I opened the letter with some anticipation. I was 16 years of age and rarely got anything in the post except the occasional birthday card. I recognised the postmark, as it was the same as other letters that arrived regularly for my parents.
Whilst opening the envelope I noticed initials and a number: R 278. These details belonged to my uncle Paul who was a remand prisoner in the ‘H’ Blocks of Long Kesh. He was my dad’s younger and only brother, was about 25 years of age and had been recently moved from Crumlin Road Gaol to wait for a date for his trial. He had been arrested with two other men as part of a police surveillance operation at a house that contained firearms. They were apparently part of an IRA unit.
I had not seen Paul since his arrest. My dad went to visit him every week. This time Paul sent a visiting pass in my name as he had asked my dad to let me visit him on my own. My mum was a bit worried as she thought that Paul would try and encourage me to follow his political path. It was 1979 and there were regular street protests supporting a number of demands listed by republican prisoners, including the right to political status and the right to wear their own clothes. Several hundred sentenced Republican prisoners were on a blanket and no wash protest. Their fellow remand prisoners adopted the no wash protest in 1977.
The day before the visit, my mum gave me a letter for my form teacher saying that I had a doctor’s appointment. I told some of my friends where I was really going. Two of my friends Brendan and Noel had been to Long Kesh, Crumlin Road and prisons in the south of Ireland as both their fathers had been in gaol several times. Noel had a brother serving a life sentence and he was on the blanket protest. That evening my mum helped me to prepare a parcel of fruit, tobacco, books and newspapers to take to Paul. My dad had agreed to take me to a Prisoner’s Support Centre where I could get a mini-bus to and from Long Kesh.
The next morning around 9 o’clock my dad dropped me off at the centre in plenty of time to get the mini-bus. I proceeded towards a grey building which appeared shabby and run down. The slate roof was covered with graffiti supporting the prisoners’ campaign and a tricolour was perched precariously on a chimney pot. The entrance had security gates and I had to press a doorbell before someone sitting inside released a mechanism to admit access. I gave my details to a small middle-aged man called Paddy. He knew my family although I had never seen him before. He directed me to a waiting room. There were about fifteen other people in the room, which was decorated with posters supporting the prisoners’ campaign and others calling for the ‘end of British rule’. There were lines of wooden chairs, most of which were occupied. I was the only ‘adult’ male as the occupants were primarily women of all ages; wives, mothers, sisters and girlfriends. There were a few young children including two newborn babies who struggled to breathe as the room was engulfed with tobacco smoke. The fumes were toxic and within twenty minutes even some of the smokers complained about their own pollution. Most of the women appeared to be chain smokers and they made references to valium and other prescription drugs. Nearly forty-five minutes passed before Paddy entered the room to announce that the bus ‘for The Kesh’ was outside.
We entered the bus and the driver let me sit in the front. He was a tall stocky man in his late forties called Gerry. He was very jovial and entered into constant banter with the passengers, most of whom he was on first name terms with . He also knew my family, but never offered any explanations.
Whilst driving along the motorway the driver noticed that I was a bit quiet and nervous. He gave me reassurances and outlined the procedures associated with the visit. He offered caution about revealing my nervous side to the prison staff or ‘screws’ as he believed they would give me a hard time. He was a former prisoner himself and expressed his loathing for the prison staff in very colourful language. As we drove towards the gates of the prison I was startled by the size of the place, with huge menacing iron gates and watchtowers manned by armed British soldiers. We entered the complex via a turnstile and made our way to a hatch at the side of a portacabin. I followed the women; they knew the routine, as this was a weekly event for most of them. I handed over the bag containing the parcel to an outstretched hand. The hand belonged to a middle-aged prison officer who pushed his head out of a window and looked at me sternly . He produced a newspaper and held it up high,
‘This sh**e is not allowed in here,’ he said with an air of authority.
I didn’t realise that my dad had included a copy of a weekly Republican newspaper. He continued with the verbal abuse despite my explanations about having no knowledge of it being in the bag and that it was my first visit . One of the women told him to ‘lay off’ making reference to my youth. He just grunted a response and got me to sign for the parcel.
We made our way into a large portacabin which was packed full of people . The driver had also alerted me to the fact that many of the visitors would be relatives of loyalist prisoners and to be careful with whom I spoke. I decided the safest bet was to stay close to the women. We were waiting for a prison bus to take us to the visiting area. Prison staff constantly moved through the portacabin and it soon became obvious who the loyalist visitors were, as many of them seemed to know some of the staff. I was called to a search area. I had to empty the contents of my pockets on to a plastic tray. I was also instructed to remove my coat and shoes. The staff was very abrupt and physical whilst carrying out the search. They removed money, a pen and my watch from the tray and put them into a bag they told me to retrieve on the way out. My uncle’s name was called, as were the names of three or four men related to some of the women from our minibus.
