Top Boy creator Ronan Bennett on his time in Long Kesh and the hunger strikes
‘Solidarity, communality, struggling together: these are the things that make people human’
Ronan Bennett, author of the book Havoc, in its Third Year, in 2004. Photograph: Dara MacDonaill
What the Kid Knows Now
Back then when he first went to prison he was a kid. The kid believed in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. He especially believed in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost when he was in trouble. And he was in trouble now. He’d spent three days in a police station where a woman had picked him out on an ID parade.
He didn’t find out until the trial that the woman had a daughter who was mixed up with the UDA and had just got caught with guns. The police thought her daughter could do with some help. So did her mother. She picked out the kid. The cops hadn’t put him through the mill or anything but they’d tried a few tricks, and a slap here and there. One of their own was dead and they didn’t care for the piece of shit in front of them. He wasn’t trembling with fear or anything, but he was wary. You’d be wary too.
He was wary in the back of the Landrover on his way to Crumlin Road. Couple of Brits with moustaches and SLRs and they didn’t care for the piece of shit in front of them either. The kid prayed under his breath, but he moved his lips enough for the Brits to know what he was doing. That way, he thought, they’d understand the depth of resistance. He wasn’t going to shout God Save Ireland! or Brits Out! – and Tiocfaidh ár lá had not been invented – so he moved his lips in prayer and hoped they’d look at him and later they’d tell their families back in England that those Republicans, they’re unfathomable, they’ll never be beaten and we have no business being there.
It was a front because really he was very wary. Of what was waiting for him in jail. He’d never set foot in jail before. He’d heard lots about it. Not much that was encouraging.
It was a Saturday, late, and no one was in any hurry to decide where he should be sent so he was rushed though to a cell in B-wing, on the ones. Loyalist prisoners out in B-wing yard threw saved-up piss into the cell, drenching him and the bed and bedding, and that night they howled his name from the bars and swore revenge on him and his mother and his brother and his dog and his budgie. It was not an encouraging start.
Sunday being Sunday nothing happened except more of the same. And despairing thoughts about how if this is what the next week, month, 20 years were going to be like then he was not going to make it. He was not a physically tough kid. He did not back down, had never backed down, but standing up required nerve and effort.
The world of men was still something of a mystery to him. It wasn’t just that he was young; he had been brought up by women, for certain reasons to do with family. Fighting was not part of that upbringing. But if people were going to empty pisspots through the bars into his cell there was going to have to be fighting. Twenty years – that’s what the cops said he would get – 20 years like this? Not possible. On the Monday he went before the AG and the AG sent him to Long Kesh. He’d heard a lot about Long Kesh, too. Not much that was encouraging. Twenty years? Not possible. Not possible.
It was late in the afternoon by the time he got there. The October light was already muddy, and the yellow and orange light from the sodium lights was furred. There were sheets and pillow cases hanging on the wire, rain-spotted and in shreds, flapping like old ghosts. There were seagulls wheeling above the bins filled with their soups of cold porridge and white bread and tea. The wind whipped his face when he stepped out of the van at the cage gate. This was Long Kesh. Welcome to Long Kesh.
Before he stepped inside the cage, he’d had only a theoretical idea of what it meant for people to stand up for each other. Solidarity, communality, struggling together – these were simply phrases he’d heard. The sentiment he knew was good and he thought he understood what they meant. But the truth is he had no idea. None. These are the things that make people human. Ordinary everyday kindness is a part of it. Consideration is a part of it. Giving a sick neighbour a lift to the doctor is a part of it. Going the messages for an elderly relative is a part of it. Taking another parent’s kid to school because they have too much on their plate with the other three is part of it. Lending money to your friend who lost all his at Barney Eastwood’s – that’s a part of it too. Without it, we live like the kid lived that short time on the ones in B-wing.
Except that in jail communality – solidarity, whatever you want to call it – it comes at a high price. The stakes are higher. They are – this is not an exaggeration – potentially lethal. There is no one in the world more vulnerable than the prisoner, except maybe a very sick prisoner and there were some of those too in Long Kesh. Or maybe children who have been orphaned or snatched away from their parents. And there were some of those too in Long Kesh at that time. If a soldier in Burma or Peru or Pakistan shoots dead a poor man or woman dead, it’s still, even if only on some vague theoretical level, a crime. If he shoots a prisoner dead, nobody gives a damn. Ask Hugh Coney’s family. They’ll tell you. No one is more vulnerable.
The people who designed and built Long Kesh weren’t after any design awards, though the kid thought the bleakness of the place, the rain and the lights and the low hills beyond, had its own strange, disturbing beauty. It was not envisaged that the men who ended up here should be comfortable. The opposite. It was cold and sterile and it was certainly intended that it be as grim as Crumlin Road, or the Joy, or Armley or Brixton or Sing Sing. They’re not interested in awards. They’re interested in isolating the prisoner, in making him still more vulnerable, in degrading, dehumanising and very quickly in totally subduing him.
