Saturday, December 30, 2017

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Tommy Roberts

Anthony McIntyre pays tribute to the first jail O/C he encountered during his imprisonment.






It was a Sunday afternoon in April 1974. I arrived on A Wing of Crumlin Road jail from the prison hospital just after lunch time lock up. One of the first people to greet me on the wing with a Derry accent was Tommy Roberts. He seemed old, but he was only in his early thirties. Although at 16, that made me half his age. Then, everybody twice my age looked old. He was the O/C of the republican remand prisoners in the jail.

One of the first things he asked me was whether I had led the prison riot that left the hospital wrecked. I told him honestly, that I had not. I was locked up at the time in a cell and not in the communal ward where the riot broke out. Apart from hearing the commotion I knew nothing about it.

At that young and impressionable age IRA leaders invariably seemed of a higher caste. We held them in a certain awe. I tended to revere Tommy. In the jail he was a quiet and reserved man. He would frequently excel at outdoor quoits which was favoured more by the older prisoners. Our generation preferred water fights.

Shortly after my arrival in the jail a poisoning scare broke out. British security agencies running agents in the prison hatched a plot to poison IRA leaders like Tommy and Brendan Hughes. We began refusing prison food, sustaining ourselves on what our families sent in via parcels. The hot water boilers in each of the canteens were under permanent guard by IRA volunteers. A tension and atmosphere of suspicion enveloped the prison. People on the wing one day would no longer be there the following. They were now in “the Annex” we were told. Rumours abounded, and the IRA intelligence people were not beyond the use of violence to extract information from those they suspected. Much of what they got was later proved to be nonsense. But the effect was to create a paranoia amongst the remand prisoners which extended into Cage 10 of Long Kesh. Brendan Hughes was later to describe some of it as akin to Japanese torture.

One of the saddest cases to emerge was that of Columba McVeigh. He arrived in the jail some time after Tommy Roberts was sentenced, only to admit during his debriefing that he too had been sent in to poison Brendan Hughes. It was probably the start of a dangerous odyssey for the young man which presumably led to his disappearance. His body has never been found. Others who had been on the wing and said to be involved in the plot were later shot dead by the IRA in Belfast.

So, Tommy Roberts led the prisoners at the start of a very volatile time, where he had to strive to protect those under his command, knowing at the same time that he was one of the primary targets. He dropped neither his guard nor his outward sense of calm. Shortly after it all blew up, he was sentenced to seven years and moved to Magilligan.

Four years later, when back in prison serving a life sentence in Cage 11, I read in the papers that Tommy had been arrested, stopped in a car ferrying him and others on a bombing operation. My first thought was that he was a bit old for it but admired him all the more for that.

The following year while lying in a filthy cell on the blanket protest, we learned that two new blanket men were on our wing. One of them was Tommy Roberts, the other Phil Nolan. The screws ribbed Tommy a bit about being born during the second world war, much too old to be hanging out with us. Tommy was one of the older blanket prisoners but he had the determination of youth. Such was his belief in the legitimacy of the IRA cause, he would never wear the prison uniform. I was delighted to see him although I would have preferred it to be in a different location with both of us more suitably attired.

Tommy was a realist and did not share the hopes of many of the blanketmen that the protest would be quickly resolved. He settled down for the long haul that it proved to be, and was there to the end. So when the following words were delivered during his funeral eulogy, I immediately recognised them as hyperbole-free.

Primarily, he was a fearless IRA soldier. When republicans speak of struggle, speak of sacrifice, speak of courage, Tommy Roberts’ name is one of the first that enters our thoughts. Tommy led from the front and would never ask a fellow Volunteer to do something he would not do himself. His dedication to the freedom struggle saw him incarcerated in every jail in Ireland.

When the protest ended I would meet up with him on different wings. By then he was Tommy Bap. How he got that handle I have no idea, but he was regarded and revered as one of the republican veterans.

When inquiring about him from a former Derry prisoner last year, I learned that he was doing poorly. The information was not wrong because he succumbed to the illness in June. His funeral was a republican affair. When Sinn Fein members arrived at the home with a wreath they were told where to go by his widow, Molly, herself a former republican prisoner. Tommy, apparently, loathed the Sinn Fein jettisoning of republicanism, seeing in it little other than an opportunistic grab for careers and booty. Tommy felt too much for the volunteers who had lost their lives to see their sacrifices traded in for political bling and no republican substance.

Forty five years after he had stood in a field on active service alongside two other unarmed IRA volunteer, when the British Army fired on them, leaving James “Junior” McDaid dead, Tommy’s own life ended. He had lost none of the republicanism that he carried through that field at Ballyarnett, or in the dank cells of the H Blocks blanket protest.


Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.

Follow Anthony McIntyre on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre      

4 comments :

sean bres said...

Again, a fitting tribute. For what died the sons of Róisín?

Fionnuala Perry said...

Albert has found memories of Tommy. We enjoyed reading this Mackers.

Christopher Owens said...

Yes, another moving tribute. I liked the tale about the SFers being told where to go. Seeing how they have a habit of attempting to 'claim' or take over other people's funerals, it's nice to hear of a family standing their ground.

One aspect about these tributes/tales of prison life that I love are the little touches like "Our generation preferred water fights." It really does bring home that a lot of internees/POW's were merely teenagers when they were jailed, rather than grizzled veterans in their 30's, and that it wasn't all self-education and protest. There was fun as well.

robert corrigan said...

That was a great post mackers . Tommy and yourself was in me and gingers fist wing .
Ran round the yard with him many a time loved him rip Tommy