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Smashing the Independent

December 15, 2014 by  

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In the December edition of the Irish Political Review, historian Manus O’Riordan has written a brilliant analysis about Gerry Adams and Fine Gael with regards to Adams’ joke abou the smashing of the Irish Independent by Collins’ IRA in 1919.

The article is reproduced here, courtesy of the Irish Political Review and with the permission of Manus O’Riordan.

WHEN FINE GAEL LEADERS CHAMPIONED A SMASHING INDO ACTION

Does the November 10th denunciation by Irish Independent political correspondent Fionnán Sheehan of Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams – for his “it’s the way he tells ’em” account of the IRA smashing of the Irish Independent printing machinery in December 1919 – also imply that Sheehan is nonetheless a “sneaking regarder” of that smashing Indo action? What other sense can be made of the following elements in Sheehan’s line of reasoning:

“The IRA’s failed attack on the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord French, took place at Ashtown in west Dublin, where Martin Savage was killed and Dan Breen wounded. After the incident, the Irish Independent published an editorial condemning those who took part in the attack. Action was taken as a warning to the proprietors of all newspapers ‘that such unpatriotic comment at the height of the fight for freedom would not be tolerated’. A group of 30 IRA men raided the offices and smashed the print works with ‘sledge hammers and crow bars and heavy wrenches’ – aided by members who worked in the pressroom who knew what equipment to break to cause the most damage. During the raid, the editor was reputedly held at gunpoint by an unmasked Bill Judge while Paddy Kelly covered the rest of the staff… Gerry Adams has twisted this incident from the War of Independence into a veiled threat about holding a newspaper editor at gunpoint as he attacked this newspaper group over the coverage of Mairia Cahill’s IRA sex abuse allegations. Adams justified his claim by attributing the action to Michael Collins –  even though Peadar Clancy and Michael Lynch are more often associated with the organisation of the printing press raid – as he joked to guests at his lavish $500-a-plate fundraiser in New York that he was ‘not advocating that’. But he dropped the gag a day later when he wrote: ‘And when the Irish Independent condemned his actions as ‘murder most foul’ what did Michael Collins do? He dispatched his men to the office of the Independent and held the editor at gun point as they dismantled the entire printing machinery and destroyed it.’ … Collins was a wanted man by the British authorities and experts have pointed to the naivety of linking him to the incident. ‘There’s no way Michael Collins would have compromised the intelligence operation by being there in person’, said Gerry O’Connell, Honorary Secretary of the Collins 22 Society… On a wider level, what’s even more insidious is Adams’s attempts to draw parallels between Collins’s IRA and the action of the Provos during the Troubles. Adams attempts to rewrite history by ignoring the mandate of the overwhelming vote for the then Sinn Fein in the 1918 general election. (My emphasis; making the 1919 smashing of the Indo printing machinery all right, then, with Sheehan? – MO’R). Rewriting history, he attempts to portray the Provos as the direct descendents of the IRA of the War of Independence.”

But perhaps it is as much a mistake to look for logic in Sheehan’s historical essay as it is to look for integrity in his reporting of Adams’s blog. Adams did not naively assume Collins’s personal presence on the Indo raid, and perhaps it would have been grammatically clearer if he had inserted the word “they” before “held”. It is, however, the Collins 22 Society itself that is being naïve in the extreme in not “linking him to the incident”. Michael T Foy has related the following in respect of the personally hand-picked assassination Squad run by the IRA Director of Intelligence, Michael Collins:

“Although the Squad was still finding its feet, Collins wanted to strike a spectacular blow… Among the plans Collins considered was assassinating (Lord) French on the review stand at College Green during an Armistice Day march-past on 11 November 1919… (But Minister for Defence) Cathal Brugha had vetoed the operation because it endangered civilian bystanders… Finally on the morning of 19 December 1919, after a tip-off … that French’s train would return just after midday from his Roscommon estate, fourteen men (from an augmented Collins Squad – MO’R) armed with revolvers and grenades cycled out to Ashtown railway station close to Phoenix Park.” (Michael Collins’s Intelligence War, 2006, pp 31-32).

As we know, the assassination attempt failed, Martin Savage was killed in action, and Dan Breen was wounded. Breen further related: “On the morning after the attack the Irish Independent published a leading article in which we were dubbed ‘assassins’. The article was liberally interspersed with such terms as ‘criminal folly’, ‘outrage’, ‘murder’. This was the very paper which depended on the support of the people who had voted for the establishment of the Irish Republic. It had not even the sense of decency to withhold the expression of its views until the inquest had been held and Martin Savage laid to rest. The other Dublin papers we did not mind. The Irish Times was openly a British organ; the Freeman’s Journal was beneath the contempt of any decent Irishman. But we could not allow an avowedly Irish paper to insult our dead comrade. I was confined to bed and had no direct part in subsequent events. I heard that some of the boys favoured the shooting of the editor of the Independent. Another course was eventually adopted. It was decided to suppress the paper… Twenty or thirty of our men, under the leadership of Peadar Clancy, entered the building and held up the staff with revolvers. They informed the editor that his machinery was to be dismantled; they smashed the linotypes with sledges and left the place in such condition that it was hoped no edition could appear for some time. But with the assistance of the other Dublin printing workshops the Independent was able to appear next day. However, we had taught them a salutary lesson; somehow, we were glad that nobody was thrown out of work, because many of the staff were members of the Irish Republican Army. Never afterwards (during the War of Independence, that is – MO’R) did the Independent or any other Dublin newspaper refer to members of the IRA as murderers or assassins. In later days the Independent was of much service in exposing British atrocities, even though it never supported our fighting policy. The proprietors got £16,000 compensation for the raid.” (My Fight for Irish Freedom, 1964 edition, pp 94-95).

An extreme partisan of Michael Collins like John A Pinkman was not, however, as liberal or as forgiving towards the Irish Independent as Dan Breen. Proud to be an officer in Collins’s newly-established Free State Army, and no less proud of his own role in ensuring the death-in-action of Cathal Brugha at the outset of the Civil War, Pinkman was also proud of having been part of a Collins Squad team seeking out a non-combattant de Valera for assassination, only weeks before Collins’s own death-in-action, and he further rejoiced at the Cosgrave Government’s war crime execution of Erskine Childers. In his 1960s memoirs, Pinkman recalled the Free State Army’s Civil War occupation of the Irish Independent premises: “On Thursday morning, 6 July 1922 … our small party of troops … was sent to occupy Independent House in Middle Abbey Street and protect it from being seized by anti-Treatyites. The staff of the Irish Independent clearly resented our presence and did everything they could to make our stay as uncomfortable as possible. They resented us not because we were soldiers or because they were sympathetic to the anti-Treatyites; they resented us simply because we were Irish troops. Today, most readers of the Irish Independent (‘Ireland’s most popular newspaper’ – Pinkman’s own interpolation) probably don’t realize how reactionary and pro-British that newspaper once was. Under the proprietorship of William Murphy it not only tried to break Larkin’s and Connolly’s Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1913, but in 1916 its editorials called for the execution of the leaders of the Rising!” (In the Legion of the Vanguard, 1998 edition, p 10).

This October 26th the Sunday Independent Pope-in-residence, John-Paul McCarthy, made the following ex cathedra pronouncement: “In his powerful memoir of the McCarthy-era in post-war America, Witness (1953), Whittaker Chambers insisted that communism could only be beaten via a process of implosion. ‘The final conflict will be between the Communists and the ex-Communists.’ This insight helps explain the crisis that is currently engulfing Gerry Adams. Mairia Cahill’s allegations – that is to say, allegations that emanate from the core of republicanism – have probably done more damage to Sinn Fein than all the recent external critiques combined. There is something peculiarly Irish about this sequence of affirmation and negation that ex-communists like Chambers analysed. Michael Laffan’s handsome new Royal Irish Academy book on WT Cosgrave suggests that in many ways our infant state owed its life to a group of men who tunnelled through the other side of their ancestral republicanism… Cosgrave notoriously instituted a policy that had been perfected by Trotsky, namely summary executions of prisoners. Our first cabinet was convinced that they were dealing with an enemy that was best understood as a cocktail of all the worst aspects of the post-Famine world… Cosgrave would become one of only a handful of Irish prime ministers who branded their names irrevocably on to the flesh of a big idea.”

John-Paul’s McCarthyite invocation of Cosgrave as another stick with which to beat Gerry Adams backfires on the Sunday and Irish Independent hysterical wave of indignation at Adams retelling the story of what happened to the Independent printing machinery in December 1919. The problem for the Indo is that Cosgrave regarded any Government of which he was a member as a lawful authority entitled to do whatever it liked, irrespective of whether one of his Governments was waging war to defend the Irish Republic or another was waging a second war to destroy it. The issue of the smashing of the Indo printing machinery came up during a Dáil Éireann debate on 27 April 1922 concerning the smashing of the printing machinery of the Freeman’s Journal by IRA volunteers, following a vicious post-Treaty attack on de Valera in its issue of 5 January 1922, at a time when Dev still held office as President of the Dáil. The April Dáil debate took place in the interregnum limbo between Treaty and Civil War. The future Fianna Fáil Tánaiste Seán MacEntee objected to the Dáil paying a sum of £2,693 in compensation for the Freeman’s Journal smashing action, describing it as hypocritical. The hat worn by Michael Collins in this debate was that of Minister for Finance. He confined himself to justifying the technicalities of the Freeman’s Journal compensation, without making any reference at all to the Irish Independent action for which he had been responsible. He did not need to. It had been unequivocally justified by his confederates – WT Cosgrave, the Minister for Local Government, and Dick Mulcahy, the Treatyite Minister for Defence who had previously been IRA Chief-of-Staff during the War of Independence. The only TD to question the Indo action was the man who had been Minister for Defence during that War, the “diehard” Republican ant-Treatyite Cathal Brugha, as the following Dáil exchanges illustrate.

SEAN MOYLAN: I should like to know if the Irish Independent was compensated when the Irish Independent called Martin Savage a murderer and an assassin? Was Dáil Éireann the Government of the country in 1919?

MR. MULCAHY: As far as any action against the Independent is concerned, that was taken in order to save life purely and simply.

MISS MARY MACSWINEY: Explain!

MR. MULCAHY: There were members of the Independent staff who, it was very seriously considered, would lose their lives if something was not done to relieve the excitement and to relieve the anger of certain members of the Volunteers in Dublin City, if some kind of outlet had not been opened to them. The outlet that brought the smallest loss to the country was allowed in that instance.

MR. W.T. COSGRAVE: And allowed by the responsible authority in this country, which is a very different thing to unauthorised reprisals on the part of individuals or collections of individuals. There is no similarity whatever between the two cases except to those who do not wish to see. In one case you had responsible officers and soldiers of the Republic operating under the orders of a responsible authority and operating in the interests of the country… We all remember the expression of the ex-President when he said the authority of the Dáil is sovereign in the country…

CATHAL BRUGHA: I am not going to speak at all in connection with this attack on the Freeman. But the Minister for Local Government has very dogmatically stated that the attack made a couple of years ago on the Independent was done by a responsible authority. Before I say anything further, I would like to have the opinion of the present Minister for Defence on that statement of the Minister for Local Government.

MR. MULCAHY: That attack was allowed by responsible authorities.

CATHAL BRUGHA: That attack was not allowed by any responsible authority in this country. I did not allow it. I did not know anything about it until it was done. I do not like to give the proper name to the men who destroyed that property or made that attack without consulting the person in authority.

MR. MULCAHY: There were many, many acts done in the country on the authority of responsible officers who could not go to the Minister of Defence for authority and the Minister of Defence was not the only responsible authority in the army during the war. Every battalion, brigade, divisional and G.H.Q. officer had a certain responsibility, and stood up to that responsibility and in the carrying out of these responsibilities in different places during the war they had to undertake actions for which the Government itself never accepted responsibility.

