Fire and Rain: the burning of Long Kesh 45 years ago today
An eyewitness account by Top Boy creator and leading Irish author Ronan Bennett
Long Kesh internment camp. Photograph: PA
The army landrover took me to Crumlin Road jail, where I spent three days before being transferred to Long Kesh. Three days, not long but time enough for a first lesson in the extremities of behaviour in captives and captors. The first prison cell I ever entered – it was on B1 – contained a bed and a pot, no more than that, except for the tissues in the corner, brittle with dried semen, and air that smelled of disinfectant and sweat. Before long it would also smell of the piss two Loyalist prisoners emptied through the cell window over my head, and which, without water to wash in, dried on my hair and back. When the Loyalists in C Wing were locked up for the night they screamed my name out the windows, and worse, my address as it had been printed in that evening’s paper. I need not have worried; my mother and brother had already moved out, quickly, for 1974 was a bad year in the calendar of sectarian murder.
A soldier in the watchtower shone the searchlight on one of my tormentors. The inmate, a man I can only think of as deranged beyond repair, beyond redemption, screamed in the kind of voice I have many times since heard actors attempt to reproduce when playing the hopelessly insane. I have never heard it captured, the high pitch and the unnerving eloquence of worked-up rage; the inarticulate made fluent by hate. He asked if I was listening when he said he was going to rip my heart out and eat it in front of me. I was listening, and I wondered: “Is this it? Is this what it’s going to be like for the rest of my time?”
It wasn’t like that, not the whole time. Two days later I encountered prison kindness, abruptly, even roughly, spoken. A small but moving thing. I was new to slopping out, slow at it, clumsy. Hurried by a screw, I spilled water and prompted derision and threats. A prisoner – not much older than me - stepped up and said, loud enough for the screws to hear, “Ignore the bastards, take your time.” The prisoner looked over at the screws. “Is there a problem here?” Authority contested. I waited for the response. One of the screws weighed up the situation and said, “Get a move on, there’s others waiting.” The exchange was like a revelation to me, for we all knew that challenges had been thrown down and not taken up. Power here had limits, it was not solid.
While the leaders negotiated with the officers and we stamped our feet against the cold, soldiers took up position among the bushes and sedge on the sloping banks, picking targets, taking aim
This was my first lesson in solidarity, a word fashionable then though now more commonly derided as a shibboleth of the unregenerate ideologue. I did not then understand my defender’s action as such. I took it as simple kindness, concern for the new boy, remarkable because of its context, a touching reaffirmation of human good in conditions of difficulty, violence and sorrow. My attempts to express gratitude were rebuffed, however, confusing me. A second lesson: solidarity was not to be confused with politeness; it had harder edges, it demanded as well as gave, it was not utopian.
Later that day the screws led me from my cell and brought me to the place they call in prisons, with sardonic and cruel incongruity, “Reception”. From this reception to another in a closed van to the Donegall Pass and on to the M1, fifteen miles or so towards Lisburn, then a slip road, over a motorway bridge, a turn off a narrow country road. Then the gates of the camp. I had been on this route before, on Christmas Day 1971 in the company of thousands of people demonstrating against internment. Or at least part of the way, for we were stopped by the RUC and army on the motorway. And while the leaders negotiated with the officers and we stamped our feet against the cold, soldiers took up position among the bushes and sedge on the sloping banks, picking targets, taking aim.
In the summer of 1974 Long Kesh was a vast and weird encampment, white and grey. Concrete, barbed wire, corrugated iron, and, from coils of razor wire topping the cages, sheets and pillowcases - hung in protest at the dirt never washed out - billowing, engorged in the wind. There were watchtowers and helicopters. To get to the gates of Cage 21 from reception - where prisoners were stripped, measured, weighed and photographed - I was driven in the back of a van with three other prisoners, a ten-minute journey past the cages. Each cage had four Nissen huts, prefabricated living quarters. I heard the noises of men in competition - grunts, curses, the scrape of a football on concrete, the rattle of wire shaken by goals and misses. On the roofs of the huts I saw men with flags signal messages in a semaphore relay across the camp. It was mid-afternoon, a sunny day. A radio played John Denver’s Annie’s Song; whenever I hear that silly tune the hairs on the back of my neck bristle, and I feel embarrassed to be moved by such soppy stuff. It is like the welling of tears while watching Doctor Zhivago.
