Letters from the H-blocks: tiny notes from Bobby Sands and Gerry Adams found

Some of the letters give insights into prisoners’ thinking as hunger strikes loomed

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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Tiny, handwritten letters composed by republican prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh women’s prison in the lead-up to the 1981 hunger strikes, have emerged in Co Kerry.

The communications have been described as “very important” and “of considerable historical value”. They will be handed over to Dr Ruan O’Donnell, a senior lecturer in the history department at the University of Limerick, later this month.

Among the signatories of the letters are “Marcella” – the nom-de-plume of Bobby Sands, who died 40 years ago on Wednesday after 66 days on hunger strike and “Brownie” (Gerry Adams), along with poetry by prisoners in Armagh, including Maireád Farrell, who was shot dead by the British army in Gibraltar in March 1988.

An unpublished poem by Sands, The Greatest Hell, is among the collection.

The several hundred items have been in the possession of Richard Behal (83) since 1983. Mr Behal, a member of Sinn Féin from 1957 to 1986, and head of the party’s foreign affairs bureau from the mid-1970s to 1982, said he found them in refuse bags at the Sinn Féin offices in Dublin in 1982. He is now in failing health and believes they should be catalogued and preserved.

Richard Behal with some of the letters. Photograph: Julien Behal
Richard Behal with some of the letters. Photograph: Julien Behal

Among the items are letters from prisoners to a wide variety of organisations and individuals appealing for support for their campaign for political status. They had embarked on the “blanket protest”, refusing to wear prison uniforms, in 1976. They later refused to wash and spread their excrement on cell walls, known as the “dirty protest” at being categorised as criminal prisoners by the UK government.

The lack of progress on achieving their demands saw the escalation to hunger strikes, resulting in the deaths of 10 men between May 5th and August 20th, 1981.

Fragile paper

The notes, many written during the hunger strikes, are on fragile pieces of cigarette paper, toilet paper or tiny pieces torn from Bibles. The small writing is in block capitals and in most cases requires magnification.

According to Dr O’Donnell, “Several messages could be tightly folded and wrapped in cling film to facilitate oral transmission during rare visits.” These would be sent to Belfast either for publication in the republican newspaper An Phoblacht or to be sent on to the intended recipients.

One, to Bishop Kevin McNamara in Kerry, asked him to support the “anti H-block” candidate Sean McKenna in the June general election. “As you know 4 men have died on hunger strike,” it reads. “In this I ask you on behalf of all the men and women suffering in English jails, especially those who face death, to grant us your support.”

Others are addressed to Michael D Higgins, then a Labour Party TD; the late TD Jim Kemmy, senior business figures, the provost of Trinity College, the members of Dublin City Council and members of the Houses of Commons and House of Lords.

Dr O’Donnell, who has examined the collection, said many were “very important due to the nature of [their] contents”.

These include several signed “Marcella”. “It does not appear that all of these comms were published and they are, as such, of considerable historical value,” he says.

Prison assaults

Also in this tranche are notes from the 1979-1980 period from prisoners in H blocks 3 and 5 detailing assaults by prison staff and other grievances. These, said Dr O’Donnell “are vivid and very valuable insights into the thinking of the prisoners as the December 1980 hunger strike loomed”.

“A sense of urgency pervades the comms,” he said. “While the outcome of the hunger strikes did not immediately deliver the benefits for which 10 men died, the newfound capacity of Irish republicans to mobilise popular support at home and abroad and to look beyond the armed actions was manifest at this juncture.”

Bobby Sands died 40 years ago on Wednesday after 66 days on hunger strike.

Danny Morrison, chairman of the Bobby Sands Trust, said he was “perplexed” as to why Mr Behal had not brought to his attention “any allegation about bags of comms being thrown out, if only to find out who the culprit might have been and to rap them over the knuckles”.

Both men sat on the Sinn Fein ardcomhairle (national executive) in 1982.

“The central hub for all the comms about strategy was the H-Block Information Centre on the Falls Road. Upon arrival they were immediately transcribed and the originals taken out of the office and into safe houses (because of the regular RUC/British army raids and seizures). All of these comms are lodged and preserved in the National Library,” said Mr Morrison.

A spokesman said Sinn Féin would not comment on the collection as it has not seen it. “Commemorations of the 40th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands will be held online due to the ongoing public health restrictions. We encourage all supporters to respect those restrictions, and to join us online in remembering an influential and inspirational figure of Irish republicanism.”

Phoenix Films, which is developing a documentary on those who wrote and received the prison communications, invites anyone interested in participating to contact martina@phoenixfilmsireland.com.

* This article was amended on May 5th, 2021