“It wasn’t such an earth-shattering experience as I though it might be the day I was
banged up for eighteen months. The judge who sentenced me gave me a stern lecture on the abuse of trust and the sanctity of other peoples’ property, and then said the public had a right to protection from people like me. I thought the ould fucker was going to give me five years, so the eighteen months came as a bit of relief. He also said I should be deported at the end of my sentence, which upset me more than the deprivation of my freedom. The bird I could do standing on my head, but…I had been slung out of a few places in my time, but never a country.
The two months I had spent on remand in Brixton had been easy-going, but Wandsworth was something else. Dark and foreboding, it was a Dickensian shambles of a place. ‘Get those clothes off…get cleaned up…’ the reception screw shouted as we filed past him, filtering us through a disinfecting process that was similar to sheep dipping. Some of the dirtier inmates were poked and prodded with long-handled loofahs as they shuffled along the line.
Afterwards, I was paraded in front of the prison doctor, who felt my pecker before passing me fit for general duties. All my wordly possessions – one Timex watch and ten shillings and sixpence- were then sealed in a grubby brown envelope and my name and number written across it, and I was issued with my prison kit. A couple of John Players – which I had concealed in my hair – slipped to the reception con, ensured that the clothes fit me. It was only when the heavy steel door to my cell slammed shut that it hit home I wouldn’t be seeing daylight for some time to come.
Prison mornings are not for the faint -hearted. Doors kicked and slammed open, steel landings echoing to the ring of hob-nailed boots, yells from every direction: ‘Right you lot, slop out! The wing I was billeted on had four landings, each with its own recess for getting rid of the shit and piss accumulated during the night. The stench was unbearable. It lingered for hours – long after the cleaning crews had done their bit. I thanked God I was on the topmost landing; the contents of some of the pots never made it to the sinks, but were tipped over the railings into the void below.
No inmate was allowed to keep a razor blade in his cell. Each morning the landing screw issued a blade from the folder he carried with him. If you were lucky, it might be the one you used the previous day.
The cell housed a steel bunk bed along one wall and a single frame bed along the other. You weren’t allowed to lie on the bunk bed during the day, and the single bed had to be dismantled and stood against the cell wall each morning. The bed linen had to be folded in a certain way, and if the screw didn’t like your handiwork, he tipped it on to the floor and made you re-do it. There were three small lockers, three chairs and a single table.
Each prisoner was allocated one pot, one plastic jug, one mug, plastic cutlery, one razor, one pair of boots, one pair of slippers, two pairs of socks, two vests, two shirts, one jacket, one tie, one soap dish, one toothbrush, and a copy of the prison rules.
Outside each cell was fixed a small card rack containing information on its occupants. Name, prison number, work category, religion and length of sentence. It soon became apparent to me why the place was such a shit hole: It was inhabited mostly by dossers, tramps and petty thieves, all short -term occupants, who, when released, did their best to get back inside again.
I soon discovered that tobacco was the currency the prison ran on. All those little extras that made life bearable – that extra pair of socks, the jacket that fitted, yesterday’s newspaper, a not-so-used copy of Playboy – they all had their price. Every Friday the money you earned could be spent in the prison shop, and items such as tobacco, soap and toothpaste could be purchased. You could buy up to a half ounce of tobacco, and this was the first item you purchased – whether you smoked or not. You could then sell it or trade it for something else, gamble with it or, if you were hard enough, become a tobacco baron. I usually bought soap or toothpaste with what was left over, the prison soap being vile and the toothpaste only fit for scouring your pisspot.
In due course, I was allocated work in the mailbag shop; a long, narrow workshop where the seating arrangements resembled those in a school. One screw prowled the centre aisle, whilst another sat on a platform overseeing everything. We weren’t allowed to smoke during work, and the mobile screw’s main function appeared to be to shout ‘one off, Mr Beasley’ to his seated companion each time one of us requested permission to go to the bog. We weren’t supposed to smoke in there either, but they didn’t seem too bothered about it. I thought it hilarious that they had to address each other as ‘mister’.
My companion during working hours was Derek, and it was only natural that we should talk. Or to be more accurate, Derek did. Non-stop. About trucks. Big trucks. Enormous bloody trucks. Fucking boring trucks. He expected the rest of the world to have an orgasm when he talked about his Scannia. At first I thought Scannia was his wife. After a while I perfected a nodding technique, which allowed me to concentrate on more important matters. Like how much time I had left to do: two months on remand…a third off for good behaviour…that still left another ten months. I couldn’t take ten months of Derek and his jabber. Then I read on the notice board of a welding course in a nick up the country, so I put my name down for it. A few weeks later I learnt that my application was successful.
