Interview with Roseleen Walsh, October 6, 1999, Clonard Monastery

RW: Well, my name is Roseleen Walsh.  I am an ex-prisoner.  I was interned in Armagh prison in the North of Ireland in 1973 until 1974.  I was released without charge.  I was released unconditionally.  I am a Republican.  I was then and still am now in 1999, and I am totally committed to the peace process.  The first poem I want to read is a poem called "Imprisoned Lovers."  I wrote this while I was interned in Armagh. I wrote it to a prisoner in Long Kesh who shall remain nameless.

Imprisoned Lovers

If I could wander
With the night
Be myself unseen
I'd travel to
Your place of sleep
Dream with you
Your dream.

I can't travel
With the night
Be myself unseen.
Can only in my sleep
Alone our Dream.

RW: The next poem is called, "To My Silent Church." I wrote this also when I was interned in Armagh prison. I wrote this in 1973 and I wrote it because I was so frustrated with the attitude of the catholic church towards prisoners and Republicans in general. They seem to have this attitude that we have no entitlement to practice our religion because of our politics.

To My Silent Church

Silence or Cell,
Divided nations conquer well
For imitation love of peace
Give all up to the oppressor.
Lose all, forget those who have given all
So you can live in your imitation home
Made of imitation security.

Silence or Cell?
I choose cell.
My words were quiet
But I was not silent
I did not want the cell;
It came - because
I could not bare the Silence.
The Silence was imitation
Not truth.

Christ died because he could
Not stand the Silence.
Because of your Silence
I am condemned
To be without freedom,
I am therefore dead!
Speak! Talk now
Silent ones.

RW: This next poem I wrote for my daughter, Áine.  Áine is now 22 years old and herself a mother. When Áine was born my husband, Áine’s father, was imprisoned.  We met and were married inside of 12 weeks. 8 weeks later, I was 6 weeks pregnant and my husband was arrested, and he went to the H-Blocks.  He was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.  When Áine was born, we had a monthly visit, and Áine never bonded with her father.  For the first 6 months, that was the first 3 hours that she was in her father's company, she slept. The 7th month when she had her eyes opened she wouldn’t go near her father because he was on protest and he had long scraggly dirty gray hair and wore like sack material. So, she never bonded and until quite recently, a few years ago.  This is a poem that is a question.  It's a poem and it is a question that I ask my daughter Áine.

To Áine

Oh what wind blows thee so fair,
What peace of mind gives thee thy smile
And makes thee lovely like a child?
What hand outstretched doth show thee where
Love finds its rest in those who care
As doubt and hurt outside stir
While joy and song fill the air within.

Who put that courage in they heart
And made it brave enough to start,
Who graced thy face in beauty’s style
And gave thee life for just a while?
Who so great gave these gifts to thee -
Daughter - was it only me?

RW: This next poem explains itself.  I wrote this for my daughter Máire. Máire is now 15, and when Máire was a child, Máire's hair never grew and she used to wear a pair of tights in her head with the two legs hanging down.  She used to make believe that they were ringlets.  Also, my other daughters and her cousins all had blonde hair. Máire always wanted blonde hair, and this day I walked into the house and she sat with a mop of blonde hair. This poem is called "My Beautiful Wild Child."

My Beautiful Wild Child

Your dyed blonde hair
Makes you noticeable everywhere.
At first it made me sad
To think you weren't happy with what you had.
But then I thought
‘Hey, what's so bad at 13 and wanting to change
the colour of your head!’
It's better than wanting to be dead.
I thought that as you danced on top of my bed.
You made me laugh
And I promised you money as you called me honey
And the day outside promised to be sunny.

Then later, as I marched down our road
I remembered the way you called me honey,
But it wasn’t sunny on the Garvaghy Road.
I’d watched as they beat them back
I cried and drank tea and prayed that somehow that day
That God would come himself and set us free.
I watched and wondered if God was at Drumcree.

By the end of that day
I hated your hair...
That’s how he noticed you there!
He laughed as he aimed with his plastic bullet gun,
He must have thought it was loads of fun,
He could have killed you, honey

Only you turned to see this monster son of the RUC,
His gun pointed at your head...If you hadn't turned round
You could have been dead.