It would not be right to say my part in this action, my support for it, was taken for granted by the men around me; no one thought like that
After the isolation of a cell in Crumlin Road the atmosphere in Long Kesh felt, on arrival, relaxed and mischievous, like that of a boys’ camp. Football, volleyball, chess, banter, slagging, arguments, pranks. No soldiers or prison officers, for the prisoners ran the cages. Someone showed me to a hut, picked me out a bed and issued me with blankets. There were no sheets, they were on the wire. Scabies was a common complaint. There was also little in the way of food, part of a protest against the poor quality of prison meals. Only uncooked food was accepted. The authorities retaliated by banning food parcels from outside, so our diet for several weeks was white bread, margarine, powdered milk, cornflakes and a little sugar. Part of me resented this, my co-option into a protest about whose origins I was ignorant and in whose direction I did not have any say. It would not be right to say my part in this action, my support for it, was taken for granted by the men around me; no one thought like that: this is how it was, you were here, in this prison, and this is how it worked. Simple.
At school, Christian Brothers had warned us of the evils of communism. They said the prisoners of Long Kesh were not Republicans in the traditional sense, but a new, tougher, more cynical breed, godless and communist; that in the cages they wore down the individual, stripped him of his identity, subjected him to relentless political lectures, undermined his faith - just read Brave New World and 1984, that was where it would all lead. I thought of my teachers when I discovered there were “communes” to share food, possessions and duties. The first lecture I attended, given by a Queens’ university student doing six years for armed robbery, was on the materialist basis of Marxist philosophy.
Sean was in the commune I joined. Six years older than me, he was nervy, funny, self-taught, self-deprecating, endlessly argumentative, and he had a high and original intelligence. Sean came from the Markets, a vibrant working-class area in Belfast less familiar to people in Britain but more solidly Republican even than the Falls. I was intrigued by Sean’s brightness, humour and nervous energy. I sought him out in Cage 21. I have never been so battered, verbally, by anyone before or since. A committed and well-read socialist, Sean scorned me and every hazy thing I thought I believed in. Most of his mockery was deserved, and it was delivered with a devastating mixture of irony and belligerence. I hold none of this against him, for it forced me to question and read. The only thing I resent is the impact Sean’s antipathy to fiction had on my reading habits: I hold him directly accountable for 10 years’ avoidance of fiction. I recently recovered a copy of Faulkner’s Sanctuary that I had in Cage 21; on the title page I see Sean’s scrawl, “Please liberate yourself from bourgeois reading habits or don’t come back to this cage, okay?”. I cited the work of Sholokhov and O’Casey in my arguments with him, without success. Within a relatively short time I duly liberated myself - forsaking fiction for history and politics. (I later discovered that Sean, an admirer of Neruda, had secretly been writing poetry all this time.) Sean had escaped from Crumlin Road jail and had been shot and recaptured some months later. When he was lying, wounded and stark naked, on the staircase of the house in which he had sought shelter, a British army paramedic gasped with admiration on seeing the bloody hole in his upper thigh, turned to the soldier who had shot him and said, “I’d fuck that, wouldn’t you?” Sean was doing eight years for throwing nail bombs at soldiers, with some time tacked on for the escape.
There was a girlfriend. She came to visit me every week. In the beginning, love conquers all
I was in this world but I was not going to be part of it. In the beginning. I bridled at the communal duties I had had no part in arranging - why did we have to take it in turns to clean the whole hut, why didn’t each of us simply clean our own spaces, the way the doorsteps and pavements of individual houses were swept and washed by the occupants? Why did we have to pool everything? One morning I lay in bed half awake, freezing cold, the grey army blanket tickling my neck and shoulders. A hand shook me. I looked up to see a man with a huge head and fierce face, black beard streaked with grey. He handed me a bowl. Cornflakes in hot milk. He had risen before dawn to warm the milk using a makeshift heating element. “There’s sugar in it and all,” he said. They used to call him Cudgie because he looked like a big cudgie bear. I see him regularly now on television. He is a trade union leader in the North. Then, he was doing 12 years for an IRA bank robbery.
