Former UVF prisoners return to jail with artistic convictions
DUP Minister says men behind Crumlin Road exhibits are inspiration for working-class loyalists
Artist and former prisoner George Morrow at the opening of a month-long exhibition at Crumlin Road Gaol of works by former loyalist and republican prisoners. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
“This is the best reception I have ever had here,” said former UVF prisoner George Morrow in the confines of Crumlin Road jail yesterday. He could joke, because he could walk out again.
Morrow, with fellow former loyalist prisoners Billy McConnell and Bobby Mathieson, had spent time in the cockroach-infested prison during the Troubles but yesterday they were in the less oppressive company of junior DUP Minister Jonathan Bell, some art experts and a number of ex-loyalist and republican prisoners.
On display were their paintings from their period in the Crumlin Road jail in north Belfast and in Long Kesh/The Maze in Lisburn.
The exhibition room was right beside the tunnel which runs underneath the Crumlin Road, and where prisoners were escorted between the old Belfast Crown Court and the jail. In all 25,000 paramilitary inmates took that short journey, 10,000 of them loyalists.
McConnell’s exhibits in Crumlin Road, which is now a visitor centre, were three pencil sketches of boys and a girl from 1973 while Mathieson, a born-again Christian, mainly painted and drew religious, animal and fantasy pictures.
Mathieson (51) was on remand in Crumlin Road and then went to Long Kesh/The Maze on a UVF murder conviction, and was inside from 1982 to 1996. In this Holy Week he was particularly anxious to point out his work called T he Cross Speaks , which he said was about forgiveness.
Mathieson, who established a successful joinery business in Bangor, said he suffered such guilt in prison that he tried to take his life, and went through a number of mental crises both inside and after he was released. “In 2008 I started breaking down again over the guilt for what I had done.”
He said it was at that stage that he found God. “I was set free.”
Mathieson said he hadn’t gone to the victim’s family but if the opportunity arose and the family was willing, he would willingly meet them to express his sorrow.
Morrow’s paintings have a decidedly prison theme. He was in Crumlin Road jail and then Long Kesh for armed robbery from 1974 to 1977. It was the worst of the Troubles “and people were just pouring through the place”.
He said he painted about 120 prison scenes, selling some of them “at the time for £8 apiece”. Oil paintings in this exhibition include Long Kesh in April snow, a football game on the prison ground, and a milk delivery to the prison.
His officer commanding, or o/c, was the late Gusty Spence, a UVF leader and key loyalist peace process figure, whose portrait he painted. Spence encouraged him. “He imposed a structure on everyone, he made things orderly,” Morrow recalled.
Morrow, who works as a sign painter, has had a number of exhibitions in recent years, his work becoming more abstract in nature. His influences include Velasquez, Turner and Jack B Yeats.
DUP junior Minister Jonathan Bell said the former prisoners were inspirational for young working-class loyalists.
Former UVF prisoner, William “Plum” Smith, who works with ex-prisoners and who organised the exhibition. added, “We must all tell our stories, whether it be through art, literature, poetry or whatever medium so that future generations will never have to endure the suffering of our generation.”