Interview: Jennifer McCann, former republican POW, Armagh Jail
10 August 2006
A republican woman remembers
Jennifer McCann was a comrade of Bobby Sands and a protesting prisoner in Armagh Jail. She remains a republican activist and here talks to ELLA O'DWYER about her memories of the 1981 Hunger Strike.
Jennifer McCann, from the Twinbrook area of West Belfast was arrested on 5 March 1981, five days after Bobby Sands started his fast to the death. She knew the Sands family before her arrest. "I'd have been running around with Bobby's sister Bernadette and had been in and out of the house."
When she was 12, McCann's family, like so many others, including the Sands family, had to leave the predominantly loyalist Rathcoole area of North Belfast, going to live in Twinbrook. Jennifer McCann recalls intimidation from loyalists as she went to school. She remembers that at about the age of eleven she and her schoolmates encountered fear.
"We used to have to go through a loyalist area called Mount Vernon. The intimidation got so bad that we had to wear our own clothes to school rather than our uniforms so they couldn't be identified. We were just kids."
Along with an early introduction to loyalist sectarianism, McCann's interest in Irish history influenced her decision to join Cumann na gCailiní, the republican organisation for girls. Na Cailiní carried out tasks such as selling Republican News and marching at commemorations. Young republicans came under heavy attention from the crown forces. "Growing up in West Belfast you were used to being arrested. I was arrested five times before I was 18. It was known as screening."
When she reached 17 Jennifer McCann joined the IRA and Bobby Sands was her local leader.
"He was a great role model and great with young people. He always had time for everybody and brought himself to your level. He was never arrogant and treated everybody with respect. Bobby was already a leadership figure in his community."
Asked if Bobby Sands was all seriousness, she said Bobby was a singer who enjoyed a social evening and was very good at bringing people together: "He always had the guitar and would sing a song."
When McCann was 20 she was arrested and taken to Castlereigh after an IRA operation. An RUC member was shot in the incident and Jennifer herself was injured along with another comrade. On arrest they expected a thrashing and they weren't disappointed.
"We got a bad beating, both on the spot and afterwards in Castlegreagh."
She and a co-accused called Joe Simpson got a beating. They were sentenced to 20 years. While not recognising the court, Jennifer McCann declared aloud that Bobby Sands and his comrades were political prisoners and so was she. In his diary entry for Friday 6 March 1981 Bobby Sands says: "My friend Jennifer got 20 years. I am greatly distressed."
This forced the women onto a no-wash protest just as it had forced their comrades in the Blocks. By the time McCann had arrived into the remand wing of Armagh Jail the women had been on the no-wash protest for about six weeks. Remand and convicted prisoners could only meet at Mass on Sundays. Because the women prisoners could wear their own clothes and didn't have to wear the blanket, they took visits. The protesting prisoners would ask Jennifer and the other remand prisoners if there were a smell from their bodies. As young women, they had also to deal with monthly menstruation, a factor that is often lost on people.
Towards the end of 1980, at the height of the first Hunger Strike, the women POWs in Armagh decided they would join their comrades in the Blocks on the fast. The numbers in Armagh were proportionately low in terms of the women's capacity to maintain the kind of momentum that could keep pressure on the British Government and yet three women joined the fast - Mary Doyle, Sheila Darragh and Mairéad Farrell and stayed on it until the first hunger strike ended.
Asked how the prisoners in Armagh coped with the realisation that their comrades in the Blocks were dying while they could not even go on the streets and protest, McCann says: "It was kind of surreal. We had a small crystallised radio and were aware of what was gong on. We also had a very good 'comm' system.
"One of the hardest days was when Dolores O'Neill, who was engaged to Thomas McElwee, found out that her fiancée had died. She had finally been allowed a visit him in the hospital and came back feeling upbeat. The next day Thomas was dead."
Recently Jennifer McCann made a visit to the hospital wing of the H-Blocks: "That day I thought about what the families went through and the physical pain the men endured."
Now 25 years on, the memory of the Hunger Strike is very vivid for her. At a recent meeting called to launch the 13 August March in Belfast she said:
"The Hunger Strike opened up the struggle to everyone. People who might formerly have seen themselves as spectators in the conflict could now get actively involved in building political strength, just as Bobby Sands had been within the Twinbrook community."
By way of closure she added: "This conflict has been a long and hard one and I have seen a number of close friends and comrades die long before their time."
She went on to recall Bobby Sands's well-known words "Let our revenge be the laughter of our children". For McCann the struggle is about future generations living in a just and peaceful society.
Jennifer McCann is married with three children and now works with a community drugs programme in the Falls Community Council."
Now 25 years on, the memory of the Hunger Strike is very vivid for her.