EO: My name is Ella ODwyer. Im a native of this county, Tipperary. Im a Republican and an ex-political prisoner. And Ive been released almost one year.
MT: Do you want to explain about the Good Friday Agreement? Is that why you were released?
EO: Those were the terms under which people like me were released from prison. Otherwise I wouldve been still in prison. I had a life sentence. It wouldve been 2005 at the earliest that I wouldve been released. I was arrested in 1985. So its under the current agreement that Im released.
MT: How did you get involved in the Republican Movement -- do you remember any specific events?
EO: Id always been very interested in this country -- the language, culture, music, the country itself, I love this country. And then I think one of the factors that wouldve affected people like me wouldve been economic factors which wouldve brought us to question how this country, which was healthy and rich and productive, still couldnt afford to educate and feed a mere 4 million people. So these questions wouldve knocked around any thinking persons mind.
But then I went abroad as a student to try and make money to finish an education here and I met Europeans who said, "Why do you talk about an independent Ireland? You havent got it." And I said, "What do you mean? We fought for our Republic. Weve got the 26 counties as of 1916." And they said, "What you dont understand is, youre still administered by England." I started to think about that. I started to piece together that in the international mind we were part of England. So I sort of listened to what they were saying. And though I have an awful lot of respect and still do for the heroes of 1916, it connected in my mind that we havent really got our 32 county Ireland at all. We have a home office from Downing Street that operated in the Dáil. We had partition. We didnt have our 6 counties which were part of Ireland as well.
And these sort of thoughts wouldve knocked around in my mind over the years growing up. And I began to get interested in the 6 counties and the people of that place. Especially the prisoners and people who wrote books, like Tim Pat Coogan, On the Blanket, learning about the no wash protest and stuff like that. But then like most people in this part of the country we thought, "Well wheres our role?"
So I was still trying to finish an education in UCD by the time the hunger strike started to warm up. And I had been on my way abroad -- I had hoped I was going to India and Israel and places like that. So in the process the hunger strike started to take off. I suppose like a lot of people from this country its very hard to turn away and leave and go when you know for some reason there is something very strong in the air. There was a sense that something very powerful was happening in Ireland. So I just practically turned around -- when I got the money to come back -- the second hunger strike was underway, Bobby Sands had just been elected. And I just got involved from there on then. I was just an ordinary member of the public who went around to all the marches and the token hunger strikes and token fasts. Very committed to it even at that stage, very moved by it.
It was a time of mourning in Ireland for anybody -- particularly for people of that age. They were in their early 20s, these people [the hunger strikers], and we were the same age. It seemed unthinkable that people in our time were being put to death by the British empire. While Frank Stagg had died and Terrence McSweeney and various people like the Price sisters had put in their struggle to get repatriated through the form of a hunger strike, it seemed unthinkable that that could happen in our time -- and that they would dare to do it to people who were our own age group. I couldnt take that. I thought, "This is unthinkable. They are being killed by the British empire -- the British empire had no right to do that." I think people of the mens own generation, and the women in Armagh, their generation were the most taken and gripped by it.
So I went to all the hunger strike marches. It was a full-time occupation at that stage -- protests outside the British embassy, outside the GPO, marches all over Dublin all the time. It was practically an ongoing preoccupation. It developed more and more as time went on -- to the point where as an ordinary person in this society, I felt that people who are committed to die for their country, like the Irish Republican Army or the Irish Republican movement, or to go to prison -- you have faith in people like that. It was very difficult to have faith in politicians -- and now everyone is quite clear why no one at that time would have had a lot of faith in them, particularly the young people who were suffering the brunt of all that economic scavenging and everything that goes with it. So you could feel that the Republican movement, that those people were committed to what they were doing -- to unite the country would ultimately mean that people like us would get the opportunities that our nation should be providing for us.
So though I had faith in the Republican movement as I started to know about it -- to do the task at hand -- that they were the ones to do it if anyone did, something about the hunger strike brought people to get out and say: "If I can stand between an empire and the killing off of young men then I am wanting to do that. I am wanting to participate in this."
So it does move you. But of course were very rational minded people in Ireland. Everybody in the Republican movement is rational, very logical, very thinking, very idealistic. Theres nothing haphazard, nothing impulsive. Responses to the hunger strike were not reactions. The Republican movement does not take people on board people who react because you cant have a movement of that nature that allows for reactionaries of any sort. So people who get involved in the movement are very rational people -- they do think about life and death, they think about why theyre doing the thing, they think about the end goal. Not alone must the logic and the intellect be intact but you must also be so committed obviously. You must also be so committed that you will go as far as it takes, youll go that final haul. Ive met none whove turned around afterwards and said, "No that wasnt the logical, the right thing to do." And people feel comfortable about the right thing to do. It was the right thing for people their own age to go out there to support the hunger strikers. It was the right thing for Republicans to go out and try and do the best for their country and continue to do that as well.
So these were the factors probably... A thinking mind takes its time to go from A to B, from originally liking the language, liking the country, realizing why we didnt have the means we shouldve had to even go to the dentist... Maybe read a bit of James Conolly, a bit of Jim Larkin...and following through what seems true. Thats what youth is about -- youth is about truth. Pursuit of freedom, pursuit of truth. So these were the factors. There was nothing very dramatic about it. But the hunger strike probably would have -- whos gonna tolerate having that done to our own people? What sort of people would we be if ... It would be a terrible reflection upon us as an island and as a nation if we allowed that sort of oppression -- as yourself would probably recognize in relation to the womens movement, perhaps in different ways, but youd recognize oppression and you recognize right and wrong. So those are simply the factors.
MT: Do you want to say briefly why you were arrested and what you were convicted with?
EO: I was arrested in Scotland in 1985 and charged with conspiracy to cause explosions. And that, the conspiracy charge, I dont know if you understand much about it, its kind of based on sort of a framework that the prosecution puts across in front of a jury -- there was a jury -- and in front of a judge and creates a scenario out of it. Its a bit like a discourse or an argument. It [the conspiracy charge] is not acceptable in a lot of countries.
