Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

16 December 1999 Edition

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A century of struggle

Partition dominated the experience of northern nationalists in the 20th century. Danny Morrison looks back on how 30 years of struggle brought about change and eventually empowered nationalists and republicans

My Uncle Harry, reminiscing to me many years before his death, told me a story about the time he was on the run in Belfast in the 1940s. One of the safe houses he stayed in belonged to a republican sympathiser from Sandy Row who was in the RUC. One morning, in the early hours, he was disturbed by the noise of a squad car suddenly pulling up outside. He immediately jumped out of bed and pulled on his pants. He was climbing out the window when the door burst open and there stood a breathless RUC man, his host, who was on night duty.

He could hardly contain himself with laughter.

``Guess what, Harry! I just had to call in and tell you! We're on our way over to the Falls to raid for you!''

The story now sounds apocryphal, but so many fantastic things have happened down the years since, half of which can never be told, that one never knows. It appealed to me because it had all the ingredients of a noble story: the hero on the run in a dark age, battling for freedom against incredible odds, finding sanctuary with the enemy who turns out not to be an enemy after all but an honorable and brave human being with a sense of humour. If only more RUC men were like that, I thought, rather naïvely. But one quickly grows up at the end of an RUC man's baton, quickly loses one's romantic view of human nature.

That silly mantra of unionists - Sinn Féin/IRA - has come home to haunt them because it lends to only one interpretation - the guerrillas fought and now the guerrillas, not just Fenians, are about the place and in government. This attitude of unionism still has the potential to bring down the Agreement but cannot alter the fact that this is the endgame
Even though I was born in the early fifties, my sense of an age or period considerably predates that. From listening to one's parents, aunts and uncles you felt as if you knew what the blitz had been like or the rationing. Names like Rocky Burns and Tom Williams were spoken of with awe and admiration, even by people who didn't believe in the IRA but who still subscribed to a view of history called the nationalist experience. The McMahon killings, the pogroms of the 1920s, were as if recent memories. And there was always a climate of fear, which suited those in power as it meant they only had to resort to some actual violence occasionally.

As nationalists saw it, they were born into the Black North because of partition, because of the Truce and Treaty. They were losers. Their votes meant nothing. In the eyes of the state, a céilidh dance was a suspicious gathering, and a hurling stick looked very like an IRA rifle. If you had any sense you'd get out - or, in the fifties and sixties, get an education, then get out.

We were the fourth green field, still in bondage and we pined for justice. The proudest date was Easter 1916, when Irish men and women once again rose against British rule and restored pride and dignity. The Tan War period was viewed heroically (the more inglorious actions being glossed over). I could never get to grips with the politics of the civil war, and for many years I foolishly thought it had been fought over the single issue of partition! Like most republicans from the Six Counties, I viewed the South - which I derisively called the Free State - with ambivalence, trying to separate the good people from the bad state. My Uncle Harry, who lived in Dublin, cursed the guards in Irish because he thought that the greater insult.

The common people of the South were our natural allies, if only we could get through to them. Weaving in and out of the history of their state was the story of the IRA. Men and women who believed in the Republic as proclaimed. Killing and dying. Going to jail for their political convictions. Maintaining structures. Passing on the torch of resistance. It was they and their comrades in the North who inspired the reorganisation demanded by the bloody events of August 1969.

Out of the pogroms of 1969, the denial of civil rights and state repression, came the armed struggle. Came 30 years of conflict, packed with narrative but with the true stories coming in second to government lies. Remember them? The Derry marchers with nail-bombs in their pockets; detainees puncturing their own eardrums; unarmed Volunteers going for their guns whilst crashing RUC checkpoints; Sinn Féin intimidating people to vote for it!

Probably the biggest hypocrites and greatest fools to have emerged over the past three decades have been that little coterie of revisionist journalists and historians who cannot spot the simplest contradiction in their own position. Attacking Irish nationalism for its alleged narrow-mindedness and sectarianism, they actually served only to encourage those very vices, self-righteousness and intransigence within unionism. The revisionists provided not one answer to the problem. As the critic Denis Donoghue noted of such people: ``Nationalism is a fine flower, so long as it grows in Israel, Tibet, Poland, and Lithuania.''