CATHAL BRUGHA: We now see the conception of authority by some of those who have allowed an usurping Government to be set up.

MR. MULCAHY: These were responsible officers acting under the general authority given to them…

MR. HARRY BOLAND: The same authority as is alleged to have dealt with the Independent also dealt with the Freeman’s Journal; that is the Executive of the Irish Republican Army.

MR. MULCAHY: That is not so.

It is pure hypocrisy on the part of Fine Gael to criticise Gerry Adams for recalling the smashing Indo action of December 1919, given that it was championed in the Dáil by two of that Party’s honoured icons, the second and third leaders of Fine Gael, Cosgrave and Mulcahy. Second and third? Well the first leader of Fine Gael was the Fascist Eoin O’Duffy.

-       Manus O’Riordan

 

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Hooded Man

December 9, 2014 by  

Today, the CIA torture report has been published. Forty-three years ago, in 1971, Irish nationalists and republicans were subjected to similar torture. Back then, the Irish government took Britain to the European Court. In the first phase of the inquiry, the European Commission found Britain guilty of torturing prisoners. This, of course, after much ‘diplomacy’ was later finessed into a European Court ruling that Britain had subjected a group of internees to ‘inhuman and degrading’ treatment only, because they didn’t mean to torture the men and derived no pleasure from it!

Documents that were unearthed in 2014 showed that British government figures had lied to the European Court and that Britain had sanctioned torture and sanctioned the cover-up. Last week, the Irish government asked Europe to re-open the case in the light of these new revelations.

Layout 1My novel, West Belfast, written 25 years ago and which is being re-issued in January, includes a chapter where one of the main characters, John O’Neill, is arrested and is one of the hooded men. It is fictional, of course, but before I wrote it I interviewed three of the hooded men to get a sense of what they experienced:

 

AUGUST 9th, 1971

Before John had time to recognise the crashing sounds, the noise of boots on the stairs and Sheila’s and Monica’s screaming, the paratroopers came in on top of him. They had sledge-hammered the front and back doors and had left their armoured cars on the main road to ensure surprise. Raymond was away in England and Jimmy was staying in his granny’s house so there was no disputing who – Peter or John – was the 23-year-old.

“What’s going on? What’s going on?” demanded Peter.

“Never you mind, old man. John O’Neill, I’m arresting you under the Special Powers Act. Tie him up!”

Catherine was shaking, Monica and Sheila were crying.

“Leave him alone! Leave him alone!” his youngest sister protested but she was pushed aside.

His hands were tied behind his back and a rope put around his neck.

This was the price that had to be paid, John kept thinking, but cursed himself for being at home having chided the others who had fallen back into the habit of creature comforts. If only the house had been raided in July then I wouldn’t be here now, he thought.

Peter ran out into the street and stuffed a packet of cigarettes into John’s trouser pocket. But the escort wouldn’t accept John’s shoes and socks. Though it was still dark, people had gathered and were shouting abuse at the soldiers. There was a sudden, hushed silence when the noose around John’s neck was tightened and he began choking.

“Get your bin lids out and start rattling!” shouted a neighbour, Peggy Carson. Another, Mrs Clarke, comforted Catherine. John was made to lie on the floor of the armoured car, soldiers’ boots on top of him.

“What about Donnelly?” he heard an officer ask.

“We missed the bastard.”

They arrived at Mulhouse Street Barracks. He was taken inside and roughed up. Radios were crackling, and Armoured Personnel Carriers were arriving and departing in a frantic commotion of shouting, cursing, and horns being blasted. The place tasted of fear. He was brought into what appeared to be an assembly hall where there were many other prisoners similarly bound. A soldier was appointed to each prisoner.

There was a loud explosion close by; probably a nail bomb, thought John. They had planned what to do when internment was introduced. As soon as the crowds came on to the streets the units would begin moving weapons out of dumps. They were to attack the soldiers and demonstrate that the IRA was still intact; but it was also part of the plan to move the struggle onto a new level.

The sun came up to reveal in the sky palls of black smoke rising from nationalist areas as the rioting spread. John was bundled out of the hall and placed on plank seating with others in the back of a canvas-covered lorry. Of the eight prisoners only John was an IRA Volunteer, while a few were supporters and the rest had a small local profile in street politics. The lorry drove out of the base and turned down the Grosvenor Road. Shooting from the Leeson Street area could now be heard. The soldiers fell quickly to the floor but jabbed the muzzles of their rifles into the prisoners forcing them to sit upright.

“Boys, this is Pocky Logan, Pocky Logan! Don’t be shooting! Hold your fire!” shouted a prisoner sitting closest to the back flaps. John felt disgusted at the spinelessness and noted that the soldiers who had slapped them for asking questions or speaking earlier didn’t interfere or interrupt Logan’s screams.

At Girdwood Barracks John was thrown out of the lorry. There was a queue of silent prisoners waiting to go into a gymnasium. Many were badly injured, blood pouring from head-wounds. One complained that his fingers were broken and was struck with a baton across the shoulder blades. There was an old man, stiff in his movements, who had just received a black eye from a military policeman for refusing to comply with an order. Another soldier protested at him being hit.

“This is feckin’ desperate, corporal. Look at ’im – he’s only an old man.”

“Mind your own business and carry out your orders,” said the Military Policeman, who was his senior.

In the gymnasium several hundred prisoners were sitting on the floor, some in pyjamas, with their hands on their heads. The Military Policemen were in control. Fractious detainees were hit with batons and ordered to do press-ups. Names were called out and then those persons were marched out to interrogation rooms.

John’s wrists were still behind his back. He was photographed and taken to a room for questioning. As he approached the room he heard a loud groan. Two RUC men in plain clothes, whom he took to be Special Branch officers, were interrogating a prisoner who was handcuffed and hanging from a round iron bar cemented into the wall. On the other wall was a framed colour picture of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, smiling.

“No more, no more, please! I’ll talk. Let me down, please!”

The fear in the room was palpable but John was suspicious of the quasi-crucifixion. Activity in the room had only begun when he was a few yards off and there was too much blood on the prisoner’s face. He had heard from old republicans about being put in the same cell as someone who would claim to be from another IRA Brigade area but who was actually a plant, trying to get information. He decided that this was a set-up.

One of the RUC men flicked through a thick file: “Ah, so you’re John O’Neill. Take him away!” He was surprised that that was all that was said. On the way down the corridor he had to pass MPs who were standing about.

“Here’s the bastard that shoots our mates in the back!” one shouted. They began punching and kicking him. He ran as fast as he could but two of the MPs had their arms through his and they slowed him down. He was put back on the floor. The beating had helped restore his faith in his convictions. The bruises were sore but he was not bleeding and he stared ahead of him, curiously enjoying the thought of a cigarette, inhaling the stream of blue smoke like it was an intoxicating draught. He was also more anxious about his family than about himself because at least he knew what to expect.

The cord around his wrists was cut off and he was ordered up off his feet and taken to the toilets. “Here, clean them!” he was told. He let the scrubbing brush fall to the ground.

“Clean them!” the voice roared – bad breath – inches from his face. John refused, was punched in the stomach and grabbed by the scruff of the neck. He was flung to the floor and caught some of the kicks before they did him harm. He was brought back to his previous position. Hours passed. The prisoners were called up to a table for tea. There were only about twelve cups for the entire hall and the fact that they were being re-used without being washed put John off. Since his days at sea he had a fastidious attitude towards delph and cutlery but he was so thirsty that he drank the awful concoction. Out of the side of his eye he caught sight of other prisoners washing windows, brushing the floor and two carrying mops and buckets out of the toilets.

“O’Neill! Out here!”

“Cah! Out here!” When prisoner Kerr realised he’d been called he wasn’t long responding. Another four were ordered out. John was escorted out the door into the daylight and fresh air.

“Hands out front!” He was tied with plastic cuffs.

The engines of a Wessex helicopter were started up and the men were ordered to climb in. John was last. Behind them the doors locked like a vacuum seal. They took off and the flight lasted about fifteen minutes. An MP grinned at John.

“Can you swim?” he shouted. “I said, can you swim?”

John nodded.

“Well then, can you fly?” The prisoners were worried. “Did you ever see the Viet Cong getting thrown out of the choppers? Eh? That’s what’s gonna happen to you fuckers.”

The door roared open and air shot in. John was kicked out and his heart gave one last hard pump, but he fell only a few feet into a dog compound where whorls of faeces sat like deposits of giant lugworms. The other prisoners landed beside him and the helicopter quickly rose into the sky. Snarling Alsatians came running at them and the prisoners formed a group with their backs against each other, kicking at the animals who were on leashes staked beside their kennels, but long enough to present a danger. A gate opened and handlers rushed in, grabbed the men by the hair and trailed them through the barking dogs. Other soldiers, standing about as observers, shouted their approval of what was happening.

The men were taken back into the gymnasium where the number of prisoners had significantly fallen. They were then individually called for stew which turned out to be cold. It was covered in a white layer of grease and was unappetising. Anyone who refused to eat was beaten, so John was again pummelled.

His name was called. An MP grabbed him and frog-marched him out of the hall. He was taken into a large hole, which soldiers had blown in the wall dividing Girdwood Barracks from Crumlin Road Jail, and was led through. In the basement of D wing his hands were untied. The RUC found the cigarettes and confiscated them. John’s watch and ring had already been stolen.

“These will be placed in this bag outside your cell and you can collect them when you’re going,” an RUC man said, whilst a prison warder locked him up in a cell. John was jubilant and was singing to himself, “I’ve survived! I’ve survived!”

His cellmate stared at him: “My God, what have they done to you?”

The young man, whom John didn’t know, tore some linen from the bed, wetted it with water and washed the wounds. He rinsed out the makeshift flannel in the cup which instantly turned bright red. John thanked him. He then realised the extent of his injuries. His lips were split open and the air was like acid eating at them. Both eyes were black, one was almost closed over. Blood had clotted on his scalp and had dried over the skin creases. The door was unlocked and an RUC officer appeared.

“You, get out! You shouldn’t be in here with him!”

He was left on his own and pondered over what sort of arrangement was it that had RUC men and MPs in charge of prison warders, telling them where to put prisoners and when to open and close the cells. The door creaked open again. He recognised a senior officer in the Special Branch. He had been shown his photograph. The IRA had been planning to kill him. They had nicknamed him the Bouncer. The Bouncer introduced himself.

“You must know where there’s a few guns knocking about, John, my old friend. I’m not after names, just guns and bombs, you know the sort of things. I want you to think about it, son. You look like a nice fella. I know everything about you but I’m a reasonable man. There’s £20,” he said, extricating two £10 notes from a thick wad. “No, just you think about it. There’s plenty more where that came from, as you can see. I’ll call back later after you’ve rested.”

John placed his ear to the door and listened carefully until the Bouncer had finished his rounds. Then he banged on the cell door until a warder opened it.

“Any chance of a smoke?” he asked. “I’ve fags just sitting outside in a brown bag.” The warder gave the bag a glance.

“Piss off.” He proceeded to close the door.

“Wait, wait, wait! Just a minute!” John dug his hands deep into his pocket and pulled out the two £10 notes. “This is no use to me in here. Here take them, go ahead, but give me a smoke.”

“Let’s see,” said the jailer. “Okay, what’s the harm.” He gave him the packet, lit him up one of the cigarettes and pocketed the money in his breast pocket, fastening the silver button. The barefoot prisoner lay back on his bed, one leg over the other, smiling at the high, yellow ceiling.

When the Bouncer returned John had enough smokes for a week.

“Well, have you thought about it?”

“I’ve thought about it and I’m not interested.”

“You’ll be sorry. I have something special in mind for you. You’re one of the lucky ones. Now, give me my money, I mean, our money back.”

“I haven’t got it.”

