Opera! Sinn Féin is holding this year’s Ard Fheis in Wexford Opera House. I loved ard fheiseanna, from many decades ago when Tom Hartley and I, recently released on bail, came down and made our nervous, first speeches in the mouldy old Dublin Mansion House. Thereafter, each year, we had a little bit more to say, as our voices gained confidence and our opinions expressed our convictions. Tom was eighty four, having been with Brian Boru, Tone, Emmett, Pearse, Proinsias Mac Airt. And I was sixteen, or thereabouts.
There are some ard fheiseanna which stick out. Hartley and I, and a few others, opposing federalism to the detriment of Ruairi and Dave.
My ‘armalite and ballot’ speech in November 1981 – because I was overwhelmed by that year of ’81, that unforgettable, momentous, calamitous, cathartic, historic and heroic and courageous hunger strike, and what I had witnessed, twice, from the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, whose votes might, likely, have changed Irish history.
And then, the debate on Leinster House abstentionism in 1986 (and look at how incontrovertibly right that decision was).
At ard fheiseanna, you witnessed the dynamic and metamorphisis of your political struggle – the voices, veteran supporters, young greyhounds bursting out of the trap, the most humble of AP/RN sellers, An Cumann Cabhrac and Green Cross fund-raisers, foreign delegates, the north American contingent, the international representatives, those from Britain who suffered and honoured and defended Irish republicanism in the den of the lion; all in a crucible, under one roof; arguing and debating; discovering friends and comrades and allies from the unlikeliest of quarters! What a gathering!
And now in Wexford Opera House!
And this, of course, is my pretext for being a prima donna and talking about one of the most beautiful opera songs ever, which I set to a text about a Derry comrade and one of our nights in Crumlin Road Jail over twenty years ago – ‘The Pearl Fisher’s Duet’! Here it is:
One night in the Crum’, while I was preoccupied and having no success with working out how we get from here to a united Ireland, and Roy, my cell mate, was sitting at his table in his stocking feet, writing to his beloved wife, Donna, I suddenly leaped up on my mattress.
“Roy! Roy! There are two huge rats just after running behind your locker! And whilst I’m up here, please explain why the legs of your bed are steeping in milk cartons which you top up every day?”
“I saw them, Dan,” he said nonchalantly, as his socks set fire to his shoes so speedily did his feet take up residence. “However, they are not rats. They’re premature baby cockroaches,” he explained, now that we were at the same altitude. “The adults can eat rubber, plastics and concrete…”
“They can even eat prison food. They can climb walls a hundred feet high – how do you think they got up this far? But they were never taught to swim,” he smiled, pointing down to the little moats of water which protected his bed.
“But surely they can fly?” I asked.
“Not when Candy Devine’s on the radio, Dan. They usually avoid your cell like the plague. Believe me.”
Roy is from Derry and was 24-years-old when he was arrested in October 1989, just three months before I joined him here in C-Wing. He was charged with possessing mortars, one of which exploded in its tube as it was being defused, seriously injuring a British army bomb disposal officer.
We took to each other like brothers and were to spend the next thirteen months, almost twenty-three hours a day, together. Not once did we argue. Well, just once, when he wouldn’t give me back my Queen and ignore my last move, on the principle, he said, that you can’t turn back time.
“But it’s my birthday!” I pleaded. “Please? Pretty please? I promise never to tell anybody that on your stag night you drank fifteen Southern Comforts, were stripped naked and tied to the bonnet of a taxi and driven three times around the Guildhall singing, ‘I’m getting married in the morning/Ding dong, the bells are gonna chime’? Or that you don’t like heading the ball because you are afraid it will make your fringe recede?”
But he was unrelenting.
My bed sat below the window, a large hinged frame of opaque plastic on the inside, several rows of bars on the outside. Against my better judgement I would allow the window to be opened for Roy’s plan.
“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “If the Press or the Movement ever gets to hear about this we’ll simply deny it.”
Then, completely undignified, I would climb up to the window and repeatedly put out my tongue at the loyalists in the exercise yard below who responded by throwing tomatoes which Roy would then collect for sandwiches.
My Derry comrade has a sweet teeth and each night he ate for his supper three Cadbury’s creme eggs, a Mars selection box, followed by six packets of cheese and onion potato crisps, washed down by a pint of diluted orange juice. Then he would lie on top of his bed and moan, “Dan… I’m not feeling too well.”
“Comrade, you are not eating the right food!”
So he would then have the three or four bars of Twix that he had been keeping for his breakfast in the event of us being served porridge yet again.
He would go to sleep early – before ‘lights out’ at 11 pm – and always insisted that the radio being kept on didn’t annoy him.
But still I felt guilty. So, in order to keep him awake I invented a mouse. It worked by thread which ran from my bed to a weighted crisp bag trapped below his locker. When I tugged on the thread the bag would make a scratching sound. Sometimes I had to cough raspingly to drag Roy away from Donna’s arms in slumberland, then he would roll over and become alert.
“Did you hear that, Dan! Did you hear that?”
“Hear what, Roy? I didn’t hear a thing. I was in another world, busily praying for the conversion of the Protestant people. Or the Catholic people. Or those atheists across the water. Which ever will get us out of here the quickest.”
Scratch, scratch. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
“There it is again. I think we have a mouse.”
“‘Miaowwww, miaowwww’,” went Roy the Brave.
“Squeak, squeak.” Scratch, scratch. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
“Miaowwww, miaowwww…That’s not you squeaking, Dan, is it?”
“No. It’s coming from under your bed or locker. Squeak, squeak.”
“There it is again. We’ve definitely a mouse. ‘Miaowwww, miaowwww…’”
“Are you 100% sure, Roy? Because mice can do the breast stroke?”
“That’s it! I’m wide awake, Dan. Do you want to put the radio on?”
“Yeah. Why not. I know a station that’ll help lullaby you to sleep.”
I tuned to Val Joyce on Late Date on RTE1, a presenter who, I promised Roy, was forever playing songs by Derry’s Phil Coulter, Dana and Fergal Sharkey, and interviewing people from the Creggan. But not even this prospect could make Roy feel at home or make him stop brooding over the loss of his Datsun Bluebird car, photographs of which adorned the picture board on our cell wall.
Below my blankets I was rubbing my hands with glee and tee-heeing as on the radio the conflicting tenor and bass melted into pure harmony in a performance of Bizet’s ‘The Pearl Fishers Duet’.
“What the hell’s that?” asked Roy.
“Oh, it’s a song in French about the United Irishmen. That’s Napoleon now, singing to Wolfe Tone about an arms shipment.”
“Huh. Sounds like two fishermen making up after having squabbled over a woman,” he said.
I looked over towards his bed, and through the gloaming I’m sure I saw him wink at me.
On such nights we would talk into the early hours about what we would be doing if we were still free, about good memories. About what would have happened in the games had my Queen not been taken. About life and love, peace and happiness. About plans for the future, when the sun will rise again.
I was listening to Radio Ulster last Monday lunchtime when I heard on the news that my good friend was sentenced to 20 years.