I am not going to attempt to give anything like a complete history of my prison life. In the short space at my disposal that is out of the question. A detailed and connected history of nearly sixteen years’ experience in English dungeons cannot possibly be crushed into so short a narrative. Such a history would in addition be largely uninteresting, and would mean the repetition of much that has been recounted by my fellow-prisoners, John Daly and James F. Egan.
Prison life had for me really two sides – the dismal, dark side, full of wretchedness and misery, that even now I cannot think of without shuddering, and, strange as it may seem, the bright side too, the side which I can now look back upon with some degree of pleasure and pride. ‘Tis true there was not much of this, while of the other there was an unconscionable quantity. Looking back now, and comparing the dark with the bright side, I get a picture, as it were, of a few glimmering stars – bright spots here and there in a black, thunder-laden sky – and as it is likely to be more interesting, I will try to bring the bright side into prominence, and keep the dark side as much as possible in the background. The dark side of prison life for an Irish prisoner in an English convict prison is so hideously wretched that, in any case, I should despair of ever being able to describe it adequately. Had anyone told me before the prison doors closed upon me that it was possible for any human being to endure what the Irish prisoners have endured in Chatham Prison, and come out of it alive and sane, I would not have believed him, yet some have done so, and it has been a source of perpetual surprise to me that I was able to get through it at all.
We must go back to April 1883 at the Old Bailey, London. Dr. Gallagher, Alfred Whitehead, John Curtin, and myself had been convicted of treason-felony, after a week’s trial, before Lord Chief Justice Coleridge and two other judges. Immediately the Lord Chief Justice passed the sentence (penal servitude for life) we were hustled out of the dock into the prison van, surrounded by a troop of mounted police, and driven away at a furious pace through the howling mobs that thronged the streets from the Courthouse to Millbank Prison. London was panic-stricken at the time, and the hooting and yelling with which the street mobs used to assail us, going to and from the Courthouse whilst the trial lasted, need not be further noticed.
A few hours later saw us in prison dress, with close-cropped heads – “Penal Servitude for Life” had begun. That same day the rules and regulations were read to us. Nothing in them startled me like the one that stated, “Strict silence must at all times be observed; under no circumstances must one prisoner speak to another.” When I thought of what that meant in conjunction with another paragraph, “No hope of release for life prisoners till they have completed twenty years, and then each case will be decided on its own merits,” and remembered with what relentless savagery the English Government has always dealt with the Irishmen it gets into its clutches, the future appeared as black and appalling as imagination could picture it. But the worst my imagination could then picture of English brutality was outdone by the horrors of Chatham Prison that I was afterwards to experience.
In Millbank the surveillance was so close and continuous that we found it impossible to speak to each other. I tried twice, but was dropped on both occasions. However, we were able to communicate with each other in spite of all their watchfulness and strictness. We were determined at all costs to be able to send messages. Pen or pencil we had none. What of that! A fellow has no business in prison unless he is resourceful and observant. The gates of our cells turned upon pivots, and the lower of these pivots was embedded in lead. Some one of us noticed this, and, when the officers’ back was turned, stole over and managed to dig a bit of the lead out with a point of the scissors (we were employed in tailoring at this time). Presently a note was written on a piece of the regulation brown paper with the lead, giving instructions as to how correspondence could be carried on. Next day that note was shot into the neighbouring cell, under the very nose of the officer, shot in as you would shoot a marble, without any movement of arm or body.
Henceforward while in Millbank we were able to communicate with each other. Of course, we were always liable to be searched when leaving the cell, and when returning to it searched again.
Once or twice in Millbank it so happened that I had a note on special search days, but I contrived to get it out of my clothing and into my mouth unnoticed by the officer at my side. The other prisoners there had, I believe, occasionally to do the same thing, but none of us were ever caught with notes, nor were we ever suspected of carrying on this clandestine correspondence.
Looking back now to my imprisonment in Millbank, I get a picture of a dreary time of solitary confinement in the cold, whitewashed cell, with a short daily exercise varying the monotony. Day after day all alike, no change, maddening silence, sitting hopeless, friendless, and alone, with nothing in this world to look forward to but that occasional note coming from some one or other of my comrades, Gallagher, Whitehead, and Curtin, who were in the same plight as myself.