So an awful lot of people who were arrested in England were charged with conspiracy to cause explosions. So thats the one I was charged with and I got a life sentence for it. We were arrested in Glasgow and kept there for a week and then moved down to London for the weekend and then charged. We were on remand in Brixton for 13 months. And then committed and sentenced to a life sentence in England where we spent 9 years. And then transferred back in 1994 into Maghaberry. And then I got released last year about 11 months ago, last November.
Its very common actually -- if you get arrested in England -- that you will get charged with conspiracy and you will get a life sentence. The prospects of anyone walking out of the Old Bailey whos been charged with those types of offenses -- the prospects of them walking out that door without being charged with something serious are pretty zero. Its very important for people to realize any Irish person who gets arrested in England in any kind of peculiar circumstances -- it doesnt matter what your legitimate reason for being there is in a way, if theres a reason in their mind picking you up, they can be pretty obscure about that, and they manage to actually charge you with something -- the prospects of you walking out are pretty slim.
MT: Id like to move to talking about prison issues. If you could describe when you first got to Durham. Im assuming that was the most unbelievably bad of any of the prisons you were in.
EO: Brixton was the first one and Brixton was a little bit reminiscent of Kilmainham in a manner of speaking. And also being haunted by the fact that all these people had been there wed heard so much about like the Price sisters or Terrence McSweeney and being like, "My God this place still exists where all these people were kept." But then we went along to Durham -- and Durham is in the same league in terms of its time and date -- its from 1800 and something. Actually the impression I got of the place where we were going to -- which was called H wing-- was like a prison within a prison. It was like a big black dirty chimney, sort of a round shape, one of those towers where you lock people away forever. So it looked rough -- and it was rough.
It was actually amazing though 'cause we went in and they had everybody locked away. They had put everybody off the landings and made them scared that we were going to come in and... They had had encounters with us before in Brixton, some of the staff from Durham, and they felt that we were people to be put in our place and that they would change us -- which they didnt. And wed had an awful lot of battles with them at Brixton around the strip search campaign -- ongoing fighting with pen and paper, getting support from women, support groups and various things like that.
So the initial feeling about Durham was we went there with a certain amount of optimism. We said, "Oh good were getting out of Brixton, were moving into a place where we can set up abode in a manner of speaking. Were gonna be here for a long time so we might as well get over that." But at the same time when we went there it was a heavy battle. We were put cleaning on the landings initially. Martina would be on the 4th floor singing Republican songs and me trying to sing em back. So the screws as we called them were pretty rough going at the time. They had their back up and we had our back up. It was tough going. We were kept on the bottom landing, where it was quite dark. The Category A prisoners werent allowed to go on the top.
The sewers would pour over a couple of times a week in the winter and the women would have to get down without disinfectant and clean it up. And we tried to get them to realize that no matter what theyd done in life they didnt have to do that. But that was impossible to get across. So we were put on punishment which again frightened the ordinary women. They were frightened that you could be locked up. We were locked up for about 3 months on solitary confinement because we wouldnt make the particular army equipment they wanted made. So we used to get a pattern of 3 days solitary confinement with the mattress and books taken out -- theyre only allowed medically to do that for 3 days and then the doctor comes along, then you go back in again and you get the same sort of thing. So this was the sort of thing that went on in English prisons and prisons over here all the time. You really generally found that the first year was spent maybe behind the door or on the boards, in other words locked up 23 hours a day, and you dont get to see anybody. You had an hour to choose between a shower or a walk. We were taken out separately. We used to do things in the cell like we would jog on the spot to keep fit. You could get a book maybe once or twice a week.
It is not a good experience for people to be kept on their own. I used to look out the windows and you can see Durham cathedral. You get a lot of time on your own -- and the women are frightened about this because the ordinary women are not allowed to come near the punishment block -- so they are very unnerved by that. So when you come in first and this sort of thing happens theyre more intimidated than ever. There was a kind of a -- its not a padded cell, its a strip cell they called it, where if some of the women got upset and tried to harm themselves, [the screws] would put a jacket on them, like a strait jacket, arms tied down. There would be creepy crawlies coming out of it. The women just had a terrible fear of all this and would get chucked into that if they tried to commit suicide or if they tried to cut themselves up. It was a very sad situation to watch. They knew how to frighten people. So then you had to find a way of getting these people not to be frightened anymore. To realize, "No." They could lock you up for a certain length of time but theyre gonna have to let you out eventually, you know?
And the support we got from Brixton followed us down to Durham -- mainly women who came along, they had a pressure group going. They got to a point after maybe 4 years with a lot of publicity and stuff that [the prison] had to bring in a QC called Taylor and a psychiatrist. Lestor and Taylor. They wrote a report. And the outcome of the report was that either so many reforms and refurbishments had to be put in place within 12 months or the prison was going to be closed down. So it was obviously going to cost them a fortune to close down the place. They had previously had to close it down and then reopened it for women. So it was worth millions to them not to have to do that. So they agreed that within 21 months or so that they would have these changes made. And they made substantial changes in one way -- for example we didnt have potties under the beds anymore and we had toilets in the cell and we had handbasins -- but this was towards the end of our stay there. This took years and years of battle. But it was left in a condition where people could endure.
And it was interesting because the women had a 3 year stay in H wing and then they would travel up. It was the shock part of their sentence. They came out of the Old Bailey and places like that and would go into a state of shock. So you were looking at people who were in deep shock, traumatized, you know, and we would have a traffic of these people who stayed for three years and then they went on and another load for three years. And we always knew that we were going nowhere except for watching these people at their very worst -- and just as they were sort of getting a bit better they were moving on. So that was a big factor. We were in a kind of an environment where nobody was well, ever. That was most noticeable when we first got there because there was a woman there who was supposed to be the last woman going to be hung in England. She was to be hung at half past four. And she got a reprieve. So all she said to anybody -- she looked about 70 -- all she ever said all day was, "Half past four." Another woman never spoke at all, never ever. She just didnt speak. And another woman, all she used to speak about was horses. A lot of these people ended up going to places like Broadmoor, which in a way sounded terrible, but on the other hand they were on the route to the correct sort of handling. The prisons were a refuse pit for people they werent prepared to help in any way. These women ended up in these places. So some of them traveled on and got psychiatric help.
