Joseph Doherty:
Visiting Time at the H-Blocks

A rambling by
Stephany Duncan Gormley

"They're ungodly dungeons these blocks of stone
Where a man meets himself and finds he's alone,
And black devils walk their inner ways
Where weeks seem like years and minutes like days."
Bobby Sands, "A Tribute to Screws"

"Can any of ya tell me the name of Fred Flintstone's boss?" a young male voice asks in a heavy Belfast brogue.

In a conspicuously American accent, I blurt out the answer: "Mister Slate." This young Irishman and I are fellow passengers on a bus within the grounds of a British prison in Northern Ireland. His question was directed at his friends who are sitting with him and across from me. None of them are bothered by my spontaneous reply, but I feel embarrassed. I've left myself vulnerable to a bit of "slaggin'," the Irish version of a pointed, but good-hearted teasing. The uncontrollable color rising in my cheeks guarantees it.

Speaking into an imaginary microphone that he holds in his right hand, the questioner replies, "This lovely lass with the reddener is absolutely right. Mr. Slate is Fred's boss at the quarry, but we have to disqualify her from winning the grand prize because she's an American ... and that gives her an unfair advantage over the rest of our contestants. However, we do have a consolation prize that she can pick up after the show." I smile and thank him.

This is my sixth visit to this prison in as many years. I'm not a veteran visitor like most of the passengers, but I'm no longer a novice. Over the years, I've learned to treasure the sense of normality and quiet kinship these seemingly incongruous light-hearted moments create on this bus. It's larger than a mini-bus, smaller than a schoolbus and has an electric motor that whines monotonously. The seats aren't in rows. We're all sitting very close to one another on the continuous bench seating that lines the interior. You can feel patches of warmth on your shoulder or hip where another's rests against yours. The legs and feet of the adults could touch each other if they were stretched out towards the middle. The legs of the children are in constant motion and parents repeatedly, but gently, scold them; "Be still now love ... we're almost there."

The bus is as uncomfortably secure as the prison grounds it travels. There are no side or rear windows, fresh air can only trickle in through a tiny opening in the middle of the roof. The woman next to me is wearing a light, sweet perfume, but the body heat and still stuffy air have transformed the scent. It's become heavy and tactile, and wraps itself around my face like a stifling, hot towel. The only window in the front of the passenger compartment is a fixed pane of glass, a one-way mirror that separates us from the driver and the armed guard sitting beside him. We can only see them as dark profiles inside a silvery rectangle.

It's a five-minute ride to the last waiting room for the final processing, but the minutes seem long and heavy. Being encased in this bus and anxious for the 90-minute visit to start attaches ballast to normal time. Bus rides mark the joints in the pattern of visiting days. This is my second bus ride of the day.

The first bus, provided by Sinn Féin, the political party of Irish Republicans, dropped us off in the parking lot of the prison. For the nominal sum of one pound, this bus furnishes passengers in the Catholic ghettos of Belfast with transportation to and from the prison. Since I'm visiting with friends for a couple of weeks in a ghetto known as New Lodge, I'm a de facto New Lodger. I'm always earlier than most of the passengers who gather at the corner near Dicey Reilly's pub to catch the bus. As I smoke a cigarette and wait, the routine of a New Lodge morning unfolds around me. Kids walk by in their school uniforms and mothers head out for the shops with china-faced babies giggling or crying in their strollers. Dogs carry away pieces of food they've carefully picked out of the litter that's scattered about on the sidewalks and sniff the occasional vomit. I listen to the tune of the brogues from passersby that rise and linger in the moist air from Belfast Lough. I hear the clinking of glass on cement stoops as the milkmen leave quart bottles outside the doors of the chain of row houses that crowd either side of the narrow street. Once a year, for six consecutive years, I've watched and listened to the morning song of New Lodge and waited for the prison bus near that pub.

