Tom Toner

He was a frequent enough visitor to the filth strewn cells of the H-Blocks. He met every blanket protester and knew each of the men who died on hunger strike. He never had the popularity of Denis Faul nor did he court it. Perhaps because of that he escaped the bile spat at the Dungannon priest once the hunger strike had ended and a scapegoat was badly needed.

The relationship between Tom Toner and the protesting prisoners was not something that would easily lend itself to being described as hostile but it was little better than lukewarm. Unlike Faul he was not an inveterate smuggler. That’s largely the criterion by which priests were judged: whether they brought tobacco in stuffed down their socks or whether they were sufficiently outspoken against the prison staff and NIO policy. 

I liked him despite holding the general reticence towards his stance. I always felt he could have done more about the ongoing brutality meted out by prison staff that he was certainly aware of. He had listened to enough complaints and seen enough injuries. He knew the hostility of the screws towards those on protest and their penchant for violence. His remaining silent was explained by Bishop Patrick Walsh at his funeral mass:

But before that parish ministry while he was Diocesan Secretary he ministered with Monsignor John Murphy in the Maze Prison or as it was called then the Kesh. In the last few days much has been said in the media about this ministry but let me say that during all those dreadful and harrowing years neither Monsignor Tom nor Monsignor John gave any interviews to the media for they knew that to do so would eschew the effectiveness of their ministry, a ministry that was marked by total integrity, an integrity which was their strength, recognised and appreciated by the prisoners, their families, and the prison authorities.

A moot point but whatever his reasoning I doubt there was any malice in it. And perhaps he had a better understanding of the malign minds of those on the republican committee who were running the protest from outside than we had and he may have been loath to allow them to advance their own agendas to the detriment of the men on the protest wings.

When I first arrived on the blanket I was a bit surprised at the knowledge on the wings of the lives of saints. Given the political background of the people there it seemed disproportionately oriented towards religious rather than political biography. Denied most stimulating reading material the deficit was in part made up by Tom Toner and his colleagues making religious material available for the prisoners. It was not a serious attempt at indoctrination, more a means of providing something that would ward off the soul destroying tedium that beset the place. Books on saints managed to get past the NIO blockade on reading because they came under the religious material rubric. However it would not be long before they too would be banned, leaving the bible as the sole literary content of the cells. It warmed our feet rather than our minds and was perhaps all the more welcome for that.

On occasion when he would visit the cells to offer to hear confessions I would talk to him. Far from getting a confession he would usually get a profession of atheism which he was only too willing to challenge as he waxed philosophical. An erudite man he could more than hold his own. Most conversation with him was about theology. Despite his close association with the GAA he never kept us up to speed with sporting events in the way that Denis Faul would always do.

I last saw him in St Peter’s Cathedral a number of years ago when he officiated at a funeral mass for an uncle. I approached him and we chatted about the blanket. He admitted to our mutual laughter that he could not remember me from the blocks. Given the amount of prisoners he met with over his years there it hardly surprised me.   

Tom Toner witnessed a lot of callousness as a result of his ministry in the prison. He might have smiled approvingly at the view once expressed to me by the republican prisoner Willie Gallagher during one of our all night smoking sessions in Cell 26 that 'the place is full of bastards and the screws are nearly as bad.' Ultimately, Tom Toner's views were not ours but he kept his integrity when so many around him abandoned theirs. When he died last month something from our protest died with him.


  1. I never warmed to Tom. I did not know the man but, unlike Mackers, I am not so ready to excuse, or rationalise, his public slience. If there was anyone independent of the system who knew the truth of the H-Blocks it was the prison chaplin. Tom Toner could have been forgiven for ignoring the occasional beating, however, the brutality was endemic and he saw with his own eyes the results of it. I would like to think he kept his bosses fully, and honestly, informed even if his lack of public condemnation irrated me.

    Except for this a generous piece from you, Mackers.

