Looking for something slightly different to binge watch over Christmas? How about a series looking at political songs and music from 1916 onwards? For the last few weeks, TG4 has been showing Ceol Chogadh na Saoirsewhich explored the music that grew out of the political events from 1916 until more recent decades. It includes film clips and interviews with musicians, their audiences and political activists.
A theme that flows through the whole series is the importance of songs and music in both forming and articulating many people’s political views. The social role music plays and has played in Ireland probably can’t be overstated. In political terms, unlike the press and broadcast media, songs learned at social gatherings or from records are very difficult to censor and control. Performing political songs, or joining in with them may, for many people, be the closest they get to overt political activism. Anyone who has attended a live music event where they have joined in singing the songs will grasp the emotional significance and sense of belonging and identification that comes with it (whether it is political or otherwise).
In that sense, the series gives an important insight into the dynamics of politics here. Funnily, the series shows the fundamental way that music connects with people and provides a stark contrast to the expensive and often brutally unsubtle ways modern politicians try to persuade voters to support them. While the series focuses on republican songs, the same dynamic can also be found in other political traditions in Ireland. Here’s a good example (the Crumlin Hotel) by ‘The Orangemen of Ulster’, a recording which captures how songs were performed most of the time – for a small audience in a house or bar. Songs, poetry and recitations that were written to be performed are a thread that weaves through most political traditions here (and elsewhere – here is Bella Ciao, the Italian anti-fascist anthem, being sung in Milan).
While Ceol Chogadh na Saoirse has just finished on TG4, you can watch the episodes online here. If you don’t speak Irish – some interviews are in English and English language subtitles are available. You can also watch it on the RTE player here. The series includes interviews with a variety of different people and both archive recordings and new recordings of a range of songs.
If you want some tasters (or are just too damn lazy to click the links above) check out the clips below:
A pivotal moment in the relationship of London and the European community, Unionist votes holding a precarious balance of power, Conservative government policy (including security policy in the north) subject to the need to keep the Unionist votes on side. While no-one seems to have drawn the parallel, we have been here before and the outcome is perhaps worth noting.
Over the course of 1971 and 1972 Edward Heath was trying to push his European Communities Bill through a reluctant House of Commons. The Bill was instrumental in the UK joining the European Economic Community (as the EU was then known). Following the 1970 General Election, Heath had come to power intent on legislating for UK membership of the EEC. With 330 MPs he had a slim majority of 14 and that included the 8 Unionist Party members returned in the north (along with Ian Paisley, Gerry Fitt, Bernadette Devlin and Frank McManus).
Over the summer of 1971, in the lead up to the early stages of the Bill, the press speculated on the extent to which Heath’s reliance on the Unionist votes was a factor in deciding security policy, including in the lead up to the widespread arrest and internment of Catholics in August 1971. At an early stage, in October 1971, most of the Unionist MPs (who were joined in a formal parliamentary grouping with Heath’s Conservatives) voted against the Bill. All of this provides a notable backdrop to the Heath’s perceived need to win Unionists support for his European project for the crucial votes that would happen later in 1971 and early in 1972. Notably, over this period, security policy continued to fall in line with Unionist demands. Political reform was largely ignored (you can see the types of proposals under consideration at the time). And formal scrutiny of recent events was heavily sanitised, such as the Compton report issued in November 1971. During critical events such as the McGurks Bar bombing in December 1971 and Bloody Sunday in January 1972, UK government policy remained favourably aligned on Unionist needs and wants despite significant international opprobrium.
On 17th February 1972, Heath finally got his European vote over the line with a bare majority of eight (the sum total of the Unionist MPs). His biographer, John Campbell, called it ‘Heath’s finest hour’. Within weeks, there was a shift in security policy as first Stormont was prorogued and then the British government began talks with the IRA that appeared to open up all sorts of political possibilities of British withdrawal to the IRA.
This isn’t to suggest that the guiding factor in Heath’s security policy in the north in 1971 and 1972 was predicated upon needing Unionist support to pass the European Communities Bill. But, whatever it’s significance, it was a factor. And once the need for those Unionist votes was passed, the shift in emphasis in political policy against the Unionists was relatively swift.
The following editorial captures all this under the headline “Heath’s Close Call”, it appeared in the Irish Independent on 18th February 1972.
