A FORMER IRA man who spent years in the next cell to hunger striker Bobby Sands has opened up for the first time about life in the H-Blocks during Northern Ireland’s most troubled times.
Jake Mac Siacais (62) revealed how years of being surrounded by death and tragedy on the Maze prison wings eventually left him fighting post-traumatic stress.
The well-known west Belfast republican, jailed for conspiracy to cause explosion offences, spent most of his young adult life behind bars after becoming involved in IRA violence.
Waterboarded as a young boy, he was “blown up” at 14 before being detained and sent to Long Kesh’s ‘cages’ at the age of 17 as a political status prisoner.
He was released in 1977 before being rearrested and sent to the H-Blocks where both loyalist and republicans paramilitaries were held.
During his time behind bars, he forged close friendships with some of the republican movement’s most historical figures including the first hunger striker to die on protest, Bobby Sands.
“These were some of the most momentous times in Irish history, in terms of shifts that was a watershed,” he told the Sunday World.
“Looking back, it was extraordinary and the way things were was, we didn’t go to war, the war came to us.
“You matured very quickly. I was blown up when I was 14, so by the time you were 17, you were almost a veteran.
“They were crazy times. I had been waterboarded in one of the barracks and the Branch man that did it was on the TV years later, speaking about the murder of a Catholic policeman.
“I saw him and straight away said to my wife, that’s the guy who waterboarded me.
“When I was looking at him I was also looking at my son, who was 15 and thought, he’s only a child and yet when I was that age they were doing that to me.
“I wasn’t angry. I had a very philo- sophical view on it – the war came to us and we decided to fight it and when you decide to fight war, all the conventions go out the window.
“We were destroying what these people saw as their country, we were inflicting death and suffering on their friends and families, so you couldn’t expect – well I couldn’t – them to treat you with kid gloves.
“The Troubles here were always schizophrenic. They were at one level dealt with as a civil disturbance and allegedly being dealt with within the framework of the law, but that wasn’t the reality.
“It was a conflict, it was a war and no conventions applied.
“The British state at every level esca- lated the conflict. No one actually sat down and had an analytical, shall we go to war or shan’t we go to war?
“The war came to here and the de- scent into conflict became rapid, it grows exponentially and the hardest
thing is extricating yourself from conflict.”
Jake was first detained under Special Category Status in the Nissen huts located at the Long Kesh prison site.
There, hundreds of loyalist and re- publican prisoners were housed in their own factions and continued to operate under paramilitary rules.
“It was very, very disciplined, the only sin that wasn’t forgiven was idleness,” said Jake.
“For example, if you didn’t maintain a high standard of hygiene you would have been put up on a charge and would have been made to clean the toilets. The worst I remember being a group of people who made poitín. You were
only allowed to consume it twice a year, one at Easter and once at Christmas.
“So people were charged with drink- ing alcohol outside the rules and they were made to clean the yard with toothbrushes.”
It was 1975 when Jake first met Bobby Sands.
“The very first image I have of him was him walking out of the end hut wearing one of those bush hats and an old Gilbert and Sullivan jumper, a pair of jeans, long hair hanging out over the hat and he’d a guitar strung over his back, and he was going into the half hut to practise music.
“The first lecture that I remember Bobby giving us was about setting up what we called people’s committees.
“One of the things that really im- pressed him was the building of the first Gaeltacht in Belfast, and he wrote a piece about it at the time for the Re- publican News, about how he thought in
the midst of a war, this community had decided to begin educating themselves in Irish, raising their children in Irish, carrying out what he thought was one of the most revolutionary acts of the conflict and he said people should be imitating it.
“He could be very intense at one level, and very laid back on another.
“He was passionate about transforming society, about establishing justice, economic justice and social justice and he was very well read, we all were in the cages.
“Then throughout the week we had history lectures, Irish language classes, we were broke into groups.
