And here is the Weather Forecast……………..Primo.
Northern Ireland in fairness has just skipped a severe bout of weather. Between the icy cold conditions in Scotland and the snows of middle England we have done well to escape the extremes of our changeable and ever present companion.
In the cages of the Kesh we had more to worry about than the weather but on reflection we lived a lot closer to the weather than many of us do today. Leaving the Crum aside for a moment I am talking about the cages the Nissen huts fo Long kesh. A look at this pages photo stream or a simple google search will giv ena idea of the type fo building we lived in for most of us over a decade of our lives. The catch from 1975 onward was that the huts were a quick ‘throw up’job after the big fire of October 1974. When the Kesh was burned literally to the ground except for cages 19 mainly UVF and cage 16 mainly UDA. In terms of a thermal insulation rating which most homes are rated by today I can confidently say the huts rated zero on any scale. They were most definitely not built for comfort. To simplify we froze in winter and roasted in summer. The basic hut was a semi round structure with 2 layers of tin corrugated iron. Inside these layers was what was pinkish spongy stuff called insulation. This trades descriptions act did not apply in the Kesh.
The main weather element which seemed to be there all the time was rain. But I’m sure that’s a trick of the memory. But when it rained in the Kesh (and the blocks) it did absolutely nothing to lift the atmosphere. On a dark, cold winter night with the rain being lashed across the compound there was every sane reason for staying indoors. But some brave souls would walk the wire before lock up. A lot of people did a lot of running so inevitably you would be running in the rain. At times this was OK. A soaking is a soaking as long as there is a shower afterwards. That’s if theres hot water for the shower! Then there were football days. We had to leave our phase, pass through the big gates and into Phase 5 where there 2 large all weather gravel pitches. These where front of the Provo cages. Many good games where played here over the years but there was one day, a summer day! It rained so hard that the pitch became a puddle. The ball couldn’t bounce so it turned into one big mess about. The other main time that the rain impacted out lives was night time. Locked up we had one TV per 30 men. The half hut , where the brass lived, had it easy. One TV per 15 men. Anyone under corrugated iron during rain will get some idea of the din that can be created. During a really heavy shower you could not hear the TV or people talking. It was like being inside a noise box. (hailstones were even worse). At other times it was quite relaxing being in the hut studying or painting and hearing the rhythmic patter of the rain against the windows. Many nights I drifted off to sleep with that noise.
During the cold months there was not a lot of heat about the cages. No sure who came up with the idea of 3 small panel heaters hung from the ceiling of the hut. Total effect? Nil. One was taken down turned upside down and used as a toaster. Strange but true. Unlike the H Blocks and the Crum there was no integral heating ie pipes running the length of the hut. It was a case of make do as best you can. In later years the prison spoiled us and gave each room or cube a single bar electric radiator which was mounted high up on the wall. It never really sank in to the prison powers that heat rises. We had no food storage facility so our food lockers were actual tin or wood lockers hung on the outside of the windows. One year during a particular cold spell I recall every thing being frozen in the locker. Milk, tomatoes, apples, meat whatever was there. The Long kesh site seemed ideally suited for cold to settle and stay there. There was one morning that I scraped the ice of the window. The inside of the window. Truly brass monkey weather. But we looked on the bright side. It helped us getting up quickly and getting active as soon as possible. The cold also gave the screws some issues. The actual wire fence round the cage had gaps of about half an inch. With a hoar frost these gaps would fill in giving the impression of a pure white wall. We couldn’t see out and they couldn’t see in. God forbid. Of course, one of the best times of the year was the transforming power of snow. It didn’t happen a lot through the 80’s but when it did it was great. Snowball fights. One of the times that the tension between us and screws lessened was during this time. The grey was temporarily lifted, the gloom was transformed and there was a different feel to the place. One of the happier memories was when the screws had to run the gauntlet. And while that may sound bad it really wasn’t. Each cage had a screws hut which was staffed through out the day. There were shift changes and sometimes individuals would walk through the prison to get to their station. The side of Compound 21 ran alongside a long wall separating the 2 phases. The screws would enter our phase through this wall by means of a small wicker gate. They then had to walk half the length of the wall maybe the length of a football pitch go through some other gates and into the hut. While walking along that wall they were fair game during snow time. There was a sterile area between out cage fence and the path but this meant we could get a good throw at them. It was good crack. The screws would walk along dodging the snowballs that came their way. There was no malice here. Just the fun of seeing them duck and weave. In fairness to them they seemed to enjoy it all the while keeping their eyes on us the whole way up to avoid the barrage of snowballs. I think it only happened once when one inattentive screw had his cap nicely knocked off his head. An excellent shot. Or maybe just lucky. A cheer went up from us. Only on one occasion did one screw get into the swing and starting snowballing us. Class.
On the down side the ice that formed inside the cage was a real problem for the runners. You didn’t so much run as tiptoe around maybe using the wire fence to keep you from falling. And if the all-weather pitches iced up enough then we were not allowed out to play football. So much for being all weather. Interestingly once we moved over to H2 there was a problem regarding the heating pipes that went through all the cells up and down the wings. Put simply some men wanted the heat on and some wanted it off. It could not be controlled on a cell by cell basis. Plenty of ‘debates’ there.
On the opposite side of the winter were the hot summers. There were, in my memory, a couple of wash out summers which was depressing. But some summers were memorable for various reasons. Of course this was the time to get absolutely and utterly sunburned. Which I did myself on just one occasion. Never to be repeated. Mattresses and chairs would be taken outside, a quiet spot found and people caught the rays between meals and training. Shorts and sandals were the dress code from morning til night. Often wondered how the screws coped with their uniforms. No shorts there.
The opposite now applied. How to keep food and the likes of milk from spoiling. In short you could not. This was the time of the tea strainer. While used for tea leaves it also served to sieve out the lumps in your daily pint of milk when it started going off. Through those warmest days all the windows and doors would be open. Of course, night time was a problem after lock up. The tin did act like a massive overhead radiator. We sweltered. There were no fans so we just endured. Sleep was restless and despite the great weather tempers could become short as people got used to another extreme.
The one weather that caused the prison more problems than us was fog. Good old-fashioned pea soup fog. The lights that adorned our wire fence were poor. The fog produced an eerie atmosphere. Noise was muffled and the rest of the prison would disappear. We couldn’t even see each other walking around the cage. So when the fog settled in the screws would hit the panic button. The all seeing watch towers could not see what we were up to. So, what happened was that 2 pairs of screws would walk round the outside of the wire fence. They would walk in opposite directions so ensuring a reasonable chance of catching us going over the wire. The overtime must have been sweet. So the weather was a ever present for us in special category in the Kesh. Leaving some good memories to recall whenever we meet up.