Daily Ireland examines a fascinating journey into the hearts, minds, deep comradeship and everyday life of those who endured the torturous years of 1976-81 in the H-block cells
Not just a new generation of educated, confident, young nationalists will be delighted by the reprint of Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H-Block Struggle 1976-1981, but also an older generation who bought it when first published in 1994 but then lent it out to other avid readers never to have it returned.
Nor Meekly Serve My Time surely stands as one of the most powerful books to have come out of the conflict. Powerful, because it was written by those who experienced the blanket protest, no-wash protests and finally the hunger strikes during the years 1976-1981. Ingenious, because the book was written in the prison by the prisoners who were still in Long Kesh ten years after the hunger strike then smuggled out to the outside world, as a gift to us. Fascinating, as it batters your emotions – laughing loudly at one page to sobbing openly at the next, the book takes us into the H-block cells and into the hearts, minds, and everyday life of those who endured those torturous years.
The most amazing aspect of the book, however, is the sense of warmth you get from it, the dignity of those who wrote their accounts, and the feeling of deepest comradeship that shines through. The prisoners in the H-blocks and Armagh Jail smashed the attempts to criminalise them – at a terrible cost – but they also achieved much more than that. They overcame the attempts to dehumanise them.
In Nor Meekly Serve My Time you don’t hear bitter or angry voices but very personal, intimate, almost bashful accounts of people who while still in their teenage years were placed on the frontline of battle. British military strategists had thought them the weakest link, the ideal front upon which to launch an attack upon the revolutionary republican forces. How could they ever have known that what they were going up against was something more powerful than prisons, tanks, and guns. They were challenging the will of a people to be free.
Laurence McKeown, one of the editors of Nor Meekly Serve My Time, and a weekly columnist with Daily Ireland, spoke of his experiences writing the book:
“The book was part of a creative process within the prison whereby we were telling our own history, not allowing others to interpret it for us. I think it was unique in that sense.There are very few other liberation struggles where those engaged in it are also recording their thoughts and feelings at the time and then making those available to the public. In fact when the book was eventually released there were some republicans who were a little uneasy that maybe too much was revealed. But I think that our struggle can only be made stronger by showing how it is real people who are involved in it. Real people with all the fears, anxieties, weaknesses, strengths, hopes and failings that only real people can have.
As we wrote at the end of the book, there was no blueprint for what happened in the prison and it would be all too easy in hindsight to tell the history of the struggle there as one built on careful analysis on our part. It wasn’t. We were all fairly naive when we first were put in prison. Our response to the policy of criminalisation was more instinctive than analytical, but that’s what real people around the world do when first engaging in struggle. The analysis and political maturity come later, developed as a result of struggle and it was as an outcome of that process that we believed we should get our message out to a wider world.
If we were going to make history by our actions then we should write that history using our own words.”
Speaking for the publishers, Beyond the Pale Publications, Bill de Laval said: “It is hard to believe that 12 years have passed since the first edition of Nor Meekly Serve My Time.The book is an outstanding read but has been out of print for a number of years.We are delighted to have produced this special 25th anniversary edition with new cover and introductions, including a foreword dedicated to Brian Campbell, the original book’s compiler who died aged 45 last October.”
The book is available from bookshops (including Sinn Féin bookshops in Dublin and Belfast), Coiste na nIarchimí, on-line from the publishers (www.btpale.com), and at hunger strike 25th anniversary commemorative events.