“Where is it then?”

“He has it,” said John pointing. “That screw has it in his top pocket. I gave it to him to mind for you.”

The warder began stuttering.

“Oh yes, here you are, sir, here you are.”

“Why wouldn’t you take the money?”

“Money wouldn’t buy my pride.”

“Well, you’ll have plenty of time to think about your pride.”

All that night the lights were kept on and the cell doors were banged. It was only possible to lightly doze.

On Tuesday morning MPs took John out of the jail and forced him to run an obstacle course made of barbed wire and broken glass. He was once again confused and afraid because he had thought it was all over once he was in jail. His moods swung between spiritual highs and demoralised lows.

What if they’re right and I’m wrong? Could we really have expected to take on the British government without retribution? Were we upstarts, dreamers, doomed from the outset? Then he would draw upon his convictions which were buried under the weight of the brutality, and he felt an inner peace. I am right, I am right! he said aloud.

And when they saw the trace of that defiant smile they beat him all the more.

Late on Tuesday night, shaken and hungry, he was brought outside into the darkness. There were three other prisoners whom he recognised but did not acknowledge. Their hands were tied behind their backs with plastic cord. The MPs stood in front of them, silently. Slowly and deliberately they produced eight hoods – hessian-type bags – and put one hood inside the other. Then they walked behind each prisoner and pulled the hoods over their heads. The man on John’s right began to scream and he heard the dull thuds of fists pile-driving into a stomach. The terrified prisoner quietened down after that.

Someone twisted the bag at the back until it tightened and John felt as if he was choking. A helicopter landed and they were pushed and kicked on board. Within seconds it took off. It flew for over three-quarters of an hour. When it came to ground they were again kicked and forced to run over rough terrain. The length of the journey made John think he was in England or Scotland.

He was brought into a brick building. The floor was cold and bare. From the echo of his escort’s boots he felt that they were going down a corridor. He was brought to be medically examined. He could hear the doctor turning in a swivel chair.

“Any ailments?” said the doctor. He was English. John guessed he was fat, from the compression in his voice.

“I’ve a bad heart,” said John.

“Uncuff him and take his clothes off.” He cursorily examined him. “He’s all right for interrogation.”

The hood was wrenched tight and he was forced out of the room. He was bundled into a boiler suit, two sizes too big for him.

“Up against that wall!”

He didn’t understand the order because of a loud hissing noise and was forcibly spread-eagled by two or three people with English and Scottish accents. He tried to reduce the angle by a few inches, and thus ease the pressure on his limbs, but his feet were kicked even further apart.

“Now, maintain your posture or else …”

Hours dripped by and he felt as though a snow-plough went through his brain, scattering cells, splattering red flakes into the ditch, returning and churning up more furrows, shaving his brain smooth, opening the road to allow the interrogators’ traffic through.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“It’s August and don’t you leave that wall!”

He fell and was beaten, then he was helped into the spread-eagle position and told: “Resume the posture!”

More hours passed by.

“Come with us.”

He was taken into a room. The hood was removed and a number of men sat behind arc lights which were trained on him where he stood.

“You asked to see us.”

“I didn’t ask to see you,” he whispered.

“What did he say?”

“He said he didn’t ask to see us.”

He was hit across the head and fell on the concrete floor, but got on to all fours. His interrogators wore track suits and plimsolls and their faces were hidden. He was frog-marched back to the wall.

“Resume the posture!”

Hours passed. More beatings each time he fell. The noise drove excruciating pain through his head.

“Can I go to the toilet?” he asked.

“You are shit, so shit where you are!”

He had no bowel movements and had been given no water. He dreamed he was urinating against an entry wall and urine dribbled down his leg, hot and stinging, chafing his thigh, and he was reminded of dribbling as a child when he thought he had finished.

“Out!”

Corridor. Room. Lights.

“You asked to see us?”

“I didn’t ask …”

Another beating. Back to the wall, back to the Devil’s screech.

“Out!”

Corridor. Room? No room. Air. Lorry. Drive. Helicopter. Sky. Earth. Jeep.

“Get him through the hole in the wall.”

Crumlin Road Jail?

The hood was removed. Three RUC officers sat in front of him.

“Are you John O’Neill?”

“Yes.”

“Here is a removal order empowering the RUC via the Civil Authority to remove you to any place where your presence is required and question you for any length of time. As you can see it has been signed by the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Brian Faulkner. Okay? Here you are.”

It was stuffed into the top pocket of the boiler suit.

He was taken back out through the hole in the wall, hooded, placed in a jeep, driven to the helicopter, flown to the place of interrogation and was soon back up against the wall in the spread-eagle position.

Hours. Hood removed.

“You asked to see us?”

– Silence.

“I told you he asked to see us, didn’t I!”

“Yes, you did! Do you think is he ready?”

“I don’t know. Let’s ask. You did ask to see us.”

His convictions were hanging on to the edge of a cliff with one finger nail. You were a tout before, O’Neill. Are you going to be a tout again? What about Paul McShane? Paul McShane . . . Paul McShane, McShane, the shame; the shame of squealing on McShane. School days, so long ago, so innocent, before all this. He hauled his mind up from where it perilously dangled, used the pause, the silence, as breathing space and muttered: “I didn’t ask to see you …”

“Fuck you, O’Neill!” The lamp was knocked over and one of the figures kicked him in the groin. The whole world went dark.

…………………………

“Where’s the guns?”

“Where’s Stevie Donnelly?”

“Where’s Dominic Gallagher?”

“You blew up the jeep in Brougher Mountain!”

“You killed the three Scottish soldiers!”

“Two of them were brothers, you bastard.”

“Yeh, and seventeen years of age.”

“You blew up Roden Street Barracks!”

“You blew up Sergeant Wallace in Springfield Road!”

“You planted incendaries in Anderson and McAuley’s!”

“Where’s the guns?”

“Where’s Stevie Donnelly?”

“Where’s Dominic Gallagher?”

Some of the questions and statements meant nothing. He wasn’t talking but most of the time there would have been no time to have answered before the next question or statement came.

“You blew up Roden Street Barracks!”

“You blew up Sergeant Wallace in Springfield Road!”

“You planted incendaries in Anderson and McAuley’s!”

“You blew up Bronco McIvor!”

“Outside his house! That was nice!”

What? What was that? Did he hear that? John wanted to tell them that they had got it all wrong, that he didn’t blow up Bronco. They had worked together. Shared cigarettes. Had become friends. Bronco wanted him to stay. Not go on the boats. But then he knew that that was a lie. Was there a police reservist called Bronco blown up in his car? Whatever the truth, John now experienced a mix of emotions as if he were just learning for the first time that his comrades killed Bronco, old Bronco McIvor with the King Billy tattoos, who had gone on to join the Police Reserve, who wasn’t just a mouthpiece, who somewhere along the line, because of a word or a deed or an emotion, had been tipped over the edge… like John.

Did they know they had shaken him, might have had him? They could see his face because the hood had been removed. But they could not read the expression of sadness and regret beneath the blood and bruising.

“Do you want to go back to the music room, John?”

The music room, that’s what they called the room where the high-pitched hissing sound, the ‘white noise’, went on and on and on.

Days passed, days of more blood and bruising.

John turned the minute hand of the chubby alarm clock back, to give the workers an extra half-hour to get out. Stevie covered the doors. As John ran to make their escape Stevie dropped his gun and grabbed him in a bear hug, like a madman.

“For fuck’s sake Stevie let me go. Let me go! This place is gonna go up! I’ve planted bombs. It’s gonna go up, up, up!”

“What’s gonna go up? What’s gonna go up?”

He awoke, handcuffed to a radiator – the rest room.

“Okay, back to the wall. Resume the posture! You’ll talk. You’ll

talk!”

The doctor saw him twice more: “Fit for interrogation!”

“Where’s the guns? Where’s the guns? Where’s the guns?”

“Where’s Donnelly? Where’s Stevie Donnelly? Where is he?”

“Where’s that cunt Gallagher? Where’s Dominic Gallagher?”

John sat at the top right hand corner of the ceiling, out of sight, impish, giggling, as they punched him in the ribs down below.

Next, he was being rolled about on the ground. They were rubbing his neck, massaging his muscles, restoring his circulation.

They lifted the hood up and he sipped some water through his parched lips. They gave him a piece of broken bread which almost choked him.

“Right. Resume the posture!”

Spread-eagled again. Legs kicked out. He tried to cheat by using his head to take the weight off his arms but they fired shots which forced him back on his fingers. He thought of his mother and she appeared before him and he felt happy. He did not feel like a person, he was either a mind or an aching, sore body, never the two together.

He felt like crying, he had just shit himself. It had been a painfully slow bowel movement and the little warm balls stuck between the cheeks of his buttocks. They gave off, he imagined, a dreadful stink and reduced him to a baby. He was helpless.

“John? John?” It was a friendly, soothing voice. “John, it’s okay. The hooded treatment is over.”

His eyeballs returned to his head. His head, arms and legs returned to his torso from the distance to which they had been kicked. He listened hard. His eyes shot from side to side within the darkness of the hood.

“It’s over, John. I’ll take the hood off in a minute and tidy you up but I’ll have to put it back on when you move back to Crumlin Road Jail. These people don’t want you to know where you are or to see their faces. Okay? Now, take it easy …”

It was a Belfast accent. He was worried that his mind was playing a trick on him. The RUC man’s assurances made him even more afraid. The hood did come off and John stood trembling. He couldn’t move his arms. His legs were cramped in a standing position.

“Come on. I’ll help you. It’s over. You have my word. I’ll be travelling with you.”

John burst out crying as he shuffled barefoot down the corridor and into the toilets. His ankles, knees, were swollen, his hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders were in great pain. His friend shaved him, cleaned and wiped his backside. He rubbed and softly chopped at his arm and leg muscles.

“John you have to be photographed. Come with me. It won’t take long.”

He was photographed in the nude and the cameraman appeared to be hundreds of yards away in the distance. He was taken back to the corridor. He couldn’t talk but hung on to the man who was showing him mercy. He held onto him when he thought he was leaving him.

“Look. It’s okay. It’s time to go. Trust me. Help me put on the hood. We’ll do it together. That’s it. Now, I have to handcuff you. Then we’ll get on board the helicopter. When it lands I’ll remove the handcuffs and the hood but don’t look back. You’re going away from here, back to your mates. When you go to jail there’ll be a tribunal. You’re not a bad fella, you know. After thirty days you’ll be able to go to this tribunal and sign a form and you’ll be out. If I ever meet you in the street would you buy me a drink?”

John spoke for the first time: “I’ll buy you all the drink you want.”

“We’re going now.”

When the helicopter landed the policeman said: “Don’t be looking back. Good luck,” and he pulled the hood off and pushed him out. The doors whooshed closed and other RUC men put him into the back of a Land Rover and then drove him to the jail.

He was brought into the basement of D Wing. The prison doctor weighed him. He had lost 16 lbs.

“What day is it, doctor?”

“It’s Tuesday.”

“It couldn’t be. I was here on Tuesday. It must be Thursday or Friday.”

“No. It’s Tuesday, Tuesday the 17th August.”

John shook his head in disbelief. He just shook his head.Layout 1

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A Tale of Two Diaries

December 5, 2014 by  

Last night (December 4th) I was at an event in St Mary’s University College, Falls Road, where author Eimear O’Callaghan was interviewed by journalist and political commentator Paul McFadden about her memoir, Belfast Days – A 1972 Teenage Diary.

Jokingly, during Q & A, I said that I must compare what she was writing back then, at the age of 16, and what I was writing at the age of 19. So, I got out my 1972 diary.

It is Saturday, March 4th. Eimear writes:Eimear 4th March

Woke very early in spite of late night last night. At 7.30, heard a large explosion. Turned out to be on the Lisburn Road – a man was killed by RUC while planting bomb (18-year-old from Cavendish Street).

