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HARD CELL Bobby Sands' prison pal recalls life in the H-Block with the IRA hunger striker and the horrors of the Troubles

Forty years ago republican Jake Mac Siacais was on the blankets in the cell beside Bobby Sands

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Jake Mac Siacais at Bobby Sands’ grave in Milltown cemetery.

Jake Mac Siacais at Bobby Sands’ grave in Milltown cemetery.

Jake Mac Siacais at Bobby Sands’ grave in Milltown cemetery.

"I have no fear of death. I think death is a natural part of life. And when I thought I was dying I was very calm and I got pen and paper and wrote my last wishes for my family. There was no high dramatics, I thought I would just slip off quietly to fertilise a nice cherry tree."

I'm standing on the Falls Road in Belfast under the famous mural of hunger strike martyr Bobby Sands and I'm contemplating the meaning of life with Jake Mac Siacais. He's just told me his story, well a part of it anyway, and I'm wondering how he feels about going to meet his maker.

"I find it difficult to believe that there is a man somewhere who has 10 things he doesn't want us to do, who is pre-occupied with our bedroom habits and who will send us all to hell if we don't do what he wants.

I find it preposterous to be truthful. But when I stand in a Neolithic burial site and feel the presence of something beyond the physical, I've no problem with that. I sort of wonder if the Hindus have it right."

It's not what I would have expected from a former IRA leader, and the Falls Road isn't my usual stomping ground, but I've been delving into different territories of late for my podcast Crime World and one of the things I have found myself considering is 'what is the meaning of crime?'

Forty years ago Jake Mac Siacais was on the blankets in the H-Blocks and was in the cell beside Bobby Sands when he embarked on his 66 days on hunger strike, ended only when he breathed his last breath on a bright May morning.

Mac Siacais, too, volunteered for the gruelling regime which drew attention to republican prisoners in Northern Ireland's jails. Ten men starved themselves to death during the hunger strikes and at the very heart of the dispute was the IRA men's determination that they would not take on the status of a common criminal.

To do so, they believed, would undermine the entire struggle against British oppression and end the dignity of the Irish nation.

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Nicola Tallant and Jake Mac Siacais at the Bobby Sands mural on the Falls Road in Belfas

Nicola Tallant and Jake Mac Siacais at the Bobby Sands mural on the Falls Road in Belfas

Nicola Tallant and Jake Mac Siacais at the Bobby Sands mural on the Falls Road in Belfas

"It stays with you. I know it is 40 years since the hunger strikes but it still feels very immediate to me. I don't dwell on it and at times you just get overwhelming moments of sadness.

"It can be emotionally just talking about these things as they deeply affect you. But the one thing I always remember is the lads' humanity. They were decent, solid human beings. They were in a conflict which was not of their choosing but they decided to play a role," says the now President of Belfast's Gaeltacht Quarter.

"I'm not making any excuses because the IRA carried out some horrendous deeds and we are all collectively responsible for those. I don't seek to sidestep or minimise it. I'm now in my sixties and when I sit on a Sunday afternoon with my family, I know that there are so many families with an empty space.

"We caused a lot of those empty spaces and it is difficult to continuously justify what the IRA did when you know people suffered so much as a result. But we didn't decide to wake up one morning and become bombers and gunmen.

"Simple demands for civil rights were met with a brutal response from the state and so the people fought back. I regret every single life that was lost. I wish that none of it had happened. But I feel no guilt for any actions that I carried out and I am proud of the role I played in the Republican movement. All blood runs red and all grief is the same."

Mac Siacais, now a grandad, has extraordinary eyes. They are soft with huge pupils and when he talks it's like you can look right into his soul. He has just recovered from Covid which left him hospitalised and gasping for breath.

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He was one of the lucky ones and his voice is still strong, years after he was chosen to shout commands from one block to the next in his beloved Irish so the prison guards couldn't understand.

He has known an incredible amount of violence. At 14 he was waterboarded - an experience that he says he recently relived before medics were able to get him on oxygen.

"It's horrendous. They would dunk you and when you came up gasping for air they'd place a sodden towel over your face and because you are breathing in the water droplets it feels like you are drowning. Once they waterboarded you they held you out the third-floor window by your feet. There was a lad done after me and he must have slipped. He's still alive but in a wheelchair all his life.

"They were looking for admissions from me of IRA membership and activity. I never spoke a word in the barracks, ever. I could go into any interrogation and sit down and visualise walking into my mother's house. I'd note the shape of the door, the colour of the door and then I'd walk in through it and see the holy water font.

"Every time they broke my concentration I'd go back to the front door again and begin walking through the house. So it was just constantly going through that routine and shutting them out," he says.

The house was his family home in Andersonstown, a suburb of west Belfast at the foot of the Divis mountain.

"I always found it easy to escape like that. When I was in prison I'd put in my time by following the crows as they went out over the fields and up Gypsy's Lane, over O'Hare's farm and up to the mountains.

"You weren't in prison when you could do that. I'd keep it going until lunchtime when the screws would interrupt me coming with the lunch. Sometimes I'd go to concerts or for a walk along the Burren in County Clare. I've learned that there is no limit on your freedom once you have the imagination to take yourself out of where you are."

