A new wilderness at the Maze

Rachel Andrews

Rachel Andrews

After the grey and the silence, the first thing you notice when you visit the ruins of the Maze prison is the rabbits. A tail disappearing behind a bush, a frantic scatter at the edge of your vision, droppings to the side of the sports areas or in the thick moss beside the barbed wire and the high walls. People will tell you there are also feral cats, buzzards, even oyster-catchers. Around you, ivy trails up and over the walls and fences still untouched by the demolition process. The pink rose bushes and the cherry trees, the copper beeches and the evergreens, once planted and cared for by the prison’s occupants, now grow according to nature’s whim.

This is a place of signs and warnings. ‘stop, hold, lock.’ ‘Switch off engine when parked in airlock.’ ‘Caution, we patrol the area.’ It is a place of concrete and razor wire. Of steel doorways shutting behind us.

One section of the prison – some watchtowers, a single H-block, the hospital, a chapel, and a section of the seventeen-foot high, two-and-a-half-mile perimeter wall – is being preserved intact for some as yet undecided future use. With a small number of buildings in other parts of the complex – two Second World War aircraft hangars, a compound from the original Long Kesh prison – the structures may form part of an International Centre for Conflict Transformation, included in the original masterplan drawn up by an All-Party Consultation Panel four years ago. Then again, they may not. In April of last year, after years of political wrangling over the future of the Maze, the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister announced that a new masterplan to ‘maximise the economic, historical and reconciliation potential of the site’ is to be drawn up. With the terms of regeneration so vague, and in a still divided society, there is the nagging fear of one side appropriating the Maze for its own purposes: of unionists wanting to wipe it out, of republicans wanting to turn it into a shrine.

In autumn 2006, six years after the last paramilitary prisoners were released and the Maze ceased to operate as a jail, the Stormont government finally gave the go-ahead for workers to move onto the site and to begin a demolition process that would see the entire complex dismantled. Eight months after the work started, I made my first visit to the Maze with the photographer Dara McGrath, who was methodically documenting the prison’s demolition.

Newcomers that we were, we took the long way round. Left off the Dublin Road, following the sign for Maze-Moira; right up Trench Road; over the humpback bridge into Maze village with its small, neat rows of red-brick houses. Churches: Methodist, Presbyterian, a Masonic Lodge, an Orange Hall. Flags, in doorways, from entrance gates. The flag of St George. The Union Jack.

Out of Maze village, past the bigger, newer estates with their glistening sports cars and SUVs. Past the famous Down Royal – ‘Home of the Northern Ireland Festival of Racing’ – and the neighbouring pub, Gowdy’s At The Racecourse. Right onto the twisting Bog Road. Notice the signs out the backs of the houses. For Sale: TVs, Hi-Fis, Cars. Nursery School. After School Activities. For over thirty years, people in this area had a single, steady source of employment, working inside the prison as joiners, kitchen staff, prison officers. The cottage industries indicated by those signs are a suggestion of how things have changed.

After a while, the houses disappear and the road is flanked by wire fencing. You pass the grey corrugated structure of the former outer visitor’s gate, where the women used to stand in the cold as they waited to see their menfolk; the gate is almost impossible to make out now, cloaked in moss and trees. At the T-junction, turn right and there is the main gate: a concrete wall, a sentry post, barbed wire, flags fluttering, as forbidding as you might have expected. ‘Maze Regeneration Site, Reinvestment and Reform Initiative. DANGER. Demolition in Progress. KEEP OUT.’

In 1972, the journalist Mary Cummins sat with women waiting to visit their men inside. ‘This is nothing,’ they told her after half an hour, as the clock passed three; ‘you could be here until five or six o’clock.’ Cummins went through the rest of the lengthy processing operation: a coach to take visitors from the waiting hut to the internment centre, another wait for passes to be checked, and a full body search.

Now it is different. In the six-year interval between closure and demolition, the prison opened its gates, and visitors came quick and curious: residents from the neighbouring village of Halftown, archaeologists, photographers, artists, school tours. The authorities have since imposed tighter restrictions, and today only selected groups – mostly ex-prisoners – are allowed into the Maze. On one of our visits, when we asked about taking a guided tour, the security officer told us that Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, the Provisional IRA man who led the escape of thirty-eight republican prisoners from the Maze in 1983, had already booked the slot.

