When I was interned during the war with the British I dreamed endlessly of escape. As internment camps go, ours was pretty good. We had a theatre, games, and classes, and some of the classes were first-rate.
It was divided into two areas, North Camp and South, and the layout of the huts was sufficiently varied to give you a feeling of change when you went for a stroll round the wires. The tall wooden watchtowers, protected from the weather by canvas sheets, which commanded the barbed wire at intervals had a sort of ragged functional beauty of their own. You could do a five mile walk there before breakfast and not feel bored.
But I ached to get away. It is almost impossible to describe how I ached. In the evenings I walked round the camp and always stopped at least once on a little hillock in the North Camp which had the best view of the flat green landscape of Kildare that stretched all round us for miles. It was brilliantly green, and the wide crowded skies had all the incredible atmospheric effects of flat country, with veil after veil of mist or rain even on the finest days, and I thought of the tinker families drifting or resting in the shadow of the hedges while summer lasted. God, I used to think, if only I could escape I’d never stop, summer or winter, but just go on and on, making my fire under a hedge and sleeping in a barn or under an upturned cart. Night and day I’d go on, maybe for years, maybe till I died. If only I could escape!
But there isn’t any escape. I saw that even in the camp itself. I became friendly with two prisoners, Matt Deignan and Mick Stewart, both from Cork. They were nice lads; Mick sombre, reserved, and a bit lazy; Matt noisy, emotional, and energetic. They messed together and Matt came in for most of the work. That wasn’t all he came in for. When Mick was in one of his violent moods and had to have someone to wrestle with, Matt was the victim. Mick wrestled with him, ground his arms behind his back, made him yelp with pain and plead for mercy. Sometimes he reduced Matt to tears, and for hours Matt wouldn’t speak to him. It never went farther than that though. Matt was Caliban to Mick’s Prospero and had to obey. He would come to me, a graceless gawk with a moony face, and moan to me about Mick’s cruelty and insolence, but this was only because he knew Mick liked me, and he hoped to squelch Mick out of my mouth. If anyone else dared to say a word against Mick he mocked at them. They were jealous!
Matt had a job in the Quartermaster’s store, the Quartermaster, one Clancy, being some sort of eminent, distant cousin of whom Matt was enormously proud. Mick and he both dossed in J Hut in the North Camp. Now J was always a rather tony hut, quite different from Q, where I hung out, which was nothing but a municipal slaughterhouse. The tone of J was kept up by about a dozen senior officers and politicians, businessmen and the like. The hut leader, Jim Brennan, a tough little Dublin mason whom I admired, though not class himself, liked class: he liked businessmen and fellows who wore silk pyjamas and university students who could tell him all about God, V. D., and the next world. It broadened a man’s mind a lot. These got off lightly; either they had doctor’s certificates to prove they couldn’t do fatigues or they had nominal jobs, which meant they didn’t have to do them. You couldn’t blame Jim; it was his hut, and he kept it like a battleship, and to get into it at all was considered a bit of luck. Nor did the other men in the hut object; they might be only poor country lads, but, like Jim, they enjoyed mixing with fellows of a different class and listening to arguments about religion over the stove at night. It might be the only opportunity most of them would ever have of hearing anything except about drains and diseases of cattle, and they were storing it up. It was a thoroughly happy hut, and it rather surprised me that two attempts at tunneling had begun from it; if it wasn’t that the occupants wanted to show off their intelligence, you wouldn’t know what they wanted to escape for.
But Mick Stewart rather resented the undemocratic tone of the hut and was careful to keep the camp aristocracy at a distance. When someone like Jack Costello, the draper, addressed Mick with what he thought undue familiarity, Mick pretended not to hear. Costello was surprised and Brennan was seriously displeased. He thought it disrespectful. He never noticed Mick except to give him an order. A couple of times he made him go over a job twice, partly to see it was properly done, partly to put Mick in his place.
