In 1971 Long Kesh Detention Centre opened on the site of the former Long Kesh RAF base. The site operated as a detention centre until it was converted to the HM Prison Maze in 1975. The 360 acre high-security prison site located near Lisburn supported the enclosed H-block cells, a chapel, hospital, watchtowers, tall walls topped with wire, and several security gates.
Geordie Morrow served three years in the Maze Prison, where he painted on an almost daily basis. This body of artwork provides a unique visual catalogue of life in prison, the monotony of daily life, the parcels and milk deliveries, prisoners exercising in the compound and warders on their rounds.
Geordie Morrow was born in North Belfast in 1951, and left school at 16. He was interested in pursuing an artistic career and began training as a sign draughtsman. In 1974 he was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and was convicted for armed robbery.
Morrow painted almost everyday of his sentence. He recorded daily life inside the prison, the changing seasons, the changing dynamics, the mundane, and the extraordinary.
The site was initially populated by men who were suspected of paramilitary involvement, many of whom were detained following Operation Demetrius in August 1971. The prisoners were held in the Nissen huts of the former RAF base until the iconic H-blocks were built in the mid 1970s.
William Whitelaw introduced Special Category Status for prisoners convicted of terrorist or politically motivated crimes. This status allowed prisoners to associate freely, wear their own clothes and receive extra visits, letters and parcels. Under this policy Morrow was able to get the supplies he needed to paint within the confines of prison.
In Writing a Letter the view from inside the hut shows the curtains that could be drawn across the sections where people slept. At first the huts were completely open inside, but they were later subdivided into cubicles for privacy. There is also a water boiler and hot plate, and one of the other prisoners, Tommy, is writing a letter at a desk
In The Dinner Trolley we see the way food was brought to the different huts and later the H-Blocks. The prisoners were given a plastic plate, knife and fork and the meals were basic, but attitudes towards the food varied according to what people were used to. Visitors to prisoners with Special Category Status could bring them food parcels but there was nowhere to keep meat chilled so it had to be eaten the same day.
Geordie Morrow’s artwork can be regarded as a primary source, a first-hand account from someone who has a direct connection with a time period, person, or event. His paintings and drawings tell us about what life looked like to Morrow from one day to the next. They provide an insight into everyday life in the prison, and his sketches are often annotated with his comments. While the pieces represent one person’s perspective, they can be used to build our understanding of the time Morrow spent in prison.
Figures Through the Wire
From within the strokes of Morrow’s paint brush, the shading of his sketches, and the notes on the page, a narrative starts to emerge. Through the individual artworks the continuity and monotony of everyday life can be examined and questioned. While this evidence cannot stand alone as a testament to life behind the wire, it is most useful when put into context alongside other primary sources.
Figures Through the Wire - An exhibition of Geordie Morrow’s artwork was on display at the Ulster Museum from 29 June until 9 December 2018