LIKE THE PHOENIX, WE RISE: A Conversation With Irish POW Bronwyn McGahan

LIKE THE PHOENIX, WE RISE: A Conversation With Irish POW Bronwyn McGahan

by Betsy Swart

They took us by force
and tied us with oppression.
They divided us with bigotry
and their class system.
They thought they could bury us,
… our culture, our pride…
But like the phoenix we have survived.

– Women’s Poetry Workshop, Maghaberry jail

The first tiling I noticed about Bronwyn was the gold charm around her neck – a phoenix rising from the flames. Against her plain blue denim shirt and pants, the phoenix stood out brightly – a small but significant symbol of hope inside the otherwise oppressive walls of Maghaberry Female Prison in Lisbum, Northern Ireland.

I had come to Maghaberry jail that morning through sheets of rain, searching my way along narrow rural roads, winding through small villages half-obscured in mist and fog.

When I finally found it, the prison looked out of place in the gentle rural context – a modem sprawling building, gray and low, with gates topped by rolls of barbed wire. From the roadside, a sign announced that I was entering “Her Majesty’s Prison.” Even the sign was ugly.

I was there to meet Bronwyn McGahan, a 21 -year-old Republican prisoner, who would that day be acting as spokesperson for the other two-dozen female political prisoners. We hoped that through our conversation we might let women in America know about the condition of Ireland’s women POWs.

Bronwyn is a prochoice feminist, strongly committed to the struggle for Irish freedom. She is serving a 10-year sentence for the alleged possession of a booby-trap device. To be serving such a long sentence at such a young age is not unusual in Northern Ireland. In fact, condemning young prisoners to unnecessarily long prison terms is one way the British authorities are attempting to remove an entire generation of young people from the political landscape; the other is through outright murder. Shoot to-kill cases in which the British military murders Irish civilians are frequent and increasing.

I was not permitted to have a tape recorder or any writing implements. Three female guards stood at the podium near our table as we talked, clearly listening to our conversation. Sometimes Bronwyn lowered her voice to a whisper, in a futile attempt to exclude them. Her eyes were gentle; her manner intense. Here is what she told me.

Betsy Swart: Last year, on the eve of the International Women’s Day, there was a brutal strip search of the women POWs here. What happened to you on that day?

Bronwyn McGahan: When we heard there was going to be a strip search, my cell mate Geraldine Ferrity and I barricaded ourselves into our cell. You see, we refused to voluntarily submit to the strip search. It isn’t done for any security purpose at all; it’s only done to intimidate and demoralize us. It is the most awful kind of insult to us as political prisoners and as women. In fact, the process is so ugly and brutal, it’s an assault to all of womanhood. Geraldine and I pushed our beds up against the cell door. We were the last cell in the corridor, so for 10 hours we could hear the other women being assaulted – being dragged out of their cells and stripped. All day we listened to the sounds and waited. Then it was our turn. Male guards in riot gear were doing the work of actually breaking down the cell doors. They had dogs, tear gas, guns, plastic bullets, clubs. But still we fought as long as we could. The guards laughed at us and mimicked us; they imitated our screams and our cries.

They shouted obscenities at us. I kicked and kicked for what seemed like hours – bracing the bed against the cell door so they couldn’t get in. Finally they got Geraldine’s arm between the bars and the bed and forced their way in. Eight men tackled me at once, knocking me to the floor. Some held down my arms and my legs; others lay on me with the full weight of their bodies. I was face down on the floor and I thought I would suffocate. I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t see. All I could feel was their weight and the pain of it. And they started stroking my thighs and my buttocks and saying dirty things.

It was so demeaning. Finally, they stood me up and immediately I grabbed onto the bars of cell. But they twisted my arms -“lock one; lock two,” they said as they bent them back – till the pain was so great I couldn’t resist it. When they had me so I couldn’t move, they did obscene things – sticking their tongues out and wiggling them really close to my face; holding up their middle fingers. Then they picked me up and literally threw me into the cell next door. There five women guards ripped my clothes off, spread my legs, searched me, and left me lying there naked.

Were you badly hurt?

Everyone was hurt, some worse than others. The injuries ranged from serious bruises and sprains to broken and fractured bones. We were totally battered – and then, of course, prison officials punished us because they said if we hadn’t resisted, we wouldn’t have been hurt.

Do you fear another strip search soon?

These strip searches have been going on for years. It’s one way the prison officials use our sexuality – our very womanhood – against us. There are women prisoners here who have been strip searched hundreds of times! And nothing is ever found. We actually went to court about the last strip search, but we lost the case. The judge found that we had no right to resist the search. And so, yes we do fear other strip searches. That is part of the torture of our situation – never knowing when the next one will come. Sometimes we hear a strange sound or see something unusual and we think “It’s happening.” Some women have nightmares about being strip searched. Yes, we fear it, but that does not mean we will ever submit to it! We will always resist it and we refuse to let it break our spirits.

Are political prisoners discriminated against in other ways here at Maghaberry?

