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The Sounds of Internment

An LP of recordings smuggled out of Long Kesh turns fifty

“In the early hours of Monday 9 August 1971, I was kidnapped from my bed by armed men, taken away and held as a hostage for five and a half weeks. I was not in Uruguay, Brazil, Greece or Russia. I was in the United Kingdom, an hour’s flight from London. I was in Belfast.”
–John McGuffin, Internment! (1973)

This year marks half a century since audio tapes secretly recorded inside the Long Kesh internment camp were smuggled out of that disused World War II airfield-turned-makeshift prison near Lisburn, Northern Ireland, and released as an LP called Smash Internment and Injustice! The story behind the tapes begins a year earlier, on August 9, 1971, when the British government and British Army—assisted by the devolved and decaying Northern Irish government—launched Operation Demetrius, a program of mass internment without trial. Invoking provisions of the 1922 Special Powers Act, the Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary seized more than three hundred people in a single day. Hundreds more were taken in the weeks and months that followed and held at Long Kesh, Crumlin Road Gaol, Magilligan Camp, and even aboard the HMS Maidstone, a prison ship.

By the time mass internment was ended in 1975, almost two thousand people had passed through the system. The vast majority of these detainees were Catholic and Nationalist; they favored, through means both violent and nonviolent, the reunification of Ireland. Many of those interned were civil rights leaders or socialists. The number of Loyalists interned was initially zero, and in the final estimated accounting, perhaps five percent of the total. The “Orange State” of Northern Ireland, headquartered at Stormont, had been constructed in the 1920s through gerrymandering and disenfranchisement. In this statelet, which was effectively run by the Ulster Unionist Party and supported by state paramilitaries like the hated “B Specials,” the simple principle of “one person, one vote” did not apply. But by 1970 that state was in a final crisis. It would not survive the subsequent backlash to internment, and the north was ruled directly from Britain until the late 1990s.

Significantly, the crisis in Ireland was hardly exceptional: the early 1970s saw internment used by governments both dictatorial and ostensibly democratic. During the 1970 October Crisis in Quebec, the government of Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act in response to the kidnapping and murder of labor minister Pierre Laporte by Quebec nationalists. Almost five hundred were interned, including many activists and intellectuals with no direct connection to the kidnapping.

Internment has a long history in Ireland. Before the 1970s, it had been sporadically used against republicans on both sides of the border in the aftermath of the war of independence; during the Second World War; and during the IRA’s Border Campaign in the late 1950s. The British Army, too, was very familiar with indefinite and arbitrary detention, having used it on a mass scale since the Boer War, notably in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, as well as in Cyprus, among others. This detention was coupled with widespread use of torture, including sexual abuse and castration.

Many grim lessons have been learned in the last fifty years about the most effective ways to legally classify dissidents as non-people.

The torture employed during interrogation in Ireland was more precise, and, given that these were an English-speaking people with considerable sympathy in the United States, there was a limit to the brutality that could be employed against them without attracting an unacceptable level of attention. Nonetheless, a significant number of internees were subjected to what became known as the “Five Techniques” while in custody. The five techniques were: “wall standing” and stress positions—being forced to stand for hours in painful positions with most of the weight on one’s fingers; subjection to extreme noise; sleep deprivation; food and drink deprivation; and “hooding”—the practice of one’s head being kept in a dark bag at all times, except during interrogation

Internees were also routinely beaten, subject to forced nudity and, on occasion, mock executions. If these techniques sound familiar, it is because they have been used not only by the British army in subsequent wars but adopted by regimes and militaries around the world. The British taught these techniques to the Brazilian military dictatorship that tortured countless people, including future president Dilma Rousseff. Fourteen men who were subjected to all five techniques, in conjunction with the Irish government, later took a case against the British state to the European Commission on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. After a lengthy appeal, the court found that this treatment was “inhuman and degrading” but did not amount to torture. This absurd ruling was enthusiastically cited by the George W. Bush administration lawyer Jay Bybee in the “torture memos” justifying the use of such techniques in Afghanistan and later Iraq.

Militaries, state security forces, and states themselves learn from each other both actively and passively—and many grim lessons have been learned in the last fifty years about the most effective ways to legally classify dissidents as non-people, to cage them for months or years without recourse, and to brutalize them in deniable ways. Australia pioneered dubiously legal offshore detention for those seeking asylum, and their methods have since been enthusiastically copied by the EU, the United States and most recently the UK, with the plan cooked up by the Conservative Party to deport some British asylum seekers to Rwanda to claim asylum there instead. The ECHR decision on Irish internment was a clear warning that legal structures that purport to uphold human rights cannot be entirely trusted or relied upon.

Irish internees were far from passive victims of this state violence. Given that most were already politically active, it is unsurprising that they took an active role in the campaign for their freedom. Prisoners carved memorabilia, decorated handkerchiefs, and made art to represent their experiences and to alleviate boredom. Despite the official prohibition on journalists’ visits, letters were constantly smuggled out for publication in sympathetic newspapers. In one of those letters, a delegation of the internees led by civil rights leader Paddy Joe McClean and republican Séan Keenan called on diverse politicians and organizations from across the political spectrum to unite in a single goal, ending with the simple demand: “Smash internment now.” Support groups sprung up outside to agitate and to support the families of those taken. The County Tyrone Coordinating Relief Committee organized a series of concerts for the internees over Christmas 1971. They were recorded using miniature equipment in conditions of such secrecy that only two prisoners knew it was happening. These recordings became Smash Internment.

