Former loyalist paramilitary: 'I was court-martialled for not doing a UVF mural'
Jailed for a botched robbery during the Troubles, Geordie Morrow found artistic inspiration, and a new direction in life, behind bars.
Published 25/08/2014 | 09:33
About 50 former loyalists in Northern Ireland have had tattoos painted onto them by the artist Geordie Morrow.
That's a modest estimate, he says. Some of them are dead, of course, and some of them have had their tattoos covered up and disguised.
He has disguised his own on his left arm, no longer wishing to offend anyone with an expression of paramilitary allegiance.
Geordie was a sign-writer in Belfast when he was arrested in Belfast in 1974 while trying to rob a milkman. “It was the Co-op dividend,” he says by way of explanation, and the takings would have been high. He was nearly killed while making his escape when an undercover soldier lined up a pistol level with his head, but he says the most embarrassing part was lying on the ground with this his captor sitting on top of him while passengers on a passing bus stared down agog at the whole drama. It was not Geordie's proudest moment.
“It was petty, not the sort of thing you'd hoped to go to jail for,” he says.
Yet he had known since he joined the UVF that he would either go to jail or be killed, and he had planned that he would spend his jail time developing as an artist, not drawing tattoos on his comrades. Yet, while on remand in Crumlin Road jail, he found that loyalist inmates were keen on his services. Some would pay him to do their portraits and he drew them with watercolours. Others wanted him to draw images onto their bodies that could be made permanent with a pin, some thread and Indian ink.
"Somebody would have a needle, with string wound round about a quarter-inch from the point, and you tie a ball of tight thread onto it and you have Indian ink and you just dip it in and punch round the outline; the blood pours out of it and you carry on doing it and eventually the ink goes into the holes the blood is coming out of."
But prisoners with hardened attitudes were not given to passing compliments on the work Geordie did for them.
"I drew on people. Some people wanted it on their chest, some on their back. Some people wanted the UVF badge and the eagles, and some of them, when they were skinny, were told the most we can stretch to is a budgie. And everybody goes away wondering, why am I doing this? And there are flies buzzing round it, but nobody goes, Oh, I like that one."
The men might not have had much sense of what would make an impressive, or beautiful, image, but they had come to the right man.
For Geordie Morrow is one of the most significant artists to have emerged from loyalist culture and, when he eventually freed himself from garnishing the skin of his comrades with emblems of the tribe, he started years of work on recording the layout and the life of Long Kesh.
It wasn't easy to be an artist in prison. "No one makes room for you in prison. No one walks into the space where you are working and says, 'Oh, excuse me, I didn't mean to interrupt'," he says.
Geordie had to find his own workspace and preserve it without making trouble for others, or himself.
He was sent first to Magilligan prison and did no artwork there. Geordie remembers a harsh culture in the jail.
It wasn't just the brusqueness of the medical orderly stitching up his head wound without pain relief, or ever calling him back to have the stitches out; it was the manner in which the men interacted with each other. "Anyone who couldn't handle a visit from his wife, or whose girlfriend had left him, got dog's abuse."
Prison, then, wasn't a place where you could expect sympathy from anybody.
Geordie asked for a transfer from Magilligan, where he was sent first, because there was so little structure to life there. "Men would have spent whole days on their beds covered in blankets and, if they went to the medical orderly and said they were depressed, the MO would have given them tablets."
He believes that the paramilitary regime and discipline held men together, though he fell foul of the system himself.
He was given an order by the UVF to paint a mural, but the image they wanted didn't fit with his own inspiration.
"I didn't want to paint what they wanted me to paint. I said, if you want me to paint it, I'll paint it, but if you want it painted a certain way, you paint it." He was court martialled.
He was marched into a formal hearing of the case against him. He had to stand to attention and salute the officers of the court. Then one of them stood and read the charge.
"He said, 'You are charged with refusing to carry out a wee painting job.' And everybody sort of stopped for a moment."
The prosecutor had failed to carry off his role with sufficient authority and aplomb. As Geordie says: "There is no school for thugs."
He adds: "Nuala McKeever could have made something of that." But UVF heavies enforcing their own law could manage neither to achieve the full formality of a judicial procedure, or to see the joke. His punishment was to clean the compound.
But he had the advantage of being the tallest UVF man in Long Kesh at the time. "When you were marching, it was tallest to the right and shortest to the left. Every day you marched and walked around the compound, for Remembrance Day and different things. Until Tiny came in."
Geordie is pointing out a side profile portrait he did of another prisoner with long blonde hair. "A fella called Norman Ross. He was about four inches taller than me, which was a totally new experience." And Ross' arrival cost Geordie his privileged position on the line.
Over the years, he produced sombre, simple, impressionistic images of the drabness of prison life, the wire fence, the huts and compounds and the rain.
He sent these out to his family in batches of six and now the work has been exhibited several times. Some of it forms part of the Art of the Troubles exhibition at the Ulster Museum and the museum itself is trying to acquire the collection as an incomparable record of paramilitary prison life in that period.
Many of them stayed wrapped up and unseen for decades until the Prison Arts Fellowship started to show an interest in Geordie.
The fellowship urged the Ulster Museum to look at the work with a view to including some of it in the Art of the Troubles exhibition, which continues into next month.
Kim Mawhinney, head of Fine Art for the museum, says that it was the policy of the museum not to include prison art, or murals, in the exhibition, this generally being seen as propagandist work done by people whose artistic vision is not developed, or individual.
"But," she says, "we were absolutely blown away by Geordie's work. It is a unique vision of prison experience at that time. What was different about Geordie was that he was an artist who happened to be in prison."
She says that the museum is now in discussion with Geordie with a view to acquiring the whole collection of prison paintings for the history section.
She describes Geordie as an artist who had not been noticed, who has "a phenomenal knowledge of art and art history and has incorporated much of what he has learnt from his reading into his work".
Other prisoners painted, of course, but Geordie had to withhold his opinion on the quality of their work. "Jail art tended to be pictures of people with barbed wire round their hands, all that naff stuff," he says. "But you can't say to people that their work is naff. You work your way through on your own."
Untutored since school, Geordie evolved as an artist in Long Kesh. He observed, for instance, that the natural lighting changed day by day and he painted the same grim scene in front of himself over and over again to discover the nuanced changes in colour. Prisoners often talk of the tedium of staring at the same things every day; Geordie learnt to appreciate that nothing stayed the same, not even the view from a prison yard.
He believes that he matured as a person in prison, too, and he credits that largely to Gusty Spence, the first UVF prisoner, jailed in 1966 for murdering a Catholic barman, Peter Ward.
Geordie recalls lectures given by Spence as having opened his mind and helped him to cultivate an independent perspective. Spence would challenge loyalist prisoners to identify who was responsible for their being in jail.
Some would blame the British, or the Government, or the IRA; he led them to admitting that they were fully responsible themselves.
Geordie has moved on from painting Long Kesh, to a variety of work, including landscapes of Belfast from the hills over Highfield, where he grew up.
Some of these are bleak and apocalyptic. "Do you really think so?" he asks.
It is beautiful work that has sold for hundreds of pounds in galleries.
But there are other original Geordie Morrows out there, some of them on the arms and backs of old loyalists. Priceless.