On returning home, both were placed in the cupboard. Neither holding immediate appeal. February is a short month. Therefore, a good one to go ‘on the dry’.
And these days narratives of the conflict rarely get prioritised.
However life unfolds and sometimes circumstances change quickly. Having gulped through my latest library copy thriller a bit quicker than expected I found myself short on reading choices. One of hers, The Bee Keeper of Aleppo or Seamie’s memoirs? No Greater Love got the pick. A lazy decision perhaps but a choice made none the less.
Having read Tim Pat Coogan’s On The Blanket and Derek Beresford’s Ten Dead Men, I didn’t expect so much from this memoir. However, the first-person narration added intimacy and offered further insight into how young men coped with what were the most egregious of penal events. Through the prism of Seamie’s recall the reader is subliminally invited to join the protest too; to feel the shock, horror and degradation as the campaign for restoration of ‘political status’ unfolds, to join him and his comrades in their spirit of defiance, defiance and resistance to British/Unionist policies of criminalisation.
It's a harrowing account of repeated acts of gratuitous violence visited upon defenceless and naked idealistic young men (& women in Armagh) who had largely been prisoners of the moment young men and women who, but for their responses to a mismanaged and outdated colonialist political system, would most likely not have seen the inside of a prison. The author recounts the hardships endured; 24 hours lock up, meagre & poor food rations, with little potential for distraction from the relentless grind of which all that entailed. Only interrupted by the violent processes that were part of regular 9/10-day wing shifts. Wing shifts were brutal rituals. Prisoners taunted & humiliated before then being physically beaten into submission for ‘mirror searches’ which were on occasion accompanied by what any right-thinking person could only consider as digital anal rape. Seamus also recounts other acts of gross indecency where prison officers attempted to masturbate prisoners while carrying out enforced washes upon them.
It’s a hard read by times as the author brings the reader into the darkness of his and his comrades world. To compensate though, he also succeeds in drawing us into the esprit de corps which existed among the men and making it seem credible that the men really were soldiers involved in an epic and heroic battle against an unjust and oppressive regime. He succeeds too in setting the prison conflict in context, it being an essential part of an overall campaign against the coloniser, even convincingly arguing that they, the prisoners, were by times the frontline shock troops in that war.
From that position it’s easy to understand the men’s’ decisions to escalate and critically crank up the campaign, even when doing so was greatly to their own cost; embarking on the no-wash course of action, the wrecking of cells including the smashing out of windows with consequential exposure to the elements, the doomed attack positions taken against insurmountable odds during wing changes and eventually the hunger strikes too.
Through the short pithy chapter these events are recalled. The highs and lows of Seamus’s responses and life unfolding in parallel; a particularly difficult time coming for him when news arrived inside that his brother Michael’s body was lying on a border road near Newtownbuttler on the Fermanagh/Monaghan border, executed as an informer by his comrades in the IRA.
Michael Kearney would later be exonerated, following a 15-month long internal inquiry by the republican movement in 2002. His killing remains part of the inquiries still being investigated under Operation Kenova.
There are lighter moments of relief too for the protesting prisoners. Christmas concerts being a re-occurring example for which the author claims credit in organising, with Seamus doing his annual Brian Ferry tribute performance. Our gaffer, AM gets a shout out too for his contribution as narrator for a performance from behind cell doors, voices projected out into the wing of ‘A Christmas Carol.’
The most informative part of the book for this reader were his accounts of the period after the deaths of the hunger-strikers. Much has been written about the lead up to and including the strike itself, not so much though is available about the advances made afterwards. The continuing struggle against criminalisation subsequent to having secured the right to wear their own clothes is well document by Seamie in the latter half of the book.
The right to desist from menial work, the right to segregation from Loyalists and criminals and the right to free association within each block are finally secured. Political status, though never described as such by the authorities, was achieved by the clever strategies of the prisoners’ leadership and by the disciplined, albeit sometimes violent activities of the ‘Blanket Men’.
For students of the history of ‘The Troubles’ and indeed for students of life in general, this book is a really worthwhile read. It clearly demonstrates how men and women with common purpose, courage and discipline can overcome and transcend the greatest of challenges . . . the greatest of challenges even in the bleakest of condition and circumstances.
Finally in closing let me acknowledge Seamus. He has played his part yet again. He’s added to the literature documenting, that which was in truth, an epic odyssey . . . an epic odyssey and a victory for the Blanket Men.
Seamus Kearney, 2021, No Greater Love … The Memoirs of Seamus Kearney. Publisher: Carlton Books.
⏩ Henry Joy is a frequent commenter on TPQ.