HMP Mousehold was classed as semi-open. The main block didn’t look much different than Wandsworth; a big, rambling, decaying construction, but there was another section known as The Huts. These were Nissan huts, each holding twenty in a dormitory environment. Each was self-sufficient, the occupants being responsible for cleaning and maintaining it. We fetched our grub from the main hall, and apart from roll-call each morning and evening, were left mainly to our own devices.
Our hut was reserved for those on the welding course. Strangeways, Barlinni, Camp Hill, they were all represented. Most were English; there was a sprinkling of Taffys and Jocks, and myself the only Irishman. There were no Blacks, which surprised me considering the numbers I had seen in Brixton and Wandsworth.
I was known as Paddy despite my repeated attempts to furnish my real name. In the end I gave up. The best response to a taunt of ‘what’s a thick Mick like you doing on a welding course?’ was to shout back ‘the same as you, you scabby Limey cunt’.
Jet Lag was one of the characters on the course. A recidivist of more than twenty years standing, his presence was the result of a prank. He had applied for a gardening course, but not being able to read and write too well, had asked somebody else to fill in the form for him. ‘Jesus Paddy’, he said to me one day, ‘what do I want to learn welding for?’ The authorities didn’t care one way or the other; a welding course he had put down for, a welding course he would do.
Lefty, whose bunk was next to mine, was doing two years for hijacking a lorry-load of shoes. Unfortunately for him, the consignment consisted entirely of left shoes, something that caused much amusement amongst the rest of us.
‘Is there a big one-legged population in Bethnal Green then, Lefty?’ ‘Found yourself a niche in the market, Lefty? ‘ ‘The Old Bill reckoned you didn’t have a leg to stand on’…
For my own part, I found myself up before the Governer within days of my arrival. My appeal against my deportation had been turned down. I had hoped that common sense might prevail; I mean, what was the point of teaching me a trade then chucking me out? But bureaucracy knows no logic.
‘However’, the Governer waffled on, ‘it’s no concern of this establishment that an expulsion order has been served on you. Our job is to see that you complete your sentence here. You will then be released in the normal manner. What happens after that is up to the appropriate authorities…’
Fuck me, I thought… would it be too much to hope that the matter might slip their minds altogether?
Life in the dormitories was a million miles from prison life in many ways. The dreaded slopping-out routine for one thing, the constant banging of doors, the turn of a key in the lock. In certain respects it was like being in the army – if you kept the rules the screws never bothered you much.
Yet when the lights went out at night, and you lay there looking out at the lit-up walls with their coils of razor wire on top, you were forced to admit that your dreams of freedom were just an illusion. I would watch the twinkling stars overhead, see the glare from the city of Norwich hanging like a shroud above the wire, and imagine the hordes of people out there. All drinking, fighting, making love, living life unfettered. And I felt a lump in my throat.
Then I pictured Tessa lying in Larry’s arms, could almost smell the betrayal, and somehow it didn’t seem too bad where I was. I killed them all in my fantasies. A thousand times over. Tessa I saved the worst fate for; she had made a fool of me and that was hard to forget. Sometimes I thought of Fergus, deep in the cold and lonely soil, his eyes open and reproachful.
I hardly thought of my parents at all; didn’t know if they knew where I was, didn’t really care. I received no letters, I wrote none. I retreated into a world of imagination. In reality, I was lying on my bunk staring at something on the ceiling, but in my mind I was lying on the beach in San Tropez, or trekking across the Arizona desert. Years later, when I read Pappillon, I was able to understand how its author, Henri Charriere, managed to survive the French penal colonies. He wasn’t really spending his years in a rat-infested dungeon that got flooded at every high tide; he was out walking the world of his imagination.
When I wasn’t in foreign lands, I was learning to weld. I had no desire to pursue it as a trade – it was just something to pass the time – but our tutor had other ideas. Day after day, week after week, he kept us at it, so that by the end of the course even Jet Lag could fuse two bits of metal together.
At the end of the course I was assigned to one of the tradesmen screws.
‘Done a plumbing?’ He asked me the first morning.
I shook my head. We had been assigned to the screw quarters outside the gate, and I was busy re-discovering that long-legged women in short skirts were real, not just images I had wanked myself silly over for the past ten months.
‘Well, never mind. Once you’ve done one it will be a piece of cake…’
It was too. I discovered that all we were doing was renewing the taps on the sinks and baths in each flat, something that took very little time and effort. Not that we seemed to be in any great hurry.
