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As republicans prepare to mark the 30th anniversary of the burning of Long Kesh this weekend, Barry McCaffrey speaks to one of the men involved in the incident...
Up to 1,000 people will gather in Belfast this weekend to mark the single largest battle between republicans and the British army of the troubles.
Former internees and republican prisoners will gather in west Belfast on Friday night to mark the 30th anniversary of the burning of Long Kesh.
Shortly after 6pm on October 15 1974 around 800 republican internees and sentenced prisoners began to burn their prison compounds inside Long Kesh.
Within hours, 21 of the compounds used to house the internees and sentenced prisoners had been destroyed.
As the flames licked high into the night sky republicans took over the entire prison complex, destroying watch towers and prison administration buildings.
The blaze was visible four miles away from the prison.
Republicans had already informed their loyalist counterparts that the prison was to be raised to the ground and loyalists had agreed that their compounds were to be used as first-aid centres, for the battle which would inevitably erupt with the army.
"We had been preparing to burn the camp for months," explained former republican inmate Kevin Carson.
"There had been a battle with the NIO over visits, food and compassionate parole for most of 1974.
"Eventually it was decided that enough was enough and Long Kesh had to be burned."
The extent of republican planning was such that they had already made their own respirators to combat the CS gas which they were sure the British army would use against them once the fighting began.
"We trained for months so that we were physically fit when the time came to burn the camp.
"People were told to send anything of value out to their families and others had to carry first-aid kits around with them.
"The hardest thing was making the gas masks because we had to sew charcoal filters into the masks to stop the gas."
Ironically Kevin Carson says the burning of the cages, as they were known, was the easy part.
"We were in Cage 17 when the word came to burn it and pretty soon we had broken out of the compound and were destroying internal watch towers and prison generators."
Republicans debated over what should happen to the guard dogs used to patrol the perimeter of the compounds.
"It was decided to put the dogs into a run, although some did die by accident in the fires."
Within hours hundreds of republicans armed with batons and shields taken from prison officers' quarters gathered on the jail's football pitches as thousands of soldiers sealed-off Long Kesh's perimeter.
Meanwhile similar fires were started at Magilligan jail in Co Derry which resulted in £200,000 damage.
In Armagh women's prison republicans took a governor and three warders hostage.
They were later released unharmed.
While fighting continued throughout the night, it wasn't until the following morning that the army made a concerted effort to retake Long Kesh.
"They sent in armoured cars at first and fired hundreds of rubber bullets at us.
"But around 11am a Gazelle helicopter appeared over the football pitches and started to fire gas canisters down on us."
Although the republicans had been prepared for the effects of CS gas they had not prepared for the use of what they believe to be CR gas or Dibenzoxa-zepine, which is thought to be 10 times stronger than its CS counterpart.
"We could cope with CS gas because people were used to it and we had the respirators.
"But this CR gas was different.
"The canisters from the helicopter exploded 100 feet from the ground into dozens of cluster bombs which fell all over the pitches.
"The first physical feeling I had was of drowning.
"My body felt as if it was filling up with fluid.
"Other men felt as if they were on fire.
"Men were lying on the ground choking and screaming."
The pitch battle between republicans and the army continued with some soldiers being taken prisoner.
"The soldiers were handed back to the Brits but when our OCs (commanding officers) eventually gave the order for us to return to the cages we were badly beaten by the Brits."
The republicans returned to smouldering compounds.
"In Cage 17 we were lucky that some of the huts hadn't burned completely so we had some cover.
"In other cages guys were forced to sleep under nothing but tarpaulin in the wind and the rain.
"We weren't moved to new cages for more than a month."
The cost of the burning of Long Kesh was estimated at £1.5 million.
Then Secretary of State Merlyn Rees reported 130 prisoners and nine warders had been injured in the disturbances.
Republicans disputed the figures claiming the north's three main hospitals had reported treating more than 180 prisoners.
But Kevin Carson said it is the effects of the CR gas which continues to cause controversy.
"(They) denied using CR gas, but a few weeks later their doctors tested everyone's blood.
"We hadn't asked for tests and were never given the results.
"Since then an awful lot of the men who inhaled the gas on the pitches have developed cancer.
"Many have died and we are calling on the British government to come clean on what gas was used on us.
"(They) were eventually forced to admit that CR gas was sent to Long Kesh but still deny actually using it."
Ironically the British army has also commemorated the burning of Long Kesh.
Earlier this year the Duke of Edinburgh regiment's internet site published soldiers accounts and photographs of the burning.
"After the riots started in the Maze Tac HQ, 'A' and 'C' companies were deployed with the first stick (unit) from the battalion under the command of sergeant Cole leading the way, followed in 15 minute intervals by the rest of the battalion," the British army website recalls.
