I was in the other night with my good friend Harry Thompson. Harry’s not well so when I get a chance I drop by and give him an update report on developments in the Dáil.
As is the norm when Irish republicans get together the conversation turned to our past adventures. And as it was Christmas I found myself recounting to him, for the umpteenth time, my failure as a wanabee escapee from British jails in the early 1970s.
Harry was very patient and listened intently as if he was hearing it all again for the first time – even laughing in the right places.
Anyway, it got me to thinking. Christmas is a time for telling stories. So why not a jail story? So here it is. It’s no “Great Escape” a la Steve McQueen, although the outcomes are not dissimilar.
I hope you enjoy it. Nollag Shona Daoibhse.
It was Christmas Eve in Long Kesh. We were to be blessed with a midnight mass. It would be celebrated in the half hut which was the only bit of our cage which was not used as living accommodation. There were four large huts in each cage. Three were occupied by a motley mix of male internees who ranged from teenagers to old age pensioners.
There were about one hundred and twenty of us in each cage. We spent our sleeping hours piled on top of each other in decrepit bunk beds. The rest of the time, we did our time. Most of us were from the North, city males and country men in equal measure, with a handful of blow-ins from the South, Dubs and culchies, again in equal measure.
At its height, there were about 22 cages in Long Kesh. The conditions were awful, especially during the winter and particularly on Christmas Eve.
But this Christmas Eve was going to be different, especially for me and three trusty companeros. This Christmas Eve we were going to vamoose, skedaddle, get outta the place. This Christmas Eve we were going to escape.
The plan was simple. We had a trapdoor cut in a blind spot in the cage fence, not visible to the tall watch towers which glared down at us. Our cage had four such towers with their heavily armed Brit soldiers and Colditz search lights and sirens.
Once out of the cage, we were to crawl our way towards the perimeter fence, cutting our way through acres of barbed razor wire. We had procured bolt and wire cutters. We had smuggled in camouflaged clothes, and sewed a change of clothing into this heavy fatigue gear.
The plan, once we got beyond Long Kesh, was to change into the civilian clothes and make our way to civilization. In case of emergency, we had a twenty pound note, some change for phone calls, a Mars bar each, and an ordinance survey map.
So far, everything was going hunky dory. We were outside the cage, the four of us belly flat on the ground inching our way along the gap between our cage and the one next to it.
We didn’t expect to make much progress until midnight Mass was over so I was content to listen to the sound of the cage choir rehearsing Oiche Ciuin (Silent Night) and other seasonal offerings. The sounds of slightly melodious male voices drifted out from the half hut to where we lay.
Then a slight mist came down. Extra sentries were put on the side walk alongside us and into the cages. We timed the sound of their footsteps approaching us and lay soundless and motionless until they passed.
Then we edged forward another wee bit. Midnight Mass came and went. We heard our comrades being locked up. To our relief, our absence was undiscovered. Long Kesh went to sleep. Christmas day arrived. The mist stayed. So did the extra sentries. We could hear the snatches of their conversation as they passed on their weary beat.
Then all hell broke out. Sirens wailed. Search lights lanced the darkness. There was the sound of running feet, shouted commands. Dogs barked excitedly.
We were caught. A gang of Brits and prison warders converged on the area we were crawling through. One of our group stood up in a vain attempt to distract attention from the rest of us.
“Ho ho ho” he shouted. “Happy Christmas everyone.”
It didn’t work. One by one we were pried from the barbed wire. I was beaten about the face. My spectacles scarred a bloody track across my cheek. We were frog marched, batons raining down on us, towards the punishment blocks.
I was glad to get into the cell. By now I was naked. Our clothes were stripped from us, our belongings, including the mars bars, were confiscated. Alone in my cell I pulled the rough jail blanket around me and lay in the fetal position on the plank bed.
“Ach well. Sín é,” I thought to myself.
It was one of my captured compatriots. I shouted in response and each of us yelled back and forth to each other. I pulled myself up to the cell window and peered through the bars. Right outside there was a line of Brit soldiers with ferocious war dogs. They, the Brits not the dogs, screamed abuse at me.
“Get down ya Fenian bastard.”
Then to my horror one of my friends yelled back in defiance.
F…… up ya bollox. My name is Gerry Adams and if you come in here I’ll knock yer melt in.”
“Jesus,” I whispered as I slid back on to the bed.
The verbal abuse continued.
“Hi Brit. What rank are you? Is that dog taking you a walk. What you say? You’re only a private. My mate is twenty three and already he is a general.”
I stayed quiet. Well, nearly quiet, Between clenched teeth I hissed at the amadan next door.
“Shut up you imbecile. Give me a break. Jesus, Mary and Joseph tell him to shut up.”
By now the Brits and their dogs were in the corridor. The dogs were off their leashes. They ran excitedly up and down barking madly as their masters drummed our cell doors with their batons.
Then all went quiet. The dogs and their handlers left. Minutes later my cell door slowly opened.
A young British soldier stood looking in at me. I stood up fists clenched eying him.
“Here you are.”
He flung a packet of cigarettes at me.
“You want a light Paddy?”
I looked at him in disbelief. He pushed a lit match towards me.
“Happy Christmas,” he grinned.
I sucked on the cigarette.
“My name’s not Paddy.”
“I know Paddy. Happy Christmas.”
I grinned back at him.
“Happy Christmas,” I said.