The life of a remand prisoner is a life on hold. It is like stepping out on the road to find you have put yourself in the path of an oncoming car. The future is out of your hands. But a life on hold is still a life, and during my first weeks in Long Kesh, the weeks of the food and linen protest, I discovered it was not one of perfect unhappiness. There were visits with my mother. And my brother, still dazed by the treatment he had received at the hands of the police, also came to see me. In the beginning these visits were painful, there was always a holding back, for no one could risk a word, a look, that might set off the emotions. And there was a girlfriend, and the kind of relationship you have at eighteen: intense, solipsistic, full of silly words and overblown protestations. She had black hair that fell in ringlets and curls, brown eyes, and she used to wear a long dark red coat. She came to visit me every week. In the beginning, love conquers all.
When I think now of Long Kesh I see in my mind’s eye a place of rain and mists, and I hear the wind’s whistle piercing the wire. But there was sun and there was stillness. I remember I lay on the roof of a Nissen hut squinting up at the sky and I watched a sparrowhawk circle above, waiting for prey. At the end of the hut, the arms of the semaphore signaller jerked, the wind battered his flags, and a helicopter swooped low in imitation of the birds, mobbing dives to drive the signaller off the roof. Below in the cage, men passed back and forth in the Long Kesh uniform of jeans, T-shirt, bomber jacket and boots. I learned a new vocabulary: do you whack, dry your eyes, gate fever, Dear John. And I fell into the day’s rhythms, fashioned in this special place by prison and prisoners: huts unlocked in the morning at seven; exercise, showers, breakfast before nine; dinner at twelve; tea at four; lock-up at nine; and in between books, letters, football, debate, drill, radio, television, conversation and speculation over cups of tea. There were calls from the screws at the gate for visits, sick, governor, court; sometimes, even, release. The prisoners called the doctor Jimmy Cagney. He had that sort of attitude to the sick.
By October the mists were frequent, and they made a beautiful sight, furring the light of the place: the strobe white of the searching beams; the orange and yellow of the sodium lamps; red from something else, some warning sign; stars, harvest moons. It grew chilly and damp. I wondered what this place would be like under snow. I wrote and received letters at a furious and, it turned out, unsustainable pace. Visits continued. For thirty minutes once a week in a corner of the visiting cubicle, out of sight of the patrolling screw, I could hold and kiss her, and I could, at times of loneliness and dejection, recall the feel of her, her breasts against my chest, arm round my waist. And I would feel comforted and also, strangely, quite fearless.
Prison and prisoners negotiated an end to the food and linen protest. Sheets to sleep in, food to eat. Our relatives could once again send parcels. Baps, sodas, potato bread, chops. The food was collected in the commune’s “dump” and shared out equally and we took turns to cook. On the night of my first turn I was pushing chops and soda farls around in melted margarine when Peter John came up with Adrian, his adjutant. Every cage had its staff: education officer, training officer, quarter-master, adjutant, and officer-in-charge - the OC. Peter John, a tall, aloof, quietly spoken county Tyrone man with a ginger-grey beard, a veteran of the Fifties border campaign, was OC of Cage 21. He was in for possession of guns. Gusty Spence, at that time the most famous of loyalists, was said to have shaken his head at the unreasonableness of Peter John’s arrest. “Always keep a pike in the thatch, Peter John.” Peter John told me to leave the cooking.
I followed him and Adrian, a young Armagh man with steel grey hair and a ferocious squint, wondering but not asking what this was about. Their manner was measured but urgent. Adrian told me to climb with him on to the roof of one of the huts and shout a message over to the internees in a neighbouring cage. Semaphore being useless at night, communication was by messages shouted from roof to roof, cage to cage in Gaelic. Back then, my Irish was passably good. I shouted to the internees, telling them to get someone who could speak Irish. A few minutes later I was answered.
“What’s the message?” I asked Adrian. He said, “Tell them we’re burning the place down tonight.” I took a deep breath and shouted, speculating as I did so about the likely consequences: none seemed promising. I shouted the message over to the internee. “Maith go leor [fair enough],” was the reply. From the tone I did not get the impression he welcomed the news any more than I did. But there was no question: we would burn the place to the ground. A searchlight from one of the watchtowers hit us full in the face, then swept the cage. The eighty or so prisoners were rushing out of the huts to form squads. They faced the gate, ready to resist an invasion. I followed the searchlight beam as it shifted to Cage 20, which abutted us and where the prisoners were also lining up in squads. A helicopter swooped. Adrian clambered down and I took a last look at the camp. The screws were in full flight. Stamping feet, rushing, shouting.
