Few of us knew him as Paul. He was simply Sid, or more affectionately Big Sid. It was not because of his height, rather that he carried a bit of weight which in the jail age focus on the gym, caused him not the slightest concern. The most he would ever do on any wing with me was to jog the yard at a gentle pace while we chatted about anything that would take our fancy. It was more to pass an hour doing something different, and less out of any desire to get fit.
Sid came into Crumlin Road jail as a teenager in 1973 and was there for a time while I was in it in 1974 although I don’t recall meeting him. Nothing unusual here, given that when I arrived there were so many strange faces and accents. It was a place where the presence of people was often as fleeting as the ghosts that were said to haunt its Dickensian structure. Those who had been returned for trial were moving every Thursday to Long Kesh from where they were no longer required to make the weekly trip to Belfast Petty Sessions for the obligatory seven-day remand in custody. I have a vague memory of Sid being sentenced and then held for a time in B Wing before transferring up to the cages of Long Kesh. Young people sentenced to detention at the Secretary of State’s Pleasure - Life was for older people - suffered that inconvenience for the six weeks it took the administration to ostensibly get its paper work in order.
I didn’t meet Sid properly until the mid 1980s when, fed up with the routine in the cages, he came down to the H Blocks with one of his co-accused. We immediately hit it off. He was witty and gregarious, never garrulous, a one-liner always at the ready, invariably delivered with a drawl. Each time we ended up on the same wing we gravitated to each other. Some of the funnier moments were spent in the company of him, Martin Mallon and Dan Grew. They all hailed from Armagh-Tyrone. How I fitted in I can only put down to a shared scepticism towards what the official line on anything was from anybody - our own jail leadership or the NIO. More crap for us to pretend to believe as Sid would put it.
One of the stand-out memories arises from our daily jog. A Born Again Christian had recently come onto the republican wings having spent years on the mixed wings imbibing too much biblical bunkum. He genuinely thought that all the fishermen's folktales were true, and that the bible was a genuine work of geological, cosmological and biological history. He once showed us a letter a loyalist prisoner on the mixed wings had sent him entreating him to return to the faith, while we feigned concern and erudition on exegetical matters. The loyalist later went from prisoner to pastor but from the tone and content of what he had written to our new friend, Sid and myself concluded that born again Christianity was a just a safer way for him to hate Catholics than the old ways which had led him into prison.
We were jogging the yard at the same time the Christian was out walking and when we passed I would skip and shout that I was jogging for Jesus with Sid in tow howling that he was leaping for the Lord. Sid would effect this ballet dance type pirouette as he tried unsuccessfully to gracefully execute his leap. The belly would wobble, and I found myself sitting back to the wire that caged us into the exercise yard, my arm around Sid's shoulder, tears of laughter tripping us, unable to continue the jog until things settled down again. The other things we would banter the Christian about while not blasphemous are best left unsaid given their lewd content.
I once put a picture of a seriously large woman on the wall of Sid's cell at the end of the wing and wrote "Sidwina" above it, for which I received one of those Sid looks. Doubtless, he got his own back although in what way I no longer recall. You would need to be up very early in the morning to pull one over on Sid.
That was Sid - one of those guys whose jocularity and joviality made daily life on the jail wings something of a stroll. Dan Grew was fond of saying that all anyone ever needed on a wing was one reliable friend – after that it was plain sailing. I found that advice to be pretty sagacious when it came to Sid on any wing I shared with him.
The last time I saw him we shared not a cell but the back seat of a bus together. I was en route to Monaghan and Sid got on the bus in Armagh, for a journey to Galway. We could have been back in the cell together as the craic was much as it had always been: there was a good word for nobody from either of us. After that we occasionally kept in touch via Facebook. Then he was gone.
Sleep well Sid.
⏩Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.