My beautiful child,
My flower in the wild.

I no longer mind what colour you dye your hair,
As long as you're there
With me, and that promise that tomorrow we might be free
My beautiful dyed blonde-haired baby.
Let only the sun now touch your face
And each arm raised towards you be to embrace.

My beautiful child,
My flower in the wild.

RW: This last poem I wrote for my daughter, Kathleen. Kathleen is now 11 and the day Kathleen was born was the day of the Enniskillen bomb. This is called "Kathleen’s birthday."

Kathleen's Birthday

3 a.m. exactly - an explosion!
Her feet banged sore
against my ribs.
Thinking they had caved in
I jumped - taking deep breath
to control the pain,
later wondering if this body
would ever be the same again.

9 a.m. I sat smiling,
content - knowing she would soon be here
in my arms - together - life - joy,
feeling truly happy
speaking to her with hands that
caressed the temple wherein she lay
safe and protected.

11 a.m. More beautiful pain - deep breaths and
it was gone. Smiling I waited for
movement - it came
then on the television screen "news flash"
reaching for the remote and turning
on the sound
I felt - life - movement.

Twenty minutes before the end
of that day, I felt the joy of pain
and she was born.

What could have been
more beautiful
than to hold our daughter
as she slept, oblivious to the world
around her.

Early next morning
a nurse said,
"Marie Wilson was to begin work here
she isn't here because she's dead.
She died yesterday at Enniskillen".

MT. : Did you start writing when you were in prison?

RW: No, I started writing when as I child.  I started writing things, I remember from about 9.  And I remember the first poem I wrote. Each poem sort of tells a story or relates a theme.

MT: And there was something I remember about when you were in prison you actually wrote on the walls.

RW: That's right, in prison we weren't allowed to write anything on the walls but I had my complete wall and ceiling covered with my poetry, and it was allowed because it was a form of art.  People of the community read different poems, even the "screws" would come in to see what was wrote today.

MT: Do you want to give just a brief background as to why you went into Armagh and sort of what that experience was like?

RW: Well, I was actually walking up the street and I was arrested, held for the weekend in what's known as the Dungeons in Townhall street.  It’s now not used as a holding center.  Apparently my internment papers were already signed, and I was brought to Armagh prison on the Monday, late Monday night.  All together there were 31 females internees, and I think there was few thousand men internees.  My experience in prison was that of a political prisoner. The sentenced prisoners were also classed as political prisoners.  And during my time in prison I was allowed as many letters as I wanted; I could send out as many letters as I wanted; I had free access to education; free access to the exercise yard, things like that.  I was released in '74.  I was just told to go home, I got no apology.  Nobody said sorry we made a mistake. I was told to go home and that was it.  I left with my belongings and walked out of the prison. It was what was called an unconditional release, that was the start of the unconditional releases.

After I was released the British government realized they couldn't win a fight with people who had a just cause and who firmly believed in what they were fighting for.  They decided the best thing to do at that time was to say these people aren’t political prisoners, they're criminals.  They changed the name.  But they couldn’t change the spirit or morale of the prisoners, so afterwards people were still political prisoners by another name.  And then the H-Block struggle began, the no wash, no slopping out, and ultimately the hunger strike.  And it was the same for the women prisoners.  Mairéad Farrell at the time was the OC [Officer in Charge] of the prison. Mairéad went on hunger strike, and then the first hunger strike ended because the prisoners were told that there demands had been won.   They ended the first hunger strike and of course as history knows that was just a smoke screen by the British government then.

MT: I wanted to come back and clarify -- were you ever charged with any specific crime?

RW: No.

MT: But you were able to be held for almost--

RW: I was held for 13 months and 2 weeks, and compared to a lot of other internees that really wasn't long.  Some were held as long as 5 years.  And what happened after the outbreak of internment, most of the men who were initially interned from the 9th of August, 1971, were systematically tortured. To make things look good, the British government come up with the idea of a commission.  And my experience of the commission I had to face was: I was brought to the commission up in Long Kesh, brought from Armagh prison, and the commissioner who tried my case was called Felix Walley.  It was a very appropriate name for him. Through my solicitor I found out that I was his first case here in the North of Ireland.  He did his 2 year stint in South Africa where he was commissioner to the black people who where being interned in their own country also.