Yes, we are treated differently from the male “non-political” prisoners. So we are discriminated against on two levels: As women and as political women. On the male side of the prison, they get longer visiting hours than we do and they also have childcare facilities available for visitors – something we have been repeatedly denied. The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has hypocritically said that they thought women would prefer to have their children with them during visits. But sometimes the children who come on visits are not the prisoner’s own children. And even when they are, the prisoner should have a choice – she should be allowed to have some time without the children present for serious or private talks. We are also often denied our exercise privileges – we will get maybe one hour in the “yard” a day while the men get six or more. And our education is severely limited too. We’re supposed to have classes three times a week, but often on the day of a class, they will simply teD us it’s cancelled due to a staff shortage. The men’s classes are rarely cancelled, though, so it’s easy to see that the staff shortages are selective. And then also we are denied inter-wing association, another privilege that the men have. That means that we women prisoners are never allowed to associate as one large group. We can only associate with the other women in our wing, so I only see the other seven women. And then, of course, our mail is censored in silly and unnecessary ways. Magazines and letters are held up for weeks. Photos are not sent through to us. And silly excuses are given: Once I was sent a photo of a friend of mine being married – she was in a bridal gown and veil. I was not allowed to have the photo because I might use it on a fake passport. A picture of a woman in a white veil is hardly a representative passport photo! You see, if they can’t punish us any other way, the prison officials will settle for petty harassment and humiliation. In the areas of visiting conditions, education, exercise, association and censorship, we are repeatedly denied privileges which other prisoners are freely given. Because we are political prisoners – and also women – we are treated less well than male sex offenders in the other side of the jail.

What was your life like before prison?

I was a teenager when I was arrested; I lived at home with my family – on a farm in rural County Tyrone. We had seven dogs – and other animals as well. I attended school and did well. I played on a women’s Gaelic football team – and it was a pretty great team, if I do say so myself! My interests were music and reading. And I’m a strict vegetarian, too. It just makes my blood boil when I hear some of the things people do to animals!

Do you get vegetarian food in here?

No. I eat a lot of banana sandwiches! Anyway, as I was saying, my life in some ways was like that of any teenager. But in other very important ways, my life was different from what any American teenager could ever imagine. Living in a nationalist community in the North of Ireland means living with a constant military presence all of your life in every aspect of your life. Even as children, we are harassed by soldiers. We are stopped on our way to school; we are made to open our coats (and if you’re a girl, you can expect some comments about your body); we’re made to take off our shoes on freezing cold days or in the rain; we’re called names; we’re followed. You get so used to it, you start to consider it “normal.” No one complains much unless you are physically injured. And we’ve actually come up with some ways to live with the harassment and the danger. Like, for example, if a group of young people wants to go to a disco in a neighboring town. First of all, we always go in a group; and second, we always make sure some young women are in each car containing young men, because then if we are stopped by soldiers, there is less chance that the young men will get hurt or killed. You see, soldiers have the right to make young men get out of the car and they can search them and so forth, but they can’t take the women out of the cars for a search without a female police officer being present. So the young women can sit in the cars and watch; we become the witnesses to what the soldiers do so there is less chance that the young men will be shot dead on the roadside. Soldiers can’t say they were “trying to escape” if there are young women in the car watching the whole thing. That is just one of the ways we’ve adapted to the stress and the harassment. We young women put ourselves on the line to protect the young men. Sometimes we actually make it to the disco as well…if we’re lucky!

Prison officials maintain that the women are not “internally” searched because no “instrument” is inserted into them during the searches. In other words, their anal and vaginal passages can be held open and pried into with hands and fingers – and that does not technically constitute an “internal” search. In March 1992, male guards were permitted to watch the strip searches from windows in the wings – and they broke into choruses of “Happy Days Are Here Again” when the women’s genitals were “searched.” – B.S.

What happened when you were arrested?

I was taken to Gough Detention Center and kept there for seven days. The military is legally allowed to keep someone – even a juvenile – for up to seven days without charge. You can’t see your family or make a phone call. You have no right to remain silent. You are totally at the mercy of the military authorities. They kept threatening to pull my panties down to “see if I had a boyfriend.” They slap you, pull your hair, threaten your family. Boys and men are treated worse: Burned with cigarette lighters, hooded, beaten. Sometimes they keep you for the legal limit of seven days; let you out; then immediately come and pick you up again for another seven days! People think that the British aren’t capable of this kind of abuse, but here it happens every day.

How has being in prison changed you?

Being in prison hasn’t been easy. But it definitely made me stronger and more independent. It’s been a learning and growing experience to be here with a community of other feminist women. We support each other; we learn from each other. We refine our own political opinions.

What do you hope to do in the future?

I’d like to attend university. But it’s hard to plan for the future. When you are part of the Republican community in the North of Ireland, you have to seriously consider that you may not live long enough to attend university. There is a concerted effort here to eliminate my generation.

Will the fact that you have been in prison prevent you from leaving Northern Ireland in the future?

I don’t want to leave the North of Ireland The way I look at it is: This is my home and I love it. Why should I be intimidated into leaving it? And I have great hope for the future, whatever my place in it is.