This morning, everything seemed the same as last year and the four years before that, but then I noticed something different. There were more men on the street. Usually I saw mostly older men carrying their morning newspapers. Today, there are some younger men walking down the street. A portion of the tenuous Northern Ireland peace agreement became apparent to me this morning by partially fulfilling the promise to release all political prisoners. I'd known that the first men freed were prisoners that had short sentences or little time left to serve on long sentences. Actually seeing them free and back in their home made me happy, but their presence accentuated the absence of my friend Joe.

In 1980, after being convicted of the death of a British SAS army captain, Joseph Doherty was sentenced to life imprisonment. His subsequent escape to the U.S., recapture in New York City in 1983 and conspicuous battle in American courts to be granted a hearing for political asylum have made his release date, at best, uncertain. The British government is still angry about his ability to find support in America and his candor in media interviews about the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Geography allowed Joe and me to become friends during the last year he was in a U.S. prison. In June 1991, I made my first trip to Belfast to attend an Irish genealogical research conference. Up until that time, I'd only read about the conflict and followed Joe's case in the media. Personally witnessing the extent of the military presence in the Catholic ghettos of Belfast and the reality of the oppressive conditions people lived with everyday affected me deeply. In August 1991, two months after my trip, an article in my local newspaper announced Joe's move from the Metropolitan Correction Center in Manhattan to the Lewisburg Penitentiary, a federal prison near my home in rural Pennsylvania. I wrote to Joe and told him how appalled I was about what I'd seen in Belfast. I asked about the current status of his case and told him about the parallels I saw between the conflict in his country and the civil rights movement in the U.S. I asked him a myriad of questions about human rights in Northern Ireland and his case.

Joe's reply to my letter was gracious and kind. He took great care in answering my questions and suggested books he felt would provide me with more historical information about the conflict. We continued to correspond, and occasionally we talked on the phone. In January 1992, I was granted permission to visit Joe at the penitentiary. One month later, after losing his final bid for a political asylum hearing, he was deported back to Northern Ireland. Joe was denied credit for the nine years he spent in U.S. prisons waiting for a decision in his case, which meant that he began serving his life sentence as if no time had passed since the day of his initial sentencing. This denial kept him from qualifying for an earlier release based on the terms of the peace treaty that concerned time served.

As the bus pulls up to the curb, I hang onto the unconvincing hope that this will be my last trip to a prison to see Joe.

I'm the only American in a group of about 15 people on the prison visitors' bus. Other Americans support and visit prisoners, but many of them drive themselves to the prison in rental cars or visit over the weekend, so I've never met any of them on this bus. As I look for an empty seat, I recognize some of the faces from other years, though I can't attach names to them and I don't know for sure if anyone recognizes me. The familiar and new faces smile at me as I sit down. Someone always greets me as if it's been only a day since last they saw me, "How are ya this mornin'? Looks like it's going to be a soft day today." This bus is almost normal, even though its destination is fixed on the prison.

The prison is known by three names: Her Majesty's Prison Maze, Long Kesh Prison and the H-Blocks. Over the years I've noticed that its various labels seem to carry political connotations. If someone refers to the prison as "H.M.P. Maze" or "Maze Prison," the implication is they either support British rule in these partitioned six counties of Ireland or don't want to betray their personal sentiments about the conflict. They could also have a friend or loved one that's a loyalist prisoner inside its walls or simply not know the prison's history well enough to refer to it by its indigenous names. If someone refers to it as "Long Kesh Prison," "the Kesh" or "the H-Blocks," the implication is they don't support British rule or the division of the island. The prison's indigenous names could also imply that someone has knowledge of its history or that they have an Irish Republican friend or loved one who's serving a sentence here.

The prison's original name was Long Kesh Prison. The British attempted to rename it "H.M.P. Maze" during the mid-'80s to divorce it from the notorious brutality that took place within its walls during the 1970s and early 1980s.

