Truth Will Out

Anthony McIntyre reviews a recently published book by a former blanketman.

Paul McGlinchey was not the first republican on the H Block protest in 1976 - that misfortune made an icon out of the late Kieran Nugent - but he arrived early enough to make him the longest protesting prisoner. McGlinchey the Betta and the Omega of the blanket protest. His book, co-authored with Philomena Gallagher, tells his story.

Much of the content was committed to paper from memory many years ago and Gallagher had the task of pulling it together while McGlinchey was ill.

This perhaps explains the tension between what appears in the book and McGlinchey’s real thought on the political direction in which Sinn Fein has travelled. The politics expressed towards the end veer between the current Sinn Fein project in the North being okay to one of it being a sell-out. The evolution of the former blankeman's  thinking is not considered. However, McGlinchey has set out his thoughts sufficiently elsewhere to leave the knowledgeable reader in no doubt about where his perspective sits.

There have been other books written about life on the blanket. That should not serve to discourage former protestors from adding to their number. These personalised accounts fill out the narrative, and allow the contributions of the participants to make up a larger portion of the historiography. Personalised narratives accentuate the uniqueness of each of the protesters. What it was like for one may have looked vastly different through the eyes of another.

Some familiar with the protest will observe that the chronology is not as firmly pinned down as it might have been. It is not that the detail is wrong, just that it is not always in the right sequential order. Against that, the work doesn’t claim to be a fine-tuned work of history. Its appeal lies in its impressionistic conveyance of life in the blocks, which is graphically reinforced throughout with a range of sketches.

The book sets out the family background of the McGlinchey clan as it developed in impoverished and troubled times when tensions with Protestant neighbours were rising to the surface. Paul talks of the seemingly decent Protestant neighbours attacking student marchers with a hatred: even the sweetie shop man cursed the pope while he threw a brick. 

Paul was a witness to the politicisation of his older sibling Dominic who would later go on to become a formidable armed bane of the British state. The interest of Dominic was ignited by a lack of civil rights rather than the existence of partition. Dominic is reported to have said to his father: “we are entitled to dignity and respect, and have a right to jobs and housing”. The internment of Dominic was followed but the imprisonment of Sean, another brother.  Paul was following in the footsteps laid out in front of him.

Sentenced to 14 years for possession of rifles and IRA membership, Paul made his way to the H Blocks as one of the pioneers of prolonged protest. From this point on the book focusses on the daily brutality he had to endure. It seems inexcusable that in an era of addressing institutional abuse the official gaze is diverted away from the prisons.

In the earliest days of the protest other prisoners including loyalists would push rolled up cigarettes beneath his cell door, allowing him to experience the relief of a smoke. On occasion he would return from washing to find a Mars Bar under his pillow. The book is replete with names of blanket stalwarts from those days who no longer walk the earth.

Because his was an upbringing in a religious setting in a home where the Rosary was recited every evening, this came to have a bearing on how he came to see prison staff who often professed to be Christians yet had no compunction about brutalising naked prisoners. His hatred for them could be visceral as comes through with the vignette of making friends with a mouse. The tiny rodent was later killed by the squelch of a screw's boot.  McGlinchey remains unforgiving.

The book captures the nervousness and the fear that would grip the wings particularly ahead of wing shifts where the chances of a beating increased exponentially: “There is nothing as defenceless as a naked man in front of three hate filled males intent on beating you up. I was terrified.”

The violence could be severe. Paul refers to being raped by a screw who rammed “something cold and hard” inside him during a forced search: a baton perhaps. He passed out and bled for days, being denied medical attention.

All of this led him to ponder, much in the same way that Jimmy Boyle had ruminated in Scottish solitary, about how screws could conduct normal family life after a day of tormenting and abusing naked prisoners.

While the violence is prominent his point that “the protest was very long and boring” has more resonance. Tedium rather than terror was the chief adversary. It was a constantly battle between deprived minds and depraved minds. To ward off the imposed ennui prisoners devised numerous ways to stimulate their minds. While the “books” told out the door in the evenings once the jail had gone into night-time lockdown might not have included sex in his wing, on ours it was very different. For all the Rosaries offered up nightly, most couldn’t wait for the main bill. There was nothing like a titillating tale: the smuttier the better.

Nevertheless, religiosity keeps breaking through in the narrative. The reliance on prayer, the attendance at mass. Any port in a storm seemingly as most prisoners abandoned the devotion once they had other things to occupy their minds.

McGlinchey recalls Bobby Sands vising his wing on the 18th of December, 1980to state in Irish “we got nothing”. Something reported from other wings which seriously challenges the Sinn Fein narrative that the British had proposed a solution acceptable to the prisoners but which they later reneged on. One of the more salient errors from this time is the assertion that Tom McFeely never spoke to Brendan Hughes again after the hunger strike, on which both men had been. There is no foundation to that belief, although Paul McGlinchey merely says as far as he was aware.

At the same time the book errs seriously on who was in charge of the hunger strike. While the prisoners were determined to mount a second hunger strike, the leadership was not wary of a strike per se, but would only endorse one that would not collapse like the first one. The book would have benefited greatly from engaging with the ideas of Richard O’Rawe.

The book is overly harsh on Denis Faul, the priest who stepped up to the plate and tried to bring a halt to the hunger strikes when the leadership abdicated its responsibility to do so.

Whatever minor shortcomings accompany it, Truth Will Out is a poignant read which is at its strongest when it conveys the desolation that accompanies endurance in the face of prison management violence and systemically imposed deprivation. Ultimately, it is the tale of how ferocity was trumped by fortitude.

Philomena Gallagher And Paul McGlinchey, 2017. Truth Will Out. Calton Books. ISBN: 9780956417271.

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Anthony McIntyre

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

1 comment to ''Truth Will Out"

  1. There will be a launch of this book on Friday the 29th September in Sherry's field Recreational Centre, cathedral road, Armagh city. Organised by the Gifford/Plunkett 1916 society, Armagh city.


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