Cormac Mac Airt

Mac Airt, as he was frequently referred to, was always a fighter. And as it turned out he battled terminal illness with the same determination that took him through his life. For months it was being reported that he was ‘nearing the end’, had arrived ‘at death’s door’ or ‘won’t see the weekend.’ But each time he rallied and battled and for long enough came back. Friends who visited him either at home or in the hospice commented on the pain he appeared to be in. When I asked one why he didn’t just let go, the response was simple – ‘you know Mac Airt.’

In this day and age we have a right to feel that pain management techniques would be so developed, state of the art, that people suffering agony as they near the end would be a throw back to darker ages. It annoys that he should have suffered so much at the end given the amount of suffering he went through as a result of his illness.

A former internee, Cormac Mac Airt was arrested in late 1976 transporting IRA equipment. A man held without trial by the British on the grounds of political expediency was now to be tried by the government that had denied him all due process. And it had the arrogance to tell him he was a criminal. In all it held him for a total of 13 years, much of it in conditions which drew the opprobrium of Archbishop Tomas O Fiaich, the all-Ireland primate: 'one would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being.'

Cormac Mac Airt was one of the 300 Spartans referred to by Richard O’Rawe in his book Blanketmen. Along with the others he stood naked apart from a blanket in defence of the republican pass that the British state would never cross and complete its journey of transforming political prisoners into ordinary criminals. Had the British succeeded, the armed struggle of the IRA would have been depicted globally as a criminal conspiracy, and the vile behaviour of the British state vindicated. Cormac Mac Airt helped stop that.

I never came across Cormac during the protest. It was like that in jail. Meeting others was sometimes a hit and miss matter. On the blanket you could hear of a character for years, learn lots about them, feel a deep affinity with them, but never meet them. Now and then chance on a visit would throw two people together. Some time after the blanket I was in the cell next to him. He was the block O/C.

It was impossible not to like Cormac. As with us all he had his moments but they were few and far between. There was a competitive edge to his character which always came out during football. But as soon as it ended he would pull his mischievous grin and wind up those he had fallen out with during the game. In good humour he would mock-slap the back of my head, laugh and sing, knowing that when it came to football I was as grouchy as himself.

Despite having a reputation for a bit of a temper – ‘he was feared by the screws, they wouldn’t mess with Cormac’ - as block O/C he kept a cool head. He never pushed the men into anything and always knew how to play the authorities, when to calm it, when to up the ante. Within days of his release in 1986 I got a smuggled note from him. I still recall how he signed off – 'chin up’. On my first parole I had a drink with him. After release I would bump into him but our friendship dissipated in the wake of the Joe O’Connor killing. Like many others at the time he took a position ‘my movement right or wrong.’ After that we never spoke again although I never felt any deep hostility from him.

The last time I saw him was at the funeral of Brendan Hughes. He looked poorly. My memory on that day was of a lively Mac Airt jogging around the prison yard in 1986 with Brendan, both of them fit and full of life. Now one was dead and the other wasn’t long for the road. We didn’t speak. There were no growls or scowls or dirty looks, just silence, but not an uncomfortable one. Both of us had grown used to it. It was just the way it was.

Shortly before he died towards the end of last year he had Richard O’Rawe at his bedside and asked ‘how’s your mate?’ It was a reference to myself. He told Richard to pass on his regards to me. On hearing it I asked Richard to tell him he was one of the great blanket men. He was that for sure. In terms of the political situation I don’t know how he felt. It was nebulously floating around that he felt republican activists had been short changed. Nothing more than ephemeral perhaps. Whatever substance there may have been to it, he certainly held on to his affinity for the movement he had served, being buried by it and requesting that Bobby Storey deliver the oration at his funeral.

In personal terms I was given to reflection that both of us had come in from the cold that had long frozen our friendship.


  1. Anthony
    I am not sure how old Cormac was, but it does seem, possibly due to their imprisonment, far to many former H block prisoners are dying before their time.

    If you do not mind, I thought I would repost this on Organized Rage, with a link of course, whilst I have already published an obit of Cormac I think yours gives an alternative view and is well worth a read.

  2. Mick, by all means carry it. Thank you. Cormac was in his mid 50s. I am not sure if ex-prisoners are dying prematurely as a result of having been imprisoned. It is often said that they are. But it has been said to me by a health professional that the 50s is the big killer age for men. Largely a result of what they did in their 20s catching up on them. Prisoners escaped that to some degree because they spent their 20s in jail. There is work by former prisoners like Jim McCann who try to show that there is a link between premature death and the use of CR gas. I think there is something in that; less sweeping and measurable.

  3. God bless him, another tragic loss.

  4. Its very sad to hear about Cormac's death..but what I got from your blog Anthony was a remarkable tribute to a former comrade of yours that ended up taking a different path to you.There is no bitterness or anger in this tribute and it says volumes about you Anthony as it does about Cormac.
    I totally agree with the pain management issue having seen family members self medicate with alcohol and cannibas in order to conteract the pain of Cancer...totally wrong.
    Spartans heart and have that in abundance Mr McIntyre.

  5. Thanks for another moving entry about another departed comrade. It's unfortunate how privation brings out often the best in people, and how endurance sparks heightened memory within bodies worn down prematurely. I never thought of the 20s catching up in one's 50s in the prison context before! An unexpected side-effect?

    Your note about how one could live in lockup down the corridor from others and build up a whole picture of them without ever having seen them reminds me, in a far different context of enforcement, of a passage I read from Denis Winter's "Death's Men: Soldiers during the Great War" last month. Winter describes how the Tommies had an amazingly detailed idea of how the Germans lived without, for months, ever glimpsing one of them close up. Their smells, their noises, their voices, their routines all permeated the imaginations of those who listened, and waited, for them a few hundred yards away.

  6. Araaricaiwdjts, as you suggest people can be respectful of another's character without agreeing with their politics. Although Richard O'Rawe used the Spartan imagery in his book to good effect I suppose most of us there at the time including Richard never looked at it in those terms. Ordinary people in the midst of extraordinary times

  7. Fionnchú, that is certainly revealing - Denis Winter's "Death's Men: Soldiers during the Great War". The experience is more widespread than we might have imagined. If anybody was going to discover a parallel then it was you with all the reading you manage to get through!

  8. while i agree with what most off what you wrote about mcairt i can't help but think that if there was no personal relationship with ricky orawe you would have guttied the life or death out off him. i wonder what you will write about danny d when he leaves this mortal coil?

  9. noaxetogrind, as you say you can't help but think. And I suppose you can't help what you think. And if you think obituaries are written through a prism of Richard O'Rawe then thinking is something you ought to work at. Unless of course we can't help but think that O'Rawe is ubiquitous to all those I have written obituaries on. Danny D - hopefully any obituary about him is decades off.