He was a frequent enough visitor to the filth strewn cells of the H-Blocks. He met every blanket protester and knew each of the men who died on hunger strike. He never had the popularity of Denis Faul nor did he court it. Perhaps because of that he escaped the bile spat at the Dungannon priest once the hunger strike had ended and a scapegoat was badly needed.
The relationship between Tom Toner and the protesting prisoners was not something that would easily lend itself to being described as hostile but it was little better than lukewarm. Unlike Faul he was not an inveterate smuggler. That’s largely the criterion by which priests were judged: whether they brought tobacco in stuffed down their socks or whether they were sufficiently outspoken against the prison staff and NIO policy.
I liked him despite holding the general reticence towards his stance. I always felt he could have done more about the ongoing brutality meted out by prison staff that he was certainly aware of. He had listened to enough complaints and seen enough injuries. He knew the hostility of the screws towards those on protest and their penchant for violence. His remaining silent was explained by Bishop Patrick Walsh at his funeral mass:
But before that parish ministry while he was Diocesan Secretary he ministered with Monsignor John Murphy in the Maze Prison or as it was called then the Kesh. In the last few days much has been said in the media about this ministry but let me say that during all those dreadful and harrowing years neither Monsignor Tom nor Monsignor John gave any interviews to the media for they knew that to do so would eschew the effectiveness of their ministry, a ministry that was marked by total integrity, an integrity which was their strength, recognised and appreciated by the prisoners, their families, and the prison authorities.
A moot point but whatever his reasoning I doubt there was any malice in it. And perhaps he had a better understanding of the malign minds of those on the republican committee who were running the protest from outside than we had and he may have been loath to allow them to advance their own agendas to the detriment of the men on the protest wings.
When I first arrived on the blanket I was a bit surprised at the knowledge on the wings of the lives of saints. Given the political background of the people there it seemed disproportionately oriented towards religious rather than political biography. Denied most stimulating reading material the deficit was in part made up by Tom Toner and his colleagues making religious material available for the prisoners. It was not a serious attempt at indoctrination, more a means of providing something that would ward off the soul destroying tedium that beset the place. Books on saints managed to get past the NIO blockade on reading because they came under the religious material rubric. However it would not be long before they too would be banned, leaving the bible as the sole literary content of the cells. It warmed our feet rather than our minds and was perhaps all the more welcome for that.
On occasion when he would visit the cells to offer to hear confessions I would talk to him. Far from getting a confession he would usually get a profession of atheism which he was only too willing to challenge as he waxed philosophical. An erudite man he could more than hold his own. Most conversation with him was about theology. Despite his close association with the GAA he never kept us up to speed with sporting events in the way that Denis Faul would always do.
I last saw him in St Peter’s Cathedral a number of years ago when he officiated at a funeral mass for an uncle. I approached him and we chatted about the blanket. He admitted to our mutual laughter that he could not remember me from the blocks. Given the amount of prisoners he met with over his years there it hardly surprised me.
Tom Toner witnessed a lot of callousness as a result of his ministry in the prison. He might have smiled approvingly at the view once expressed to me by the republican prisoner Willie Gallagher during one of our all night smoking sessions in Cell 26 that 'the place is full of bastards and the screws are nearly as bad.' Ultimately, Tom Toner's views were not ours but he kept his integrity when so many around him abandoned theirs. When he died last month something from our protest died with him.