Gerry Conlon may be the single most influential person when it comes to who got me into studying Irish politics. The Guildford Four case was riveting for me and it showed just how cruel and scared absolutely everyone was in the heart of the conflict known colloquially as the Troubles. His case was a close second to the Easter Rising of 1916 in my favorite stories of tragic Irish triumph.
On June 21st, 2014 at 4AM California time, I found out that Gerry Conlon had passed away and I actually shed a tear. This marked the first time I cried over a celebrity passing away since Johnny Cash, and I am pretty sure that it only happened those two times. I was heartbroken and I almost got up then to write about it but I wasn’t awake enough to articulate the utter sadness of this news.
For those that may not know his story, early in 1975, Gerry Conlon and three other young adults were arrested in connection to the IRA bombing of the Guildford Pub. Despite having nothing to do with the IRA or the bombings, they were convicted and sentenced to life in prison…thankfully, since if they’d been sentenced to death, they all would have been dead before their convictions were quashed. Before they were eventually released, another seven innocent people were convicted of aiding them in this incident – including many of Conlon’s family members and his father, Giuseppe Conlon. Guiseppe never strayed from proclaiming his innocence and he remained hopeful that the miscarriage of justice would be overturned, but Gerry did not. Gerry did not have the fortitude of belief of his father.
Guiseppe Conlon died in prison an innocent man. Years and years later, his son – who found the fighter in himself shortly after the tragic death of his dad, eventually walked out of the courthouse through the front door over fifteen years later when his conviction was quashed, proving to the world that the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven had been wrongly convicted. The blockbuster movie “In the Name of the Father” was based on these real life events and is an amazing film. If you haven’t seen it, go find it now. Seriously. It took over fifteen years for the police to admit they had made mistakes and purposefully suppressed evidence in order to convict these men and women…none of whom fit any profile or had any paramilitary or political ties.
I was sixteen when they released Gerry and I remember seeing the footage of him leaving the courthouse. It was one of my first forays into Irish politics – and it was a story that led to another, to another, and to another. More than twenty-five years later, I can point to Gerry Conlon as one of the reasons that I fell in love with Irish history. His story had a profound effect on my psyche. Unfortunately his story does not have the Hollywood ending that he so deserved. He struggled with depression, suicide, and addiction since the day he was finally released – and really, who wouldn’t? I cannot find fault in the need to try to erase what has happened to you and your family in whatever way you can. Still, Conlon made it to sixty years of age and was a published author and an activist in other cases that he felt were rigged or unfair. He died on this day in 2014 in Belfast and even now I am still a little teary as I write those words. I wish I had met him – it actually was a thing I had hoped to do someday – just to tell him what a profound impact his story had on shaping who I am and what my interests are. Sixty is too young for many but for Gerry Conlon it was a pretty amazing feat, given that he spent over 15 of them wrongly convicted in the harshest prisons.
His family says it better than anyone else could. In a statement issued through his lawyer Gareth Peirce, they said: “He brought life, love, intelligence, wit and strength to our family through its darkest hours. He helped us to survive what we were not meant to survive. We thank him for his life and we thank all his many friends for their love.”
Rest in Peace Mr. Conlon. Your story and your fight will forever be inspiring and triumphant. I am sorry you lived it and I am thankful for the impact it had on me. I hope you see your father again.