I told Sinead O’Connor this story in 1997 in London–and she teared up. I had written it in 1992 in H-3, Long Kesh, for An Phoblacht/Republican News. The next day she gave me a miniature Madonna and Child statuette.
We had an Irish juke-box in Crumlin Road Jail. He was twenty-four-years-of-age, came from Ballymurphy, and was called Brendan Short. But everyone—including city-centre shopkeepers and court clerks at the petty sessions—knew him as Shorty.
He was so slightly built that there was almost nothing to him. He had unkempt black hair, was hollow-cheeked and had pleading eyes which gave him the worried aspect of the hounded. He didn’t say much but, Lord, he could turn stale air into the sweetest music and would pour his whole soul into whatever he was performing.
I heard him before I met him. I had been shifted in a routine move from A-Wing, where two loyalists had attacked Gerry Adams’ brother, Seany, with a knife, in fresh skirmishes over the long-running demand for segregation. When you were called for a visit or to see the governor the warders on the ground floor (the ones) would shout your name up to the next landing (the twos) or the next (the threes) and you would be unlocked. It could be a dangerous journey down if the loyalists were out on the landing getting tea from the boilers. You could get scalded very easily—or stabbed. When I heard, ‘Threes! Send down Morrison for the doctor!’ I imagined a hundred loyalists declare, ‘Oom, time for a cuppa.’
I was transferred to a cell on the twos of C-Wing. My new cell mate was Roy ‘Finn’ McCool from Derry. That night the first tufts of winter snow came flurrying into the dismal exercise yard, making it glow brightly.
‘Danny Morrison? Are you over in C-Wing now? Danny Morrison?’
The friendly voice came from a cell in the block opposite ours—B-Wing, where non-political remand prisoners were held, though at first I thought it was a loyalist on C-Wing trying to lure me out with a response so that they could once again tell me how hilarious was my arrest.
‘Danny! This one’s for you:
‘“Snow is falling, bap, bap, bap
All around, bap, bap, bap…”’
And that was Shorty singing Merry Christmas Everyone even better than Shakin’ Stevens. The next song he sang, ‘for all youse over there in for the ‘RA’ (Shorty was awaiting trial for ‘taking possession’ of some toys) was Four Green Fields, which seemed to now have a hundred verses. For his voice to carry he had to crouch in the sloping cavity in the recess of his window, a very uncomfortable position to maintain, especially in freezing weather. But neither the cold nor the threats from loyalists could make him shut up and he regaled us with an endless stream of songs.
Shorty had a mate—a countryman it seemed from his accent—who was a few cells away on the same landing. Like the political prisoners ordinary remands were also locked up most of the day and Shorty’s mate spent long spells gazing out the window.
‘Shorty, get up to your window.’
‘I’m up, I’m up…’
‘Shorty, see the clouds. Would you say it was gonna rain?’
‘Is that what you got me out of bed for!’
‘Okay, Shorty, I’ll speak to you later.’
‘Shorty? Shorty! Get up to your window.’
‘I’m up, I’m up…’
‘Shorty! Get up to your window!’
‘I’m up at the fuckin’ window!’
‘Do you see the rainbow?’
‘The rainbow… What do you think is at the end of it?’
‘I dunno… Judy Garland, maybe.’
‘Shorty! Shorty? Get up to your window.’
‘What’s happenin’! What’s happenin’! I’m up! I’m up!’
‘See the pigeons! See the pigeons in the yard. They’re eating the bread but leaving the heels! See that. I wish I was a pigeon.’
‘No you don’t. A big cat would only come along and eat you.’
On night after midnight Shorty even got up to be shown a distant chimney on fire and was asked if he thought it did any harm to the brickwork. Shorty always got up to the window because of the satisfaction of intercourse (however banal or bizarre the conversation) and because of the importance of contact. Because of friendship. Me? I would have pretended to be asleep half the time.
A few weeks later the singing in B-Wing died, there were no more calls for Shorty to get up to the window. On Easter Monday Rinty McVeigh’s co-accused, John Norney, said his dinner was crap (all the dinners were crap), lifted a snooker ball and put it through the TV. We all joined in and spent the next two hours systematically destroying the canteen but called a truce when we saw the riot squad. The following week we were all shifted to A-Wing. And it was in A-Wing one lunchtime a few months later that we heard that familiar voice:
‘It’s been seven hours and fifteen days
Since you took your love away.
I go out every night and sleep all day
Since you took your love away…
Shorty was back!
This time he had got sentenced to nine months for stealing six pairs of jeans in Ballynahinch or somewhere down there. I’m sure he paid dearly before the judge for his Ballymurphy address. And this was the first time that I met him. He was now an orderly and he boxed us off with bed sheets that weren’t torn or stained and towels that didn’t resemble tissues. Serving breakfast, he would wink at you from behind the grill in the dining hall and surreptitiously give out two Weetabix instead of the regulation one. The warder would watch him like a hawk and couldn’t understand at the end why the Weetabix numbers didn’t tally.
Shorty said to me a few weeks before his release date, ‘I want to join Sinn Fein when I get out. Do you think they would have me?’ He thought he saw me hesitate but if I had it was because I felt proud that he had decided to find a useful role within his beleaguered community, our brilliant big family, and not on the fringes wearying it. He quickly added, dead seriously, ‘I’ll not be hooding anymore. I’ll not be back in jail, you’ll see.’ And I told him I was proud of him. But I also felt humbled by his humility and self-reproach because the term ‘hood’ is so derogatory and belittling. I told him there would be no problem, he would be most welcome.
When Shorty was washing the dishes he would again be singing and this would spark off our own concert. Over the Tannoy would come for the fourth or fifth time the exasperated voice of a warder shouting, ‘Lock up! A-Wing dining hall, lock up now!’ But we would be into only the first verse of croaking Unchained Melody and weren’t ready to pull the sinks off the wall until the very end. Men in prison are mad.
The day before Shorty was released he sang for us at lunchtime a sentimental
republican song called The Sniper’s Promise, the chorus of which goes:
Oh Mama, Mama, Mama, comfort me,
For I know these awful things have got to be.
But when the war of freedom has been won,
I promise you I’ll put away my gun.
Maudlin, yes. But so what. That day we all felt as if we had sprung from the same womb.
We called Shorty out from behind the grill and surprised him with a republican scroll which one of our artists had drawn and which all the IRA prisoners had autographed. I presented it to him as a token of our appreciation, we posed together as somebody let on to take a photograph and there were calls of ‘Speech! Speech!’ But he was overcome, choking with emotion, shook his head and said, ‘I’ll never forget the men behind the wire.’ So we cheered for ourselves and called for another song. It was called, I think, Two Sweethearts and the words went something along the lines of, ‘One is my mother, God Bless her, I love her. And the other is my Sweetheart…’
He rendered us speechless.
He met his death just a few weeks after being released, his badly-beaten body lying all night in freezing-cold weather behind shops on the outskirts of West Belfast. Whether he had been killed elsewhere before being dumped there isn’t clear. His killer or killers—acquaintances or strangers–have remained tight-lipped and were never caught up with. Some say they were glue-sniffers or maybe drunks.
Perhaps they didn’t even remember their killing of a harmless being who gave others so much joy and pleasure.