‘Don’t get carried away, lad. This has to last us at least a month…’
There was no better man for making easy work look hard. Hadn’t I years of practice…
The arrangement was that I would do upstairs and he downstairs, so I was left more or less to my own devices. I began to take books with me to put down the time. If I wasn’t going to work myself to death, I might as well learn something. It was better than wanking myself to death I concluded, thinking of all the starched hankies under my pillow.
I was alternating between reading Borstal Boy and The Ginger Man when it suddenly clicked what had been niggling me. Barney Berry, one of the characters in Donleavy’s book was none other than Behan himself!. I speculated on whether they had known each other; Behan rolling in and out of places such as McDaids or Mary The Whore’s, Donleavy following along making notes…
Or maybe he was rolling too… Sebastian Dangerfield…. now who was he based on…
You had to hand it to Behan. All his life he had been a drunkard, a layabout and a loudmouth – but he could write. And he had the gift of the gab.
Reporter: ‘What do you think of Canada, Mr Behan?’
‘Ah, ‘twill be grand when it’s finished’.
‘And what do you think of the Irish?’
‘Ah sure, God love them, if ‘twas raining soup they’d be out with knifes and forks’.
Maybe I liked him because he was working class. A house painter that had seen the gutter, had lain in the gutter, and hadn’t been afraid to write about it. His description of the Dublin slums was something I could relate to. I had seen poverty too, albeit in a rural environment. But when it came down to it, there wasn’t much difference between stealing turnips from a market barrow or a farmer’s field. His book about his time in Borstal was riveting
Between the bouts of working and reading there was plenty of fags and coffee to be had. I got the impression that some of the women liked having me around the house. It was just that little bit…risky. Maybe it turned them on; there were sometimes glimpses of thighs and stocking-tops, or a blouse undone a button more than was necessary. Lets face it, most of their husbands were miserable bastards, and they were stuck in this hole just as much as any of us prisoners – with little hope of remission.
I was trying to crack the seal on a stubborn pipe beneath the washbasin one morning when I noticed her standing there. The woman of the house, looking down at me. She had a cup of coffee in one had, the other was resting on her hip.
‘Do you know how to use that King Dick?’ she suddenly asked.
The monkey wrench fell from my grasp and I could only nod.
She knelt down beside me and placed a hand on my thigh.
‘That’s alright then. Only my husband hasn’t got a clue about…things like that’.
She knew about King Dicks alright. Before I could say a word she had unzipped me and was squatting over me, her hands gripping the edge of the basin to give her leverage. It didn’t take too long. The next morning – and most subsequent ones – I returned to the flat for what we now called my ‘elevenses’. The screw, I learned, was also occupied. She told me he was conducting affairs with several of the women. I never found out who though, because he never talked about it. It was as if our sessions with the women never took place; he showed me the flats we were to work on each morning and that was it.
I sometimes thought of him as screw that did a bit of plumbing, but mostly it was as a plumber who did a bit of screwing. I could see now why he wanted to drag the job out. Afterwards, I wondered why the wives indulged in this little game of theirs. I didn’t flatter myself that I was the only one singled out; there were other gangs – carpenters and painters – and I was sure they got similar privileges. It had to be because of boredom; it was a dreary fucking hole if you didn’t have to be there; ‘having it off’ with a prisoner was their way of bringing a bit of excitement into a drab existence.
Christmas, normally one of the loneliest times in prison, didn’t bother me at all. Most of my Christmas’s since leaving home had been shitty anyway. Seeing all that happiness on the faces of others made me want to puke. There was a festive air about the prison; the screws even locked you up with a smile. It amused me to see slices of turkey, Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes and plum pudding all heaped together on one steel tray. But not so much as to make me want to ape Jet Lag, who alternated a forkful of meat and gravy with one of pudding. There was even some hooch, brewed from ingredients spirited out of the kitchen. A small glass of it immobilised Lefty and had him howling like a dog on the floor. After that we diluted it.
I even got religion for the day, attending Mass. Religion was optional here. Not like Wandsworth – where I tried to have atheist written on my cell card. ‘You have to have a religion’, the landing screw had insisted, so I put down Jehovah Witness. This meant I was effectively excused religious duties, there being no service for this particular sect. Instead, I took a perverse satisfaction at watching Songs Of Praise on Sunday nights, following the camera as it panned over the unsuspecting audience. I would select the most angelic face I could find and invest it with the vilest characteristics I could dream up.
The highlight of Christmas day was the concert, put on by a bunch of local do-gooders. It was beyond me that people were willing to give up their boozing and celebrating to come and entertain us.
‘They must be facking mad’, said Lefty, who, like most of us, had put in an appearance only in the hope of seeing a bit of tit or leg on display.