To Irish people who are used to Dáil cliff hangers coming out in a majority of two or three for the Government, Mr. Heath’s majority of eight in Westminster last night on the crucial E.E.C. Bill will seem small beer. But in a Parliament with over 600 members this vote was proportionately as close as any we have seen in Leinster House in recent times. Now that Mr. Heath has won his vote, however, it is fair to say that the crisis is over for him on this issue. He can expect a gradual improvement from last night’s lowest ebb. With luck the coal and power crises will be things of the past in a few months’ time; a “handout” budget can be expected in an effort to stimulate the economy and fight unemployment; and Rhodesia has already caused the Westminster Government its fill of embarrassment. There remains Northern Ireland. Certainly Mr. Heath has personally taken political punishment as a result of his handling of the North. However, last night’s critical vote may now free his hand a bit to make some concessions to the minority viewpoint. Up to this, with this crucial vote pending, Mr. Heath has had to be careful what political initiatives he even hinted at for fear of alienating the Unionist vote for last night’s test. Six of the eight Unionist M.P.s had voted against the principle of the Common Market on October 28th; but last night’s vote had turned into a straight political fight, an issue larger that the E.E.C. question. Three of the six anti-Market Northern Unionists were thus free to support the Government on the basis, presumably, that the E.E.C. with Heath was preferable to Wilson with no E.E.C. His failure to secure a bloc Unionist vote, however, on an issue which had turned into a vote of confidence in the Government means that Unionist opinion is not solidly behind him. One reason for this could be that some Northern Unionists feel that he is about to “do a deal” with the Northern minority. His hands certainly seem less tied after this vote than before it.
The death of veteran Belfast republican Billy McKee has been reported this morning.
Born in 1921, he had joined Fianna Éireann in his teens against the backdrop of intermittent violence in the 1930s. He was then arrested in the McKelvey Club in Rockmount Street in November 1938 along with twenty-three others. The McKelvey Club was the base for the GAA club of the same name. Membership of the club was confined to IRA and Fianna members and provided them with an opportunity to bypass the Special Powers Act restrictions on political activity to hold meetings. All twenty-three arrested in the McKelvey Club were charged with illegal drilling and got several months in prison or fines. McKee spent a few weeks in Crumlin Road and, when I had the opportunity to meet him in researching the Belfast Battalion book a few years ago, he told me of how cold he was in that first night in prison after being roughed up. He remembered lying in the cell and looking up to see a figure with his head in his hands sitting on the pipes that ran along the wall. McKee was in the cell on his own, though, and thinks he then passed out.
After his release he joined the IRA but was again arrested when the RUC raided a meeting of the Belfast Battalion’s D Company in Getty Street on 15th August 1940. Fifteen IRA members present were charged under the Treason Felony Act and sentenced to seven years in November that year. McKee, like other long term sentenced prisoners (there were around 130 by 1943), was confined in A wing in Crumlin Road. The Unionist government had never developed facilities suitable for long term prisoners and previously had sent them to Peterhead in Scotland instead. To avoid paying a subsidy for Peterhead, minor modifications were made to A wing although it still lacked any of the facilities required for prisoners with tariffs above two years.
There were significant tensions in the prison at the time. A major escape then took place from A wing on 15th January 1943, when former IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, Northern Command Adjutant Jimmy Steele, Pat Donnelly and Ned Maguire accessed the roof, climbed down over three storeys on a rope made of blankets then scaled the prison wall. A second team was to follow. According to McKee, he had been advised by John Graham (one of the second team) to take his chances after they had gone. As it happened, the last of the first team was spotted (although he got away). McKee recalled the moment he knew his chance was gone when the chief prison officer on duty, a Cork man named Ríordan, strode into the circle of Crumlin Road Prison shouting “Lock them up! Lock them up!”. Even in his 90s, McKee’s memory was extraordinarily sharp, as was his story telling, particularly when discussing the 1940s (as I was only interested in the period up to 1969-1970, we didn’t really discuss anything later). At one point, as he reminisced about individuals from that time, he waved his arm at the sofa in his living room and said that time in his life was so vivid that when he talked about it, it was like he could see the men he mentioned all just sitting in the room.
The response to the January 1943 escape was ‘rough treatment’ (Joe Cahill had called it a ‘reign of terror’). That included constant searches and beatings. Prison protests including a strip strike and hunger strikes followed. The tactics employed in the 1943 and 1944 hunger strikes in Armagh and Crumlin Road were learnt from when McKee went on hunger strike himself, much later, in 1972. On the latter occasion, McKee also was reflecting a similar concern from 1945 when internees were released while sentenced prisoners often had to serve several more years prior to their release. McKee eventually got out on license in 1946 and returned to the IRA (less than 20% of those imprisoned in the 1940s did so).
The next phase for the Belfast IRA, and McKee, was more political than military, with the Belfast Battalion remaining small in size (in part as a reaction to the security problems with informers that had come with expansion in the 1930s). A rapprochement with Sinn Féin by 1950, was followed by some electoral successes although mainly outside Belfast. The border campaign that followed was viewed in Belfast (according to McKee), as a fiasco from the start. McKee, like many of the Belfast Battalion, was rapidly interned in Crumlin Road. Back in prison he acted as a key figure in sourcing and operating linesmen (prison staff and others who would carry message in and out of the prison) and was a central figure in networking between the sentenced prisoners in A wing, internees in D wing and the IRA outside the prison.
