|Photo: An Phoblacht|
Two days short of Christmas last year, Phonsie McErlean died in his sleep. Sorrowful as it happened to be, it was probably a more peaceful sleep and certainly in a more comfortable bed than he was used to throughout the blanket protest, where he was an enduring figure. For years his bed was nothing more than a damp mattress on a concrete floor. Then, he was a young man, able for it. By the time he died he was a grandfather and father of three children. What comforts he had, he deserved them.
We were on the same block, H4, from 1978-1980, although not the same wing, only ever coming across each other in mass. The mass was a crucial communications intersection in the H Blocks as well as being the highlight of what limited social life we managed to eke out in a place purpose built to isolate. Every effort was made to ensure the authorities found no excuse to deny access to it.
They were grueling times in H4. Prison staff violence was an everyday occurrence and Phonsie like the rest of us had to knuckle down and bear it out. The choice was to walk away and for many that was simply a notion never to be entertained. I have no memories of him from after the blanket protest, so my abiding one is of him bare chested wearing only prison trousers, which were obligatory if we were to make it to mass.
Originally a Portglenone man he teamed up with the South Derry men, two of whom would later die on hunger strike, Frank Hughes and Tom McElwee. The consciousness of many South Derry and North Antrim prisoners were steeped in the sacrifices of both men, making it inevitable that they would return in one form or other to republican activism on release. It was no different for Phonsie.
In later life Phonsie moved to Navan. A republican from the area who I travelled with to Dublin every week would often talk about him. It was the first I had heard of him since the H Blocks. Although in no way sympathetic to Sinn Fein my friend had enormous respect for Phonsie who was still with the party. His role in the blanket protest crossed many boundaries.
His funeral was attended by a large gathering of people many of them former blanket men. They walked in the cortege, made up the guard of honour and carried his coffin.
Sinn Fein organised the funeral while Jim Gibney devoted his Irish News column to the late blanket man. Meath West Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín delivered the funeral oration, referring to the energy and efforts that Phonsie put into the republican struggle.
Not a guy I got to know particularly well, I am nevertheless honored to have occupied that historical moment in time with him, when young Irish men and women led by people like Mairead Farrell, Bobby Sands and Brendan Hughes, clung by their finger tips to the rim of the abyss. The boots that stomped on their fingers wore out before they could break the grasp of IRA volunteers like Phonsie McErlean.
Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.
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