One of the interesting factors too was that throughout the years of people coming in and out of prison.... The women came in much more confident or with greater expectations. So they didnt come in as they had previously with the terrible sense that they were worthless people because they came into something that was treating them as if they were utter filth and scum of the earth. They came in with more confidence. They had a different sort of attitude towards themselves which was a healthier material to cultivate in them. So you could cultivate something in these people that said -- "I should get an education. I should learn how to use a typewriter. Or maybe I will do the A levels -- maybe thats quite normal. Thats what everyones doing." Whereas in the beginning everyone else was cleaning up the sewerage with their bare hands and that was the impression of themselves when they walked in there -- this was what society now told them when they walked in there. Regardless of how you assess what these people had done before they arrived in Durham, the point is that they are human. And it was good to see a different brand of people come in and -- that was a reflection of what conditions automatically did to a person because you could probably break someone by throwing them into a set of conditions like that that says, "Oh this is what the world thinks of you." So its a kind of breaking ground. So if you put them into something thats a little bit different than that from the outset, theres the chance these people will be a little bit stronger in the long term.
When we were leaving, we said, "Dont let them take these conditions off of you." [After we left], we found that the conditions had been changed. Not the structural ones because you couldnt take the toilets out of the cell, but different rules and regulations were brought in by different home secretaries. You find that there are different chapters in prison history, in Ireland and England. There are phases of being locked behind the door, being on the board, and that evolved into a stage where it was judicial review time and a time where people didnt spend life sentences stuck in a corner in the cul-de-sac of binary opposition, attack, defend, attack, defend, constantly on punishment because you wont obey the rules. We acquired a way both on this island and on that island of taking it through a different route: going to the European courts. You never win anything but at least you endlessly pursue court cases to the point that their methodology has to change. And with that then -- because your energy wasnt totally drained as ours was in Brixton with fighting prison conditions, so much so that we couldnt concentrate on our trial -- it meant that you had time to get an education or do something more practical. So the mindset had to change. You had to realize, "Oh goodness, Im going to waste 20 years of life here by not getting out of this punishment block." Which was by this stage no problem -- it was 2 weeks or 3 weeks away from the traffic of the prison. But our energies were occupied with court cases, fighting the system that way, the Europeans courts, getting involved with solicitors.
But at the same time we had time to get fit. When we finally got the right to get into the yard for an hour instead of the half hour and we had more time to educate ourselves, this again gave the other women more confidence. And finally evolved into a time when women would stand together on an issue. And then begin to stand up for themselves. And each sort of party of prisoners -- the lifers, the short terms, the young offenders -- each one would have a representative which went along on their behalf and spoke to the powers that be and said, "Well this is what we must have now." So circumstances by the time we left at the end of nine years had arrived at a good situation comparatively. But all you need is another person to walk in and say, "Look at the terrible state this is in." Because we had seen it evolve and we could realize, "OK we think this has come along." But if a new political prisoner came in they would say, "Oh goodness this needs sorting out." And thats great. Thats the right thing.
So that would have been the story or the outline. It was quite horrific in the beginning. So finally probably it was thanks to the women who gathered outside Brixton -- mainly women, but a lot of men as well, a lot of Republicans, a lot ordinary women who came along and got a campaign going -- which followed us, which we were lucky enough to have come to Durham with us. They came once a year on International Womens Day. That was a kind of a bit of a weight, a bit of a sway -- peoples letter writing, a little bit of publicity here and there. It was very difficult to get mail because we were hated -- Republican prisoners would be very much disliked on that island because theyve never gotten an opportunity to hear what Republicans were saying. So that brought it along to a point where you could change the nature of the situation -- the nature of a prison staff who had no one to say, "Youre going to have to stop doing that." There were women on the landings who would ask for tampax, and they were told, "Wait." You couldnt have your own tampax -- you had to go along and ask for it. That sort of thing had to end. It was so outrageous. So with that report it evolved a situation where they had to actually move a little and they brought in governing staff who had a little more influence over them [the screws]. "Or else were going to have to close this building down, its gonna cost millions." By the time we left it had evolved a good deal. We could get out to the yard, we could go to a gym. Towards the end of the time there was some sort of training facilities.
But one of the things about it was that you had to persistently keep fighting -- in a sense that they would give an inch and they would take back an inch and a half if possible. You had to kind of maintain that understanding that: "Were gonna keep this now." A lot of things probably did change but they probably changed in the prisons over here at the same time -- perhaps a bit later in England -- because so many strong protests in Ireland probably pushed things along perhaps quicker.
MT: That takes care of so many of the questions all at once. One thing you mentioned that I wanted to ask you about was... you were talking about women who self-harmed. Would that be more prevalent in women prisoners than men?
EO: I can really only speak about women prisoners because Ive never been in prison with men... Theres almost no comparison between a prison situation where there are ordinary prisoners as opposed to political prisoners. Political prisoners in general dont seem to come into that situation because theyre in a structure. Everybodys really supportive. The person whod been there longest will know whats gonna happen, will know the path. Youre led along. Itll be difficult for a while but youll be OK. Theres a structure around you that protects -- which is one of the first factors that I thought about when I came back. I didnt have to look over my shoulder anymore. In Durham you did. Its not a reflection of the people that were there, but they were capable of doing serious damage. Thats why they were there. For the majority of the sentence, we were just two people in a great minority where there were and could be very dangerous situations.