Went down to Bank Buildings for a job interview. Town was crawling with soldiers, searching and insulting everyone who came from direction of Falls Road. In the afternoon, Auntie Jo, Uncle Jim and family arrived.

A 3-7lb gelignite bomb exploded in the Abercorn Restaurant, had 300 people in it, 2 killed, 136 injured, 27 seriously, (had arms, legs, eyes removed).

I don’t think I have much chance of getting the job – will know by Monday week.

Daddy rang – very bored and homesick.

It is Saturday, March 4th. I write:Danny Albert Kavanagh

Before I write this I am sick. Sick of what it has done and will do.

At ½ 7am this morning there was an explosion. It was loud. Later, on the news I heard that a man had been shot dead. At 25 past 11 Peter [Fox] told me that the man was Seany Fox and that he was shot twice through the head. Jesus Christ this is bloody terrible. I spoke to him yesterday in the rain. Now we all go in for a graver change. Changed in our turn.

The predominant factor of finding a Her was lost weeks ago. Life is Green.

5.15pm

At work learnt that it was Seany Fox who was wounded and Albert Kavanagh out of Cavendish Street who was shot dead. At house hear the news of a city centre explosion with 4 people dead.

LATER; Heard proper news of 2 people dead in the Abercorn Disaster. Many were injured and it was horrible. Public opinion was united against this outrage.

Worked. In shop, Marie of Sunday last was cold – good.

THIS DAY HAS REALLY STUNNED ME.

The following day, Sunday, March 5th I write:Sunday March 5th

4.30pm. Went to Legion [of Mary]. Went with Peter and gave Mass card in to His [Albert Kavanagh’s] house. Went and said prayers around the coffin with a guard of honour. Death is a thud; a cold stark reality. Nothingness. He is at peace. The evening is very sunny. Micky Connolly [an old school friend from Andersonstown] goes with Brenda Kavanagh, His sister.

The bomb blast yesterday in the Abercorn was criminal. It was absolutely horrible.

Despite what I wrote back then, and despite being horrified about the consequences of violence, I had already committed myself to the republican cause. We certainly live with ambivalence; square ambiguity.

After his release from prison I spoke to Seany Fox. He said that Albert and he were unarmed and set out early to blow up Olympia Typewriters on Boucher Road when there would be no civilians about. They had just lit the fuse when the RUC appeared.

“Once the police saw us they started shooting at us, and the car. The police were about the watchman’s hut when they started to shoot. The car took off. We were about 50-100 yards from the car. We ran towards Windsor Park. There is a 7-foot high fence along the perimeter of the factory grounds separating it from the park. Albert stopped and put his hands in the air. They were still shooting – and still coming. I climbed over the fence. Albert was standing there. I ran about 100 yards. I was hit in the back. I fell and although in pain I was still OK. Albert was still standing with his hands up. There was a policeman covering him as he stood there. Just then the policeman came over to me. He had a gun in his hands and shot me another few times in the stomach and chest. I was conscious. I think I was hit six times altogether. I’m not sure. I was rolling about the ground.

“Albert was still standing at the wire. The other policeman then shot Albert – I suppose he thought I was dead. I don’t know how many times he was shot. There were two bullet holes in his head – in the forehead and bullet wounds on his back. This I found out in my depositions at the trial. I was lying there, the bomb went off and all the people came out from the district – the Village. They gathered round me, threatening to burn me. Some of them put wood on my feet. Just at that a patrol of British army soldiers came along. They spread out then.

“The corporal came down to me and fixed me up. He took my coat off, put bandages on me, and I think the British army called for the ambulance. The police walked away when they shot me. I don’t know where they went. When the ambulance came they put me in the back. They drove out of the field on to the road. The policemen stopped it on the road and told the ambulance driver that he had to have a man go with it, and the Brit turned round and said: ‘It’s alright, I’m here. I’ll go with him.’ There was an argument between the British and the police – about it being urgent to get me to hospital. ‘This man is going to die,’ one of them said. The Brit went to the hospital. I was conscious even then, remember them taking my shirt and boots off.

“Albert faced them with arms up. He did not run towards the police. The ambulance couldn’t have got in for Albert – the wire was between us. I asked them to get Albert. People told me he lay there for hours.”

AlbertAlbert was eighteen when he was killed. His younger brother Paul was later jailed two or three times. On the last occasion, he was arrested with Martina Anderson (and others) in 1985 and charged with conspiring to cause explosions in England. Martina and Paul Kavanagh were married in prison and celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary this year. She served fourteen years, he fifteen. They fully supported the peace process and all the difficult compromises that were required to try and promote reconciliation and build confidence between unionists and nationalists. Martina is now a European MP for Sinn Féin. Paul was removed from his position as a special advisor to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness following a campaign which led to the introduction of the SPAD bill at the Assembly.

Eimear O’Callaghan’s diary are the observations of a wide-eyed young girl and she goes through all the turbulence and challenges made upon us by history.

It is an honest book. And a good book.

 

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Inside Man

November 27, 2014 by  

Back

Have just reviewed for a loyalist website (longkeshinsideout) former UVF prisoner, Plum Smith’s fascinating book about his time as a prisoner in Crumlin Road and Long Kesh. Here it is.

SOME years ago I was on a panel in the Waterfront Hall along with Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party. We were discussing a play we had just watched, The Chronicles of Long Kesh. Billy and other loyalists in the audience took great exception to the depiction of their prisoners in the play, and objected to prison experience and indeed the conflict generally being monopolised as mainly a dominant republican story (on stage, in literature and in film).

Of course, the required response was for loyalists to take control of their own story and write their own accounts. That process was already underway, for example, in such a work as Reason To Believe by former loyalist lifer, Robert Niblock, a play which was well-received and reviewed.

I was thus glad to hear a few weeks ago that former UVF prisoner William ‘Plum’ Smith had written a book and I went along to the packed launch in Crumlin Road Prison. I have to say, I was very impressed and enjoyed Inside Man, about Plum’s five years in prison for the attempted murder of a Catholic, Joseph Hall, whom he shot in Unity Flats. ‘Enjoyed’ might be misinterpreted as mischievously delighting in the woes and suffering of an opponent. But what I mean is that his is a very honest, human account, and at times a very funny account, of life in prison and his life before that: what made him a loyalist who was prepared to go beyond parading and take up arms against what he perceived to be the enemy (however I disagree with that description).

It is a book that nationalists and republicans should read in order to learn about the loyalist mindset which is too easily dismissed and stereotyped. Obviously, I would take issue with his analysis of what was happening in 1968 and 1969 because I think unionism misread the Civil Rights Movement and was fairly complacent because it had power and could exercise that power. That power had worked for fifty years so why change tack, why reform, why make any concessions? But once we were plunged into violence then every past slight, every insult, every act of past discrimination and every memory of injustice, and the greater sense of alienation, would feed the explosion that was to become the IRA and its long campaign.

Plum Smith was born on the Shankill Road in 1954, so he and I are almost coevals (I was born in Andersonstown in 1953). His father often had to go to Scotland or England when work was slack in the North, as had my own father and neighbours.

Seventeen-year-old Plum was first arrested during a riot in June 1971 and was subsequently sentenced to six months in Crumlin Road Prison. There he was attacked by republicans who outnumbered the loyalists. He was only out seven months when he was rearrested and this time convicted of the attempted murder of Joseph Hall and sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

“The IRA, Nationalists, Republicans or Catholics were killing people in the Protestant Community and I was retaliating in kind. I had neither sense or remorse, nor a sense of loss of freedom or how long I would lose that precious freedom. I had no regrets, nor did I contemplate what the future would hold.”

In August 1972 he was among nine loyalist prisoners placed in a remand cage in Long Kesh which the year before had opened as an internment camp. In the cages around him were up to 500 republicans. He was to return to the Kesh as a sentenced prisoner with political status where the undoubted leader and major influence was Gusty Spence. Initially, loyalists from different groups were all mixed together but later, as factionalism arose, each group (UVF, UDA) demanded its own cages – a development that Plum Smith regrets because he believes it led to even more feuding between the groups.

Earlier in 1972, as a result of an IRA hunger strike, the British government had introduced Special Category Status which was political status or POW status in all but name. It was perhaps the most progressive penal concession made by the British during the conflict and was to lead to ‘relative’ calm in the prisons. (No prison officer had been shot during this time.) It was withdrawn by the British in 1976 with devastating consequences that led to a blanket protest and the hunger strikes and deaths outside and inside the prison – only for the British government, years later, to again concede political status after its disastrous experiment failed.

This memoir is a mine of information about the discussion papers produced and the level of debate which went on inside the loyalist cages. They advocated a Bill of Rights, reform of the RUC, integrated education, cross-border cooperation in non-contentious areas (tourism, regional development, agriculture, etc) and instead of power-sharing, ‘Equal Responsibility’ (which was probably power sharing!). Whether the workshops, the literature, amounted to anything of substance in the end is open to opinion, but he establishes the fact that there was a culture of political engagement and self-examination.

Looking at old photographs and sometimes scratchy silent Super 8 film of these men in prison, what I do find alien (and perhaps it is just me) is the apparent fetishism with military discipline and military display within loyalist cages.

I am not sure of the degree of militarism (marching, parading, saluting, bed and hut inspections) that went on inside the cages of republicans serving prison sentences. What I do know, is that among us internees at the lower end of the camp, the drilling that went on in Cage 2 bored me and the majority of others to tears. We’d rather watch Top of the Pops and M.A.S.H. than practise drill in a freezing Nissan hut. But from Plum’s account the prisoners, apparently willingly, enthusiastically, were up for marching at the crack of dawn and had the best polished shoes in Ireland! (Sorry, the UK!)

He also reminds us of escapes by loyalists – of which I was unaware – the first of which was in 1972 from Crumlin Road Jail.

He epically tells the story of the republican burning of the camp (which was now huge, consisting of 21 cages) from the loyalist perspective and of the incredible degree of cooperation (a non-aggression pact between prisoners) that existed that night. The gas affected every area and the republicans were surrounded and being beaten by overwhelming numbers of riot troops.

“Republicans began moving their injured out of the football fields back into Phase 6, just outside our compound. We used the wire clippers to cut the fences and make entrances into C19. Those who we thought were the most seriously injured we brought into our compound, into the wooden study hut and gave them first aid using the medical supplies we had procured the night before.”

The following day he watched as soldiers beat prisoners: “I have never seen such brutality in all my life.” The republican prisoners were to be given two pieces of bread and milk but the soldiers put the bread and milk in a heap, tramped and spat on them and then made the prisoners run a gauntlet of batons to get their food.”

A loyalist rescue party, incredibly, also took prisoners to safety.

Three years later, after the withdrawal of political status, loyalists were on the blanket protest for a time but came under pressure to call off the protest because of its identification with their enemy – the IRA. I wonder what would have happened to the prisoners had they pooled their opposition to the withdrawal of status? Would the British government have folded earlier than they did? Would the prisoners have found common humanity in common ground? Would it have helped bring down the walls that separated them a little?

There was, of course, the establishment of a Camp Council in the early 1970s made up of all republican and loyalist factions. Whether this had potential to mature into something significant – a lobby, finding consensus, engaging in acts of conciliation – we will never know because it was thwarted by the NIO who were moving towards the strategy of ‘criminalisation’.

I can absolutely identify with Plum’s graphic descriptions of life behind the wire, the raids, the deceptions employed to get ‘one’ over the governor and staff, including the smuggling into the jail of a transmitter! He captures the atmosphere, the personal suffering, the death of a prisoner through medical neglect, his learning of the Irish language, loyalist involvement in further education, the joy of comradeship but also the travails of imprisonment, especially the difficulties for one’s loved ones.

