In Jail with John Lacey


Part 2

“What am I in for, Ned?” he exclaimed, almost in shock – “I’m in here ‘cause I’m a bloody thief, that’s why, just like all these other chancers!”

So Shelton was not, after all, a hot spot on the Amnesty books; nor need we fear recruiting teams from Maynooth making potential-priest  dawn kidnapping raids on our little dormitory.

Lacey then went on to explain to me the ethics and morals of the thievery trade.

In these esoteric things, he believed: A thief, he told me, should never grass on another thief, nor should he let the family of an incarcerated colleague go short, or hungry.

There were good thieves, he explained, and bad ones. The bad eggs targeted old people, and harmed them. The good ones only went after the loot of big companies, where the ‘men at the top’ were nicking fifty times more than all the thieves combined.

He also liked to imagine – in fact was convinced – that his was a trade, just like plumbing, or painting. He’d go: “Ned – these nine to fivers go out and get their dough, and often cod the householder up to the eyebrows! And the Taxman too! Isn’t that thieving? They do their work to “dress” their kids.  I do mine, for the same reason. The only difference is that I’m likely to be flung in the nick for my job, while they are free to come and go as they like”.

He also mentioned the unsociable hours that a thief had to put up with, and alleged that normal workers ‘wouldn’t last kissing time’ at his game.

I don’t remember if he’d had a good education. What I do know is that he had one of the sharpest minds I ever encountered. Amend that to: the sharpest. Tell him something – and he had it.

I’ll give an example or two, as I go along.

He’d bring in, every night, the ingredients for a four course meal. One evening we were chatting, after he’d cooked up a big feed using just the Primus. The ingredients – where-from? He ‘worked’ down on the prison farm, where he’d wangled a handy little number. His bomber jacket must have had twenty pockets – most of them sewn in by himself. Now you know …

The cooks and warders were also very co-operative, as he provided them with surprisingly sharp betting tips And he never bet himself!

‘A mugs game, Ned’, he’d go – ‘all them bloody jockeys are crooks! Couldn’t trust ‘em an inch!’ It was his old Dublin charm – he had charisma to die for – that got John accepted – in circles that other would swiftly be drummed out of.

And he had a certain understated presence that deterred people from crossing him. I remember one night when a little red-haired cur  came up to our level, smirking and sniggering. It turned out that he’d defecated in the working boots of a lad he didn’t like, so as to encourage him to leave the dormitory he slept in.

Nobody laughed or commented on this filthy act, so he tried to extricate himself with some semblance of ‘face’ by blustering to John: “What would you do, Dub, if you found a ‘boot-full’ when you came back from the pool room”?  Lacey reached under his bed, pulled out a boot, and said, as he proffered it to the scum: “Take that away, Red, and do your little trick. When you bring it back, you’ll find out”.  That, with the thinnest smile I ever saw on a man.

Funny boy didn’t accept the offer. Lucky old him. He wasn’t seen on our level again.

One night, after the grub, John asked me to teach him how to play chess, as I had a small set with me. He said he could play draughts well, but I told him that chess was a far more complex game, and that it would take a good while just to get familiar with the rules.

He grinned, in his usual self-confident way, at this statement, and I thought – ‘OK Johnny – let’s see how you go with this one!’ He’d already wiped the floor with me at pool, so I was going to have a bit of fun with him. Revenge, sez I, is mine tonight!

I had fun all right. For just one game. I had all the trouble I wanted cornering him in the second, and barely scratched home. He beat me – fast – in the third. And wiped me out in the fourth. He asked me if I had ‘let him’ win. I assured him I never let anyone win, if I could help it. We played many times after that. I never won again.

The next night he produced a draught set. I always considered myself a good draughts player – much better than I was at chess. Good, was I? I didn’t even get a look in. He cleaned me up, big time. Cards – the same. I was also told he could have played professional soccer – if he’d wanted to. But that would mean he’d have a boss…

But, as he stressed to me when I asked him why he never changed his ways – “what’s wrong with thieving, Ned”? To John Lacey, it was a way of life. He considered it more honourable than being the CEO of a big robbing Company. {I’m neither condoning nor condemning his actions – just telling it like it was.}

One morning he told me he was doing a runner that afternoon. Apparently there was some family crisis that required his attention, and he wouldn’t say exactly what. I was the only person he told about the ‘skip’, and he asked me to contact him up Ballyfermot way whenever I was in Dublin. And assured me he would provide me with a wardrobe of the very best new ‘threads’!

I was out of Shelton a few days after he’d scarpered. Off I went,  back to Australia for a while, running amok with the wine and the women. No change there, then.

I came back after a fair spell, and was sitting in my lady-friend’s house when a Sunday paper was laid on the table. She said to me: “isn’t this John, the man you were friends with in Shelton?”

It was. John in his pomp, standing with his back to the bar, in an old snooker pub.

But it was the carnage on the rest of the page that told a terrible story.

Eight people, late at night, had been coming home from some celebration. Eight people, in a Mini. The car hit an icy patch, and skidded into the Royal Canal.

It landed upside down. The horror and terror would have been unbelievable and unthinkable.

They all died.

Including the driver.

John Lacey

Ned E


The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of The Kilkenny Observer.


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