On his release from internment McKee became Belfast OC (in IRA parlance meaning ‘officer commanding’ or ‘oifigeach ceantair’) and had to rebuild the Belfast Battalion from scratch. He described himself to me as a socialist but said that it was clear even in the early 1960s that Cathal Goulding, then IRA Chief of Staff, just didn’t understand the sectarian dynamics in Belfast and that there was this bizarre belief that organisations like the Orange Order, Apprentice Boys or B Specials were simply ripe to be infiltrated and converted to hotbeds of Irish republicanism. Much of the Belfast Battalion’s energy and meager resources were taken up with publishing a newspaper, Tírghrá, edited by Jimmy Steele, while he, McKee and others established and maintained physical memorials for dead republicans through the National Graves Association. A dispute over flying the tricolour at a Wolfe Tone commemoration in Belfast in 1963 saw McKee abruptly resign from the IRA leaving Billy McMillen to take over as OC (McMillen had defected to the more militant Saor Uladh group in the mid-1950s and only returned in 1962 to become McKee’s Adjutant).
McKee spent the remainder of the 1960s active in the likes of the National Graves Association and former republican prisoners groups, like the Felons. The large Belfast network of former republican activists from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s monitored political developments closely and critically, fearing the language and street violence and then deaths arising from contemporary unionist opposition to the civil rights campaigns presaged more intense violence as in 1920-22 and 1935. It was felt that the IRA and Belfast Battalion were intent on disregarding this threat.
In that regard, the reaction to events in mid-August 1969 was remarkably muted. While McMillen and much of his Battalion staff were briefly interned, McKee, Steele, Cahill and others organized makeshift IRA units and defences and used former connections to try and source arms from old IRA dumps. When McMillen was released, McKee and John Kelly led a delegation to the next Battalion staff meeting (which had to officially sanction McMillen’s reinstatement as OC). McKee dismissed that idea that the meeting was fractious (he says it was just a conversation) although he said that when he arrived McMillen wasn’t there but his Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, was and that Sullivan “…couldn’t do anything without shouting.“. When McMillen arrived they settled down to business – McKee asked for four people to be nominated to the Battalion staff, based on the units put together in McMillen’s absence. They requested that monies that had been donated for arms (and now under Goulding’s control) be used for that purpose – Goulding seemingly wanted the money used for political projects instead. The main request, as a response to the failures of the IRA that summer, was that Goulding be replaced by Sean Garland (another prominent left republican in the IRA) and other senior figures loyal to Goulding step down (but not McMillen). The Belfast Battalion, they believed, should refuse to recognise the authority of IRA GHQ until this was done.
The subsequent fallout over the IRA’s performance in the summer of 1969 led to two competing IRA Army Council’s being formed, with McKee assuming the role of OC of the now expanded Belfast Brigade loyal to the ‘provisional’ Army Council. While I hadn’t explored any details of McKee’s subsequent career, one point we did discuss was Jimmy Steele’s sudden death in August 1970, only weeks after McKee himself had been shot and badly wounded. He had just returned to Belfast and said Steele had been working on a profile to use to restrict IRA membership as they believed that the experience of the 1930s and 1940s had taught them that the Belfast IRA was more effective when small and less prone to security issues or those motivated more by sectarian intent than republicanism. McKee had arrived at Steele’s Clondara Street home and sat down, not realising Steele had died that morning. He said Steele’s wife, Anna, had come in to him and had to tell him. We were sitting in McKee’s own living room, some forty years later. McKee suddenly stopped talking. He then ran his left hand down his right arm and stopped at the elbow and said “It was like losing my right arm.” The remainder of McKee’s career as OC of the Belfast Brigade will likely dominate reports of his death. Yet McKee, like the post-1969 political and conflict landscape had been closely shaped by the experience of the preceding decades.
McKee was one of the last senior figures linking the pre-1969 IRA (which was the subject of the Belfast Battalion book) and events from 1970 onwards. Time had made him a reluctant historical subject which was a great pity both from the point of view of his own story telling abilities and his sharp memory. The conflict that intensified from 1969 hadn’t simply appeared from nowhere, nor had the different influences within the IRA that shaped the 1969-1970 split, the longer term impact of sectarian violence in Belfast in the decades before the 1960s or even the methodologies and tactics of the civil rights campaigns (which were mainly rooted in long term republican opposition to the abuses under the Special Powers Acts). McKee’s life and career spanned many of these events and everyone would have benefitted from a better understanding of each other in learning how history unfolded if we could create an environment in which history telling itself was less contested.
