Or so it seems from my cell window
One little patch of sky is better than none
So I suppose I should be grateful
Or should I?
Should be grateful for little things
That have been pressed upon me
By the oppressors of our land
The little things that grow and grow
Until nothing is left
But the freedom of my soul
But a flame burns within me
Not even my enemies will quench it
Until the day my country is free
- Christine Beattie
The common view of Spartans is that they were male warriors who would traditionally come home to their women borne on shields having fallen in battle. They did the fighting while the women tended to other things. When Richard O’Rawe in his fine book Blanketmen talks of the 300 Spartans who took on the might of the British government, ten of whom were carried out of the prison hospital on their shields, we invariably think of men. Overlooked at times is that a matter of miles down the road from the H-Blocks was Armagh Prison where republican women prisoners were every bit as engaged in the daily struggle against the Brits as the men closer to Lisburn.
Christine Beattie was a Spartan fighter of the highest calibre. Imprisoned as a young woman for her role in the ranks of the IRA, she would spend almost her full twenties as a republican prisoner. Like her colleagues, under the leadership of the late Mairead Farrell, ‘Bap’, as we knew her, endured the years of protest which evolved in 1980 into a full blown no-wash protest. Given the particular challenges posed to women by a lack of hygiene, the republican activists in Armagh Prison initially opted for a form of protest which did not involve refusing both to wash or use the toilets. The catalyst for that more drastic course of action came as a result of prison staff brutality. Women were attacked and beaten by male screws during a prison search. The die was cast.
In his book Hard Time: Armagh Jail 1971-1986 the prison chaplain Raymond Murray lambasted the regime:
… on February the 7th 1980, now to go down in history as Black February, stories of the beating of the girls by male officers, the subsequent denial of access to the toilets, 7-12 February denial of laundry and visits from concerned persons, and the 23 hour lock up have been broadcast around the world. The girls some 30 in number have now been locked 23 hours a day for almost a year. Who in the wide world would inflict such a dreadful punishment on women? Do makeshift prison rules condone it? Does following the tradition of the founding of the concentration camps in South Africa condone it?
One of Bap’s tasks in the jail was to keep up morale through organising quizzes, sing songs, anything that would offer respite from monotony or deadening routine. Margaretta D’Arcy described her efforts in her memoir of Armagh Jail, Tell Them Everything.
Released in 1986 she married and gave birth to her two children. She worked in Sinn Fein and stood for the party as an electoral candidate. Christine was always open to opinions. A keen community worker with a strong political bent she knew that a block on radical ideas was hardly advantageous to the community on whose behalf she was struggling to improve the quality of life. An area facing poverty and deprivation needed an infusion of left rather than conservative ideas. On one occasion she organised a discussion in a pub in the Bone on socialism. Not to be put off by the official frown she asked Tommy Gorman to speak at it. The University of Ulster academic Pete Shirlow was the other speaker. I accompanied Tommy to the event which proved to be a lively affair. North Belfast republicans were usually more tolerant of alternative ideas than their colleagues in the West and hosted a number of events where republicans critical of the Sinn Fein leadership strategy were prominent speakers. On one occasion, much to their chagrin, a senior Sinn Fein speaker from West Belfast pulled out of a New Lodge Road discussion at the last minute rather than share a platform with those critical of the party. That was the thinking and porous environment Christine Beattie was trying hard to create when I last spoke with her.
According to an obituary for her in An Phoblacht/Republican News, one of the community initiatives Bap was involved in was the annual Seany Bateson Memorial Cup. Seany was one of her fellow Spartans who fell prey to a fatal heart attack walking along a wing of H7 weeks before he was due his first parole in 1990. The development of community cohesion and the material enhancement of the conditions in which working people lived and brought up their families was what Bap was about.
The starless sky she wrote about in prison may at last have closed in on her. But the flame that burned within her has left enough brightness for others to avoid cursing the darkness.