Anthony McIntyre reflects on the contribution of a former republican prisoner who died last January.
I was constantly writing to her cell mate who along with Eilis became immortalised in the books Tell Them Everything and In The Footsteps Of Anne.
Not long before she died she took part in the artistic project of Laurence McKeown, a former blanketman and hunger striker who set out to reimagine the blanket. On her death Laurence commented:
I last saw Éilis when we photographed her at the Roddy McCorley Club for the art project, 'We Wore The Blanket'. She was there that day with her other comrades from Armagh Jail, Sinéad Moore, Ann Marie Quinn, and Breige Brownlee. All of them appeared in the calendar produced as part of the project; Éilis was 'August 2018'. As the project gathered media attention Éilish would always comment on Facebook or send a PM to congratulate or pass on best wishes. And now she is gone.
The finality embedded in the closing words of Laurence McKeown exuded a sense of numbness. It summed up how I felt upon learning of her death: another stalwart down, another who from her teenage years had poked British perfidy in the eye and unflinchingly paid the price for it.
A young active service volunteer, Eilis gave an account to In The Footsteps Of Anne of a British military attempt to arrest her in 1976:
When I was seventeen years of age I was going up Butler Street and I had a submachine gun up my trench coat. Unfortunately, I was stopped by a foot patrol: it was facing a local disco, Toby's. The Brits told me to open my coat so I opened it … he lifted my coat with his gun and saw the butt of the submachine gun.
The teens streamed out of the disco and surrounded the Brits while a number of local women ushered Eilis away. She made her way to Dublin but didn't stay long and returned to Belfast and active service. She had just turned eighteen a few days when captured with a comrade, Rita Bateson, retuning from an IRA funeral for three of its volunteers in East Belfast.
She received a ten year sentence which was unlawful for the judge to deliver so he was compelled to call her back to court and reduce her sentence to five. The benefit was negligible because she had to serve the full five as prison management punishment for her putting in the long years of defiance on the prison protest.
She was in Armagh Jail when male prion staff attacked the republican prisoners there in February 1980. This is how Eilis O'Connor at 52 and married with four children, described it:
At that point Shirley D tried to get up the stairs. Two male officers grabbed her and started to beat her up. Una Nellis and Ann Marie Quinn were also grabbed by the male officers and thrown on the ground ... Anne B and Eileen M were the first two to get pulled down to the governor. Men armed with riot shields ran into their cell, trailed them out by the hair and punched them ... one of them gave me a punch in the stomach ... I was lying on the floor where they had thrown me and one of the male officers booted me ... they deliberately puled Rosie's jumper up and her whole breasts were exposed and they trailed her out and down the stairs. Her head was banging off the stairs. They were just dragging her along so her head would hit the stairs.
This was the catalyst to bring the women into the full blown no-wash protest, more arduous for the women than the men given their particular sanitary needs. Eilis again describes it:
Basically what that meant was that if we didn’t work they would keep us locked up ... So we had to use the pos [chamber pots] and when they were full we had to throw them out the spy hole. Then they locked them up so we had to put our excreta on the walls ... they blocked up the doors and the windows so we couldn't throw anything out. We were in total darkness with no sheets. There was nothing at all in the room, only two woolly blankets a pillow and the bible ... we had nothing in the first month. We took our periods and they wouldn't even give us sanitary towels ... there were a lot of beatings going on and strip searching too.
Throughout this arduous protest Eilis and her comrades were led by the resolute Mairead Farrell who was later to be summarily executed by the British in Gibraltar.
Eilis recalled how she had had accompanied her great friend, comrade, Bone denizen and fellow prison protestor, Christine Beattie to the hospital after she had discovered a lump, staying with her until all tests were complete. It was cancer, and Bap, as Christine was fondly known, saw her life draw to a close. First Eilis followed In The Footsteps of Anne and now she has stepped in the footsteps of Christine.
Two remarkable and redoubtable women from the prison protest era who as teenagers and beyond defied the might and violence of the British state.