Soon it was New Year and before I knew it I was on my last week. I hadn’t really thought much about freedom before, but now that it was staring me in the face I became apprehensive. What would I do? Where would I go? I felt no different about life then when I came in, so what had it taught me? I was wiser perhaps, but I felt no better for the experience.
Was I a hardened criminal? I doubted it. Hardened criminals were a bit of a myth in Mousehold as far as I could see. The system weeded out the real hard cases and sent them to where they could act like James Cagney. Most of the cons I was acquainted with were like myself – lonely and mixed up. They missed their wives, their girlfriends, and their families. Some got ‘Dear- John’ letters and cracked up. Sometimes they didn’t get them and still cracked up. And sometimes the screws didn’t wait for them to crack up, but banged them up in chokey before giving them the letter. Some were like Jet Lag; pathetic no-hopers who couldn’t make up their minds where the real world lay – inside or outside. Me? I had no doubts. I wasn’t planning to come back.
The afternoon before my release I said goodbye to all my friends. I was then taken to reception to return all my prison belongings. In return, I received my Timex watch, ten shillings and sixpence, a travel warrant and my own clothes. To be fair to the prison, they had cleaned and pressed my dark suit and cream shirt, so that I was leaving cleaner than when I arrived. I felt nearly human again as I was taken to the holding area to await my freedom next morning.
At seven am the gates clanged shut behind the group of us that been freed. Loved ones, friends who had been holding a dawn vigil, surged forward to kiss and hug us. Two burly coppers greeted me. They didn’t hug or kiss me, but re-arrested me and told me I was being escorted to Heathrow for deportation.
It had never occurred to me before, but I realised I was afraid of flying. I had never seen the inside of a plane before; all I knew was that passengers climbed steep steps, disappeared inside those enormous bellies, and that was it. For all I knew they could be eaten alive once inside.
Well It was too fucking late now, I was flying whether I liked it or not.
My two companions seated either side of me in this greasy spoon, were there to ensure that I did. Deported, slung out on my ear, the ignominy of it. I had done my time, paid my debt to society, why couldn’t they leave it at that? What had I ever done to England to deserve the big boot in the arse? And why couldn’t it be by boat? It was good enough for Brendan Behan.
‘D’you want a sandwich Paddy?’ one of the coppers asked me. His heavy blue tweed overcoat contrasted sharply with my own lightweight suit. I could see the fields through the window, grey with frost. Jesus, my knackers were about to drop off.
‘What county are we in?’ I asked, washing down the greasy bacon with sweet tea.
‘Bedfordshire’, came the reply.
I looked around. Flat, barren land as far as the eye could see.
‘It must be the arsehole of England then’. I laughed at their proximity to me. Any nearer and they’d both be sitting on my lap. ‘Afraid I might make a run for it? Where would I hide? Under a stone?’
They both laughed, then the older one took out a packet of Embassy and offered them round.
‘Only doin’ our job Pat. We have to make sure you get on that plane. We don’t want no slip-ups, see?’
I took several deep drags. There hadn’t been many of them in the past year.
‘What age are you, Paddy?’ It was the younger ones turn now.
‘Got any family?’
‘I had a brother but he’s dead’. Poor Fergus.
‘’I expect your mum and dad’ll be glad to see you’.
I nodded, but inside I knew it wasn’t true. I hadn’t spoken to my old man for more than five years. And my mum, well…since Fergus died I had no idea how she might be feeling towards me.
‘What devilish crime did you commit? It must be something big to get you chucked out…’
I shrugged. ‘I robbed a few pubs is all’ A few thousand quid I could do with right now.
He shook his head. Couldn’t understand it, he said.
‘Still, you must have it stashed away, eh?’
I laughed. ‘I gave it all to William Hill’. I had too. Every fucking penny.
‘Gambling? So that’s what got you into this mess?’
I nodded. ‘Fast women and slow horses’. It was mostly the latter though. The only fast woman around was Tessa…
The older one stubbed his butt on his saucer. ‘Here’s some free advice, lad. Keep your money in your pocket. Only one lot get rich from gambling – and it’s not mugs like you. My uncle gambled everything he owned – and quite a lot that he didn’t – and he wound up jumping off the Mersey Bridge….’
I had heard it all before. Same song, different singer. There was a long-playing record of it spinning permanently inside my head. Still, it passed the time till we got to Heathrow. Boarding time soon came round, where the sight of my expulsion order soon wiped the welcome off the stewardess’s face.
‘Don’t come back Pat’, said the one whose uncle had jumped.
