It was the winter of 1978 and Christmas was about a week away, Big Tom McElwee and I waited and listened as the screws got closer.
On up the wing locks rattled, doors flung open and we listened as bare feet scurried on the corridor as those before us tried to escape the heavier sounding boots of screws. There was no escape, this was the H-Blocks, we were naked except for a blue towel wrapped around our waists and encased within a concrete hell on earth, officially called H4. There was no escape from the hatred that lined the wing, blocked the way at the grilles and either took physical form in beatings or looked on in white shirted command. The wing shifts and forced washing had begun what was clearly another attempt at breaking us.
That winter was the worst in years, so bad we thought it would surely reach through the broken windows of our cells and that it’s icy touch would claim some unfortunate comrade in the night.
Big Tom waited by the cell door with fists clenched. He had a low tolerance of bullies and he fully intended taking these bastards on. I stood near the window and silently cursed his courage as fear chilled my very bones. Screws moved around outside our cell, it was too soon we thought as there were several cells before us to go yet.
The hatch opened, a set of eyes peered through at us, keys rattled and they were in on top of us; pushing, punching and grabbing at our matted hair. We had been taken by surprise and before we could react we were being run down the wing, through the various sets of grills and across the circle towards a newly cleaned wing. There they waited, the cleaning crew with their tools of torture; ordinary everyday things like a bath, a scrubbing brush, scissors and a mirror. Depending on their sick sense of humour the bath would either be filled with scolding hot or freezing cold water and we would be plunged into it and scrubbed until our skins almost bled. Our hair and beards would be shorn from our heads with the scissors. The mirror was the final act of degradation, we would be forced to stand spread eagled over it, then beaten down until we almost sat on it.
There were two chairs; the plastic type you would find in a waiting room and most definitely not those used by barbers, but that we knew was to be their purpose.
Big Tom stood with defiance in his eyes and his mouth locked in grim determination. I knew what was going to happen next as they tried to force him into the chair. I wrestled with those trying to force me down, a screw was poking me with the scissors. Then Tom drew out and caught a screw with one of his big fists, sending him crashing backwards onto the cold polished floor.
Fuck this I thought, before hitting the screw who had the scissors.
We took a terrible beating from boots and batons; I know that much, but strangely I can remember little else about it. I do remember being flung into the back of a van, naked, like some piece of dead meat. The screws were waiting for us in the punishment blocks where we got another beating.
Later, Big Tom was still defiant as he called to me out the door. I was just too fucking cold and sore to be defiant so I felt sorry for myself.
They starved us as part of the punishment. The Number One Diet, as they called it, consisted of dry bread and black tea for breakfast with watery soup for dinner and the same dry bread and black tea again at tea time.
A ‘Christmas amnesty’ said a screw as they let us go back to the wing on Christmas Eve. The cheers of the lads did nothing to lift my spirits as I followed Big Tom down the wing banging cell doors as he went. Later that night we had the first decent meal in a week – when you’ve been starved anything’s a decent meal. As we ate, somewhere in the distance I heard for a brief moment ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ – Boney M’s Christmas hit of that year. Some screw had decided to remind us that it was indeed Christmas before turning it back off.
From H4 Tom and myself were sent to a wing in H6 along with the Blanket leadership in early 1979, even though we didn’t hold positions of leadership ourselves. This move was an attempt to break the protest by isolating the staff from the bulk of the Blanket men. We were both then moved to H3 later that year when that failed.
Before Tom went on Hunger Strike that summer in 1981 he called me aside at mass one Sunday and slipped me his Rosary beads. He still had that defiant look on his face as he told me to ‘hold on to them.’ I didn’t believe that Tom wouldn’t be back; he was a fighter, a hard man with a big heart.
Big Tom McElwee didn’t return, he died on 8th August 1981 after 62 days on Hunger Strike. I treasure those battered and worn Rosary beads. I also have what Tom never got to have, a wife and two lovely children.
The Winter of 1978 and the Summer of 1981 had passed the 25th anniversary mark before I knew it. Life had got better although the memories still lurked in the dark recesses of my mind. Then Richard O’Rawe wrote a book, Blanketmen, in which he claimed that there was an offer made by the Brits on July 5th 1981 which could have saved the lives of six men. This couldn’t be true I thought; surely the IRA leadership wouldn’t do this to our comrades for political gain?
Surely not. But why would Ricky say this unless there was some truth in it? I knew Big Ricky, I shared a cell close to him for a while in H3. He was the shoulder that Bik leaned on, the person to whom he relied upon for advice. He knew what Bik knew.
I had a distant memory of a rumour. A rumour only; that the Brits were moving and Joe wouldn’t have to die. Gerry Adams must have over played his hand I thought and as a result Joe McDonnell died, followed by the other lads including Big Tom.
I observed closely as Ricky defiantly stood his ground against abuse. As his name was spread like shit across the media. I heard the lies but they never passed Ricky’s lips. Documents hidden since those dark days not only backed him up but a man who went by the code-name of The Mountain Climber came forward as well as former Blanket comrades.
With each new revelation those calling Ricky a liar lied or remained silent in the face of awkward questions.
I eventually knew that I had to stand behind Big Ricky and face what was coming just as I had to stand behind Big Tom that Christmas week in 1978.
I owed it to six brave men who had the courage that I lacked; the courage to die for what they believed in.
The above article was wrttien by former Republican POW and blanketman, Dixie Elliot in 2012. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.