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Sunday 26 May 2019

Restless soul: a chapter in the life of Gerry Conlon

Jailed for 15 years as one of the Guildford Four for a crime he didn't commit, Conlon battled his own ­considerable ­demons beyond the prison walls. In an extract from his new biography, In the Name of the Son, friend Richard O'Rawe recalls his impulsive ­character, his charm and a chaotic lifestyle

On the outside: Conlon, seen here in 1994, gave away most of the compensation he received, or spent it on drugs. Photo: Ian Cook/Getty
On the outside: Conlon, seen here in 1994, gave away most of the compensation he received, or spent it on drugs. Photo: Ian Cook/Getty
Sorry: Gerry Conlon outside the House of Commons in 2005 after receiveing a personal apology from Tony Blair
File photo of Gerry Conlon (centre), outside the Old Bailey in London after being released for being wrongly convicted of the Guilford pub bombings

In the following extract, O'Rawe chronicles a particularly wild period for Gerry, as he frittered away his compensation money on hard cases and hard drugs:

By February 1995, Conlon was in chronic disarray. He had no direction in his life, no cause to fight, no one to lobby, no female friend to pamper and no reason to get out of bed other than to escape from his nightmares. Then he met Angie in a bar in Kilburn, London. Perhaps it was because Angie was a crack addict, or it might be that he saw a part of himself in her, but he liked the convivial young lady who called everyone 'Darlin' and spoke in an earthy Devon accent. She was down-to-earth, easy to talk to and, impressively, a good listener. What Gerry did not know was that Angie had the fire of Queen Boadicea in her belly - and a temper to match: no one, certainly not Gerry Conlon, would intimidate her.

Besides his flat in Belfast, Conlon also had a flat above a bookmaker's premises in Camden, and that was where the pair retired to after leaving the pub. Angie remembers: "Gerry talked non-stop to me. I think it was because I got a raw deal and he could relate to that."

During their all-night conversation, which inevitably entailed Conlon rehashing his experiences at the hands of the British Establishment, Angie told him that she could not look herself in the mirror. Conlon was aghast at this. In his worldly view - a view that would eventually stand him in good stead - the highest in society could fall by the wayside and often did, but that did not mean that person could not pick themselves up again. Angie gulped hard as she recalled Conlon's words: "'What do you mean you can't look yourself in the mirror?' Then he took the mirror off the wall and held it in front of me. 'Look at yourself'. I couldn't. I turned my face away. See, I didn't like the person who'd be looking back at me. 'I said, look at yourself'. Nah, I wasn't going there. 'Fucking look at yourself when you're told!' To shut him up, I glanced in the mirror. 'What do you see?' he said.

"I told him straight: 'A junkie. A worthless junkie'.

"'What else?'

"'Nothing else. There's nothing else there.'

"Gerry had this stare. He kinda looked right into your eyes when he'd something important to say: 'Hey, wee girl! You're better than most people. What the fuck's the matter with ya?' Then he told me I wasn't a worthless junkie: I was a junkie but not a worthless one. That seemed kinda funny. We laughed our heads off at that.

"He taught me a lot, he did. He took everyone at face value. It's a quality that not many people have. If he liked you, he liked you, and if he didn't, he told you to fuck off. But... he built up my self-esteem."

And therein lay part of the conundrum that was Gerry Conlon: he had met a young woman whose life was in turmoil, who was floundering in self-pity, and he stepped in with chivalrous gallantry to rescue her, telling her that she had worth, that she had a future.

Great sympathy

Yet he undeniably wallowed in his own despair and self-chastisement over the arrest and death of his father. This man was well read, his favourite book being The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (Dublin-born, Tressell's real name was Robert Noonan. His timeless classic is an exposé of the social inequality that existed in the town of 'Mugsborough', the fictional setting for the novel. The 'Philanthropists' are the workers, on whose backs the capitalists generate personal wealth). Moreover, Conlon had read the Bible several times in prison and could quote whole passages from it verbatim. Time and again, those who knew him spoke of Conlon's great sympathy for his fellow human beings. For the likes of Angie, he was a physician and a healer. Yet he chose to ignore the biblical proverb 'Physician, heal thyself'. In the torture chamber of his mind, there was no room for self-healing or self-absolution.

Impulsive, given to trying to run before he had learned to walk, Conlon took Angie to Belfast the next day, where she stayed in his sister's house for two weeks. During her time in Bridie's house, Angie met the rest of his family. Ann McKernan was impressed with Angie's hard-boiled attitude: "She went with Gerry for years. Every one of my girls, my mum: everybody loved Angie. She and him murdered one another, but Angie gave him as good as she got."

When Ann was speaking of Angie during an interview, there was a smile on her face; it seemed as if she was proud of Angie for standing up for herself, for womanhood.

Throughout these two weeks, Angie visited Gerry's Osborne Park flat where a few pipes of crack cocaine were smoked. It could have been worse.

Northern Ireland had always been spared the ravages of hard drugs because paramilitary groups, principally the IRA, saw the taking and supplying of drugs as deviant behaviour which must be eradicated - by execution if necessary. Thus it was, when the IRA announced a cessation of military operations on August 31, 1994, that the organisation turned its attention to drug dealers, and from 1995 to 2001, nine drug dealers were shot dead by an IRA front organisation called Direct Action Against Drugs.