The Maze complex occupies a site of 360 acres. On a bitter Saturday in January, the occasion of my second visit, I stood with my back to the entrance, looking at the security hut to my left and the bricked toilet hut to my right. Further ahead there was another hut, large and sickly green, where vehicles used to be assessed and inspected. After that, all I could see was waste ground, and mounds of ordered rubble, in their high, separate bundles: wood and steel and concrete. Further on again was the inner prison wall, partly demolished. It wasn’t hard to describe this place. Everyone I talked to about it reached for the same metaphor. Like a bomb site.

I started to walk. The Maze was never for the walker. Prisoners and visitors were driven in windowless vans, deliberately disorienting, from one block to another, from cell to workshop and back again. The watchtowers seemed to stare down at us as we stepped through a jungle of gorse and trees and moss, into what remained of the Long Kesh internment camp.

In early summer 1971, members of the Ulster Gliding Club, who were renting out one of the old British Army hangars on a disused RAF airfield ten miles outside Belfast, noticed that troops had begun building rows of Nissen huts along the old runways. The club had secured the hangar for a song. The Long Kesh airfield, so named after the surrounding townland, had been closed since 1946: during the ’50s and ’60s the main activity at the site was the arrival of army lorries and other vehicles for storage and maintenance.

On 5 August 1971, the Stormont government introduced the internment – imprisonment without trial – of ‘suspected terrorists’. The first swoop took place four days later, and just over a month after that, on 19 September, around two hundred detainees were ferried by helicopter, in groups of ten, to Long Kesh. The Gliding Club had been given an abrupt few days to leave the site, and the prisoners were housed in the Nissen huts its members had seen under construction and had innocently thought were going to be used as accommodation for British troops.

No troops could have been expected to tolerate the conditions in the camp. At its peak, Long Kesh held over two thousand prisoners. The huts, grouped together in fours in compounds the inmates called cages, numbered eighty-eight. One hut per cage was used as a canteen, the other three as living areas. The men were crammed in, forty to a hut, sleeping on bunk beds with no space between them. The huts were not weatherproofed: in summer the prisoners stifled, in winter they froze.

When I visited, the Nissen huts were unreachable, encircled by barbed wire and shrouded by the steadily advancing wilderness. But I could still see their low, rounded roofs of corrugated iron set on a black bricked base. One had a tree growing through it. At least three quarters of them had already been demolished, and large, splashed-paint Xs marked the other buildings set aside for destruction. Only Compound 19, which had been commanded by UVF leader Gusty Spence, was due to be retained; if the International Centre for Conflict Transformation goes ahead, this structure may eventually be relocated alongside the other listed buildings.

I climbed back through the overgrowth and walked around the corner to the site of the Maze, which was built adjacent to the Long Kesh compounds in the late 1970s. Like Long Kesh, the Maze was also supposed to be a temporary prison; work began on it while planning issues held up construction on a new prison site located elsewhere in Co. Antrim, but the other prison was never built. The brutal shape and structure of the buildings reflects the haste with which they were constructed.

I walked up to the main gate. A sign on the wall read: Former HMP Maze Cellular. I went through a metal door to the right, the pedestrian entrance, passing the sentry hut where a security guard would have been stationed. Around me stood the prison buildings, each one in its cage of steel wire. Overhead stretched wires dotted with balls of orange plastic: rudimentary anti-aircraft devices. I made my way to H4, one of the H-Blocks then earmarked for preservation. (It has since been demolished and H6, initially retained as part of the inquiry into the murder of loyalist leader Billy Wright outside the block in 1997, is the only H-Block remaining on the Maze site.)

