beware the ides of march

Jail is a different place without visits. For one thing, everyone soon stops washing themselves. Cedric, as always full of initiative, had stopped earlier than anyone else. He was a dirty, leaping, pigging and unshaven mess. Except for his head. He had his head shaved. For some reason many POWs shave their heads during visit stoppages. Seamus Beag MacDairire O'Goboney, our learned Celtic scholar and creative marxist-in-residence, traces this practice back to an ancient Irish pagan ritual. Something to do with fertility rites.

We were all crowded around Cedric's bunk playing cards and wirelessing - that is, talking away- as best we could. But Cedric was shooting off his mouth and nobody else could get a word in with his monopoly on the conversation.

Then he stopped. We all looked up in surprise. It's hard to explain to anyone who doesn't know him, but you can take it from me that it is most unusual for Cedric to stop talking. Especially like that. And he did seem to be having genuine difficulty.

His face was turning a deep purple, even deeper than it usually is, and the eyes were bulging goldfishingly. Only a weak croak escaped from between his lips, yet they kept moving, forming words but remaining wordless. His face became contorted and sweat broke on his brow.

We all stared silently at him, afraid to interfere and seemingly powerless to intervene. There was something happening among us, something untouchable, indescribable, but there still the same; something definite yet indefinable. Something was happening to us and to Cedric and he was combating that something. We all knew this as if by instinct. We knew that a struggle between good and evil, a struggle for control, was being fought before our eyes. And then it stopped. Just as suddenly as it had begun, it ceased.

Cedric's face cleared, a deep whistle escaped his lips, he gave a shake - almost dog-like - cleared his throat, grinned sheepishly and exclaimed: "What were we talking about?"

"You mean, what were you talking about," I replied cruelly.

Egbert stopped us getting any further involved for, at that minute, he trumped his partner (for the umpteenth time that night) and our card game was over.

It was only when I was drifting off to sleep an hour or so later that I thought back to our card game. As my mind slipped from the realities of Long Kesh into my own personal dreamworld, Cedric's face pushed past thoughts of my wife and family and his question bounced into my sleep: "What were we talking about?"

And it's only now that I understand what happened: it came to me during the news this evening. I had known that something was missing, that something had changed, but I hadn't been able to put my finger on what it was. But it's all so clear now that I'm writing about it and I honestly don't know why it didn't dawn on me before. I remember that Cedric lost track of his revolutionary discourse at exactly twelve o'clock last night. Up till then we had been discussing the Stormont Convention, or the lack of it, but as midnight brought us into the first day of March Cedric was cut off in mid-sentence. It didn't affect us all as dramatically as that, but then we weren't talking as much. Nevertheless, British direct ruler Merlyn Rees's new act came into being at twelve midnight and suddenly we stopped being political prisoners. That's as clear as day. As soon as the legislation came into effect, Irishmen and women in the gaols all over the North became criminals. It was like an act of God.

I can see Cedric's face now as I'm writing. I can recall the change which came over all of us. Why the hell didn't I catch on before this?

Today we had all sensed that something was wrong, something was different. The way I felt compelled to hand over my books to the screws. The way we all formed a queue at the gate and surrendered our books to the screws: books on Irish history, on republicanism, on revolutionary theory. I didn't know why I did it, but it seemed to be the right thing to do. Sean O'Casey, Buntus Cainte; Fintan Lalor, Fios Feasa: all our prized literature found its way to the wee bonfire just outside the cage.

The change was so obvious I don't know how I could have missed it. I should have known as soon as I addressed the screws as "Sir".

"Please Sir," I had snivelled, "could I have a paintbrush and some paint?"

"They are in the cage already," he had replied, pointing to where Nigel was covering our wall-painting of the 1916 Proclamation with black prison paint.

And the way the whole fibre of our command structure here had suddenly slumped. I should have known when the lectures, debates and discussions were cancelled earlier today. Hell's Gates - we should all have twigged when the screws took us for drill!

It's easy to talk now, of course, but when you think of it, I suppose it's not as easy as all that. After all, there is something supernatural in the way Brit laws govern us. What else could we have done when faced with laws passed by the Westminster House of Commons? It's OK scoffing at it now, but you should have seen the fight Cedric put up. And, as I've said, I didn't catch on until after the late news. I'm probably the only one here who does know, too, because I'm the only one here who watched it. All the boys watched the late movie but cleared off when it was over. I was doing the same thing myself when I spilled my tea and as I stopped to mop the floor, I alone heard the announcer announce: "Political status for special category prisoners has ceased in Northern Ireland. All prisoners are now criminals. This affects 1,500 prisoners, of which 900 were Republicans."

And then I remembered!

It took time. It came to me slowly as I recalled why I'm here. Why Long Kesh is here; why the Brits are here.

I tried to explain it to Your Man as we did a few laps of the yard tonight before lock-up. I didn't seem to get through though. He just grinned at me and chortled idiotically, "Come again?"

"We're ordinary criminals now," I informed him.

"So we're all OCs after all," he joked.

I left him at that; I was getting nowhere. Not that I blame him - everybody knows the effect a Brit law can have on a person. As soon as it becomes the law of the land, sin e. It's worked for years now. You've only to look at how the Dublin establishment behaves or at sections of the media. But still, it's hard to legislate for everything.

Yesterday's Daily Mirror for example. I read it from cover to cover. I seem compelled to read papers like that now. And on page five it had a letter which asked: "Why do we call the Icelandic boats 'gunboats' and our own boats 'frigates'? Our boats are bigger than the Icelandic boats and have more guns on them. Do we have to make the Icelanders appear more aggressive? Are we biased?"

That letter writer is like me. For some reason the laws don't affect him, at least not completely. He knows that there is something wrong, even if he's not sure what it is. But it's hard to see it clearly.

Merlyn Rees, though: he has the advantage. Merlyn knows he has the power to change people's motivation, people's reasoning, people's attitudes. All he has to do is get a law passed and we are all compelled to obey it. It's as simple as that.

After all, you can't support criminals, and there is nothing we poor Irish can do if the mighty British government passes legislation to prove it. Haven't Merlyn Rees, Harold Wilson, Gerry Fitt, Thomas Passmore, Cardinal Conway, William Cosgrave, Conor Cruise, Ian Paisley, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all told us so?

I must go now. God bless England. Is there a world out there?

Reproduced from Cage 11: Writings from Prison, by Gerry Adams, with permission of Robert Rinehart Publishers, 6309 Monarch Park Place, Niwot, Colorado. These excerpts may be read only, any printing or reproduction of this material must be obtained in writing from Robert Rinehart Publishers.

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