Some notes on the prison experience in Crumlin Road in the 1940s.

Here are some notes on the conditions in Crumlin Road by 1943-44. They cover the deaths of seven prisoners, conditions inside the prison and accounts of beatings handed out to individual prisoners over that two year period.

The dismissal of a prison officer and warders from A wing following the report into the January 1943 escape also saw the beginning of what Joe Cahill refers to as Lancelot Thompson’s ‘reign of terror’. That was to last for three years (and Thompson was also to be governor during internment in the 1950s). By 1943 there were around 100 sentenced republican prisoners in A wing. Internees, some of whom had been imprisoned without trial or charges since 1938, numbered in the hundreds. It included prisoners who had been on the Al Rawdah and moved back. Others were interned in Derry jail, while there were also women held in Armagh prison.

In March 1944, Jack Beattie, a Stormont MP for Pottinger, gave an account in Stormont on the 22nd March, detailing conditions in the prison since 1943[1]. Beattie was a regular visitor to the prison and, despite the fact that the IRA prisoners regarded the politician’s interest as purely self-serving, it is clear Beattie’s information was collected directly from A wing in particular. He said that “In the first place, the cells of the men are searched almost daily. Not only that, but the men are stripped periodically and their persons subjected to the indecent searching of the warders, who accompany the searching with vulgar and obscene language. The Governor promised that men would be stripped only once every three weeks. Yet men are being searched twice and three times every week. It should be noted that all these searches are without result…This searching is a violation of the code laid down in the King’s Regulations for the treatment of these long term prisoners…we brought them [long-term prisoners] to our jail on the Crumlin Road, which was unsuitable, and where, the accommodation was not in accordance with the King’s code laid down for the treatment of these men.

Now I want to draw attention to the food. The food rations are considerably less than the authorised allowance. It is badly cooked, almost cold, and is given to prisoners in vessels which bear visible traces of the previous meal. Cocoa and tea have been served in tins with considerable pieces of porridge or boiled turnips stuck to the bottom. Frequently during the past few months, when the orderly came into the Wing with the dinner or supper, he was told to take it back to the Circle, as the warders at the moment were searching the prisoners. This meant that the food was cold when brought back. Well, now, you would have thought that if the humanitarian touch had been there at least this process of search would not have taken place at the hour when the prisoners were to receive their food. Some have suggested that this was done deliberately. I do not know whether that is true or not. It often happens that some of the men cannot eat their porridge. The reason for this is that they cannot digest the half cooked inferior meal.

About nine months ago a man complained to the doctor that the milk was being watered. The doctor told an official to get him a mug of milk which at the moment was just coming into the wing. The official got a mug and skimmed the top of the milk. The prisoner objected, saying the test was not fair. He was brought before the Governor the following day and sentenced to three days bread and water for interfering.

I go on to recreation and exercise. It is deliberately set out in the regulations how these men must get recreation. They must get exercise. I will now show you what exercise these men get. During the winter months the men getting exercise must spend their time in an air-raid shelter which passes for a recreation hall.

This is approximately 20 feet broad by 50 feet long, but 120 men gather in this shelter and there is bound to be overcrowding. The exercise yard is approximately [2]15 yards by 30 yards. It can easily be seen that this yard is not large enough to allow 120 men to exercise in a proper manner. There are no sheds or shelters in this yard to shelter the men from the wind and rain. When it rains the men must await the warder’s judgment as to whether it will continue to rain or not. If he thinks it will not, they must remain outside. If he thinks it will, they are taken inside to exercise in the wing or to sit in the air raid shelter. The men exercise daily from 11 to 12. On Sunday they receive three hours’ exercise, never any more. Except for the time they are at church or chapel, they are locked up for 21 hours every Sunday. Considering the ill-ventilated workshops and the length of time they are locked up in their cells this system of exercise is totally inadequate.

Now in the British prisons to-day and in the prisons throughout the world at least justice is meted out to the prisoners in the grades which I am speaking of. Northern Ireland is the only place in the world where you find cruelty existing to the extent that I have outlined.