But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water, in this case, the unionist cause with their waffling apologists in the `Sunday Times' and `Indo'. This country belongs to unionists and nationalists alike; but from the unionist perspective, the IRA waged a ferocious campaign the magnitude of which was out of all proportion to any sense of injustice nationalists could possibly have felt. The IRA destroyed their towns and killed their sons and daughters who wore the uniforms of the RUC and UDR.

Republicans, not surprisingly, view the struggle differently, as mainly a 30-year story of a community's endurance in the light of state terror and assassination. A story of the courage, sacrifice and suffering of supporters and Volunteers alike; about life on the run or on active service against a superior enemy; long-term imprisonment; dramatic prison escapes; hunger strikes to the death; arms smuggling under the noses of superpowers; intifadas; street protest movements. And the remarkable story of the survival, rise and success of Sinn Féin.

The republican struggle has given nationalists a palpable self-confidence for the first time since 1921. And the versatility of the Republican Movement, its decisiveness and daringness in going for the Good Friday Agreement, this major, but incomplete breakthrough, has changed the dynamics of politics on this island.

That silly mantra of unionists - Sinn Féin/IRA - has come home to haunt them because it lends to only one interpretation - the guerrillas fought and now the guerrillas, not just Fenians, are about the place and in government. This attitude of unionism still has the potential to bring down the Agreement but cannot alter the fact that this is the endgame.

Regrettably, along the road, some comrades, beginning with the 1986 ard fheis, dissented from majority opinion in the Movement over differences in strategy and principle, later the cease-fire and the way forward. By the time they come around to recognising the changed circumstances it may be too late for some of their activists. Yet if we republicans are to successfully draw a line through the past, we must also be concerned for the release of the last of the political prisoners.

One summer evening in 1973, myself and Seando Moore (`The Child' as he was aptly nick-named) were walking around our Cage in Long Kesh. We were having a light-hearted yarn after having just come from a long, boring political meeting. Seando suddenly stopped, looked at me and said half-satirically, ``And what do you think, Dan, of a Thirty-Two-County, Democratic, Socialist Republic!''

``That would be wonderful,'' I replied.

And so it would, I still think after all these years.


Eddie Keenan: 20th century witness


Eddie Keenan has a hawthorn walking stick. It belonged to his grandfather. ``My father was born in 1881, so this hawthorn must date back to the middle of the last century,'' says Eddie. The stick only came into Eddie's possession recently. ``Billy McKee ran in and out of my uncle and aunt's house in Belfast years ago,'' says Eddie, ``and they gave him the hawthorn.''

Eddie's life is full of connections, small threads which not only span 78 years of his own life but over a century of republican struggle. Like a spider's web, pull one strand and another trembles. The living room in Eddie's Twinbrook bungalow is littered with photographs and books, but this is not a shrine to the past nor a collection of memorabilia. For Eddie it's a living day-to-day reality.

The book ``IRA, the Twilight Years'' lies open beside Eddie's chair. Documentaries about the struggle are piled amongst Hollywood musical videos like ``Oklahoma'' and ``Carousel''. There's a photograph of Eddie with his mother taken on the day he was released from the Curragh in 1945. ``She bought me a new pair of shoes that day,'' says Eddie. And a photograph of Eddie with Mary Robinson, receiving an award from the then Irish President on behalf of Irish language group Glór na nGael.

In the hallway hangs a photograph of a member of the International Brigade, Johnny Power, who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Eddie met him two years later when they were both interned. ``Johnny was from Waterford,'' says Eddie, ``and a committed communist.'' A pen portrait of Mairéad Farrell adorns the mantelpiece beneath a plaque commemorating the 1981 hunger strikers. Here contemplation of the past, present and future are one continuum in life's long passing.

