Republican News · Thursday 16 December 1999

[An Phoblacht]

A Volunteer at an outpost

Gerry McGeough has been deported from Britain and has been imprisoned in the Six Counties, Germany, and the United States. Hie endured isolation and hard time in both Germany and the United States but emerged as confident and unbowed as when he went in. An Phoblacht's Roisín De Rosa spoke with Gerry about his penal time in foreign climes.

Gerry McGeough

Fit, bright eyes, keen, almost boyish, calm, ready to go. Gerry McGeough's appearance belies an unimaginable self-discipline as he tells his story of alligators intruding on the exercise yard from the swamp outside; Marshals, with their sharp polished badges of brutality, their pump action shot guns, watch towers all around, with a bolt hole for the marshals to run to in a race riot. Breathing race hatred. Locked in a steel cage, for days, and weeks, transported like animals packed into sweat box trucks.

Department of Correction Company aeroplanes, grey monsters, `Con-Air', landing into airports that only served the jail, into an underground tunnel from the plane to `reception, locked up in leg irons, shackles, handcuffed to a belt. Alone.

``Black boxes over here'', menaced the Marshal at the hub jail in Oklahoma. Black boxes are boxes over your wrists so you can't move your fingers or scratch yourself. In transit between jails, Gerry was supposed to be in Oklahoma for just three or four days. But there was a lock down. Riots all over in US jails. Gerry was there for two or three weeks, locked in little more than a box. They'd not open the thick steel cell door until, backed up to the door, hands through the box, they had the handcuffs on.

It was a long way from the Coalisland Civil Rights march, where he'd pleaded to go with his parents, thinking it might be like the Prague Spring that he had seen on TV. They wouldn't take him.

Gerry McGeough is a Tyrone man, from the Brantry, the eldest of four children. As kids, they re-enacted 1916, each following day, after the TV showings of the 1966 commemorations of the Easter Rising, playing the parts of the leaders, in his granny's hayshed.

Gerry was involved in the H-block campaign, organising all over the county, then working for Bobby Sands' election. He'd been arrested in England in the 1970s and deported, with the additional recommendation that he couldn't join the British Army.

After the H-blocks campaign, Gerry's next appearance was in an oft-shown TV show, filmed by a covert FBI camera crew, negotiating an arms deal. He went on the run across the States, living rough in the Prairie, sleeping out, eating where he could. And he spoke all over the country, from Los Angeles to New York.

The German court had trouble with the meaning of `Mo Chara'. The prosecutor was sure, because the RUC had told him so, that it was a title of address to a high-ranking IRA man. It also meant `weapon brother' until a professor of Celtic studies was brought to the process to tell them what it really meant.
In the mid-1980s, he worked building solidarity groups in Sweden. In 1988, Gerry was arrested on the German-Dutch border with Gerry Hanratty. They were held in solitary confinement through the next two years, until their trial started in 1990. It took six weeks before he heard of the SAS killing of his close friend Gerry Harte, who'd worked with him on the Bobby Sands election campaign. Gerry was killed with his brother and brother in law. Total silence, isolation. Endless identification parades - Gerry amidst a handful of Germans playing `spot the Irishman'.

The prosecutor announced to Gerry shortly after their arrest that he'd break him in three weeks. And they tried. In jail at Frankenthal there was no mass, no study, no books. He was moved to a cell in a special security unit at Wupperthal Prison, ``frightening, cold methodical inhumanity.''

In 1990, the trial process started. It was Kafkaesque. The trial was held in an underground bunker designed to withstand a military assault. Every day a cavalcade, bang through the motor way morning traffic, took the 20-mile trip up the Autobahn. Three-way translations of witnesses' testimony, from Sweden, Holland, and Ireland, for the prosecutor, and defence. Gerry was fluent in the languages - the translations never matched. They had trouble with the meaning of `Mo Chara'. The prosecutor was sure, because the RUC had told him so, that it was a title of address to a high-ranking IRA man. It also meant `weapon brother' until a professor of Celtic studies was brought to the process to tell them what it really meant. The proceedings were bizarre and went on until one day a warrant for Gerry's extradition, relating to his TV appearance in the 1980s, was granted. The Germans had a precise time limit in which to extradite him to the States.

He bid adieu to the prosecutor, and off he went, at 3am in the morning, in leg irons and chains, to Frankfurt, only they went to the wrong airport. The US marshals had to get hold of him by 11 am for the warrant to be valid. They made it, just, and loaded Gerry onto a C141 cargo plane, a grey monstrosity, at the US Air force base, and strapped him to the inside of the plane. A girl came over to demonstrate life saving procedure and she laughed as Gerry, strapped to the seat, his hands strapped to his waist and feet, would have no chance to use the skill. They gave him a ration pack, with little chance to eat it, with his hands strapped to his feet. He thought of O'Donovan Rossa.

Nine hours later, frozen to death, they arrived at Dover Air Force base in Delaware. It was like Noriega had landed - troops and Marshals everywhere. They took him, in the steaming heat of a sweat box, to Manhattan Correction Centre, up to the high floors, top security, into a tiny holding cell with no windows, on 24-hour lock up. It lasted ten days. Then he got bail. Both his parents died, within three weeks of each other.

But it was when he got a 0-5 year sentence on a plea bargain and the judge made it three that Gerry's experience of jail in the US got underway. Easter Monday, 1994, Gerry was in Schuykill, Pennsylvania. The jail was overcrowded. He landed into a cell with 30 or 40 guys, constant tension, drug wars going on, always on guard. Desolation in a steel cage.

For a year he was in Fairton, New Jersey. At the time of O.J. Simpson, the racial tension was fierce, and the guards were expecting a race riot. The jail was 15% white. The guards had a bolthole to run to for when the race riot, expected any day, broke out. Somewhere from which a chopper could lift them out.

Then to Louisburg, into the hole, a 4.5 foot by 8 foot steel cell, no ventilation, searing white light, and chunky millipedes the size of your finger scuttling around. Hoffa's jail, where they've `Old Sparky', where there was a killing a month between prisoners. Then they came for him at 3 am and took him, with 30 or 40 others, crushed into trucks like animals, to a Con-Air flight, in transit to Oklahoma, where Timothy McVeigh was later held. The only building around was the arrivals/departure lounge - the jail was accessed through an underground passage.

From there to Louisiana Deportation Centre, where for the first time in US jails, Gerry met up with republicans - Seamus Moley, Kevin McKinley and Mixey Martin. The jail was run by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service - all `Deputy Dogs', viciously anti-Irish - in the middle of a swamp, where there were snakes and little alligators which came into the exercise yard to lie down. Detainees had to buy their ticket home, or else they stayed there.

It was here that Gerry wrote his first book, ``The Ambush and other Stories.'' His second book, `Defenders', was written after he got back, deported to Dublin. ``How many would be waiting?'' the marshals accompanying him asked anxiously. ``Sure there could be hundreds.'' But the ticket was to Shannon, and off went the plane again, avoiding the crowds. Home again.

What made you able to cope? ``I was a Volunteer, isolated at an outpost. Through years of solitary, well I suppose I lived a bit like an ascetic - I had strong faith. It allowed me to keep track of time, through routine. I'd pick a day and remember, remember everything that happened.''

You'd need self discipline.

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