Force Fed - Gerry Kelly recalls his time in Brixton when doctors attempted to force feed him more than 160 times

It was yet another shameful period in British penal history when Irish men and women were tortured and subjected to wooden bits and tubes being forced down their throats.
They were held down, bound and subjected to the hateful and deadly practice of forced feeding.
But it was not 200 or even 100 years ago. It happened as recently as the 1970s when young people were dancing to Jimi Hendrix and wearing bell-bottom jeans.
For a handful of Irish political prisoners being held in England in 1974 there was nothing but nakedness, brutality and fear as they languished alone in darkened cells. Nerves were frayed waiting for the moment when the doctors and screws would be at the door to take them to the room where it would be done.
A 19-year-old Gerry Kelly was one of those convicted in 1973 along with the Price sisters and the rest of his unit for the bombing of the Old Bailey.
He and his comrades were to endure an horrific protest for repatriation including a bitter hunger strike that would see them endure some of the worst excesses and brutality of the British penal system.
“There was an historic tradition of forced feeding, but it had been largely avoided by the British after Thomas Ashe died in 1917,” says Gerry Kelly.
Ashe died when his warders forced fed him the year after the Easter Rising and he suffered an horrific death drowning as food was forced into his lungs instead of his stomach. Sixty years later Gerry Kelly and his comrades would suffer the same deadly torture.
He recalls one of the first times when the doctors in the jail forced food down his throat. His shrunken stomach instantly rejected it. But on vomiting it up, the same food was poured back down seconds later.
“I was weak from being on hunger strike,” said Gerry Kelly, “and it was the first time they got this Complan-like stuff forced into my mouth. But my stomach just instantly rejected it. The doctor just lifted the kidney dish where I had vomited and put it back down my throat.”
Though Gerry Kelly was just a teenager, his resistance to the forced feeding eventually helped break the brutal practice.
He was held in Brixton, Winchester and Wormwood Scrubs Prisons and was attacked for forced feeding 167 times.
“It’s funny in a way. I was sitting naked and all I had around my neck was rosary beads. The doctors had told me horror stories about if you fought, the food would go down the wrong way.
“It was horrendous and horrific, but I was determined to fight. There were ten doctors in G2 ward, which was the mental observation wing of the jail. The operating theatre was right beside Hammersmith hospital.
“Out of the doctors three had refused to force feed. There was a doctor who was in charge. I told him I wasn’t doing it. When I heard them come I barricaded the door.
“There was only seven stone of me, but they lost the ‘bap’ and told me not to be so stupid. They got an eight-foot angle bar and put it against the door and pulled the lock down. I saw it coming apart in front of me and things were flying everywhere. About eight screws, the doctors and two nurses came in. I was pretty weak. They never brought back the nurses.”
The horrifying ordeal had begun and also the tactics to force Gerry Kelly to take the substance.
“They trailed me up and forced me down and secured me so much that I couldn’t move. When they got me flat they pulled me up and put me in the sitting position and then bent my head over the headboard.
“They tried to open my mouth and I learned then that your jaw muscles are some of the strongest in your body. They tried all crude stuff like pushing my nose up and getting my chin down. They tried to get in under my lips and trail them down.
“I got into a bit of a panic after they nipped my nose, but I just started breathing through my teeth. They pressed their knuckles into my jaws and pressed in hard.
“The way they finally did force feed me was getting forceps and running them up and down my gums. I opened my mouth, but I was able to resist after that.
“Then they tried – there’s a part of your nose, like a membrane and it’s very tender – and they started on that. It’s hard to describe the pain. It’s like someone pushing a knitting needle into the side of your eye. As soon as I opened my mouth they put in a wooden bit with a hole in the middle for the tube.
“They rammed it between my teeth and then tied it with cord around my head. Then they got paraffin and forced it down the tube. The danger is that every time it happened I thought I was going to die. The only things that moved was my eyes. They get a funnel and put the stuff down.”
But Gerry Kelly said he would not only use physical resistance but also psychological pressure on the doctors.
“The senior medical officer was a man who was a surgeon, but who developed arthritis and was very bitter. He would get the forceps and push the stuff down. It was a constant battle and it would be very painful waiting for this stuff.
“There was one young guy who I would argue with and I would ask him why he was doing it. He said it was to save my life, but I told him he was only doing it to be an English patriot. He was a bit left wing. He put down his tools and walked away.”
By June 3 1974 there was a change coming that force the British prison regime to stop forced feeding. Public opinion was moving against the British government,
“There was a court case about the legality of forced feeding.
“I don’t know if we won or the British government decided to end it before it got to that stage.
“I got a telephone call and we called off the hunger strike as we had been promised our own clothes and a transfer back to Ireland by Christmas.
“It was the first time there was ever a telephone call from prison to prison.”
But the British reneged and the prisoners were back on hunger strike by Christmas 1974.
In April 1975 the British government finally transferred the Price sisters to Armagh Gaol, and Gerry Kelly and his comrade Hugh Feeney to the Cages of Long Kesh.

Journalist:: Andrea McKernon

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