‘No fucking way’, I replied.” “
After about a year of chopping down trees I got a job as a welder in the new chemical plant that was being built on Aughinish Island on the Shannon Estuary. As you know, I learned the trade of welding whilst in prison. Not with any great desire to pursue it as a career I have to say, merely to get myself out of the shithole that was Wandsworth prison.
If the course had been on how to milk giraffes I would still have applied for it just to get away! And here they were in Limerick crying out for welders for this construction job. They wanted hundreds of them and they weren’t to be had for love or money in Ireland. They were coming in from England, Scotland and Wales, even as far afield as France and Germany. They were also training people up in a welding school set up along the dock road in the city so desperate was the need. All in all, there were several hundred welders needed. This, along with all the other trades and labourers made it one of the biggest construction sites in Europe at the time. Would you believe that at its peak there were more than six thousand workers on site? We were practically falling over each other!
It was a far cry from my first few months there, when every week brought a new strike or walk-out. I suppose it was understandable in a way. It was a very large operation, and there were various unions representing different trades, all fighting their own corner. I believe there were no fewer than thirteen different unions at one stage; The Boilermakers, the EPTU, the TGWU, The Electricians Union are a few that come to mind, and they were all determined to get the best deal for their members.
Each union had it’s own shop steward representing them. I represented the Boilermakers, and when a shop steward committee was formed I was elected chairman of this committee, and of course was in the firing line and getting it in the neck from all sides.
It became a free-for-all; in the end the management shut down the site and locked us all out for nine weeks.
By now it was national news; massive newspaper and media coverage, with allegations of ‘reds under the beds’ and various communist plots, with yours truly being one of the alleged ringleaders. I took it all in my stride until I realized I was being manipulated by all sides. Not just the management; my own side weren’t averse to loading the gun and expecting me to fire the bullets.
After nine weeks we were selectively re-employed – I think they hoped to weed out the troublemakers in this way, although if that was the case then I slipped through the net!
Anyway, the new bonus scheme gave us a chance to earn some real money- if we were prepared to work for it. Some weren’t, but I was, and as a result I was eventually offered a job as a welding supervisor.
This was the period of the H-Blocks and the blanket protests in Northern Ireland and being a very strong Nationalist region there was a lot of anti British sentiment about. One English crane driver didn’t take it seriously enough and flew a Union Jack above his cab. He was asked to take it down but wouldn’t, and five minutes later was on his way to hospital with a broken jaw. He was flown straight back to England as soon as his jaw was wired up.
Every morning for months and months the approach to the site entrance was lined with ‘blanket protesters’ making their own personal protest about the vile H-blocks.
I was never particularly pro Sinn Fein or the IRA, but the prison protest was a legitimate one, if only because of the decision taken by the British Government to deem the conflict a criminal conspiracy and to deny that there was any just cause for resistance to British rule and policy in Northern Ireland. It was an insult to all the brave dead Irishmen who had gone before.
The reason the name stuck was because the IRA prisoners refused to wear uniform in protest at being criminalized. All they were given to wear instead was a blanket, and they were confined to their cells with a loss of all privileges such as exercise, newspapers and tobacco.
The protests led ultimately to the hunger strikes.
They came and came their job the same
In relays n’er they stopped.
‘Just sign the line’, they shrieked each time
And beat me till I dropped.
They tortured me quite viciously
They threw me in the air
It got so bad it seemed I had
Been beat beyond repair
This is the opening of a long poem by Bobby Sands, called ‘The Crime Of Castlereagh’ about his time in custody at Castlereagh. It was written less than a year before his death in 1981. I am trying to remember now how I felt on that fateful day when he paid the ultimate price for his hunger strike. I think the dominant emotion was rage; rage that the British Government didn’t take the protest seriously enough. They didn’t believe the hunger strikers would carry it through to the bitter end. Had they learned nothing from history? John Mitchell, Tom Clarke, O’Donovan Rossa all left their stamp on Irish republicanism in much the same manner.
The Aughinish site itself was a money-spinner for the IRA. Every Friday was collection day. At the various canteens throughout the complex the collection buckets went round without fail; Irishman, Englishman, Scotsman, German, it didn’t matter what your nationality was you were still expected to contribute to the bucket. It was blackmail of course, but those in charge turned a convenient blind eye to it. Well, I am sure they didn’t want the possibility of bombs going off on their six hundred million pound investment!
At that time the IRA had various sources of generating income. Robbing the security vans that transported money to and from banks was one of them. These were easy pickings until the government decided to provide them with escorts in the shape of an armed army convoy. Not to be daunted, the IRA turned to robbing the banks themselves. The local one in Askeaton, a few miles from the site, where, on Friday afternoons, those who wished to cash their pay cheques were given time off to do so, became one of their targets. This resulted in all the customers and staff being given a fireworks display before being forced to lie on the floor while they helped themselves to what cash was readily available.
