Behind bars with the Shannon One

Margaretta D’Arcy has been a peace activist for most of her life, and neither cancer nor prison appears to deter her. We visit her in Limerick Prison, where she is controversially serving a sentence for an anti-war protest at Shannon Airport

Sat, Feb 1, 2014, 01:00

She is an unlikely inmate of a medium-security prison. The peace activist and writer Margaretta D’Arcy lights up Limerick Prison’s sparse visiting room in a blaze of conviviality. Leaning on a cane as she is escorted in, she half-chides the warden for not having carried an umbrella to shield them from the light rain that is spitting over Limerick. “I’ve never met you before, ma’am,” he says evenly. “I’m sure we can get you something for the way back.”

D’Arcy is 79. As well as being an activist, she is an actor, writer and member of Aosdána. On October 7th, 2012, she walked on to the runway at Shannon Airport with Niall Farrell, of the Galway Alliance Against War group, to protest against the airport’s use by the US military. She was subsequently found guilty of illegal incursion on a runway and given a suspended sentence of three months.

And there it might have ended. But D’Arcy refused to sign a bond committing her to uphold the law and to stay away from unauthorised zones at Shannon. This led, last month, to her early-morning arrest at her home, on St Mary’s Terrace in Galway city, and her transfer to jail.

As Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has observed, her signature on the bond would lead to her immediate release. “I do not believe the individual concerned should be presented in a heroic guise or that it is in the public interest that she be so depicted,” he says. “The rule of law must prevail even when it creates difficult circumstances.”

From a legal perspective this is inarguable. But her sentence has split public opinion. Some see it as an inevitable punishment for breaking a law and, arguably, endangering the public. Others believe that, in a country where moral and financial scandals have gone unchecked, it is shameful to imprison an elderly woman who has demonstrated unwavering moral courage in committing to a selfless cause. Some say she should be pardoned.

“But pardon me for what?” D’Arcy wonders when asked if she would accept such a gesture. “It seems that you can observe a war. You can comment on war. But you can’t stop war. I am a person who is trying to stop war. I would like the Minister to explain that. So it would depend on what the pardon was for.”

On the day of my visit, a week ago, D’Arcy wears white trainers, grey tracksuit bottoms, a matching hoodie and a raincoat, and her hair is tied back. A small wooden partition separates visitors from inmates. She peers at her guests – myself, and Zoe Lawlor and John Lannon of Shannonwatch – through round-rimmed spectacles. Other visitors have included Sabina Higgins, the wife of President Michael D Higgins.

Even in the casual clothes D’Arcy has something of the society hostess about her. She talks not as a helpless prisoner but as though she wants to make a personal project of improving the place, a classically bleak mausoleum on Mulgrave Road that has served as a lock-up for almost 200 years.

She stands rather than sits at the bench and trades information with her Shanonwatch colleagues. She answers questions about her wellbeing but is more animated when discussing the shortcomings of life in Limerick prison.

“It’s the sensory deprivation that is shocking. Not getting to see the moon, the stars. That is terrible for people in here. There is nothing to do. In Holloway Prison, for example” – she spent time there in the 1980s, during the Greenham Common anti-nuclear protests in the UK – “the library was well stocked and the recreation room had things to do. Here, when you are out for exercise, it is just as you see in the films, with people walking around in circles.

“I was walking down a corridor the other day and looked through the window of a door and saw a picture of a dog, and I was overjoyed, because for a second I thought it was real. That sounds cracked, I’m sure, but that is what happens when you are deprived of . . . anything. It needs to change here.”

Surprisingly, she fully agrees with Shatter about one aspect of her case. In his terse response to the moral question of imprisoning a pensioner who is being treated for cancer, he said that age cannot be a consideration.

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