Politics in the north of Ireland are a tricky thing. For generations words, weapons, petrol bombs and more have been tossed from one side of the divide (and the border) to the other in an ongoing struggle for power. On this day in 1967 a different sort of projectile was thrown into the mix (ahem) when Rev. Ian Paisley launched snowballs at Jack Lynch, the Taoiseach of Ireland.
In the wee hours of the morning of October 23rd, 1971, the British Army rolled into the Falls area of Belfast with the intention of raiding houses and arresting anyone they suspected of criminal or “dissident” activities. It was a regular occurrence in the area and the residents had various ways of warning each other when the army was around. Runners would spread the word ahead of the vehicles and the Women’s Action Committee (WAC) would bang trash bin lids on the streets as an early alarm system. Sometimes people would blow whistles or sound horns from their cars as well which was exactly what two sisters, Maura Meehan and Dorothy Maguire, left a party to do on that early Autumn morning. When one of Meehan’s children asked where she was headed she told him that she’d be right back, as she grabbed a handheld horn and headed to a car outside. These words were the last she ever spoke to her family.
While I’m on the subject of documentaries and links, here’s another one for those who live outside of Ireland or cannot access current news specials from outside the region. “The Massacre at Ballymurphy,” is a shortened version of “The Ballymurphy Precendent,” a new documentary by Callum Macrea. It has been causing quite a stir online since its debut on Channel Four last weekend and has sent massive waves throughout the North of Ireland and beyond.
Well, I almost made it. I almost made it through the season without posting another one of the pieces I write every single year about the sectarianism and the hatred that fuels the flames of bonfires throughout the north of Ireland annually. I guess I was hoping that it was all going to be fine this year, despite knowing it wouldn’t be. I suppose I thought if I didn’t talk about it, then it wouldn’t make me so angry. It doesn’t work like that though. In fact it might be more infuriating to watch it go all down without commenting – especially when it looks like this marching season buildup has been increasingly worse than those in recent memory.
On this day in 1981, Bobby Sands was elected to Parliament. His candidacy was a risky maneuver, given that he was in prison and on hunger strike at the time and while his win ended up being a masterful propaganda tool, it did not save his life.
Sheena Fagan Campbell was an activist, a law student, and a rising star in the Sinn Fein hierarchy. She was a single mother in Belfast who was determined to provide for her young child and at the time of her murder, she was engaged to be married. Sheena stayed on the legal, political side of the Troubles and was not a member of the Irish Republican Army but she did know many who were. The young law students’ growing popularity in Republican circles brought her to the attention of the police, the British Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a deadly Loyalist paramilitary group. The UVF insisted that Campbell was a member of the IRA and on this day in 1992, they executed her very publicly in a hotel bar in Belfast.
On this day in 1975, John ‘Sean’ Doherty and Denis McAuley were murdered by a bomb that was thrown into the Harp Bar in Belfast. Given the giant explosions of the time period, it was a relatively small attack but it resulted in two deaths and multiple injuries. It was also the second attack on the centrally-located Harp in only ten days.
Patrick Rooney was a good kid. It was 1969 and he had just moved into Divis Flats on the Falls Road in Belfast with the rest of his family. I say kid because he was only nine years old when his life came to an abrupt end forty-eight years ago today. On that fateful night, Patrick became the first child victim in the long struggle that came to be known as Ireland’s Troubles.
A tasty tidbit of appalling news came across my radar this week that has appeared to be somewhat ignored by many. It turns out that residents living in nine different tower blocks in Belfast had no expectation of privacy in their own homes and they didn’t know it. They were never informed that the police force of Northern Ireland (the PSNI) had been given keys to every single one of their flats and could ostensibly enter them whenever they liked. The Housing Executive was quick to say they’d handed over master keys to the PSNI so that they could be used for health or safety emergencies but they only revealed that agreement after some of the residents at the New Lodge Flats accidentally found out about the breach of privacy. The executive most likely would have never mentioned the keys and the police to any of their tenants if not for this accidental slip of the tongue.
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.