Another heartbreak for Derry

The short time I spent in Derry utterly changed me. The wounded city stole a large part of my heart when I took my first steps into it – and my life, my writing, my opinions, and my studies have changed drastically in the years since that first visit. It is why I regularly set the alarm for an ungodly time here in the states to watch events as they unfold in Derry in real time. This morning was one of those days that I got up before the sun with my digital eyes glued to the news from The Town I Love So Well because after so many years of determination and stubborn hope, it was finally possible that the families of the innocent people who were shot and killed on Bloody Sunday would get the justice and the vindication that they deserved. It was easy to be optimistic when I woke up. After all, if the Prime Minister can call the killings ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’ why wouldn’t there be consequences for those who pulled the trigger? But my heart sank quickly as the news came in. The vast majority of those responsible for murdering innocent people and firing indiscriminately into a crowd of peaceful protestors will not be charged with any crime, despite overwhelming evidence that they should be.

It’s more salt in the wounds for the survivors and the families of those who were murdered. To see their astonishing grace and determination in the face of even more injustice this morning was mind blowing. Words are not sufficient for what they must be feeling and to remain so dignified in the face of this fresh devastation is beyond my comprehension. They will continue their quest for justice, despite this setback and the many other obstacles they’ve faced on this journey.  Please support them in any way you can.

One of their many incredible statements can be found here.

https://www.derrynow.com/news/justice-one-family-justice-us-say-bloody-sunday-families/271169

 

Their fight continues. Something inside so strong.

Tony Taylor to be released

Breaking news out of Derry – Republican Tony Taylor will be released! Taylor spent nearly a thousand days in Maghaberry prison for no discernible reason, despite having a special-needs child and no new criminal offences. Word has it that Mr. Taylor will be released tomorrow morning after 994 days in prison and his family is looking forward to a happier Christmas now that he’s being returned to them.

More about his homecoming here

 

Massacre at Ballymurphy

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.

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No Stone Unturned

Living in California has its pros and cons. The weather is great but the strong Irish communities here don’t get as much love as they do in New York or Boston. It’s rare that the West Coast gets concerts, political visits, or films out of Ireland but that’s not to say that we don’t seek them out. We do have fairs, film festivals, and other events throughout the year but to see current news and films, we often have to trick the location sensors in our internet browsers so we can scour the internet for hours on end until we find an article, a link, or a video. That determination is how I’ve been lucky enough to see many fine Irish films, despite their lack of distribution in the states. This list now includes “No Stone Unturned,” a riveting and super important documentary by Alex Gibney about the brutal, “unsolved” murders of six people in a Loughinisland, County Down pub during the 1994 World Cup.

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Tony Taylor

Operation Demetrius was the fancy name the English used when they started rounding up people in the north of Ireland and imprisoning them without charges or trial. It was more commonly known as internment and it was the root cause of many of the worst conflicts and atrocities during the long period of the Troubles in the north of Ireland. The British government insists that the practice was officially ended in 1975 but the citizens of the region know better. Operation Demetrius may have ended but the practice of internment continues to this day and the most blatant proof of this is the continued imprisonment of Tony Taylor, a Republican activist from Derry. Today marks nearly two years that he has been held in the notorious Maghaberry prison, without public charges, bail, or trial.

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The flames of Justice 

The world reacted with horror after English soldiers fired directly into a Derry crowd of peaceful anti-internment protesters, on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The soldiers wounded more than twenty and instantly killed thirteen innocent people. (One more died months later as a result of his injuries). On this day in 1972 a fuse was lit and just days after the killings, the English embassy in Dublin burned to the ground while eleven innocent people were buried in Derry.

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The Unknown Heroine of Bloody Sunday

On January 30th, 1972, thirteen innocent people were murdered and twenty-eight were shot during an anti-internment march through the Bogside area of Derry.  Another innocent victim died later as a result of his injuries, bringing the total number of fatalities to fourteen. That bleak day became known as Bloody Sunday. At first the soldiers and the English government tried to claim that all who had been shot or killed were armed, dangerous, and/or members of the Irish Republican Army. Witness statements backed up with photographic evidence, forensics, and videos helped disprove their lies but it took nearly forty years and the most expensive inquiry in English history to finally exonerate the victims.

An anonymous teenage girl who would now probably be in her mid-to-late sixties made a quick and pivotal choice on Bloody Sunday that helped set those things in motion and has affected millions of people since. As she and her friends wandered through the aftermath of the Bogside Massacre, a stranger approached them. He quickly explained that authorities had begun searching people nearby and he had some rolls of film he needed to hide. This young girl quickly put the film in her underwear, assuming that her undergarments would not be searched if she were stopped. She was either not stopped or was correct in that assumption because later she met the man, Gilles Peress, at a hotel where she handed over his rolls of film and then promptly vanished. Peress drove straight out of Derry that night with his precious cargo and never saw the blonde girl again.

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Giuseppe Conlon

There are many questionable convictions and murky instances of enhanced interrogation techniques throughout British and Irish history. Few are better known than those of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven. Many members of these groups have written books and papers regarding their long imprisonment for crimes they never committed and the Hollywood film “In the Name of the Father” was based on their plight. Today marks the death of that innocent and determined father, Giuseppe Conlon.

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John Donaldson, the Baron of Lymington

Who will you believe, the police or the suspects?” Justice John Donaldson is not the first judge to undermine defense lawyers with a question like that but he made this biased statement and others while he was presiding over the trial of Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong, Carole Richardson, and Gerry Conlon – a group of Irish suspects who were also known as the Guildford Four. The highly publicized case was covered widely and all of the judge’s snide remarks and opinions were too. This pointed question for the jury was the last nail in the coffin for the Guildford Four. When their guilty verdicts came back, Donaldson wished that he could hang the suspects and went on the record saying so during sentencing. The bully judge imposed the longest sentence in the history of English law (at the time) against Paul Hill saying, “Your crime is such that life must mean life, and if the death penalty had not been abolished, you would have been executed.”  The other members of the Guildford Four didn’t fare much better when the sentencing came down and in the subsequent case where many of their friends and family members were accused of bomb making (known as the Maguire Seven) similarly harsh and opinionated sentences were handed down. Donaldson had no pity for one suspect’s serious illness and another being only fourteen years of age. He just handed out lengthy sentences and cruel comments to everyone. He never backtracked from his dubious remarks even after he was heavily criticized for them. In fact, the only times he was silent during this entire ordeal were when the IRA claimed responsibility for the bombs years later, when it was proven that the police had suppressed evidence and lied throughout the trials, and when those he had so gravely threatened were declared innocent fifteen and sixteen years later, respectively. Continue reading

Gerry Conlon R.I.P.

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.