Long Kesh revisited
BY JIM GIBNEY
At approximately 12.30 pm last Friday, 10 August, I stood
in silence in the cell where Bobby Sands died 20 years ago. A few
minutes later, I was in the cell where Francis Hughes died and a
few minutes after that in the cell where Raymond McCreesh died.
It was the first time I was in their cells in 20 years. I had
visited them at various stages on their hunger strike and as I
wandered around the wing of the prison hospital where they spent
the last days of their young lives, the memories came flooding
I saw Bobby lying on his bed, his mother and sister Marcella by his bed. He was close to the end yet there was a calmness, a serenity about him and the bedside scene. I saw Francis again, as he was, days before his death, lying sick on his deathbed with his mother and brother Oliver by his side. In Raymond's cell I recalled him telling me, ``Francis had a bad night last night. He hasn't long left.''
During the hunger strike, we buried our emotions under ten ton of concrete. Had we allowed our emotions to surface naturally, then we would have been overwhelmed by the sadness of it all, by the burden of watching ten young men slowly dying
As we stood in Francis' cell, Gerry Adams told the story about the time Don Concannon, Roy Mason's number two, visited Francis. He arrived at the gaol in a fanfare of publicity. He was a man in a hurry, on a mission. He was a courier with a very important message that Francis had to hear. It would change everything. Concannon told a man close to death, ``You have no support. You're going to die.''
And the man who put fear into the British Crown forces and had
them on the run in South Derry; the man who liberated Bellaghy's
Scribe Road, where he played and grew up as a boy with his cousin
Tom Mc Elwee, retorted sharply, ``Close the door on your way
At the site of Cage 3, I reflected about myself, an 18-year-old
boy, captured, trapped in a strange world, a world that had
suddenly shrunk and was framed by barbed wire, gates and locks.
In the midday sun, breaking through the clouds, I realised I was
mourning for a lost youth
Everything about the prison hospital was different. Everything
was smaller, the reception area, the canteen was narrower. The
cells jumped out at you with their doors wide open.
In the hospital canteen, Danny Morrison described a remarkable
but heartbreaking scene. Sitting around the table with him were
Mickey Devine, Tom McElwee, Kieran Doherty, Kevin Lynch, Laurence
McKeown and Joe McDonnell.
Joe was too weak to walk so he was brought in on a wheelchair.
Martin Hurson was in his cell too ill to move. Throughout the
meeting, the lads attended to Joe, making sure he was alright.
Joe's only concern was to query Danny over whether he had
smuggled in cigarettes. He smoked throughout the meeting.
``Where was Bobby's cell?'' Gerry asked me. ``There it is,'' I
said mistakenly, pointing to a warder's office. ``No here it
is,'' I quickly corrected myself.
``And here up the landing,'' I said to Danny, ``this cell
here, this is where Raymond died.'' I shouted for Tom Hartley,
who was going through the cells looking for items of historical
interest for his vast collection in the
Linenhall Library. ``Tom c'mere. C'mon see Francis' cell.''
I watched Maura McCrory, who led the `Relatives' Action
Committee', the `RACs', the support organisation for the
prisoners, press her body into the corner of the cell where
Bobby's head would have rested on his pillow. She moved her body
slowly along the wall against which Bobby's bed was placed. She
was engaged in an intimate, tactile ritual reaching back through
20 years of her own life to touch Bobby on his journey's end.
Marie Moore, now a Sinn Féin Councillor but 20 years
ago an important figure in Sinn Féin's POW Department,
wept quietly in Bobby's cell.
I looked for the cell where I think I last saw Patsy O'Hara. I
couldn't make up my mind which one it was but the image of him
was powerful. Sitting in a wheelchair in a multi-coloured cotton
dressing gown, gaunt, his dark hair lined with sweat, he smiled
at me and waved his long arm, which lingered for a long time in
The visit to the prison hospital ended too quickly. I would
have liked to have spent some time on my own in Bobby's cell.
The visit was very emotional for all of us. During the hunger
strike, we buried our emotions under ten ton of concrete. We
couldn't afford to allow our emotions to surface naturally. Had
we done so then we would have been overwhelmed by the sadness of
it all, by the burden of watching ten young men slowly dying. We
would not have been able to do our job of managing the hunger
strike, of building support for the prisoners' cause on the
But there comes a time when one's emotions have to be freed
up. The visit to the prison and the events commemorating the 20th
anniversary of the hunger strike have helped all of us come to
terms with the part we played in an epic human and political
episode in the struggle for freedom.
