“I was terrified of this place. Sure they were hanging people here back then. They hung Roger Casement here. Used to bury them all in the flower beds. There were little paint marks on the walls to show where they’d been buried. We used to try and guess who was where. Who was hung last. This prison was bursting at the seams with homeless Irishmen then.”
Dick Fitzgerald is standing outside the Breakout Café on the Caledonian Road in London. He reaches into his pocket and carefully pulls a cigarette from its packet. His hand trembles: “76-years old,” he announces. “Left home at 12…I’m 65-years on the road today…high mileage!” he smiles, then lifts his arm carefully and lights his cigarette.
Wisps of smoke melt into the grey of the day.
He turns to his left and walks slowly up the Caledonian Road towards Pentonville Prison entrance, flat-cap and cigarette pointing the way, before stopping. “There used to be a pub there,” he points. “Yeah,” he says wistfully, “long time ago… long, long time…
“We’d get out,” he follows excitedly, “and go straight to pub but it wouldn’t be long before we’d be back behind bars again.
“Someone once said to me ‘Dick, next time you order a drink, just ask God for a short sentence’”.
He smiles again and walks on.
“There used to be a lad — Mr What Happened. That’s what the police called him. He’d be there stood in court and would have to ask the judge what he’d done? Then there was Jockey Lynch. They’d give Jockey money each time he was released, he’d go and have a good drink, get as far as Brick Lane and the first copper he’d see, he’d throw himself in front of his boots. He’d be brought straight back and wouldn’t have to sleep outside.
“I used to be jealous of Jockey because I had nothing going for me. If I was born a domino, I would have been a double blank,I was as bad as that.
“They are all dead now…I’m the last one. I guess they all had to die before I could get off the drink, imagine?
“They were my soul mates. On the street we only had each other, pain made us close. Sometimes I’d get out (of Pentonville Prison), see them and try and hide behind my jacket so they wouldn’t see me. Other times, I’d just go straight to them because they were all I had and sure they’d always find you anyway.
“Years later, when I was sober, I’d be trying to get them into B&B’s, rehab and that and they were wrecked, in wheelchairs, some of them with their legs falling off, they’d say: ‘Dick, sure what’s the point in stopping now? We’ve nothing to stop for?
“They were buried as paupers, the 3 o’clock burials — that’s what they called them, twelve at a time, buried four wide and three deep. ‘Poorly lived, poorly died, poorly buried and no one cried’.
“That was the eulogy.
“The Irish Embassy put up a monument to them — a bench — I went up and said goodbye. Sometimes, I think I suffer from false memory; that I’ll meet some of them coming around the corner in Camden, which used to be a Mecca to us. We’d always head there. The pubs would be packed. As the years wore on, we could talk more and more about less and less for longer and longer,” he smiles.
He sets himself for the slight slope up to the prison entrance and stops at the top. He takes a breath and looks at the prison. “There’d be big riots in here you know. It’s funny you think all the drunks would be involved, but they weren’t, they would be hiding under the beds. They couldn’t be involved in violence, poor men, their nerves would be wrecked.”
For Dick Fitzgerald, night time was the worst. When the cell door closed the dark of the night opened his fears.
“Night time…It’s not weak to show emotion, I know that for a fact, but in places like this where you are supposed to be tough, it’s just an unnatural act. For the day is the time for the tough-guy act and this I say at my word, but late at night when the eyes can’t see, that’s when you do your bird.’”
“Sure this place was my second home one time. But my sentence only started when I left.
“I arrived on a cattle boat. There was a vet for the cows but no doctor for the humans,” he laughs. “I was ill and terrified, terrified of ever going home again. Then we got to Birmingham and there was nothing but slums and smoke. The place was like an inferno with all the foundries, you couldn’t hear with the noise or see with the dirt. It was shocking. I could never get clean in the place. You’d have a bath on a Saturday and it would open your pores then you’d be blacker again with the smoke and the dust. I thought ‘What am I after giving up?’ I didn’t have the fare to get home and would have been too terrified to make the journey — sure 14 hours back, and me that couldn’t swim!” he smiles and lights another cigarette.
Dick got out of Birmingham and found work for a times as a farm labourer in Wicklow. He never thought he’d see the light of day in Britain but one night he woke up one night on the ground outside London’s Euston Station.