They made long journeys, visited week-after-week, waiting for long hours, often experiencing humiliating searches for a half-hour visit which was often cut short at the whim of a prison officer who alleged that smuggling was taking place (often a bit of tobacco, the historic currency of prisoners). Families lost their breadwinners and the prisoners often ‘lost’ their spouses and their children, especially those prisoners serving lengthy sentences.

Released in 1977 Plum Smith became a shop steward with the ITGWU, remained a determined advocate on behalf of loyalist prisoners and in 1994 chaired the press conference when the loyalist ceasefire was announced. These might have been the golden days for the Progressive Unionist Party when it looked like it was on the verge of making a major and sustained breakthrough but through numerous mishaps, and the tragic death of the talented David Irvine, the party’s support fell, and with it, I suppose, came disillusionment and some internal chaos.

Plum Smith has always been amiable and accessible and prepared to cross the peace line. He has been an honest witness but also a reflective protagonist. After the signing of the Good Friday Agreement he was one of his party spokespersons selling the deal to the public and addressed a meeting at a women’s centre in Belfast. After his contribution an elderly woman got up to speak in favour of the Agreement and swung many doubters in the room.  He writes:

“A few weeks later I met the woman who had organised the meeting and I asked her who the lady was, did she know her? She said to me, “Plum, that man you shot all those years ago was her son.” I was taken aback. She then said that the lady had expressed her joy that I had been so positive about the agreement and supported me in the work I was now doing. What can you say to that? Her face never haunted me, it humbled me. Her dignity and compassion was so elevated. She was someone’s mother and my victim was someone’s son.”

Plum Smith in 1971 went inside as a kid. But he came out a man. A man dedicated to his community, to reconciliation and peace.

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Life & Death of a Hangman

October 2, 2014 by  

Back endAlmost one hundred years ago, fifteen of the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed by firing squad. In the case of six of the men the British hangman was brought over from England to officiate at their deaths. In August 1916 Roger Casement became the sixteenth republican to be executed when he was found guilty of ‘treason’ and hanged in Pentonville Prison, London.

The man present in Dublin and who later killed Casement – and 200 others during his despicable career – was John Ellis from Rochdale, Lancashire. I first came across his name when I was researching Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, the two IRA men who assassinated Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson in London in 1922, and whom Ellis had also executed.

However, whilst Ellis, in a self-serving book which he dictated to a copytaker, ‘Diary of a Hangman’, writes about the civilians he hanged, he is careful not to make any mention about the political executions of Irish republicans, whether through fear of reprisal or because of the strictures of the Official Secrets Act.

Ellis’s father was a barber, a trade which the son thoroughly disliked. Instead, he worked as a textile machinist and it was during a break in work that he and his mates were discussing an execution which had taken place the previous day.

Ellis, a man of slight physique, who was then 22-years-old, said, “That’s the kind of job I’d like.”

His mates all laughed at him. Ellis admitted that when younger he couldn’t “kill a chicken, and once when I tried to drown a kitten I was so upset for the rest of the day that my mother said I was never to be given a similar job again.”

Five years later, after a factory accident which left him physically weak, he opened his own barber’s shop. He was now married but didn’t tell his wife or parents that he had applied for the job as a hangman until he received a letter from the Home Office inviting him to London to take lessons in hanging.

His wife was stunned and asked, “Why on earth do you want to be an executioner?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. His mother was similarly outraged and totally opposed to the idea.

His training consisted of learning all the intricacies of calculating drops, measuring them off, how to fix a noose and use pinioning (restraining) straps. After being trained he returned home but became despondent when months passed and he hadn’t been sent for. Then, in December 1901, he received a letter stating that he was to act as assistant to a double execution of a man and his nephew convicted of killing an in-law.

He was assistant to the official hangman, James Billington, “a small fat man”, with whom he travelled to Newcastle Prison. They went into a pub near the jail for some lunch but had to finish quickly when they realised that three women crying at a nearby table were relatives of the condemned men.

After five years as an assistant in the executions of 32 people, Ellis was finally given responsibility for pulling the lever himself, on a man condemned to death for killing his lover. He was paid £2. 2s., plus expenses, so clearly was not doing it for the money.

He prided himself on his efficiency. There were two cases throughout his career that troubled him: the hangings of Edith Thompson for being an alleged accomplice in the killing of her husband (the actual killer said she was innocent) and an eighteen-year-old whom he described as a mere boy (there was uncertainty about his intelligence). Nevertheless, Ellis’s struggles with his conscience never lasted more than a few hours. He felt it was ‘his duty’ to ‘help’ these poor wretches through their ordeals “with all the swift humanity that my twenty years’ experience as a public hangman had taught me to how to bestow.”

Minutes before her death Edith Thompson was in a state of collapse and had lost all control of herself. She screamed and sobbed and when she fainted they strapped her up and carried her to the scaffold where Ellis placed a white cap over her head before pulling the lever.

Throughout his career this slight man would work the majority of his time in his barber shop. When the Home Office letter arrived, requiring his service, once, twice or three times a year, off he would go like a small businessman with his suitcase, travelling anonymously by bus and train to the particular jail where he spent the night before the execution.

When he retired in 1924 his shop became a bit of a tourist attraction with people standing outside for hours just to catch a glimpse of him. He had eschewed all requests for newspaper interviews and refused to discuss his work. However, he couldn’t settle, had received no pension from the Home Office, and began drinking heavily. In August 1924 he tried to kill himself but the bullet went through only his jaw. He was arrested and charged with the then criminal offence of attempting to commit suicide. The judge asked for and received an undertaking that he would not attempt suicide again.

“If your aim had been as straight as the ‘drops’ you have given it would have been a bad job for you. Your life has been lengthened and I hope you will make the best use of it – the spare life which has been granted to you.”

Ellis returned to his hairdressers’. He received numerous offers to give lectures but eventually decided to go on stage and act in a play based on the true story of the infamous nineteenth-century cat-burglar and murderer, Charlie Peace. In the final scene, Ellis came on stage dressed in black and hanged him – or at least, the actor, playing him. The play caused uproar in the press for its sheer bad taste and was withdrawn at the end of its first week.

Ellis then put on a road show, touring seaside towns and fairs giving demonstrations on the British method of execution, using a working model. The crowds paid sixpence a time to witness mock hangings.

In 1932 Ellis, who was still drinking heavily, threatened his wife and daughter with a cut-throat razor and screamed, “I’ll cut your heads off!” With 203 executions under his belt they wisely fled the house.

Ellis ran to the front door and drew the razor across his throat making a five-inch gash. He collapsed and died in a pool of blood on the street.

Neither the Home Office nor the Prison Commissioners were represented at his funeral.

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Billy McCulloch’s Roses

September 20, 2014 by  

Billy McCulloch's rosesBilly was born in 1911 in East Belfast. He became our most wonderful friend when we moved into Norfolk Drive. We saw him for the last time in a nursing home in Newcastle, County Down, on 9th May 2003. He died on the 18th May, 2003. The family home was not lost: his granddaughter Terry, daughter of Rita O’Hare, moved in and lives there now. When she was getting an extension done we asked could we dig up the rose bush that Billy had planted and cherished a millennium earlier!

Each year it blooms in our back garden. The story below is from my book All The Dead Voices.

Billy McCulloch comes to our house for his Sunday dinner and some nights he and I sit in his living room and drink and talk about poetry, which he loves, or he’ll recall certain historical events which impressed him, such as the race for the South Pole, of life in Belfast during the blitz, or about all the people he knew in his life. Splashed on his table before him are poetry books that he is reading and letters he is writing and we have to make room for the glasses and the gin. Often he mentions an old friend, Gibbie, about whom I have heard so much that I feel we are acquainted. Billy is eighty nine but had to give up driving some years ago. He lost his balance and became shaky on his legs, had to use first a stick and now this past year a frame.

I don’t own a car but my son, Kevin, who was holidaying in Mexico for a fortnight had left me his. Then, over a few gins late one night we planned that in Kevin’s car to Gibbie’s, to Cumbria, England, we would go! On a sunny May morning Billy and I packed our cases like excited kids and drove on to the Stranraer ferry.

Billy was born a Protestant in East Belfast in the year that the ‘Titanic’ was launched, 1911. He describes his nationality as left-wing or sans frontier. His father, John William, came to Belfast from Birkenhead as an iron moulder during the engineering boom in the 1880s, bringing with him his new wife, Mary Francis (whom he addressed as ‘Polly’) from Conah’s Quay, Wales. She had worked as a domestic servant. At first they lived in a single room but later managed to move into a new house on working-class Rosebery Road, most of whose menfolk worked in the nearby shipyard.

Rosebery Road, built in the 1890s, was named after Archibald Philip Primrose (who became the 5th Earl of Rosebery after the death of his grandfather in 1868) and became British prime minister when Gladstone resigned in 1894. He caused mayhem when he made his first speech as premier and said that Home Rule for Ireland could only come about when England, ‘the predominant member of the three Kingdoms’ agreed to it. Primrose had left Oxford after he came into conflict with the university authorities over his ownership of a racehorse. Despite not having a degree, he was considered to be a distinguished, young intellectual. He declared that he had only three ambitions: to marry an heiress, to win the Derby and to become Prime Minister. He achieved all three. When he resigned as leader of the Liberal Party, Gladstone made an assessment of Rosebery’s character: ‘I can say three things of him: One, he is one of the very ablest men I have ever known; two, he is of the highest honour and probity; and, three, I do not know whether he really has common sense.’

Half way up the Lough I looked back at Belfast and imagined how the formidable shipyards, linen mills and rope works must have looked from the boat through the eyes of Billy’s young parents, about to put down their roots in this part of the world.

Our sailing took just over three hours and the weather and conditions were perfect. We disembarked just after lunchtime and began the long drive to Cockermouth in Cumbria, across the border. The road had been improved since I remembered being on it last in my teens, almost thirty years ago, furiously driving late through the night, my girlfriend beside me, as Stevie Wonder’s song ‘Superwoman’ kept fading in and out on Radio Luxembourg. Billy is naturally garrulous and kept me occupied but in between the silences memories came to me, about old friends, what had happened to them in the Troubles, who had and had not survived, and the journeys we have all gone through.

We were short on petrol but there were no petrol stations (bar two family ones that looked permanently closed) on the seventy-mile stretch between Stranraer and Dumfries. And, when we did stop to refuel, across the English border, the garage accepted our Northern Irish sterling notes, though I had expected objections. At that garage and, later, when we were to ask for directions or order coffee and sandwiches in a cafe or dinner, we found the English to be gentle, kind, warm, and helpful, without being ingratiating, in sharp contrast to my experience in Ireland of their uniformed sons, and, I believe, to the experience of other subject peoples around the world, who found them repressive, pompous and self-righteous. I wondered, how could such a cultured and law-abiding people dramatically change personae when they stepped onto someone else’s shore?

Throughout our journey there were to be many literary reminders. We passed through Dumfries, where Robbie Burns spent his last days, drove past Eccelfechan, birthplace of Thomas Carlyle, the historian and essayist. It was Carlyle who introduced to the English language that brilliant German word schadenfreude, to express the perverse pleasure we experience from someone’s misfortunes. He used it to describe the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli’s delight in mischief when proposing the Second Reform Bill in 1867 which extended the franchise to many city workers and small farmers. (In his younger days Disraeli wrote trashy love novels which received terrible reviews. It was he who also said: ‘There are three kind of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.’)

We arrived at Cockermouth around five o’clock, stopping off at a shop so that Billy could buy some flowers. Gibbie’s and Billy’s eyes lit up when they saw each other. Gibbie is very nimble for eighty-six, and helped Billy with his things. Gibbie, a Scotsman, was born in Coatbridge in 1915. He says that although his town’s population was divided fifty/fifty between Protestants and Catholics he never met a Catholic until he went to university. Billy had married Maureen, a Catholic from Ballymacarret, East Belfast. Maureen’s mother was a convert from the Protestant faith, and had come from Farnham Street on the Lower Ormeau Road, an area which during recent decades has experienced a complete demographic shift and is now wholly nationalist. It is one of those areas which the Orange Order demands a ‘traditional’ right to march through several times each year.

