It was appropriate company to be in when I first heard that the former blanketman Seany McVeigh had died. Two erstwhile protestors from Belfast along with the brother of a late blanketman had travelled to Drogheda to have a day on the rip with me. As soon as we met in the pub they said there were rumours circulating that Seany had died.
While I was not by any stretch of the imagination friendly with him - having little time for his intolerance of different opinions - I was nevertheless saddened that another stalwart from the heady days of prison protest had passed. A quick glance later that day at the Facebook page of his friend and fellow wall muralist, Danny Devenny, confirmed that it was not just a Belfast rumour. Another blanketman had fallen.
I had known him from St Patrick’s College which we had both attended in the late 1960s and early 70s, he being a year behind me. A few of the people I knew at that school, I would later go on to meet in the H Blocks, at one time sharing a cell with Pat Nash during the Blanket protest.
On leaving school I never saw Seany McVeigh again until looking out a cell window from B Wing onto C Wing yard where he would walk with other republicans. He was one of the early batch of volunteers to be captured shortly after the abolition of political status for prisoners.
My later differences with him largely arose from what I regarded as an unquestioning attitude to leadership to which he remained unflinchingly loyal. I found him wholly intolerant of dissent and given his excitable temperament was quite strident in how he vented it. On occasion he was not beyond ostracising and berating some of those willing to challenge the dominant discourse and tell the leadership that it was full of shit. Others, also outspokenly hostile towards Sinn Fein, however, found him less hostile. One former blanketman, a robust critic of the party's abandonment of all things republican, met him in Dublin in January at a republican event where during the course of an amiable conversation he disclosed he was in the grip of the cancer that would end his life a few months later.
It is important never to allow personal or political differences to distort our view of a person's contribution to their station in life. Clashing with others does not alter the facts of their lives or actions. Sean McVeigh was the eleventh man on the blanket protest and would remain on it until its conclusion five years later. Nothing can detract from that. It was no mean achievement. In those early days it was tough going for those pioneering blanket protestors. The administration constantly devised and revised methods for breaking them. Being classed a Young Prisoner (a YP in the jail parlance) he and others of his age got it particularly rough, subject to constant beatings, deprivation, intimidation, humiliation yet they prevailed and kept that vital piece of protest beachhead intact. Crucially, this gave others time to arrive over months and years to fortify the blanket protest. People from those embryonic protest days speak of Sean McVeigh with fondness and respect.
According to one former blanketman, in the first year of the protest when prisoners were refusing visits Seany had a relative post him a padded birthday card each month. This was allowed into the prison because one item of mail per month was guaranteed by law. The card was padded out with tobacco. The ruse lasted for a matter of months until the screws realised what was going on. Subsequently padded cards were banned from the jails.
The former blanketman continued:
Seany could have held onto the tobacco and smoked it all himself. We would never have known. But he didn’t. He shared it with everybody else. He was also a great source of news in the jail because on our wing he was the Maggie Taggart man.
Which meant he carried the wing crystal radio inside his body, slipping it out at night when the jail was in lockdown, and then relaying the news in Irish to the rest of the prisoners. In that wing the radio was named after a prominent local journalist whereas in our block it was Mrs Dale. Another one time protestor from the blanket blocks who attended his funeral commented to me that his fondest memory of Seany was his appearance in the canteen each Sunday for the weekly mass "like a caveman on the hunt for tobacco." The last time I spoke to him (a fractious exchange) he sat down in the middle of our bust-up to roll a cigarette.
Ultimately, whether we get on with other former blanket men or not should always be secondary to the recognition that whatever differences emerged and developed in the post-protest years, they must never serve to warp memories or remould the past in order to placate the present. Prisoners like Seany McVeigh pulled a blanket around their bodies and held to it for years to ward off the stamp of criminality. As their blankets grew thinner their resolve thickened and they faced down the might of a vindictive and violent regime underwritten by a government that frequently practiced state terrorism. Even if we can not abide their politics, that is no reason to resile from commenting accurately about their resilience, determination and stamina which saw them sustain at considerable cost the most prolonged, widespread and arduous protest in the history of British prisons in the last century.