the fire

Sunday October 13:

Things may be building up to a head. There was a meeting between the various OCs today. Months ago they presented a list of all the main points of contention to the Prison Governor. These included food, laundry, general living conditions, education facilities (or the lack of them) and the treatment of remand prisoners. It was when the prison administration refused to move on any of these that the present protests started. Today there is sceal about a major build-up of British troops around the visiting area. This is why I'm speculating that things may be coming to a head. Some time ago, after particularly vicious beatings on a Brit raid, our staff warned that if the British Army came into the cages to beat or baton men then we would burn the camp to the ground. Some men sent their clothes and other effects out with their visitors this afternoon.

Monday October 14:

Semaphore is being used to signal messages between the internees' cages and the sentenced end of the camp. There is also a lobby building up, especially among our escape fanatics, that there should be no burning unless accompanied by a major escape. In our cage Your Man is arguing that as long as the perimeter is secure the British government will be unaffected, except in the short-term, by the camp being burned. He argues that burning the camp has no more potential than merely publicizing for a few weeks the conditions in here. But a mass escape under cover of the fire, aimed at putting hundreds of men outside - either through tunnels or by storming gates or the perimeter - would advance the entire struggle, he says.

More men sent their clothes out today.

Tuesday October 15:

It's now really the 19th October and I'm writing this in a little makeshift shelter of blackened, sooty, corrugated tin. The huts in our cage are no more. They disappeared in what has come to be the most unusual and dramatic days of my young life. The trouble started on Tuesday in Cage Thirteen. A screw [guard] made derogatory and sexual remarks about some lad's wife. The OC of the cage asked that the screw be removed from the cage. This is a long-standing arrangement between our staff and the prison regime. Our people have never abused it and the ordinary screws and SOs willingly work this procedure. It cuts down on any real aggro between them and the POWs. It has always suited us both. This time the senior screws (probably on orders) refused to comply with Cage Thirteen's OC's request to remove the offending screw. Reinforcements were put into the cage. There were scuffles. Our lads put all the screws out of the cage. The Prison Governor then arrived. He insisted that the POWs involved should come forward and go voluntarily to the punishment block. This was another breach of a long-standing and mutually beneficial arrangement whereby our Camp OC would usually be brought to the cage involved, to direct if neccesary the men to the cells. The Prison Governor ordered that this was not to happen on this occasion. He warned that if the men did not come forward the British Army would come in and forcibly remove them. When the Camp OC heard of this he sent word to the Governor reminding him of the republican commitment to burn the camp if the British Army were used. He asked that the matter be deferred until the following morning to allow things to cool down. It was almost lock-up. The Governor refused that request. The OC then asked permission to go to Cage Thirteen. The Governor refused that request also: he ordered all screws out of the sentenced cages. They withdrew without any interference from our lads. The Camp OC then sent word again to the Governor that if the British Army were brought in the camp would burn. He got word back that the Governor was no longer in charge. The British Army was in control.

Down here in the internee end we knew nothing of all this. I only picked up the sceal afterwards. Funnily enough I was at a cage staff-meeting to discuss Your Man's idea about coupling any future burning to an escape. The OC of the internees had earlier agreed to an informal request to put this idea to the Camp OC up at the sentenced end. Your Man was just doubling up by formalizing his request. We had just agreed to do just this after a good discussion when someone burst into the half-hut where we were meeting and told us he thought the sentenced end was burning. When we rushed outside a single black plume of smoke was ascending heavenwards up at the top end of the camp. Our Cage OC rushed up to the wire to be told "Burn it all!" by the OC of the internees. So we burned it.

Me and Your Man and Todler were the last three out of our cage. All the internees were to assemble over at Cage Four. Our Cage OC led the men over and we three were delegated to check that no one was left behind. As we went around, all the huts were well ablaze. It was a bit eerie. Kathleen Thompson had sent me in a Kris Kristofferson LP. Someone must have been playing it when the trouble started because amidst all the confusion and smoke and flames "Bobby Magee" was blasting out, and going slower and slower as, the heat reached it. That will be one of my abiding memories of the Long Kesh fire. ...

There were none of our lads near us as we three cut across. It was scary. The cage lights were smashed but the screws saw us in the big searchlights. They fired rubber bullets and gas. The gas was definitely CR gas. Not CS. I know the taste of CS. I swallowed some of the CR. It's difficult to describe the sensation. It's like choking on balloons which inflate to fill out and smother your windpipe and your lungs. I remember thinking this must be what it's like to drown.