Billy worked as a weaver in linen factories in Belfast but devoted all his holiday time to hostelling. One day, sixty-five years ago on a July day, in the Scottish village of Balloch, at the bottom of Loch Lomond, he stopped to look in a shop window. Another young man came up and looked into the window, then said to Billy, ‘Where are you going?’ Billy replied, ‘I haven’t decided, but I’ll go wherever you’re going.’

So they hostelled together, were sometimes mistaken for brothers, and forged a lifelong friendship, writing to each other when Gibbie was in the British Army during WWII, and visiting each other, even after they were both married. They met their wives, Maureen and Sadie, whilst hostelling, Billy in Slievenamon in the Mourne Mountains and Gibbie in the Cairngorms. Both Maureen and Sadie died three years ago, and Billy and Gibbie hadn’t seen each other in twelve years.

It was a glorious evening so we sat on a bench in Gibbie’s back garden and I listened with fascination as they reminisced about their hostel days, trekking mountains and bogs, about all the characters they went about with, about the ‘code’, quite chivalrous, that operated in the Youth Hostel Movement in the 1930s, and the respect that young men had for women. Every person lives through a rich history and every story is different, is told from a different, if even marginally different, angle.

Billy is self-taught and has an amazing grasp of poetry and an impressive repertoire. Although his father read a lot, Billy attributes his interest in books to several influences: his neighbours, the Boyces from Rosebery Road, whose house came down in books and whose sons were among the working-class few who went on to university (Billy remembers John Hewitt being a regular visitor to their house); and Joe Walker, ‘an ingrained socialist’ from Newtownards, a moulder in Harlands, just like Billy’s father. Walker bought a book every Saturday and the books crept up the walls of his sitting room like ivy, as he had no shelves.

Gibbie has a degree in English from Glasgow University and worked as a teacher before retiring. He never expected to end his days in Cockermouth. When the Second World War broke out a friend of his from Coatbridge, a law clerk who was working his way up to be a solicitor, refused to serve and declared himself a conscientious objector. He was sent to Barlinnie Prison in Scotland where harsh treatment eventually broke him. He then agreed to join the Army but when he went for his medical he was turned down – due to a mastoid infection in his ear from childhood.

Instead of going to war he relieved an employee from a legal practice in Aberdeen who went off to fight. On one occasion the clerk was sent to investigate a claim in the Lake District and whilst there he met a nurse from South Wales, fell in love and eventually married. He always spoke to Gibbie about the beauty of the Lake District but Gibbie was too proud or too Scottish, he says, to take it in. Then, when Gibbie’s daughter Margaret got married and moved to Cockermouth, he and Sadie to be near her, ironically, came to live here, the place about which he was once dismissive. Although millions have experienced displacement due to war and conflict, or have had to emigrate from their native country, I suppose that the majority of people in this world live and die close to the land or village or street where they were born.

On Wednesday the three of us went for a drive through part of the Lake District, lakes whose names I, as a kid, had to learn in Geography Class, along with details of the British coal and steel industries. The scenery was breathtaking but the countryside was fairly deserted of livestock and visitors due to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which had hit Cumbria quite hard. We drove past many roadside inns and hotels and I often wondered if this or that one was where Roy and Vera had stayed, thirty years before.
Whether it was a reference to nature or the elements, love or life, Billy or Gibbie would recite part of a verse from Wordsworth, who was born in Cockermouth, or Burns or the Bible, and the other would finish it. I couldn’t keep up with them and I wished I had had a tape-recorder.

Early sun on Beaulieu water
Lights the undersides of oaks,
Clumps of leaves it floods and blanches,
All transparent glow the branches
Which the double sunlight soaks

I asked Billy where he got that from and he replied, ‘Betjeman, “Youth and Age on Beulieu River, Hants”.’ Later, I looked up the poem and learnt that it was about mortality and the envy of an old woman for a young girl. Over the past year Billy has been increasingly talking about death. He becomes emotional when talking about his son Bill, a talented craftsman, who died suddenly of a heart attack three years ago. He says how much he misses Maureen who died from cancer, about her deep Catholic faith and belief in the afterlife, which he could never share. He talks about his youth, about Rosebery Road to which I’ve offered to bring him, but which he does not want to see. And he wonders whether he’ll make it to ninety.

Billy was the youngest of three sons and four daughters, all of whom are now dead (John, Alexander, Molly, Edith, Nellie and Mamie). He said to me once: ‘All the sisters got married and left. It was a tremendous regret to see your family diminishing like that. Everything changes so horribly as you grow up. All of them are gone…I am the last of the Mohicans,’ he joked.

He pointed to an old family picture on the wall, taken around 1919. ‘There’s my father sitting there and you can tell by his attitude that he was the disciplinarian of the family. My mother was a very, very soft person. I can never remember my mother chastising me in any way. I was a spoilt skitter! But I loved my oul mother and you can see by the photograph that I’m hanging on to her there.’

I had asked him some questions about his parents’ courtship, the type of detail that a child often picks up from innuendo or light banter in the home, but he couldn’t recall. ‘I can’t even ask my sisters, who are bound to know a hell of a lot more about my mother and father than I would… Damn it, it’s bloody awful when they’re all gone. They used to live over in different parts of East Belfast and you’d go over there and you’d say, I’ll go and see Molly. Ach Christ, she’s dead. Bloody awful,’ he whispered through clenched teeth.

Driving around Derwent Water Billy and Gibbie had the cheek to sing and exchange hymns and I joked with them because they are both atheists. In St George’s Church in High Street, Belfast, Billy’s father had been an ‘official’, that is, he organised the collection at the Church of Ireland services, and through him Billy and his brother, John, became members of the choir. However, Billy claims that he himself was ‘a crow’, and bluffed his way for some time. Then, one day at school, an inspector came into his class and asked his teacher, Miss Freebourne, if she had any good singers. “I knew right away what she was going to say. She said, ‘Willie. Could you sing something for the inspector.’ Well, I fell from grace after that.” Nevertheless, he dates his love of classical music from that time.

His brother John was known in the family as ‘a joiner’ – not by trade but because he would have joined anything. He was an engineer at the shipyard, joined the Merchant Navy, then joined the Orange Order on his return. Billy joked that he must have taken after him. The parents of Billy’s companion Robert Boyce were members of the Plymouth Brethren and Billy used to go along to the meeting hall with them. He recalled one preacher, a bread server, who used to get up and do his stint, by beginning, “Dear Brethren and Cistern…” which had Robert and him wetting themselves.

Billy, as a young boy, also had the distinction of marching down the Lower Ormeau Road with the Orange Order. An Orangeman called Jimmy, who was dating Billy’s sister Mimi, asked him would he like to carry a string of one of the banners on the Twelfth of July parade. ‘Says I, “Do I get paid?” “Certainly, you get paid,”’ he was assured. And he did.

Gibbie directed us to Pendle Hill and showed me the rock where George Fox, the founder of the Quaker Movement, had preached to thousands of people in the 1650s. ‘When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered. As I went down, I found a spring of water in the side of the hill, with which I refreshed myself, having eaten or drunk but little for several days before.’

Fox had been imprisoned eight times between 1649 and 1675. He met Cromwell in 1656 and advised him not to accept the Crown which was being offered to him and which he eventually refused. Fox argued against the formalism of the established Church and all social conventions: ‘The Lord forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low… neither might I bow or scrape my leg to any one.’

Billy, Gibbie and I had our last supper together on Wednesday night, I cooking, as they again sat outside in the warm evening, close together, retelling events from forty and fifty years ago, cracking open small epiphanies to reveal what one or other had perhaps forgotten, and I heard the occasional laugh and confirmation.

On Thursday morning, Gibbie and Billy came out to the car and I asked them to stand for a photograph. Then they shook hands for a long time and said goodbye. As we turned the corner from Rose Lane, Billy said with finality and a passion, ‘That’s my old friend Gibbie, who I met in 1936.’

Thus far, O Friend! have we, though leaving much
Unvisited, endeavoured to retrace
The simple ways in which my childhood walked;
Those chiefly that first led me to the love
Of rivers, woods, and fields…

O Friend! O Poet! brother of my soul,
Think not that I could pass along untouched
By these remembrances.

- William Wordsworth

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Mur des Fédérés

August 19, 2014 by  

Murder-of-communards

A friend from Colorado asked me was I ever in La Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Several times I was there and in 2003 wrote a feature about it which appeared in my book, Rebel Columns. It was titled ‘And Outcasts Always Mourn’. Here it is:

Foremost, there are two types of tourists: those who go away to relax and luxuriate, usually in a balmy climate, and those who go away to learn and explore. However, no matter where I go, or what type of holiday I embark on, I get restless after three of four days and look forward to getting back to the blue skies above Black Mountain in ‘equatorial’ West Belfast.

We went to Gran Canaria for a week a few years ago – to Playa del Ingles, and our apartment was within petrol-bombing distance of the Kasbah, the playground for youngsters with boundless energy who danced and drank till dawn. We were in bed for 10 each night but thanks to these kids, not asleep until six each morning. It wasn’t until we hired a car and took to the mountains, away from the madness of the resorts, that the holiday became tolerable.

Even so, getting home to beautiful Belfast was the best part.

So, I prefer short holidays to long ones, and pack in as much as possible.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I and her nephew Peter from Toronto (our French translator) went to Paris for three days and walked out a pair of shoes each. Did all the usual sights: Arc de Triomphe, Moulin Rouge, Le Sacre Coeur, the Seine cruise, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Louvre (with the Mona Lisa looking browned off with all the attention). Viewed the city from the top of the Eiffel Tower, dined in Montmarte, and drank endless cups of strong coffee at sidewalk cafes. On occasions we split up and went our separate ways and thus I spent the last day all by myself, out at Le Père Lachaise, wandering through the city’s largest cemetery.

I love cemeteries, not because I am morbid (though I am harmlessly melancholic), but because cemeteries speak for a people, its motley collection of individuals, from the lowliest to the highest, from the leaders to the followers, the politicians, the writers and musicians, the masses. They tell a people’s history and though the briefest of details – name, date of birth and death, and sometimes an epigraph – are carved in and will fade over time from headstones, even these last words evoke a great narrative about a person’s worth, their place on this earth, their legacy.

The cemetery opened in 1804 as a solution to the problem of overcrowding following the revolution of 1789. The first man to be buried here was an anonymous bell-ringer from the local police station, but several famous Parisians were re-interred in Pere-Lachaise, including Moliere, the French dramatist who wrote, “We die only once, and for such a long time.” The cemetery became a much sought after resting place for the rich and famous – or the stranded, as in the case of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and Jim Morrison. Yeats died in Paris in 1939, on the same day as a Parisian refuse collector, and they were buried close together. There is a theory that the person who was re-interred in Drumcliff in Sligo never wrote a poem in his life but emptied plenty of bins.

Le Pere-Lachaise covers 100 acres and I walked most of it, beginning with the grave of Rossini. There, I thanked him with a few prayers and found myself irreverently humming the ‘William Tell’ overture, that is, the theme for ‘The Lone Ranger’ to which, as a child, with a yard brush called ‘Silver’ between my legs I use to “de-deeee-de-de-deeee-de-dee-dee-de-deee-dee…” through Andersonstown with the ever-faithful ‘Tonto’ (six-year-old Brendan Hunter) on his mop by my side.

(Only when I got home from Paris did I discover that the mausoleum was empty and that Rossini’s body was moved to Florence in 1887 – but nobody has told the Paris Tourist Board, or else they are not letting on.)