And what happened was most of my case took place “in camera,” and to anyone who doesn’t know what that is, I was put out of the room, my solicitor was put out of the room, and whatever evidence they had, the evidence was actually from the RUC, it was given in my absence.  When I was brought back into the room I wasn’t told what I had been charged with. And also I find it strange that Felix said to me, "You sit there--" now he was in our country 2 weeks and had been out of his own country which was England for 2 years prior to that -- he said, "You sit there, and you speak to me in an accent that is alien to you."  Now what I take it he meant was he'd been watching some footage of people from Belfast speak and because I didn't speak the way the people on the footage spoke he thought I was trying to improve my prospects of getting out of prison by putting on a voice that I didn't normally speak with.  Now the only way he could've thought this, was through the RUC.  And I wasn’t told even the names of the RUC people who, behind a screen, gave evidence against me.  I didn’t even know what they said.

And the thing about that is, we have people like Ronnie Flanagan over the RUC -- he may have been one of the people who gave evidence against me.  I just don't know.  Anything else that has happened to me since then may have been investigated by those same RUC men who gave false evidence against me at the Commission.  There is nothing I can do about that.  If I put in for a job I can be turned down on the security grounds.  Now the RUC told lies about me.  And so what happens is I'm penalized for the rest of my life and they're now being given promotions for being successful in blackening my character and telling lies about me and that's just the way the system is here. That's the way it works.

MT: So would you say that would be a fairly common story?

RW: Oh yes, unfortunately my story is not unique. It would sort of typify what happened.  And as I say the hundreds of men who were systematically tortured you know some were compensated and others weren't, but the compensation you know for what they went through and what they still do go through psychologically was actually nothing.  Plus what they all wanted was justice and they didn’t get it. No one was ever charged with torture. At the moment I am involved with a group of ex-internees and our aim is to bring the British government to the court of Human Rights on the issue of internment. We were wrongfully interned in our own country. The torture that went on; the imprisonment, the upset, the homewrecking that went on when people were being arrested and the subsequent damage it did to our children -- when I say ours, my sisters were very young at the time when our home was raided and there was one incident in particular when we all had to get out of bed and get dressed in front of British army soldier pointing a rifle at us.  We had to do it, you know, it was in the middle of the night, and my sisters were but 10 and 11 at the time and they've carried that with them.

MT: And what happened after your release?

RW: I continued with my political trail as such after my release, and I met my husband. We married.  We have 3 children. He was imprisoned for all together 8 and a half years.  And I still work for Sinn Féin and I am proud to do so. And I believe the small part that I play now... that every part is important and the small part I play does help in the peace process.  And I am fully committed to that process and to the leadership of the Republican movement.  And a question I have been asked many times is about, “Do I find my religion, my religious beliefs to be compatible with my politics?” And yes, my answer is always the same, I do find them entirely compatible.

Recently I was asked to give a talk as an ex-prisoner to a congregation of religious people and afterwards at the dinner table we were speaking about how we developed spritually, and how we all were with our religion.  And my husband and I, we go to daily mass.  I would fast one day each week and have done for years.  I would just take water or coffee.  I was expressing this to a religious who sat beside me, and she turned and said, "Oh when did you have your conversion?" I said,"Pardon?"  She said, "When were you converted? Did it happen to you suddenly? Did it happen to you in prison?" And I explained to her that I never had a conversion.  The way I am with my religion is the way I was brought up, it's the way I've always been.  People outside of Republicanism tend to believe what the media has over the years put across about Republicans, you know we are sort of seen as people who can’t possibly have any beliefs -- and yet we are all mainly deeply religious or spiritual people.

MT: You said something really lovely before we were actually taping which I would love for you to repeat about this particular church and why this is a place you like to read.

RW: Well, when I was invited to do this interview and I was asked where
would I like the interview to take place, I didn't have to think very hard because this monastery, Clonard monastery, in the heart of West Belfast, is the one place that I feel “a complete peace.”  It's not a parish, and people come from everywhere, not just from Belfast but from outside of Belfast, people come here with their terrible stories, with their heartbreak.  This is a place where everyone is accepted.