There would have been few people in Northern Ireland taking crack cocaine, but Gerry was amongst them. While that would have been frowned upon by the IRA leadership, it is doubtful if it would have resulted in Gerry's execution, given his large public profile and the negative implications his murder would have had for the fledgling peace process.

With crack cocaine almost impossible to buy in Northern Ireland, Angie took on the role of supplying Conlon, making frequent trips to Belfast from England. She also sent crack across in the post. She was a central figure in what was a bizarre and sometimes violent relationship.

"It was a crazy time. We were taking so much crack. Gerry was seeing other women; he didn't hide it. And I was cool with that at the time; as long as I got crack. In London, he used to give me money to stay away, and he'd have been having a party round there, loads of girls, loads of sex. I used to phone him up and say down the phone: 'Running out of money, darlin! Running out!' He'd say, 'Don't you come round here!' and I'd say, 'I'm on my way. Get one of the girls to put the kettle on, darlin'. Then he'd say: 'Don't you fuckin' dare come round here!' I used to terrorise him, I did. I was his nemesis; I used to terrorise that poor man. He met his match with me. And every now and then, when he really pissed me off, I used to go around and smash all his windows. It was a mental relationship, but it was just how it was. My mum tried to get me sectioned 'cause I used to turn up at his house and wreck the place and rip all his clothes up."

Madness and anarchy

The madness of Angie was more than matched by Gerry's anarchy. Angie recalled: "I came back one day and no one was in the flat. So I found out from a dealer that he was in a mate's house and I went round there, and there he was with this Chilean call girl called Beatrice. You must have heard of her: 'Who's next, Beatrice?' No? Everybody knows her. I didn't mind him being with Beatrice, but I did mind that he tried to hide it from me."

Conlon was a familiar figure for the call-girls of London. "Sometimes you'd be sitting in the flat over the course of the day and it was like fucking Piccadilly Circus," Angie said, "there was that many call girls coming and going. But he wasn't shagging them." Surely that negated the whole point of sending for call girls in the first place? Angie replied: "Gerry didn't need to shag call girls. He was a charmer; he could've shagged any girl he wanted. No. He'd bring them in, drive them mad with his stories, kick them out, and then bring in another one. My Gerry loved to talk, and we'd all heard his stories. I could've told you what he was going to say before he said it."

By 1995, Conlon had been awarded approximately £300,000 in compensation, most of which he had given away or spent frivolously. On top of that, there had been the money from his book deal and the £120,000 he had received for In the Name of the Father. Angie said of his spending: "He was doing ounces and ounces of crack a day... thousands and thousands of pounds. I remember one day he came home like the Pied Piper, with maybe 20 people behind him, and he said to me: 'I'm buying them trainers in the morning'. And I said: 'Fucking what?' They were a load of waifs and strays, people that looked like they hadn't been fed in weeks.

"He said: 'I'm taking them all out shopping and buying them clothes and trainers in the morning and I'm bringing them into McDonald's. Look at them; the poor bastards'. But that was just him; that was him. He wanted to give everything to everyone. Fucking hell, he was literally giving his money away. It was like he didn't really want it. He never passed a beggar in the street without dropping them a tenner - all the beggars knew him by his first fucking name! It was like he didn't really want the money."

When asked how Conlon could have spent £10,000 a day, Angie replied: "It's not that hard, believe me.

"When you're awake 24 hours - and Gerry tried to stay awake every minute of every day - and you've 15 people in the house, and this one's saying she hasn't got enough money for her phone bill, and that one's saying he can't pay his rent and he's going to be evicted... people used to turn up with their tales of woe and their bills and he used to fall for the stories and hand out money as if he was Robin Hood. I used to go mad.

"When his money began to run out in London, before he got the final payment of his compensation, I said to him: 'Where are your friends now? We'll see who your friends are when you run out of money and you've got fuck all in your bank balance.'

"In the end, when all the money was gone, there was only me and him."

In the Name of the Son: The Gerry Conlon Story by Richard O'Rawe is published by Merrion Press

Gerry Conlon 1954-2014

File photo of Gerry Conlon (centre), outside the Old Bailey in London after being released for being wrongly convicted of the Guilford pub bombings

With Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong and Carole Richardson, Gerry Conlon was one of the Guildford Four, a group of young people wrongly convicted of the 1974 IRA Guildford pub bombing.

This iconic image of him was captured emerging from the Old Bailey in London 15 years later and declaring his innocence after his conviction was quashed.

"I have been in prison for something I did not do. I am totally innocent," he told the waiting crowds.

The case was one of the best-known instances of a miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

At the time of their sentencing, the trial judge, Mr Justice Donaldson, told the Guildford Four: "If hanging were still an option, you would have been executed."

Mr Conlon's father Giuseppe, who was also jailed as part of a discredited investigation into a supposed bomb-making family - the Maguire Seven - died in prison.

Mr Conlon was played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1993 film In The Name of the Father, whose screenplay was adapted from Gerry's autobiography.

In June 2000, then-prime minister Tony Blair became the first senior politician to apologise to the Guildford Four.

Mr Conlon died at his home in the Falls Road area of Belfast in 2014, just three weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 60.

His family issued the following statement about him: "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 recognise that what he achieved by fighting for justice for us had a far, far greater importance - it forced the world's closed eyes to be opened to injustice; it forced unimaginable wickedness to be acknowledged; we believe it changed the course of history".

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