On 7 March 1923, a small boy was delivering milk in a rural district of County Kerry. It was dawn. A few hours earlier, nine republican prisoners had been woken by their Free State army guards. They were driven to the remote townland of Ballyseedy. In a brutal act of reprisal, the prisoners were strapped to a mine and the device exploded. Only one of the nine survived, Stephen Fuller.

A quarter of a century later as a republican prisoner interned in the Curragh, he described to Eddie how as a young lad on a milk round he had stumbled across the Ballyseedy atrocity. ``It haunted him all his life,'' says Eddie. ``He described seeing birds eating the dead men's flesh off the trees.''

And then there was Kerry's John Joe Sheehy. ``After Stephen Fuller escaped to an IRA hideout at Cnocan, it was John Joe Sheehy who released his account to the newspapers. John Joe had a lovely voice,'' says Eddie, ``I remember him singing ``My Dark Rosaleen'' while washing his clothes in the Curragh.''

During his time in the Curragh, Eddie also met Machine Gun Johnny O'Connor, who was in Chicago during the Valentine's Day Massacre. ``He actually lived on the same street,'' says Eddie. And Bob Clemens, the grandson of Lord Leitrim, the aristo who was shot dead after attempting forced evictions in 1882.

At the age of 19, Eddie was interned in Crumlin Road jail. It was November 1940. ``I was interned at the same time as Gerry `The Bird' Doherty,'' says Eddie. ``As soon as Gerry arrived at the jail he began to plan his escape. He watched everyone and everything and within a few months he'd found a way out.'' One afternoon in May they put Gerry's plan into action.

``There were five of us, Liam Burke, Phil McTaggart, Billy Watson, Gerry and myself,'' says Eddie, ``Gerry had noticed that the yard was empty for a quarter of an hour every lunchtime. We had 15 minutes to get into the yard and climb over the wall.'' And that's exactly what they did, with the help of a wooden hook and a rope of sheets.

A year later in Dublin and George Plant from Tipperary was facing execution. ``I went to a protest meeting against the execution,'' says Eddie, ``and Brendan Behan addressed the crowd.'' As Eddie left the meeting he was arrested. Behan was arrested the following night. ``We were brought up to Mountjoy together,'' says Eddie. ``Brendan was detained for three weeks. I was interned in the Curragh.''

In Mountjoy, Eddie met Jackie Griffith. Jackie was in the Free State army but he was supplying guns to the IRA. ``When Jackie was arrested, a gun he was carrying dropped out of his pocket and went off,'' says Eddie. ``He got ten years for attempted murder.'' Nine months later, Jackie escaped from Mountjoy. ``He was riding a bike when the Dublin police machine gunned him down,'' says Eddie.

Amongst the first wave of internees on 9 August 1971, Eddie Keenan was dragged by British soldiers from his Belfast home and taken to Girdwood barracks. He describes it as a traumatic ordeal. ``You felt under threat the whole time. Some of the internees were beaten and tortured. You didn't know if it was your turn next.'' Eddie was interned in Long Kesh for nine months.

Eddie describes 9 July 1976 as the worst day of his life. Beyond the barest of facts, it is still too painful to speak about. Eddie's 24-year-old daughter Rosaleen and her husband were shot dead by a loyalist death squad at their home on the outskirts of North Belfast. The couple's young children were in the house at the time of the attack.

At 78, Eddie still keeps pretty busy. ``I teach three Irish classes a week,'' says Eddie. He remembers his father singing songs in Gaelic but he didn't learn the language himself until he was interned in the `40s. ``I was in the Gaelic hut,'' says Eddie. ``I could speak hardly a word but other fellas from Belfast were there so I decided to join them.'' In the early 1980s, Eddie began teaching Irish in Belfast. ``There was a great revival of interest in the language. It began in the H Blocks and just took off outside.''

As for the future, Eddie is optimistic. ``I think we're witnessing an exciting time for republicans. The peace process has been a very successful strategy and I think republicans have every reason to be optimistic as we approach the year 2000. The greatest challenge we face will be dismantling sectarianism in the Six Counties. Unity of a land is nothing without unity of a people. That's the real challenge. We've all come a long way and it isn't over yet.''