So you were asking about depressive responses to the situation, and one of the factors at least in the early days which was that H wing was so dark. Theres an element of sensory deprivation. Thats going to cause some sort of depression. Or if youre locked up for 23 hours -- which didnt happen to the ordinary prisoner but at the same time they were already emerging from a very depressive situation. They lived in a very confined place, in a kind of a chimney, a big black chimney. They were all dumped in there, probably in shock, and locked on their own at night. Everyone was locked on their own at nighttime, no matter how depressed they might be there was no way out of it. They had to deal with that in their own mind, deal with whatever theyd done as well. There was a prevalence of mental disturbance. Food problems were common, people who cut themselves up, attempted suicides and one full-blown suicide, and a lot of crying at times -- but thats more healthy. An environment can do dreadful things to people.
But what the political prisoner has going for them is a political culture or a prison culture within their history and the support of other political prisoners in this country who will tell you, "Make sure you take exercise... Did you read that book?" So they know whats helpful. It doesnt even have to come to that because everything that took the political prisoner into prison is there with them every morning, noon and night. So no matter what fear might be there, you have the added help and strength of everything thats behind you in your history and in your countrys history and the reason why people did it before you and, god help us, maybe why people after you will have to do it. So we had all of that. We had the reason why we were there. We had to support each other. We would support each other in England; we would support each other between the two islands of Ireland and England; America, Germany, Europe, wherever our people were, we were all standing together.
So we werent like the ordinary prisoner who was chucked into a place like that. OK, they did dreadful things that must have made it even harder, so its not hard for me to understand why people would end up doing terrible things to themselves. Who knows why some women cut themselves up and punish themselves in those ways. Maybe theyre trying to cope with the guilt, maybe trying to cope with not facing guilt, maybe trying to cope with some sort of hopelessness that they didnt know that they would ever get out of a situation. No matter how you gauge the mindset of a person who might do something unthinkable, were not in that persons mind, we dont know what have been the factors. You only know its a human being that youre looking at, its not an animal. Youre looking at people who 90% of the day are very pleasant, very helpful, have very kind families when you see them on visits. They were going to be coping with very different circumstances outside of the prison conditions, and the prison conditions were bad. They were daunting and they were frightening to a point until you became quite good at doing prison. Its a terrible thing to get good at doing, but theres a thing called learning how to do prison.
When we came back to Ireland, when we were transported back [to Maghaberry], we were with people who were brilliant at doing prison in many ways -- because they had their own structure. They had a community that respected them and supported them. When we came back we had visits from people. In England wed have visits maybe 4 times a year. In Ireland youd never be without a visit. Always someone would come up. Theyd leave some food parcels. Theyd be full of warmth and affection. Even though I come from Tipperary, old ladies from Belfast or Martinas family would come, different people like that. The families supported each others prisoners as well. So it was a totally different environment from being viewed, by the English community at large, in pretty negative terms. Just to be viewed as someone who was highly respected. And it was interesting to see the development in the prison system, in that ordinary people, like maybe working class people from Durham, mining class people, they learned about Ireland. They asked questions and they came to understand it. By the time we left, people were pretty sympathetic and very supportive and understanding. And sometimes that extended to prison staff. There wouldnt have been an awful lot of interaction between prison staff and us, but sometimes there were some comments made about the Irish situation that I would imagine... But they always had to come back to the first line. "This isnt the method," or, "militancy isnt the way. This isnt South Africa." They tried to deny the political legitimacy of the Republican struggle.
I remember when I was "on the boards" as they call it, when we were brought to Durham first, a governor came in. He said, "I was the prison governor when Frank Stagg died on Hunger Strike." I looked at him and thought, "This man is off his head." I remember thinking, "Whats he doing, coming in with a fleeting comment like that and walking out?" I think he was trying to show his credentials: "Im a tough man. One of your people died while I was in that same prison." He came back another time and said, "This isnt like South Africa." South Africa had just moved into vogue. It was OK to fight that struggle but it wasnt OK to be fighting our struggle. And of course nowadays that has all moved on. So it was interesting to see some of the mindsets there. But I think in an obscure way the Irish political prisoners in England earned some kind of respect. On the broad base, among the prison population especially, our people in the prisons in England earned the respect of the prison population because they went out and fought for better conditions which everybody gained from and all the other men in the prisons gained from. So there was the sense that they could turn to these people; these people would try and fight the situation and fight for improvements that werent just for ourselves but were for everybody.
So I think there was quite a good relationship amongst the social prisoners and us, though that wasnt always the case. Usually when people were first arrested and brought in , the prison system would go hell bent on trying to turn the other prisoners against us. If something happened theyd try very very hard to divide the other people from us, the other women or the other men, but after a while that became a wasted effort. Thats the nature of political prison situations. The situation over here was interesting. The structures that were in motion for Republican prisoners in Ireland, in the 6 counties and in Portlaoise, the structures worked so that one person in charge went to deal with the staff, and that was acknowledged and accepted on all sides. Theres always been a recognition of the political nature of those prisoners. In England, they always said, "Theres no such thing as a political prisoner," and yet everything single issue, from the smallest to the biggest, had to go to the Home Office. If it came to something slightly bigger than the average thing, like interprison visits for a couple, then that went to the ministers desk. Everything went right up to the desk. So we were political prisoners. Everybody knew that, everybody accepted that, but it was an ongoing comment: "Theres no such things as political prisoners."
MT: Thats a good point. Can you talk a bit about the impact of surveillance on you?
EO: I think the thing about surveillance is that its an intensification of what strip searching might have been about. In other words, taking away everything of your ordinary self, down to your clothes and down to the part of what you might choose to keep personal and private and hidden about your body -- you choose what youre going to do about your body unless youre sick and youre in hospital and you have to be washed -- which is very disabling mentally. So strip searching was a matter of trying to humiliate until you got round that and realized what was going on. There is a theory that youre only unfree so much as you let yourself be unfree. So they can take away your freedom, and yet they cant, which most political prisoner would feel and know.
Theres another aspect of surveillance in that surveillance has been undergone for many many years in the 6 counties. They live in a place where cameras, security are heightened all the time. Nowadays that type of surveillance in spreading onto the streets of Dublin and London and places under different categories, under different legislation, for financial crime or whatever. Its not quite the same thing as when you live in a building thats surrounded by cameras everywhere you go. You stand in front of a gate and wait for a machine, a voicebox to order that it would be opened. You wait for someone else then, after that level of electronic unlocking takes places, for someone to turn the key, for dogs. You move, you stop, you move -- because youve no choice in that matter.