The prison's names are part of the political vocabulary and might delineate differences in ideology, but its physical appearance and the contradictory beauty of the surrounding countryside are the same for everyone. The H-Blocks crouch on the edge of Lisburn, a small town about 15 miles south of Belfast. The only way to see the origin of the H-Blocks moniker is to look at an aerial photograph. The eight H-shaped block buildings that contain the prisoner's cells house hundreds of loyalist and Irish Republican prisoners who never see each other. Inside the block walls and outside in the walled exercise yards, they are segregated according to their political convictions. A solid masonry wall surrounds each individual H-block and the eight groups of blocks are enclosed in double outer masonry walls. A chain-link fence topped with braids of razor wire forms the last boundary in the compound. From the air, the H-Blocks look like a neatly kept geometric fortress.

On the ground, the H-blocks are an incongruously bleak stain on the enfolding lush green landscape that's typical of the Irish countryside. Just off the roads that lead to Lisburn, sheep graze silently in fields near well-kept white stuccoed farmhouses trimmed with multi-colored flowers that defy the boundaries of their window boxes. Yellow gorse with clusters of bright butter-colored blossoms grows outside the low granite gray dry-stone walls that sew the land into a patchwork quilt. In the distance, a light mist glides slowly over the dusty blue silhouettes of the Mourne Mountains.

The Celts, the native people of Ireland, believed in an otherworld called Tir Na nÓg, the Land of Youth. The land in this otherworld physically mirrors mortal Ireland's lovely countryside, but is free of its temporal cares and misery. In the bliss of Tir Na nÓg, time passes almost imperceptibly; hundreds of mortal years go by in what seems like a day. Before the prison comes into sight, you can feel the innate mystical quality of the land that inspired the Celt's vision of this otherworld. It's a feeling that doesn't last. Ireland's celebrated beauty mocks the wound the H-Blocks have made on its soil, but its luster withers at the perimeter of the prison grounds.

As the bus from Belfast passes through the open chain-link gate and stops in the mostly unpaved parking lot, the land surrenders itself to the prison's deformity. Even though I've visited this prison before, the impact of the physical changes in the land and the ambiance of the surroundings are the same as the first time I came here. The immediate conclusion of Ireland's beauty at its gate feels familiar and oppressive. Greens, yellows, reds and warm earth tones give way to innumerable shades of lifeless grey. The bare soil looks tired and worn from misuse. The soft, fluid textures of grass and flower blossoms are replaced by cold, rigid metal and inflexible masonry within the seconds it takes to pass through the gate. When I get off the bus, I hurry towards the benevolent sanctuary of the canteen.

Irish Quakers operate the canteen in a small block building to the left of the parking lot. Their dedication to providing visitors from both sides of the conflict with unconditional and impartial compassion, inexpensive food and free childcare has earned them the respect, gratitude and admiration of the people who come here. I order a cup of hot tea, sit at a table near the window and try not to think about the young men that died here in 1981.

I'd known about the hunger strikers on other visits. I remember hearing the news coverage and I'd heard stories from people who visited here during that time, but hearing Bobby Sand's voice was new to me. About two months ago, I'd read Bobby Sand's Writings from Prison. I'm trying not to think of Bobby's voice, a living voice that comes from his poetry and the words of his prison diary. The hunger strike was called because of Margaret Thatcher's decision to eliminate the special category of all political prisoners as political prisoners and reclassify them as ordinary criminals. Before the decision was reversed, Bobby Sands and 12 other men died here, along with two men who honored the hunger strike in a prison in England. Riots broke out in the streets. Bobby wrote about the conditions within the prison and about the life he dreamed of outside its walls. The date of his last entry in his diary is March 17, 1981. Bobby Sands died May 5.