Thirty years of revolutionary schooling

Gerry Hanratty was born and reared in Andersonstown, West Belfast. A child of the conflict, he was first arrested in 1975. He has since been imprisoned in Ireland north and south, in Germany and in Britain. Currently the OC of the republican prisoners in Portlaoise, he discusses with An Phoblacht's Roisín De Rosa his years of republican activity and the lessons republicans have learned along the way, particularly from the various prison struggles.

``It was through the Hunger Strike that we learned our strength, that we can do this, and the strength gave us the confidence to negotiate, develop additional ways of struggle, without any fear of compromise. We learned this, the political skills we need to win, through the jails.

``It started with the barricade in Shores Road and the parish priest begging the people to take it down, and they wouldn't. The British army occupied the school, St. Joseph's College, for a barracks.'' This was where Gerry Hanratty's education started.

``I was ten years old, playing over the backs of the armoured cars, tanks. Guns, soldiers, everywhere on the streets. Friends and families, driven out of Ardoyne, sought refuge in Andersonstown. Our house was coming down with kids.''

  There were some horrific attacks in Crumlin Road Jail. Legs broken, someone's ear bitten off. I remember Jim Gibney running round the canteen, with darts sticking out of his back. 
Gerry was out on his paper round in 1971 on the morning internment began. ``I never got my run done. I was just handing out papers to the people who were out on the street, people who'd been woken in the 4am round-up.''

``It was riots every day, collecting bricks, bottles, supplies of vinegar. Seamus Simpson, I saw him shot. It was on the Rosnareen Road. He was wounded. The soldiers dragged him across the street, knee deep with the glass of rioting. They dumped him behind a Saracen to die. A Para was shot on the corner of our street. The Brits went berserk, raiding all the houses, tearing them apart, CS gas everywhere. It touched everyone, every house.''

Gerry joined the Fianna in Andersonstown. ``Terry McDermott, just 19 years old, to us just one of the bigger lads, who lived opposite our house, was shot. His funeral was attacked, the mourners battered, and then the RUC attacked the funeral mass in the Chapel, St. Agnes', with rubber bullets through the windows. I saw all this, the rioting, the arrests, the marches, the funerals. It was a time of sorties all day, back for tea and sandwiches, then out again.''

Gerry was arrested for the first time in 1975. He landed into Crumlin Road. ``On Boxing Day the segregation battle started. They started integrating republicans and loyalists in C3. They called out three of us to the canteen, where there were a dozen or so loyalists, who set upon us. Bobby Sands, Frankie Hughes, Kieran Doherty, all of them were here, in C3. It went on day by day for over two months. It was just scary. The Prison Service was blatantly, openly, Orangey. We were Fenian scum. There were some horrific attacks. Legs broken, someone's ear bitten off. I remember Jim Gibney running round the canteen, with darts sticking out of his back.''

  The whole history of the jails has been a process of learning. Thirty years of struggle have given us, and the people, the confidence to have no fear of developing another way. 
Gerry was released in 1977 and was rearrested five years later, after the hunger strike. I remember when Carol Ann Kelly was shot dead in Cherry Estate. I saw it, right in front of me. The anger in Twinbrook. The IRA had to stop the women burning down the school where the Brits were sheltering, and the soldier, just a wee lad, who had shot her, breaking down at what he'd done. The tears were coming down his face as his mates tried to pull him back.

``The hunger strike was a turning point. It was a time when people said to themselves `We can do this'. Through the 30,000 people who voted for Bobby Sands, we became aware of our strength. It was through the hunger strike that we learned that the people on the ground had the ability to change things, to change the state.

``The hunger strike was not just the five demands, it was a direct, political attack, a direct action against British rule. I came to see that the whole struggle was political struggle. Just as the escape was a direct political action against the British government. We learned our own strength. After the hunger strike we knew they weren't going to break us. It gave us the confidence to adapt our ways to win.