Seventy-five years ago this week, IRA sentenced prisoners in Crumlin Road ended a hunger-strike that had begun just over forty days earlier, on the 22nd February 1944. The hunger strike was the latest in a sequence of prison protests that had included a strip strike in mid-1943 and an earlier hunger strike by the female prisoners in Armagh Gaol in the winter of 1943. After the IRA finally began its long delayed campaign in England in January 1939, it had failed to reinvigorate the campaign by transferring its focus to the north. By the middle of 1943, in the face of the loss of key personnel and lack of resources and with no imminent prospect of a Versailles style post-war conference, the emphasis shifted to the prisons and publicity coups in what IRA Chief of Staff Hugh McAteer later described as an attempt to ‘preserve the spirit’ of the movement.
The circumstances of the IRA in the north, at this point, were now considerably removed from that of the generation who were active from 1916 to 1922. From the Easter Rising onwards, conflict with the British authorities and then Free State and Northern Ireland authorities had indeed seen many republicans interned or sentenced to terms in prison. Despite the widespread republican experience of internment and imprisonment between 1916 to 1924, the typical period of incarceration was more often measured in months than years and few faced extended periods in prison. Only a handful of republicans were imprisoned for longer periods, some serving terms in prisons in Britain for a number of years after the general amnesties that followed the signing of the treaty in 1921.
The existing sentencing policy applied in the north from the mid-1930s onwards saw republicans given prison terms for offences that only warranted a fine for others. This discrepancy increased wildly after 1936, first when Eddie McCartney was given a ten year sentence and then when the Treason Felony Act was invoked to hand lengthy prison sentences to the northern IRA leadership. That Act hadn’t been used since the 1880s, which was the previous period in which republicans experienced similarly long terms of imprisonment with the likes of Tom Clarke serving fifteen years in jail.
Long term prisoners create a particular set of circumstances. Using ‘criminalisation’ as a tactical response to present insurgency as illegitimate isn’t exactly new but it does bring its own complications. It may not be explicit state policy but long term insurgent prisoners are designed to be hostages with the prospect of early release held out as an incentive to ending an active insurgency campaign. While the immediate benefit to the state is removing key insurgents from active involvement for extended periods of time that has to be balanced against other factors. Once imprisoned they are able to take part in in-depth internal debates on strategy and tactics with other imprisoned leaders, are able to engage with an audience outside the prisons and often attract support as a prisoner from individuals and organisations who wouldn’t otherwise openly support the insurgency itself. As had happened in the 1890s, the publicity attracted by long term prisoners began to far outweigh any tactical purpose in holding them in jail.
By early 1944, the republican prisoners in A wing in Crumlin Road included the likes of Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer who had been imprisoned on multiple occasions and already spent six or seven years each in jail (Steele had first been in prison in 1923). Many others had served various short terms prior to receive lengthy sentences since 1940. Internees, housed in D wing in Crumlin Road, Derry Gaol, Armagh Gaol and (in 1940-41) on the Al Rawdah, had to contend with the uncertainty of internment – no trial or charges also meant no defined period of imprisonment. The internees’ only (vague) salvation was that political pressure or events would eventually bring their release. The fear for sentenced prisoners was that they would not get released in the same way. The creation of two separate prisoner communities (interned and sentenced) created the potential for internal dissent and conflict over strategy and tactics inside and outside the prisons that might bring their release.
In March 1943, the IRA’s Adjutant-General Liam Burke issued an edition of An t-Óglach for the first time in many years (it’s circulation was confined to IRA members). This included an article on ‘Unity’ with the prisons specifically mentioned: “Too often in the past we have allowed ourselves to be divided by some petty grievance or worse still by some false rumour manufactured by enemy agents. In order to satisfy personal spites or ambitions we have allowed that element of disunity to creep in among us. This is very often obvious in the Prisons where Volunteers, living together in confinement for long periods, find too much time to brood on every petty grievance that arises.” There is also an article on Guerilla Warfare that pointed out the legitimate status accorded to ‘Guerillas’ since the 1899 Hague Conference.
Burke (who had escaped from Crumlin Road in 1941) was re-arrested and returned to Crumlin Road in April 1943. There were of course IRA prisoners and internees held at various locations on either side of the border and a number of long-term sentenced prisoners from the sabotage campaign in British prisons. By 1943, the IRA’s leadership had mostly relocated to the north and, from early summer, became increasingly focused on the prisons.
Both the 1943 strip strike and Armagh Gaol hunger strike had delivered sharp lessons in terms of mobilising political support outside the prisons. The key focus on the prison campaigns was to obtain political status (eg see Republican News, July 1943 below). So in February 1944 a hunger strike began, with teams of three joining in stages, first beginning with McAteer, Liam Burke (by now O/C of the republican prisoners) and Pat McCotter. The prison authorities delivered food and milk to their cells every day, hoping to tempt the prisoners to come off the strike by leaving the food there in front of them. The will power required to continue the strike, in the cold cells of Crumlin Road, with food in easy reach, must have been formidable.
