Big Haystacks was how he became known during the blanket protest where he was a popular figure in H5. The haystack reference apparently was to his beard which was said to be huge, something I never experienced seeing. Even though we had been in the prison together throughout the blanket protest and beyond, it was not until 1986 that I actually bumped into him in the jail. I had been moved to the block where he was housed. Meeting friends was a hit and miss affair. Himself and Joseph McAllister from the Lower Ormeau Road in South Belfast were buddies on the wing and the three of us hooked up for the few weeks I was there, with Joseph fuelling most of the banter.
I had known Seamy on the outside and he was to be a defence witness at our trial but shortly before that started the RUC arrested and charged him with bomb attacks, which saw him remanded to Crumlin Road Gaol, practically rendering him ineffective as a witness.
When he was sentenced in the latter half of 1977, he immediately went on the blanket. Something of a naturalist, during the years of protest he is said to have whiled away the hours of endless monotony by birdwatching. Bringing his previous knowledge to bear, he would explain to his fellow blanketmen something about the speciation of the different birds that would gather in the yard hoping for the crumbs they might get from their captive audience.
When he first donned the blanket I was in the relative comfort of Cage 11. During our Christmas parade in the yard, Brendan Hughes announced a one-minute silence for the blanket men a few hundred yards across the camp, held in conditions so unlike what we in the cages were enjoying, although we liked to say we were enduring them. The real endurance test was underway less than half a mile from us. Two vastly different regimes, one relaxed the other brutal.
My thoughts throughout that moment of silence dwelt on Seamy, he being the blanket man I had the closet affinity with at the time. Ironically, it would only be a matter of weeks before Brendan himself ended up on the blanket, an event which changed the protest entirely, infusing it with it a dynamic that catapulted it onto a global stage.
I had known Seamy slightly from childhood, more to see than to talk to. He lived close to the end of River Terrace in the Lower Ormeau Road, which adjoined the railway track, and would often chat to a friend of mine, Tommy McReynolds, as we dandered to and from the Markets, traversing the disused railway line that now forms a key arterial route from Belfast to Dublin, the track the Enterprise runs along.
When I got out of prison in 1975 he was living in Farnham Street, a mere few hundred yards from the railway line. We became friends and I was a frequent visitor to his house where there was a new-born whom we affectionately called Cold Feet.
After his release from prison, he moved to South Derry where he married a sister of a former blanketman and settled down. Like myself he liked a pint but the last time we got to share one was in 1976, a night before I was to vanish from the streets for almost two decades and into a life of involuntary sobriety. I would only come across him at funerals after his release, the last being that of Micky McGrath in Coalisland. Even though he was a Sinn Fein councillor, and I had little time for the party, it never impacted on us. He told me about his brush with death as a result of a heart attack: a problem that would ultimately claim his life.
Seamy was a tough nut and didn’t suffer fools gladly. Nor was he one to trust people readily. He would quickly see through and call out the bull. If he liked you then his warmth would flow your way: if he did not, he was not shy in letting you know, nor beyond chasing people from the door if he did not like the cut of their jib.
Comrades of his from South Derry described him as an “army man” who ultimately wasn’t suitable for what Sinn Fein was morphing into. He knew there was a need for a political alternative but had not abandoned the view that an armed intervention could still add oomph to the political strategy the party was claiming to be building.
Eventually, disillusioned with IRA decommissioning and the Provisional Movement’s support for an armed British police force, he pulled away from Sinn Fein, in his final years wanting nothing to do with the party. He could see in the rise of the place-seekers evidence more of political careerism than political conviction.
Fortunately, unlike many of those he was on the blanket with, he made it into his 70s. A good innings for one of the good guys.
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