It Was Christmas In Prison, And The Food Was Real Good

Beano Niblock writing from the perspective of an 18 year old on his first Christmas away from home.  Beano Niblock is a former loyalist prisoner and currently a playwright.

October 1973 heralded the release of John Prine’s third album-Sweet Revenge. From his debut 2 years previously he had departed the folk/Hank Williamsey type of stuff and his latest offering contained a couple of catchy whimsical tunes. You know the ones you find yourself humming all the time? ... ”Please don’t bury me” ....... or ...... ”Dear Abby, Dear Abby, my feet are too long—my hairs falling out and my rights are all wrong”.

Prine sat well with Lowell George and Jim Croce amongst us self labelled progressive music types. Arseholes as most others called us. Croce was the sexiest artist to listen to in late 73, because, well — he died. In late 73. September. In a plane crash. So it was only us cool ones who could play his records. Or arseholes ... as I said before.

Cage 11 at this time contained UVF and UDA sentenced men, mostly “short termers”. The internees/detainees had departed around late September to pastures new, Cage 14, and Gusty and Jimmy Craig had set up in 19 with what was mostly “long termers”.

By the time the parole sheet was called out we were down to the bare minimum and bodies were in short supply on the frosted ground. The UVF/RHC prisoners resided in the middle hut, built to hold around 36 men. There were no cubicles at this time and at times upwards of 50 men could pack the hut. When Christmas Eve dawned we were a paltry nine in number with only one of us having spent a festive period in jail previously. And that was the year before when he had been in 12.

The Wombles in the end hut were slightly better off and boasted a contingent of 16 men. I had arrived in Long Kesh in early February and had been in 11 since the start of June. Of the other 8 prisoners I had known a couple of them plus we had John McKeague as Cage commander as well.

As an 18 year old the one thing that mightily impressed me about compound life was the great camaraderie and the militaristic life style. I totally bought into that and was always one of the first to bull my boots or volunteer for anything going. Most of us were the same, so we were a close enough wee group.

When I first entered the compound the two loyalist organisations did in fact co-exist quite cosily, at first, and in fact there was a joint command structure. During that period all our food and other sundries was pooled. Since the organisations had went their separate ways we in the UVF continued with the communal approach. Although we all received our own parcels and normally had our own wee eating or “grubbing” teams. Anything that was sent in from the outside was for everyone’s benefit and this worked well. We had the Orange Cross and some smaller localised welfare groups like the Martindale – who sent in stamps, clothing, boots, the daily and Sunday papers and food etc on a regular basis. They also provided the money so we could keep our supplies topped up buying from the prison tuck shop.

For someone who had just turned 18 and was looking forward to my first Christmas on the wrong side of the wire, I had mixed feelings. Still being a kinda naïve and essentially normal teenager I related Christmas time as being a family thing and was always a bit mawkish and sentimental, but something you enjoyed nonetheless, and the selfish streak in most teenagers meant that you hankered after the things in life and weren’t averse to Santa leaving you the odd present. The simple matter of being removed from society was hardly going to change that mindset.

 On the other hand I had this attitude that I was in some ways privileged to be where I was and from that point of view had to accept my circumstances. Of course being in prison makes you manufacture a side that you didn’t previously possess. How many times did you hear ”Could do that standing on my head”? I certainly didn’t feel sorry for myself and busied myself in doing what had to be done. Of the nine of us three were married men with young children and I know they felt it more than the rest of us — for obvious reasons. Considering it was their first Christmas away from their families it would have been extra hard. They worried about how the wife was going to manage things with no breadwinner at home.

On Christmas Eve the parcels arrived, well ... my own parcel came and the stuff that was being left in by the welfare came as well. I knew there was a couple of guys who were less well off than others and it was down to the rest of us — plus the welfare rations to make sure that everyone was catered for.