Beattie then went on to describe the treatment of one particular prisoner:

One of the prisoners, partially crippled in one leg, has during the past three years been allowed a bucket of hot water daily to bathe his leg, but on 29th February an official put colouring stuff in the water in case, he would use it for any other purpose. He put colouring stuff into the water the man was going to bathe his crippled leg with. Nobody knows what that colouring stuff was. What sort of conduct or treatment – certainly not Christian treatment – is taking place in this particular jail?

He was also scathing of the prison authorities attitude to complaints:

The questions which I have outlined have all been brought to the notice of the authorities, and here is what happened without any of these people reporting the matter to the proper authority. Here we have a man named Charles McCotter who, for reporting, was punished ten times and was put on bread and water eight times. Because he found it humanly impossible to exist under such conditions he took the only way, the legitimate way, of making his report, and because he did that he was punished ten times and placed on bread and water ten times. That is a boy of 24 years of age.

Another case is that of James Kane. He also found the conditions of life so unbearable that he reported eleven times. He was punished eleven times, and was placed on bread and water five times, all for crying out for the justice and treatment for which the law provides.

Then we have another case, that of Edward Dalzell. He reported seven times. He was punished seven times, and he was put on bread and water six times. Again I say people would think that those Gestapo methods of dealing with long term prisoners could be used only in Germany, and yet we find them operating in Northern Ireland. I say now that my statement in London was correct and to the point-that we were more akin to the Nazis in Germany than we were to the democratic world outside it.

Then we have Francis Dunlop who is 22 years of age. He was punished twelve times and put on bread and water seven times for reporting against the unchristian and unlawful method of treatment which is being inflicted upon these people. I will be told that the majority of these people are political prisoners. They are prisoners who have been brought to trial and sentenced, it may be, for political crime, but because it is for political crime there is no justification for the Minister of Home Affairs allowing these things to go on as they are at the moment. Because they are political prisoners cruelty cannot be justified. If they were in any other country in the world they would be graded as political prisoners; in Northern Ireland they are graded as criminals.

Eddie Dalzell and Jim Kane may well have been singled out for their particular treatment as they had been orderlies in A wing on the day of the escape in January 1943. Frank Dunlop had been on the receiving end of ill treatment for a number of years. According to Billy McKee, after the escape in January 1943, the warders selected for duty in A wing, in particular, were chosen for their physicality and brutality. He says that Beattie’s description is accurate for that period and you could expect rough treatment and your cell to be searched and tossed at least twice a week, every week. Tossing the cell – throwing everything onto the floor in a heap – served no purpose other than to humiliate the prisoner. McKee also remembers that you could be, and were, regularly placed on punishment for practically anything and nothing. Geordie Shannon recalled that a prisoner found part of a dead mouse in his porridge and complained. He was given three days bread and water[3].

After the calamities that followed in the wake of defending the Campbell College defendants, the northern government could usually rely on IRA prisoners to refuse to engage with the courts system for redress. Formal complaints to the prison authorities were seen by the IRA as similar to recognising the courts. But that wasn’t always the case with younger prisoners. Bobby Hughes, from Cavendish Street, was one of those arrested at the Clay Pits on the Springfield Road in 1943 (with Jimmy Steele’s nephew Arthur). While on remand in Crumlin Road in the summer of 1943, James Sloan, a warder, struck Hughes in the face, knocked him down and kicked him, then beat him across the back with a leather belt. Another warder, Harper, also beat Hughes on the back of the neck. The two warders also forcibly stripped Hughes. The defence claimed that the treatment had been given because Hughes and other prisoners were whistling, shouting and singing, and, that Hughes had refused to remove his coat or strip and had kicked out at the warders when they tried to strip him. Hughes father brought the case against Sloan but the authorities refused permission for Hughes solicitor to interview any of the six other prisoners who had witnessed the beatings. Despite that, Hughes was still awarded £12 damages by the court. According to Geordie Shannon, the internees in D wing were largely left alone by the prison staff and had political status (although the food and living conditions were still dreadful). The politicals, mainly the prisoners in A wing, were “kicked up to see the governor and kicked back down again” says Shannon[4].