The other aspect of that is that youre constantly surrounded by cameras, youre constantly aware that youre being seen... Which must be a part of the history of imprisonment. Its not just because of security reasons but got to do with control as people like Foucault wrote about. He talked about the circle where security is kept. The "being seen" aspect. The constantly being seen. Your letters constantly being read. Your visits constantly being "supervised," watched and listened to. You have to be within sight and hearing. So how far more could they penetrate into ones system, into ones psyche, than the constant awareness that you could be strip searched at any point in time?
There had to be then a type of filter mechanism in your mind and in your own spirit and your own being, saying, "Ill have to turn a blind eye to some of this. I have to pretend those cameras arent looking at me." And then finally you became adept at that. So there could be a certain amount of just sort of, "Im seen." Youre constantly aware that youre being seen, and theres no harm in being seen. But on the other hand, as someone said actually, there is a song: "Youll never walk alone." There would be no level at which you could say, "I have privacy now." You couldnt be in bed at night and not know that at some place during the night someone could pull back the spyhole and look in. And if the governor came along the wing he could say to the staff, "Where are the Category A prisoners?" They had their book, and every move you made during that day was recorded in that book. They had to be able to answer straight away: "Theyre in such a such a room, doing such and such." There was no sense that you would ever be anywhere without someone knowing, without cameras or people, without the people who were supervising the exercise yards or the meals, they were always there as well. You had another sort fairly penetrating sense too that initially a lot these kind of people couldnt have understood the commitment of the political prisoner. So there would be a fair amount of curiosity into how your mindset worked.
There wouldve been a bank of research on people like us -- but also probably a real intense curiosity in some sense. So you would know that these people are deeply interesting in knowing what will you think, in knowing how you behave, in knowing how youll react to the circumstances in which youre confined. That again is part of the whole matter of imprisonment, the matter of imperialism, the matter of colonizing another place and controlling it and keeping it suppressed. So this was very useful for their own research. But on the other hand we learned a lot about the mindset of the oppressor. Or how you might get in between the crevices of an oppressive situation and reach out for some element of freedom. You mightnt get out from the bars of the prison window, but you would reach out to continue being linked with what brought you in there in the first place: a struggle for freedom, an interest in a better world, an interest in the workings of the mind of the world, how the world moves on, how the world is, how Ireland is, how its doing, how everybodys doing...
So they couldnt undermine that. They couldnt change that. But again, there was a factor you see that the oppressor or the people who kept us in or the people who worked for the people who kept us in were different people. Their bosses and lords and masters were imperialists who felt that their nature was to go out and colonize, to go out and play with the toy soldiers. They got toy soldiers for Christmas; we might have got something else. They thought, "This is part of our culture, our psyche, our history: well colonize, we keep, we maintain." We would look at them and say surely the worst insult must be to be called an imperialist, a colonist, but they didnt perceive it in that light. They couldnt not know that what they were doing to this island was wrong, but that was the culture of imperialism.
Our culture is a different culture. Our culture is not the culture of the victim -- though we happened to have served a lot of time as victims -- and its enshrined in some of the songs, perhaps a little bit too much at times, but at the same time very much part of our culture. Were a culture of people who are on the road towards freedom, just like the people of South Africa, like all sorts of nations. Lots of people are on the road towards freedom: women, whoever, theyre on the road towards freedom, they wont be stopped on the road towards freedom. So that would be a very different psyche and spirit than the people who employ the people to keep us in jail and the people who were closing the gates and opening the gates. Some of those people were working class people, from a mining background, who were trying to understand their own oppressed state. Or trying to understand maybe why they wouldnt have an opportunity, maybe trying to understand why their young sons and daughters didnt have an education, and perhaps being sent off as cannon fodder to situations that they didnt understand in the first place.
So everybody was probably getting some sort of education about the difference here. And some of the stuff we learned was a naiveté about the ordinary working class of England. Theres a naiveté about all oppressed people -- the attitude of, "If they werent so naive they wouldve made more progress towards getting rid of that." But the Irish people I wouldve thought wouldve been more ahead of it. They knew that no matter how long it would take to change the circumstances on this island, that it would be an ongoing process, that it wasnt going to change, that it would be part of our culture, that nothing stops until it's done. Whereas we were dealing with certain people who couldnt understand that. They had no way of getting a grip on that -- until maybe they would watch over a period and see that, "Hey, these people are very serious about what theyre doing." There will always be people like that while the status quo is as it is. Something might need to change, and then that might be part of their growth and their movement.
But certainly being under constant surveillance, I think that is something thats very serious. An intensified version of something gives you a reflection in miniature of what goes on on a broader base. So if you get a feel of what goes on in the community of prison or the society of prison, that reflects what goes on in the 6 counties, where theres intense surveillance of people. That in turn reflects upon the broader structures of the world where there is surveillance and there is control and a run for power. So sometimes I found it helpful to look at it from that basis so I could understand not just what the world was affected by, but more importantly what was likely to damage me more, what I would need to not let affect me. Because I realized if I internalized too much of the anger I felt in the beginning, thats not going to do me any good at all. If I get to point where I cant even look at these people cause I think so little of them, thats not going to do me any good. And neither is that going to do any good for the broad structure. Those people are there. They exist. If I want a door opened I have to say to somebody, "I need that door opened." So you have to get through certain things and use common sense and understand that. You have to come to see that: "This is the situation. Im in a prison. How do I survive in a prison without coming out the other end cabbaged?" You have to get out from the mode of an initial response to a situation -- and still be able to fight that system, and fight it better and more intelligently and long term. So this was part of something every prisoner had to learn. You learn how to do prison. You learned how to ignore the cameras. You were always conscious that they were there. You were always conscious of what everybody else was doing, and they were conscious of what you were doing, but you did have to learn that, "Its not going to drain everything out of me, and I am going to learn out of it, and study and do whatever else is required and come out as strong as possible at the end."