Towards the close of the year 1883 I was roused up very early out of bed one morning and told to dress quickly and come out of my cell. Presently I found myself with Gallagher, Whitehead, and Curtin out in the corridor, and all four of us handcuffed to a gang chain. A strong posse of armed officers surrounded us, and away we were taken to the railway station, and, thus escorted, conveyed to Chatham Prison. Featherstone, Dalton, Deasey, and Flanagan arrived in Chatham about the same time, and another batch of Irish prisoners from Glasgow at the beginning of 1884. A few months later two other Irish prisoners came. I saw them first in Chapel one morning, and, to my grief and surprise, recognised John Daly, whose acquaintance I had made some years before in the North of Ireland, and had again met in America shortly before I left there. His companion, K.56i, was James F. Egan, then a stranger to me.
We soon came to know each other better, and before long were fast friends, and more loyal or kinder friends, or more manly, self-reliant men I could not wish to have by my side in a fight with the English foe inside those walls, or outside them either. I want no man’s opinion of either Daly or Egan. The ordeal they went through under my eyes for years is a test of manhood as severe and searching as mortal man could be subject to, and I know in what spirit they met it and went through it. We three were so closely identified with each other in prison that to speak of my prison life without mentioning them would be impossible.
We treason-felony prisoners were known in Chatham as “The Special Men,” and some twelve or fourteen of us were kept, not in the ordinary prison halls, but in the penal cells – kept there so that we could be the more conveniently persecuted, for the authorities aimed at making life unbearable for us. The ordinary rules regulating the treatment of prisoners, which, to some extent, shield them from foul play and the caprice of petty officers, these rules, as far as they did that, were, in our case, set aside, in order to give place to a system devised by the governor of the prison, Captain Harris. This was a scientific system of perpetual and persistent harassing, which gave the officers in charge of us a free hand to persecute us just as they pleased. It was made part of their duty to worry and harass us all the time. Harassing morning, noon, and night, and on through the night, harassing always and at all times, harassing with bread and water punishments, and other punishments, with “no sleep” torture and other tortures. This system was applied to the Irish prisoners, and to them only, and was specially devised to destroy us mentally and physically – to kill or drive insane. It was worked to its utmost against us for six or seven years, and it was during that time that all the men who succumbed went mad.
One feature of this system was the “no sleep” torture, and for about four of these years I was kept at the most laborious work -in the prison, as moulder in the iron foundry on heavy castings. In addition, I was under special surveillance, and the officers had to pay special attention to me, or, in other words, they must annoy me by every means in their power. At night, jaded in body and mind with the heavy labour of the day and the incessant nagging of the officers, I would return to my cell, and when once inside the door would fling myself on the floor and not move until supper-time. If I went to bed before the bell rang it meant a bread and water punishment, and I was already getting enough of their systematic starvation. When the bell rang I would turn into bed, sometimes to sleep, sometimes to lie awake for hours, with body too weary and nerves too shattered for any refreshing sleep to come. If sleep came I was wakened within an hour by a noise something like the report of a small cannon being fired close beside me. The officer was inspecting us, and had merely banged the heavy iron trapdoor after him. With the same loud noise the trap would be banged all through the night at hour intervals. The prisoner might get a few short snatches of sleep between the inspections, or perhaps his nervous system was so shattered with this and other ingenious tortures that he would not be able to sleep at all.
This went on night after night, week after week, month after month, for years. Think of the effects of this upon a man’s system, and no one will wonder that so many were driven insane by such tactics. The horror of those nights and days will never leave my memory. One by one I saw my fellow-prisoners break down and go mad under the terrible strain – some slowly and by degrees, others suddenly and without warning. “Who next” was the terrible question that haunted us day and night – and the ever-recurring thought that it might be myself added to the agony.
Can I ever forget the night that poor Whitehead realised that he was going mad. There in the stillness, between two of the hourly inspections, I heard the poor fellow fight against insanity, cursing England and English brutality from the bottom of his heart, and beseeching God to strike him dead sooner than allow him to lose his reason. Such episodes are ineffaceable in the memory, they burn their impress into a man’s soul.