Frequently he would say mass in the H-Block canteens during the protest. We, believers and atheists alike, would cram in to the bland concrete rectangle: a heaving mass of unclean flesh, the product of having gone for years without washing, other than the occasional violent forced bath. The noise was incredible. Sitting in the cell waiting our turn to be unlocked for the event, we could hear the din. With each set of two men entering the canteen the decibel level would steadily move upwards. Everybody wanted to talk at the same time. Like a murmur at first, from those already there, it would increase in tempo to the point where it was indistinguishable from a roar. It sounded like a mob on the move ready to overrun our cell.
How priests ever managed to hear what was being told to them during confessions in the midst of that cacophony I do not know. The undoubted odour which we had long since ceased to notice must have stayed in the nostrils of the priest for the rest of that day, taking much of the pleasure away from that afternoon’s Sunday roast.
Into that mass of men clad only in prison trousers, Alex Reid stepped to deliver smuggled tobacco before performing his clerical duties. On leaving he would be well stocked with Clingfilm sealed letters for relatives.
In his other life as a political mediator he became susceptible to believing (or at least claiming to believe) whatever Gerry Adams told him. I can see the funny side of it: Alex persuading himself that he was the sole witness to a miracle every time he met the Sinn Fein leader: Adams telling the truth! Outside of a miracle how else do we explain it?
But it would be churlish to make anything of this outside of a playful tease. Even though he upset more than just the unionists by vouching for Adams, once claiming he was a man sent by god - and he didn’t mean in the sense that god sent plagues - Alex Reid was a man of great attributes. Despite the image of a person of stoical perseverance he was deeply affected by what he witnessed, at one point suffering a breakdown, as I recall, during the years of prison protest.
One of the images of the conflict seared into our minds is that of him bending over shot British soldiers as he administered the last rites of the Catholic Church. It would have been easier to walk away, pretend not to see, make no effort to reach the men. But Alex Reid no more walked away from those soldiers than he walked away from the prisoners on the blanket protest.
They put the two of them face down on the ground and I got down between the two of them on my face, and I had my arm around this one and I was holding this one by the shoulder. When I was lying between the two soldiers I remember saying to myself, 'This shouldn’t be happening in a civilised society.’
Somebody came in and picked me up and said, 'Get up, or I’ll ----ing well shoot you as well,’ and he said, 'Take him away.’ Two of them came on either shoulder and manoeuvred me out ... I can remember the atmosphere. You could feel it. I knew they were going to be shot. I can remember thinking, 'They are going to shoot these men.’He was there for those seemingly forsaken and in a state of extreme isolation. Had he, days earlier, been near the scene of the British army administered Gibraltar executions, he would have behaved no differently. A Catholic, for sure, but humanity was his religion.
I met him on a small number of occasions after release. In later years I sensed he was not entirely at ease in my presence, revealed less in what he said but in what he didn’t say as he maintained a quiet reserve. Perhaps he anticipated a challenge to anything he might say lauding the integrity of Adams. I had no inclination to make things uncomfortable for him, remembering that when discomfort was severe, he brought comfort.