  2. Tom Toner was system man, ignore the obvious and through silence acquiesce.
    He may have been a decent man in many respects but he wasn't a true friend of the prisoners during the blanket - he didn't like us and he didn't like what we represented. he did do small favours occasionally and offer the obligatory sympathy but nothing like he could have done.
    later he went on to be involved in early discussions around the mid-80s aimed at reintroducing the RUC into our society, while the RUC were still orchestrating the uda death squads.
    but from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Royal Ulster Provos, maybe Tom Toner lived to see something he thought he's never see, and died a bit happier.


  3. In David Berefords book (correct me if I'm wrong)..

    Why did republican Prisoners refer to Fr Toner as 'index'..?

  4. Against the criticisms of Tom Toner it has to considered that the prisoners never spoke out about the degradation inflicted against prisoners by their organisations - the back table used to humiliate, and on occasion prisoners beaten by security. I wonder if he was any worse than we who remained silent. Perhaps it all boiled down to who was doing the beating - screws or fellow prisoners. Back in the day I was as judgemental about it all. Time has mellowed me. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is another matter.

  5. I remember the time I spent in a cell with Jake Jackson during that time. Jake had read the Bible several times cover to cover and used it against Father Toner on his visits to our cell. Often quoting verse and chapter.

    It was quite something to listen to as a priest was torn to pieces by someone using the Bible against the Catholic Church.

  6. That's a nice piece on Monsignor Tom , I was just thinking to myself and had a bit of a giggle , "Pope meets the Devil", Tom meeting you Anthony.

    I would think his hands were tied by the Bishop, don't forget, he was just a pawn, and he was told never to comment on anything he had seen within the blocks (cages) but to inform no one but himself (The Bishop), so I would not put any blame on him whatsoever, I would put the blame on his bishop whom he reported to, he was devout and obeyed all laws of his church, that was his only downfall with regard to seeing the brutality inside. Like yourself Anthony, I'm no longer a lover of any religion, yet My own children and grandchildren go to mass every sunday, I never say to any of them, Don't go to that place, they just want your money, but funny enough, at times when I feel severe pain (Old Age me thinks), I seem to say, Oh God help me. now is that funny or what, asking someone for help who took my late beautiful wife, at the age of 50, but I now look upon it as, Nature took her because they needed her republican dna beneath the clay to regenerate.

  7. Interesting post and comments.

    According to documents released a few years by the NI public records office, he supplied Frank Maguire (then MP) with a list of prisoners claiming to have been tortured to put to the then NI Sec of State Humphrey Atkins. (Didn't come to anything as far as I know.)

    I met Tom Toner only a few times - couldn't say I really knew him - struck me as reserved though impressive. (I should declare that he was a relation.)

    As for the name Index - according to Ed Maloney's book - it was from Fr Tom - FT - Financial Times Index (FTSE). But AM will know if this is right.

  8. Blackwatertown,

    at one time I probably did know but can no longer remember. But Ed's take sounds very plausible.

  9. I seem to remember when AM paid tribute to Fr Denis Faul people felt the need to criticise him also,
    I find it difficult to believe that someone who showed kindness of some form to the protesting prisoners in the 70’s and 80’s should be frowned upon still to this day.
    Take yourself back to the hunger strike and remember who it was that was trying to save lives for the greater good of their families , Fr Denis and Tom were the only ones I can remember speaking out.
    When they were saying that the Provo Leadership could save the lives of these men they were treated like shit and vilified from the four corners of the earth.
    Maybe ironic is not the word but it seems that when Denis and Tom were trying to tell people the Provo’s could save their lives the same Provo’s were plotting to kill the prisoners ?

  10. toner was designated Index in the codes of the day because of the church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum - the list of banned books catholics are not allowed to read.

  11. Hodgie,

    that's an interesting nugget. Never came across it before. Good job.

  12. I would not want to sound unfairly critical but Tom Toner had a duty of care in his role as prison chaplin. I suspect he was informing his bosses and others of the brutality, however, that was not enougfh for those who lived inside the belly of the beast. Whenever prisoners were being bruatally beaten few of us pondered Toner's reasons for not speaking out more often. It was incumbent on him that he did regardless of real politick.