Of course I know that you yourself were caught up in such a raid in the bank in Kilmac during that period, and looking back on it I don’t think you ever fully recovered from the experience. As I recall, you were one of only a couple of witnesses, and you were forced to lie spread-eagled on the floor while they ransacked the tills. I believe you saw the face of one of the robbers. The Guards expected you to give evidence, but at the end of the day you couldn’t bring yourself to go into the witness box. I can’t say I blame you.
I think it was around d this time that you developed the trouble with ‘your nerves’, and every year around the same time you needed to spend some time in hospital for electric shock therapy. The IRA has a lot to answer for. That is why, when I see the likes of Adams and McGuinness trying to justify their early years, my stomach turns. Oh, they don’t totally deny their IRA connections; they just didn’t see –or were involved in– any of the atrocities committed in the name of Republicanism. And there is no justification in them trying to say that the other side was worse. It is hardly the point, is it?
As elected representatives and NI Ministers – I am sure you would laugh if you knew McGuinness was made Minister for Education – I wonder how they can square that with their consciences? Someone once wrote that the past was another country; In their case I think we are talking about another galaxy.
Your loving son
I suppose you were glad when I settled in Limerick in the late 1970’s. It meant that you would see more of us. Well, Karen anyway. Driving seventy miles from Limerick to Waterford was a lot easier than driving three hundred from London to Fishguard before crossing on the ferry to drive another seventy miles from Rosslare to Ballyhussa. I couldn’t have any excuse not to visit you more often now, could I!
Cappamore choose us rather than the other way round. We had been living in cramped conditions at the Hickey farm a few miles away in Croughlahan and someone suggested that if we intended to stay around the house in Cappamore was available at a reasonable rent.
Staying at the farm with Margaret’s brother had only been a temporary arrangement in any case, more of an extended holiday if you like., but the longer we stayed the harder we found it to make the journey back to London.
We had to a certain degree burned our bridges there. Or, in my case, demolished them. The council flat we occupied in Harlesden had been ‘sub-let’ to another family so we had nowhere to return to. We couldn’t in any case because I had practically demolished the roof of the house next door a week before our hurried departure.
This had come about because of the nightmare of having to live next to a group of squatters, most of them drug users, who played loud music at all hours of the day and night. And by loud I mean cups and saucers dancing on the table from the vibration. The police had been round but they were worse than useless, so one night, fortified with drink, I had climbed on to their roof and smashed it in with a shovel that I had found in a nearby skip.
Several of the squatters, one armed with a knife, had tried to get to me on the roof, but I was in no mood to take prisoners so none of them got brave enough. If one had I probably would have killed him or been killed myself. In the end they tried to dislodgeme by pelting me with broken tiles from the relative safety of the pavement beneath me
By the time the police arrived most of their roof was in their back garden or down below in the street, and I made my escape by clambering along the roofs of adjoining houses until I judged I was far enough to be unseen.
We spent the next few nights with Margaret’s sister. I arranged to ‘sell’ the lease on the flat to friends who had a young baby and who were desperate for a place. I returned under the cover of darkness a few times to collect all our personal belongings.
I suppose Cappamore would be comparable to Kilmac both in size and composition. A thriving country town with the usual clutter of shops and services, including a convent, a creamery, a Garda Station and a pub on every corner. For the more discerning shopper Limerick city was less than ten miles away; or if that was too far there was Cappamore’s bigger sister, Doon, a couple of miles away. ‘Miserable Doon’, as some poet once described it. Although I don’t think he ever went as far as John Betjeman, who urged German bombers to rain their missiles down on Slough.
Come friendly bombs and rain on Slough
It’s not fit for humans now
Blow to bits and smithereens
Those air-conditioned bright canteens…
I got work felling trees with Margaret’s two brothers in the hills outside the village of Morroe, a few miles away. This was on Forestry Commission land where large pockets of trees had been flattened by storms the previous winter. The newly opened chipboard factory in Scarrif had purchased the timber, and we were employed to cut it and get it to the roadside where it could be loaded on to lorries for transport to the factory. Most of it lay in a tangled mass on the side of the hills and we were supplied with chainsaws and horses to cut it and haul it to the access points.
