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, cell doors flung open and we heard bare feet scurrying on the floor, as those in the cells before us tried to escape the heavier sounding boots of screws.
That winter was the worst in years, so bad we thought it would surely reach through the broken windows of our cells and that its 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 scalding 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 spreadeagled 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 a pair of 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 and a single piece of potato for dinner. We got 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. We rose to our cell doors as one and sang back at the bastards. The sing song lasted into what was probably the early hours of Christmas morning. We had no way of knowing, as there were no church bells to ring in Christmas Day in the H-Blocks.
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, particularly the young lads in H3 who bore the brunt of the brutal beatings meted out by the screws.
We were both then moved to H3, later that year, when the wing in H6 was broken up after that tactic had failed.
Before Tom went on Hunger Strike, that terrible 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 lovely wife and two grown up children.
Suaimhneas síoraí ort a chara...
Thomas Dixie Elliot is a Derry artist and a former H Block Blanketman.
Follow Dixie Elliot on Twitter @IsMise_Dixie