The H-Blocks were built with enough reinforced concrete – on the walls, the floors, the ceilings – to withstand the blast of a bomb, and despite the years it had been standing unused H4 looked like a working building on the outside. But it was rotting from within. It smelled of damp and mould and there were large puddles in the long, narrow corridor between the cells. Each of the eight H-Blocks was exactly the same, with four separate prison wings extending out from a central administrative area. Each wing contained twenty-four cells and each cell measured eight foot by ten. Each cell window was fitted with concrete bars. I opened a cell door: the walls were cold blue, the floor grey. Two large black pipes, which once provided heating, were fixed to the bottom of the back wall. The window had a view of the exercise yard. Pushed against a side wall was a narrow steel bed with a short, uncomfortable-looking mattress, the only furniture in the room. An identical single bed, minus the mattress, occupies the hospital cell where the IRA prisoner Bobby Sands died on hunger strike in 1981. In the years since the prison closed, visitors have steadily removed almost all of the bed’s springs; when I saw it, little but the frame remained.

I went back in the direction of the entrance gate, towards the visitor centre. In the downstairs waiting area there were some soft, cushioned chairs and a sign telling parents they must supervise their children. Upstairs, the pastel pink of the walls and tables in the visiting room hinted at a cheery, holiday-camp atmosphere, but the blue chairs, crushed three and four deep into the high-backed wooden booths, and the tables bolted to the floor, reminded you that this was a place of cramped, hurried, monitored encounters. Worst of all were the baby chairs, eight of them in a small, separate room, bright yellow against the faded walls and floors. Like the flowers and berries in the prisoners’ gardens, or the carefully chalk-drawn goalposts in the sports areas, the chairs were all wrong. I was a new mother, and I was unable to bear the thought that children knew this place.

On the frozen, rigid mornings of my second visit, the little security hut to the left of the main entrance gate was the only warming-up place in the complex. The men moved in and out, smoke from their cigarettes suspended on the solid outside air, their security macs bustling as they shifted back in their seats, turning towards screens or newspapers. The hut had two rooms, but they stayed in the one with the fridge and television and the armchair and the heater, leaving the second empty except for the maps and the plans pinned to the wall. Some of the men were re-recruited prison officers, out of retirement – ‘better than sitting at home with the four walls’, one of them told me.

They drank tea with milk, sometimes sugar. Their breakfast came wrapped in foil. They read the Belfast Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Sun. They called home and asked what was cooking for dinner. They leaned back, hands in their pockets or across their chests, and chatted about the weather.

One morning we listened to Campbell recall half a lifetime as a prison officer in the Maze complex. Campbell had thick, sandy-coloured eyebrows and his voice was deep and broad. He talked about the precautions he used to take. ‘We knew what hotel you could go to, what hotel you couldn’t go to, what pub you could go to, what pub you couldn’t go to. I don’t like guns, but I had a personal protection weapon. I don’t have now, I got rid of it as soon as I could get rid of it.’

He talked about his first day as a prison officer, a 25-year-old novice at Crumlin Road in Belfast. ‘I walked up to the Crumlin Road that day, didn’t know a thing about prisons, didn’t know if I was doing the right thing or not. The gate opened, urrrrrrrrr.’

He talked about the social club at the Maze and the pints at lunchtime; the dos that got organized at Halloween and Easter; going down to Smyth Patterson in Lisburn – ‘I’m talking 20 years ago’ – buying fridges, dolls’ prams, bicycles, £3,000 worth, for the Christmas raffle; spending £2,000 on fireworks for celebrating New Year; swapping shifts if you didn’t fancy a long one, or a night one, or a holiday one, or whatever, or working all night and the next day if you wanted to do that instead; going round to the sergeants’ mess, where they’d give you a free curry and a couple of pints; getting the ‘flower’, which meant if you got down to the Tally Lodge at the main gate early they’d let you on through without having to go through the process of being officially checked out; about things being dead on, dead on, in the normal run of things, between officers and prisoners; about finding the disciplined republican wings maybe easier to get on with than the loyalist sections, who’d only be gurnin’ and moanin’ at you whenever they got themselves a chance.

Every year on Armistice Day the ones who lived remember the others who died. Hundreds attend the observances. Campbell attends. He said: ‘Twenty-nine of my colleagues died, murdered, trying to impose the regime set out by the Northern Ireland Office – ‘Don’t give in to the Republicans, they’re not getting political status, not getting segregation’ – so twenty-nine men died trying to uphold that and at the end of the day they turn around and give them it and I feel a bit betrayed by that, why did they not give them it in the first place and let twenty-nine men live?’

Campbell cleared his throat, crossed his right foot onto his left knee. He spoke deliberately, pausing between sentences. He remembered the big breakout of 1983.