``I remember Bernadette McAliskey saying during the H Block struggle - `Republicans are expert at struggle, resistance; when are we going to become experts in winning?' - It stuck in my mind. We began learning how to be expert at winning.''

Gerry went to B wing in Long Kesh just five months before the H Block escape of 1983: ``It's looking back that I saw what we were doing, the gradual conditioning process of the screws. Prison work? We'll work. What to an outsider might have appeared as capitulation after the hunger strike, but which, very slowly, gave us increasing freedom to move about the jail, and laid the conditions that made the escape possible. Escape from the most secure prison in Europe. It was a model for the Peace Process. There are many different ways to skin a cat.

``There were 22 of us on B wing, H7, that morning before the escape. There were 11 of us left in the evening. It was a slaughtering match after.''

Released in 1986, Gerry was arrested in 1988 with Gerry McGeough on the Dutch-German border on suspicion of killing four British soldiers. They were held in total isolation, didn't even meet each other. No papers, no shop, no radio, no news. After six months, Gerry went to Kaisheim prison in the Bavarian foothills, beside the great Danube. One hour a day exercise, handcuffed behind his back, was the only time he spent out of a bare, white cell. Isolation. It was an old cloister - a Colditz on a rock, but in a special high tech unit built for the PLO after the Munich Olympic Games. Just seven cells, with cameras everywhere. It was two years solitary, in an attempt to break you.

``It was an officer state. Everything you wanted had to go through to the central system up to the investigating judge in Karlsrühe. If the screws had a piece of paper that said I could have a Rolls Royce, they'd give it to me without a thought. If it said I could not have a biro I didn't get it.''

And then they had Gerry in for a week of questioning, eight to ten hours a day. ``But they didn't question me once about the shooting, or bombs. They wanted to know the mindset of the republicans. The questioning was handled by a special unit, TE14, whose dedicated role was to specialise in Irish republicanism.

``The trial, a process of investigation, went on for two years. The head of the TE14 came into the trial. He gave lengthy testimony about the IRA which was a `military organisation which was fighting for a political goal'. He gave an account of the struggle, a journey through republican history, of the famine, of the struggle of Irish nationalists and his account formed part of the final summing up of the case, which itself took three days. The words `terrorist', `criminal' and so on, were never mentioned.

``Detective Inspector McClure from the RUC was brought over to give evidence as an expert. `You know this man?' `Yes.' Have you ever met him?' `No.' `Do you know his family?' `No.' `You know him to be a member of the IRA?' `Yes.' `How do you know?' `I was told.' `By whom were you told?' `That's confidential.' `There is nothing confidential in my court.' `Are you expecting me to believe that you knew him to be in the IRA on the basis of what someone told you, a person who you don't even know, whom you never spoke to?'''

The Court ruled that McClure's evidence could not be treated as that of an expert. McClure was used to Diplock courts. A German process, for him, was a rude awakening.

``The President of the court said over dinner to defence lawyers, `It's of no political significance whatsoever to me how many British soldiers he killed, but if he's convicted of killing a German policeman, then he'll get life'.''

Gerry was sentenced to two and a half years. After three months waiting in Dusseldorf, he was packed onto a Hercules Transport plane and send back to Aldergrove and the Crumlin Road again. The British were again attempting integration. There were some horrendous attacks, and many serious injuries. After six months, Gerry got eight years and went to the H Blocks.

``It was coming up to the first ceasefire. The blocks were a ferment of political discussion and of education, formal and informal. Everything was under discussion - socialism, capitalism, armed struggle, women's struggle, the role of prisoners, the hunger strike, everything - working to develop ways to get to our political end, through the gradual realisation of what we're capable of doing.''

Gerry was released and then rearrested in London during the breakdown of the first ceasefire. ``We had no alternative. Major refused to have the balls to move. I regret for everyone that there was no alternative, for all who have suffered, that there wasn't another way. I wish of course that there had been. This is the lesson that the British government has to learn out of the 30 years of conflict.

