On the Blanket: The Story of the IRA’s Dirty Protest
Tim Pat Coogan
If Tim Pat Coogan isn’t the world’s greatest authority on the I.R.A., he’s definitely on the short list. A reporter for years and year with close ties to catholic ghettos of Northern Ireland, he has the sources and knowledge few others can claim. Unfortunately, he isn’t a very compelling writer. His magnum opus history of the IRA is (as the wags would say) exhaustive and exhausting. The better book for the general overview is, I think, Armed Struggle.
But this, Coogan’s books focused on the notorious “dirty protests” of the IRA prisoners is another story. Perhaps because the subject matter is so compelling, or perhaps because it’s a relative tight window of events, the book is captivating.
There are scenes he describes that still haunt me.
The dirty protests, for those not raised amongst the stories of such things, was a protest by imprisoned IRA members. It began with a refusal to wear prison uniforms as a protest against their being considered criminals, and not prisoners of war. But it soon escalated into a bizarre and grotesque protest movement that found the prisoners wearing nothing but a blanket, and smearing their cells with their own feces and urine. Startling in its visceral-ness, and moving in the dedication these men and women showed, the dirty protest caught the attention of the world and soon, many of those “on the blanket” would take things to the next level – hunger strike giving us the martyred saint Bobby Sands and others.
I was raised in an Irish Catholic home with mixed feelings about the I.R.A. Christmas was a time for uncles talking tough, and others cautioning restraint. When I was a kid, the dirty protests were one of those things the grownups would drop in conversation, with references so vague, I couldn’t really catch them. It wasn’t till I was an adult that I’d understand the hold they had on some people’s emotions. You can see why. These men and women were ready to give their first their dignity, and eventually, their lives, for the cause. That’s a powerful thing.
It’s a fascinating chapter in Irish history and, while I read this book more than a decade ago, I recall Coogan telling it well. You should read it to see what some are willing to sacrifice, and how they’ll go about doing it.
Two IRA men “On the Blanket”