A Loyalist Memory of Magilligan

Guest writer Beano Niblock with his own memories of Magilligan Prison.

I read with interest the review of Magilligan Memories by one time prisoner Frankie McCarron. I too have very clear memories of the time I spent there - October 1975 until October 1977 when the Special Category section was closed down.

The long journey up in the back of a van with about six others - which seemed to last all afternoon - no piss stops along the way. My return journey - well, back to Long Kesh 2 years later - was somewhat shorter. By helicopter - all chained to each other including screws - an infernal din of the engine, low level flight, absolutely freezing with the door left open - I think to frighten us. It worked.

From a UVF perspective, Magilligan couldn't be further removed from LK. Although there was still a working command structure there were no daily parades or inspections, political classes, weapons training or lectures. The regime was much more relaxed and people used their free time by taking to handicrafts - they played a big part of compound life. Sport too was a huge thing. I was only up there and an inter-compound league was being established for soccer. The four compounds - UVF in A/H and the UDA in C/E each had two teams. The big rivalry then was between the A team of compound A and the top team in E. There were many large wagers placed on games throughout the league and I can recall a number of "bookies" operating during the 2 years I was there.

The prison regime was also very relaxed as far as I remember. Inter-compound travel was a daily occurrence - something that could never have happened in LK. I remember being in compound C as part of a table tennis team playing there and asked at the bunk if it was okay to stay there rather than go back to A. A PO was summoned from the bottom phase. He asked the OC of Compound C, RJ Kerr, and the OC of Compound A, Joe Bennett. And when they concurred he allowed it!! I returned to A the next morning when some guys were going on visits.

The visits were also much more relaxed than LK - the downside being that it was an all day journey for my family coming from Belfast. Memories of the weather: freezing cold in winter, wind howling through the timbers. Summer could be warm - but always, always windy. Standing on top of the water tower in H watching the army at target practice in the sandpits just over the wall - or them firing jimpies from helicopters at target buoys out on the water.

The many attempted tunnels: the ground too soft to dig - it kept collapsing. One such tunnel attempt ended up in a huge cavern like hole where everyone hid one morning for the count - and then miraculously re-appeared when the screws and troops weighed in about 10 minutes later. Or two screws suddenly falling down a hole while walking the perimeter - again from a wayward tunnel.

The sports days, the card schools, the water fights, the pigeon sheds, the banty hens laying fresh eggs every morning, the almost free association, the sun tans, the music ... Led Zeppelin/Physical Graffitti all day long ... Bob Dylan/ Hard Rain ... or Bonnie Raitt - this was my soundtrack for the summer of 76, growing my hair long again after 3 years previously in LK where you had to have regulation military length hair!!! No bed packs: doors on your cubicles instead of curtains, roofs too made out of painted sheets.

Some of the more unbelievable things I also remember: making the nail or pin boards, the Loyalist Prisoner ones. And to authenticate them we brought a chair out, stood with a pair of pliers and cut a strip of barbed wire off and attached it to the board. Asking screws to take a message to someone in one of the other cages - really a bet in an envelope - not collusion mind you - everyone wanted as easy a time as possible!! Some prisoners using stolen screw uniforms to walk round the compound after lock up at nights, just for something to do.

The way Magilligan was set up made it easy to contact other prisoners, either Loyalist or Republican. I would put a chair against the wire and watch the football or Gaelic matches. My memories of these are manifold: Frankie Fitzsimmons was one of the better Gaelic players, I think - someone may correct me here. He took no shit either from what I saw and skittled many out of his road.

Through watching the football I struck up an unlikely friendship with a Provie prisoner that lasted until 1988. A friendship "through the wire" so to speak. Jock Hone was undoubtedly one of the best players I seen in jail all through the years and that includes some fantastic players from the Loyalist cages ... many who played at Irish League level or above ... and one who went on to become a Northern Ireland international!! Jock liked a laugh and we spent many hours both in Magilligan and in LK when he was in Cage 11, I think.

One thing that has stuck with me over the years is the assertion by many that Magilligan was really only for short termers. That it was too undisciplined and easy going for long termers or lifers. If you can enjoy any time in prison Magilligan was probably as close as you will ever get.


  1. do you remembr Wee buck knocking jimmy craig out.i do.

  2. Beano,

    I enjoy reading your contributions as an Irish republican it is refreshing to read your views and memories extremely articulate in painting a picture with your words.
    I can’t speak for anyone else here but I hope you continue to share your history from a loyalist perspective.
    The internet fortunately has no peace walls dividing us and gives us the opportunity to share our past and your articles are interesting and very much food for thought.

  3. From Beano

    I'm not sure what Billy Brooks means when talking about Wee Buck and Jimmy Craig...the only Wee Buck I knew was Valliday-when I was in the YPC..and I knew Craig from his time in charge of the UDA...in Long Kesh..I don't recall either of them being in Magilligan... certainly not in my time.