Now, Mick was one of those blokes who never know they have a place. One day he just struck. While the others continued scrubbing he threw himself on his bed with his hands under his head and told the hut leader to do it himself. He did it with an icy calm which anyone who knew Mick would have known meant danger.
“You mean you call that clean?” Brennan asked, standing at the end of Mick’s bed with his hands in his trouser pockets and his old cap over one eye.
“It’s not a matter of opinion,” Mick said in his rather high-pitched, piping voice.
“Oh, isn’t it?” asked Brennan and then called over Jack Costello. “Jack,” he continued mildly, “is that what you’d call clean?”
“Ah, come on, Stewart, come on!” Costello said in his best “Arise, Ye Sons of Erin” manner. “Don’t be a blooming passenger!”
“I didn’t know I asked your advice, Costello,” Mick said frostily, “but as you seem to be looking for a job as a deckhand, fire ahead!”
“I certainly will,” Costello said gamely. “Just to show I’m not too proud to be a deckhand.”
“No, you won’t, Jack,” Brennan said heavily. “There’s going to be no passengers on this boat. Are you going to obey orders, Stewart?”
“If you mean am I going to do every job twice, I’m not,” replied Mick with a glare.
“Good enough,” Brennan said moodily as he turned away. “We’ll see about that.”
Now, I should perhaps have explained that the camp duplicated the whole British organization. Each morning we stood to attention at the foot of our beds to be counted, but one of our own officers always accompanied the counting party and ostensibly it was for him and not for the British officer that we paraded. It was the same with everything else; we recognized only our own officers. The Quartermaster drew the stores from the British and we received them from him and signed for them to him. The mail was sorted and delivered by our own post-office staff. We had our cooks, our doctors, our teachers and actors—even our police. Because, if one of our fellows was caught pinching another man’s stuff, we had our own police to arrest him and our own military court to try him. In this way, we of the rank and file never came into contact at all with our jailers.
That morning two of the camp police, wearing tricolour armlets, came to march Mick down to the hut where his case was to be tried. One of them was a great galumphing lout called Kenefick, a bit of a simpleton, who cracked heavy jokes with Mick because he felt so self-conscious with his armlet. The case was heard in the camp office. When I passed I saw Matt Deignan outside, looking nervous and lonely. I stopped to talk with him and Brennan passed in, sulky and stubborn, without as much as a glance at either of us. Matt burst into a long invective against him, and I tried to shut him up, because in spite of his boorishness I respected Brennan.
“Ah, well,” I said, “you can’t put all the blame on Brennan. You know quite well that Mick is headstrong too.”
“Headstrong?” yelped Matt, ready to eat me. “And wouldn’t he want to be with a dirty lout like that?”
“Brennan is no lout,” I said. “He’s a fine soldier.”
“He is,” Matt said bitterly. “He’d want to walk on you.”
“That’s what soldiers are for,” I said, but Matt wasn’t in a mood for facetiousness.
The court seemed to be a long time sitting, and it struck me that it might have been indiscreet enough to start an argument with Mick. This would have been a long operation. But at last he came out, a bit red but quite pleased with himself, and I decided that if there had been an argument he had got the better of it. We set off for a brisk walk round the camp. Mick would talk of everything except the case. Mick all out! He knew poor Matt was broken down with anxiety and was determined on toughening him.
“Well,” I said at last, “what’s the verdict?”
“Oh, that business!” he said contemptuously. “Just what you’d expect.”
“And what’s the sentence? Death or a five year dip?”
“A week’s fatigues.”
“That’s not so bad,” I said.
“Not so bad?” cried Matt, almost in tears. “And for what? Pure spite because Mick wouldn’t kowtow to them. ’Tis all that fellow Costello, Mick boy,” he went on with a tragic air. “I never liked him. He’s the fellow that’s poisoning them against you.”
“He’s welcome,” Mick said frostily, deprecating all this vulgar emotionalism of Matt’s. “I’m not doing extra fatigues for them.”