Another measure, not described by Beattie, was the reality of being sentenced to solitary confinement. The solitary cell had nothing at all in it. Once penalised with solitary confiement you didn’t get out at all for the duration of your punishment. At night you were given a mattress and slept on the floor. The diet was a mug of water and four ounces of bread three times a day[5]. To put that in context, four ounces of bread is about 350 calories, not even 20% of recommended daily intake. The use of solitary confinement and the number one diet was commonplace after January 1943.

Official punishment also meant receiving marks that counted against remission. Jimmy had accumulated 200 remission marks during his Treason Felony sentence, adding 40 days to his term in Crumlin Road in 1940.

One cruelty that features in every memoir of the prison in the 1940s was the use of the whip (called the cat, or birch). When the courts sentenced prisoners, they were often, and apparently quite randomly, given an additional punishment of receiving ten or twelve strokes of the whip. This was to be carried out by the prison staff at an unspecified time. In their accounts of A wing in 1943, Joe Cahill and Liam Burke go into detail of how it was administered[6]. Without any notice, and sometimes months after the sentence, the prisoner would be brought to a cell in C wing where he would be stripped to the waist and left there. He would then be brought out through a gauntlet of off-duty prison staff and down to an underground boilerhouse where the prison staff would assemble to watch. There the prisoner would be suspended off the ground tied to metal rings while an unidentifiable warder administered the strokes of the whip, counted out by the governor. The prison doctor would check the prisoner’s heart after each stroke. Liam Burke was told this punishment was being carried out in accordance with instructions from the Ministry of Home Affairs. The birch was regarded as a particularly cruel punishment and deeply resented by the IRA prisoners.

Another, and even more damning, measure of the severity of the prison regime may be taken from another statement made later in Stormont in May 1946[7], this time by Harry Diamond, as Stormont MP for Falls. He stated that: “If any proof is needed about the conduct of the prison warders towards those prisoners over a number of years, there is the fact that seven of those young men who got out died almost immediately as a consequence of the treatment they received, and that others were taken off to lunatic asylums absolutely insane owing to the conditions they endured.” No-one on the Unionist benches denied that this was the case.

The prison authorities in Belfast were usually careful to release prisoners whose health was in terminal decline to their families so that they didn’t die within the prison. Curiously, many republicans who died in this way, such as Pat Nash, Frankie Doherty and Thomas O’Malley (in 1959) aren’t usually included in the republican Roll of Honour for the early 1940s while others, like Jack Gaffney, who died aboard the Al Rawdah, Joe Malone and Terence Perry who died in Parkhurst Prison, John Hinchy who died in Mountjoy, and Charlie O’Hare who died in the Isle of Man internment camp are included. Jimmy, though, does include Doherty, O’Malley and Nash in his song Belfast Graves and his poem In Belfast Town[8]. Some of the young men who were released from Crumlin Road prison to die at home were Richard Magowan, Dickie Dunn, John McGinley, Peter Graham, Mickey McErlean and Bernard Curran[9]. There were also four confirmed cases of tuberculosis (one of which was Richard Magowan).

To take one example, Bernard Curran had been interned in May 1940 and first complained of illness to the medical officer in the summer of 1941. He was sent out to hospital for a minor operation but on his return, received no treatment and the wound kept re-opening for the next six months. It was still discharging when he was transferred to the prison hospital in January 1942. While there, the doctor still did not provide any treatment or bandages and he had to use toilet paper to stop his shirt sticking to the wound. After 28 days in which he didn’t receive any treatment, and even though the wound began to fester, he was returned to his cell. He was among the internees sent to Derry prison in November 1942. From there he was sent to the Derry Union hospital where he was put in isolation, with poor food and hygiene and no reading materials or newspapers. His health declined even further until his unconditional release was ordered and he was carried on a stretcher to a police car and returned to his home. He never recovered and died in October 1945[10].