The prison staff also continued to subject the strikers to two to three searches a week, including strip searches, despite the fact they were no longer allowed out of their cells. On day four of the strike (26th February), David Fleming and Jimmy Steele joined the hunger strike with the second team, Steele had participated in previous hunger strikes including in 1936, Fleming was to participate in later hunger strikes. The first of the hunger strikers had already been moved to the prison hospital by the 16th March, by which time eighteen men had joined the strike, including Joe Cahill on the 9th March. On the 16th March, William Lowry, the Home Affairs Minister in Stormont, reported to Stormont that the “…condition of these men is only what could be expected after such a prolonged period without food. The Government cannot accept any responsibility for the actions of these men whose present condition is solely due to their own voluntary abstention from food“. He described hunger striking as a malignant and criminal practice and insisted that the medical treatment the prisoners were receiving was entirely satisfactory. Lowry went on to say, “…Their own relatives at an appropriate time, for example when death is imminent, will be duly notified.”
The hunger strikers were joined for a week by 100 internees in Derry prison in mid-March. By the 22nd March, the Irish Times was reporting that Liam Burke, Pat McCotter, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele were all weak after 30 days on hunger strike and had abandoned the strike. That story was not true but, as it was the latest in a series of inaccurate reports on the strike, it was becoming painfully obvious to the IRA prisoners that the censorship was preventing the strike having any impact on public opinion. When the forty day mark was passed, the IRA staff debated the futility of continuing when the chance of fatalities was now growing ever higher. On the forty-fourth day (6th April), the strike was called off. It seems, from Joe Cahill’s account in his biography A Life in the IRA, that the decision was not made by the hunger strikers themselves, as he puts it that a decision was “…taken to bring them off.” One key failure of the hunger strike was to secure parallel political status for internees and sentenced prisoners as there was no concurrent release of internees and sentenced prisoners in 1945. It wasn’t until 1950 that the last three sentenced prisoners, McAteer, Burke and Steele, were released.
The 1944 hunger strike may well never be commemorated or receive any significant attention yet it marks a significant stage in the development of republican tactics. A number of those involved in hunger strikes and prison protests of the early 1970s, such as Billy McKee and Prionsias MacAirt, had been in Crumlin Road at the time of the 1944 hunger strike. Others prominent activists in the early 1970s were also veterans of the 1940s, like Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill, Albert Price, Charlie McGlade and Harry White. The 1943/44 protests were Irish republicans first real experience of long term imprisonment in the twentieth century. They contain the roots of later republican thinking and experience that provides a context for prison protests, including the structure of hunger strikes and the role of publicity that became central to events in the 1970s and 1980s.
Thanks to Dr Breandán Mac Suibhne for the discovery of the March 1943 edition of An t-Óglach.
Tonight TG4 is screening a documentary about Frank Stagg in the Finné series. The programme will look at the events that followed Stagg’s death on hunger strike on 12th February 1976. His brother George will tell the story of how Frank’s remains were seized by the Irish government in an attempt to prevent him receiving a republican funeral.
Stagg had been arrested in England in April 1973, charged with conspiracy to carry out bombing attacks and given a ten year sentence. Moved around various prisons, in March 1974 he and Michael Gaughan joined Gerry Kelly, Hugh Feeney, Paul Holmes, Dolours Price and Marion Price on hunger strike in protest at the refusal to grant them political status including setting a date at which they would be moved to prisons in the north (such movements, in either direction, were being routinely facilitated for non-republicans).
Like the others, Stagg was subjected to force feeding during his hunger strike. Force feeding was believed to be a factor in Michael Gaughan’s death on 3rd June 1974. While the others were moved to prisons in Ireland after Gaughan’s death, Stagg was moved to Long Lartin then Wakefield. He and his family claimed they were subjected to humiliating body searches prior to visits there and he spent much of the time in solitary confinement, as did many other republican prisoners. He participated in a number of further hunger strikes and was again subjected to force feeding. His last hunger strike began on 14th December 1975 along with others like Gerry Mealy.
Force feeding of prisoners is described in various accounts. In the past Thomas Ashe and Terence MacSwiney had both been subject to force-feeding while on hunger-strike and it had contributed to their deaths. It had been introduced, and used, by the prison authorities during the hunger strikes by imprisoned suffragettes from 1909 to 1914. Afterwards, prison regulations in England appear to have permitted or directed the authorities to forcibly feed a prisoner from the sixth day of a hunger strike. Conor MacNessa, who led an IRA hunger strike in Parkhurst in 1940, states that this was the regulation in force at the time and gives an account of the impact force feeding had on Joe Malone (from Belfast). MacNessa states that the injuries sustained by Malone were left untreated by the prison authorities and ultimately led to his death the next year. In 1946, the prison authorities in Belfast force fed David Fleming when he was on hunger strike (Fleming’s case disproves the claim that force feeding was not used here after 1917).