MT: Did you ever get to a point where you could not let the surveillance and the strip searches affect you?
EO: I would say...strip searching will always affect people, cameras will always affect people. These things always affect people, but you learn to try and lessen the feedback. So if in the beginning you realize the people who are doing the strip searches to you are managing to make you look very hurt, very humiliated, or even angry, you tried in yourself by some sort of self discipline to persuade yourself not to take it to the point where you were going to be deeply hurt by it or you were going to be humiliated by it. You tried to remind yourself that the reason they were taking the clothes off your back was they wanted to humiliate you, they wanted to try and break you in some manner of speaking. Most of their responses to you as an institution -- not every individual there but the institution of this type of imprisonment -- was to break the political prisoner in some sense. Its just a term thats used to try and shatter whatever it is that sent you out in the first place -- to try and make a better world for yourself or whatever else -- to break that little bit of fight or spirit that people have. So if you reminded yourself of the negativity you could turn it into a bit of strength and say, "Well they do these things because there is something about people like us, about political prisoners, people like the Republican movement, thats making their life difficult, thats making it difficult for them to maintain the status quo."
And so you sort of took strength sometimes out of a difficult situation and you tried to tell yourself, "Right, these are the clothes, theyre just going to take the clothes, just don't think about it. Try to block that out and try to be strong as a you can." You can never do that entirely, you could never do that really. Because we had become people who had... we had undergone an awful lot of strip searches by the time -- hundreds, hundreds, countless strip searches by the time we were transferred back. There was no counting of them. But at the same time when we came back [to Ireland] and the strip search situation changed -- there was a situation where if you left a prison you would be strip searched when you came back -- that became difficult, the one strip search became difficult. So we realized very quickly when we were back that, "No, were not gonna be strip searched here during a cell search, cell move, after a visit, after a solicitors visit, after a bishops visit, after an MPs visit, were not gonna be strip searched here." And suddenly we realized how hard the strip searching had been and how much wed done some major acrobatics in our heads to try and persuade ourselves that we weren't affected by them.
So when they stopped... it was like not having to look over your shoulder once we were among the women in Maghaberry, realizing that we were safe. Even walking around the yard, being able to look behind and see so and so there. Staunch good solid people who would put their neck on the line for anybody and were good people -- and who cared about us on a personal level. Thats not to say the women in prison prior to that [in England] werent equally kindly and everything else but we knew when we were in our own people, our own structure, we knew we had nothing to worry about, nothing could happen to us without somebody knowing, without them knowing, without them standing up for you. They wouldve had the courage to take that on board -- whereas we wouldnt have had the expectation prior to that generally. Some would and some wouldnt, and yet you couldnt judge them on that. These were frightened people, the prisoners in England. They werent politicized. So a great kind of weight was gone when we knew we werent going to be strip searched on that level, when we knew we were safer. But it was then that it struck us how ultra conscious wed always been of our bodies, of everything like that. Our clothes could just be taken off, too bad if you werent feeling well. Too bad if it wasnt the best time for it to be happening. It was constantly in the air. It constantly could happen. It was only when it was gone -- although it wasnt gone in the sense that the strip searching was still there, but it wasnt on that rate -- and it somehow then... Perhaps the one strip search you had to undergo if you got out on compassionate parole or something, then that one strip search was an issue. Whereas hundreds and hundreds had gone on prior.
MT: For someone who knows nothing, could you just tell generally what strip search is?
EO: In the beginning they were performing strip searches that they werent supposed to be doing on us. What I mean by that is, they had far too many screws doing it, about 5 people doing it -- and they had a blanket that they looked over and you turned around. We had actually no clothes on and we were twirling around, lifting one foot and then the other. They would feel behind our ears, feel around our hair, pull our hair up and see if there was anything in there. That wasnt the way they were supposed to do it. We found out later what they were supposed to be doing was that theyd strip you from one part down while they cover the other part -- and then you redressed on the other part or whatever. So strip searching has been performed differently in different places you see. In Maghaberry there was sort of a half door situation where you handed over your clothes.
And the body searches then were difficult because they were sort of physical -- there was physical contact involved. Sometimes they rubbed their hands down along your breasts, their hands between your legs. And on top of strip searching you... maybe you just had a strip search, and then youre body searched -- this was in Brixton -- youre body searched on your way out to the yard. So youve just gone through that, and the same person has done that, and she knows youre pretty irritated already, and then she does it again on the way in as well. These things do have a way of penetrating your brain in a way. They do have an impact, theres no point in saying otherwise, especially [when it's happening] maybe 5 times a day.
MT: Was strip searching used on ordinary prisoners?
EO: There was strip searching of ordinary prisoners as well but a much more intensified application with us. The women in Armagh had been very strong in their condemnation of strip searching, had started a very strong campaign about that, and continued it on. So the system wouldve particularly known that that was a very big issue for political prisoners. And therefore wouldve applied it more intensely then. So that was a weapon on their part.
It is quite a serious weapon -- theres no doubt about it. It does affect you, particularly where theres a situation where theres no go, youre not getting out of this place. And this was what could happen at any time. Like you might get a cell search in the morning where they could spend two hours searching the cell, and you would have a strip search during that. You might just about get it back together again, and theyd come back in the afternoon and do the same thing again, and thered be a strip search in that. Then if you happen to get a solicitors visit on top of that, you have another strip search, and if you happen to get an ordinary visit, you have another one. It can be going on and on and on. It gets to the point where you get frustrated putting on your clothes and taking them off, putting them on and taking them off. Its a bit stressful if youre going out to a visit and some of your family are there, and youre gonna see them minutes after youve had a strip search. So it does have an impact, no doubt about that. Theres something very very personal about a persons body. You choose what you do with your body -- generally, if youre able.
MT: What was rationale behind strip searching?