“And you’re right, Mick,” exclaimed Matt, halting. “You’re right. I’d see them in hell first.”
“You don’t mean you’re going to refuse to obey the staff?” I asked doubtfully.
“What else can I do?” Mick asked in a shrill complaining voice. “Don’t you realize what will happen if I let Brennan get away with this? He’ll make my life a misery.”
“Starting a row with the camp command isn’t going to make it exactly a honeymoon,” I said.
It didn’t, but even I was astonished at the feeling roused by Mick’s rebellion. Men who knew that he and I were friendly attacked him to me. No one said a word in his favour. And it wasn’t that they were worried by the thing that worried me—that right or wrong, the camp command was the only elected authority in the camp—oh, no. Mick was disloyal to the cause, disloyal to the camp; worst of all, he was putting on airs. You would think that men who were rebels themselves and suffering for their views would have some sympathy for him.
“But the man is only sticking out for what he thinks are his rights,” I protested.
“Rights?” one man echoed wonderingly. “What rights has he? Haven’t we all to work?”
After a while I gave up arguing. It left me with the feeling that liberty wasn’t quite such a clear-cut issue as I had believed it. Clancy, the Quartermaster, though himself one of the staff, was the most reasonable man on the other side. No doubt he felt he had to be because Mick was his cousin’s friend. He was a gallant little man, small, fiery, and conscientious, and never really himself till he began to blaspheme. This wasn’t yet a subject for blasphemy so he wasn’t quite himself. He grasped me firmly by the shoulder, stared at me closely with his bright blue eyes and then looked away into an infinite distance.
“Jack,” he said in a low voice, “between friends, tell that boy, Stewart, to have sense. The Commandant is very vexed. He’s a severe man. I wouldn’t like to be in Stewart’s shoes if he crosses him again.”
“I suppose ye’d never use your brains and send Stewart and Matt to Q Hut?” I asked. “It’s only the way Mick and Brennan don’t get on, and two human beings would improve Q Hut enormously.”
“Done!” he exclaimed, holding out his hand in a magnificent gesture. “The minute he has his fatigues done. I’ll tell the Commandant.”
I put that solution up to Mick and he turned it down in the most reasonable way in the world. That was one thing I was learning: your true rebel is nothing if not reasonable; it is only his premises that are dotty. Mick explained patiently that he couldn’t agree to a compromise which would still leave him with a stain on his character because if ever we resurrected the army again and the army got down to keeping records it would count as a black mark against him.
“You mean for a pension?” I said, turning nasty, but Mick didn’t realize that. He only thought it was rather crude of me to be so materialistic about a matter of principle. I was beginning to wonder if my own premises were quite sound.
Next morning I went over to J Hut to see how things were panning out. They looked pretty bad to me. It was a large, light, airy hut like a theatre with a low wooden partition down the middle and the beds ranged at either side of the partition and along the walls. It was unusually full for that hour of the morning, and there was a peculiar feeling you only get from a mob which is just on the point of getting out of hand. Mick was lying on his own bed, and Matt sitting on the edge of his, talking to him. No one seemed interested in them. The rest were sitting round the. stove or fooling with macramé bags, waiting to see what happened. Three beds down from Mick was a handsome young Wexford fellow called Howard, also lying on his bed and ostensibly talking to his buddy. He saw me come in and raised his voice.
“The trouble is,” he was saying, “people who won’t pull their weight would be better at the other side of the wire.”
“Are you referring to me, Howard?” Mick asked harshly.
Howard sat up and turned a beaming adolescent face on him.
“As a matter of fact I am, Stewart,” he said.
“We were on the right side before ever ye were heard of, Howard,” bawled Matt. “What the hell did ye ever do in Wexford beyond shooting a couple of misfortunate policemen?”
I started talking feverishly to avert the row, but fortunately just then Kenefick and another policeman of the right sort came in. This time they showed no embarrassment and there was nothing in the least matey about their attitude. It gave their tricolour armlets a certain significance. As we followed them out the whole hut began to hiss. Matt turned as though something had struck him but I pushed him out. It was all much worse than I expected.