‘It was a Sunday afternoon and I was working in H6 at the time, and – ah – I was walking down towards the Tally Lodge with a boy called Keith, and – ahm – I noticed five or six what I took as prison officers standing against the Tally Lodge, too far away to identify them, but I didn’t take much notice, the only thing I said to Keith was that those recruits, rookies I called them, those rookies are going to spoil our flower, so I never took a moment more notice, until we got down to the Tally Lodge and walked in the gate and walked in the back door of the Tally Lodge and there was a boy standing there with a wood chisel in his hand and a prison officer’s uniform and I didn’t recognize him, and Keith says – ahm – his exact words were, “Who the fuck are you when you’re writing home?” and the boy said “Get in, get in,” and another one pointed a gun from behind the screen from inside the Tally Lodge, and the next thing I looked up and recognized a prisoner – ah what’d you call him – McGlinchey, and when I seen McGlinchey I knew then it was the IRA, and I said to Keith, “Shut up it’s the IRA,” and then my heart just, I thought it was going to pound out of my chest and after a couple of minutes it went back to normal and there was quite a few of us, ten, eleven, twelve fellas, and I could only see four or five prisoners and they were all pasty white, to me they were all scared, they were all pale, pale white and there was a boy beside me and I said, “You know, I think we could take these boys,” and one of them turned to me and he says, “You’re a hero, you’re a dead hero” and he pointed the gun at me and he says, “Sit down and shut up” and I says “Right”. And then, ah, I don’t know how it happened, I don’t know who struck the first blow or what happened, but a fight started and there was hand-to-hand fighting inside the Tally Lodge.’

Getting shot was like – ‘You ever play deadener?’ He was halfway to hospital before he felt the pain. He remembered the blood soaking through the bandages and some guy handing him a cigarette. Later on he received the Queen’s Gallantry Medal. You call the Queen ‘Your Majesty’ when you meet her first. After that you address her as ‘Ma’am’. He doesn’t wear the medal. ‘I got it, put it in the drawer of the house.’

Eight weeks after the shooting, he went back to work. I was waiting to hear about the fear, the nightmares, but he didn’t refer to such things. ‘They offered me a transfer to Millisle, but I felt okay.’ Later, when he talked about having ‘all your same mates with you every day, you go out for a pint a lunchtime, you play cards at lunchtime, you get in your own routine, you all know each other, you go into the club at night for a pint after work,’ I thought I understood better what he meant.

Campbell left the Maze on the last day of September 2000. The officers passed the hours, in the club drinking and out again. By evening, they were gone, backs turned, a death ship left in their wake. In the Trades Office, and its officers’ quarters: Prison Officers’ Association magazines, videos (The Usual Suspects, Die Hard 2 and 3), a Body Tone poster girl on the wall, a half-empty Coke bottle and a bag of Disco crisps: Big Hittin’ Pickled Onion Flava. Walkie-talkies, bunches of keys and a uniform, discarded on the floor. A few recorded their time there in graffiti on the wall of the prison’s Emergency Control Room: Fred (Mr Pastry) Morehead, 13.11.78 – 11.09.00, ‘We came, we served, we survived.’ Ron Wilson, 13.09.1971 – 11.08.2000. Dollar, 16.05.1977 – 11.08.2000, ‘God bless all who sailed in her!’


Down in Halftown, early Saturday morning, they were cleaning. A late night at the races, good crowd, the hall needed fixing. Peggy arrived in from the cold March rain, brandy sitting in her stomach from the night before. ‘Sure what’s life for if you can’t enjoy it?’ I was waiting for Jackie McQuillan, who came out of bed ill and coughing with one of those chest infections that grab at your throat and heave you up double. Jackie lives at the heart of a tight little area of fifty-two small houses. He is a joiner. During the Troubles he worried about his country, keeping it British, keeping it safe. When the peace came, he wasn’t sure if he had a country anymore, so he worried about his community instead. The changes to the area have been small but important: the hall where we meet, refurbished all warm and cosy, the locals allowed the use of it by the Orange Order for over eight years now; the wee playpark in the back field, built by Maze soldiers, all smiles for the photos, in the easy, peaceful time before they left; a local history book that begins: ‘If we were to take a dander down from Hillsborough to Halftown, a distance of some 2 miles, I wonder how many of us would notice what has changed over the years. So let’s have a go.’

