CAGE ELEVEN: WRITINGS FROM PRISON

By Gerry Adams 

Roberts Rinehart. 152 pp. $12.95 

THE STREET & OTHER STORIES

By Gerry Adams 

Roberts Rinehart. 146 pp. $12.95 

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By H. Bruce Franklin

(Originally published in Book World, Washington Post, August 31, 1997.  Copright 1997 by H. Bruce Franklin)_______________________________________ 

Lots of political leaders write books. Among these a few--mostly rebels--have produced literature treasured independently from their political careers (though of course not from their ideology). A few prominent examples: José Martí, who died fighting for Cuban independence; world-renowned poets Léopold Senghor and Agostinho Neto, heads of the independence movements and first presidents of Senegal and Angola respectively; Václav Havel, dissident playwright and first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia; and of course poets Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. 

Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Fein and co-initiator of the current peace process in Northern Ireland, is one of these rebel leaders with remarkable literary achievements. Like almost all the others, Adams has spent considerable time in prison. Interned without trial in 1972 on the notorious prison ship Maidstone, he was rearrested in 1973, again without trial or charges, and incarcerated until 1977 in Britain's Long Kesh concentration camp near Belfast. While in Long Kesh, he was finally convicted of a crime--trying to escape--and transferred from a cage for "internees" to Cage Eleven, reserved for those serving actual sentences. His sketches of prison life, smuggled out and published pseudonymously in the Belfast newspaper Republican News, are collected in Cage Eleven: Writings from Prison (first published in 1990 in Ireland). 

One of ten children born to stalwart Irish Republican working-class parents, Adams describes himself in Cage Eleven as someone who grew up in a "perfectly normal" West Belfast family; that is, his father and four brothers all shared his experience of the degradation, privation, and occasional brutality of Long Kesh. Yet these twenty-six sketches, told in an often bantering style, are never self-pitying, bitter, acrimonious, or even sloganeering. One would never guess that their author's body is still maimed from his imprisonment and from being riddled with bullets by a loyalist death squad.

Nor would one guess from these sketches that their author is the leader of a major political force. In Cage Eleven, Adams exists as little more than an unassuming and self-effacing narrator who appears as a minor figure in various anecdotes, often as a straight man for the main characters--and characters most of them are--sometimes wacky but always boisterous, vital, and engaging. Even the heavy political meetings are narrated with whimsy and without a trace of self-importance or self-aggrandizement.

Because these smuggled sketches were written for an Irish Republican audience, American readers may find themselves feeling a bit like eavesdroppers. Many of the Irish and slang terms are translated in a helpful glossary, but both the specific prison experience and the underlying political outlook are unfamiliar. 

Long Kesh does not resemble American prisons. Prisoners are not confined in cells. The "cages" are clusters of huts, with four or five huts to a cage and approximately thirty men in each hut. Each hut, each cage, and the Republican section of the camp has its own OC (Officer-in-Charge), elected by the prisoners and granted administrative powers by the prison authorities. The hut OC sets the daily routine and can have offending guards removed. A more revealing comparison with Long Kesh is Allied prisoner-of-war camps in Europe during World War II. By structuring this prison along the same lines, the British government implicitly recognized the accuracy of the term Adams uses to identify the inmates: prisoners of war. 

The short stories and sketches collected in The Street invite comparison with James Joyce's Dubliners. Though certainly not as multifaceted or fully developed as Joyce's, Adams' tales display a deeper sympathy for and identification with the common people of Ireland. Telling their stories from inside their lives, he never looks down on his characters no matter how low their circumstances. A reader can hardly avoid sensing the author's profound humanism. 

These are mostly tales of ordinary people severely tested by everyday problems. A father spends a frustrating day at the unemployment office because a computer printed his infant son's age at sixteen years. A middle-aged man finds his first full time job, as a bank security officer, jeopardized by an encroaching streetbeggar. A nineteen-year-old with Down's Syndrome succeeds, when everyone else fails, in quieting a friend. A father and son try to transcend a quarrelsome stage of their relationship. 

Even when these problems come from Northern Ireland's strife, the focus is on ordinary folk. "Civil War" tells of an elderly unmarried brother and sister alienated from each other as conflict intrudes on their lives. "Exiles" is the story of an Irishman torn between a yearning for his homeland and his forty years of family life in England. 

A strong feminist undercurrent runs through many of the stories and surfaces in a few. A woman twice seduced and abandoned in her youth is now a grandmother who has long given up on men as abusers and exploiters of women. Another grandmother, a Republican activist in her youth, uses her heightened consciousness to shield her IRA grandson from arrest. A docile, subservient 53-year-old housewife becomes a "rebel" when her son is arrested for "riotous behavior," but her rebellion is directed as much against her husband's patriarchal regime as British rule. 

One of the three evidently autobiographical stories, "The Mountains of Mourne," is the most explicit about Adams' politics. The narrator, an underground Republican activist with an assumed identity, gets a job as an assistant to an Ulster Loyalist who drives a liquor truck; the two become friends, and a highly charged confrontation between their opposing visions of Northern Ireland takes place in the stunning Irish mountains of the title. Adams' broadly democratic view, explicitly articulated here, is manifest everywhere in these stories, even those that overtly have nothing todo with politics.

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H. Bruce Franklin is the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University--Newark and the author or editor of eighteen books on culture and history. His collection of American prison writings was published by Penguin in 1998.

hbf@andromeda.rutgers.edu