In the early seventies as war waged on the streets of Belfast a young Jim ‘Jaz’ McCann was just like any other young teenage lad: going to discos, chasing girls, listening to rock music and being footloose and fancy free. The world was at his feet and Jaz was destined to make a big impression upon it… no doubt about that.
He certainly did, but maybe not as he had planned. He had joined the IRA and his life as a volunteer would take a dramatic turn in 1976. Jaz was arrested after a gun attack in South Belfast on an RUC officer, who was uninjured, but whose colleagues in the vicinity gave chase.
There is a poignant scene near the beginning of the book when Jaz looks out from his cell, while on remand in Crumlin Road Jail, to young pupils in the yard of nearby St Malachy’s College, his old school. He remembers as a schoolboy looking up at the jail with an eerie feeling, a foreboding almost, that he was destined to be imprisoned behind its walls.
Though sentenced to twenty-five years, Jaz’s war was not over. Far from it. The British government had withdrawn political status and the republican prisoners stated that they would not be criminalized by the administration. Thus began one of the most epic prison struggles in Irish history.
The administration had everything on its side: a huge prison staff who had no compunction about using violence, archaic prison rules which, for example, allowed punishments of bread and water, the use of solitary confinement, and the punitive withdrawal of every known right normally accorded prisoners, from the right to exercise and see the sky one hour a day, to have reading and writing material.
To its shame, much of the media, bar a few noble exceptions, repeated British government propaganda and its various ridiculous mantras which denied reality and denied the political nature of the prisoners and the conflict.
In the H-Blocks David was meeting Goliath head on and Jaz and his fellow POWs were on the front line.
Every day the prisoners challenged what they considered the barbarity and inhumanity of the prison. They had the greatest weapon of all, a clear conscience, incredible dedication and an unbreakable conviction in the morality of their cause. As Bobby Sands wrote in his poem, The Rhythm of Time:
It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is ‘the undauntable thought’, my friend,
That thought that says, ‘I’m right!’
Jaz, of course, would be in the middle of it all, along with many others, and would bear witness to one of the greatest battle of wills between Irish prisoners and their British jailors, and would be involved in an unimaginable protest which was to captivate the world in the climacteric 1981 hunger strike. (His life would take another dramatic turn in 1983 when he escaped from the Blocks.)
He takes us through the minutia of life ‘on the blanket;’ every day a battle, on the no wash protest, the intimate body searches, the horrific wing shifts (so graphically depicted in Steve McQueen’s film, Hunger).
I felt like I was reading an alternative version of Homer’s The Odyssey, except that Jaz’s story was real, as were the monsters and tormentors, and it took not ten but seventeen years for him to find his way home – and to think that all this was happening just eight miles up the road from Belfast. You have to occasionally nip yourself to absorb that reality—of men entombed for years in cells which froze in winter and boiled in summer (when the maggots emerged from the piles of rotten food in the corner of the cell to crawl over the naked bodies of the prisoners).
Without doubt the author has given us a very lucid and clear insight into his living nightmare, in a style which is open and honest and at times extremely moving.
His descriptions of Joe McDonnell, who would later die after sixty one days on hunger strike, their friendship and comradeship makes for incredible, powerful writing. I’d heard stories about Joe McDonnell before and the reverence he commanded, but his big, warm personality comes alive in these pages. For Jaz, Joe was a ‘giant of a man’ who guided and led men in their darkest hours, a man who loved his comrades.
The 1981 hunger strike haunts this book. Jaz personally knew many of the men who were to die, who were never to leave Long Kesh alive.
After the hunger strike ends the struggle for political status continues as the blanket men emerge from their cells, onto the wings, out into the yards. You can almost feel the power they wield. Jaz describes in brilliant detail, the tension, and nail-biting minute-by-minute timeline of the great escape of September 1983 when using tools from the workshops that were meant to symbolize their criminalization, the prisoners overpower the staff in H7 and take over the entire block.
It is hard to believe that Jaz is a first-time author. He puts you there in the cell, in the back of the food van with thirty-six others, driving towards the gates of freedom. He puts you in the historical driving seat.
When I speak to former prisoners who went through the political status protest in Armagh Women’s Prison or the in the H-Blocks, many are still emotionally connected to the memories of the place and how every single one of them has been scarred in one way or another.
Many still find it very hard to talk about the death of their comrades on hunger strike and so I am grateful that Jazz, in this book, has revisited that darkness, 1981, the big escape, the six thousand days of pain from which he emerged sane, a man standing tall. Jaz was there.
About the friendships and comradeships forged in those days and darkest nights in the Blocks (described as ‘Hades’ by Bobby Sands in one of his poems), Jaz says, simply:
‘We were more than blanket men. We were brothers.’