Gerry has been OC in Portlaoise jail since his repatriation from England. ``The whole history of the jails has been a process of learning. Thirty years of struggle have given us, and the people, the confidence to have no fear of developing another way. The OCs who had to negotiate with the governors over food, or flip flops or whatever - these were the skills we developed - that came out of the situation, that have the potential to offer an alternative where the British hadn't the courage. I regret that they didn't over these 25 years, and what that has meant for all of us.

``It was a learning curve from awareness of our own strength, which we realised through the hunger strike, and through 30 years in the struggle. Learning to use the skills which the struggle taught us. Learning to become `expert at winning'.''

It's a long way since the British army took over the education department at St. Joseph's School, in Andersonstown.


A Volunteer at an outpost

Gerry McGeough has been deported from Britain and has been imprisoned in the Six Counties, Germany, and the United States. Hie endured isolation and hard time in both Germany and the United States but emerged as confident and unbowed as when he went in. An Phoblacht's Roisín De Rosa spoke with Gerry about his penal time in foreign climes.


Fit, bright eyes, keen, almost boyish, calm, ready to go. Gerry McGeough's appearance belies an unimaginable self-discipline as he tells his story of alligators intruding on the exercise yard from the swamp outside; Marshals, with their sharp polished badges of brutality, their pump action shot guns, watch towers all around, with a bolt hole for the marshals to run to in a race riot. Breathing race hatred. Locked in a steel cage, for days, and weeks, transported like animals packed into sweat box trucks.

Department of Correction Company aeroplanes, grey monsters, `Con-Air', landing into airports that only served the jail, into an underground tunnel from the plane to `reception, locked up in leg irons, shackles, handcuffed to a belt. Alone.

``Black boxes over here'', menaced the Marshal at the hub jail in Oklahoma. Black boxes are boxes over your wrists so you can't move your fingers or scratch yourself. In transit between jails, Gerry was supposed to be in Oklahoma for just three or four days. But there was a lock down. Riots all over in US jails. Gerry was there for two or three weeks, locked in little more than a box. They'd not open the thick steel cell door until, backed up to the door, hands through the box, they had the handcuffs on.

It was a long way from the Coalisland Civil Rights march, where he'd pleaded to go with his parents, thinking it might be like the Prague Spring that he had seen on TV. They wouldn't take him.

Gerry McGeough is a Tyrone man, from the Brantry, the eldest of four children. As kids, they re-enacted 1916, each following day, after the TV showings of the 1966 commemorations of the Easter Rising, playing the parts of the leaders, in his granny's hayshed.

Gerry was involved in the H-block campaign, organising all over the county, then working for Bobby Sands' election. He'd been arrested in England in the 1970s and deported, with the additional recommendation that he couldn't join the British Army.

After the H-blocks campaign, Gerry's next appearance was in an oft-shown TV show, filmed by a covert FBI camera crew, negotiating an arms deal. He went on the run across the States, living rough in the Prairie, sleeping out, eating where he could. And he spoke all over the country, from Los Angeles to New York.

The German court had trouble with the meaning of `Mo Chara'. The prosecutor was sure, because the RUC had told him so, that it was a title of address to a high-ranking IRA man. It also meant `weapon brother' until a professor of Celtic studies was brought to the process to tell them what it really meant.
In the mid-1980s, he worked building solidarity groups in Sweden. In 1988, Gerry was arrested on the German-Dutch border with Gerry Hanratty. They were held in solitary confinement through the next two years, until their trial started in 1990. It took six weeks before he heard of the SAS killing of his close friend Gerry Harte, who'd worked with him on the Bobby Sands election campaign. Gerry was killed with his brother and brother in law. Total silence, isolation. Endless identification parades - Gerry amidst a handful of Germans playing `spot the Irishman'.

The prosecutor announced to Gerry shortly after their arrest that he'd break him in three weeks. And they tried. In jail at Frankenthal there was no mass, no study, no books. He was moved to a cell in a special security unit at Wupperthal Prison, ``frightening, cold methodical inhumanity.''