The kid had a sense of this from his day or two on the ones in B-wing. But here in Long Kesh something was different. Here, at a glance, he saw it wasn’t dog eat dog, it wasn’t about prisoners picking on the weakest or the most scared or the smallest. It wasn’t about who was top dog and who was part of the pack sniffing around him. It was solidarity. It was about men in a vulnerable position standing up for themselves and each other and in doing so making a human situation out of inhuman conditions.
There were always squabbles, there were personality conflicts and political fallings-out. The kid didn’t sentimentalise or idealise it. But this was it: proof of what people at the bottom could achieve if they stuck by each other. Shit, he thought. When I get out this is what I’m going to take with me. This simple principle: stand up, stand up. Stand up for yourself and each other and that way you’ll win. He could be a pious, high-minded little prig at times, even if he’d dropped the prayers by then.
The fire came. As far as the kid was concerned, that was the price you paid for solidarity. You burn a prison down and shiver all through the winter because that is what you have to do to let them know they can’t beat you, they can’t separate you, they can’t divide you, they can’t intimidate you. They can’t pick one man off and beat the shit out of him because the rest won’t stand for it, even if it means that every one of them is going to get a beating just as bad as the first man.
After the fire the people who designed and built Long Kesh had a better idea. They weren’t going to win any awards for the H-Blocks but they did have a very clever idea. They knew now what the kid knew. They knew what it meant to let the prisoners they were supposed to be controlling mix together. They didn’t fight or stab each other like they do in the yard at St Quentin or Folsom. They stuck together and fought back. So let’s not let them do that this time. Let’s put them in cells, let’s take away their political status, let’s force them into uniforms and then we’ll make the fuckers do what they’re told. And if they don’t we will beat the shit out of them.
The kid got out before the first H Block was opened. The woman who picked him out on the ID – she gave her testimony at the trial but forgot to mention the thing about her daughter and the guns. The judge didn’t mind. He handed down life and 10 years. But the appeal court judges weren’t so happy about it, not cricket. That and a few other little details, like the witness had changed her descriptions three times and the first two times were nothing like him so the cops hid those and produced only the third one, which was very like him. Except the first two came out anyway and ended up in front of the appeal judges and they didn’t like it. No, definitely not cricket. So the kid was okay.
Back inside, back in the Kesh, the kids coming in now weren’t going into the cages where there was solidarity and communality and men sticking up for each other. They were going into boxes where they were abused and humiliated and every sordid thing the human mind could think of to make those who come under his control do the things he wants them to do were thought up and done.
The kid was back in jail then, during the Dirty Protest. In Armley and then Brixton. In Armley he was on the yard with an Irish prisoner and he smuggled him out an apple. The prisoner gave him back the apple and showed him the hole in his mouth where his teeth had been before the screws had kicked them out. In Armley, where the favourite pastime seemed to be suicide, it was dog eat dog, and if you talked about solidarity you could be sure a tout would report you as a trouble-maker and you’d end up on the block. The kid was glad, though, he wasn’t on the Blocks.
He was out by the time Bobby Sands died. He didn’t know him and he had never to his knowledge seen him on the outside or in the Kesh. But he knew what Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers were doing. Yes, it was about political status, and yes their sacrifice gave Sinn Féin the kick-start that has propelled them onto the world stage. People write about that and remember it and talk about it, and rightly so.
In historical terms Bobby Sands and his comrades appeared at a critical moment in the struggle – one of those moments that comes along in different guises in every struggle, sometimes epic, sometimes personal and anguished: Castro’s landing in Cuba; the Hollywood Ten when they said they’d go to jail rather than name names; Ali la Pointe’s refusal to surrender in Algiers; Rosa Parks when she wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus; the Levellers’ mutiny at Burford – the list is long. In those critical moments a key individual or set of individuals appear, and they say, We’re not turning back. The historical legacy of the hunger-strikers is acknowledged and secure.
But this not the only reason the kid remembers them now. The stakes were high and the price was high, but no one who lives, however imperfectly, by the rule of solidarity has to think too long about the reason: What Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers did is what makes us human.
This essay is from Hunger Strike: Reflections, edited by Danny Morrison (Elsinor Press). Ronan Bennett is the author of several novels, including The Catastrophist and Havoc, in Its Third Year, which won the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year (2005). His screenplays include Rebel Heart (BBC, 2001) and The Hamburg Cell (2004), which was nominated for an International Emmy. He is a regular contributor to The Guardian and The Observer. His recent work includes television series Gunpowder (2017), Top Boy (2011) and Hidden (2011), and the film Public Enemies (2009). He was in Long Kesh from 1974-76 and Brixton Prison 1978-79. Top Boy returns with a new series on Netflix next month