At least six prisoners ended up in mental institutions, although one prisoner, Charlie McDowell, who built a spaceship from fruit tins to try and escape, and, claimed he had a paste that could dissolve prison bars, surprisingly didn’t end up in care. At least one internee tried suicide and ended up having to be accompanied by Jack McNally in his cell for a time[11].

The following are a couple of documented cases of beatings of prisoners from the 1940s:

On Thursday 7th October 1943, at 12.30[12], Jimmy Steele was in his cell after dinner when two prison officers came to search his cell, Joseph Boyd and William Pyper. As Steele had joined the strip strike immediately upon returning to A wing in August (having escaped in January and been recaptured in May), he had spent most of the time naked and on punishment in his cell. For the couple of weeks after the strike ended, he had experienced the regime that had been in place since his escape in January. When Boyd and Pyper ordered him to strip so they could search him, Steele refused. The refusal brought a serious beating. It was raised in Stormont in July 1944, and he provided a statement on the beating which Harry Diamond read out on 21st May 1946 during a debate on the treatment of prisoners:

At the latter end of September or the beginning of October-I cannot remember the exact date-my cell was visited by two prison officers named Joseph Boyd and William Pyper, for the purpose of searching it. The day was Thursday, the time about 12-30. On entering my cell Boyd approached me and ordered me to strip off my entire clothing. As this was the first occasion on which I had received such an order I naturally refused to obey it, as I deemed it rather humiliating to have to strip under such circumstances.

Upon my refusal to take off my clothing Boyd said to me, “We’ll soon see about that.”

He immediately grasped me by the waistcoat and pulled it off my back. He then threw me down on my back on a mattress which was lying on an iron bedstead about three feet from the ground. In the process of doing so he had managed to pull my shirt up to my head. In this position he then pushed his knee into my chest and pulled the shirt completely off me. After that he pulled me from the bed on to the ground, holding me by the feet in doing so, with the result that my back hit the concrete floor in falling. He then trailed me by both feet along the ground, at the same time pulling the trousers off me, and while doing so he also kicked me on the left side. After this both men left the cell leaving me completely naked. I may mention that Officer William Pyper did not in any way take part in the assault. I was then locked up in my cell until the following day when, at 12 o’clock, I was paraded before the medical officer, Dr. McComb, who examined me. I still bore a mark on my left side from the kick I had received, but the M.O passed me fit for further punishment. At three o’clock on the same day I was paraded before the governor and charged with (1) refusing to obey an order; (2) attempting to assault an officer; (3) threatening an officer; and (4) making false allegations against an officer to the effect that he had kicked me. I admitted No. (1) charge; giving my reasons for same, but I emphatically denied all other charges, and I pointed out that I had actually been kicked. The governor replied that according to the medical officer’s report there were not any marks on me to prove my allegation. I replied that I still bore the mark on my side, and I offered to strip off my shirt, so that he could see the evidence for himself, but he refused my offer and said that he had to accept the officer’s evidence before mine. I was then sentenced to two days’ No. 1 solitary confinement diet. My diet during these two days consisted of four ounces of bread morning and night, whilst at dinner time four ounces of bread and two potatoes were supplied. No liquids were supplied except cold water. All utensils were removed from my cell, except my chamber and drinking water. Even my stool was removed, whilst my bedding, mattress, etc., were removed each morning at 7-30 a m and handed in again at 8 o’clock each night. I was denied all exercise. I may mention that I have been afflicted with a bad chest and a weak heart since boyhood, whilst I have also developed lung trouble since 1936, after a hunger strike in that year. The late Dr. O’Flaherty, Dr. McComb, and his assistant, Dr. Dickie, have all warned me about my weak heart. Before my arrest I had also pleurisy (twice) and congestion of the lungs. The doctors who attended me for same were the late Dr. McLaurin, Antrim Road; Dr. Alex. Dempsey, Clifton Street (April, 1935); Dr. R. McNabb, Donegall Street-(January, 1935, and June, 1940). Also X-rayed in the Royal Victoria Hospital, June, 1940.

