IRA O/C’s Armagh Memoir
Síle Darragh was the IRA O/C in Armagh Gaol during the hunger strike in 1980 and until her release in 1981. Earlier this month her book about her time in jail during the protest for political status was launched during Féile an Phobail in West Belfast. The launch was chaired by Danny Morrison and the guest speaker was Gerry Adams TD. Below are details of where the book can be purchased and here we print Gerry Adams’s introduction to ‘John Lennon’s Dead’.
It is an uncomfortable fact, and unfair, that the four-year protest for political status by republican women in Armagh Gaol, despite being honoured in song, documentary film and some individual accounts and summaries, has long been overshadowed by the literature and focus on the same protest in the H-Blocks, largely because there ten men died on hunger strike in 1981.
Síle Darragh’s quite personal and powerful story goes a long way towards rectifying and redressing that imbalance with this, her inside account, which is the best description yet of the atmosphere, the emotions and the suffering which the women of Armagh Gaol experienced and endured between 1976 and 1981.
Bhí stádas polaitiúil ag na Poblachtaigh mhná a chuir am isteach i bPríosún Ard Mhacha roimh 1976,, cosúil lena gcomrádaithe sna cásanna sa Cheis Fhada agus i gCampa Príosúin Magilligan. Baineadh agus ghéill rialtas na Breataine an stádas seo (nó stádas catagóra speisialta mar a thug na Briotanaigh air) i ndiaidh stailce ocrais poblachtaí i bPríosún Bhóthar na Cromghlinne in 1972. Ar an ábhar sin, ní raibh ar chimí sa dá áit éidí príosúin a chaitheamh nó obair sclábhaíochta a dhéanamh agus ba bheag coimhlint a bhí ann idir cimí agus an lucht riaracháin. D’athraigh sé seo áfach in 1976 nuair a tharraing rialtas na Breataine stádas polaitiúil siar agus nuair a rinne siad iarracht cimí poblachtacha a chóiriúlú, rud ar theip air arís agus arís eile roimhe seo.
Those female republicans serving their time in Armagh prior to 1976 had political status, just like their comrades in the cages of Long Kesh and in Magilligan Prison Camp. This status (special category status, as the British called it) was won and conceded by the British government after a republican hunger strike in Crumlin Road Prison in 1972. Consequently, neither set of prisoners had to wear prison uniforms or carry out menial prison work, and conflict between inmates and the administration was at a minimum. All this was to change in 1976 when the British withdrew political status and attempted to criminalise republican prisoners – something which in the past had failed time and time again.
But there is no accounting for British stupidity or for its ruthlessness.
As a result of a successful campaign by republican women in the early 1970s women in northern Irish jails had not been required to wear a prison uniform – whereas it was a major issue in the H-Block confrontation. There, the British demanded that prisoners wear a uniform signifying criminality, which they refused to do, which is why in that jail there was a ‘blanket protest’.
In Armagh the protest was one of disobedience – refusal to work or to take orders, maintaining a POW command structure, refusing to be divided and conquered. The administration responded punitively with a rising scale of punishments, mean and petty, and ultimately brutal.
Yet, still they failed to break the spirit or the resolve of the women.
Reading Síle’s descriptions we get a glimpse of the dark and depressing world they inhabited, particularly after the no wash protest is forced on them and their natural revulsion to filth and squalor has to be overcome. Síle jokes that they must all have been slightly insane at that stage!
Perhaps, the most moving descriptions are around events in late 1980 and throughout 1981. Mairéad Farrell stood down as OC to hand over the leadership to Síle as Mairéad, Mary Doyle and Margaret Nugent embarked on hunger strike. Through no fault of the republican leadership they learnt by radio that the H-Block hunger strike had ended, and had ended without resolution, leaving them then to agonise over participation in the second hunger strike.
D’éirigh leis na mná i bPríosún Ard Mhacha agus leis na fir sna H-Bhlocanna sa deireadh – ach ar chostas mhór i saolta cimí, oifigeach príosúin, agus fear, ban agus páistí ar shráideanna an Tuaiscirt. Chuir Mairéad Farrell a cuid ama isteach sa phríosún agus ghlac sí páirt sa choimhlint arís go dtí gur mharaigh an SAS í agus a comrádaithe Dan McCann agus Sean Savage in 1988.
The women in Armagh and the men in the H-Blocks were eventually successful - but at a heavy cost in the lives of prisoners, prison officials and men, women and children on the streets of the North. Mairéad Farrell served out her sentence and rejoined the struggle only to be executed by the SAS in 1988 along with her comrades Dan McCann and Sean Savage.
It is fitting that this book is dedicated to Mairéad and the late Rose McAllister and Christine Beattie.
What kept these young women of Armagh Gaol together were solidarity and comradeship and their loyalty to one another – and, of course, their humour which must have baffled their jailers!
Síle, like many other republican women, has given great service to the struggle for freedom in Ireland, This important account of a part of that history was inspired by her going through old letters and comms from comrades and from digging deep in memory. But even after she wrote it she was still hesitant about showing it to anyone.
“You must be joking! Catch yourself on! Who would read it, it’s not good enough!” were her comments when it was discovered that she had written a personal account of life in jail.
In fact, ‘John Lennon is Dead’ would not have been published if Síle had not been coaxed, cajoled and persuaded that this was a story that needed to be told and read.
It is our history which is recorded here and women, not before their time, are being written into the record.
So, we thank Síle for that, and we acknowledge and pay homage to all the women and their sisters who were incarcerated in other prisons on this island and other places.
Those who inflicted the most and thought that they could win have lost.
It is the republican spirit which has triumphed in the end.
Gerry Adams, Dublin, August 2011
Books are available through the following:
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Republican Merchandising Belfast Ltd., 52/53 Falls Road, Belfast, BT12 4PD, Ireland. Tel  90243371
North Belfast Sinn Féin Bookshop, Teach Carney, 291 Antrim Road, Belfast, BT15 2GZ. Tel  90740817
Sinn Féin Bookshop, 44 Parnell Square Dublin 1, Ireland. Tel [353)] 1 8726100/8726932
An Ceathrú Póilí [Culturlann Bookshop] Belfast, Tel  90322811
Read Ireland book distributors – 048 90438630 and website www.readireland.ie and email firstname.lastname@example.org