Beannachtaí daoibhse go leir. Have a great Christmas, dear readers. Thanks and benedictions also to the Belfast Media Group team. Christmas can be a sad and stressful time for some people. Be mindful of them, my friends. Reach out to neighbours and others who may not be as lucky as we are.
I’m strongly against the commercialism of Christmas. I love the Christmas story and the story of Joseph and Mary and of Jesus’ birth in a stable. The simpleness of it all and the way children relate to Dadaí Na Nollaig appeals to me. So let’s celebrate our humanity, raise a glass to absent friends and give thanks to all who enhance and brighten our lives.
Earlier last week I was on my way to Craigavon for a book signing event. The cold weather had conspired to create a thick fog. As we drove along the M1 we passed what remains of Long Kesh prison and I was reminded of another December, another fog, and life in the internment cages.
It was December, 1973. Republican prisoners were always scheming about ways to escape. Some would go under the wire, others tried over or through the wire, and others still tried going through the gate, usually in disguise as a visitor. Although in the Great Escape they ran through the front gate pursued by prison officers. On that famous occasion, 19 out of the 38 escapees made it to freedom.
Escape tunnels were dug, but these suited perimeter cages better. Because of the time required, the problems involved in getting rid of the soil, the closeness of the water table to the surface and the real difficulties encountered in the actual tunnelling, many tunnels were discovered. Still, persistence sometimes paid off.
The camp authorities countered efforts by increased raids and surveillance, and wannabe escapees were badly treated. If captured during an escape, we were beaten and subjected to spells in the punishment block, followed by charges in the Diplock courts. Hugh Coney was shot dead by the British Army during an escape attempt in November 1974. Successful efforts to escape over or through the wire were aided by the fog which frequently enveloped Long Kesh in winter. Some of these escapes were unplanned. It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but it helped, of course, to have wire-cutters or other equipment.
A team of us in Cage 6 – Marshall Mooney, Tommy Toland, Marty O’Rawe and myself, all from the 'Murph – gathered up all the necessary tools, including camouflaged clothing, bolt cutters and hacksaws. We studied weather reports and spent months sitting up for hours waiting for the fog to fall. It didn’t. After a while we got bored with this standing by and, to pass the time, we used to escape from the hut – as a dummy run – and sneak around the cage. Marshall Mooney became particularly adept at this, but despite his ingenuity it was obvious that we were getting nowhere fast.
Fog or no fog, we decided to make a bid on Christmas Eve of 1973 during the midnight Mass. By now we had established the blind spots on the wire, and we had perfected a method of getting to them. Christmas Eve eventually arrived, and when the rest of the inmates were locked up, we four cut our way out of Cage 6 and crept into a gap between the internee and sentenced ends of the Kesh. It was ten o’clock. All around us we could hear the prison camp settling down for the night. It was very bright where we were. We were surrounded by miles of razor wire rolled in long tunnels and with watch-towers overlooking it all.
Progress was slow; we crawled along inch by inch. By midnight a slight fog fell. Security was immediately tightened. We could hear orders being shouted all around us, and extra patrols were put out on the catwalk, which ran within feet of us to our right. Inside Cage 6, to our left, a patrol was put in the cage. Unfortunately, the fog was too light to assist us. The extra patrols meant we couldn’t move. We decided to sit tight until the security was lifted.
"What’s that over there?" I heard one screw ask.
"Only an old football," replied his fellow screw. I realised it was Marshall Mooney’s head they had spotted, but fortunately they continued on their patrolling rounds and we continued to sit tight.
However, they returned after a while, and one of them was convinced he could see something other than a football. The game was up. "Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas to you all!" shouted Marshall Mooney suddenly as he emerged from the razor wire. Then he moved along the wire, trying to draw attention away from Tommy Toland, Marty O’Rawe and me. Searchlights cut through the darkness and the light fog, sirens sounded. Pandemonium broke out in the camp as shouting screws and soldiers ran around all over the place, guard dogs snarling and barking.
Screws were shouting at Marshall to go to the other side of the wire, but when he produced his wire cutters and started to cut his way through they shouted at him to stop. Still trying to draw attention away from us, he walked on along the wire, but there was just too much light and too much attention focused on us, so I decided to try another ruse in the hope that the other two might still be missed by the screws. I stood up and walked away from them. Marshall, who copped on immediately to what I was at, shouted out "Hello!" as if he were greatly surprised to see me. We rushed into each other’s arms, greeting each other like long-lost pals, ignoring the screws, the dogs and the chaos which surrounded us. But the barking and shouting rose to a new crescendo.
The diversion didn’t work, and the screws threatened to set the dogs on us if we didn’t go back the way we had come. The screws and soldiers were pretty fired up as they bustled us up to the punishment block, and Marshall and I took bad beatings. I was wearing a pair of glasses, which I had tied on, and a very senior official pulled my glasses down and when he realised they weren’t coming off he gouged my face so that the flesh was pulled away in a deep and ugly wound. Meanwhile, Tommy Toland had hit on the trick of shouting at Marty O’Rawe in an English accent and marching him up to the punishment cells, all the time shouting insults at him.
This succeeded in confusing the Brits, and so Marty and Tommy escaped being beaten. In the punishment block we were taken one at a time and stripped naked. I was first. As I made my way draped in a blanket to a cell Toddler slipped a set of wire cutters to me. I put them under my mattress and when we were returned to Cage 6 days later the wire cutters came with me. Meantime, the four of us were locked up in separate cells and the dogs were set loose in the corridor outside. We feared that at any moment soldiers and warders would descend on us, and so we kept our spirits up by shouting jokes back and forth to each other. Marshall and Toddler in particular gave the British soldiers a hard time.
Despite their provocations, or maybe because of them, the night passed without incident, though at one stage a couple of British Army officers came to have a look at us. The next day, Christmas Day, a British Army doctor was sent in to see me as part of the routine of checking that we were still alive.
"Can you give me some antiseptic cream for my face?" I asked him.
"What’s wrong with your face?" he replied, looking straight at the ugly wound on the side of my nose and across my cheek.
"I hope you have a great Christmas," I told him.
"Happy Christmas to you too," he replied with a grunt and away he went.
"Ho, ho, ho!" big Marshall shouted into me. "Nollaig Shona duit, a chara."
"Nollaig shona daoibhse," I shouted back to him and Marty and Toddler.
Then I wrapped myself in my blanket and settled down to be entertained by Toddler and Marshall’s festive and very funny and colourful tirade against the unfortunate British soldiers who guarded us.