Jackie, with his appetite for organization and negotiation, became spokesperson for the Halftown Residents’ Association. He had his name in the papers and his face at the meetings during the discussions about what should or should not happen when the prison got knocked down and the chance came for things to start again. The regeneration of the Maze represents a significant opportunity for the Halftown residents and most of them were fully behind rapid progress and the now abandoned idea of the big sports stadium – in its press release last April, the Office of First Minister/Deputy First Minister announced that the ‘multi-sports stadium of the project will not be taken forward’ – particularly as they got themselves a promise of a wee buffer zone of Maze land, a ten-acre patch to do with as they pleased, and they had plans for sports fields and commercial units all ready to go if only they could have got the thing made official. But by the time of my third visit, in February 2008, the deal was caught in a political tangle that has yet to be unpicked. Sometimes, after another unsatisfactory phone call to the Office of First Minister/Deputy First Minister and another residents’ meeting and nothing to tell, Jackie could only lament the wasting time and the politics being played because all his community that lived with a jail for thirty-odd years wanted now was to get tore into its own wee project and to make up a future that’s decent and new and all of its own.

Out the back of the hall Jackie set a ladder against a wall and I climbed it, rain slanting into my face. I looked over and across into the lonely mass of prison scrubland. The wall is the outer perimeter fence of the Maze. The Hall, where the community meets for line dancing and youth clubs and Weight Watchers, as good as bumps up against it. I stared into this dismantled place and wondered how it must have been to live alongside this dominant presence. It was a life not chosen by those who lived here when the prison was built. You went to bed one night and you woke up, and there was that many people lifted and interned in Long Kesh, it literally happened overnight. It was a life nobody else wanted. If anybody said do you want to go and buy a house outside the Maze prison I mean what would you say? But it was your life and you loved it, as people do love their lives, and cherish them, and tend to them as best they can. I mean this was where you were born and reared, a dull, dreary place, maybe a place where nobody else wanted to live or buy a house, but I mean you were brought up and reared here, it was home, you know what I mean, and always would be home.

Most of that life was the same as any other. You went to work, you hung out your washing, you went home. You couldn’t ignore the Maze, so you took the jobs going there, in the mess, as a labourer, and reared your children with the wages. You couldn’t ignore the soldiers out on their manoeuvres, so you kept your blinds pulled day and night, just to make sure there’d be nobody peeping through the window at you or anything, you know, just to be careful of that. You couldn’t ignore it the time they set fire to the Long Kesh huts, so you stood on your veranda and watched the flames shooting up and listened to the army dogs screaming and being burnt to death. You couldn’t ignore the visitors’ buses, coming on past your house, and them people inside shouting insults and giving you the finger, so you nodded at the police cars lined up there as a bulwark and ran down the road hot-headed with stones in your hand and after you threw the stones up at those buses you felt a bit better about things for a while.

We talked about the time before the Maze. We looked at the photos. The Queen Mother and the King, arms raised, hers a wave, his a salute, visiting. It’s 1945, Long Kesh is an airfield. Here is Montgomery, in beret and badges. Here is Ike, laughing at the camera. Now some different huts, temporary housing built for military personnel: one fronted by a couple, arm in arm, another by a family, a girl in bows smiling. ‘Tin Town’, they called it, the homes replacing land and properties compulsorily acquired for war building. After the war, the enclave turned into starter homes for many young people, but also housed large families.

We went to the All Saints’ Church in Eglantine, a simple, calm structure that appears from behind a group of yew trees. The RAF graves are outside, twenty-one in a row; inside, there is a stained-glass window depicting airmen setting out on a mission, another of a plane flying low over the Tin Town huts. In memory of Airmen of the Royal Air Force and Commonwealth Air Forces. We stood in the church and shivered and I asked questions about the past. We chatted about the Marquess of Downshire, who owned Hillsborough Castle and Hillsborough Fort and the Maze lands and everything else you could see and whose family still brings the ashes of loved ones over from England, and in that little church with its Mothers’ Union banner and its RAF flag I thought how it was a relief to talk about a history and culture that didn’t involve the Troubles, and how talking about that could make you forget for a while that people still hate each other or hate what’s happened with the peace and carry around bitterness and helplessness inside of them. People say, The damage is done. They say, I think anybody that just got on with their life, just went on and took anything they could find, is a loser in it all, and the terrorist and everybody else is elevated to get something out of it.