Clamp used in force feeding (drawn based on recollection Conor MacNessa, An Phoblacht, 17th May 1974)
The edition of Republican News published on 10th January 1976 carried an account of force feeding in it’s ‘Brownie’ column, based on information supplied by Gerry Kelly and Hugh Feeney.
If, as is likely, Frank Staff is force fed again he will suffer the following torture and, because his throat and stomach in particular cannot have healed properly, his health will deteriorate more quickly than it is doing at present.
He will face the possibility of at least one and maybe two ‘feedings’ daily. Force feeding is always brutal. No matter how often it occurs the victim does not get used to it. Some sessions are worse than others, but all are terrible experiences. If the ‘feedings’ are not at regular times each day, and usually they are not, then he spends his entire day trying to prepare himself emotionally. Trying to re-stock his determination to fight.
A team of screws are the first to appear. They come into the cell with varying expressions on their faces. These range from snarls, through impassive indifference to the odd sheepish apologetic smile. He will be ‘fed’ either in his cell or dragged outside into another one. He will be held in a bed or on a chair. Usually six or eight screws are involved. They swoop in an obviously planned manner, holding and pressing down on arms and legs. He will struggle as best he can even though he knows it is useless. One grabs him by the hair and forces his head back, and when he is finally pinned down in the proper manner the doctor and his assistant arrive.
Various methods will be employed to open Frank’s mouth. His nose will be covered to cut off air, or a screw or doctor will bunch their fists and bore their knuckles into the joints on each side of the jaws. A Ryle’s tube will be used. This is a very long thin tube which is pushed through the nose. It is supposedly for nasal feeding, but, in forced feedings it is simply a torture weapon used to force open the jaws. It rubs against the membrane at the back of the nose and, if not coated in a lubricant (which it seldom is), it causes a searing pain, akin to a red hot needle being pushed into one’s head.
If Frank cries out with this pain, a wooden clamp will immediately be pushed very forcibly between his teeth. If this fails to work, the doctor will use a large pair of forceps to cut into the gums, the ensuing pain again forcing the jaws to open sufficiently for the clamp to be forced in. Sometimes a metal clamp, rather like a bulldog clip, is used. It is forced between the teeth and a bolt is turned, forcing a spring and the jaws to open.
When Frank’s jaws are finally pried open, a wooden bit, rather like a horse bit, is forced into his mouth. This bit has two pointed ends which are used to force and to hold an opening. It ‘sits’ across his mouth with a screw holding each end, and there is a hole in the centre of it through which the feeding tube is forced. A flat piece of wood is inserted first to press the tongue down and then a three foot long rubber tube, coated in liquid paraffin, is shoved in and down his throat. A funnel is place on the open end and the will pour some water in. If the water bubbles, they know they tube is in Frank’s lungs. If so, the tube is removed and the whole process starts again.
Michael Gaughan was murdered in this way. When the tube is eventually fixed properly, it is pushed down into Frank’s stomach. There are different widths of tube and obviously the wider they are, the more painful the torture. Doctor’s usually use the widest as food goes down quicker and they don’t have to delay overlong. Frank will feel his stomach filling up and stretching, an experience has undergone before. Automatically he will vomit up, the disgorged food being caught in a kidney dish. If the doctor in charge is especially sadistic the vomit will be forced back down his throat again (this happened to Gerry Kelly). As the tube is removed it tears at the back of the throat, more so than before because the liquid paraffin has worn off on the way down. The last few inches will be ghastly.
Frank will get violent pains in his chest. He will choke, and, at this point, he will be sicker than before, as the tube coming out triggers more retching (Marion Price passed out at this stage once). After ‘feeding’ Frank will find it impossible to stand up, to sit up, or to move in any way.
On the 10th August 1971 the BBC was already reporting on the killings in Ballymurphy from the previous day and stating that an eyewitness was “…putting the blame fairly and squarely on the British Army”. The BBC quickly became the subject of attacks by the British government for its reporting on the actions of the Parachute Regiment. The British Defence Minister Lord Carrington even accused the BBC of “sniping” at the British Army and indulging in propaganda. The BBC called it an “error of judgement”.
On 9th August 1971, a neighbour of Fr Hugh Mullan, Bobby Clarke, was shot by soldiers after lifting a child to safety during the violence that followed the mass arrest of ‘Catholics’ that morning. After ringing the British Army HQ to advise them that he was going out to administer the last rites to Clarke, Fr Mullan ventured out, waving a white cloth and dressed as a priest, only to discover that Clarke was not fatally injured. He attempted to leave to get an ambulance for Clarke at which point he was shot by a British soldier. Frank Quinn, who attempted to provide assistance, was also shot dead.
Coverage of Fr Mullan’s death included an interview with the local Catholic bishop, William Philbin, broadcast on BBC the next day. The same day Bobby Clarke was also interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 programme, World at One, where he gave an eye witness account of Fr Mullan being shot in the back by a British soldier. Reporting of Fr Mullan’s death in many of the British newspapers repeated the claim that he had been shot as he went to administer the last rites to a wounded gunman.
