Anthony McIntyre remembers an old friend from the cages of Long Kesh.
There were few jail characters like Joe Rafter or Floorboards as he was also known, who died in November. His reputation preceded him. Volatile and very much his own person, I became firm friends with him in Cage 11 in 1977-78. I was 20 and he was in his late 30s but we hit it off immediately. Another good friend, Billy Massey from Beechmount, would slag me that because I spent so much time in his company I was starting to look like him.
For a full year we shared the same hut. I walked the yard with him daily and got to know him quite well. He would pound the cage briskly, on the dark evenings wearing his deerstalker hat, a parting gift if I recall from Gerry Adams on his own release. We talked about everything including camp politics, jail politics (a particular focus for Joe), books, sports and the Romany community. The only time we did not talk was on Friday evening. Joe was a Friday visit man and when he returned from his visit with his wife Frances, he would settle down for a two hour walk which we did in silence. Joe savoured those moments and he enjoyed me being there. Few liked to walk the yard alone, so I was considered good company so long as I kept quiet!
He introduced me to Exodus by Leon Uris, Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and the music of Arlo Guthrie. During the World Cup in 1978 he told me he fancied Scotland. It was funny, with him insisting I was an anti-Scottish bigot because I told him Scotland would go out in the first round, so useless were they. Their opening game was against Peru. I loudly proclaimed to Joe and cage O/C Jim McCann, who seemed to think Joe was right, that a Peruvian player called Teofilo Cubillas would take Scotland apart. He duly did with two brilliant goals that left Ally’s Army on their backs. I had remembered Cubillas from the 1970 tournament where he was a force majeure. Scotland never got out of the first group stage and Joe while disappointed was impressed with my knowledge of soccer.
He had a passion for the Romany people and would correspond with an English professor on the matter. The professor would send him postcards. He also had a model caravan in his cubicle. Joe would humorously try to convince the Dark that he had Romany blood in him.
The morning I left the cages for court in June 1978 I went in and got him up from his sleep. We had discussed matters previously and realised that certainly within the jail we might not see each other again. It proved to be so. After two weeks on the boards I was sent to the H Blocks. During my time on the boards I tried to follow in Joe’s footsteps. He had told me that during a stint there for flooring a screw he had walked around the cell, up along the wooden bed pallet, then onto the table and back to the floor again. He explained that the up and down of the walk took him out of the prison and into lanes and country roads. I didn’t complete more than a lap, finding it cumbersome, and restricted myself to the five paces from window to door and then back.
On a Christmas parole I headed over to his place in Poleglass to see him. Then I stayed with him one night during the work out from Maghaberry. We had gone out on the beer to his local and Joe cooked as soon as we reached his place, the worse for wear. I told him the following morning that I thought the fish had made me sick during the night to which he replied that it was chicken not fish. I was left in no doubt about the cause of stomach bug.
After that it was only occasionally that I would see him, the last time at the Fountain Bar in Belfast city centre where a group of ex-prisoners had congregated for the annual Christmas blow out. We chatted and he urged us not to be as public in our criticism of the Sinn Fein leadership. Whatever he thought of politics Joe had a personal liking for Gerry Adams and probably felt uneasy with the very vocal opposition being expressed by several former prisoners including Brendan Hughes, another figure held in high esteem by Joe.
Generous with his time and possessions, warm, witty and wild, he was one of the characters of Long Kesh and for the year I spent with him I was deeply rewarded by his companionship.