I joined a squad and waited. I cannot now remember when I first became aware that parts of the camp were ablaze, but there were flames soon enough: long, thin knife blades, they could be seen, we learned later, from Belfast. The screws and soldiers retreated to guard the perimeter against a mass breakout and so we were left free to destroy the place. Looking now at the aerial photographs taken the following day of the wreckage of the flimsy huts, which crumpled after only a few minutes, I think of cigarette ash; I feel I could almost blow the debris of Long Kesh away. And that October night Long Kesh - that most forbidding prison - did seem an insubstantial thing, something we could wreck almost at our leisure. Fire and riot are intoxicating things. My earlier misgivings evaporated; I was in this, enthusiastically a part of it. In a previous life I had marched in protest against Long Kesh’s existence; now I was rioting to end its existence.
After we had pulled down the wire and broken out of our cages, we congregated in the two cinder football pitches, divided by a fence in which there was a narrow gate, at the camp’s centre. I suppose there must have been around a thousand men. Some stood guard, others dozed. Friends and brothers and cousins, long separated by cage wire, went in search of each other. Republicanism is very much a family affair. There were happy reunions, and a thousand rumours. The one that caused me deepest anxiety held that we would be rounded up and packed off to prisons in England. I had a flashback to my time in Crumlin Road jail. I had not yet come to terms with the demands of Long Kesh solidarity but I knew enough to fear its alternatives of vulnerability and isolation. Raiding parties went out and returned from the plundered stores with chocolate and cans of Coke.
The reality of our situation was made known to us when advancing soldiers – dressed in riot gear, with shields, CS gas guns, batons, dogs on leashes – came into view
The flames began to die, embers sailed in the air. We gradually settled down. When I woke the scene was incredible: a grey wash of dawn light and mist and smoke. Ash and charred timbers. Hundreds of men huddled together on the cinder pitches. It was a picture of Third World chaos, of the aftermath of atomic destruction.
A sandy-haired man named Davy, who had been captured after he had been shot during a gunfight with soldiers, began to rouse us and organise us into squads. It was time to face the music. We were drawn up in lines and phalanxes, and deployed to defend points of access to the football pitches. I think I appreciated then something of what it must have been like to fight a 19th-century battle, not as a general with some - however imperfect - overview, but as a footsoldier, marched and wheeled about, trusting the generals knew what they were doing. I could see nothing of the bigger picture and the question uppermost in my mind was “What’s going on?” I was susceptible to every rumour, and these were passed by twitches and nervy looks as much as by words. The rumours ended and the reality of our situation was made known to us when advancing soldiers – dressed in riot gear, with shields, CS gas guns, batons, dogs on leashes – came into view. There were no stones to throw.
The first gas. Pops and explosions. The clatter and whomp of a helicopter. Gas grenades explode like a firework thirty feet up, subdividing into pellets which spread out prettily and make a slow, arcing descent. Plumes and trails of gas smoke. In the back of my throat there is a catch, at the top my lungs pain. Bang. The troops on the ground fire a volley of rubber bullets, and we duck and dance a comic dance to avoid these fearsome, blinding things. More gas. Another grenade from the helicopter crew. And now there is pandemonium. My eyes are streaming, I cannot see who is next to me, I don’t know in what direction I am facing. I am no longer a member of a squad, I am alone and apprehensive and I run, trying to avoid the gas grenades from above and the rubber bullets from the ground. I find a corner where the gas has not yet infiltrated. My eyes begin to clear. I recognize a man from Cage 21. He is laughing. “Fuck me,” he says, and laughs some more. “Fuck me, this is desperate.” He claps me on the back and for a moment I think this is a game. Ha, ha. He laughs and then there is gas and he is gone.