There's an unspoken ordinance against appearing sad or distressed in front of a prisoner during a visit. I'm feeling like I might fail to comply because Bobby's words are too intimate and real here, so I shift my concentration and think about how nice it will be to sit and talk with Joe again. We'll probably talk about things that we forgot to put into our letters over the past year. Since Joe and I have both become adult university students, our letters are often filled with enthusiasm about the courses we're taking. I laugh to myself about a remark Joe made about a photo I sent of my university's campus: "The campus is a bit lovelier than the grounds of the H-Blocks Academy, but we get a lot more personal attention from the faculty and staff here."

Ironically, about six-months after Joe was deported, I had a sociology instructor who knew Joe from the correction center in Manhattan. He had been the assistant warden at the M.C.C. the entire time Joe was imprisoned there. He told me he liked talking to Joe, thought that he was a very intelligent man and hoped he was doing well. When I told Joe about him, he expressed mutual feelings of respect and said I was fortunate to have such a fair man for a teacher. Hearing comments like those from men on opposing sides of the prison system seemed remarkable. The odds of getting an instructor at a small rural university in Pennsylvania who knew Joe, along with the coincidence of his role in Joe's prison life, reminded me of how small and interconnected the world can be. The same thoughts about the improbability of my own connections and friendship with Joe strike me every time I sit in this canteen.

The movement of other visitors in the canteen tells me it's time to begin the lengthy process of getting inside the compound. I follow them though the tall metal turnstile that forms the opening in the fence and leads to the first of three waiting areas. One building is the same as the other. All are drab, damp and full of prison guards, "screws" in identical charcoal gray uniforms, who do their jobs with chronic efficiency. I file in along the interior wall, between small enclosures that look like toll booths and a metal railing. Leaning towards the small opening in the glass window, I tell the screws Joe's full name and prison number. In return, I receive the small piece of paper that serves as an H-Blocks passport.

I walk around the railing towards two groups of chairs in the center of the room and glance around at the decor. The walls are covered with institutional paint in a color that offers no reason to remember its shade, but there are some vivid colors here. The Brits, at some point, must have decided to make a limp attempt to spruce up the image of the room, maybe to make it seem appealing to the prisoners' children. The result of the effort left bad reproductions of cartoon characters on the perimeter walls. Tweety Pie, in his patented bright yellow, smiles at unresponsive visitors with a somewhat lopsided beak and uneven eyes, as Jerry Springer's guests yell from a wall-mounted television that no one really watches. Surveillance cameras hang like track lights from the ceiling.

We sit in the same order and sequence we were in along the wall as we entered the building. Female visitors sit on one side of the room, male visitors on the other side in separate groups of bare, straight-backed chairs. It's like a game of musical chairs as guards call visitors in for the pat search (by guards of the same gender). When the first chair in the first row empties, the visitor in the second chair moves over a seat and all of us follow in sequence. Mothers with very young children hold them in their laps. Older children seem to find an outlet for some of their energy in all the up and down motions. The snake-like movement is almost always fluid and orderly because seasoned visitors help any newcomers who might, in their inexperience, create breaches in the flow.

I get up and sit down on about 10 different chairs until my turn comes around. Even though I've walked back the narrow dark hall into the tiny search room five times before, I'm still agitated by this part of the security procedure. I put my arms up and out before I'm ordered to, and stare at the wall ahead of me while the female guard runs her hands over my body. I don't know why this is called a "pat" search. I've never been patted. The female guards always run their hands in unbroken strokes down and back up my body; front, sides and back. One year, when I was in a particularly stupid, belligerent and defiant mood, I told them, "You couldn't touch me if this prison was in America. We have laws against things like this." The woman who was searching me at the time simply and flatly replied, "Take off your shoes." She pulled the innersoles out, looked inside and handed them back to me. I understood the futility of my remark and also realized that my foolish boldness could have ended my visit altogether. I've never had my shoes searched again.

This year, the guard doing the search seemed kinder. When I flinched at her initial touch she said, "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you." I don't know if it was a personal remark or part of the promotion of a new image connected to the peace agreement. I made no reply. You're permitted to take some change and cigarettes to the visiting room, but no wallets or purses. I handed over the small purse I'd brought along and received a receipt. I was happy to be finished with this room and released to the next area to wait for the bus that takes visitors inside the compound to the last waiting room.

