In the bar we had met “The Tobe” and Big Albert whom I had also known from jail. There was a lot of beer imbibed, that particular day traditionally being a big swall occasion. The chemistry of the group fuelled the craic, while quite a few pints on Toby and I shared a joint which the other two didn’t partake of.
I had first met Toby almost thirty years earlier in Cage 11. A morose man not temperamentally inclined to prison but more than willing to face it. He and I began daily walking the cage together for hours on end in the afternoons once Pat McGeown had moved across to Cage 12. Pat, like Toby was deep, and I guess I appreciated the way they thought about the issues they raised and for that reason spent a lot of time walking with and talking to them.
Toby was a great Irish speaker and was the driving force in setting up the Gaeltacht in Cage 11 in 1978. I became part of it without actually moving anywhere. My cubicle and others in the lower half of the end hut were converted by Toby into the Gaeltacht. It was a fascinating time. Watching him and Daithi Power from the Strand debate the issues of the day in Irish, like poetry in motion, was daunting. It made me feel their standard of Irish was way beyond anything I could ever hope to attain.
I was moved to the blocks after an escape endeavour came to nought. The Tobe was released the following May. He got out at a time when the IRA was shifting up the gears and he was determined to be part of it. In 1981 he was captured in a house in Lenadoon during a meeting of Belfast’s brigade staff and charged with a rocket attack that had left a cop dead. Most saw it as a holding charge, a legal ploy to remove those “unwanted members of the public” off the streets.
It would have been no more but for the intervention of Christopher Black who effectively kick started the super grass system that would ultimately come to so discredit the north’s judiciary. Black, unlike Toby whom he had been in Cage 11 with, was wholly unwilling to face jail again and opted to give evidence against his comrades. It would cause Toby and quite a few others to spend a further five years in prison. In July 1986 their initial convictions were overturned on appeal. He had much earlier beaten the rocket attack rap.
Toby was on the red book when he arrived in the blocks in 1983 and I would spend time with him when he came onto the wing for the three weeks or so that the administration normally allowed the red book men to stay in any one place. Toby had the experience of having being out on the street and had an appreciation of the obstacles in the way of putting into effect jail devised ideas, where the fluidity of idealism comes up against the immovable force of habit. Those of us without the benefit of his experience invariably found him urging caution and to avoid going over the top in pursuit of some Marxist utopia.
If his enthusiasm for some of the more outlandish ideas had been cured his snoring had successfully resisted all proposed remedies. Bad enough in the cages where at most a plywood partition was all that protected his fellow sleepers from the roar of a snore, it was like listening to a motorcycle when he was in the blocks even where concrete and steel served as the partitioning walls. “FFS Tobias” was one of the milder inducements offered him to sleep silently.
After release he again immersed himself in “the Movement” but by now expanding a writing talent he had developed in jail where he would write plays to be staged in the wing canteens. By the time I was getting released towards the end of 1992 his play on Tom Williams was being talked about everywhere. I headed down to Dundalk one cold winter evening to view it. A former prisoner who knew him well, Nuala Perry, described Toby’s attitude to his work:
Toby's play about Tom was brilliant. It captured every aspect of the whole event and the tragic ending. He included all of us in every part of the play. He would arrive at the door morning, noon and night with ideas scribbled on pieces of paper and was always eager and interested in what you thought.
I would call in on him occasionally. He would slag that he dreaded seeing me coming in case the contents of our exchange would end up in the Sunday newspapers. It didn't prevent him giving me samples of writing he sought a second opinion on. Toby had no time for the direction in which the movement was going. He was much too clever to buy into the rubbish that was being churned out. As a result he felt the chill of isolation. While many would call on him it seems nobody from the ex-prisoners groups ever bothered crossing his door.
His funeral oration was delivered by his long standing friend Eddie Carmichael who apparently pulled no punches in saying what needed said. Someone attending remarked that Eddie didn’t miss and hit the wall.
Abhorring the lifestyle of the career republican, whatever poverty Toby McMahon died in last April, it was not a poverty of spirit.