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 Troubles. That case was a close second to the Easter Rising of 1916 in my favorite stories of tragic Irish triumph.
This morning at 4AM California time, I found out that Gerry Conlon had passed away and I actually shed a tear. This marks the first time I have cried over a celebrity passing away since Johnny Cash, and I am pretty sure that it has 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, he and 3 other young kids 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, another 7 people were convicted of bomb-making and explosives handling – including Gerry Conlon’s family members and father, Giuseppe Conlon. Guiseppe never strayed from wanting out of prison and remained hopeful that the miscarriage of justice would be overturned, but Gerry did not. He had a very early lesson on how terrible and confusing the world was and did not have the fortitude of belief of his father.
Guiseppe Conlon died in prison, as an innocent man. Years and years later, his son – who had found the fighter in himself after the tragic death of his dad, walked out of the courthouse through the front door, proving to the world that the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven had been wrongly convicted over 15 years before. The 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 15 years for the Crown to admit they made mistakes and purposefully suppressed evidence in order to convict these men and women…none of whom fit any profile or had any Provo or political ties and it had a large effect on my psyche.
I was 16 when they released Gerry Conlon. I remember seeing the footage and wondering what it was all about. It was probably my first foray into Irish history – and it was a story that led to another, to another, to another. Since it’s release, I’ve probably seen In the Name of the Father at least 25 times too – and obviously, my studies have just continued and blossomed in the 25+ years since my first glimpse at this case..
Gerry Conlon did 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, he made it to 60 and was a published author and an activist in other cases that he felt were rigged or unfair. He died today in his home in Belfast and 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. 60 is too young for many, for Gerry 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.