Sean McKenna

He had suffered 53 days without food and his health had been damaged irreparably. He had difficulties with his sight, hearing, balance and general health. He had to take medication for the rest of his days … when finally he was released he was to carry for the remainder of his life the scars of years on the Blanket Protest and his 53 days on Hunger Strike – Seanna Walsh

Sean McKenna was the second Provisional IRA volunteer from the 1980 hunger strike to die. Strike leader Brendan Hughes had predeceased him by 10 months. Both men had carried deep scars - psychological, physical or both - from the experience. Like their five surviving colleagues from the strike their bodies had undergone enormous deprivation while their minds were assaulted by intense trauma. Each day of their fast, as they grew lighter, their burden grew heavier. Those of us who came through that era with them but were fortunate to escape the physical and psychological ravishing they endured carry forever a debt of gratitude to them.

Sean McKenna came into Crumlin Road Prison in March 1976. Although on the wing with him I do not recall his presence, only getting to know him when the remand prisoners housed in the Crum were shifted to Cage 3 of Long Kesh in the midst of the IRA’s ‘long hot summer’ against the RUC. There Sean was adjutant to Albert Allen from the Kashmir area of West Belfast. The two of them were efficient administrators but laboured under the burden of carrying an infantile rump of young prisoners unwilling to settle down in their environment and forever in pursuit of mayhem for the sheer hell of it. On one occasion when the food lorry pulled up at the cage gates the contents could not be pulled in because the Ballymurphy men had put the trolley on top of the water tower. How they managed to haul it up so high and balance it seemed an engineering feat all in itself. To a man, when asked, we all swore it must have got up there on its own.

This errant behaviour brought many of us into conflict with Sean and Albert. Their task was to maintain a sense of IRA discipline and an environment where the majority were not subject to the unruliness of the few. While it may have amounted to nothing more than the wayward boisterousness of youth, both men felt obliged to lay down the law.

Jim Scullion, a senior republican figure in the jail about to take over the reins of control, visited the cage. The screws had complained that we had wrecked the place during a small hours food fight. Holes had also been punched or kicked in every studded wall after we had watched a Kung Fu film and decided to practice our newly acquired martial arts skills on our surroundings. The offenders, about a dozen in all, were lined up and brought to attention in the study hut. Jim Scullion told us we were not to buck the IRA or the IRA would buck us. We stared ahead feigning indifference. As soon as he left we joked that the IRA up the camp had been in jail too long if they wanted to buck us. Comments about Vaseline did the rounds. We calmed down after that but largely due to our numbers depleting. Men, having received their deposition papers and now officially ‘Awaiting Trial’, were being moved up to Cage 10.

After that, for a while in Cage 3, our attitude to Sean and Albert was one of morose aloofness. For a time we would speak if spoken to but little else. Although they were right and we were nuisances in the wrong, recalcitrance figured in our psyche at the time and ‘mea culpa’ was indeed Latin to us, well outside our insouciant vocabulary. Albert and Sean were ultimately more flexible and forgiving than we were. They were in their twenties, had been around the block and knew the score, so bore no grudges. We were teenagers confined behind wire fences when others our age were having the life of it. Our energy rushed the outlets provided by whatever limited opportunities existed in our world. And we were sullen and sulky when thwarted.

In any event Sean and I ended up on the Blanket protest. The time for opposite sides in a battle over frivolity had passed and now we were engaged in a prolonged and arduous struggle for survival. The IRA was not about to be bucked by the British on this one.

Sean had been interned at 17. After his release he was kidnapped by British soldiers on the Southern side of the partition line and outside British jurisdiction. Jailed unethically without trial at 17 now he was jailed illegally for 25 years. He became O/C of H5 during the protest, probably the block with the least harsh of all regimes at the time. That still did not make it easy. A humane Principal Officer in charge of the block made the difference between a protest being accompanied by persistent screw violence and a protest more marked by intense deprivation. Sean McKenna, as he had done in much more favourable circumstances in Cage 3, guided the men he commanded through the daily challenges of prison life. The particular abnormality of that life on the blanket afforded him no previous experience that he could call upon, yet he did not balk from making the calls that had to be made.

After the 1980 hunger strike there was a view in the prison that six men came though alive if not exactly well. A large part of the life of Sean McKenna had died during those 53 days. He was never the same person after it. It was sometime in the mid 1980s that I met him again, the first since 1976. He embraced me and laughed. Although I was aware of the stories about his condition I was shocked to experience it first hand. Shuffling, heavy on medication, and obviously physically limited, he had to stare towards the ground in order to see the person he was talking to. I was so angry that the British, having forced him to push his body to the absolute limits of endurance – clinically dying for four seconds in the prison hospital before being brought round – were continuing to hold him when he should have been in a home environment receiving the loving care and medical attention his condition was so clearly crying out for. There was a malign and vindictive streak running through the heart of British penal policy. The wing screws did what they could to facilitate him but their hands were tied.

At some point in the near future when we visit his final resting place in Ravensdale we will reflect on a man part of whom was buried elsewhere many years ago.


  1. Seán, like others who have gone before him will be sadly missed by their families and friends.
    God bless him

  2. Thank you. I have been waiting to see comments on Sean, who was a kind and more gentle man and did suffer much. He is missed by some who knew him after the Blanket and Long Kesh. His friendship will always be with me. Rest in the peace you deserve, Sean. God has blessed you.Bid, Jackie and all miss you.
    Roma in USA

  3. So many decent men and women Irish citizens have suffered like Seán did during the freedom struggle.

    Therefore, it is our duty to ensure future generations should remember them and their sacrifice!

    Oiche Mhiath Oglach. Sean McKenna

  4. Sean's father, also known as Sean McKenna, was one of the Hooded Men who were torturedd by Britihsh security services in 1971. The elder Sean McKenna never recovered from that experience, and died shortly after his release. His son, Sean, was interned along with him.