This whole region was – and probably still is – poteen-making country. People made poteen here like others made homemade wine and beer, and it wasn’t too long before we discovered a still hidden away in the hills. It was in an old disused forestry workmen’s shed, well off the beaten track and long forgotten by everyone. Except the poteen maker, of course! Inside was all the equipment needed to make the uisce beatha, and a supply of turf to heat the brew. There was even running water, taken from the stream running past a few yards overhead, to cool the copper worm when it got too hot
. A burnt patch of heather on the slope behind the shed puzzled me for a long time. I mentioned it to father one day and he said it was tradition of poteen-makers to give the first part of the distillation to the fairies by pouring it over the heather.
A slab of creamery butter resting on the inside window ledge of the solitary window bothered me for much longer. Nobody knew what its purpose was. It is only recently that I learned that a small knob of butter was placed in the vessel to get the gravity right. Poteen and water were then poured in until the butter floated midway in the liquid.
Enough running water
Too cool the copper worm
The veins at the wrist
Vitriol to scorch the throat…
The above are some word from the poem ‘Poteen’ by Michael Longley.
It didn’t take too long to discover that the poteen maker was Tom Kemp, a local farmer who seemed to spend more time up in the hills than tending to his land. Some in the area suspected he was making it and the Gardai had made several searches in the locality but the hut was to remote for anybody to come across it by accident. We had only stumbled on it because one of our horses had strayed away one night, and our search for him the following morning had brought us upon it. After that we sometimes watched his movements to try to find out where he kept his stock. I bought an old pair of binoculars in a second-hand shop in a Limerick and discovered that he was hiding it in the hayrick in his haybarn. After that it was easy to remove a number of bottles when he was out and about in the hills. Later, we even substituted bottles of water for the poteen so it is fair to assume that he had some dissatisfied customers for a while. A postscript to the story is that a little while later the Gardia did discover a still in Cappamore itself – in an empty house a couple of doors away from the Station itself!
The hills around Morroe, and Keeper Hill behind the nearby village of Rearcross, reminded me that this was Galloping Hogan country, whose story you had told to me many times as a child.
Michael Galloping Hogan, from the village of Doon, at the foot of the Sliebh Phelim hills, was a soldier in Patrick Sarsfield’s army, and was helping in the preparations to defend the city of Limerick from William of Orange’s marauding forces. Twenty five thousand men, fresh from victory at the Battle of the Boyne, were camped on the outskirts of the city, awaiting the arrival of a siege train of heavy artillery from Waterford, which, when it was in position, would level the protecting walls of the city, thus allowing them to capture it. A deserter from the Williamites stole into the city and made Sarsfield aware of the approach of the siege train.
A plan was drawn up in which Sarsfield and a small force would ride out of the city under cover of darkness and ambush the siege train before it got to the Williamite forces. Galloping Hogan, who knew the area intimately, volunteered to lead them through the surrounding hills. Under his guidance they climbed over the Silvermine Mountains and down the west side of Keeper Hill and made their way through Knockfine and into Rearcross, before lying low in the vicinity of Glengar. From here you could see right across the Mulcair Valley as far as the Galtee Mountains. A couple of days later they spotted the siege train coming through the pass. They were able to follow its progress as it snaked through the low lying countryside between the hills. Nearing dark, it rested for the night near Ballyneety castle, some ten miles from the city.
As soon as it was quiet Sarsfield and his men stole down from the hills, meeting an old woman who had been selling apples to the Williamite soldiers and who had learned the password. It was Sarsfields own name!
They approached the camp and challenged the sentries, Sarsfield shouting; ‘ Sarsfield is the word and Sarsfield is the man’. They overwhelmed the sleeping camp; standing in their stirrups, charging left and right, cutting down any body that got it their way. They then gathered all the heavy artillery, guns and ammunition together and blew the lot to smithereens, leaving a crater so large that it is still visible today.
Thus the first siege of limerick was lifted. But the war continued until the Treaty of Limerick was signed in 1691. However, Galloping Hogan refused to accept the treaty and left Ireland with the last contingent of ‘Wild Geese’ to sail from Cork a few months later. He ended his career in exile, fighting as a senior officer in the Portuguese army. Patrick Sarsfield, too, was forced to flee, and was killed in action fighting for the French at the battle of Landen in 1693.
I didn’t know then, mother, what attracted you to military men. Men like Galloping Hogan and Patrick Sarsfield, and the countless others who went to fight in a foreign land and never returned. Now that I know your own father was a soldier, I think I understand a little better.
