To some he was a darling while others considered him a demon. A force of nature, once he set his mind to something he pushed it through, upsetting many along the way. More than the skin of anybody else, it was that of prison management he got under most.
He sprang into the public eye in August 1976 when he was shot and injured while on active service with the IRA. His fellow IRA volunteer and driver Danny Lennon, died in the British army ambush. The vehicle out of control ploughed into the Maguire family. Three children lost their lives while the mother who survived the injuries but not the trauma took her own life in January 1980, less that four years after the horror that befell her children. The events of that summer afternoon were horrendous, something which neither of the combatants, British squaddies or IRA Oglaigh, intended as the outcome.
Nevertheless, the ambush had been well planned by the British military. Both volunteers could have been arrested earlier and no deaths would have ensued. But it seems the decision was taken to allow them to drive onto a main road where they could be killed much easier. It was what IRA volunteers had to expect when at war. Those that killed them, however, showed little regard for the civilians walking the road on a warm August day. Their negligence has often been passed over, understandably, by the cloud of genuine outrage, cynically by the politically motivated chest beating.
It was the incident that launched the Peace People, and for a time there were huge demonstrations against political violence of non-state actors. The failure to confront state violence caused the movement to experience a crisis of legitimacy and any chance it had of holding onto or building support in working class nationalist communities soon dissipated.
After his arrest Sean Glas was first hospitalised and then transferred to Crumlin Road prison. Later in the year he came to share the ideas of John Pickering and Kieran Doherty who later died on hunger strike. All three were committed and determined volunteers with strong ideas on how the IRA should be managed within the prison at a time when the guerilla army faced a strong challenge from the British state. Each of them later joined the blanket protest, as did Billy Chillingworth, a brother of John. Their mother campaigned actively on behalf of the blanket protestors.
Prison management considered Greener to be one of the leaders of the protest and along with a number of others from across the blocks he found himself transferred in 1979 to H6 in a bid to cut off the head of the protest. The administration, operating with the old colonial mentality of shoot the big bugger at the front wearing the damned turban, didn't quite grasp that the blanket was worn beneath the head not over it. The protest carried on as before and in one more block to boot.
The role of Sean Glas grew crucial when he was selected by the jail leadership the following year to infiltrate the working blocks. His task was to encourage as many conforming prisoners as possible to return to the protest blocks in anticipation of the 1980 hunger strike. His mission was a huge success. He would have persuaded, embarrassed, cajoled, pressurised all and sundry to jettison the prison uniform, lay down tools in the workshop and once again don the blanket. The numbers on protest soared as both IRA and INLA prisoners streamed into the Blanket blocks. Many later left. dispirited after the first hunger strike failed to break the deadlock. But Greener's work had been done.
I met him occasionally on my travels through the jail. He loved to hold court and had an opinionated opinion on just about everything. I found him garrulous and friendly. Even more so after we were both released. By that point he was selling clothes at knock down prices door to door in West Belfast. I would always invite him in but he was too eager to get to the next house. Later he became involved in a drugs controversy and while I have been unable to source it online one former blanket man did say he was convicted in Dublin for a drugs offence.
The myriad of things that go into making up a life in which ever saint has a past and every sinner a future.
The future is now gone for John Chillingworth. But in his past he left his mark for others to make of as they will. In the time that was in it, a dangerous time, he was a blanketman.