The H-Blocks

The H-Blocks were constructed adjacent to the compounds/cages of Long Kesh, on the site of a disused military airfield near Lisburn, south of Belfast, and opened in 1976. The building of the H-Blocks aligned with the policy of criminalisation and the removal of Special Category Status on 1 March 1976. Any prisoners sentenced after this date were imprisoned in the H-Blocks as opposed to the cages/ compounds of Long Kesh.

The eight H-Blocks – so named because of their uniform ‘H’ shaped plan – collectively formed a purpose-built maximum security prison for political prisoners. Unlike the compounds/ cages of Long Kesh which housed prisoners collectively in Nissen huts, the H-Blocks separated prisoners into individual cells. Each H-Block was surrounded by a concrete wall topped with barbed wire, and gates within the complex were constructed of solid steel. The entire site was also encircled by watch towers and a perimeter wall. The large complex also included a separate hospital building, a visiting building, multidenominational chapel and two large football pitches, alongside multiple administrative buildings.

The H-Blocks were witness to many significant events of the conflict including the blanket protest, the no wash protest and the 1981 hunger strikes. And on 25 September 1983, thirty-eight PIRA prisoners escaped from H-Block 7 by taking prisoner officers hostage and hijacking a food lorry. Subsequently, loyalists and republicans were housed in different wings and later into different blocks.

The history of the H-Blocks was marked by a change of conditions over the years. There was a loosening of restrictions in the later years of the conflict. In fact, from 1994, prisoners were allowed free association within both their wing and the adjacent wing, and telephones were introduced in 1995. The H-Blocks were emptied and the prison was closed in 2000 as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, and demolition began in 2006. Today, just one H-Block remains standing.

Learn More Here

Source
Article

Flynn, M. (2011)

Decision-making and Contested Heritage in Northern Ireland: The Former Maze Prison/Long Kesh. Irish Political Studies, 26(3)

Green, M. (1998)

The Prison Experience – A Loyalist Perspective. Published by EPIC.

Campbell, J.B., McKeown, L. and O'Hagan, F. (1994)

Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H-Block Struggle, 1976-1981. Published by Beyond the Pale.

Parallel Stories

A selection of clips from the archive exploring the theme from different perspectives.
In the Blocks there was access to absolutely nothing.
Jake / Gearóid

Play Film

Watch the clips of former prisoners in the H-Blocks. How do their perceptions of life in the H-Blocks differ? Why?

You’d virtually all the comforts of home in your wee cell
David

Play Film

Life was very very different…you know, during those different phases
Seanna

Play Film

The place here was run very much like a prisoner of war camp
Kenneth

Play Film

This is an architecture that grew out of the whole horrific conflict situation
Oliver

Play Film

Watch the clip of Oliver. Do you agree that the architecture of the H-Blocks conveys something of the nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland? Why?

We Were There (2014)

The wall and wire of the Maze and Long Kesh.

This feature film, directed by Laura Aguiar and Cahal McLaughlin, highlights the experiences of women in the predominantly male world of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison.
Running time: 61 min

Links to NI Curriculum

CCEA GCSE History: Unit 1; Section B; Option 2: Changing Relations: Northern Ireland and its Neighbours, 1965–1998

Questions based on GCSE CEA history exam papers

01.
Using the clip of Seanna and your contextual knowledge, do you agree that the hunger strikes of 1981 did lead to changes in life in the H-Blocks for the prisoners? Give two reasons.

02.
Using the clip of Oliver and your contextual knowledge, do you agree that the architecture of the H-Blocks was symbolic of the nature of the conflict in and about Northern Ireland? Give two reasons.

03.
How useful is the clip of David for an historian studying prisoner experiences of the H-Blocks in the later years of the conflict? Explain your answer, using the clip and your contextual knowledge.

Download our teacher's notes

Transcript

Jake / Gearóid

“In the Blocks there was access to absolutely nothing. You were in a bare cell with the 4 walls. No books, no writing materials, no pens, pencils or paper. So we had to improvise. We had to bring in tobacco – which was always a lifeline for any prisoner. We had to smuggle in the biros out of pens. You had to smuggle in the wheel out of a lighter and the flint and the tube of a pen so that we could use a mechanism with a wheel for striking to light the cotton so that we could light the cigarettes. We had to smuggle out communiques which were official comms from the jail to the leadership, as well as letters, personal letters. So, for example, if I was taking a visit all of the other prisoners’ families who lived around me in the area would send my mother their letters. And all the letters were folded up into a comms which would end up about the size of the tip of your finger. So they were cigarette papers folded again and again.

Transcript

David

“We decorated our wee cells up, we had them all two tone, borders in, you know what I mean, you done it the best you could. It was like interior design, like ‘Changing Rooms’, where we had all our touches to our cells. Some people had the roofs and all blacked out with black paint, fluorescent stars and all on them and all, so when you turned the light out at night it was like you had the stars above, you know. We had our own tvs in our cells. Near the end you were allowed to buy tvs, you were allowed to buy music stations, ghetto blasters, out of the Argos book you were allowed to buy them. And we all purchased our own wee ghetto blasters, we had our wee cd systems and all going. And our music and all which was… you’d all the, you’d virtually all the comforts of home in your wee cell like and you tried to make it as nice and as best as you could for yourself you know, make your time as easy as possible”

Transcript

Seanna

“Generally, life was very very different…you know, during those different phases, from the protest years – from 1976 until 1981 – and then once we ended the blanket protest, at the end of the hunger strike, we got our own clothes, we got all sorts of other concessions, we had access to television and radio and newspapers and books, and education. You know, so you had that period, from 81 ‘til 83. And basically what that was about was that we were seeking to use that period to prepare for the escape, the 83 escape.”

Transcript

Kenneth

The prisoners ran, they ran the Blocks effectively, everybody knows that. And they could either admit you or exclude you. And if for example I would have had some kind of difference with the OC on a Block he would have simply said ‘you won’t be back here’ and I wouldn’t have been back on their say so. Which is entirely wrong. Prisoners cannot be allowed to run prisons, but while the government said that there were no, there wasn’t prisoner of war status or anything of that nature, in reality the place here was run very much like a prisoner of war camp where everybody looked after their own affairs and more or less organised the thing within the confines of the Blocks. All they couldn’t, they had no jurisdiction over the perimeters or anything like that, but within the Blocks, within their own prison area, they organised things the way they wanted to

Transcript

Oliver

“The whole architecture of the H-Blocks, it is not a normal type of architecture, this is an architecture that grew out of the whole horrific conflict situation. And it does strike me that the whole of the Maze Prison here, the whole of the H-Blocks, the whole Long Kesh reality, it’s like something that physically was extruded from the pain and the conflict and the hostility and the armed struggle and all these various names that we give it. It was as if it all gathered together and was extruded like a shape being extruded into a piece of plastic, that what we have here in the remnants of the architecture of the H-Blocks is something that in its own strange way signifies the horrific nature of the conflict and the hostility that has existed in our society.”