The helicopter toys with us as a cat toys with a mouse. A thousand men in the open ground of the football fields. There is nowhere else to run, except from one field to the other through the gate, an opening no wider than the front door to your house. The soldiers saturate one field, then the next, and we, tide-ridden, blinded and choking, panicked, struggle through the door. The competition is fierce, the crush dreadful, all sense of proportion is gone. Back and forth, squeezing through the gate. I have since read John Keegan’s The Face of Battle. Keegan says that in extremis men will cry out for their mother. I saw this during the riot, and it is a shocking thing. A full-grown man – a tough Belfast man, no angel, no cry baby – scrambling to get through the door and escape the drench of the gas. Crying out for his mother. From above, to the helicopter crew, what did we look like? Our scurrying can only have seemed comical. To me, now, it seems comical: men so frightened that they call for their mothers, and, really, this is just a riot. There are no deaths and only one prisoner is blinded. I saw him being borne out of the danger area by half a dozen prisoners. That was a shock, too. That you can bleed from the eyes. It had never occurred to me.
I have no idea how long this goes on. Perhaps only an hour, probably longer. There is hand-to-hand fighting, a ferocious, confused melee. Dogs are loosed, prisoners cornered and overcome. Eventually, the OC negotiates our surrender and we return to our wrecked cages, marching in threes under the guard of the soldiers, reduced and biddable. The soldiers line us up against the wire and one by one we are searched. While waiting my turn I look over to Cage 20 where an army officer calls the cage OC forward. The officer indicates a screw and says, “Salute this prison officer.” The prison officer looks embarrassed, the prisoner apprehensive. “Salute!” The OC does not salute. The officer hits him, hard, with his baton. The man takes the blow, but he does not fall. Another blow, another. I am thinking, “Go down, just go down.” But the OC is stubborn. A crack on the head, blows to the shoulders. Down he goes. He is lying on the ground. The prisoners are angry but they do not move. The OC’s adjutant is pulled forward and told to salute. I cannot watch. I am thinking of home. I hear another crack and I push the noise out of my head, out of my mind, and I do not look again. The man next to me smiles and, nodding towards the soldiers, says, “Okay, I’m away off home for my tea. Game over. You win.”
Long Kesh made me understand how it is possible for those in a weak and vulnerable position to create, by standing up for themselves and each other, a better, more human life
The game continued the rest of that day. I myself was not beaten by the soldiers. Nor, as far as I could see, were the majority of the prisoners, once we had surrendered. But we were spread-eagled against the wire, weight on fingertips, and kept in that position for hours on end; and we were made to hold half-squats, and forced to do push-ups until we collapsed. But there were no complaints, at least none that I heard. We had burned the place down, we could not cry because we were being punished. At nightfall the soldiers left us and the grim scoria of the cage, the wire restored by army engineers. We sought what shelter there was.
In the aftermath of the fire – after the punishment – our confidence and humour returned. We had wrecked the place and we had paid for it, but a sense of wicked achievement persisted. No one I spoke to thought we had made a mistake in lighting the fires. In November I remember being cold and hungry all the time, and I used to have dreams of feasts. At first the authorities gave out a daily ration three or four rounds of bread and a pint of milk. After a week they supplemented this with porridge; after a couple of weeks they gave us the occasional bowl of watery stew. There were no toilets, so we hauled the cover off a manhole and built a makeshift crapper with bricks and scorched timbers. Hair and beards and fingernails grew. I do not like to think about how I smelled. I would have given anything for a toothbrush. Often it rained, a driving dismal rain. Often the air was so heavy with moisture I could not say if it was raining or not. At night the chill and the mist came in, the searchlights had coronas and sounds were muffled.
You can always find a life. I do not want to romanticize: there was friction; there were personal enmities, political quarrels. Some of these quarrels got so bad they were, a decade later, resolved only after violence and assassination. But, though this will sound odd to most, offensive to some, the life I encountered during that time was notable mostly for being supportive, generous and comradely. One night – it started spontaneously, we were infected from an unknown source with ridiculous and childlike high spirits – we played Rally-oh and Tag in the debris and the drizzle until, panting and worn out, we dropped. There are those who will disapprove of prisoners having the room, the freedom to play like this. Perhaps they will be happier to hear of another night when there were shots and urgent dancing lights. A group of internees tunnelled from their cage under the perimeter. The soldiers shot one escapee dead, the others were rounded up and brought back.
