Archbishop Ó Fiaich on the conditions in H Block (1978)

Tomás Ó Fiaich was a Catholic clergyman, the Archbishop of Amargh and, later, the Cardinal of Ireland. In the summer of 1978 Ó Fiaich visited Republican prisoners in Maze Prison’s H Block. He later issued a statement, condemning conditions there:

“Having spent the whole of Sunday in the prison, I was shocked at the inhuman conditions prevailing in H-Blocks Three, Four and Five, where over 300 prisoners were 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, 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.

The prisoners’ cells are without beds, chairs or tables. They sleep on mattresses on the floor and, in some cases, I noticed that these were quite wet. They have no covering except a towel or blanket, no books, newspapers or reading material except the Bible (even religious magazines have been banned since my last visit), 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…

It is evident that they intend to continue their protest indefinitely and it seems they prefer to face death rather than to submit to being classed as criminals. Anyone with the least knowledge of Irish history knows how deeply this attitude is in our country’s past. In isolation and perpetual boredom they maintain their sanity by studying Irish. It was an indication of the triumph of the human spirit over adverse material conditions to notice Irish words, phrases and songs being shouted from cell to cell and then written on each cell wall with the remnants of toothpaste tubes.”