Getting up this morning it dawned on me that this day 40 years ago I was released from my first spell of imprisonment. I commented on the anniversary to my wife who made some witty remark before heading off to Dublin for the day. She likes my jail memories but not that much that she would miss her bus just to hear them. I told my daughter about it this evening. She was even less interested.
It was a momentous occasion for me. The thoughts of all the beer and sex that awaited me. The balance I never quite got right. There was more boozing than banging, to be followed by more jail house bragging about banging than boozing. The equilibrium was re-established, if only in my mind.
Walking out of Magilligan, having with a felt tip pen scrawled sectarian graffiti all over the walls of the holding cubicle I was locked in while awaiting my pick up to arrive, I made my way back to a feud riven Belfast where anti-Stormont supporters killed Stormont supporters, just to show that in the heel of the hunt they could claim to be better Stormont supporters than the Stormont supporters they were killing. Confusing for sure, but just repeat after me "peace process, peace process," and you will understand it. If not you can at least stupefy yourself into thinking you understand it.
Within days I would be visiting in hospital a close friend who had been shot in the legs by the Official IRA as she worked in a local off licence. Her attacker, I would later spend part of Christmas Eve rolling around Essex Street with in a prolonged street brawl, which only ended as far as I recall when a British Army patrol arrived. He had been having a drink with his mate, also a victim of a gunshot wound to the leg after being attacked by my own friends on the first night of the feud. Myself and my injured friend had called into Charlie’s for a quick Xmas jar. It was a train wreck. One crutch deliberately hit another. Who started it is no longer remembered. Insults were exchanged, threats traded, followed by a flurry of fists and boots.
Christmas Day was a sore one, made even more so by the fact that I was set upon by two Sticks in Cromac Street on Christmas morning. Fortunately for me the more senior of the two quickly brought a halt to the attack. Angry then, I can laugh at it now.
Twinbrook, where my family lived, was regarded by the Magilligan IRA leadership as much too dangerous for a released prisoner to venture into in the midst of a feud. They made alternative arrangements. It would be a week before I made it home, in the interim living the life of a wandering soul. First stop - Lenadoon.
One of the people I met early into my release was Joe McDonnell who would go on to die on hunger strike. I hadn’t previously known Joe but arrived at his house, the morning after the inebriated night before, courtesy of being in the company of another republican who had some reason to visit, business to talk. Then to the Strand from where I wound my way to Ardoyne, in which I stayed the best part of a week sampling as many of the area’s famed pubs and clubs as I could.
For much of the time in Ardoyne, one of my drinking companions was Maurice Gilvary, whom I had known from years earlier through Ardoyne school friends. Isaac, as he was known, was later killed by the IRA who accused him of being an informer. But like all volunteers executed by the IRA’s internal security department, the case for a posthumous pardon, might be in order. The security department that provided security of tenure for well-placed long haul informers is hardly the most credible of authorities in these matters.
The journey from the Strand to the New Lodge before heading to Ardoyne was in a taxi in the company of a female volunteer. At a checkpoint at Cromac Square we were waved through. Upon arrival in the New Lodge Road Truce Incident Centre, she pulled a number of items from beneath her clothing and planted them on the table in front of my nose. It was one of those FFS moments as I cast my mind back to a few minutes earlier and the checkpoint. The thought that I could have been back in jail within 24 hours of getting released from it was a sobering one. Not that it lasted long. Within hours I was again blocked after a night in the Star Club. When we later dated I don’t think our close encounter came up. We parted company after I was arrested and held for three days in Castlereagh, got out, went on the beer with the boys, leaving her none the wiser. Sure, it was the only way for an eighteen year old to live.
In the end, what freedom I experienced didn’t last very long. By February the following year I was back in the Crum, having had about four or five arrests in between which shortened the freedom spell even more. Less than four months without one boring moment, the dubious joys of prison life once more beckoned: the stultifying tedium, the debilitating ennui, the mind-numbing boredom of the blanket protest. And for much longer than the first time around.
My life wasted? No, just lived differently. The wasted lives were those that were lost.