Beginning with a quote from William Cowper’s The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk—“O solitude, where are the charms that sages have seen in thy face? Better dwell in the midst of alarm than reign in this horrible place”—the tracks on Smash Internment are a rough grab bag, including instrumental traditional music; bawdy, macabre ballads like “Bright Silvery Light” or “Biddy McGra”; and twentieth-century rebel songs commemorating earlier conflicts like “Tones Grave” (1798 Rebellion), “Easter Prophecy” (1916 Rising), and Dominic Behan’s “The Patriot Game” (IRA Border Campaign, 1956–1962). These are sung by the performers who visited the camp, including Philomena Begley, who would go on to have a long and storied music career and is popularly known in Ireland as “The Queen of Country.”

Most interesting, however, are the songs credited to “The Internees” and sung by the prisoners themselves. They begin with “Oró Sé Do Bheath Abhaile,” a classic Irish language song of resistance that dates to at least the early nineteenth century, and probably further. The LP also closes with two songs by the internees. The first is an electrifying rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the black freedom movement that had been adopted by campaigners for civil rights in the north of Ireland since the late 1960s, where it became a rallying cry for hundreds of people subject to brutal detention and torture across the Atlantic. It continues to be a reminder that the power and effect of music goes beyond what can be imagined in the context in which it is first written and performed. In their version, the internees add two additional verses, singing, “We’ll bring Stormont down,” and “Ireland shall be free.”

Smash Internment is a rough and raw recording. Frequently, the musicians are almost drowned out by indistinct chatter and laughter from the crowd, especially on the less obviously political songs. When the music rises, the microphone occasionally blows out. Not everyone present knows the words. But on those tracks sung by the internees, something special emerges. The very last track is an astonishing version of “The Boys of the Old Brigade,” a song about the war of independence that became the unofficial anthem of the internees.

Smash Internment was part of a wider flowering of resistance music that grew from the folk music revival of the 1960s, inspired both by traditional Irish songs of resistance and the left-wing, anti-imperialist music coming from the United States, the UK, and further abroad. Much of this music, including Smash Internment, was released on independent labels by the eccentric producer Billy McBurney, a Belfast man who was briefly interned and later survived being shot by loyalist paramilitaries. The most famous song to come out of internment was “The Men Behind the Wire,” written by Paddy McGuigan of The Barleycorn, a Belfast folk group active in the early 1970s. McGuigan was himself interned in December 1971, the same week that the song was released, which no doubt added to the power and mystique of the track. It hit number one on the Irish charts despite an unofficial ban on playing it on the national radio broadcaster.

While an original composition, “The Men Behind the Wire” has echoes of earlier nationalist music. Take, for example, the following couplet:

Armoured cars and tanks and guns
Came to take away our sons

It bears a striking resemblance to “The I.R.A.,” a 1928 song recorded in New York City by the Flannery Brothers:

With their armoured cars and Lewis guns
To desolate poor Claudy’s sons

Covered by the Clancy Brothers, the Wolfhound, and The Wolfe Tones, among others, “The Men Behind the Wire” was popular with mass audiences on both sides of the border, but especially with ordinary Catholics in Belfast and Derry. Rona Fields, an American social psychologist, in her study A Society on the Run: A Psychology of Northern Ireland recalled that it was

the song that was most popular for 1972-1973 with the children of the Bogside, Lower Falls, Ballymurphy, Andersontown [sic] and other predominantly Catholic districts. Any visitor to Belfast or Derry soon learned the words without any previous exposure to the record. The children sang it, shouted it, screamed it, and, worst of all, lived it.

Created by working-class musicians at the heart of the conflict, this popular music brought the reality of internment to a mass audience, and gave protest a distinct, vital, and easily imitated voice. Profits from sales of Smash Internment and other records were also used to assist the families and communities affected. Kevin McCrory, an activist with the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, told the New York Times that “before internment we got one hundred to two hundred at a meeting. Afterwards we got two thousand. People realized that this wasn’t just a policy of locking up some men but it was part of a total policy of military violence, of repression, of suffering.”

Internment in the north created an immediate, and enormous, backlash: 1972 remains the bloodiest year of the entire Troubles, and the level of state violence employed had a radicalizing effect on the Catholic population. It also gave rise to a civil resistance movement that effectively raised the national and international profile of the internees through protest, art, and music. Those affected often framed their struggle in explicit comparison to international struggle: “The Internee,” by pseudonymous Belfast group The Men of No Property, appeared on an LP called England’s Vietnam.

If we are not the ones in prison, then we must be conduits for their music, their art, their words to reach a wider audience.

Even as levels of state and paramilitary violence were reaching a peak in Northern Ireland, the movement rallied tens of thousands who rejected the suspension of civil rights from an illegitimate state. On Bloody Sunday, in January 1972, British paratroopers fired on an unarmed crowd of protesters in Derry and killed thirteen people (another died of their injuries some months later). They had been singing “We Shall Overcome” as they marched against internment.

Fifty years on, we live in an age of non-persons, of states of emergency, first temporary, then permanent. The techniques developed during the era of the War on Terror, themselves modeled on the regimes of colonial repression that marred the twentieth century, will undoubtedly be used to manage the escalating environmental and political crises that lie ahead. Those in power around the world have learned well the grimmest lessons of the last hundred plus years, and they justify their actions in terms of what they see as the necessary violence of the past.

So, what can the rest of us learn from a period in living memory when a supposedly democratic European nation imposed military law and internment without trial on thousands of people, and an international movement successfully resisted and defeated their regime? Firstly, there is the centrality of those repressed in the movement that oppose their repression: if we are not the ones in prison, then we must be conduits for their music, their art, their words to reach a wider audience. Secondly, there is the necessity of resistance actions coming from broad-based coalitions, rather than entirely from within the legal system. After all, states build these systems and understand how to operate within them. Finally, there is the interconnectedness of resistance movements worldwide. History has shown us that we are fighting against the same boot, the same lash, the same rifle, and the same cage.