Early this year, I made my final visit to the Maze. In the January snow, the process of transformation from prison to blank slate seemed almost complete. The site had been cleared of the mounds and piles of timber, steel, chairs, heaters, extractor fans and gym equipment. The timber has been burnt, the concrete reused, the steel sent out to a recycling scrapyard. (Nothing left the site without approval, and nothing left intact. The workers had to beat and crush the cell doors out of shape, out of recognition, and to make sketches and films of the process. It was imperative that the relics not turn up on eBay, as some bricks and bedsprings had done already.

The fog hung thick in the sky that day, and it was hard to judge space and distance. I drove around the site, seeing only trees and snow, save for a single orange digger and the blue string cordoning off areas contaminated with asbestos. I drove until the preserved section of the prison, with its high walls and its three surrounding watchtowers, appeared out of the fog. The cold had already caused the gate to jam once this morning and the security guards wouldn’t take the risk of it not closing a second time, so I was not allowed inside. Instead, I walked around the perimeter, crunching through the snow, following the wall as it disappeared into the haze. As I walked, I stepped on the concrete foundations of former H-Blocks, all that remains of them.

Back at the car, I saw a small crew of workmen in the distance, putting down pipes for a water mains. I watched them move back and forth in their luminous safety vests. They were the only things interrupting the stillness. I drove towards the back of the complex, passing several pieces of fenced-off land, some of the compulsory acquisitions from half a century ago, now finally returned to local landowners. The holdings were mostly tiny and odd-shaped, and hardly seemed worth the trouble. But the community was adamant it deserved some recompense for the years spent in purgatory beside the jail, and fought hard to have the lands returned. That purgatory has almost ended: the rolls of razor wire that once separated surrounding houses from the Maze have been taken away, and unthreatening fencing now forms the boundary between the site and the back gardens of local people.

Veering right in a semi-circle, I drove past the two enormous aircraft hangars once used by the RAF and now appropriated by the Ulster Aviation Society to house its collection of Second World War memorabilia and aircraft. The hangars, too, are due for restoration; the aim is to promote them as tourist attractions in the future. At the security hut, I swung right, heading towards the top of the complex and the place where the tips of the Halftown houses peek out over the outer fence. I got out of the car and walked along the inner fence until I found a wide breach where two sides of the wire had been pulled back from one another. I stumbled down into a ditch of thick scrubland and climbed over thorns and gorse until I reached the point where the Orange Hall stands directly opposite the prison. Ivy clambered up the high corrugated fencing and a yellow sign warned of dogs on patrol. It was from the other side of the fence, standing on Jackie’s ladder, that I had last surveyed this scene. On this side of the barricade, I felt small and vulnerable. The Halftown community still doesn’t have the land it needs to make big changes to the area, but the destruction of the outer fence, which was to take place once the snow cleared, will be more than symbolic: when it is gone the Orange Hall will back onto open ground.

Before leaving I stopped, as had become my habit, at the security hut for a cup of tea. The men had switched rooms in order to facilitate the planned redevelopment of their portacabins into office blocks for civil servants. The room was a cosy antidote to the cold outside. The guards, Billy and Billy, were new to me – Campbell was out sick and Barry, with whom I had sat and chatted on past visits, had retired – but they were aware of my reason for being here and the conversation between us was easy and friendly. I drank my tea and tried to get warm and we talked about the snow and the roads and the past and the future. One of them had served his time on the Long Kesh compounds before moving briefly to what the officers used to term ‘the Cellular’ – the Maze prison itself. He was not surprised when a visitor told us that the fog lying heavy over the site only began closing in as you approached it and that in Belfast the sky was high and clear. The Maze, he said, sits in a dip in the Lagan Valley. It is colder there, damper – he remembered the freezing hands of prisoners on days when the sun was shining a few miles up the road.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 39 Summer 2010