Fr Hugh Mullan
After the items were broadcast the Conservative MP for Dorset South, Evelyn King, wrote to Lord Carrington accusing the BBC of irresponsibility and “sniping” at the Army. Obviously, the use of the word ‘sniping’ was deliberate as this was the term conventionally used by reporters when describing physical attacks on the British Army in the north. The intention was clearly to use the term to associate the views of the BBC with those that were actually ‘sniping’ at the British Army. This is pretty unsophisticated censorship in that it is intended to diminish future reporting critical of the British Army as merely ‘sniping’ from the BBC.
Carrington responded to King’s letter by writing to the head of the BBC, Lord Hill, and King, stating that the radio interview in particular “…fell below the standard of fairness and accuracy people were entitled to expect” although he included other unspecified BBC items in his criticism. Carrington also seemed to be concerned that the items were also an attack on him personally since he had expressed his ‘utmost gratitude’ on the BBC for what the British Army had done. In his letter, Carrington admonished the BBC that when its “reporting falls below the standard of fairness and accuracy which we are entitled to expect, the main effect is to damage the corporation’s own standing with the public”. It should be borne in mind that, at this time in 1971, British public opinion on the deployment troops in the north wasn’t clear as there were calls for troops to be withdrawn both from the likes of the New Statesman and the National Front (see, eg, Irish Press, 24th August 1971). The latter even advocated Irish reunification, although it also wanted the forced repatriation of all Irish from Britain on the grounds that they were all mere “white wogs”.
The BBC accepted Carrington and Kings criticism and stated that “We do not defend the use of the item on the shooting of Fr Mullan. In our view it was an error of judgement to use this part of the interview.” However the BBC did reject the overall criticism.
While this may seem like another footnote to the broader issue of the behaviour of the parachute regiment in Ballymurphy between 9th and 11th August 1971, it points to one of the wider issues that is not yet satisfactorily addressed. The role of the media lies both in reporting events and ensuring that those in positions of responsibility are suitably held to account. This means it is critical to understand how the media subsequently reported on events and what influenced how the media framed their reporting. The potential chilling effect of criticism, such as came from Lord Carrington, is fairly obvious. The long term repercussions, though, are significant. A glaring omission from contemporary media coverage of ‘legacy’ cases involving individuals killed or injured by state forces is a clear articulation by the media of what differentiates these cases from other violent conflict deaths. For those unsure what that means: when a meaningful inquest or investigation of the circumstances has not occurred the default position is that the information given by the British Army (etc) becomes the official account of a death. Fr Hugh Mullan, like others killed by the state, is thus deemed as being culpable in his own death unless the British Army itself, or some legal process, formally recognises the killing was unjustified. It is solely victims of the state that are, in this way, deemed guilty until proven otherwise. The repeated failures to hold the state and its leading figures to account is one legacy of the real error in judgement of the BBC (and media in general) in allowing itself to become the propaganda tool of the likes of Lord Carrington.
You can read a balanced item about Fr Hugh Mullan on the BBC here along with footage of the interview with the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr William Philbin, on the day following his death (note the video may not work in every territory).
Here is the full text of a longish article on the BBC admitting an “error judgement” following Lord Carrington’s letter, as published in the Birmingham Daily Post 20th August 1971:
Interview about shot priest was an error: BBC
The BBC admitted yesterday that its use of part of an interview on the death of a Roman Catholic priest in Northern Ireland was an error in judgement.
BBC Radio 4’s The Word at One programme on August 10 carried an item on the death of a Roman Catholic priest, Fr Hugh Mullan, the day before.
The item took the form of an interview with an unnamed Irishman who claimed to be the man to whom the priest was giving the last rites when he was shot. The man alleged that the priest had been shot in the back by a British soldier.
The programme chairman, Mr William Hardcastle, summed up: “An eyewitness putting the blame fairly and squarely on the British Army.”
But the Defence Secretary, Lord Carrington in letters to a Conservative MP Mr Evelyn King (Dorset S) and the BBC chairman, Lord Hill, has said that the item fell below the standard of fairness and accuracy people were entitled to expect.
Mr King had written to Lord Carrington accusing the BBC of irresponsibility and “sniping” at the Army in its coverage of the Northern Ireland crisis.
In his reply to Mr King, Lord Carrington said: “I can assure you that the BBC items on Northern Ireland which you mention have not gone unnoticed by my Department. They are not the only items in this category.”
He then cited as an additional example, the item arising from the death of Fr Mullan and recalled that he had taken part in an interview on BBC Television News.