The visit to Long Kesh had started at 10am that morning. On
board the mini-bus were Dessie Mackin, Marie Moore, Maura
McCrory, Mairéad Keane, Danny Morrison, Tom Hartley,
Martin Ferris, Larry Downes and myself. Gerry Adams travelled
It wasn't long before the `craic' started and the prison
experiences were tripping off people's tongues. I noticed they
were all humorous.
We were met at the prison by two warders in civilian dress.
They were our official guides, although Gerry quickly assumed the
role as our unofficial guide. ``There's the internees' visiting
area,'' he pointed out. ``Is that the prison hospital?'' asked
Danny. ``No,'' said the warder, ``That's the stores. The hospital
is over there.''
``Is that Cage 2?'' I asked. ``No,'' said Gerry and the warder
interjected, ``It's further on down.''
``Where's the gate the lads escaped out of?'' someone shouted
out. ``It's further up the wall. It is blocked up now,'' said the
warder. ``That's where I was caught trying to escape,'' said
Gerry, pointing to an area outside the internees' visiting area.
He was sentenced to three years for his efforts.
The first Cage we visited was Cage 6. It was here that Gerry
was interned with `Darkie' Hughes and Ivor Bell. The internees
had nicknamed it the `General's Cage' because of the number of
senior republicans held there. It was from here that the `Dark'
and Ivor successfully escaped and Gerry was caught.
We moved onto Cage 17. Dessie made us all laugh when he told
the story about a prank played on him by the `King mixer', Martin
Meehan and `Cleaky'
Clarke in the `70s. Martin wrote a `Dear John' letter from
Dessie's then girlfriend, now his wife. Dessie was so angry at
being `dumped' that he threw a necklace that his girl had bought
him over the wire onto the football pitch. Over 90 men watched
Dessie and fell about laughing.
The following morning he had the entire Cage out on the pitch
helping him to look for the necklace.
I was keen to visit Cage 3, where I was interned for most of
the time I was there. I was disappointed to see Cages 3, 4 and 5
no longer there. The passage of time had taken its toll. All that
was left was the concrete base on which the Nissen huts were
I went alone to the site of Cage 3. I quickly reflected about
myself, an 18-year-old boy, captured, trapped in a strange world,
a world that had suddenly shrunk and was framed by barbed wire,
gates and locks. I felt sorry for the 18-year-old who never had a
normal youth. In the midday sun, breaking through the clouds, I
realised I was mourning for a lost youth.
Standing in the middle of the concrete base close to where my
bunk bed had been, I travelled back nearly 30 years. I could see
the raw energy in the 18-year-old as he stormed around the Cage,
pacing seven to the dozen. A lump came into my throat as I
watched him receive the news of his father's death. I looked
again at him as he walked from the Cage on eight hours' parole to
bury his father in March 1973.
A smile of pride flashed across my face when I recalled being
asked to participate in the escape that saw John Green walk to
freedom from Cage 3, dressed as a priest. From the same Cage I
watched Mark Graham from the New Lodge Road trying to escape. The
plan was that Mark would hide underneath the lorry that brought
the internees their food parcels and escape when it left the
precincts of the prison. The plan went disastrously wrong when
the lorry went over a ramp and the axle snapped Mark's spine. He
never walked again.
I looked at the corner of the hut where a young Joe McDonnell
slept or mostly didn't, because he kept our hut awake most nights
with his peculiar brand of humour. Joe was a character.
I `bowled' round the yard and came to the spot where on 14
September 1974, the prison governor called me and told me I was
being released. And then I heard Danny shouting and looked across
to his old Cage, Cage 2, which remained intact. The visit to Long
Kesh was over.
We gathered ourselves together, boarded the mini-bus and were
transported to our own mini-bus for the journey home.
The trip home to Belfast was in marked contrast to the one
travelled earlier. There was no `craic', just silence. We were
lost in our own thoughts of what we had all been through. That
afternoon I cried sore but I knew the visit did me good. I'll
need a few more visits to the gaol to fully come to an
appreciation of the role Long Kesh has played in my life.
It shaped the person I am today and I know it did the same for
thousands of others.
That is why Long Kesh should be preserved as a museum, just
There's a story to be told. Thousands of political prisoners,
republican and loyalist, passed through its gates and locks.
Prison warders also have their story. Let them all be told.