CUMANN na Meirleach Poblachtach Éireannach/the Irish Republican Felons Association celebrated its 60th birthday last weekend.

The first part of last Friday evening’s celebrations was given over to Danny Morrison, who hosted two conversations. The first was with Síle Darragh and Mary Doyle and focused on their experience in Armagh Women’s Prison. The second was with Colm Scullion, Jackie McMullan, and Jazz McCann. This centred on Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty who they knew well in the H-Blocks. The discussions were insightful, informative and inspiring.

Afterward I was asked to introduce my good friend Gino, aka Eoghan Mac Cormac, who has just published a new book, ‘Captive Columns – An Underground Prison Press 1865-2000’.

In all my dealings with Gino he has been very positive, cheerful and funny. He is also very clever. Especially with words í nGaeilge agus Bearla, from crossword puzzles in the H-Blocks to regular contributions to our Irish unity magazine Éire Nua, from designing republican jigsaws to his recent books of poetry and prose. He is the author of Cáibín an Phápa, a novel written during his final years in prison, and Pluid, which both won Oireachtas prizes. On the Blanket, Macallaí Cillín, the Pen behind the Wire, Gael agus Géibheann have also been published and now he has delivered this new work.

This new book, published by Greenisland Press, tells the extraordinary story of how republican prisoners, held in the most dire of conditions, succeeded in circumventing the prison regimes to produce news-sheets and newspapers. Beginning in 1865, Gino has identified over 60 such publications. Sometimes they were single pages, single editions and whimsical productions. On other occasions these journals were thirty to forty pages in length. Some were in English and others in Irish and occasionally they had illustrations. They were all subject to the challenges of prison life, some found during searches, others subject to censorship, sudden transfers and sometimes execution. That any survived at all is remarkable and often down to the clever ways in which copies were smuggled out of the prisons.

From the mid-19th century through to the H-Blocks and Armagh in our own time, toilet paper and prison prayer books have been the staple source of most of these publications. In the 1970s 80s and 90s cigarette papers were widely used.

But in his detailed research, Gino brings us back to a young Cork Fenian, John Sarsfield Casey, who was transported to Australia in 1867. He had already spent more than two years in prisons in Cork, Mountjoy and later in Pentonville in Britain. In the latter the prison regime employed a separation and silence system, turning Pentonville into a huge silent tomb where communication between prisoners was forbidden. Circular cages or rectangles were constructed in the exercise yards and for 45 minutes each day the prisoner could walk without seeing another prisoner.

Casey later wrote: “Plotting was the natural consequence of the isolation we were detained in – necessity the mother of invention... Each prisoner is furnished weekly with a supply of brown tissue paper for WC purposes. Letters and words might be formed by pricking the paper with a needle and holding it between you and the light; the words then became quite intelligible.”

This was just the beginning of a sophisticated system involving republican prisoners recording their thoughts on scraps of paper and sharing them with comrades.

Gino’s book records the evolution of this process over 135 years, through the Fenian prisoners held in English jails to the Tan War and Civil War, the 1930s, 40s and 50s and then into our own period of prison struggle beginning in 1969. It is an amazing story of human endeavour – of men and women overcoming adversity.

It is very fitting that Gino dedicated Captive Columns to Brian Campbell, another great writer, editor of Scairt Amach, the Captive Voice and An Phoblacht. I also want to reference Jazz McCann who separately from Gino wrote a book – ‘6,000 Days’ – which like Gino’s ‘On the Blanket’ details the brutality of the prison regime and the courage of the blanketmen during that protest. It is a matter of wonderment to me that Jazz and Gino produced two very different accounts of unique, moving and evocative reflections and memories of a shared time in the same wing, at the same time. Both books are compelling and accessible story telling.

For me, these two books exemplify the power of the imagination and memory and of the written word and the personal and individual understanding of events, personalities and personal experiences which are unique to the H-Block blanket protests. So too with Laurence McKeown’s ‘Time Shadows'. There are other books about the Blocks. Armagh women like Síle Darragh produced their accounts also and that is important.

‘Captive Columns’ is a work of important and detailed research and scholarship of the highest order. It and the other books I have mentioned are available in An Fhuiseog, 55 Falls Road, and and online at

Student protests have shaped the world we live in

IN the late 1960s the major national and international issues of the day that helped shape my politics were the anti-Vietnam War movement, the anti-apartheid struggle against the racist South African government and the civil rights movement in the North.  In all three, the activism of students was central to raising public awareness and opposition to injustice.

PROTEST: Benches used to barricade a doorway during the student protest at Trinity College

PROTEST: Benches used to barricade a doorway during the student protest at Trinity College

Today students are again at the heart of an ant-war movement. In the USA students at over 100 university campuses have taken a stand against the genocidal war of the Israeli government against the Palestinian people. In scenes reminiscent of anti-war demonstrations almost 60 years ago, the images of riot-clad and armed police brutally arresting over 2,000 students, college professors and academics on US campuses has shocked many. Film footage and photographs from May 1970 of the shooting dead of four students at Ohio Kent State University have been replayed again and again on social media as anti-war supporters express their opposition to what is now taking place in the USA.

In Britain and Ireland and in parts of Europe, as well as in Canada, Australia and other states, similar protests are now taking place at universities, including Trinity College in Dublin.

The demands of the students are simple: a permanent end to the war, the release of all hostages – including the 6,000 held by Israel – and for universities to disinvest from Israel. Well done and thank you to all of those students taking part in these peaceful, non-violent protests.

Rights in a new Ireland

LAST week the British government’s Legacy Act took effect and a group of international human rights experts published a major report accusing the British state of operating a “systematic” practice of impunity to protect state forces. In the same week, people interested in human rights packed into St Comgall’s/Ionad Eileen Howell. The conference was organised by Sinn Féin’s Commission on the Future of Ireland.

The impressive panel was chaired by Ailbhe Smyth, campaigner and activist, and included Dr Shannonbrooke Murphy, Associate Professor in Human Rights at St Thomas University in Canada; Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights Law in the School of Law, Queen’s University; and Daniel Holder, Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice.

IDEAS: The panel at the event examining the importance of rights in a new Ireland

IDEAS: The panel at the event examining the importance of rights in a new Ireland

The contribution of panelists and audience members clearly identified the need to put in place strategies that promote understanding. These must include a robust, internationally compliant human rights system of laws and governance that incorporate rights, freedoms and responsibilities, that guarantee civil and political rights, democratic, social, economic and cultural rights. children’s rights, language and cultural rights and environmental and developmental rights.

The Tories have spent 13 years eroding the protections of the Good Friday Agreement. As a result there is No Bill of Rights; No Civic Forum in the North; No all-Ireland Civic Forum; No North-South Committee of the two human rights commissions and no all-Ireland Charter of Rights. Clearly, there are many challenges ahead to undo these decisions. Be part of this conversation. Reach out to others. The people of this island deserve a citizen-centred, rights-based society. London won’t give us this. Self-determination will, if those of us who want real change plan for it. That is what last week’s conference was about. Be part of it. 

A video of the conference is available at