Again Matt and I had to wait outside the office while the trial went on, but this time I wasn’t feeling quite so light-hearted, and as for Matt, I could see it was the most tragic moment of his life. Never before had he thought of himself as a traitor, an enemy of society, but that was what they were trying to make of him.
This time when Mick emerged he had the two policemen with him. He tried to maintain a defiant air, but even he looked depressed.
“What happened, Mick?” bawled Matt, hurling himself on him like a distracted mother of nine.
“You’re not supposed to talk to the prisoner,” said Kenefick.
“Ah, shut up you, Kenefick!” I snapped. “What’s the result, Mick?”
“Oh, I believe I’m going to jail,” said Mick, laughing without amusement.
“Going where?” I asked incredulously.
“So I’m told,” he replied with a shrug.
“But what jail?”
“Damned if I know,” he said, and suddenly began to laugh with genuine amusement.
“You’ll know soon enough,” growled Kenefick, who seemed to resent the laughter as a slight on his office.
“Cripes, Kenefick,” I said, “you missed your vocation.”
It really was extraordinary, how everything in that camp became a sort of crazy duplicate of something in the outside world. Nothing but an armlet had turned a good-natured halfwit like Kenefick into a real policeman, exactly like the ones who had terrified me as a kid when I’d been playing football on the road. I had noticed it before; how the post-office clerks became sulky and uncommunicative; how the fellows who played girls in the Sunday-evening shows made scenes and threw up their parts exactly like film stars, and some of the teachers started sending them notes. But now the whole crazy pattern seemed to be falling into place. At any moment I expected to find myself skulking away from Kenefick.
We moved in a group between the-huts to the rather unpleasant corner of the camp behind the cookhouse. Then I suddenly saw what Kenefick meant. There was a little hut you wouldn’t notice, a small storeroom which might have been a timekeeper’s hut in a factory only that its one small window had bars. The pattern was complete at last; as well as store, school, theatre, church, post office, and police court we now had a real jail of our own. Inside it had bedboards, a three-biscuit mattress, and blankets.
They had thought of everything down to the bucket. It amused me so much that I scarcely felt any emotion at saying good-bye to Mick. But Matt was beside himself with rage.
“Where are you off to?” I asked as he tore away across the camp.
“I’m going to hand in my resignation to Clancy,” he hissed.
“But what good will that do? It’ll only mean you’ll have to do fatigues instead and Brennan will get his knife in you too.”
“And isn’t that what I want?” he cried. “You don’t think I’m going to stop outside in freedom and leave poor Mick in there alone?”
I was on the point of asking him his definition of freedom, but I realized in time that he wasn’t in a state to discuss the question philosophically, so I thought I had better accompany him. Clancy received us in a fatherly way; his conscience was obviously at him about having sent Mick to jail.
“Now don’t do anything in a hurry, boy,” he said kindly. “I spoke to the Commandant about it. It seems he admires Stewart a lot, but he has to do it for the sake of discipline.”
“Is that what you call discipline?” Matt asked bitterly. “You can tell the Commandant from me that I’m resigning from the army as well. I wouldn’t be mixed up with tyrants like ye.”
“Tyrants?” spluttered Clancy, getting red. “Who are you calling tyrants?”
“And what the hell else are ye?” cried Matt. “The English were gentlemen to ye.”
“Clear out!” cried Clancy. “Clear out or I’ll kick the ass off you, you ungrateful little pup!”
“Tyrant!” hissed Matt, turning purple.
“You young cur!” said Clancy. “Wait till I tell your father about you!”