Other composers buried in the grounds, and still here, I hope, include Bizet, Chopin, Dukas and Poulenc; singers Maria Callas and Edith Piaf, where fresh flowers had been laid; actors Simone Signoret, Yves Montand and Sarah Bernhardt; the dancer, Isadora Duncan; and writers from Balzac to Colette, to Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein and the American Richard Wright, author of that brilliant novel, ‘A Native Son’.

The cemetery has 97 divisions and is easily navigable because each section is signed and named. I am not sure what the convention is in other cities and towns throughout Ireland but here in West Belfast’s vast City Cemetery and Milltown Cemetery there are no signs on the roads and lanes, making it possible to lose loved ones not just once, but again and again. Of course, great argument would erupt if our councillors were tasked to agree to name lanes after notables, given the large number of Orange leaders, empire builders, British soldiers and IRA members who populate both cemeteries.

Soft rain fell as I made my way through the cobble-stoned avenues of Le Pere Lachaise, drawing out that universal, almost sweet, earthy odour from the trees, bushes and clay, and the scent of our dead.

And then I came upon the Mur des Federes, and I stood and wondered about the dreams that died here in a nightmare.

In the Franco-German war of 1870 France was thrashed and Napoleon III was taken prisoner. But Paris fought on and declared a ‘Government of National Defence’. It lay under siege for six months before surrendering. Meanwhile, a pro-monarchist Assembly in Versailles, outside the capital, with Adolphe Thiers as Chief Executive, accepted an armistice. Paris, which had a strong revolutionary and republican tradition, rose up against the capitulation of the government and formed the Commune (municipal council). The Commune put a moratorium on unpaid war-time rents and stopped pawnshops from selling goods, made all church property state property, postponed debt obligations, and abolished interest on the debts.

Thiers, watched by German forces, bombarded the city for six weeks, which was then slowly taken, barricade-by-barricade, street-by-street in bloody battles, in which at least 30,000 people lost their lives and over 17,000 more were either executed or transported to French penal settlements overseas.

The ‘Communards’ made their final stand in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. And here, at Mur des Federes, in the quiet eastern corner, is the wall against which their leaders, 147 of them, were executed and buried. Not far away is the grave of Thiers who died six years later.

And finally to the grave of that great genius Oscar Wilde – broken and murdered by the intolerance of society because he loved men. I am sure Wilde would enjoy the fact that the authorities no longer replace his penis, or rather that on his monument, which collectors would break off as mementoes. In his lane the trees were shedding their small, pale leaves, like a perpetual autumn. Three sides of his monument were imprinted with lipstick from the adoring, some voluptuous, kisses of many women.

And on the fourth were these lines from ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

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1C & 2B, St Gabriel’s School

August 17, 2014 by  

This afternoon I went to the Ulster Museum to see the exhibition ‘Art of the Troubles’ which brings together the work of 50 artists and their responses to the Troubles. My favourite piece was ‘Year in Black Taxis: January-December, 1989′ by Belfast-born Brendan Ellis. It runs until September 7th.  But it brought to mind another exhibition, ‘Painting The Troubles’ I had seen in the National Army Museum in London back in 2006 and which I wrote about in a feature for Daily Ireland. As I prepared to write that piece I made some interesting discoveries about some of the paintings selected and used by Ralph Lillford. Anyway here is that feature – Just Another Brick in the Painted Wall:

BACK END

Looking at the wall, I thought to myself, where are and what ever happened to Joseph McNally, Joseph McKenna from 1C, Kevin Fusco and Jim Donnelly both from 2B, who were pupils at St Gabriel’s School, Antrim Road, Belfast, in 1974?

The story begins last Friday afternoon in London when I went to an exhibition at the National Army Museum. Parked outside the museum is a large First World War cannon and a Humber Armoured Car, or ‘Pig’, which we used to mistakenly call a Saracen. The claustrophobic innards of this vehicle always smelt of gun oil, sour sweat and bad breath, sometimes of cordite, and always fear, usually one’s own.

I went into the foyer and up to the desk. The receptionist said, “Can I help you, man?” Then, realising he was at work, said, “I mean, sir,” and we both smiled. I was looking for the ‘Painting The Troubles’ exhibition, and he pointed to a ground-floor gallery, next to The Great Escape Café.

I had heard about the exhibition on Radio Ulster’s Arts Extra. Other permanent exhibitions range from ‘The Making of Britain 1066 – 1783’ to ‘Fighting for Peace 1946 – 2006’, which I thought was an interesting euphemism for most of those brutal counter-insurgency operations Britain fought and lost before eventually relinquishing the majority of its colonial possessions.

From the beginning of the First World War Britain has had ‘official war artists’ to cover battles and army life during conflict. Paintings, which in the early days had to go through the censor, were for propaganda purposes as well as part of the official record. The Imperial War Museum in London has dispatched artists to every major conflict involving British soldiers (including the Falklands/Malvinas, today’s Afghanistan and Iraq) but never to the North of Ireland because the British government refused to recognise it as a war.

This is the first time that the National Army Museum has displayed an exhibition relating exclusively to the conflict here, so this represents some progress.

Ralph Lillford, who now lives in Australia, did his national service from 1952 to 1954, before becoming a professional artist. His visits to the North between 1971 and 1976 when he had access to the British army make up the theme of his exhibition. Images of soldiers, and life through the eyes of soldiers, predominate. Life in the barracks is depicted as extremely tedious. In a church, which has been taken over as a billet, the walls are covered in pornographic pictures.

A painting titled, ‘68-76’, of Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel after the IRA blew it up in April 1974, is depicted by Death calling and carrying a photograph of Christ, which suggests, unfortunately, that Lillford didn’t travel too far in his journey through the stereotypes. Another, ‘Seamus Dealer’, which is set in 1975, has this explanation: “To signify urban life at this time, the artist deliberately introduced incongruous imagery to strike a discordant note. He also placed the soldier midway between the Protestant house and the Roman Catholic-owned shop, so that he is caught in the middle literally as well as metaphorically.”

The soldiers neither arrest nor shoot anyone. Only a car is searched, no homes.

On a large piece of clear Perspex, representing a gable wall, visitors are invited to write their names, or whatever. I wrote ‘UP THE IRA’ – in the interests of balance – before noticing the CCTV frowning at me.

I don’t know enough about the art or philosophy of painting and what makes for greatness and can only articulate my own response. Lillford’s paintings are interesting – and do capture something of the atmosphere of the period. I suppose the one I liked most was that of the Grand Central Hotel (containing a sample of the original loud wallpaper), after the deathly Roman Catholic IRA came to redecorate.

Near the end of the exhibits I was surprised when I came across a series of adolescent drawings. They were street scenes, mostly of riots in nationalist areas, including The Bone in Belfast, and were signed by the young people I mentioned at the outset.

According to Lillford he was in a café in Belfast’s York Street late one wet and miserable Belfast night in 1974 with nowhere to stay. He got to speaking to a man who said he could stay in his house on the outskirts of the city. He was apprehensive but took up the offer. The next day the man took him to “some IRA headquarters” and introduced him to “some IRA staff” who gave him posters. The man said that his son was an arts teacher and later he sent Lillford these drawings by his son’s pupils.

I tried to locate the former pupils of St Gabriel’s but had no luck with Joseph McNally or Joseph McKenna. But I did get speaking to Kevin Fusco. He is now a furniture maker.

“I’m a bit shocked. I never thought I was that good,” joked the 44-year-old. “But my daughter is big into art.” He recalls his art teacher asking them to take part in a project, titled, ‘What do you think about the Troubles’, and it was supposed to appear in a book but he never heard anymore about it.

And what happened to Jim Donnelly whose painting hangs on a wall of the National Army Museum in London? Shortly after the 1981 hunger strike he was charged with dozens of other republicans, twenty-two of whom were sentenced to a total of 4,000 years in prison based on the word of supergrass Christopher Black.

From H-Block 7 in September 1983 Donnelly took part in the IRA takeover of the jail for the biggest IRA escape in republican history. However, he was quickly rearrested. Ironically, part of his Black conviction was overturned on appeal in 1986 but he was later sentenced for escaping and in total served seven years in jail.

He remembers a student arts teacher called Marcella inviting him and Kevin Fusco to take part in the project. They got off normal classes for a few days but he thought no more about it.

“It’s funny my painting ending up on the wall of a British army museum,” he joked. “Especially when you think of the wall I ended up behind!”

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Patrick Downey’s War

August 4, 2014 by  

WW1Irish-posterOne hundred years ago Britain entered Britain and Ireland into World War I. Thousands of books have been written about that period. In 1996 I reviewed Myles Dungan’s Irish Voices from the Great War (which has recently been reissued) for the Sunday Tribune, and, later, in 1998, I reviewed his companion volume, They Shall Not Grow Old. Here they are:

Just as it is possible to admire the fortitude and heroism of the Protestant defenders during the Siege of Derry in 1689, and yet regret the political legacy of their victory, so too should nationalists and republicans feel able to acknowledge the selflessness and patriotism of those thousands of Irish men and women who participated in the First World War.

Prior to 1914 the regular British army had many Irish regiments. Service, like emigration, was a means of escape from hunger and unemployment. However, after September 1914 there was a huge influx from the Irish Volunteers when the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, made a recruiting speech in favour of the British army.

The Irish Volunteers, established to support Home Rule, then split. The minority saw England’s difficulty as Ireland’s opportunity. But most marched off to war, believing naively that by fighting, Ireland would get a better post-war deal. The loyalists believed the same and they were correct.

Myles Dungan tells the story of the first Irish Division, the 10th, and the 16th, raised from the Irish Volunteers, and reprises that of the 36th Division – the old UVF – drawing on the diaries, letters and oral accounts of those who took part. It is horrifying and poignant: most of the military battles were a waste and pointless.

Landing at Gallipoli in a boat with 32 men, only six of whom got out alive, a Sergeant McColgan said: “One fellow’s brains were shot into my mouth as I was shouting to them to jump for it.” On another boat, 149 out of 200 were killed outright. Private Timothy Buckley recalled: “I stood counting them as they were going through. It was then I thought of peaceful Macroom, and wondered if I should ever see it again.”

Of course, the slaughter wasn’t all one-sided. A Lieutenant Guy Nightingale wrote to his sister: “When dawn broke, we saw them in hundreds retiring and simply mowed them down. We took 300 prisoners and could have taken 3,000 but we preferred shooting them. All the streams were simply running blood and the heaps of dead were a grand sight.”

Almost 2,800 Irish men died at Gallipoli. When it was evacuated in December 1915 the Turks were still in possession.

Until I read this book I had only the vaguest comprehension of the extent of Irish involvement and the magnitude of the sacrifices. The Somme had been understandably appropriated and commemorated by the loyalists, and Suvla and Sudd-el-Bahr had reproachful connotations. (Indeed, the republican song ‘The Foggy Dew’ makes this very point, contrasting dying for Ireland in Ireland than for England in Gallipoli: “Twas better to die ’neath an Irish sky/Than at Suvla or Sudd-el-Bahr”.)

So although those names were familiar I had never heard of Guillemont or Ginchy or Messines or Salonika or the Third Battle of Gaza, the hundreds butchered here and there.

“Had nationalist Ireland taken a different political direction perhaps Gallipoli might occupy a place in the Irish psyche similar to that of the Australian,” observes Dungan.

But the Ireland to which the survivors returned was in chaos, nationalist passions having been fired by the 1916 Easter Rising, the executions of its leaders, the threat of conscription. Few wanted to know their story. Many ex-servicemen would subsequently be shot as spies. Some, like Tom Barry, took their military skills into the fledgling Irish Republican Army. And what could be more ironical than the case of two former servicemen, Dunne and Sullivan, one of whom was lame from a war wound? Acting under orders from Michael Collins they assassinated in London Sir Henry Wilson, former chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1921. Arrested on the spot, they were tried and convicted and hanged, having fought in two wars for the freedom of small nations.