You don't have to go to confession to be accepted. The priests here don't condemn. They stand with open arms and welcome everybody: sinner and whatever. Money people or poor people. It doesn't matter. It is a place where God is truly felt.

MT: And after you wrote the poem "To my silent church," have you talked with priests or women religious about  their response to it? Because obviously it was pretty critical.

RW: It was at the time because the catholic church in 1973 was a powerful institution, whereas now, because of the terrible things that have happened and the terrible cover-ups and the hurts that you know were caused to so many people, things are different.  The catholic church takes a much wider view of things now, whereas before they would have been just dogmatic concerning everything about our religion.  Now I think the majority of priests would accept that the world is a changing place.  Coming towards the millennium there is a fall in numbers from the catholic church. Although people are now being more spiritual, their spirituality seems to be more direct with God rather than sidelined through the limitations of the catholic church.  People now go more direct to God, and I think the clergy are more aware of this.  And if they want to go along with the people, they have to have a more open heart and a more open attitude towards the problems that people in the 90s experience.

MT: To go back a second, you were talking about the mainstream media’s representation of Republicanism.  Especially in the States we get the perception that around the time of the hunger strikes it would have been mostly men that participated.  Of course then if you do a bit of reading or a little bit of research that you realize that women were also interned. Also went on hunger strikes.  Could you speak a bit about particular issues there would have been for women internees?  Like I remember reading that women who went on the dirty protests would have been at much more risk for infections -- things that people might not know about or might not think about.

RW: Well I was fortunate in that in my time in prison I was a political prisoner.  Before I went to prison the female population of the prison went on hunger strike and fought for political status and won it and when I was in we were all classed political prisoners.  But then in ‘75 when the British government decided to call it by another name the Republican prison population protested.   Now it was harder really for the women because in comparison to the male population there were so few women.  There would’ve been at that stage... at a rough guess about 100.  But in the prison they had their political structures.  They would have had a company, a military company; they would have had their OC and you know the different personnel and they really ran the prison themselves.  There wouldn’t have been enough work anyway for the prisoners to do, so that sort of did away with the myth that you have to work.  There wasn’t work for the prisoners.  But they were on lock-up 23 hours a day, and their visits were then cut down to one a month.  They had no change of clothes.

But I think the most traumatic thing would have been the strip searching and I am not really qualified to speak about that except as an observer.  I think all women you know would have the same sort of feelings on this: when the girls were being strip searched usually there was absolutely no need for it.  They were strip searched going with a “screw,” with a prison officer to court and back, where they had absolutely no contact with any person outside of the prison regime.  And so the strip searching was actually a weapon to demoralize the girls it was in a sense like the crime of rape -- you know usually it has nothing to do with sex.  It is a domination thing and that’s what the prison authorities then tried to do to the women. They did of course do this to the men as well, coming and going on their visits, in an attempt to completely humiliate them and it can’t have been easy.  It must have been a nightmare for any girl you know to have to go through this.

As it happened I was very lucky that I was never strip-searched.  When I was initially brought into Armagh prison it was about one o’clock in the morning and the "screws" just couldn’t be bothered strip searching me. I didn’t know until the following day that you actually had to have a bath and you had to have your body searched by the "screws."  I was lucky that they didn’t feel like it that night. I must have arrived when they were having their tea break or something.  And when someone asked me about it the next day, I thought they were joking. I couldn’t believe that that could happen.  But it happened to everyone who was in prison.  During the hunger strike, or shortly after the hunger strike in '81, the prison regime started to strip search the women.  There was absolutely no reason for it other than the strip searching was to be used as a weapon to demoralize and to humiliate the women.  And I think any woman at all can empathize with the horror, any woman would feel being strip searched -- especially when they are held down and their clothes are actually dragged off them and there is men in the room jeering and making sexual comments about their bodies and some of the prison officers who were female apparently used to make a lot of sexual remarks about the girls' bodies -- I think any girl at all from any age, young or old, can empathize with that horror.  Any woman would faint during that degrading treatment.  At the time there were many many protests.  We put posters up in our homes and in our windows and went about shopping centers to get signatures. No one ever refused to sign a protest about the strip searching. I wouldn't have organized the protests but I would have took part in every single one and I felt privileged to be able to help in this way.

