Life in the Cages/ Compounds of Long Kesh

Following the introduction of internment in August 1971, Long Kesh – a disused World War 2 airfield near Lisburn, south of Belfast – was used as an internment camp.  The camp was divided into compounds (also known as ‘cages’), each surrounded by razor-topped wire fencing and containing multiple makeshift Nissen huts to accommodate the internees. The cages/compounds were not only used to hold internees, however. Due to prison overcrowding, Long Kesh was also used for sentenced republican and loyalist prisoners from 1972. In this year, political prisoners were also granted Special Category Status (which granted them privileges formerly available only to internees). 1972 was also witness to the renaming of the site as Maze Prison, although prisoners continued to refer to ‘Long Kesh’.

Following the end of the policy of internment in December 1975, the cages/ compounds continued to be used for prisoners. In fact, despite the opening of the H-Blocks in 1976, they remained in use until 1988, with people who had been sentenced before 1976 finishing their sentence in the cages/ compounds and anyone sentenced after March 1976 going into the H-Blocks.

In total, 22 compounds/ cages were constructed in Long Kesh. Although there were some variations across the compounds/ cages, they generally consisted of four Nissen huts which were designed to accommodate 80 men, with half of one hut serving as a dining/ recreational area. The cages/compounds were segregated along political lines. Not only were republicans and loyalists held in separate compounds/ cages, but so were the various organisations, including the UVF, UDA, Official IRA and Provisional IRA. Free association was permitted within each compound/ cage from 8am until ‘lock-up’ at 9pm.

Learn More Here


Devlin, B. (1982).

An Interlude with Seagulls: Memories of a Long Kesh Internee.

Flynn, M. K. (2011).

‘Decision-making and Contested Heritage in Northern Ireland: The Former Maze Prison/Long Kesh’, Irish Political Studies, 26:3, pp.383-401

Green, Marion (1998)

Hutchinson, B. with G. Mulvenna (2020)

My Life in Loyalism
Newbridge: Merrion Press.

Murtagh, T. (2018).

The Maze prison: a hidden story of chaos, anarchy and politics Hook, Hampshire: Waterside Press

Parallel Stories

A selection of clips from the archive exploring the theme from different perspectives.
The prison authorities referred to them as compounds but we as prisoners referred to them as cages
Play Film

Watch the clip of William. Why do you think he described Long Kesh as a ‘prisoner of war camp’?

We all had designated jobs
Play Film

The prison officers referred to the ‘compounds’ of Long Kesh whilst prisoners referred to ‘cages’. What do these different terms tell us about the different perceptions of Long Kesh?

You were simply left to your own devices
Play Film
The canteen hut, it was burned to the ground
Larry and Paddy
Play Film

The compounds/ cages were segregated along political lines. What do you think were some of the consequences of this segregation?

‘Life in the Cages/ Compounds of Long Kesh’

A picture of the compounds of Long Kesh from the outside.

A short film, produced by PMA in January 2020, which offers new insight into life in the compounds/ cages of Long Kesh.
Running time: 25:19

Links to NI Curriculum

CCEA GCSE History: Unit 1; Section B; Option 2: Changing Relations: Northern Ireland and its Neighbours, 1965–1998

Questions based on GCSE CEA history exam papers

Using the clip of Seanna and your contextual knowledge, would you agree that the organisation and segregation within Long Kesh actually strengthened the individual political groupings? Give two reasons.

How useful is the clip of William for an historian studying life in the cages/ compounds of Long Kesh? Explain your answer, using the clip and your contextual knowledge.

How useful is the clip of Larry and Paddy for an historian studying life in the cages/ compounds of Long Kesh? Explain your answer, using the clip and your contextual knowledge.

Download our teacher's notes


William (Plum)

“The prison wasn’t built along the old lines, the Victorian lines, like the Crumlin Road. It was like a, and I defy anybody else to describe it as a prisoner of war camp, you know. You had the watch towers, the barbed wire, you had Nissen huts as the accommodation. You had the very basics. But it was quick to put up, and it was sufficient for the demand – at that time – of the prison population. So originally in 1971 all the internee prisoners – people who weren’t convicted through the normal courts, people who were interned without trial – something like 300 prisoners – were actually moved down here into compounds 2, 3 and 4, I believe, at the time. Because they were the first compounds that were built. Now, the prison authorities referred to them as compounds but we as prisoners referred to them as cages.”



“The prison officer would have came around 7.30, would have opened the door, would have came in and done a head count. But upon opening the door I’d have been standing there waiting on him ‘cos I would have warmed up in the cubicle with some stretching exercises and then I’d have went out, walked round past the end of the hut to the end of the hut there next to the ablutions – the shower and toilet facilities, and I’d have started my daily regime of running. And that was every morning I done 10 miles around here: 70 laps. That would have taken 70 minutes roughly. So after a shower and stuff the compound would have come to life. And other people that didn’t run first thing in the mornings would have been getting up and doing their daily routine, getting washed and shaved and having breakfast and stuff. And then we all had designated jobs. So some people had things to do. Some was looking after the tea facilities and stuff like that, others was cleaning out the hut. Other people would have been cleaning the perimeter etc. so everyone had a job that was spent at a particular time in the morning occupying themselves. And from then ‘til lunch generally would have been your own free time, and that would have been taken up with a number of different things, people done classes, people studied, done degrees and stuff like that.”



 “In the cages you had no contact with the prison warders. The prison warders simply patrolled the perimeter of the camp. You had four huts which were in… they had four huts which were in one compound, you had an ablutions block and a canteen area which we converted into a five a side area…. And you got your day in by studying, by walking the yard, by running around the yard in the mornings, doing a bit of training, by doing handicrafts, by political discussions, reading, arguing. And basically you were simply left to your own devices. But the staff within the cages tended to, especially in the early days, I think it probably relaxed after the H-Blocks opened in 1976, when people realised that it was really going to be a long haul. But in the early days when we were in this sort of frame of mind – freedom: ‘74, freedom: ‘75 – we led a fairly militarised type of existence, it was very military structures. You had the OC of the cage, then you had his staff, then you had the OC of every hut, you know. So you had to get up at a certain time every morning, you had to have your bed pack made, you weren’t allowed to lie in your bed until a specific time in the afternoon and, you know, it was regimented like that. But having said that, it all depended on what cage you were in and it all depended on who your mates were, basically how you got your day in.”


Larry and Paddy

[L] I was remanded here, it wasn’t just all internees, ordinary prisoners were here too as well as you, worked the kitchens and all that and delivered the food out to the different cages

[P] That’s what happened the first riot in Long Kesh, in cage 2. There was ordinary prisoners serving the food out and there was a Newry man took exception to one of them because this prisoner was from Newry. And he fired the dinner at him. And then that escalated into a massive riot.

[L] What cage was that in?

[P] Cage 2.

[L] Ah right.

[P] They burnt the canteen hut, it was burned to the ground. And they put all the beds against the gate. Piled them all against the gate. But the gate opened the other way. And the Brits surrounded the compound and they fired in CS gas all round. It was terrible, it really was. You couldn’t escape it you see. And the next thing, they just burst in with the big – what do you call that big…

[L] Jeep?

[P] No, the…pig you called it

[L] That’s right

[P] And then they came in with…

[L] They drove it straight into the cage?

[P] Oh straight in. And then they followed in and they battered everybody stupid, boy