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  • “Inhuman Conditions Prevailing”: The Significance of the Dirty Protest in the Irish Republican Prison War, 1978–81
  • Rachel Oppenheimer (bio)

Having spent the whole of Sunday in the prison, I was shocked by the inhuman conditions prevailing in H-Blocks 3, 4, and 5, where over 300 prisoners are incarcerated. The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in sewer-pipes in the slums of Calcutta. One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being. The stench and filth in some of the cells, with the remains of rotten food and human excreta scattered around the walls, was almost unbearable. In two of them I was unable to speak for fear of vomiting.1

In this manner did the Roman Catholic archbishop of Armagh, Tomás Ó Fiaich, bring to light Irish republican prisoners’ “dirty” protest on 31 July 1978. By then Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoners in Her Majesty’s Prison Maze had, for two years, been protesting the loss of the “special-category status” previously accorded to some prisoners. Prior to 1 March 1976 this status permitted paramilitary prisoners to exercise free association, to wear their own clothing rather than prison uniforms, and to be exempt from prison work, thus allowing these men and women to be considered, and to consider themselves, as prisoners of war.2 After that date, however, the new policy of criminalization ended special-category status and reclassified paramilitary offenses and offenders as criminal rather than political in nature. The idea that their [End Page 142] actions would be labeled as equivalent to those of petty thieves and others who did not fight for the betterment of their country, and who were categorized as “ordinary decent criminals,” was abhorrent to these ideologically driven men and women, and they immediately set about protesting the new policy. In March 1978 republicans’ protest took an unexpected turn when they began smearing their cells with their own waste, and it was into these conditions that the archbishop stepped at the end of July.

Historians, social scientists, and even the participants themselves have written widely on the republican fight against criminalization that began with the blanket protest in 1976 and ended with the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981.3 Only a few scholars, however, focus specifically on the dirty protest. Journalist Tim Pat Coogan’s On the Blanket is the sole monograph devoted to the subject, and although he deals with both the men’s and women’s protests, his treatment of the latter has been criticized as sexist.4 Additionally, The Armagh Women, a short work by journalist Nell McCafferty, examined the dirty protest staged by women republican prisoners held at Armagh prison in 1980, and social scientist Kieran McEvoy devoted a chapter of his Paramilitary Imprisonment in Northern Ireland to self-sacrifice as resistance, using the dirty protest and hunger strike as examples. Anthropologists too have written at length about this phase of republican activism: in Formations of Violence Allen Feldman describes how protesters and prison officials alike positioned human bodies as battlegrounds, while Begoña Aretxaga explores how gender shaped the [End Page 143] actions (and perceptions) of the dirty protesters in both Shattering Silence and a 1995 essay on the subject. Paula Burn’s “Rethinking the Armagh Dirty Protest,” one of the most recent pieces of scholarship on the topic, is emblematic of the articles available on the subject, which deal almost exclusively with the women’s protest at Armagh and gendered conceptions of the protest.5

Still, scholarship on this topic continues to constrict our understanding of the dirty protest in two main ways. First, scholars analyze men’s and women’s actions separately and so fail to consider both the interactions between the two and their combined effect. Secondly, the existing narrative about the dirty protest—that it was a false start or at best a mere step on the inevitable path to the all-important hunger strike—entirely overlooks the real achievements of the protesters. I argue that historians in particular must examine the place of the dirty protest...


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pp. 142-163
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