December 12, 2008


(A different) Steve McQueen won the Golden Camera at Cannes this year for his film Hunger, about the IRA hunger strikers at the Maze Prison outside Belfast during the 1980s. Sadly one I missed at the Oslo Film Festival this year, but I got to read and learn more about the story behind it from men who had been there themselves, in this article in the Guardian.

From it,

In 1976, the British government had decided to phase out special category status for convicted terrorists as part of a bigger process known as ‘criminalisation’. The protest began on 14 September 1976, when Kieran Nugent, the first IRA man to be convicted for terrorist offences under the new policy, reputedly said to a prison guard: ‘If you want me to wear that uniform, you’re going to have to nail it to my back.’ He was given a blanket and escorted to his cell.

Other IRA prisoners followed his example, and in 1978 the mass blanket protest turned into the dirty protest when IRA prisoners refused to leave their cells following another violent dispute, this time over a demand for extra towels in the communal washrooms. The prisoners’ policy of non-cooperation meant that they were often confined for days on end in their tiny concrete cells with just a blanket, a mattress and a Bible. Refusing to wash or slop out, they began emptying their urine out over the floor and smearing their excrement on the walls.

Freddie Toal was one of the prisoners, and said:

‘For a long time, when I was on the blanket, I had no real idea what I looked like. The only time I ever saw my face was this one time when the screws were sweeping piss into our cells. The sun suddenly shone through the window and, for a few seconds, I saw my reflection in a pool of piss. It sounds funny but it took me a while to register it was me. I looked like a wild man.’

Go to the article to read more about how and why men find themselves in such a situation, and the Northern Ireland story in general.


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