That evening I stood for a long time outside the prison window with Matt, talking to Mick. Mick had to raise himself on the bucket; he held onto the bars with both hands; he had the appearance of a real prisoner. The camp too looked like a place where people were free; in the dusk it looked big and complex and citified. Twenty yards away the prisoners on their evening strolls went round and round, and among them were the camp command, the Commandant, the Adjutant, and Clancy, not even giving a look in our direction. I had the greatest difficulty in keeping Matt from taking a fistful of stones and going round breaking windows to get himself arrested. I knew that wouldn’t help. His other idea was that the three of us should resign from the army and conclude a separate peace with the British. That, as I pointed out, would be even worse. The great thing was to put the staff in the wrong by showing ourselves more loyal than they. I proposed to prepare a full statement of the position to be smuggled out to our friends at Brigade Headquarters outside. This idea rather appealed to Mick who, as I say, was very reasonable about most things.
I spent the evening after lock-up and a good part of the following morning on it. In the afternoon I went over to J with it. Brennan was distributing the mail and there were a couple of letters for Matt.
“Isn’t there anything for Stewart?” he asked in disappointment.
“Stewart’s letters will be sent to the staff hut,” growled Brennan.
“You mean you’re not going to give the man his letters?” shouted Matt.
“I mean I don’t know whether he’s entitled to them or not,” said Brennan. “That’s a matter for the Commandant.”
Matt had begun a violent argument before I led him away. In the temper of the hut he could have been lynched. I wondered more than ever at the conservatism of revolutionaries.
“Come to the staff hut and we’ll inquire ourselves,” I said. “Brennan is probably only doing this out of pique.”
I should have gone alone, of course. The Adjutant was there with Clancy. He was a farmer’s son from the Midlands, beef to the heels like a Mullingar heifer.
“Brennan says Mick Stewart isn’t entitled to letters,” Matt squeaked to Clancy. “Is that right?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Clancy asked, jumping up and giving one truculent tug to his moustache, another to his waistcoat. Obviously he didn’t know whether it was or not. With the new jail only just started, precedents were few.
“Whenever the English want to score off us they stop our letters and parcels,” I said. “Surely to God ye could think up something more original.”
“Do you know who you’re speaking to?” the Adjutant asked.
“No,” replied Matt before I could intervene. “Nor don’t want to. Ye know what ye can do with the letters.”
Mick, on the other hand, took the news coolly. He had apparently been thinking matters over during the night and planned his own campaign.
“I’m on hunger strike now,” he said with a bitter smile.
‘The moment he spoke I knew he had found the answer. It was what we politicals always did when the British tried to make ordinary convicts of us. And it put the staff in an impossible position. Steadily more and more they had allowed themselves to become more tyrannical than the British themselves, and Mick’s hunger strike showed it up clearly. If Mick were to die on hunger strike—and I knew him well enough to know that he would, rather than give in—no one would ever take the staff seriously again as suffering Irish patriots. And even if they wished to let him die, they might find it difficult, because without our even having to approach the British directly we involved them as well. As our legal jailers they would hate to see Mick die on anyone else’s hands. The British are very jealous of privileges like that.
At the same time I was too fond of Mick to want things to reach such a pass, and I decided to make a final appeal to Clancy. I also decided to do it alone, for I knew Matt was beyond reasonable discussion.
When I went into him at the store, Clancy lowered his head and pulled his moustache at me.
“You know about Mick Stewart?” I began.
“I know everything about him from the moment he was got,” shouted Clancy, putting his hand up to stop me. “If you didn’t hear of that incident remind me to tell you some time.”
This was a most unpromising beginning. The details of Mick’s conception seemed to me beside the point.
“What are you going to do about it?” I asked.
“What do you think we’re going to do about it?” he retorted, taking three steps back from me. “What do you think we are? Soldiers or old women? Let the bugger starve!”
“That’s grand,” I said, knowing I had him where I wanted him. “And what happens when we go on hunger strike and the British say: ‘Let the buggers starve’?”
“That has nothing at all to do with it.”
“Go on!” I said. “By the way, I suppose ye considered forcible feeding?”
Then he said something very nasty, quite uncalled-for, which didn’t worry me in the least because it was the way he always talked when he was his natural self, and I got on very well with Clancy’s natural self.