EO: They say its a security factor. They say they need to have strip searches to ensure that contrabands do not enter the prison or exit prison. Which is complete and absolute mindlessness. Because the sort of thing they felt it was important to keep an eye out for were things that Republicans would have noting to do with, like drugs. They often talked about drugs in prisons. No Republican would ever go near drugs, number one. They knew that. So that could be no excuse whatsoever. They have a problem about drugs in some prisons, fair enough, but strip searching doesnt stop that, obviously. And with the technology thats available in these prisons as well -- high electronic technology -- they couldve had no problem ensuring that there was any security risk.
It had nothing at all to do with security. Everybody knew that, everybody understood that. It had nothing at all to do with security. It was a control factor, an attempt to control a person by disarming them intellectually and spiritually -- sort of taking the heart out of people to just make them feel a little bit less empowered. And it does, it lodges in the mindset when you come in first, you know, your first night or first day. The clothes are the first things that come off. Thatll focus your mind all right and wear you out. So its difficult for an elderly woman, who perhaps has never had her body seen by anybody except her husband or a doctor. And suddenly then, at that age, here you are, youve got to hand over your clothes to somebody one third your age.
And some of the comments -- sometimes comments are made about peoples bodies, "Oh youve put on weight," or whatever. Some of that now, its not right to say that that wouldve been intentional on the part of the people who said that. But certainly a lot of it in the beginning in our cases was designed to be hostile. But as time went on it wasnt always that a person would make a comment like that and be thinking, "Im here to remind her that she has no clothes on." They just wouldnt think. Theyve just taken it so much for granted that thats what theyre doing. Theyre not aware anymore that theyre reminding you that not alone are you standing with no clothes on, but that theyre looking at you. Or maybe occasionally someone would pass a remark about something that was in your letter. The censor would say, "I read such and such in your letter," not even attuned to realize that it was bad enough that they were reading your letter but that theyd forgotten even that this wasnt a normal thing to do. So they had come to a point, they had obviously become so much part of the life of prison, that they had lost their sense of something, something in them had gone as well. They must have lost something, they must have become institutionalized to some extent. Some of the things they were doing to prisoners, particularly in the beginning, in Brixton -- we used to get a new round of prison staff that would come every 2 weeks -- and they would go out exhausted. Come in impeccable, their uniforms intact, everything scrupulous. By the time the few weeks were over they went out looking shattered. So whatever the atmosphere in the place was, it wasnt doing them any good. So they used to keep sending in a new batch.
And then in Durham... In the beginning you think a lot about everything thats happening. You hear the staff coming in the morning, the screws or whatever, you hear them, and you sort of think about them, and you think about them going back in the evening. And some of them looked very depressed, very negative, very grumpy -- and you realize that the place has had a very bad effect on them, too. By the time we were gone some of them had done ten years in the place, for money. This was what these people were doing for money. And it certainly wasnt doing them any good. They were probably getting very institutionalized themselves, like it was unthinkable to change a rule or regulation, thats one side of institutionalization. But to see the level of cruelty in some ways. Now Im not trying to dehumanize these people by any means, its just that in a lot of cases they had reached a point where they were oblivious to human pain, which can happen in places where youre surrounded by pain -- you want to turn a blind eye to it. Like some of the nursing staff in the early stages were very cruel. They allowed things to happen to prisoners who were on punishments. They allowed prisoners to be put back on punishment even though they obviously werent fit for it. They allowed a constant flow of hysterectomies to take place when obviously it had to be clear that some of these people could have well gone without having a hysterectomy. And they were alarmingly common, hysterectomies. Now any medical staff would have a difficult time turning a blind eye to that.
There was an army colonel who was the gynecologist, and he was the person authorizing these hysterectomies. To my mind actually in the beginning one of the most disturbing things was the medical staff. And interesting enough, its amazing, its a reflection on how an environment changes people. Some of the staff that worked in that place, in Durham, in the beginning, actually became better people by the end of it, as the circumstances changed in the prison. They knew they had to budge, they knew they had to move, and something in them responded to having to behave better towards some of the prisoners who were very very mentally disturbed. The last year before we left, we went to the system and said, "Look, every second cell here has someone in it whos either cutting up at nighttime, trying to commit suicide, not perhaps totally serious attempts, in deep depression, on tranquilizers, on something, very depressed." We counted the ones we reckoned were all right, and we reckoned we were OK. We were OK, we were still alive. So we were trying to point out: "We cant cope with 9 nine years of this, of trying to be surrounded by this." So we said, "Youre gonna have to deal with this." And all the medical staff called a meeting. They had to take on board that the women needed counseling. And we were able to juggle their minds just a little bit to remind them how prisoners were being treated when we came in first, not least ourselves.
All they had to do was reflect just slightly to remember what that place was like when we came in first and how people were treated in it. It was seriously bad treatment, very very seriously bad treatment. There was a girl there -- she came in at 17 for something she and two codefendants were charged with, a serious enough offense, but the other two codefendants were probably on the way out and she wouldve been in twice that long because of the way the prison handled her. She was a youngster really, 17, who fought the system, who ended up on constant solitary confinement over a period of years, in and out, in and out, knew nothing else, didnt know how to cope with surviving in prison, other than to disobey everything and break all the rules, knew nothing else at all, knew no way forward, didnt grow out of that cul-de-sac of a 17 year old. And she was probably driven over the edge by it and thats the way they handled people. They knew what they were doing, they were medical people. They knew that they were driving very seriously disturbed people into very serious states of bad health. So thats not just for the sake of digging up an ugly part of prison history and to point that out -- its also to reflect on the fact that when circumstances in the prison became better and they had to treat people a little bit better, they improved with it. And the ones who couldnt cope with that change left, or withdrew to another part of the prison. Some of them actually began to develop kindly signs towards the prisoners, patience with the prisoners, theyd maybe sit and talk with them, which was nice to see. It was nice to see that sort of development, that people can improve with an overall circumstance as well. So it was good.
MT: When did you go back to get your education?