You only ever visited Limerick city a couple of times to my knowledge. What did you think of it? I expect you found it a lot more rough and ready than sedate Waterford. I don’t know if it was called ‘stab city’ back in those days, but I expect it was. I do recall your surprise one Sunday morning as we drove through Southill, on the outskirts of the city, and were confronted by horse-and-jarvey racing on the main road. This was all part of the entertainment the travelers, who had made much of Southill their own at that time, had dreamed up to keep themselves amused. Horse-and-jarvey racing wasn’t the surprise; merely the fact that they were using the main Waterford/Limerick road as the racetrack. Doing things differently was nothing new for the traveling community. Their animals occupied most of the council houses that they had been allocated in the area while they themselves lived in caravans parked in the driveways. Not that this was any comedown as most of the caravans were big, shiny and brash, a lot more impressive-looking than the houses.
The tinkers you called them – and I suppose you were right. No matter what labels people stuck on them they were still the tinkers. Sundays were the only times they had the jarvey-racing, but there was still plenty of excitement on other days as they rode their horses and ponies bareback around the roads, giving the whole area a Wild West feel.
I always felt the weight of Limerick’s historic past bearing down on me whenever I wandered through the older parts of the town. Particularly Thomondgate, where some of the old walls that gave shelter to Patrick Sarsfield and many others still stand, and the old bridge across the Shannon, where the horses carrying John Scanlon, the murderer of the Colleen Bawn, stopped and refused to go any further. It is said that Scanlon then marched across the bridge himself to his execution at Gallows Green.
I am sure you recall the story of the Colleen Bawn. I still have the book you gave me all those years ago about the tragic events and I am now trying to write a stage play about it. Dion Boucicault wrote a fictional version of it many years ago, but mine will be based on the true happenings. The following is a brief account of the facts;
In the autumn of 1819 the people of Limerick – indeed the whole country – were profoundly shocked by the discovery of the brutal murder of a young peasant girl, Ellie Hanley.
The victim, not quite sixteen years of age, was of outstanding beauty. In addition, she was of a bright and friendly disposition, which endeared her to all who knew her in the tight knit community of Ballycahane, near the village of Croom in county Limerick.
On June 29, 1819 she disappeared from the house of her uncle, John Connery, by whom she had been reared after the death of her mother when she was six years old. From the time of her disappearance nothing was heard of her until September 6th when her body was washed ashore at Moneypoint on the Clare side of the river Shannon, bearing unmistakable evidence that she had been murdered.
This appalling crime created feelings of horror and pity among all classes. Eventually, two arrests were made; the first a man in his twenties, John Scanlon, son of one of the leading families in the county, and until recently a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. The second arrest, months later, was of Scanlon’s boatman and general servant, Stephan Sullivan.
Both men were brought to trial and charged with her murder, but at different times, as Sullivan had gone on the run soon after the discovery of the body and was not arrested until May of 1820, some six months after Scanlon had been taken into custody, and two months after he was tried.
The trail of Scanlon created a big sensation, partly owing to the high social position of the family, partly because of the extreme youth and beauty of his victim, and partly because he was defended by Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator. As the trial progressed it became apparent that Scanlon had persuaded Ellie to abscond with him, taking all her uncle’s savings in the process. There were suggestions that they had been secretly married in Limerick city – certainly Ellie herself believed it – but no records were ever found to confirm this.
In Glin, a village in west Limerick, where Scanlon had taken Ellie to stay, disenchantment soon set in. Scanlon was more interested in fishing and drinkin with his friends than in presenting Ellie as his wife. Perhaps he realized she could never fit in his social circle, but he was soon looking for ways to rid him of her. Sullivan was a willing accomplice, and when he concluded that murder was the only was out it was Sullivan who took her out in a boat, clubbed her unconscious, and threw her bound and weighted body into the river.
Despite the overwhelming evidence against Scanlon, O’Connell almost got him acquitted, the jury failing to agree before being sent from the court to try again to reach a verdict. Duly found guilty this time, he was sentenced to hang at Gallows Green on March 16th 1820, where he declared ‘may the gates of Paradise be ever shut against me if I hand, act or part in the crime for which I am now about to suffer. If Sullivan is found my innocence will appear’.
Sullivan was not captured until four months later, when, in Tralee goal awaiting charges relating to passing forged notes, he was recognized. His trial excited almost as much interest as that of his master. Many people had believed that Scanlon was the victim of a miscarriage of justice – here at last was the chance to prove it.
Despite urging from many quarters, Sullivan could not be persuaded. He went to the gallows on 27th July 1820 declaring; ‘I swear before almighty God that I am guilty of the murder, but it was Mr. Scanlon who put me up to it’.
It’s a much different city nowadays, although Hanrattys Hotel in Bridge Street, which was a known haunt of Scanlon’s, still exists there. If indeed he did dupe Ellie into thinking he had married her I like to think he might have planned it in there. My belief is he got Sullivan to pose as a priest and some sort of ceremony took place that was real enough to convince Ellie.