In 1990, the trial process started. It was Kafkaesque. The trial was held in an underground bunker designed to withstand a military assault. Every day a cavalcade, bang through the motor way morning traffic, took the 20-mile trip up the Autobahn. Three-way translations of witnesses' testimony, from Sweden, Holland, and Ireland, for the prosecutor, and defence. Gerry was fluent in the languages - the translations never matched. They had trouble with the meaning of `Mo Chara'. The prosecutor was sure, because the RUC had told him so, that it was a title of address to a high-ranking IRA man. It also meant `weapon brother' until a professor of Celtic studies was brought to the process to tell them what it really meant. The proceedings were bizarre and went on until one day a warrant for Gerry's extradition, relating to his TV appearance in the 1980s, was granted. The Germans had a precise time limit in which to extradite him to the States.

He bid adieu to the prosecutor, and off he went, at 3am in the morning, in leg irons and chains, to Frankfurt, only they went to the wrong airport. The US marshals had to get hold of him by 11 am for the warrant to be valid. They made it, just, and loaded Gerry onto a C141 cargo plane, a grey monstrosity, at the US Air force base, and strapped him to the inside of the plane. A girl came over to demonstrate life saving procedure and she laughed as Gerry, strapped to the seat, his hands strapped to his waist and feet, would have no chance to use the skill. They gave him a ration pack, with little chance to eat it, with his hands strapped to his feet. He thought of O'Donovan Rossa.

Nine hours later, frozen to death, they arrived at Dover Air Force base in Delaware. It was like Noriega had landed - troops and Marshals everywhere. They took him, in the steaming heat of a sweat box, to Manhattan Correction Centre, up to the high floors, top security, into a tiny holding cell with no windows, on 24-hour lock up. It lasted ten days. Then he got bail. Both his parents died, within three weeks of each other.

But it was when he got a 0-5 year sentence on a plea bargain and the judge made it three that Gerry's experience of jail in the US got underway. Easter Monday, 1994, Gerry was in Schuykill, Pennsylvania. The jail was overcrowded. He landed into a cell with 30 or 40 guys, constant tension, drug wars going on, always on guard. Desolation in a steel cage.

For a year he was in Fairton, New Jersey. At the time of O.J. Simpson, the racial tension was fierce, and the guards were expecting a race riot. The jail was 15% white. The guards had a bolthole to run to for when the race riot, expected any day, broke out. Somewhere from which a chopper could lift them out.

Then to Louisburg, into the hole, a 4.5 foot by 8 foot steel cell, no ventilation, searing white light, and chunky millipedes the size of your finger scuttling around. Hoffa's jail, where they've `Old Sparky', where there was a killing a month between prisoners. Then they came for him at 3 am and took him, with 30 or 40 others, crushed into trucks like animals, to a Con-Air flight, in transit to Oklahoma, where Timothy McVeigh was later held. The only building around was the arrivals/departure lounge - the jail was accessed through an underground passage.

From there to Louisiana Deportation Centre, where for the first time in US jails, Gerry met up with republicans - Seamus Moley, Kevin McKinley and Mixey Martin. The jail was run by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service - all `Deputy Dogs', viciously anti-Irish - in the middle of a swamp, where there were snakes and little alligators which came into the exercise yard to lie down. Detainees had to buy their ticket home, or else they stayed there.

It was here that Gerry wrote his first book, ``The Ambush and other Stories.'' His second book, `Defenders', was written after he got back, deported to Dublin. ``How many would be waiting?'' the marshals accompanying him asked anxiously. ``Sure there could be hundreds.'' But the ticket was to Shannon, and off went the plane again, avoiding the crowds. Home again.

What made you able to cope? ``I was a Volunteer, isolated at an outpost. Through years of solitary, well I suppose I lived a bit like an ascetic - I had strong faith. It allowed me to keep track of time, through routine. I'd pick a day and remember, remember everything that happened.''

You'd need self discipline.

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