We entered a yard and went through another turnstile. Two ‘screws’ with German Shepherd dogs manned the exit. Both the dogs and their handlers were very mean looking. We entered a prison bus, which had no windows. Despite the lack of vision I reckoned that our journey took us through several collections of large gates. There was a hive of activity going on in the areas where we stopped and I could hear the voices of prison staff and British soldiers. Eventually we came to another set of gates and stopped outside a large portacabin. We entered the building, which was pale grey and poorly lit with old plastic chairs that were fit for the bin. We were searched again before going into an open plan visiting room, which contained dozens of individual partitioned booths. I was looking for Paul, but I couldn’t see him. There were a number of men who were obviously on the prison protest as their appearances were shocking. The place reeked of sweat, body odour and tobacco smoke.
I saw a man of about forty years of age beckoning me in his direction. It was only when I heard his voice that I realised it was my uncle. We shook hands and he looked me up and down . I reciprocated, intrigued by his appearance. He had lost at least two stone since I last saw him. His black curly hair was hanging way below his shoulders and he sported a long unkempt beard. He smelt awful and he looked like a tramp that I saw most mornings near our school. In fact the tramp that lived on the streets and drank anything alcoholic looked healthier than my uncle. Paul could see that I was shocked by his appearance. I didn’t know what to say. Paul broke the ice with humorous remarks about going out with me to chat up some girls. He asked me about school, football, what was in the music charts, family gossip. Mind you he was better informed on the gossip front than me about family, neighbours and even some of the teachers in my school.
At various stages during the visit Paul would stand up to shout to other prisoners. He was nervous and shook his legs constantly. My father had given me a packet of ten cigarettes to enable Paul to smoke during the visit. He smoked one after the other. Occasionally other prisoners that he knew would try and speak a few words with Paul before being ushered away by staff. They spoke in Irish and although I did this subject in school I found it very hard to work out what was said. Paul spoke to me about the political situation outside and asked me where I stood in relation to the campaign being waged by the prisoners and the troubles generally. I confirmed my support for their demands to retain the political status taken off them in 1976. However, I tried to be ambiguous about the bigger political picture. This didn’t work with Paul. In the end I said that I didn’t fully understand everything that was going on, but I was against violence. I told him that I could not agree with any side using violence. I added that my main focus was school and that I wanted to pass my ‘A’ Levels and go to University, most likely in Dublin. He gave me the names of various political and history books to read, most of them were about Ireland, but I was surprised to find that some were about events in Russia, South Africa, Chile and Cuba. I wasn’t aware of events in these countries and I was surprised to learn that Paul was familiar with such a range of issues. He told me that the prisoners ran their own classes and exchanged books. It was coming near the end of the visit and Paul lit up his seventh cigarette . He looked at me and he wished me well with whatever path I took. We chatted briefly again about music, films and football. He was in mid conversation about football and he suddenly paused. He stopped talking briefly and then he looked at me with a very serious expression. His voice sounded hoarse and he struggled to speak. He took both my hands and joined them together and shook them with his right hand. He told me that I was lucky. His voice seemed strained and he took a hanky from his pocket and blew his nose, I thought he was going to cry. When I pressed him for an answer he appeared to ignore me. His face was blank. This expression changed his whole complexion and he appeared pale and perplexed. He shook my hands again and passed on his regards to all the family . He also asked me to say hello to Marie, a young woman who lived in our street. I realised that she was an older sister of my friend Brendan and that her and Paul used to go out together.
My experiences and observations leaving the prison were much the same as the arrival. The whole place just seemed like a lost world, a jungle made with corrugated iron. There was a distinct dark, dull and sombre feel to the place. I couldn’t wait to get back to my ‘boring reality’. I didn’t say much on the return journey. The driver Gerry asked me about Paul. He told me that Paul was a great young man who was deeply committed to his beliefs. I could not disagree, but on a different level I got the impression that Paul would like to be with Marie or out socialising with his friends, watching football and other everyday activities.
When I got home I told my mum about the visit and that Paul had asked me to say hello to Brendan’s sister. My mum thought this was sad as Paul and Marie had been teenage sweethearts and were planning to get engaged. A few months before Paul was arrested, Marie ended the relationship because she could not cope with his political activities. My mum said that Marie was broken hearted and had been very down since Paul was arrested. Although she was hurt Marie never wrote to Paul or visited him despite his various requests. It was obvious that Paul was very sad about losing Marie and the blank expression that he sported at the end of the visit told me that his deepest thoughts were also imprisoned, but it would take more than keys to free those feelings.