Robert Moke McMahon

Easter Sunday is that time of the year when a primordial republican instinct pushes its way up through the layers of mundane sediment that hold it in check and makes it out through the wearing course of every day life. It is a day when republican eschatology comes into its own and prompts reflection on dead comrades.

Robert ‘Moke’ McMahon who died recently after carrying cancer for a prolonged period was one of those republicans whose political outlook had developed as a result of his stay in Long Kesh’s Cage 11. It was from that particular abode that he emerged back into the world of the IRA in the late 1970s. Since then Cage 11 has been stamped on the literary map by the publication of a book by the same name written by Sinn Fein boss Gerry Adams. Some time prior to his own release Adams had served as the O/C of Cage 11 and his thinking had influenced many others who served time there. At Moke’s funeral Adams mentioned having first met him in Cage 11. It was there that I first met him too.

Moke was an open Adams backer when I came across him and as such was a vociferous critic of the truce leadership of the mid 1970s. Although Cage 11 prided itself on its own reputation as a source of seditious ideas, the intellectual regime that was fostered there expected a high degree of conformity from those held within its boundaries. It wasn’t considered chic to be enamoured to either the jail or outside leaderships.

Yet the attitude to those who dissented wasn’t overly severe and a dissenter’s life was far from the woeful experience conjured up by Robert Hoffer’s world of non conformity where the dissenter not conforming with non-conformity lives a hard life. When the camp staff placed its education officer in Cage 11 he was treated with a fair measure of tolerance. Nevertheless within the cage it was expected that the camp staff in general should be treated with disdain along with the external leadership it was assumed to be fronting for.

While having few problems with the analysis I recall flagging up the regime of conformity to Moke during a loud discussion when he was giving out about the then camp staff which was associated with the truce leadership. Whatever his views on my observation he remained as friendly as always. His attitude was never poisonous. Whatever position he may have arrived at in later years certainly then he did not feel threatened by a different idea.

His was an effervescent personality and I recall him as forever on the up, always helpful, never vindictive, and more inclined to register his criticism through banter rather than put-downs. There were times during the tedium laced days of the blanket protest when ennui would sit heavily on my spirit that my thoughts would drift back to Moke and others in the radically different world of Cage 11.

A one time internee, he had returned to prison at the end of 1974 or early 1975 having been linked to the capture of a huge bomb in Belfast. I was in Crumlin Road towards the end of 1974 when what experienced hands remained in the Belfast IRA were making their way into the jail. The organisation in the city seemed to be in a dire state despite some considerable successes during the year including a double assassination of two judges in different parts of the city on the same day in September.

From the Crum he made his way to Cage 11 where the ceasefire he and so many others there would prove unremittingly hostile to was in full swing. Cage 11 did not end his prison experience. He would later return to Crumlin Road in 1983 for a short period after being accused in one of the supergrass cases of the era.

Moke, like so many others in Cage 11, had a passion for soccer. And it produced its fair share of talented players one of whom would later ply his trade in the Northern Irish league. Cage 11 took its soccer as seriously as it did its politics and one occasion its passion spilled over into a free for all brawl when it lost a game to a rival cage. The match produced a stinging comment from a governor who offered to have a riot squad on stand by for the following game.

I bumped into Moke a few times after I got out. By that time he was ensconced in the security teams and my dealings with him were social in passing and personal; not in any way related to ‘Movement business’. He was never ignorant or hostile but without doubt given the environment he floated in, didn’t share my view of where things were at.

In the end, whatever perspective he embraced in later years, I have warm memories of him as someone who raised spirits and added a dash of colour to the drab prison grey in an era when republicanism seemed to have a future rather than just a past.


  1. Mackers,
    I have been at several events to honour Moke recently and this is by far the best summary I have heard about him.
    Although, Albert spoke about Moke today in the memorial garden, he also reiterates your tribute has been the best this far.

  2. Nuala,

    thanks for that. I always liked him in the jail. He had a really good attitude to people. During the blanket he often came to mind as I sat bored out of my wits.

  3. Mackers,
    Moke would have been totally flattered by what you wrote.
    He never had an inflated opinion of himself, as you rightly say just that easy relaxed humour.
    Albert said he was the only man he knew, 'who could head a ball and comb his hair at the same time.'
    He will be sorely missed.