Six Brave Men

On the 35th anniversary of H-Block hunger striker, Tom McElwee, his former cellmate Thomas Dixie Elliot reproduces a piece he wrote four years ago when he outlined the reasons for believing the narrative articulated by Richard O'Rawe, author of Blanketmen and Afterlives.

Dixie comments:

As it's Big Tom McElwee's anniversary today I thought I'd repost this piece I wrote for the blog Organised Rage back in 2012. I had been asked to outline why I supported Richard O'Rawe so I used an example of Big Tom's courage ....

Tom McElwee

It was the winter of 1978 and Christmas was about a week away, Big Tom McElwee and I waited and listened as the screws got closer.

On up the wing locks rattled, doors flung open and we listened as bare feet scurried on the corridor as those before us tried to escape the heavier sounding boots of screws. There was no escape, this was the H-Blocks ...we were naked except for a blue towel wrapped around our waists and encased within a concrete hell on earth, officially called H4. There was no escape from the hatred that lined the wing, blocked the way at the grilles and either took physical form in beatings or looked on in white shirted command. The wing shifts and forced washing had begun what was clearly another attempt at breaking us.

That winter was the worst in years, so bad we thought it would surely reach through the broken windows of our cells and that it’s icy touch would claim some unfortunate comrade in the night.

Big Tom waited by the cell door with fists clenched. He had a low tolerance of bullies and he fully intended taking these bastards on. I stood near the window and silently cursed his courage as fear chilled my very bones. Screws moved around outside our cell, it was too soon we thought as there were several cells before us to go yet.

The hatch opened, a set of eyes peered through at us, keys rattled and they were in on top of us; pushing, punching and grabbing at our matted hair. We had been taken by surprise and before we could react we were being run down the wing, through the various sets of grills and across the circle towards a newly cleaned wing. There they waited, the cleaning crew with their tools of torture; ordinary everyday things like a bath, a scrubbing brush, scissors and a mirror. Depending on their sick sense of humour the bath would either be filled with scolding hot or freezing cold water and we would be plunged into it and scrubbed until our skins almost bled. Our hair and beards would be shorn from our heads with the scissors. The mirror was the final act of degradation, we would be forced to stand spread eagled over it, then beaten down until we almost sat on it.

There were two chairs; the plastic type you would find in a waiting room and most definitely not those used by barbers, but that we knew was to be their purpose.

Big Tom stood with defiance in his eyes and his mouth locked in grim determination. I knew what was going to happen next as they tried to force him into the chair. I wrestled with those trying to force me down, a screw was poking me with the scissors. Then Tom drew out and caught a screw with one of his big fists, sending him crashing backwards onto the cold polished floor.

Fuck this I thought, before hitting the screw who had the scissors.

We took a terrible beating from boots and batons; I know that much, but strangely I can remember little else about it. I do remember being flung into the back of a van, naked, like some piece of dead meat. The screws were waiting for us in the punishment blocks where we got another beating.

Later, Big Tom was still defiant as he called to me out the door. I was just too fucking cold and sore to be defiant so I felt sorry for myself.

They starved us as part of the punishment. The Number One Diet, as they called it, consisted of dry bread and black tea for breakfast with watery soup for dinner and the same dry bread and black tea again at tea time.

A ‘Christmas amnesty’ said a screw as they let us go back to the wing on Christmas Eve. The cheers of the lads did nothing to lift my spirits as I followed Big Tom down the wing banging cell doors as he went. Later that night we had the first decent meal in a week - when you’ve been starved anything’s a decent meal. As we ate, somewhere in the distance I heard for a brief moment ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ - Boney M’s Christmas hit of that year. Some screw had decided to remind us that it was indeed Christmas before turning it back off.

From H4 Tom and myself were sent to a wing in H6 along with the Blanket leadership in early 1979, even though we didn’t hold positions of leadership ourselves. This move was an attempt to break the protest by isolating the staff from the bulk of the Blanket men. We were both then moved to H3 later that year when that failed.

Before Tom went on Hunger Strike that summer in 1981 he called me aside at mass one Sunday and slipped me his Rosary beads. He still had that defiant look on his face as he told me to ‘hold on to them.’ I didn’t believe that Tom wouldn’t be back; he was a fighter, a hard man with a big heart.

Big Tom McElwee didn’t return, he died on 8th August 1981 after 62 days on Hunger Strike. I treasure those battered and worn Rosary beads. I also have what Tom never got to have, a wife and two lovely children.

The Winter of 1978 and the Summer of 1981 had passed the 25th anniversary mark before I knew it. Life had got better although the memories still lurked in the dark recesses of my mind. Then Richard O’Rawe wrote a book, Blanketmen, in which he claimed that there was an offer made by the Brits on July 5th 1981 which could have saved the lives of six men. This couldn’t be true I thought; surely the IRA leadership wouldn’t do this to our comrades for political gain?

Surely not. But why would Ricky say this unless there was some truth in it? I knew Big Ricky, I shared a cell close to him for a while in H3. He was the shoulder that Bik leaned on, the person to whom he relied upon for advice. He knew what Bik knew.

I had a distant memory of a rumour. A rumour only; that the Brits were moving and Joe wouldn’t have to die. Gerry Adams must have over played his hand I thought and as a result Joe McDonnell died, followed by the other lads including Big Tom.

I observed closely as Ricky defiantly stood his ground against abuse, as his name was spread like shit across the media. I heard the lies but they never passed Ricky’s lips. Documents hidden since those dark days not only backed him up but a man who went by the code-name of The Mountain Climber came forward as well as former Blanket comrades.

With each new revelation those calling Ricky a liar lied or remained silent in the face of awkward questions.

