The Birds of Long Cage.
Long Kesh; barbed wire, high walls, army look out posts, helicopters, a young prison population, all convicted in a non-jury Diplock court. This was special category status. A unique prison situation in the entire history of British prisons. As time went on, and despite all the protests and conflict, a normality, or attempts at normality, began to emerge. One feature of cage life was that some men began to get birds to look after as pets.
They were a welcome distraction to imprisonment and still symbolised freedom as the birds of the air continued to swirl and soar high above the wire and walls of the Kesh. We would watch the sparrows and seagulls pass by, or drop in, looking for crumbs and scraps. The first , but no means the dominant, bird of choice was the humble budgie. I recall many colours but the main one seemed to be blue. We did not have a birdman of Alcatraz in our midst who was into breeding and academic study. Rather the budgie was a playful and attentive avian companion. The men had enough skills to construct various shapes and sizes of cages which became in themselves works of art.
Another favourite bird was the ever-present pigeon. However, these were a different sort of pet. They were kept in large, handmade lofts outside the hut. Some of the men were pigeon racers and keepers on the outside and brought their skill and passion into the prison. The likes of Wee Jimmy and Big Roy would tend to their birds everyday through cleaning and feeding. These guys of course were not that friendly to the wild cats that used to roam the prison at night. One common bird to the Kesh was the noisy seagull. Some men disliked their constant noise, most just ignored them. However, one day we found an injured seagull on the ground. It had made its way beneath an education portacabin. One of the men decided to look after it. There was a cardboard box made for the bird, milk and bread was supplied. The worst time was at night. Would it be killed by a wild cat. It was nicknamed Artie due to the resemblance of its long neck to one of the men in the end hut. It struggled on for some days. Eventually it was helped to the top of the portacabin. It tried to flap its wings and spockle about but ended up falling, badly, to the ground. Artie didn’t make it back to the sky.
There were canaries but not as many as some may imagine. They were the quiet birds of the hut. One man would release his birds after the hut was locked up for the night. The birds would fly up and down the hut to get their regular exercise without the fear of them flying away. Many of the men clipped the wings of their birds, a painless act, but some had the curious idea of clipping one wing so that when the bird flew, it went around in a circle!
As time went on the range of birds increased. One man in the end hut decided to keep very small finches. Not sure of the exact breed but all that could be heard from his cube was ‘meep, meep’. Definite shades of the road runner. There were unfortunate incidents. One day one of the finches was very close to one of the larger cockatiels. The cockatiel very causally lent over and snapped the birds leg, very deliberately. The finch had to be put down. There were two types of cockatiel in the cage. I disliked both types. Squawking, unsocial, greedy and ungrateful. The brats of the bird world. And yes, I’m sure some of the cage men will disagree with me. But tell me what you liked about them! They, in my opinion, had a very real habit of biting if a person tried to stroke their head. Of course, there’s always an exception to every rule. The bold Iron Jaw had one cockatiel that would run along the bed to a person and lower its head for a scratch. Amazing what you can train birds to do!
On a down side there was one incident involving a cockatiel and the search team. We would leave the birds in their cages during a search as we would be all in the canteen hut while the search team done its job. One man came back to find his cockatiel dead with its head jammed in the grit tray at the bottom of the cage. He was livid to say the least and it really did look a deliberate act rather than an accident. We surmised an overzealous screw wanted to search the cage and the bird bit him as he opened the cage door. Many of us started to take out birds with us during a search. A one-off bird was the African Grey, renowned for its talking skills.
Stevie X Ray had one in the end cube of the middle hut. It, of course, had a colourful grasp of the English language. On summer days we would watch squadrons of starlings fly in formation to raid some of the bread that was left out for the birds.
Another bird that would become common was the Indian Ring Neck Parakeet. These came from the UDA cage. I would own 2 and the ‘Gannet’ would have 2. Beautiful, playful and affectionate but that large red bill packed a mighty bite. They also were curious and destructive, as indeed they are in the wild. They could talk but it took a lot of time and patience. One of the funnier incidents concerned my oil painting set. I left my cube (room) while I was painting. The bird was free to come and go all day as I had him clipped. He came down and proceeded to bite into every tube of oil paint that he could find. I came back to find his bright red bill was now a splendid mix of blue, white, green and every other tube of colour he managed to puncture. I had to get a friend to hold him while I tried to wipe off the paint. It did of course sound like we were retrying to kill him. He survived. One day I heard him whistling in his sleep!
Possibly one of the most beautiful birds to grace the cages was the Amazon blue front. Again, one of the UDA men started this trend. It could talk, whistle and sing. A very social bird and good companion. There were times when you had its attention that it was listening to every word you said. Soon it was trying to form the words in its throat. A chunky bird, it weighed quite a lot. After some time on a shoulder one could feel the need to put it back on its perch. There were other incidents involving wild birds. Many of us where into the nature programmes on TV. One day I was called out by a friend to see a real-life drama. Outside the cage wire fence was a piece of scrap ground with a jumble of wire, wood, and rubbish. Atop the pile was the most splendid Peregrine falcon I had ever seen. We had seen them about, but this was only feet away. The falcon knew that we could not interfere with him. Below on the ground, among the tangle of wire, was a small sparrow who was keeping a close eye on this predator only feet above him but who could not get in. The falcon jumped from wire to wire maybe trying to spook the sparrow. The stand off seemed to take ages. Suddenly the sparrow decided to make a dash to escape. It didn’t even get 3 feet away. The falcon swooped, pinned the sparrow to the ground and looked around. The sparrow struggled until the falcon delivered a fatal blow to its neck. It got the sparrow securely in one claw and flew away. While feeling sorry for the sparrow we of course realised that the falcon had its own offspring to care for.
Having birds about the place was a settling factor where prisoners could show care and give time to another living thing. It was a focus for them to learn about the birds and their behaviour and needs. Of course, there was the ongoing contradiction for a prisoner, that the bird was a symbol of freedom yet here we had many of them caged. And while treated with genuine kindness and care, a cage is still a cage. In the words of Jacques Devals, ‘God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages’.