While I was waiting for the bus and looking up at the sky through the small high windows of the narrow room, an older man leaned over the seat between us. In a cheerful voice he said, "Only one more to go now, girl. They like to keep us occupied, don't they?" I laughed and agreed.

When the bus arrives, a guard calls out the prisoner's name and his visitors climb inside. At this point, the outside world disappears completely because the bus door is pulled tightly against an opening at the right side of the room. It's similar to boarding a large jet at an airport, that same seamless transfer from a motionless building to something that's going to move.

The last jounce from the final speed bump signals the end our ride. We step off the bus quickly and pass through another door in an ambiguous building to the last waiting area. There are two rooms that accommodate visitors here, one large and one small, both windowless and drab. They're full of thinly upholstered furniture and bare tables badly in need of cleaning, and several ashtrays on pedestals that need to be emptied. We'll be here just long enough to have a smoke and use the bathrooms before a guard calls out the prisoner's name and directs us toward the appropriate visiting room. About 30 minutes have passed since the first bus came through the gates of the H-Block's parking lot, but it seems like hours. Suddenly, I hear the guard say, "Joseph P. Doherty." The young woman beside me says she hopes I have a nice visit and I wish her the same as I walk towards the guard. In a flat voice he says, "Go to your right and up the stairs." I nod and follow his directions. At the top of the stairs, I grasp the handle of a heavy metal door with a small chicken-wired window at the top. When I hear the electronic bolt move and a soft buzzer sound, I pull the door open and hand the guard my H-Blocks passport.

The visiting room is full of high-backed, cushionless wooden booths with numbers above them and tables bolted to the floor between the seats. Light fights its way into the room through the opaque white glass of thick-paned narrow windows along the ceiling. Like a bizarre maitre'd, the guard tells me the number of the booth I'm to sit in and motions me in the right direction. I sit down facing the door Joe will come through.

Now that the tedious and unpleasant process of getting to this room is over, I feel more at ease. Within five minutes or so, a guard opens the door and directs Joe to my booth. I stand up in the aisle to greet him. Prisoners always bring a plastic bag stuffed with sodas, potato chips and other snacks to share with their visitors. Joe puts his bag on the table, turns towards me, says hello, gives me a quick hug and tells me to turn around. After my back's to him, I feel him back up against me and put his hand on the top of my head. He laughs and says, "I'm just checking to see if I've shrunk or you've grown since last year. Good ... it seems like we're both the same. I always forget what a giant amadán you are."

Amadán is Gaelic for fool and a nickname Joe gave me many years ago, before I knew what it meant. It was the price of my telling him that during the '60s I said farm-out instead of far-out because I lived in a rural area, which he took as truth and passed onto his fellow prisoners.

If I don't jump into the conversation quickly enough to answer something Joe says, he always makes teasing comments like, "You came all the way from America for a visit and now you don't have anything to say?" As he hands a soda and a bag of chips across the table to me he says, "Did you notice how one of my birds pecked at the corner of the last letter I sent? Look, I finally remembered that you can't have sugar. I brought a diet 7-up for you this time."

"Thanks for remembering. Yep, you circled the spot for me, Joe, and even colored in some of the holes ... it was hard to miss them."

Laughing now he says, "Well, you're older than I am, so I know the eyesight's probably going a bit. I thought you might not notice unless I circled it."

"Wait a minute, I'm only one month older than ... "

"I let them fly around the cell when I'm in for the night. I don't think they like it when I'm writing and not paying attention to them. The lads have been slaggin' me ever since I've started raising them. They call me 'The Birdman of the H-Blocks.' I don't think I look a bit like Burt Lancaster, do you? I took a course on American filmmaking last year, I think I told you about it. You should try to write screenplays. Just don't forget to write in a part for me ... and make sure that my character is popular with women. You know, sensitive, good-looking ... a bit macho, but not overbearing. Ah, wait ... that's me in real life, right?"