    Like Hodgies I sensed a lack of empathy though I stand to be corrected on this by those who knew the man better. I was a humble blanketman, some would say pawn, trying to survive the horrors of the H-Blocks and, as such, I often felt the Catholic chruch could have did more to expose the foul, wicked treatment of the political prisoners.

  13. I think all of us on the blanket felt the Church didn't do enough. But we also felt everybody else didn't do enough either. Realpolitik sometimes is either a choice or a constraint. I think O'Fiaich did more than any other Irish church leader would have done. I doubt with our mindset then we would ever have been satisified with what anybody did unless they came to see the world and our behaviour as we did.

    But this is what annoys me so much about ex prisoners who went through the brutality, who know how it operates, who can read the signes today and who opt to ignore all of it. They, to me, will forever be much more culpabale than Tom Toner and the other priests who from our perspective did not do enough.

    When Tony Taylor or Harry Fitz are beaten - that is us 30 odd years ago. Those who experienced it have a greater onus than anyone else to oppose it.

  14. I detested the man so much I dedicated a full chapter to him in my book, On The Brinks (The Angel of Death Comes a Strutting). He knew what was going on and condoned it with his cowardly silence. I always remember the snide remarks he made, especially "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" while the no-wash protest continued. I laugh when I keep hearing all these apologists for him saying he was a good man, doing his best under terrible circumstances. Bollocks! He did sweet FA.

  15. Thanks for giving me two possible reasons as to how Tom Toner got the nick name index..Both sound as AM said plausible. I am just interested...

    I've read Bereford's book, I've yet to read Richard o'Rawe's books on the 1980/81 hunger strikes. I've watched both H3 and Hunger several times and the documentery Blanketmen .

    Considering how young most/all you were, the conditions you had to live under, the beatings metted out by the screws..

    How did you not 'crack up' go insane? Once you got released, did you get any help in coming to terms with what you came through?

  16. The people I detested so much were those that meted out the brutality and the NIO which directed the regime, not the priests or welfare, nor the prisoners who found the protest too difficult and walked. In their day all these groups were reviled to some degree.

    I don't think Tom Toner or other priests will ever emerge glowing from a republican perspective which requires that all others acquiesce in its world view. When republicans were killing loyalist prisoners in the Crum and the Kesh and a republican prisoner in the Kesh, the likes of Tom Toner would have been pilloried by republicans had they condemned it. We seem to want them to speak out against only one group of people who attacked prisoners.

    This discussion shows that there is a substantial difference of opinion among former blanketmen regarding Tom Toner and his colleagues.


  17. I'm with Sam on this, I find it impossible not to conclude that Toner was in a unique position to speak up, but he chose not to, indeed, as has already been said he had a duty of care to the men, he might claim his duty was the spiritual, but how can a man's spiritual and physical well being not go hand in hand?

    Religious leaders, whether priests, vicars, imam's, rabbie's, etc, no matter what they may claim, are an integral part of the British prison system, when push comes to shove almost all will side with the authorities, even if it is not done openly.

    As to the Catholic church, what can you say, its whole history reeks of oppression and abuse, torture was official church policy for decades, if not hundreds of years.

    Its funny how we view religion, most have no problem in seeing the David Ike's as nutters, but when it comes to the 'official' religions the same people, even if the are not believers, see some sort of substance behind them. Never mind in reality it is still only smoke and mirrors, bullshit and bluster, mumbo jumbo of the worst kind.

  18. From reading the posts so far the conclusion I have come to is that the thinking of the men on “The Blocks” then and still to these day is
    “ The Provo’s love us ….everyone else thinks we are cunts”

  19. Mick,

    Thanks for these thoughts.

