At 42, Sean McKenna from Newry was the oldest of the Hooded Men. On 9 August 1971, he was arrested along with his son, Sean, at his home and taken to the Ulster Defence Regiment Center in Newry, where he was searched and photographed before being transported first to Ashgrove School and then to Ballykinler Weekend Training Centre in Co. Down. McKenna reported being beaten, kicked and repeatedly hit in the head during his transfer. He was cursed at and called a Fenian bastard by soldiers along the way. Upon reaching Ballykinler, McKenna was grabbed by a soldier who ran him at great speed head-first into a concrete post, while other soldiers watching laughed.
The detainees at Ballykinler were treated far worse than those at the other camps. The men were put into huts where they were forced to sit with their feet against the wall and hands behind their heads, looking up at the ceiling before being taken for a medical exam. After the exam, they were given an egg sandwich and some tea, then returned to the huts and left alone for several hours. Soldiers forced them to exercise continuously through the night; one man suffered a heart attack. The exercises were repeated the following day as men were removed from the hut until only four remained: Patrick McNally, Brian Turley, Gerry McKerr and Sean McKenna.
Eventually, the four were given mattresses and blankets, but were required to use them as part of a game of leapfrog throughout the night. At other times, they were forced to run between two huts and then urinate in a hole in the ground while soldiers and police watched, laughing. Early on the morning of 11 August, McKenna and the others were hooded and handcuffed, bundled into a truck where they were kicked and beaten, and brought to a helicopter. After a flight of 30-60 minutes, they were pulled out of the helicopter, roughed up and put into another vehicle, which brought them to RAF Ballykelly in Co. Derry, where they were held for six days.
According to his statement, McKenna was forced to stand, spread-eagled against a wall, for extended periods, while being beaten about his legs, hands and buttocks. His hands swelled and went numb. He remembered being subjected to a deafening, continuous noise, similar to hissing from a steam pipe, and lost all sense of time. He remained hooded for the duration of his time at Ballykelly, and was given just a slice of bread and a mug of water daily. McKenna was unable to answer any questions when interrogated; he was not even able to recall his own name, or those of his children. He admitted to being a member of Sinn Fein but denied any IRA connections. During this time, McKenna prayed for courage. He wrote, “I don’t think I will be the same again.”
Following their ordeal at Ballykelly, all the men were returned to Crumlin Road Gaol, where McKenna was so weak, he could not care for himself. A member of the Special Branch had to wash and shave him, and he remained unable to read or focus. He continued to have crying spells and anxiety attacks. McKenna had begun his detention with a head of dark hair; by the time he arrived at Crumlin Road it had gone completely white. His cellmate, Jim Auld, told author John Conroy: “He looked as if he was somebody mad. . . . He had no control over his temper. . . . He was continually weeping. . . . At night in the cell he would continually talk about what happened and end up crying. He hadn’t any control over it.”
At Long Kesh, KcKenna continued to deteriorate. His hallucinations were unrelenting; he thought the television was sending him secret messages. He had severe headaches and began experiencing seizures. In March 1972, he was transferred to the prison hospital, where he experienced acute anxiety, difficulty formulating words, severe headaches, nightmares, and crying jags. He was released from prison in March 1973 and entered a psychiatric hospital. During an interview with Dr. Robert Daly, an expert on the psychiatric impact of sensory deprivation, McKenna reported “a feeling of impending fatal illness, such as a brain tumor or heart attack.” On 5 June 1975, Sean McKenna died after suffering a heart attack; he was just 45.
Ruari O’Bradaigh delivered McKenna’s funeral oration: “Before 1971, Sean McKenna was a strong, healthy man, but after suffering at the hands of the enemy, the great tortures to which he was subjected, his time was marked. He started to die for Ireland at 4 a.m. on August 9, 1971, when he was interned and tortured.”
McKenna’s son, Sean, who was also arrested on 9 August 1971, became an IRA volunteer and participated in the first H-Block hunger strike in 1980. He was on strike for 53 days, and was in a coma near death when the strike was finally called off. Having never fully recovered, Sean died on 19 December 2008.