“I did remedial maths for those who did not have primary education. We self-educated and we also would have done
military training. It became known as the ‘University of Terrorism’, well that’s what the British called it. But the republicans referred to it as the University of Freedom.”
In July 1972, the then Secretary of State William Whitelaw granted Special Category Status to all pris- oners convicted of Troubles-related offences.
Political status meant that par- amilitary inmates did not have to wear prison uniforms or do prison work, were housed within their fac- tions, and were allowed extra visits and food parcels.
In January 1975 the Gardiner Committee recommended the ending of Special Category Status.
The government accepted the rec- ommendation and on March 1 1976, the new Labour Secretary of State Merlyn Rees announced the phasing out of political prisoner status.
In 1977, after being free for just seven weeks, Jake was rearrested and taken to the H-Blocks where there was now a very different regime.
“I was only 19 when I went in,
Bobby 23. Some of us were on our second terms of imprisonment, the likes of myself, Séanna Walsh, Bik McFarlane, we set about reorganis- ing the H-Blocks so that we could in- troduce the same education regime as the cages.
“It was much more difficult. I would have taught the Irish class. You would have to go up and teach the class out through the crack of the doors when the screws were on their breaks.”
Jake added: “The wing we were in for the hunger strikes, D wing H3, four people died so that was one man out of 10.
“So you knew these men intimate- ly. You were very close. The bond that was formed among prisoners was I think, incredible and endures.
“I spent probably about two years in the cell next door to Bobby.
“I got to know him very well, he was good craic. People can end up coming out very one dimensional if they are in the public eye, Bobby Sands is known for nothing other than his hunger strike.
“He was a writer, he was very creative.
“When the hunger strikes came there was an eerie silence, no one was talking out the doors anymore.
“All the Catholics were praying, the rosary was being said two or three times a day outside the doors. That to me is the background sound of the hunger strikes.”
Sands, who helped to plan the 1976 bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry, began his hunger strike on March 1, 1981.
In the 66 days he refused food, he was elected to parliament and celebrated his 27th birthday. Sands died on May 5 1981, becoming the first of ten hunger strikers to pass away that year.
Said Jake: “We got the news at about 1.20am, he died at about 1.17am.
“We had smuggled in these small crystal radio sets that the IRA had engineered outside. We were listen-
ing in as we knew the end was near. I was lying on the bunk and the word came through that he was dead.
“I hadn’t cried since my grand- mother died in 1963 but I cried that night. It was an awful feeling of helplessness, also knowing that this was only the start.
“I busied myself writing a narration for Bobby and the OC called everyone to attention and we read it out.
“By that stage Kevin Lynch, Tom McElwee and Martin Hurson were also on the hunger strikes and we also knew that Francis Hughes wouldn’t last, he’d been badly in- jured when he was being arrested.
“They were contrasting figures, Bobby was reflective, he was ana- lytic and very erudite.”
Jake, who had volunteered to hunger strike but was never called up, was released the following year.
He said he remained a “dedicated republican” until 1997 and now works in a number of community roles.
In December he released his book Ón Taobh Istigh (From the Inside), a
“cathartic” piece of work detailing his experiences. He decided to write the book after a two-year battle with depression, which began in 2015.
The current director of Forbairt Feirste said: “That black dog became a constant companion for two years. The prison experiences, surrounded by tragedy and death. It was a really dark place but we came through it and it obviously leaves an impression.”
Jake added: “I’m 62 and all of those lads would be 65, 66, 67 and they are all dead longer than they lived. Bobby Sands is 39 years dead and he lived for 27 and he was in prison from he was 17 and he only had six months of freedom.
“I don’t ever see conflict returning the way it was. Armed struggle isn’t easily undertaken and it is a last recourse.
“This place was a festering sore that was going to erupt, and it just so happened that it erupted in 1969.
“It took an awful lot longer and an awful lot more suffering than anyone thought to see ourselves come out of it.”