When telling of Billy Jackson smashing the big crucible, in order to provide me with a piece of graphite, and in an off-hand way closuring my remonstrance by telling me it was “only Government property,” it reminded me of another occasion when I discovered I, too, was nothing more than “Government property.”
It was out on the corridor of the penal cells one day when a number of prisoners had been paired off to cut each other’s hair at the regular weekly hair-cutting. A crazy character, who imagined himself at times to be an astronomer, was paired with me. I knew my mad matey very well, with his head away up in the air, and his tense-drawn face, with the fixed, lack-luster eyes that told its own tale of insanity. I sat myself down on the stool, and off over my head at considerable speed capered his scissors, making the hair fly. It wasn’t long till he “struck a snag” by giving my ear a nasty cut and causing some blood to flow. I tried to bring him down from the stars to mother earth by quietly remonstrating.
Immediately the officer at the other end of the line bawled out, “Wilson, you are talking,” and down he stalked beside me, and in a lofty, judicial tone, asked, “What are you talking to that prisoner for when you know the rules?”
I told him I was merely remonstrating against having my ear cut off, showing him at the same time my bleeding ear.
“Oh, that’s all very well,” said he, “but you know the rules.”
“Yes,” said I, “but am I to sit quietly here and allow my ear to be taken off?”
He quoted the rule – “Under no circumstances must prisoners be allowed to speak to each other,” and told me if he found me at it again he’d “run me in” for bread and water.
Then addressing himself to my mate, who had continued the clipping as if nothing had happened – “Look here, you will have to be more careful; if I find you cutting that prisoner again I’ll run you in also for damaging Government property.”
I have bitter memories of this hair-cutting process in the early years of our imprisonment. These were the years when scissors were used. Fancy about a couple of dozen pairs of scissors in use to barberize about fifteen hundred men, these scissors at work every week-day were blunted and most of them with the rivets loose; a pair of scissors of that kind in the hands of a clumsy operator made it terrible torture for the victim who was being trimmed. It was a sight when sitting in the body of the church on Sunday morning to look along the lines of cropped heads and see the havoc that had been wrought upon most of the unfortunate lags’ skulls – regular ridges of cuts in many cases, where the skin had been clipped away. In later years the scissors have been discarded and the hair clippers substituted, much to the satisfaction of every prisoner who has experienced the scissors clip.
Almost all the officers employed in the English Convict Prison were ex-Army or ex-Navy men. These were of varying grades and classes – governor, deputy governor, chief warders, principal warders, warders, and assistant warders, civil guards, parsons and priests, doctors and hospital nurses. The great bulk of these were Englishmen and Welshmen with a sprinkling of Scottish and Irish.
During my imprisonment I came in contact with many hundreds of these officers, and out of the whole lot I only experienced unmistakable sympathy and kindness from two. One of these was an Irishman and the other was English – a Cockney. The Irishman was a nurse in the Infirmary who, whenever he had the chance, would throw in an extra piece of bread into one of the Irish political prison cells, and whenever possible would whisper some interesting item of the news of the day. I experienced kindness of both kinds from him several times. It was kindly for him to have sympathy. I knew his two brothers well – both fine types of Irish nationalists, but our prison friend had been the wild boy of the family and ran away when young and joined the English navy. At the time we were experiencing his kindness he was a navy pensioner.
The other – the English officer – was in contact with me for several years, and I received kindness often at his hands. When the coast would be clear at work he would sometimes nod for me to come over to him – maybe it would be to tell me some news from the outside world – something about Ireland – sometimes to warn me to beware of this prisoner or that prisoner, and not let them see me doing anything, as they were of the type to “give me away.” One day he gave me a great surprise. I was engaged at my work and he called my name. When I answered he ordered me to bring over my rule. I took over the two-foot rule with me and reached it to him. He took it, and in the course of the talk that, followed he kept shaking the rule at me as if he were taking me to task for something I had done. He first asked me if I knew anyone mixed up in public affairs in Ireland named Pigott. I asked was it Richard Pigott. He said yes, and I told him I knew him as editor of a paper in Dublin.
“That’s the fellow,” said he; “he is a scoundrel, and is coming down to see Daly one of these days.”
He reached me back the rule, and in the rough, official tone he roared out, “Go back to your work and don’t let me see you doing it again.” This, of course, was said for the benefit of the other officer, who was stationed at the far end of the shop, as well as for the prisoners, to prevent suspicion.
Next morning I managed to get behind John Daly when we were being turned out for chapel and whispered the warning I had got. Pigott came that same day to the prison and visited Daly. I had a very long note from John on the following Sunday telling me all about his interview with Dick Pigott, but that story, as well as John’s interview with Mr. Soames (representing the London Times) will not be touched upon here, as John will likely deal with them when he comes to writing his “Recollections of Life in Chatham Convict Prison.”
It was not until years after, when we had been drafted from Chatham to Portland Prison, that I discovered, what had always been puzzling me, why the English officer singled me, the only Irish political prisoner in his shop, out from the forty other prisoners he had charge of to show me sympathy and kindness. He was married to an Irish wife.
The visits of Pigott and Soames to Daly were prior to that of Inspector Littlechild to us in Chatham which I dealt with in an earlier article. Judging by Littlechild’s efforts it seemed to be very important for the purposes of the authorities that an informer should be secured in order to go before the Times-Parnell Commission with some story that would be damaging to the Irish side. But from what I know of the circumstances connected with the various English agents who were sent into the prison with the bribes, I feel certain that the authorities would rather have got hold of John Daly for their purpose than the whole lot of the rest of us. He was the important person. He was known far and wide among Irish Nationalists (Imperial Nationalists were unknown in these days) for his sacrifices and work in the National struggle, looked up to with admiration by the younger generation, and respected by all. The others of us of the younger school were mere rank and file workers, unknown, except to a very limited circle. For the purposes of those who were engineering the “trial” before the Commission any of the rest of us would not have amounted to much compared with John Daly appearing. However, I am certain that any one of the lot could have easily made terms for himself and secured release at the price of appearing. But those men – most of them under a life sentence – spurned the offer, and preferred to remain behind the bars for the remainder of their days, for at this time none of us had much hope of ever leaving prison alive.
I know the English sneer – it is often made use of, indeed, by people calling themselves Irish “Put an Irishman on a spit and you’ll find another Irishman to turn it,” implying that the Irishman, on the patriotic side, is more treacherous and with less of a sense of honour than are men of other countries. Besides knowing a fair share of the history of Ireland’s struggle for nationhood, especially in the last two generations, I have had the privilege of an intimate acquaintance with many of the leading spirits of the Fenian movement, such as James Stephens, Chief Organiser; John Devoy, Military Organiser, and the man who planned the Catalpa rescue, and took the military Fenian prisoners away from Australia out of the hand? of the English Government; Col. R. O’S. Burke, who planned and successfully effected the Manchester rescue in 1867. The testimony of every one of them was directly to the contrary. Time after time the English Government offered huge rewards for the capture of well-known Fenians, and though in some cases there were thousands of Irishmen who could have betrayed them there were none who would. The whole thing is an English lie, started and kept up to discourage young Irishmen from organising to win the freedom of their country.