From late afternoon we busied ourselves with the task of getting everything ready for the next day. Unusually the parcels arrived early. Any other time we were standing looking out the doors like a pack of Starvo’s waiting for the noise of the squeaky wheels we associated with the parcel truck. And wonder of wonders there seemed to be very little damage done too — no size 10 boot marks in the middle of an apple tart — no forest fresh Vosene accidentally mixed with your meat parcel. So hey, perhaps the screws were turning over a new leaf? Or unlikely as it seemed, there was a smattering of festive spirit. Strangely we received three turkeys - fair sized ones at that. One for every three men. Somebody remarked that we might sprout wings and fly to freedom come Boxing Day.

The turkeys were prepared and taken to the canteen to be put in the hot plate until the next morning. The jail would then send up their own version of a Christmas dinner the next day and we would salvage what we could from it. Jellies were melted and custard readied for the traditional trifle. A screw who was well liked - Fast Eddie - came around about six and asked if we would lock up an hour earlier to allow the compound staff away for a drink in the Silver City. We agreed. An hour later Eddie returned with another popular screw - Rocket Ron - and a half bottle of Haig whiskey. Despite loud protests McKeague poured the full bottle into the trifle.

With a rota system in place around the television-the one black and white set-we in the middle hut were without it that night. It would be our turn the next day. At eight the screws counted and locked us. They wished us a merry Christmas and we responded the same way. I think we both meant it.

With no television our options were limited. The hut radio spewed out the traditional Christmas dirges that did nothing to lift our mood. The welfare had sent in some books and board games-and a Totopoly set. A horse racing game. Sure-why not? Anything to get the night in. In order to get the horses to “run” a strong elastic band had to be stretched across a long table. While the rest of us raided our stashes of chocolate bars to be bet with, Big Ken stretched the rubber band.

Big Ken was what you would call a strapping big fella — he had been compared to a concrete ablution on more than one occasion - and he proved too strong for the elastic. It snapped with a loud crack and 8 miniature jockeys and horses catapulted across the hut.

Some of us laughed. Others just stared at Big Ken. Somebody else called him a stupid specky fucker. Ken took the hump and threatened to squeeze him out through the window bars. Michael said “Behave yourself -I t’s Christmas”. Big Ken said  "Fuck you AND Christmas” and stormed off to bed. McKeague called for calm and suggested a game of Continental - but he had no takers. Games of Continental frequently lasted for three or four days. In theory it is possible you could be released before the end of a game.

Slowly we drifted off. Some to read. Some to write. Others just to lie and think of Christmases’ past. The middle lights were turned out and the radio lowered to barely a whisper. I lay on the bottom bunk and thought of presents from years gone by. A Raleigh bike, a mongrel pup bought by an uncle in a bar, a figure eight Scalextric set. I thought of how I always got the Topical Times annual and how it was now replaced by Shoot. Of how quaint it was that The Broons annual came out one year and Oor Wullie the next. I leafed through the Shoot — the pen pictures of Shilton and Channon and Bobby Kerr before dozing off.

I don’t know how much later it was but I faintly heard a whisper. It took me a while to realise it was Harry from the bunk above me — whispering my name. I ignored him. He asked me was I awake and I told him no. Harry said-“ Merry Christmas anyway ye bollix ye”. Someone else heard him and picked up on it. ”Merry Christmas Harry” ... ”You too Michael” ... ”Merry Christmas John” ... ”Same to you Billy”. It was a bit like the Waltons going to bed. There was a pause and then someone-in a squeaky voice with a hint of a disguised country accent. ”Merry Christmas Big Ken”. His reply was unintelligible. I couldn’t wait until morning to give Sweet Revenge another burl on the auld Dansette.

The search light in the big yard turns 'round with the gun
And spotlights the snowflakes like the dust in the sun
It's Christmas in prison there'll be music tonight
I'll probably get homesick, I love you, Good night

P.S. - The relief screws for Fast Eddie and Rocket Ron, being the dutiful officers/cunts they were, switched off all of electrical appliances in the canteen that night. Including the hot plate.


  1. Enjoyed this piece, Beano.

    Read it on Christmas morning after my daughter opened her presents.

    Nollaig Chridheil to ye.

  2. Camaraderie and peace be with you Beano.


  3. Beano putting Charlie Pride aside (said the same to Anthony once).....I still refuse to buy into the argument that "some heads" didn't secretly want to listen to this ...

    Happy holiday's TPQ-ers