H-Block letters: Finder clarifies background to their discovery

Richard Behal ‘regrets’ inference that communications were being ‘dumped’ by party

Some of the letters from the H-blocks. Photograph: Julien Behal

Some of the letters from the H-blocks. Photograph: Julien Behal

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Letters and poetry composed by H-Block hunger-striker Bobby Sands and other republican prisoners including the late Mairead Farrell, which emerged this month in Co Kerry, were not found in bags at Sinn Féin offices to be dumped, the man who found them has clarified.

Richard Behal (83), a member of Sinn Féin from 1957 to 1986, and head of the party’s foreign affairs bureau from the mid-1970s to 1982, told The Irish Times he had found files of tiny, handwritten letters from republican prisoners in large plastic bags at the Sinn Féin offices in Dublin in 1982.

He says he now “regrets” any inference taken that these communications, or “comms” were being “dumped by Sinn Féin”, adding the poetry and letters by Sands and Farrell were in separate files held by him as part of his work, and not in the bags.

His move to clarify the circumstances of the documents comes after considerable controversy in republican circles in recent weeks, particularly among former Sinn Féin activists now critical of the party.

Letters from the H-blocks

Tiny notes from Bobby Sands and Gerry Adams found VIEW NOW

The tiny, handwritten letters dating to 1981, which have been handed over by Mr Behal to Dr Ruan O’Donnell of the history department at the University of Limerick, were written by republican prisoners on cigarette paper, toilet paper or tiny scraps from bibles.

They were sent out with visitors and transferred to Sinn Féin offices in Belfast and Dublin, to be sent to a wide variety of organisations and individuals appealing for support for the anti H-Block candidates previous year’s general election. “Unfortunately not all were sent out due to lack of time and personnel and some were left over.” There was a “huge volume of papers” and the offices were being “tidied up” at the time, he said.

Richard Behal with some of the letters. Photograph: Julien Behal
Richard Behal with some of the H-Block letters. File photograph: Julien Behal

“I wasn’t sure why they were in the bags. I of course extracted them and added them to my file to make sure [they were safe]. I cannot say what was going to happen them. I never thought there was an intention by the Sinn Féin leadership, of which I was a member of the Ard Comhairle, to dump them. I might have stupidly or boastfully [implied] but there was no intent by the Sinn Féin leadership to dump anything.”

He says no-one ever asked where the comms were after he removed them from the bag.

“I deeply regret that any ill-chosen or careless words of mine in explaining how I obtained the small comms . . . I do not believe there was an intention by anyone to throw them out and if they were it would have been accidental.”

The documents, now in the care of Dr O’Donnell, include a poem by Sands titled The Greatest Hell which was published by The Irish Times earlier this month. Dr O’Donnell described them as “of considerable historical value”.