MT: Is that still in use today? The practice?

RW: Well I don’t know.  Now there are no female political prisoners affiliated to the provisional IRA at the moment, and I suppose from that point it’s a redundant thing.  It may still be used on the people, the females who are in prison for offenses outside of political offenses.  I still think it's a terrible measure to use against any woman.

MT: I was just thinking about that because I think the perception is that it was in the 70s and the 80s but it’s over now.  And I don’t think that’s the case.

I guess the last question I'd like to ask you is about the role of writing or any other art form for prisoners.  It seems like a really good outlet for prisoners.

RW: I think when any person, whether you're in prison or in hospital or confined to your own home, when you are actually physically restricted in a certain space daily, you become more aware of things in you that don’t restrict you. You know, your mind, you can go anywhere with your mind.  If you write you can be anywhere and you sort of leave off the shackles of whatever holds you physically -- if it's a wheelchair or if it's agoraphobia -- and I think then you know you become aware that you can't just sit still.  The mind sort of goes into overdrive and it takes charge of things.  And I think it's very important that people would write -- some people would talk, some people would sing, some people would play music, or some people would do art.  People maybe who couldn’t draw a straight line suddenly realize how they can escape their predicament through a particular art form. I think it is very important that you realize within the human frame there is so much -- motion is one thing but it is only one thing, you know, the mind is the greatest component of the human body.  Because if your mind works, the rest really... you can do without an arm or a leg, which is easy for me to say when I have both arms and legs, but I always feel as long as your mind works, you know, that’s the most important thing.  And of course the soul within the body. The body is only, in my opinion, a temple to hold, to cover the soul, which is our connection, our umbilical cord with almighty God.

MT: And would you see yourself as part of a group of writers from West Belfast? Is there like a writing community that has come out of this area?

RW: Yes, I belong to the Felons' Writers Group, that's a small group made up of ex-prisoners.  But in the wider context we have a writers’ reading night one night a month in West Belfast where anybody can come.  They can listen or they  can get up and do whatever they've wrote with the comfort of knowing that nobody’s there with a critical eye. We are a group of people who love to hear people express themselves through the written word, and people come from everywhere you know.  And we’ve different venues.  A lot of our venues were closed down and we are always looking venues.

MT: Okay so I'm just going to ask you a couple more questions that I am asking everyone. Are there any particular events or people that inspired you to fight for change?  I mean probably many people come out of prison and want to forget it and not be involved politically at all.

RW: Well, my first role model ever was Our Lady, mother of God, and you know, I've often thought about the role she played in the whole history of mankind, of Christianity.  She was a very young girl and she was to get married to Joseph and then an angel comes and tells her God wants her to have his baby -- you know it must have been really... it must have been awful for her at the time but she must of had great faith to think, "God's picked me to do this," and she must have had great courage.  She was going to marry a man and it wasn’t his baby she was carrying and she was trusting that God would tell him.  And you know how would she tell her relations?  And if that happened now to a young girl say of 14 or whatever who'd been in a real dilemma... and all those years ago, coming from a very strict Jewish family you know, it must have been a nightmare really.  When we were kids we sort of thought you know it must have been great when Our Lady was told she was going to be the mother of God.  But it really might not have been so great for her because we do know she was child. At that time I think the average age of marriage then was about 14.  She went ahead with it.  And in the mornings sometimes I would do the stations and I always think the saddest station is when Christ meets his mother and you know their hearts are broken.  She sees her son crucified you know and for any mother to see a son who’s just been beaten up or just been shot or maybe blew to bits, it must have been something similar.  And when he's seen his mother and he knew the hurt that she was experiencing because of what had happened to him you know their hearts must have been broke.  And I've always loved Our Lady.  I’ve always had a very close relationship with her.