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Mac Siacais recalls his time during the hunger strikes

Mac Siacais recalls his time during the hunger strikes

Mac Siacais recalls his time during the hunger strikes

Often while Mac Siacais was day-dreaming he'd be taken out of his trance by Special Branch officers screaming in his face or later by the notorious prison officers who ran the brutal regime at the H-Blocks.

"I was scalded in 1979," he recalls. "It was just one day and the screws came in and there was this clattering noises and then screaming. They were shouting at the men to stay still and then you'd hear the splash.

"I remember Gerry Dowdall screaming at the top of his lungs. His door was next to mine. They came to my cell and said they would keep me to the end because I was the man giving the orders.

"They worked their way around the whole wing. The worst thing about that was listening to the men screaming. To be hearing it but not being able to do anything.

"Eventually they opened my door and I'd the blanket wrapped around me. One of the guards said I was to be stripped and then they poured it over me. I screamed like Ned Flanders in an episode of The Simpsons. The pain was unbelievable. I could feel the blisters rising up on my back, neck and thighs.

"Afterwards one of the officers came back and threw me a tube of Germolene and a John Player cigarette. He said 'put that on and have a smoke, you deserve it after what you've been through.' I thought he was some sort of a schizophreniac before I realised that it was just him trying to protect his own humanity. He had to go to sleep that night after all, so he was just squaring it with himself."

Jake was only 17 when he was first jailed and still a teenager when he entered the H-Blocks. Later he would relive many of his experiences as his own children grew up and wonder how anyone could be so violent to young people.

The prison officers, he says, viewed the IRA prisoners as the enemy and their views were cemented during a campaign where staff were targeted in a series of shootings and bomb attacks as the stand-off in the jails intensified.

"They were also operating under policy instructions of course, these things didn't happen by mistake. The opinion was the prisoners were the last line of defence to the IRA so we had to be beaten into the ground. It was a deliberate government policy to demoralise the prisoners and break up the struggle. It is the same in any conflict situation, people do things that are not normal, things that would not be contemplated outside the context of conflict.

"In a way you diminish your humanity but you must also have ways of reconciling that or justifying to yourself what is happening. When I was being brutalised in the H-Blocks, in a vague way I realised that I would only diminish myself if I allowed myself to hate. If I allowed it to become personal and to hate, it would have become like a cancer that ate me up.

"They say acid does more damage to the vessel that contains it than it does to anything upon which it is poured. It's the same concept really."

In the latest Crime World podcast Mac Siacais recalls first meeting Bobby Sands while they were still in the cages in Long Kesh and being treated as political prisoners.

"The first time I saw him he was walking across the yard to the study hut. He had long hair and a bush hat on. His guitar was slung over his shoulders and he was wearing a pair of jeans and a red and white jumper. He was sauntering along. Bobby loved music and he was very intense. A that stage he was still only 19 but he was a writer and a thinker."

Despite the regime in Long Kesh and promises from the older leadership of the IRA that agreements were being made with the British government, Mac Siacais, Sands and other younger IRA men could see the H-Blocks being built and had no faith in a 1975 ceasefire.

At the same time the republican prisoners' Special Category Status was being phased out and authorities wanted them to wear prison uniforms. The prisoners refused and in the years later tensions would escalate into the blanket and dirty protests followed by the hunger strikes.

"I remember then seeing the future as one of struggle. I firmly believed we were in it for a long war. We were conspiring how we could change the course of the struggle and we knew a number of things were required.

"We needed the ability to build broad alliances within the community against the British military occupation. We needed to perfect how the IRA organised itself and was equipped to prosecute a war. By 1977 that had all worked its way through to an IRA structure on the outside."

That same year marked Mac Siacais' second stretch behind bars, this time in the H-Blocks, which would last over five years. Sands was already there and quickly Mac Siacais was joined by his lifelong friend Bik McFarlane, who was the Officers Commanding in the Maze during the hunger strikes.

McFarlane would go on to lead the mass breakout of republican prisoners in 1983 and would later face charges in relation to the kidnap of supermarket executive Don Tidy. The trial collapsed in 2008, following a series of appeals and judicial reviews and after Garda evidence was eventually ruled inadmissible.

One of the most poignant nights in the H-Blocks was March 9, 1981, which was the evening of Bobby Sands' 27th birthday. It would also be his last as he would die two months later from starvation. That night the prisoners sang songs and danced. Sands himself sang I Wish I Was Back Home In Derry, a song he wrote himself.

"I was convinced that he would die from the outset," he says of Sands. "He was in the cell next door to us for a short period before he was put into Cell 26 which was facing us. We'd talk to him through the doors but we could hear him fading.

"By the time he was moved to hospital he was weakening and began to seriously deteriorate. Bik went to see him in hospital before he died. He was blind and his voice was weak. He heard the footsteps and sensed it was Bik. He said to him: 'tell the boys I'm all right and they won't break me.' It was horrendous.

"Bobby was dying but he wasn't thinking narrow. He felt he was proud to have the spirit of freedom and he hoped a day would come when all the people had it.

"As he felt it was then we would see the rising of the moon. To him to allow them to criminalise the republican struggle couldn't happen. If he had to step forward and die to stop that happening, that was the way it would be and he accepted that."

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