Diamond also added that Jimmy had included a footnote that said “…Officer J. Boyd is about 6 ft. 4 in. in height and about 13 st in weight, whilst I am about 5 ft. 3 in in height and 8 st. 6 lbs in weight.” Jimmy wasn’t the only one. Samuel Holden and Dan Rooney also were on the receiving end of beatings.

On Thursday 15th June 1944, Gerry Adams and David Fleming were working beside each other in the shoe shop. As there was no work, Adams went to another prisoner’s bench. That prisoner, Dan Duffy, was a non-political and former British soldier. A warder, Jackson, then ordered Adams into the middle of the floor, saying, “You are raising a storm.” Duffy did as ordered and turned to face the wall and was told to leave. Jackson then ordered Adams to face the wall, which was not a typical order given to prisoners, telling him “I’ll soften you”. Adams refused and was then punched by Jackson while Thompson hit him with his keys. Adams was put on report and ordered to see the doctor. On the way to the doctor, Adams was pushed downstairs by another warder, Noble. A short time later, Jackson was joined by twenty warders including Moore, Kearns, Thompson and the chief, Crowe.

By this time, Adams, David Fleming, Charlie McCotter, Frank Hicks and Kevin Barry McNulty were stood with their backs to the wall outside the doctors office. The warders lined up facing the prisoners and Boyd and Moore ordered them again to face the wall. Boyd and another warder started beating Adams to try and turn him around to face the wall. Boyd started kicking Adams from behind. Foster, Jackson, Moore and Noble started beating Fleming, with McCotter, Hicks and McNulty receiving similar treatment. The prisoners tried to put up resistance, but Adams recalls Fleming, in particular, being badly beaten, with Foster hitting him on the head with his baton until Fleming collapsed, bleeding heavily from a head wound. When Fleming managed to get back to his feet, thirty seconds later, he was dragged into Hugh McAteer’s cell on A1. Among the sound of violence coming from the cell were Fleming’s body hitting the wall, groaning from Fleming and Moore shouting “Take that you republican bastard.”

Adams states that they were then brought to the doctor but he was beaten again by Noble, Moore and Boyd while being returned from A1 to his cell on A3. The beating started again when Adams was being brought down to the face the governor that afternoon. At the grill gate, he was assaulted again by warders Moore and Neeson, with Neeson grabbing him by the hair and hitting him with his knee, to the extent that Adams recalled “…water came from me”. Adams fell to the ground. Moore continued to beat him and Neeson tried to pull him by his hair to force him back up onto his feet. When he was finally brought in front of the governor, Adams was charged with refusing to face the wall. Adams’ punishment was three days’ bread and water and the loss of three months’ privileges. He was barely 18 years of age.

At mid-day, Hugh McAteer returned to his cell to find that “…the west wall of my cell was spattered with blood over a space of 42 square feet… On the north wall, where it joins the west wall, was a large, streaky, blood-stained patch which looked as if a blood-stained head had been pressed against it. The stains remained clearly visible until whitewashed out about a week later.” Fleming also received three days’ bread and water punishment, after which he confirmed to McAteer that he had received a further beating in McAteer’s cell. The prison staff didn’t even acknowledge the blood stains on the cell wall and they were whitewashed over a week later.

[1] See Stormont Hansard for 22nd March 1944 for the full debate.

[2] This must have occurred in June 1943.

[3] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, 139.

[4] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, 139.

[5] Anderson 2002, Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA, 94.

[6] In Anderson 2002 and MacEoin 1997 The IRA in the Twilight Years

[7] Stormont Hansard, 21st May 1946

[8] Brendan Behan heard Belfast Graves sung in a pub in Belfast and has himself singing the lines about Frankie Doherty in Borstal Boy.

[9] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, p75, also details on Curran were given by Harry Diamond in Stormont on 30th October 1945.

[10] When Harry Diamond related the account of Curran’s death and the deaths of seven internees. William Lowry.

[11] McNally 1989, 91.

[12] On 27th July 1944, a question was asked in Stormont dating this to October.

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