I eventually knew that I had to stand behind Big Ricky and face what was coming just as I had to stand behind Big Tom that Christmas week in 1978.

I owed it to six brave men who had the courage that I lacked; the courage to die for what they believed in.

Tom McElwee's Rosary beads


  1. Powerful piece of writing Dixie. Tom was a great person.

  2. Brilliant writing Dixie.While all those who died fighting for what they believed will & should be honoured every year just let me say thank you Dixie,AM & so many men & women who physically "survived" those horrible years when so many of their comrades did not.To the true republicans who still fight I thank you.

  3. God bless the blanketmen for the suffering they endured for our country. Their sacrifices I hope, in time , will be appreciated in the sane way as the Martyrs of 1916 and I hope nationally they will be recognised as the brave men they were. Theirs was and is a just cause. It is so wrong how the Free State abandoned their fellow Republicans.

  4. Paddy Mooney

    Not just the free staters. We watched the trailer for 66 Days and after that couple of minutes my wife simply said, 'and Adams and McGuinness are still alive'. Says it all.

  5. In regards to the Rosary Beads. I put the photo of them online a few times over the years and on one of those occasions an anonymous poster questioned whether they were actually Big Tom's beads. My reply was I don't know anyone who actually kept their Rosary Beads intact after the Blanket given the abuse they took, especially as they were often used to write on walls.

    These were different they belonged to Big Tom and I guarded them with my life until the Blanket ended. Then as soon as I got the chance they were sent outside because I feared that some screw would steal them during a wing shift.

  6. Dixie,

    nothing needs explained to anonymous posters.

  7. *The above should have read.... I feared that some screw would steal them during a cell search.

    I should read it before I pressed the send button.

  8. Sorry, not meaning to intrude on anyone's grief but I just have a question. Was it the normal screws who treated the prisoners so badly during the blanket protests or was there other screws involved?

  9. Steve,

    those who worked the blocks were responsible. No particular category. Not all who worked the blocks were involved. There were quite a few who desisted or did very little. There were others who were at it constantly.

  10. Dixie, once again, you prove that in the face of what would break most mere mortals, you blanketmen almost miraculously endured. Brothers bound by suffering and shared purpose, you survived a living hell to become what Ireland still needs and exports in abundance, its reserves of narrative beauty and reverence. I read accounts like yours of the blanket and dirty protests and can hardly believe the courage required to keep sanity intact in such conditions. The hunger strikers obviously took that courage to a whole new level.

    Just this past week I sat down with a former blanketman in Belfast and over tea and biscuits, he recounted tales similar to your own. He wanted to make something clear, a point he had obviously arrived at after much reflection. He said, "The hunger strikes weren't about the Five Demands. They were about getting the reputation of the IRA out of the gutter. And they succeeded." He admitted that heinous operational errors had been made or would be made post-hunger strikes (e.g. La Mon House Hotel, Enniskillen), but he recalled the international attention the hunger strikers attracted and the revived interest in Ireland's centuries old struggle. He offered me another cup of tea. When a mutual friend pulled out his cigarettes and offered them around, the H-Block survivor apologized for not sharing his own. "I'm sorry Michael, here have one of these."

    Walking to his front door, we passed pleasantries. I've known the man for many years now but didn't know until this summer's sojourn to Belfast that he'd been a blanketman. Before leaving his house I told him, "You're a brave man." He responded, "Not at all."

  11. Michael,

    courage is a finite resource but it is also social.

    The men held each other together in spite of some terrifying times.

    I felt bad for the guys who stuck it out for years until they had no more left in the tank and left the protest. I remember one of them from Ardoyne on our wing, Jimmy Conway, who got killed in a car crash about 88. He could take no more of it and left the protest. None of us held it against him and wished him the best as he left. He will always be a blanketman to me.

  12. Anthony,

    There's so much genuine love and respect there, a bond that can't be broken by critics or by time. Sorry to hear about Jimmy Conway's premature death. Cruel and merciless irony that.

    Yours truly made it home as you can see. Typical me, I'm quickly trying to find a window of return. Tell Carrie I was asking after her. Seems we have more mutual friends than we knew. Great to see Drogheda doing the business on the Irish history front. Have you been involved in the Save the Gate campaign, the drive to preserve the medieval Barbican gate in town?

  13. Dixie,
    That lifted the hairs on the back of my neck. Very moving tribute to Tom and the others and a damning indictment of Adams and his cabal.

    Your reference to Jimmy Conway.....very considerate and knowing you, really sincere to speak of those who gave all they had and couldn't give no more. Some tanks are smaller than others but they all contributed to the journey.

  14. Michael,

    we would baulk at describing it as love! There were the usual tensions and dislikes there, backbiting and fall outs. There was just a bond forged that can often be hard to describe. A blanketman died a few weeks ago and I had no time for his politics whatsoever and he could not stand dissent. Yet, when he died I felt a sense of loss and regret because of what he had been through.

    Jimmy was a good guy and has his life cut so short.

    I am not involved in the Gate campaign, other than signing the petition. Audrey and others are. I Just don't have the time. I did a bit with the same sort of people on the Thatched Cottage campaign.

    Niall, that's right. It took the input from all to get the thing along the route and over the line.

  15. Yeah, love is a word maybe used on Orange is the New Black. Among men, ick. It's refreshing to see Republicans of all stripes. The opposite would be fascism. Dissent, the only path to balls.

  16. its unreal to think that the blanketmen can look from opposite corners now and have the feelings off im right your wrong , when they had the comradery that they had
    .my heart truely bleeds for the men who have stood up to the sinn fein and have been labelled hoods thugs liars druggies VICTORY TO THE BLANKETMEN doesnt sound as prophetic as it did then