EO: I had had a BA from Belfield and then I came to Durham. And we had just come out of a punishment situation, and we were tying to get our RSAs, they called them, it was even difficult to get doing that. The person who dealt with education within the prison said, "OK, heres a yellow sheet of paper, you can write an essay." Which was something like the intermediate cert in Ireland. And If youve done a BA already you dont really need to be doing it, but I was happy enough to be doing it cause it was going to occupy me. So someone along the way knew I had a degree and said, "Why dont you do an MA?" So after a lot of resistance it came about with the help of one person who worked in the prison who was probably a bit more farsighted. And luckily enough. So that set that in motion. The MA then helped an awful lot in terms of how to develop a way of coping with prison. And then other prisoners started to develop along in their own education. Martina went hell-bent at it and did A level politics. Did tremendously well. Went on to do first class honours degree. So these things started off and then continued on with us both until we came back. We continued right through, the whole way through, as far as we could go with it. So that was very good.
I did an MA -- it was called "Reading Institutions." It was about womens fiction. And the Ph.D. was called "The Linguistics of Power and the Structuration of Meaning." It was about power and meaning and binary oppositions, how you might change the nature of the structures of meanings and look at things a bit differently. How power works on systems and countries and people. How you might reverse it. What might be different. Just looking at that. It started out of an interest in how the text of the prison was affecting us, taking control of us, and then taking that in the context of the modern novel and seeing how the writer of the text works on the reader and how the reader works on the text and makes the text function. So that was that.
MT: What are your plans for the future?
EO: I had a job in Poland. You know how universities work, they just sort of swap lecturers. But when my name came in for it and I found I had got the job, they said new procedures had come into motion. I dont have a criminal record but I have been in prison... And so the job just disappeared. And then I got a job at Boston College to do some research for a while and do some teaching. And then I couldnt get the visa. I applied to the American embassy and went there three times and had interviews and they just said no, the answer was no.
So its difficult for people like us to try and imagine a future even. Its difficult to get work. I spent the best part of 7 months assuming that I either had a job in Poland or a job in Boston. And that would be good work to put on a CV to help me get into an institution here, like a university, to use the Ph.D. But those jobs havent waited that length of time. So that was quite a lot of time wasted. Its disheartening as well, because you realize that doors do slam on your face. They might open out of curiosity for just a little while and then they slam with a big bang. And thats it. So thats part of our future as prisoners released under whatever -- be it the Good Friday Agreement or whatever else. There is an article in that agreement that says that ex prisoners should be catered for, in education, housing and things like that. That hasnt happened. It seems that America for all its friendship with the Irish situation in relation to our peace process and in relation to the current times... Well theyve slammed the door as well. So thats part of how it will be for a while I imagine. So its difficult to make plans, its very difficult to make plans.
I would like to find a way of using the education I got cause I was lucky enough to get it. I wouldnt have been able to get it if I had been out 'cause I wouldnt have been able to afford it. So I have got it and I would like a way of using it. But in the meantime then just get on with life in the sense of enjoy what you can of it. Not a lot changes in the fundamental ways in people, not a lot changes in the fundamental ways in a place. The things that were there that I focused on are still there. The countrys still there, the mountains are still there, the political situations still there. A lot of other things change, like the sizes of the houses, but that wont affect me! I might never have a house. Or the size of the cars. Im not taken with that. Its nice to see people with a reasonable standard of living. But it just would be nice to know that they have a broad sense of what they have. How it might not last, how theyll deal with it if it goes. In other words what it might have cost to get a lot of things and what they havent got at all yet. And that they would keep a grip on things that, that they would remember an awful lot of things.
That they dont get caught up with the bigger house, the bigger car, because thatll go anyway. That they still need to stand back and look at how these things come and how they go. How theres been nothing but recession for a lot of people. Its like how the people of the 6 counties have never known anything except warfare or struggle or oppression. People in my time of trying to get an education and growing up never knew anything except recession. OK, theres no recession just now -- thats nice, I like to see people comfortable and happy, but how long will that last and what does it mean? What does it mean really at the end of the day? What have they not got? I suppose for a Republican... You could never not be conscious of what youve not got. So that part of things has not changed. The country itself, the structure of the country, the state of the country, as in its beauty and stuff like that, the basic things, the important things, the things that matter to me have not changed.
Some of the things I wouldve liked to have seen change more. Id like to have seen things move on a bit more... Its a difficult to say -- a lot of things are difficult to say. I suppose I dont feel the story of our country has... Our country hasnt bloomed to its fullness yet. It hasnt reached what its worthy of. It hasnt arrived. Thats a day to look forward to. It hasnt arrived at all. Ireland deserves more. Ireland deserves what it hasnt yet got and its inevitable that it will happen. Id just liked to have seen it happen sooner maybe.
Certain things never change. Certain things in this country never change. They will change, theyll move, theyll graduate. But the fundamental things are pretty much the same. Maybe thats more the sign of the person who returns really, because a lot in me hasnt changed. Maybe you see things as you feel them and as you are. A lot of things have changed, but maybe I look at things that other people don't look at: the mountains and the earth, they don't change. Poverty doesnt change. Poverty is still there. People struggling to get an education. The class systems are still there. There are still people living in cardboard boxes, even though somebody scoops them up because they dont want to see them. There are still people not getting medical attention that they should get, still people dying in hospital beds. Theres a lot of struggle. All thats still there and it was there before I went in.
* Prison images from Armagh and Kilmainham jails -- Thanks to Armagh City & District Council and Kilmainham Jail Museum for permission to videotape
"Released Women Prisoners Tell of Their Struggle"
Irish Prisoners of War
Coiste - Released Political Prisoners' Organization
CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Net)
"Ireland's Sisterhood of Silence"
The Good Friday Agreement
Saoirse Prisoners' Campaign
Report on the Use of Plastic Bullets and Strip Searching of Women Prisoners
Political murals of NI
An Phoblacht Republican News
Irish Republican information and history
Hunger Strike Site
Article on"NHS failing mentally ill inmates"
Info on women Cat As currently in Durham
Also see the peace and justice in Northern Ireland portion of the links page
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