Long Kesh, though rebuilt, was never the same, physically never the same again. It sprang walls, it sprang steel doors and corridors, it sprang dirty protesters and hunger strikers, and death. In this the consequences of the fire of October 15th, 1974 were graver than anyone could have foreseen. Demonstrating the dangerous collective power of Republican prisoners, the fire influenced the government’s decision the following year to take away political status and to build H-Blocks in place of the cages. These disastrous initiatives led to the dirty protest and ultimately the hunger strike of 1981, when a combination of determination on the part of the prisoners and intransigence on the part of Mrs Thatcher and her cabinet resulted in ten deaths, and, more importantly in the long term, a surge in popular support for Sinn Fein. It may be that Sinn Fein leaders would have found a way to galvanize support without the hunger strike, but it is certain that the ten deaths did more than anything else to catapult the party and its leader, Gerry Adams, into the international limelight. For good or ill, this is one legacy of the fire we live with today.
Beside this, the consequences for me of the Long Kesh fire count for little. But I hold them more meaningful than any other event in my adolescence or early adulthood. A friendship which has endured twenty years is not the least of the surprising and unexpected benefits that came to me. But more than anything else the fire and the riot made me aware of the value of solidarity. Long Kesh made me understand how it is possible for those in a weak and vulnerable position to create, by standing up for themselves and each other, a better, more human life. It is a lesson I have not forgotten. Some years later I found myself in an English prison – Armley in Leeds – on a charge of... well, nothing. I was being held for “exclusion” to Northern Ireland (the euphemism for internal exile the government dreamed up in the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act). What I encountered in that awful place was a dog-eat-dog world. Only the closest of friends stood by each other (and then not always). Older men bullied kids, kids stole from other kids, and tormented them; the screws were masters and they let everyone know it. There was no chance of anything better, all you could do was put your head down and hope to be ignored. The suicide rate was at that time the highest for any prison in the country.
There were other, more prosaic, lessons, though these I would have picked up sooner or later outside Long Kesh. Love does not conquer all. I discovered this in one of the first letters I received after the fire. There was no one to blame, these things happen. But still I had the usual reactions – heaviness of heart, tightness in the chest, the sense of desolation. And a terrible feeling of frustration. There was no phone to go to, no bus I could take, nothing to help me in a campaign to win back what I was losing. I was then living with nine other men in a hut that in normal circumstances could house four at a pinch. Humour in Belfast is always rough-edged and it is more so in prison. I was not in the mood for slagging, not that night, boxed in and seething. I got up and went out into the mist. I walked around the cage, composing pleas and rebukes, stoking self-pity and anger.
I ended up walking alongside Sean. The same thing had happened to him, it turned out. This news was conveyed quickly, elliptically, without any overt show of emotion. This might be taken as further evidence of irredeemable emotional paralysis in the male, but I do not see it like that. Since that night I think I have appreciated better the value of ground established between people not through words but intuitively, through the sense they have of each other; and I think it was then, from Sean’s reaction, that I became aware that feelings addressed openly and fluently too often convey neither depth nor extent nor reality; the more candid the confession, the more suspect. The nearest Sean got to sentiment was to quote, in a tone that was hard not soft, ironic rather than sensitive, a couple of lines from Four Quartets. The doors we never open, the rose garden we do not enter.
We stopped, Sean and I, at the wire, alerted by the noise of an engine. In the road between the cages a transit van approached. We pressed our fingers to the wire and waited and watched. The headlights were like mini-searchlights and weak in the mist. The van pulled up and soldiers and their dogs surrounded a dozen prisoners - some wounded and bandaged, others hobbling – as they were led to the gates of Cage 20, where ragged men stirred from the wreckage and went to greet the new arrivals and find room for them in the better hovels. Word spread. A riot in Crumlin Road jail, in solidarity with us. Bad beatings.
The night was dreamlike – the hushed voices, the purring of the engine, the panting of the dogs, the mist, the lights, my own sparking emotions. I still shiver when I think of it. I still shiver when I think of Long Kesh, the cage wire, the Nissen huts, the watch towers, the fire and the rain.
Fire and Rain was originally broadcast on BBC Radio Four on October 24th, 1994, written and read by Ronan Bennett and produced by Noah Richler.