    I doubt very much if the issue is over whether or not he should have spoken out. I think the obit makes it clear enough that he should have and that Bishop Walsh’s defence of him was moot to say the least. But when I look back on my own experience of dissenting very few spoke out when it could be argued that they should have. In face some of those now dissenting wanted me shot for dissenting a decade or so earlier than they did. But I don’t get into the business of hating them for not speaking out. Many felt they couldn’t for whatever reason. My general view was that if they couldn’t speak out then they should refrain from making it hard for me. There is that terrible thing termed ‘the anonymous pressure of the group’ and people are reticent about breaching it.

    The state papers from two years ago that Tom Toner provided the names of prisoners that had been beaten to Frank Maguire so that he could raise the matter.

    That said I have had serious issues with the Church for years including its behaviour during the blanket protest. I thought at the time that Tom Toner, John Murphy and others could have done more and told them so during the protest. They always said they were working behind the scenes. Other priests who we had a lot of time for as individuals such as Alex Reid and Father Cahill, Brian Brady all said the same thing. They have not taken the same flak as Tom Toner.

    When I look back I always find more disturbing that a onetime NUM official was behind the NIO maltreatment of republican prisoners and who went into a dying Bobby Sands to ‘put him in his place’.

    From our perspective Tom Toner had his shortcomings for sure but there were many more there who should draw down our opprobrium more so than he.

    Religion to me is all bunkum but the Ikes of the world take it even further into the crazy club.

  20. "The state papers from two years ago that Tom Toner provided the names of prisoners that had been beaten to Frank Maguire so that he could raise the matter."

    But is that not just like these people and the games they play. By all accounts, Toner was a thoughtful intelligent man. He must have known the people he asked Frank Maguire to "raise the matter with," were the very same people who were the political masters of the screws who were tormenting Republican prisoners on the Blanket.

    The screws were beating you and your comrades because they new they could as they had been given licence to do so. I doubt Toner was too gullible or naive to understand this fact. There is no better example of this, than when some sort of equilibrium was reached after the hunger strikes and blanket protests ended, the high level of brutality stopped.

    When you said Toner, John Murphy and others always said they were working behind the scenes, it is exactly what the likes of Don Concannon and other reformist labour politicians and trade union bureaucrats used to say when they were challenged to support trade unionist taking industrial action, etc.

    Whether it be the Toner's or the Concannon's of this world, it's the nature of the beasts.

    Happy new year to you and the family

  21. Mick/Organized Rage,

    But is that not just like these people and the games they play.

    Not everybody is caught up in a Manichean view of the world to the tune of the old Pink fLoyd classic 'Us and Them.' Even then it didn't look that way. We had a completely different relationship with the clerics than we had with the screws.

    We know what the Church did. We also know what republicans did to other republicans in the jail yet the same degree of opprobrium is not directed to the silence around that issue.

    There is a serious distinction between Toner and Concannon. The latter was directing the regime within which brutality was a systemic feature. Toner wasn’t part of prison management even if he did not perform as we would have liked him to. Even pushing the old Althusserian line of Ideological State Apparatuses (of which in that perspective the Church would be a key component) we would be hard pressed to deny substantial differentiation between the roles of Toner and Concannon.

    Happy New Year to you and the clann as well Mick.

  22. I didnt like Toner and I dont like what he stood for..he was a firms man. and no friend to socialism or republicans it may be a simplistic view of that man but its is my honest opinion.

  23. Much respect to the endurance, sacrifice and courage of the blanketmen but waiting on Catholic priests to speak up for the defenseless is about as useless as a bald man waiting for hair to magically grow on his head. This is a tribe of scum who watched and covered up hundreds of years of child rape and abuse. Tom Toner sounds like just another soulless priest following orders from his masters. Probably never lost a wink of sleep over the outrages in the Maze.

  24. Marty/Ryan,

    well, we won't complain when people call it as they see it. That's what the blog is about and all forthright comments are welcome, agree with them or not.

  25. Itsjustmacker,

    you lost your wife much too young. So sad to lose your soul mate. But you do a good job in keeping up the spirit. Thanks for your comment.