O’Fiach and Blanket Men

I recently read one of Brian Moore’s last books, Lies of Silence, the title referring to Westminster’s silence on the injustices perpetrated on the Catholic minority in the Northern statelet where Moore was reared (before he emigrated to North America). 

In my student days Moore was a highly respected topical novelist and I eagerly devoured all his works, from The Emperor of Ice-Cream onwards. He should have stopped writing about his home place as soon as he left.

This novella is trite, laden with platitudes and reads like its author is a foreigner trying to come to grips with our reality. It includes a cynical and snide attack on Cardinal O’Fiach for his attempts to understand and intervene on behalf of the ‘Dirty Protesters’. The big twist in the end is telegraphed from the first chapter. I finished the book only because I was determined to do him justice, out of respect for what he had been. 

Out of respect for the late Cardinal, I include the following press statement of his from 1 August 1978:

‘Having spent the whole of Sunday in the prison I was shocked at the inhuman conditions prevailing in H Blocks 3, 4 and 5 where over 300 prisoners are incarcerated. 

One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being. The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in the sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta. The stench and filth in some of the cells, where 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. 

The prisoners’ cells are without beds, chairs or tables. They sleep on mattresses on the floor and in some cases I noticed that they were quite wet. They have no covering except a towel or blanket; no books, newspapers or reading material except the Bible; no pens or writing materials; no TV or radio; no hobbies or handicrafts; no exercise or recreation. They are locked in their cells for almost the whole of every day and some of them have been in this condition for more than a year and a half.’

The Cardinal’s statement caused a press furore. He was dubbed the IRA’s priest and apologist (O’Fiach was totally opposed to the use of violence). The Northern Ireland Office issued a statement insisting: ‘These criminals are totally responsible for the situation in which they find themselves.’ They insisted they would never negotiate with ‘terrorists’. 

They were even then talking to their leaders. They negotiated and today we have these leaders in equal power with Unionists in government (well, administration!) here. When the British Government (under the hated Thatcher) got its pyrrhic victory, it acquiesced in most of the prisoners’ demands. 

Sinn Fein recently topped the poll here. They have Thatcher, the Dirty Protesters (many of them soon to be hunger-strikers) and the Northern Ireland Office to thank for their victory.

Lighter?   S Armagh emigration folktale? …

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