“Ingmar Johansson was fighting the night before. I was watching it in Dublin, got so drunk I ended up in London — someone gave me a cheap ticket, didn’t know much more about it. My first night back here I slept in Euston Gardens. There was a building, all bricked up, but there was a hole in the brickwork. I climbed through and lay in the rubbish.
“The next night, I found an air-raid shelter in Kentish Town. It was underground, there was no light and everyone sleeping rough in there, you were walking blind, falling over the bodies of them that were asleep. Everyone would try and get across to the far wall because when the police came, they’d send the dogs down and they’d go for the ones near the front first — that’s how it was.
“But I knew no one. Other people seemed to have connections but I had none — I was ethnic, ethnic,” he laughs. “I was below the Irish again.
“I couldn’t understand it. I never met a poor emigrant only myself. Everyone said they’d a farm at home and that their brother was looking after it for them. The culture then was you are what you own and if you didn’t own anything you were nothing. No one liked to say they were born in a hovel but I was and I’d buy these people a drink to try and impress them.
“Oh the isolation, it was terrifying. It frightened me a lot. I remember going to Camden Town, I said I’d stand down there and see if I could meet someone I knew. ‘I’m bound to meet someone,’ I thought. But I didn’t, after three days and three nights.
“The first man I met was a namesake of mine, he said he’d get me a room in a hotel and he did. We’d a Polish landlady and he was away up the country for the big work. I got a job as a porter, then I got another job cutting the eyes out of potatoes. I used to say I was a Potato Optician — to make it classier,” he laughs. “But it wasn’t long before I followed the big work myself.”
Along with thousands of his countrymen, Dick headed north working on the highways and the motorways.
“We were what you might call ‘present dwellers’, he says. “Live now pay later…no direction, no destination.
“We were on a job in Crewe once and I remember one night saying to this guy: ‘Why do you think our lives are so unmanageable? He said ‘Dick, fast women, slow horses and lazy dogs — they’d destroy any man’,” he laughs.
“But there were no real relationships then, working on the road. You were always being transferred, always starting again.
“We were achieving nothing, had nothing to show for it. I always say the Subbies saved my life then. Sure there was no job on the street but they paid me at the end of every day. Thank God they were there — they were decent to me — I was living hand to mouth and needed the money every day. I couldn’t be waiting until the end of the week.”
Redemption arrived years later he says. It took time, too long maybe, but somehow he survived.
“You know, I never walked in here (Pentonville), always came in in the back of a van,” he says. “Ahh we were always being picked up for being drunk that time. We were life’s waste to be honest with you. There were dog boxes in reception and you’d be put into them for hours — dehumanised. They’d give you a pair of trousers, but three sizes too big. I remember Blind Jock, a Scottish fella, he couldn’t see. He’d a radio in his cell and they leave it there for him because they knew he’d be back — he did life in instalments, which was a crucifixion in itself.
He takes a moment and pulls on his cigarette: “To be honest, looking back, we weren’t fit to be let out of Ireland, but I’m very much Irish.”
The light is setting on the grey of the day and the temperature has been dropping on the Caledonian Road, he’s been talking, and smoking for nearly an hour, but has the energy to talk and smoke some more and words continue to run like thread from a spool.
“But you know what, people were always good to me here, I always met good people. I’ve always been a happy customer, I’ve been blessed really.
“Even when it came to finally giving up the booze, I was living in a flat in Hammersmith and there was a lovely lady living next door, used to work in Buckingham Palace. She tapped at my door one day and said ‘I had to put you to bed again last night’. I was meant to be a tough Irishman and here’s this 80-year old putting me to bed. I said ‘Christ, the game is up.’ No more, I’m off to a detox centre, that’s a long time ago too and I’m waltzing into extra time now,” he jokes..
“There was another lad in here, Jewish Joe and he had this war-cry: “When Daniel escaped from the Lion’s Den, he didn’t go back for his hat,” he smiles. “You know what I mean, you keep running when you get out – you don’t go back…
“So what do you reckon? Will we go for a cup of tea now,” he turns his back on the prison and slowly walks away.
In 2010, Dick Fitzgerald was recognised by the Minister of State’s office for his work with the homeless. He died in 2013, shortly after this interview.
Robert Mulhern is a London based journalist contracted to RTE's The Documentary on One. To contact him, email email@example.com