Time became lighter in the stream of Joe's conversation. We talk a little about the politics and the upcoming vote on the peace referendum. He's cautiously optimistic about the chances for a real and equitable peace. "No one knows what will happen or if the Brits can be trusted to live up to their end of the agreement, but there seems to be a chance this time. We're just trying to stay united in here and let the Brits do the messing up. I just try to be as positive as I can."

Like many Republican prisoners, Joe's a fluent Gaelic speaker. He's been helping me to learn the language ever since I expressed an interest in the first letter I sent to him. I've been struggling and making very slow progress with a book and some tapes for years, so even a short chance to engage in some simple conversation with him is helpful. I recite most of what I know to Joe, which is still not much more than the kind of phrases you'd learn in other languages to get around as a tourist in continental Europe. Joe responds to my short recitation with one of his usual gracious, but slightly teasing, comments about my skills. "Very good, you've come along a bit since the last time ... not bad for an amadán." I've learned just enough about Irish slagging to take a stab at it, so I reply, "Thanks, Joe ... but really, I thought I was pretty farm-out for a wee American girl from the back country of America."

"Ah, whatever happened to that quiet country lass I once knew? Picking on a poor, defenseless Irish P.O.W. You should be ashamed of yourself."

The 90-minute visit flies by and Joe's humor makes me almost forget that I'm sitting in a prison. When the guard announces that the visit is over, it's hard to believe it's time to say good-bye for another year. Looking around the room and watching prisoners hugging their kids, wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, lovers and friends makes me even sadder than I already am. I try to hide it, but Joe knows me and how I'm feeling. "OK, I want to see a real smile. We're all right ... and we might all be out of here soon. It's much harder on the families and friends than it is on us. Who knows, if you come next year, we might be talking over a pint in a nice pub in Belfast. Remember we made a deal before I left America? You'll be buying, so be sure to save a pound or two."

It's time to leave. After the last goodbyes, we go backwards through the same processes, minus the pat search. The last waiting room becomes the first and the bus ride that brought us in drops us off at the hat check, where I turn in my receipt for my purse. Everyone seems hurried and distinctly quiet on the way out; even the young Irishmen who played the trivia game earlier are only speaking softly and sporadically now. The quiet lasts until we go back through another metal turnstile, hop on the bus to Belfast and pass through the gate into the outside world.

When we're about a mile from the prison, the voices on the bus start to sound as animated as they did on the trip down to Lisburn this morning. I look out window at the countryside. Even though selfish feelings of relief about getting away from the H-Blocks and sadness about leaving Joe and the other prisoners behind intermingle, I'm not as affected by the paradox of those emotions as I've been in the past. For the first time in six years, I've come away from the prison with a hint of optimism about next year. Seeing the released men walking the streets of the New Lodge, hearing sincere or insincere kind words from a prison guard who searched me, and listening to Joe speak with hope, even cautious hope, makes it seem like this really could be the last time I visit the H-Blocks. Time, in all of its dimensions and forms, is the silent dictator for prisoners and visitors at the H-Blocks.


My sixth visit to the H-Blocks in May 1998 was, very happily, my last. Joe was freed in November of that year. Late in May 1999, Joe and I walked to a nice pub in Belfast. I'd saved enough to buy him a pint and lunch.

To date of this writing, prison visitors still stand on the corner near Dicey Reilly's pub, but if the full promise of the peace process holds and expands, waiting for the bus will become a memory for everyone.

I wonder if Bobby Sands felt this time coming when he wrote the last three sentences of his final diary entry:

If they aren't able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won't break you. They won't break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It is then we'll see the rising of the moon.

[ by Stephany Duncan Gormley ]
Rambles: 4 August 2001