After the death of a comrade at the front, the Commanding Officer of the 6th Connaughts wondered would he and his men come to be considered ‘saints or traitors,’ little realising that they wouldn’t’ even come to be considered…
_____________________________________________________________________________________
They Shall Not Grow Old – Irish Soldiers and the Great War by Myles Dungan

This is a companion volume to Myles Dungan’s Irish Voices From the Great War and complements that anthology of tragedy with further stories of unromanticised life in the trenches, the experiences of PoWs, and an illuminating and critical look at the role of chaplins.

Incredibly, up to a quarter of a million Irishmen fought in the First World War. Dungan has already dealt fairly comprehensively with the loyalist 36th (Ulster) Division and here focuses more on Irish soldiers from the South. He has two objectives, both worthy. One, to record the sacrifice, sufferings and courage of these soldiers, the majority of whom believed they were advancing and securing Irish claims to Home Rule. The Act had been passed at Westminster but suspended until after the war. Two, to rectify the subsequent injustice the returnees experienced – non-recognition, public antipathy and animosity due to the political revolution (Easter 1916, Sinn Fein supplanting the Irish Parliamentary Party, the emergence of the IRA) that had taken place in their absence.

The World War I ‘veteran’, Dungan says, became indelibly associated with the other ‘veterans’ who made up the Tans and the Auxiliaries and who carried out atrocities. Commemoration and memory of the war became associated with support for the British administration in Ireland, just as in the North today the wearing of the Poppy is largely identified with the unionist cause.

He accuses subsequent generations and the state itself of ‘culpable neglect’. There is certainly a case to be answered and most people, I believe, would be interested in finding a way of embracing this part of our history. My Granda Morrison and my mother’s Uncle Paddy both took part. And just last year the West Belfast Festival sponsored a discussion around the controversial question, ‘’Twas better to die ’neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sed el Bahr’?  One of the guest speakers was Gordon Lucey of the Somme Association.

A problem arises, however, because the more rabid of the revisionists (for example, Kevin Myers) come to this subject with their own political agenda. In seeking to create a sense of public guilt they seek more than rehabilitation. By exploiting the war dead and war veterans, by making disparaging comparisons between the warfare and sacrifices of those Irish who fought against the British and those who fought with the British abroad, they seek to return to the days when Pearse and Connolly were spat on as they were marched through the streets of Dublin. In their view the IRA’s War of Independence should be rejected, its heroes tarnished (and in the process the cause of Irish reunification). The invective of the revisionists is deliberately aimed at making it difficult for those who do not share their political analysis to become embracive.

Dungan himself is not above exaggeration, linking the political defeat of Paddy Harte in his Donegal constituency (where he had been a TD for 36 years) with his wearing of a Poppy in Leinster House in 1996. I don’t think so, Myles.

The descriptions of the war are horrific and heart-breaking. One soldier, Wallace Lyon, was given the task of disposing of over 300 bodies after a gas attack: “They were in all sorts of tragic attitudes, some of them holding hands like children in the dark.” Another soldier, Patrick Downey, was sentenced to death for disobedience (he refused to put on his cap). On hearing of the verdict he allegedly laughed and shouted, ‘That is a good joke. You let me enlist and then bring me out here and shoot me.’ They shot him at dawn.

One of the most interesting chapters is The Foolish Dead, which deals with the soldier writers Tom Kettle (killed in September 1916), Francis Ledwidge (killed in July 1917), and Patrick Magill (author of ‘Children of the Dead End’, who died in the USA in 1940). Kettle was appalled by the actions of Pearse and Connolly, denouncing the Rising as madness. Yet after the murder of his brother-in-law, the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, and the executions of the leaders, he knew his own position with the British Army at the Somme had lost its initial validity. Just before he was killed he wrote a sonnet for his little daughter. With poetry such as this as testimony, Kettle and his comrades will never be forgotten:

   Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
   Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
   But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
   And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

 

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Trapped By His Own Words

July 17, 2014 by  

Back OscarEarlier this year I was asked by my German translator, Jörg Rademacher, if I would write the introduction to his translation and annotation of the original version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the version used in court to ridicule and indict him by Edward Carson. The book has now been published in Germany and here is the piece I wrote, Trapped By His Own Words:

Oscar Wilde died twice. Of course his final resting place was in Père Lachaise, Paris, where he had succumbed to meningitis in 1900. But he had already died in London, his spirit crushed by a prison sentence of two years hard labour (1895-97) on a charge of gross indecency, this humiliation, this downfall having destroyed the brilliant, flamboyant Anglo-Irish writer.

Unwittingly, Wilde had forged some of the nails for his own coffin, in his own hand, by his own words, when he submitted the manuscript of The Portrait of Dorian Gray to the American publication, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, in June 1890. In this first version homosexual themes border on the explicit. But the second version, the British-published book of 1891, was a more circumspectly crafted text and included a Preface which attempted to negotiate his way around the initial criticisms that Dorian Gray was scandalous and immoral. Damaging quotes from the Lippincott’s version, along with compromising letters, and the prospect of testimony from young male prostitutes, would later be used against Wilde in court by Edward Carson to discredit him and pave the way for his prosecution on charges of committing indecent acts.

Carson, like Wilde, a Protestant Dubliner and former fellow of Trinity College, was the leading barrister of his era. He was not only Wilde’s Nemesis but, later, when he rose to political prominence, that of Irish nationalists. What a contrast between the lives of Wilde and Carson! One, a gifted artist who would hardly hurt a fly and who brought joy to thousands of readers and theatregoers and who would, after his death, be exonerated; the other, a skilled lawyer and consummate politician who would engage in illegal activity, threaten the will of parliament and bring immense suffering to the Irish nation, the repercussions of which are still felt today.

From 1911 Edward Carson became involved in subversion against the British government, opposed democratic Home Rule for Ireland, helped raise an illegal, paramilitary army (armed from Germany) and threatened civil war – all with impunity! When the First World War broke out, Carson’s (Protestant) Ulster Volunteer Force largely converted into the British army’s 36th (Ulster) Division; Carson became British Attorney General, a member of the War Cabinet and First Lord of the Admiralty. He was to symbolize the partition of Ireland, the man who sabotaged his country’s independence.

Dorian Gray is the story of a young man selling his soul in a Faustian pact in exchange for eternal youth. The plot is quite staid: “all conversation and no action”, as Wilde described it. Overtly, it is a novel of ideas about aesthetics, and the relation of passion to art. Wilde, a married family man but a practicing, covert homosexual for the four years prior to 1891, could not but help use his art to promulgate his ideas.

Those ideas (that it is right – healthier and cathartic – to give into temptations of the flesh) certainly aren’t as monstrous as that suggested by Dostoyevsky’s Smerdyakov’s character, that “Everything is permitted”, but they did outrage the Victorian establishment, Wilde’s enemies and jealous critics. Wilde’s unique wit, his affectation of speech, manner and eccentricity of dress, which was often ridiculed, incensed this section of society, the philistine majority, who allegedly practiced self-denial, and who viewed him as immoral and degenerate, but lacked the opportunity to humble and humiliate him.

It was a combination of Wilde’s own hubris, and the encouragement of his lover, which set the scene.

One of those who read and was beguiled by Dorian Gray was Lord Alfred Douglas, a handsome young man, nicknamed ‘Bosie’, a spoilt and self-indulgent brat. He and Wilde were introduced in June 1891 and thereafter began an affair, often acting quite incautiously, though it was Alfred who was reckless and publicly flaunted himself so that they would be recognized as ‘Oscar Wilde and his boy’. Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, was outraged at what he considered was the corrupting of this son (though it was actually Alfred who introduced Wilde to the subterranean world of male prostitution), and when Wilde was challenged by Queensberry in June 1894 he denied the allegations. But in February 1895 the Marquess threw down the gauntlet in the form of a calling card left in Wilde’s club, basically publicly accusing him of being a sodomite. Against wiser counsels, Wilde sued and Queensberry was arrested and charged with criminal libel.

However, during the trial, which began on 3rd April 1895, the tables were turned and Edward Carson, who was brilliant, eloquent and forensic in regard to highlighting ‘immorality’ in Wilde’s work, including the Lippincott’s version of Dorian Gray, easily demonstrated Wilde’s licentious life and that he had an insatiable sexual appetite and predilection for young men. When Carson announced that he would produce male prostitutes as his witnesses who would testify to have having had sex with Wilde, Wilde dropped the prosecution. Not only did the court costs bankrupt him but the court ruled that the accusation that he was a sodomite was ‘true in substance and in fact’, and this triggered the next stage of the tragedy – his arrest on twenty-five counts of gross indecencies and conspiracy to commit gross indecencies.

His first trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.

(To be fair, at this stage Edward Carson appealed to the Solicitor General for clemency but was told it was too late as the case was now “too politicized” to stop. This is a reference to speculation that the British Prime Minister, the Earl of Rosebery, had had a homosexual affair and was being threatened with exposure if he failed to aggressively prosecute Wilde.)

At the second trial, in May 1895, which heard lurid details and allegations of hotel sex with male prostitutes, Wilde and his co-accused, Alfred Taylor, were convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.

Imprisonment broke Wilde. He experienced hunger, insomnia, disease, bouts of dysentery, loneliness, desertion, and the death of his mother. When being transferred in prison stripes to Reading Gaol a crowd gathered around him on the railway platform and jeered and spat at him. He wrote that he knew that when he would be released from prison that there was “nothing before me but a life of a pariah – of disgrace and penury and contempt.”

His tragedy was the second occasion within a few years of a prominent Irish figure being brought down on the issue of morality. Charles Stewart Parnell, the greatest Irish politician of his era, was leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster and appeared to be on the verge of achieving a measure of Home Rule (the Second Home Rule Bill). But, in 1890, in a London divorce case Parnell was named as co-respondent, as living with another man’s wife with whom he had two children. The subsequent fallout from the scandal especially in Catholic Ireland, destroyed Parnell and bitterly divided his party. Meantime, others had become disillusioned with the failure of constitutional politics to deliver and were to go down the separatist road which would eventually lead to the 1916 Easter Rising and the formation of the IRA. Although the Irish Parliamentary Party had recovered by 1900 and looked again as if its lobbying at Westminster would finally result in the passing of a Home Rule Act, onto the stage strode Sir Edward Carson to thwart their Irish aspirations.

Wilde was released in May 1897 and immediately went into exile, unaware that history and public opinion would exonerate him.  His writings are celebrated, his plays constantly performed and attract new admirers, his life the object of biographers, and his epigrams (used to blacken him at this trial) regularly quoted in books, in film and in the media. In Ireland and Britain today homosexuality has been decriminalized and gay partnerships/marriages are recognized. In another ironic twist, the newspaper symbolic of Rupert Murdoch’s modern global media empire, the News of the World, which throughout its 168-year-old history specialized in scandal, salacious stories and prurience, and which rejoiced in Wilde’s imprisonment and downfall, itself was brought down by scandal in 2011 and court cases! Police revealed that the newspaper was involved in widespread phone hacking of royal, public and celebrity figures, of the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and of the families of teenage girls who had been raped and murdered.

Against this history, in hindsight, who truly was the more moral but Saint Oscar?

Dr Jörg Rademacher, in as forensically a manner as Carson indicted Wilde, liberates Wilde from the censuring  and self-censorship Wilde himself, for motives of self-protection, futilely wrought on his novel in the various stages of production. Rademacher, as he explains, distills the variant texts to produce a new edition of the old but original Dorian, a reconstruction of the uncensored wording of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

It presents us with a unique insight into the parturition of a work, the struggle that takes place between true, unencumbered, artistic freedom and powerful social forces which compromise such work – for better or worse, but rarely for better.

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