The Duke of Edinburgh website recalls that other army units including the Marines, Hussars and Paratroop regiments were also sent to the Maze.
"As they flew over the Maze they could see the smoke and flames from the various prison buildings, including the cookhouse which the inmates had set on fire."
Soldiers from the Duke of Edinburgh's 'A' Coy, who led the entry into the prison camp, recall how they were met with a hail of bricks and concrete, but managed to capture the first gate into the compounds where they remained under attack including petrol.
Other soldiers from the regiment's 'D' Coy then engaged in a "running fight down the lengths of the compound to secure the gate into the next compound."
However soldiers from 'C' Company recalled how they "nearly came unstuck" when confronted by the majority of republican prisoners.
"The rioters then fell back across two football pitches encouraged by helicopters dropping CS gas on them.
"It must be said at this time that 'D' Coy suffered 'friendly fire' in as much as they got gassed as well.
"Eventually the rioters were forced up against a fence and slowly but surely surrendered."
The army account claimed that republicans had been well prepared, having erected barricades, stockpiled stones, made various weapons and even had their own gas masks.
"The battalion did however suffer a large number of minor casualties, mainly from bricks.
"The operations sergeant who volunteered to go in with 'Tac HQ' was laid out by a particularly large brick and was laid out again when some first-aider removed his respirator in the gas cloud."
However Kevin Carson insists that Friday night's reunion will not only commemorate the burning of Long Kesh, but will also look to the future.
"This will be the first time that many of the men and their families have ever been together in one hall in 30 years.
"The event will include an exhibition of pictures and memorabilia from Long Kesh and personal accounts from many of those involved.
"This event is not only about bring closure to what happened 30 years ago, but is also about remembering the actions of ordinary men who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances."
Prison officer voices CR gas fears Andersonstown News Monday 2nd of September 2008 By Ciarán Barnes
The British government is coming under renewed pressure to admit a cancer-causing gas was used on republican prisoners during a 1974 Long Kesh riot.
A prison officer on duty on the day has told the Andersonstown News that he now has lung cancer despite being a non-smoker and teetotaller.
He also says that a number of his colleagues who inhaled the gas fired from British army helicopters have died from cancer despite leading healthy lives.
Republican prisoners have always insisted CR gas was used to quell the October 16 riot.
Medical research shows that toxins in the gas cause cancer.
The British government admits CR gas was being kept in Long Kesh and that clearance for its use had been granted. However, it denies using it on inmates.
A fifth of the 300 republican prisoners who were gassed have since died or are suffering from cancer.
Now prison officers are making the same claims.
In a letter to the Andersonstown News, the former prison officer says: “During the operation to regain control, the army dropped gas over the prison. At the time, we just assumed it was CS gas to quell the rioting terrorists.
“However, recently former inmates are now claiming that the gas was CR and that there is a link between it and cancer.
“This group also claim that dozens of former inmates have since died from these cancers,” added the ex-warden.
“I regard these accusations as republican propaganda but if true it would answer a few strange questions, as a number of prison officers have also died from cancer.
“Also, if the claims are proved, then what of my former colleagues? Should the government not clarify its position on this issue?”
The prison officer provided the Andersonstown News with photographs of a commemorative badge issued to wardens who quelled the riot to prove he was on duty at the time.
Former IRA prisoner Jim McCann was one of the 300 inmates gassed.
The West Belfast man runs the Ceartais group, which supports the families of those inmates who have died or are suffering from cancer.
Jim yesterday urged former prison officers to add their voices to those demanding the truth.
He said: “With the amount of gas fired that day, I’m not surprised people who weren’t meant to be affected are now victims.
“I would urge former prison officers with knowledge of what happened to come forward.
“They worked for the Prison Service, and that’s where the answers are, they are with the Prison Service and Ministry of Defence.”
Two years ago soldiers from the Duke of Edinburgh Royal Regiment told the Daily Ireland newspaper that an “unknown gas” has been used.
The soldiers were sent into Long Kesh to take on the rioting prisoners.
One soldier said: “I can tell you now, because I have seen CS gas being used, that it wasn’t CS which was fired from the helicopters.
“I don’t know what it was, we weren’t told and we didn’t ask questions.”
The IRA’s leader in Long Kesh at the time, George Gillen, also claimed that Chief Prison Officer William ‘Punchy’ Wright admitted to him that CR gas had been used. Mr Gillen, who died earlier this year, was called to a meeting with Wright in the days after the riot.
“I hadn’t even sat down when this guy started talking about CR gas,” said Mr Gillen.
“To be honest, I really didn’t know what it was he was on about.
“But he said to me, I can still remember it clearly, he said, ‘Everything I tell you is off the record. The prison officers had nothing to do with the distribution of CR gas’.
“It wasn’t until years later when the stuff about CR gas being used on us came out that I realised what he had meant,” he added.