18 January 2006

Offering a snapshot of life in Ireland

Daily Ireland

Former prisoner Féilim Ó hAdhmaill discusses his childhood, adolescence and his father

18/01/2006

Dr Féilim Ó hAdhmaill by Darragh MacIntyre
The following extract is taken from Conversations: Snapshots Of Modern Irish Life by Darragh MacIntyre.
(Gill Macmillan, £19.99/€24.99, out now)

My father came from a republican family. He had actually been deported from England in the late 1930s, early ‘40s, and then he was later interned in Derry jail. He had been arrested during the time of the bombing campaign in England.
His father before him had been jailed as well, around about the time of the 1918 election, for being in possession of a hurling stick. My father told a story of how the B-Specials came to arrest my grandfather when he was lying in his bed dying of pneumonia. I think that would have affected my father.
He became involved in republicanism in the 1930s and would have been influenced by a lot of things - by the conditions in his local community, unemployment, discrimination, by a sense of injustice at what happened to northern nationalists at the time of the Treaty, but also by the socialist tendencies of the Republican Congress and all that.
He certainly would have been sympathetic with the republicans during the Spanish Civil War.
He escaped from Derry jail in 1943, him and twenty others, tunnelling under the walls of the jail. His future brother-in-law, Paddy Adams, an uncle of Gerry Adams, escaped with him. The Free State army caught most of them at the border and they were re-interned in the Curragh, but my father, who was directing the men to the getaway vehicle as they emerged from the tunnel, was the last one out and missed the furniture van that had come to collect them.
The story is told that the chauffeur of a prominent unionist politician helped him to escape by driving him through Derry in his car. He eventually got across the border and hid in a safe house in the west of Ireland. He was finally caught in Dublin and interned with the rest of them. I only found out about all of this the year before he died. He just didn’t talk about it.
I’d got involved in republicanism around about the age of 16. I’d only been involved a very short period of time when my father brought me into the kitchen and he broke down and cried. He said: “I understand you’ve got involved. I didn’t want my kids to go through this. I thought and I hoped that none of my children would have to be involved.” I think he felt guilty that I was caught up with it. There’s a thing with a lot of republicans I think, certainly older republicans anyway.
The notion that they hadn’t succeeded and that it was up to their children to do something. I think he was afraid of what would happen to me, his only son.
My mother, who was from Fermanagh, died when my sister and I were very young. We were looked after by in-laws in the Beechmount area and then eventually my father bought a house near Mount Vernon in the north of the city. It was a mostly unionist area but there were a few Catholic families there too.
I had some very good Protestant friends there, to be honest. As a child you wanted to belong. I used to collect wood for the Twelfth bonfire and all the rest of it. I think at the time I felt that this was someone else’s area and some-one else’s customs. We were allowed to partake, but only up to a point.
Coming up to the Twelfth, that was made clear. People didn’t talk to you or stayed away from you. I think part of it was the songs. It was embarrassing, they couldn’t very well say, “Come on, Féilim, let’s sing these songs about the Fenian bastards.”
I spent most summers in Fermanagh with my mother’s family. When I came home after the holidays in 1969, I remember a Protestant friend of mine and me going into Mount Vernon and I saw the shells of the houses. And he explained that the Catholics had been burned out. He was still friendly with me, but it just became clear that I wasn’t “one of them”.
As time went on, our house and car were regularly attacked. They broke into a Catholic’s house down the street and shot him dead.
Eventually my father, who couldn’t sell the house, decided it was too dangerous for us to stay. We moved first of all into a house with another family in Bombay Street and then eventually were able to get one of the new houses at Twinbrook.
My father was a very good man. A very kind man and a very gentle man. Anybody who knew him would say that.
He was always reading and encouraging me to read books, some of them very political. I read the Communist Manifesto when I was twelve or thirteen. I also read Borstal Boy, for instance.
My father had known Brendan Behan in jail, though again I didn’t learn this until years later. He had actually read Borstal Boy when it was in draft and he talked about playing handball with Behan in the Curragh. All this stuff he kept to himself for years.
I remember reading a comic when I was very young with an article in it called What did you do in the war, Dad? So I’d asked my father was he ever in the war. He turned round and said, “Yeah.” I said, “What did you do? Did you drive a tank?” And he started to laugh and said, “No, I didn’t drive a tank.” That was the first time he had ever said anything about it. At all.
My father was really very anti-sectarian. I think that’s another important thing, because that had a big effect on me, the notion that this division between Catholic and Protestant was basically a diversion that had been promoted by British interests - divide and conquer.

Dr Féilim Ó hAdhmaill (47) was once OC of the Long Kesh Gaeltacht. The all-Irish-speaking wing of one of the H-Blocks has closed since and all prisoners like Féilim have been released. He had been serving a 25-year sentence after being found in possession of bomb-making material and a pistol in England in 1994. Married with two grown-up children, he is committed to improving the world in any way he can. Peace is the way forward, he says, but he believes that the armed struggle was just and necessary.

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