When our cage assembled one man, a Derryman, was missing. Some of us went off and found him. I don't know how. He had got lost in all the noise and confusion. His nerves were gone.

Things were hectic for a wee while. ... Everyone had burned their own cages and we were all milling about. Your Man volunteered to organize things while the staff sorted out their options. Very quickly he formed us all up - and there were a few hundred of us - into ranks. He drilled us for a few minutes until order was restored then we sent our wee foraging squads out to burn places outside the cages. The screws (or peelers) didn't really interfere. Only when we tried to penetrate or breach their lines did they get aggressive. Otherwise they just fired rubber bullets at our burning-squads. It appeared that their orders were to contain us within the camp - or within our part of the camp. They fired CR gas continuously for the first few hours.


Wednesday October 16:

After a while we put out scouts to warn of any counter-attacks and we retired into Cage Four. The wounded and the older men were put into what remained of one hut and the rest of us sat about smoking and talking. It was impossible to describe the scene. The whole night and the skyscape was blazing. Every so often a watchtower would topple over and collapse in a great fanfare of sparks and flames. There were fairly loud explosions going off all over the place. Eventually we located them as exploding Kosangas containers. Occasionally a rubber bullet or gas grenade popped. All the time helicopters with searchlights circled overhead. Occasionally they dropped gas-bombs.

As dawn slowly eased itself awake the OC of internees told us all to sit in the centre of the cage. He was expecting the British Army to come in at first light. He was going to seek a commitment that no one would be ill-treated. As the night lightened into morning I looked around at Big Ted. He and I had been sitting back to back, keeping each other in an upright position. Beneath his beard and all the grime and soot and dirt his face was grey. So was everyone else's. I remember thinking to myself that mine must be the same colour. It suited our environment. Everything around us was in shades of grey: grey wire, ash-grey smouldering debris, soot-blackened timber, charred wooden beams, tar-black tarmac, grey clouded sky, and hundreds of grey-faced men sitting and squatting amidst it all.

Then the Brits came in. They came squealing and whooping. Psychological, I suppose. We remained silent. That had its psychological effect also. It silenced them. Soon they stood silently outside our cage, facing us. I noticed that they were also grey. An officer with a megaphone instructed us all to get to our feet. None of us moved; we just sat there silently staring at them. Waiting. Then our OC went forward. He sought assurances of good conduct and asked for the wounded to be taken away. The Brits wanted to ascertain immediately that a certain two internees were not missing; they wanted them brought forward. Our OC refused. Eventually an arrangement was negotiated: the wounded would be taken away; the rest of our men would be paraded by our own staff for identification by screws, and then we would go back to our original cages. All of this would be supervized by screws. The British Army would do an initial body frisk and then theirs would be a watching brief.

When the negotiations were concluded Harry F paraded us, and as we stood to attention he explained to us what was happening. He did a great job that morning. He made a wee speech and then we moved away from the centre of the cage and made room for the British Army. As they filled our space their officer demanded that the two internees he was seeking come forward. Harry F told him again that none of us were being taken away. He suggested that he would escort a screw to where the two men were, and this was done. It was no big deal: the Brits only wanted to check that the two hadn't escaped. As soon as this became known our lads relaxed. Before this the fittest and best of the internees had grouped around the two wanted men. Now some of the lads started wisecracking, challenging individual British soldiers to step outside and all the usual tomfoolery.

Things got a bit hairy again when we were ordered against the wire for a body-search. No one moved. One of our staff sorted it out by stepping forward and instructing us to go to the wire. We were there for a good while. Nothing unexpected occurred. Sly digs and the odd knee or kick between the legs, but nothing that equalled razing Long Kesh. We were IDed by a senior screw accompanied by a senior member of our staff. As we walked back to our original cages we became aware of the popping of rubber bullets and gas grenades from the top end of the camp. As I went back into Cage Two this eased off. All was quiet. The Brits were still everywhere.

When Your Man came into the cage he winked at me and pulled a pair of two-foot-long bolt-cutters from where he had them hidden down the leg of his denims. At about 8.30 the main Brit force pulled back, though sizeable squads were deployed in strategic positions and foot patrols still made their way continuously up and down through the debris. About ten o'clock we lined up to get a carton of milk and two rounds of bread. Later the internees who had made it up to the sentenced end were escorted back in a long crocodile of bloodied, grinning men sandwiched between rows of heavily-armed British soldiers. All marching down the Yellow Brick Road. At one o'clock we were given one blanket each, head-counted and then, lying where we stood, we slept.

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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