Other than by reputation I never came to know or meet Peter Kavanagh, the former blanketman who died in April of this year. It is possible that I passed him going to and from the rare visits during the protest but there were so many blanketmen in the other blocks I had not yet the pleasure of meeting, there is simply no way of knowing. I had been doubled up with his older brother John in Cage 11’s Gaeltacht in 1978 only to abruptly lose political status two days after turning 21. I ended up being dumped in the H-Blocks on the blanket protest, where Peter and others were already holding the line against British criminalisation polices.
Thinking I had a handle on the world’s problems and a means to solve them, the blanket protest was another challenge that would just have to be met head on. These days, to fall back on an old saw, I am glad I am not young enough to know everything.
If I felt I was young, Peter Kavanagh was considerably younger than me when he arrived on the blanket protest – a mere 16. Not that tender years would have protected him from screw brutality. And H3 was full of it as Micky Fitzsimons, a close friend of Peter explained to the Andersonstown News. "Micky Fitz", despite experiencing enough of the violence of H4, nevertheless described H3 as “a bad, bad block to be in.” Overseen by the late Paddy Joe Kerr, H3 was a cauldron of prison staff brutality, a strong sense of which can be gleaned from Laurence McKeown’s powerful film of the same name. I can recall the involuntary shudder that would ripple through me on hearing of more beatings in H3, including one where Martin Hurson had his toes broken during a beating by a gang of screws. Martin would later die on hunger strike.
Despite being offered early release and a sure escape from the squalor of his situation, if he would just "wear the gear" for a short while, Peter held out and then walked out of the prison having lost every day of his remission but none of his determination or dignity. It led to former blanketman, Martin Livingstone describing his power of endurance as “unbelievable”.
Peter arrived in H3 in January 1978. He had been convicted for something relatively minor about which his brother John said he was not responsible. As an innocent, he would not have cut a lonely figure in the British jails of the North at the time. The attitude of the cops to those who were not guilty was akin to that of the Saigon police: If they are not guilty beat them until they are. It meant a busy conveyor belt from barrack to jail.
Although not a member of the Republican Movement, with no concomitant organisational obligation to embroil himself in an arduous IRA managed venture, he felt he had every reason to wear the blanket. He was not a criminal and the state that imprisoned was certainly not behaving justly. Peter Kavanagh at that tender age had a sense of solidarity with the men and women from his community who stood wrapped in nothing more than a blanket defying the British state and drawing down widespread ridicule and opprobrium on its labelling of those who opposed them as criminal.
Released during the 1980 hunger strike, Peter was met by former blanket men at the gates of Long Kesh and immediately began campaigning for those left behind in the blocks. In later life he met his partner and became father to three children. Micky Fitz said "he always had to be working and made sure everything was perfect for the kids, that everything was ready."
When diagnosed with cancer in 2014, he declined to retreat into a mental cell, choosing instead to broaden his horizons. Determined to see capitals of the world before he died, two of the cities he managed to make it to earlier this year were Paris and Moscow. He also learned to fly, soaring like a lark beyond any sense of confinement.
Another thread in the blanket was pulled the day Peter Kavanagh died.
|Peter Kavanagh on his release from the H Blocks in 1980|