“I took the opportunity to express the utmost gratitude for the work of the Army in Northern Ireland. I believe quite firmly that this admiration and gratitude is shared by the vast majority of the people of this country and that, on those occasions when the BBC’s reporting falls below the standard of fairness and accuracy which we are entitled to expect, the main effect is to damage the corporation’s own standing with the public.”
In his letter to Lord Hill, Lord Carrington said: “I hope my letter to Mr King makes it clear that I certainly do not regard all the BBC’s recent reports and discussions on Northern Ireland as unbalanced and unfair.”
But he was concerned about the instances cited.
“I hope you will agree that they are unsatisfactory and that everything possible should be done to prevent repetitions.”
Last night a BBC spokesman said “We do not defend the use of the item on the shooting of Fr Mullan. In our view it was an error of judgement to use this part of the interview.”
But the BBC reacted sharply to Mr King’s accusations of daily “sniping” and indulging in propaganda.
The spokesman said, “These accusations are deeply wounding to staff who are engaged in the difficult task of reporting the terrible events in Northern Ireland. Much that we have to report will be unwelcome to one of the many conflicting interests involved and there will be occasional errors of judgement. But to accuse the BBC of sniping and propaganda is unworthy. We reject the accusation entirely.”
This is the editorial from The Irish Press two days after the mass internment of Catholics on 9th August 1971.
THE MESSAGE FROM BELFAST
Either the British Army has assumed the role of the B Specials or the orders given to the soldiers on the ground in the North do not specify their peacekeeping role. After the last two days, no other explanation is possible for their behaviour which has included easy fraternisation with armed loyalists and armed attacks on Catholic areas which have been defending themselves against loyalist attacks. In a day of trying to assess both the political situation and conditions on the ground, this is by far the most frightening aspect of the present conduct of the war that one can see. An inspection of Monday night’s and Tuesday morning’s battlefield which verified the consistent reports of eye-witnesses confirms that the British Army used wildly indiscriminate and heavy gunfire on the inhabitants in the Moyard Estate, after lorry loads of loyalists had been clearly seen spraying automatic fire from the Springmartin Estate overlooking Moyard, which is above Ballymurphy and New Barnsley. The only conclusion that any observer who has actually travelled round Belfast can come to is that the soldiers have either independently decided after the experience of the last 18 months, that the Catholic areas contain the “enemy”, or that their orders do not include the searching and arrest of all those suspected of or actually seen carrying weapons.
The only other judgment that can be made is that it is the intention of Stormont and Westminster to crush the Catholic areas into submission. Certainly the hitherto bitter split of Provisional and “Officials” has been healed so that both sides are now co-operating in the face of this threat.
The fact that the Stormont Cabinet is “stunned” by the violence of the last two days leaves open the consideration that they may have utterly underestimated the degree of alienation and the capacity for resistance in these areas. If it really is their intention to crush the minority, then they can succeed; because the embattled Catholics haven’t got the ammunition available to the Protestants nor do they have the ability to move what they have from one threatened area to another.
Nor can their food supplies hold out indefinitely. But the price of gaining submission will be a phenomenal death toll, economically unbearable damage, total alienation for at least a generation and a complete change in the nature of Anglo-Irish relations. The position of the Irish Government is also a source of great worry to the threatened community. The scant news from yesterday’s Cabinet meeting and the obscurity of Dr. Hillery’s purpose in visiting London, results in speculation varying from a possible breakthrough to the ultimate betrayal in the form of internment of Republicans in the South.
Journalists from Dublin papers are asked in Belfast what Mr. Lynch is going to do to help, and any suggestion about his sending medical aid as in 1969 are greeted with derision. The more hopeful and the more desperate try to believe that he will inform both London and Belfast that the Irish Army does not simply exist to comfort Irish refugees from a part of Ireland.
These are considerations of the most profound nature in Irish politics, but the crisis is now the most profound since at least 1916, if not before. Talks of reconciliation now, or restoring “normality” reveals utter ignorance of the situation; the political situation is being processed at legal and illegal gun points, and reconciliation cannot even begin until there is a political breakthrough.
The situation today is analogus to that when the British tried to introduce Conscription after 1916. They united all shades of Irish opinion against them. Internment is the modern equivalent of Conscription. The Croppies didn’t lie down then and they won’t lie down now.
The Stormont Government has now extended its options, and Westminster’s scope for initiative is now limited to something in the tripartite arena—assuming, and it might be quite an assumption that the straightforward suppression of the Northern minority is not going to be continued.
The solution which must be sought now, must be sought at least as publicly as the solution being processed in the streets of Belfast. Manoeuvres in the underworld of diplomacy, however well intentioned, or however ultimately successful, only give rise in the Northern situation at present to false hopes or false rumours, and these can be as murderous as any of the weaponry now so horribly visible. Stormont, as we know it, must go, Faulkner must be sacked, the internment decision rescinded and talks must be set in motion to end the whole rotten set-up. This is the minimum formula for a beginning to deal with the present crisis.