Reflections on dark days in H-Blocks

As a teenager Eoghan Mac Cormaic was imprisoned in Long Kesh for his part in the IRA’s killing of a young policewoman. His accounts of the jail’s infamous H Blocks and of the prisoners’ protests for their rights, which culminated in the 1981 Hunger Strikes, were recorded on scraps of paper and smuggled out. They now form the basis of two new poetry collections. He tells BERNIE NÍ FHLATHARTA about those turbulent times and the new life he forged in Galway.

It’s easy to dismiss poetry and for many, it comes second-best to novels. However, a slim volume of poetry that’s being launched this month would give any novel a run for its money. Not only has it been 30 years in the making, but the poems are the result of blood, sweat and tears – and they pack a punch.

The Pen behind the Wire by Eoghan Mac Cormaic is a collection of prison poems from his time in  Northern Ireland’s notorious Long Kesh. Some were hastily written on bits of toilet paper and cigarette papers. Others, penned after his release, reflect on a time when living in Northern Ireland was a daily struggle.

Mac Cormaic is a Derry man, now living near Loughrea, who spent 15 years in prison for his part in the murder of a 19-year-old RUC reserve policewoman in 1976. In Long Kesh, he joined the blanket protest, campaigning against the British government’s removal of special status for paramilitary prisoners – which included the right to wear their own clothes. This escalated into the Dirty Protest when prisoners refused to slop out their cells. In March 1981, the campaign reached new levels when Bobby Sands went on hunger strike. He died in May, the first of 10 prisoners to die on hunger strike between then and August.

Eoghan’s poems cover the years 1982 to 1991. Beautifully written they tell a story, at times dramatic but almost always reflective.

In the foreword he writes: “In recent times, we have all become more reflective. In 2020 we learned how quickly society can change. Once more the notebooks and bundles and albums were reopened and re-read and eventually I made an attempt to put some order on, and draw some meaning from them all.

“This collection (and a separate collection in Irish, Macalla Cilliíní) is the result and it mainly covers the years 1981-1991, the years after the blanket protest ended. I hope some of the writing gives some insight, limited as poetry can, to the type of thoughts and dreams we had in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh.”

Eoghan wasn’t a poet, or indeed an Irish speaker when he was sentenced to prison but he emerged fluent in Irish – with those scribbles and musings on bits of paper. Many  were written in his early imprisonment and smuggled out of Long Kesh by his mother on her regular visits. He hadn’t given them a second thought. However, shortly after he returned home, his mother produced eight albums of prison communications and a diary which spanned several years.

Pictured: Eoghan McCormaic with his new poetry collections, The Pen behind the Wire and Macalla Cilliíní. PHOTO: HANY MARZOUK.

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