill onto northern nationalists also, is false and erroneous. There has been little attempt to unshackle the valid learnings of our history from the foundation myth. The type and nature of remembrance visited upon us is in that sense mal-adaptive. Those that frame the efforts of the men and women of 1916 as a useful move towards national and unitary independence for Ireland are deceitful. Valiant as their efforts were, their declared goal was patently never realistic and manifestly never achievable.

    That professional and academic historians have allowed the foundation myth to persist as long as it has is unforgivable. And that history teachers have blindly passed it on to children is lamentable. As a collective there's not much evidence that we can rely on historians to do right by us.

    Leave the carts and the horses out of it Simon. Get a decent pair of boots and keep your feet on the ground.

  9. Henry JoY, I have never read Durkheim but I understood what you meant. Shared beliefs and ideas are more difficult to achieve than shared moral attitudes. We can hold different beliefs and ideas yet hold the same moral attitudes which is where I was pointing. With such a polarised society shared moral attitudes are where we should be focused. The rest may come later.

    As for your comment that "Those that frame the efforts of the men and women of 1916 as a useful move towards national and unitary independence for Ireland are deceitful." I think it is more nuanced than that and we could talk about it all day, preferably over a jar than over a keyboard.

    But as a subject history is useful even if only to the extent of individual learning. Life lessons; those of decision making; guidance for people of influence and of none have their own value even if it falls short of a collective consciousness.

    However, we can come closer ethically and morally through a telling of the past. Even if we don't, it would be intrinsically valuable to examine our recent past. There is much to learn. Much more so than if it wasn't examined at all. The deeper we examine the more valuable it will be. Knowledge is always useful. Particularly, as you say if it's accurate and balanced.

  10. Simon,

    as the priestín used say the mess is over (on this one for now).
    Let's go in peace.

  11. Get the sense that this topic has been hjacked, instead of commemorating a strong decent person, who suffered greatly alongside his fellow blacketmen, we have henryjoy and Simon debating the troubles of Ireland and their perspective of it. Forgive me but I thought there were numerous platforms within the site to deal with these debates, am I confused or was this thread started to remember a young lad imprisoned and abused by the Brits, who stood up and kept his dignity and pride through very tough circumstances, who walked out the gates with his head held high and admired by his older comrades for his teenage strength and durability.
    Peter or Dee as he was known by friends was one in a million, I had the privilage to know the man as a friend. Dee traveled the world, he also travelled the length of Ireland and england to visit friends who were in prison, that includes me.
    In life you don't meet many true friends, most can count them on one hand, Dee was one of mine, a gentle, caring strong man who always looked out for others . I am very proud to say he was my friend and he is sorely missed by hundreds of people who he touched in his short lifetime

  12. I think there is much to be said for Eamon's comment. While TPQ will not block the type of comments offered above as they are in no way disparaging or insulting there are other articles on the site where such discussions can take place. In the past we have banned obituary defacers but the above discussion falls nowhere near that type. TPQ prefers commenters to exercise discretion when choosing where to exchange ideas.

    Thanks to Eamon for adding to our understanding of Peter.

  13. I apologise for the direction the comments went. Sometimes you can get distracted by the discussion. Sorry about that.

  14. It's only when I look over the comments now that I see it was unnecessary and thoughtless. In no way did I want to detract from Peter's memory. I'm sorry.

  15. Apologies Eamon. Simon and I's comments were a carry over of sorts on a theme we've visited before. You obviously held Dee in great esteem. Sorry for your loss.

  16. Henry joy,Simon,Anthony,
    By no means am I pointing out any issues with your perspectives, just thought it was misplaced and irrelevant to the postings topic. appreciate the fact that Peter is recognised within TPQ for his endurance and strength within and outside of the blocks, no harm done, keep the good work up adding to the debate,


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