“By the way,” I said, “don’t be too sure the British will let ye starve him. You seem to forget that you’re still prisoners yourselves, and Stewart is their prisoner as much as yours. The English mightn’t like the persecution of unfortunate Irish prisoners by people like you.”
Clancy repeated the uncalled-for remark, and I was suddenly filled with real pity for him. All that decent little man’s life he had been suffering for Ireland, sacrificing his time and money and his little business, sleeping on the sofa and giving up his bed, selling raffle tickets, cycling miles in the dark to collect someone’s subscription, and here was a young puppy taking the bread and water from his mouth.
That evening Matt and I stayed with Mick till the last whistle. You couldn’t shift Matt from the window. He was on the verge of a breakdown. He had no one to coddle or be bullied by. Caliban without Prospero is a miserable spectacle.
But Clancy must have had a sleepless night. Next morning I found that Mick had already had a visit from the Adjutant. The proposal now was that Mick and Matt should come to my hut, and Mick could do his week’s fatigues there—a mere formality so far as Q was concerned because anyone in that hut would do them for a sixpenny bit or five cigarettes. But no, Mick wouldn’t agree to that either. He would accept nothing less than unconditional release, and even I felt that this was asking a lot of the staff.
But I was wrong. The staff had already given it up as a bad job. That afternoon we were summoned to the dining hall “to make arrangements about our immediate release” as the signaller told us—his idea of a joke. It looked like a company meeting. The staff sat round a table on the stage, Clancy wearing a collar and tie to show the importance of the occasion. The Commandant told us that the camp was faced with an unprecedented crisis. Clancy nodded three times, rapidly. They were the elected representatives of the men, and one man was deliberately defying them. Clancy crossed his legs, folded his arms tightly and looked searchingly through the audience as if looking for the criminal. They had no choice only to come back for fresh instructions.
It was a nice little meeting. Jack Costello, speaking from the hall, did a touching little piece about the hunger strike as the last weapon of free men against tyrants, told us that it should never be brought into disrepute, and said that if the man in question were released his loyal comrades would no doubt show what they thought of his conduct. Matt tried to put in a few words but was at once shouted down by his loyal comrades. Oh, a grand little meeting! Then I got up. I didn’t quite know what to say because I didn’t quite know what I thought. I had intended to say that within every conception of liberty there was the skeleton of a tyranny; that there were as many conceptions of liberty as there were human beings, and that the sort of liberty one man needed was not that which another might need. But somehow when I looked round me, I couldn’t believe it. Instead, I said that there was no crisis, and that the staff were making mountains of principle out of molehills of friction. I wasn’t permitted to get far. The Adjutant interrupted to say that what Mick was sentenced for couldn’t be discussed by the meeting. Apparently it couldn’t be discussed at all except by a Court of Appeal which couldn’t be set up until the Republic proclaimed in 1916 was re-established, or some such nonsense. Listening to the Adjutant always gave me the impression of having taken a powerful sleeping-pill; after a while your hold on reality began to weaken and queer dissociated sentences began to run through your mind. I went out, deciding it was better to walk it off. Matt and I met outside the jail and waited till Kenefick came to release the prisoner. He did it in complete silence. Apparently orders were that we were to be sent to Coventry.
That suited me fine. The three of us were now together in Q and I knew from old experience that anyone in Q would sell his old mother for a packet of cigarettes. But all the same I was puzzled and depressed. Puzzled because I couldn’t clarify what I had really meant to say when I got up to speak at the meeting, because I couldn’t define what I really meant by liberty; depressed because if there was no liberty which I could define then equally there was no escape. I remained awake for hours that night thinking of it. Beyond the restless searchlights which stole in through every window and swept the hut till it was bright as day I could feel the wide fields of Ireland all round me, but even the wide fields of Ireland were not wide enough. Choice was an illusion. Seeing that a man can never really get out of jail, the great thing is to ensure that he gets into the biggest possible one with the largest possible range of modern amenities.