A RETURN TO COMPOUND 19 – 2007
(A Red Hand Commando Volunteer returns to the Maze Prison and takes his 14 year old son with him).
During the summer of 2007, 17 years after I had been released on ‘License’, I was presented with the opportunity to return to the Maze/Long Kesh prison. I jumped at the chance, especially as I was able to bring my son with me. Accompanying me on the visit was a fellow prisoner and long time friend who brought along a work colleague. Completing the group was another close friend and his son.
The reason I jumped at the chance to return was I was trying to put the finishing touches to the ‘picture’ I had attempted to paint about my ‘life’ for my son. Several years before, I was made aware of some stories about me that my son’s friends had been telling each other – ex-prisoner stories. I realised I had to explain the whole story to him – I didn’t know how much he knew, true or false, and the visit presented, I believed, a great opportunity to put into context some of the things I had been telling him. To be honest, my son didn’t seem too excited about the visit – I wasn’t really worried about that as I knew young people have a great capacity to take things in their stride. I was probably more anxious!
Getting out of my car, after being delayed for quite a while before being allowed into the reception-centre car park, I subconsciously placed a ‘fatherly’ arm around my son’s shoulders. I felt an increasing tension that was fuelled by the unstoppable memories flashing into my mind. I was noticing all things around me – broke buildings, unfinished landscape projects, the noises, faces peering out of the small reception building (government workers), but through this all, I was aware that the ‘tough guy persona’ that almost all political prisoners wore when I was in jail, was starting to slip back on me. I was scrutinising the faces of the workers, dragging up old ‘screw’ faces that I had retained and adding 17 years to them, wondering if any of them were still about.
After a signing-in process and explanation of the rules of the tour, we climbed into a van and drove towards the parts of the Jail that still remained in some form. At this point, I have to admit, my sense of direction with regard to the overall layout of the prison had gone. A lot of time had passed and the ‘Jail Authorities’ insistence then that all vans transporting prisoners in the Jail had to have ‘blacked-out’ windows resulted in prisoners having a ‘sense of the place’ rather than a photographic awareness.
The first old hut we seen was in a part of the jail which I wasn’t familiar with but it was indicative of most of the rest of the jail – a falling apart shell festooned with weeds, rust and a sense of loneliness. We passed concrete bases of previous huts and fences. Next on the tour was the punishment block – the ‘boards’ as it was called. Any prisoner found guilty of breaching jail rules could find themselves unceremoniously threw in here – and ‘threw’ is the most accurate term for this transfer. A lot of beatings were delivered here by the ‘screws’. It was good to notice that time had delivered a fateful blow to this building – a lot of suffering happened here. After passing a load of decrepit buildings we move into an area I was very familiar with. All that remained of the ‘bottom phase’ of compounds 9,10,11,12, 13,14, 2 football pitches and gym area were the, now familiar, concrete bases of the huts and fences. When I first arrived at Long Kesh in October 1973, after a bath and ‘flea treatment’ I was placed in compound 9 – my first, but sadly not last, experience of incarceration. Memories came flooding back and I remembered how I felt when I first arrived there. That very nervous, slightly scared, 9 stone 19 year old still lives with me – he hasn’t gone away.
After driving through the ‘bottom phase’ we entered the ‘top phase’ area that used to house compounds 16, 17, 18 19 20 and 21. The bus took us to compound 19. I was pleased that 19, or parts of it, had been retained as I had spent some time here. In fact, it was in compound 19 that I heard that my mother had died. Gusty Spence, inadvertently adding further pain, informed me that the Jail authorities had refused my funeral parole application. This was no fault of his but, rather, a punishment by the authorities to the rest of the prisoners after the last UVF prisoner to be granted funeral parole failed, after promising and being ordered, to come back to the Jail. I can remember those few days being difficult and the only way I could try and get through them was to stick to the routine I normally followed – in fact, on the day my Mum was buried I went out and played football – it was all I could do to avoid dwelling on my loss. Standing outside compound 19 brought this all back to me.
Upon entering the compound I could see that we were only going to be able to enter one of the ‘huts’. Funny enough, I had spent some of my time in this particular hut and actually brought my son to the cubicle I had lived in for a while. It was a surreal moment. The hut seemed quite small compared to how I could remember it – the cubicle even more so! I told my son about doing sets of 100 press-up’s with the guy I was ‘doubled-up’ with. I’m not sure he believed me!
After a memory-filled walk up and down the hut we went outside and I pointed out to him the ‘study-hut’ and ‘shower-block’ we used. Both buildings looked ready to fall down, and I felt a certain sadness about that. I can remember, vividly , whilst studying for ‘A’ level sociology, the tutor talking about how he thought a ‘United Ireland’ would come about. He said, ‘ they will remove all the things that separate us, and one day we will wake up in a ‘’United Ireland’’’. I’ve always remembered that and have seen a lot of examples of that ‘theory to practice’ being put in place. Before getting back on the bus for the ‘h-block’ tour I took a few photos of compound 21 – the last compound I was in before moving to the ‘blocks’ on Sunday afternoon, 5th June 1988.
The next stop was to be a ‘watch-tower’ that overlooked the ‘block’ where Billy Wright was shot dead by republicans. It was an interesting experience because the tower affords a great view – more or less dispelling any notion of secrecy outside of the block itself. The view also gives you an idea of how big a site the prison occupied. After the tower we were taken to H-5 and allowed to walk around one of the wings – they all have the same basic lay-out. Compared to the compounds I always felt the blocks lacked any warmth and were designed to control and eliminate any sense of individuality prisoners tried to develop.
A visit to the hospital wing was the last part of this tour – and in many ways was the most intriguing. This is for one reason only – the hunger strikers. I took a photo of my son in the room were Bobby Sands died. I certainly understood the significance of this but I’m certain my son didn’t – maybe that’s a good thing, I’m not sure.
After a couple of other areas visited, we drove back to reception and within a few minutes were on the road home. The visit was great for me. The sense of leaving that all behind and making something of my life was very strong within me – but the multitude of great memories and very close friends I made will always remain with me and the visit helped me to realise how important this part of my life really was.