The H-Blocks during the blanket protest was the type of place where not everybody involved ever got to meet each other. It depended on the wing or block location and the chance of paths fortuitously crossing on visits. Some people left the prison without ever having met some of those they were on protest alongside within at most a few hundred yards of each other.
It was a place where everybody in mass on a Sunday and Catholic feast days had a sameness. We were all clad in black issue prison trousers, invariably ripped at the back to facilitate the unhindered passage of contraband to the back passage. Bare from the waste up and bearded – there was a uniformity of sorts – we were uniform in our non-conformity.
Paddy McIntyre, simply known as Paddy Mac, died in April of last year. He was in H4 with us during the protest. I would see him every Sunday at mass, with little passing between us other than a “hello” if we bumped into each other. The canteen for mass would be so crammed with bodies, stale and pale, that bumping into each other was a literal thing. The noise level so infernal, that you had to be really close to make the greeting heard.
Paddy Mac came from Donegal. Prisoners from “the Free State” were never slammed with the derogatory label “Free Staters”, apart from banter. They were always a minority in the H Blocks and a topic of curiosity. They were not hurled into the struggle due to living in some cauldron of conflict but had made the journey to it as an act of solidarity with their IRA and INLA comrades, and a gesture of affinity to the nationalist community in the North. They were not the infamous “long rifles” conjured up by republican cynicism as a euphemism for people egging on the struggle from afar but breaking few eggs in the process. These men had upped sticks, journeyed across the border, risked arrest and prison, and were willing to endure the rigours of the blanket protest. Along with big Jim Clarke, Paddy arrived in the H Blocks in 1979 and from that point on it was an unflinching journey for him.
Other than that cursory “hello” I didn’t really get to speak with or know Paddy Mac until after the H-Block escape of September 1983. His misfortune became an international media event when he was recaptured a day or two later alongside Joe Corey in a farmhouse around Castlewellan having successfully exited the H Blocks courtesy of a hijacked bin lorry, an event which led to some Belfast wags daubing the walls with H Block 7 – open all day Sunday. Both men emerging from their hideout, an undertaking of safe passage guaranteed by an accompanying Catholic priest, generated images that went global.
His reward was to be placed on the top security red book system. That led to him being moved from block to block every few weeks, a process that allowed him to cross fertilise many ideas that were nurturing within the jail. He was strongly left wing at the time, and a formidable advocate for his ideas. I too regarded myself as a Marxist in that era but Paddy didn’t share my penchant for Orwell’s characterisation of Communism. Often we would go at it but never in any hostile way. Although later renowned for his love of GAA which he, his wife and children were immersed in, it is not a topic I ever remember him addressing in the jail. But I was not a GAA fan, preferring soccer so perhaps there was no point to meet – only to clash – and we had enough collisions around Marxism.
Some years later a book would emerge from the H Blocks titled Questions Of History. I was the McIntyre most publicly associated with it. But there was another - Paddy Mac. The first three chapters had largely been the work of Paul Butler before the baton was then passed on to myself. Spike Murray, who oversaw the process, asked Paddy Mac to assist me. We worked well together. He had a great knowledge of Irish history and very much brought his Marxist lens to the project. The book that was eventually published had the intellectual fingerprints of Paddy Mac all over it. By the time of its publication he had quit work on the project. Spike Murray’s pencilled notes, amendments and suggestions in the initial drafts struck Paddy as being like those a schoolmaster, patronising us like pupils. I had a different view, finding Spike’s input quite helpful and astute, and not inhibiting. But Paddy was not a man whose mind could be changed easily once he had it made up.
He went on to other things, leaving the prison for good in the mid-1980s. A blanket man, his impact extended well beyond the cell the British sought to confine him to.
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