But then in Republicanism I have a lot of role models.  I've met a terrible lot of good people.  My cousin was Rose Curry.  She was 17 she was carrying a bomb and she was blew to bits and she knew what she was doing. She was 17 and she believed wherever she was going to place the bomb, she believed she was doing that for the betterment of Ireland.  And Laura Crawford, from where I live, Laura was blew to bits in '75.  Laura was a beautiful person.  Laura and her comrade Basil Fox, they went out to blow somewhere up, and the bomb exploded prematurely.  And there’s people who are still alive -- a friend of mine who actually introduced me to my husband, Bridget Hanna. Bridget’s 83 and Bridget never married.  She's been a Republican all her life.  She's a remarkable person and I admire Bridget greatly.  She’d a great influence in my life.

And in prison -- I can’t mention prison without mentioning Mary McGuiggan.  Mary is now dead.  And when I met Mary in prison, she was a woman of 45.  Her daughter was in prison with her, her daughter-in-law was also in prison, her husband was in prison, and her two sons.  She had another son Francie who had just escaped, so her whole family were tied up in the politics of the whole situation.  And Mary, Mary never ceased until her dying day being a Republican and working for the Republican cause.

MT: How did she die?

RW: Mary died of a brain tumor, and well this is it -- the years that should have brought happiness and contentment you know were all filled with worry and uphill struggles, visiting prisons and doing what she felt was right for her own politics.

MT: Getting back to the original Mary, I was wondering as you were talking if maybe she would be a very logical role model for a lot of women in this area because of the hunger strike and because so many women here have lost their sons.

RW: Yes well during the hunger strike the mothers and wives who watched their sons or husbands or loved ones die on the hunger strike... I often thought of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross and how desperate she must have felt.  What did Mary think at the foot of the cross?  Because she was a human being, her son was human when he died, and being human we all have the same feelings no matter what side of politics we come from.  I wrote about that in my play, "Cease-fire." I mentioned Mary at the bottom of the cross, and I compare her cries and her pain with our own people’s pain.  And we identify with Mary and all that suffering and she is "Our Mother."  She's bound to identify, though she may not agree probably doesn't agree with violence.  But this is the road we are on.  None of us created this road, this road was here when we were born.  The existence of oppression and injustice against a people eventually can’t be met with positivity -- you know when you’re not getting any results there is only one other road to take.

MT: I'm asking everyone that I've interviewed about their first names. Because I think women's first names are really interesting and we have interesting relationships to our first names.

RW: Well, there is a story behind my name and the story is when I was born -- I was born in the back bedroom of number 54 Ford Street which is actually just across the Springfield road. In fact I was born in the shadow of a factory called Mackey's, and Mackey's epitomized then all the things Protestant and Unionist.  It was in the heart of West Belfast and yet very few Catholics could’ve got a job in this place.  In fact the Protestants from the Shankill road would've walked down our street and would’ve walked past all the Catholic homes where the men were mainly unemployed because they couldn't get a job.  I was born there.  I was delivered by a nurse called Nurse Peel.  And after I was born my mother wasn't too well and the woman who owned the house, Maggie Finnegan, offered to go and have me registered because you had to be registered in a certain time frame.  So my mother was calling me Rosina Maria, but when Maggie got to the registration office she couldn't spell Rosina, so she could spell Roseleen.  And as it happened my mother didn’t know this until I started school.  So I've since been called Roseleen.  Also the spelling of my name, most people spell Roseleen as in the poem, "My Dark Rosaleen," that's spelled R-o-s-a-l-e-e-n, but my name was spelled with an E which is Roseleen.  So I was stuck with Roseleen and I'm glad.

* Prison images from Armagh Jail -- Thanks to Armagh City & District Council for permission to videotape

Roseleen Walsh's books, Cease-fire, Aiming Higher (with Micheál Gallagher), and The Passion of Christ: A Woman's Perspective, are available from Glandore Publishing, Springhill Community House, 6-7 Springhill Close, Belfast BT12 7SE, telephone (01232)326722.

Related transcripts:

Prisoners issues:

Ella O'Dwyer
Martina Anderson

Republican movement:

Bernadette McAliskey
Padraigin Drinan
Mary Nelis

Related resources:

Also see the peace and justice in Northern Ireland portion of the links page

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