    Tain Bo...irrespective of who is telling the story, I feel that the narratives are important-if not essential. From my jail experiences and from talking to many former Republican prisoners-both behind the wire and on the outside-there is a lot of commonality between them and Loyalists. Of course the vast majority of my time was spent in the compound system, so by and large that is what I am talking about. H Block prisoners, I am sure could tell a very different story. What has always interested me around the prison experience is how, at times both Republicans and Loyalists could merge for a common purpose. The fight for political status is probably the best example of this but I can also vividly recall the protest of 1974-which lasted for virtually 10 months in some shape or form. One of my abiding memories of that time was of the pulley system which was devised and set up to ferry food parcels-from detainees-to those cages who were refusing visits-so therefore were denied parcels. Republicans and Loyalists both benefitted here. To stand on top of one of the huts and see this amazing chain..made from sheets and blankets..operating thirty feet above the ground-from water tower to water tower was a sight I will never forget.

  4. Beano,

    I agree with you on the importance of the narratives over the years I have heard some great memories from republican prisoners.
    The prison struggle has always held an interest for me post conflict in my opinion it is something that should be well documented.

    The ingenuity in getting one over on the screws and the ability to find creative ways to kill off the monotony for a bit makes for fascinating reading.

    For me reading your accounts boils down to how well you articulate your memories in a very believable manner given the time span recalling memories in great detail is by no means easy.

    It is a part of our history I can’t speak for others but for me there is always something to learn which helps when trying to understand the past.

  5. From Beano

    Tain Bo-the narratives are the most important aspect of our past whether it be prison related or not. I am touching sixty now and am involved in trying to capture some of those stories from ex combatants or prisoners. The perennial problem is that the numbers of those who want to relate the stories are diminishing rapidly. Funerals are becoming an almost weekly routine and the danger is that a lot of stories will go untold. Stories that aren't about glorifying a past-but telling it in the hope that our actions won't be repeated. Of course when we talk about the prison years we will always fill the narrative with plenty of tales of laughter-good times and wonderful camaraderie. For me this was very true because I didn't have much else. By the time I got out at age 34 I had been in jail for exactly half my life-having gone in early in 1973 as a 17 year old. But in there too was the loneliness and the hard times-no matter who says otherwise. Another aspect to this is the fact that due to the long history of Republicans in prison-centuries really-compared to the relatively short span for Loyalists make it more likely that Republicans will be more forthcoming. To many Loyalists-even ex prisoners there is a stigma attached to their past circumstances. Slowly this attitude is changing and I am involved with many who want to relate their stories. It is important that this is encouraged. But I think it needs to be said that the shameful actions of Boston College in relation to the archives certainly has the potential to make people clam up for good.

  6. Beano,

    I think the loyalist reticence to write or convey their experiences to the public discourse leaves a huge gap. And as you say the window is closing. I think your writing here has stirred a lot of interest within republicans as to how loyalists experienced things.

  7. From Beano

    Absolutely Anthony-the importance of the captured narratives cannot be over stated. Slowly but surely I am seeing some guys who previously were reticent to recount their experiences come forward to participate. Too many times each year I turn up at funerals of auld hands and the conversation always turns to-" shame-he could have told you some yarns" - The "yarns" need to be told. I have no problem in sharing my memories and am glad that they are reaching a new audience too. Hopefully your readership can see the many comparisons within.

  8. Beano,

    I am in complete agreement with you on narrating the conflict and the extreme importance of both the republican and loyalist histories.

    It is understandable that some are reluctant to tell their story unfortunately Johnny Law is always lurking in the back of minds and that possibility of getting scooped for telling your story is naturally off-putting perhaps more so today with selective interment and ridiculous legislations.

    The whole spectacle of Boston College put a damper on oral histories with their complete failure to defend the project. Which was no skin of their nose but a valuable resource of greater importance to us was put through the ringer which had to make people very weary.
    And on the republican side Danny Morrison had to act the big lad playing the Provo green book card and mouthing of “touts.”
    That sort of attitude doesn’t help as there are plenty of Provo stories that will go untold.

    In my opinion more Projects along the lines of the Belfast Project should be encouraged.
    It is unfortunate that the hands of time seem to move faster now and naturally as you say attending funerals becomes a frequent event.

    I can understand the stigma some loyalists might feel and the reluctance that brings as it is for some a difficult water to navigate.
    Though I hope you have more success and continue with the work of collecting their story as it is on par with the republican narrative.

    The academic value is and will be priceless in understanding our conflict the contemporary value is beneficial as we get to cross that bloody divide and learn to come to terms with why it happened with that hope it can be avoided in the future.

    I was sitting looking back from that isolation and loneliness perspective and a former Provo came to mind, I think he done 10 years and lost two on remission long story short when he got out he hit the drink heavy which eventually killed him but I think it was that isolation that caused him to hit the drink.
    Another friend who done 8 years and it never seemed to faze him not that he was the talkative type before he went in. He just did his whack got out and got on with life still to this day he rarely mentions it.

    As I said I enjoy reading your contributions as it is a window into a world that helps me understand the loyalist perspective and is a healthy balance to the republican narrative.

    Good luck with your work