When Gerry Conlon got out of prison after 14 years for something he didn’t do, he came to Boston. We were sitting in his room at the old Hotel Meridien, laughing about some mutual friends in Belfast, when at one point Gerry turned to me and I realized he was crying.
“I feel like part of me is dead,” he said, wiping his eyes with the back of a hand.
Gerry was one of the Guildford Four, four people who were framed because they were Irish, because the Irish Republican Army put a bomb in a pub in a place in England called Guildford and murdered five people and injured dozens more. Somebody Irish had to pay for it, and Gerry Conlon and his friend Paul Hill and a guy named Paddy Armstrong and a woman named Carole Richardson fit the bill.
After Gerry got arrested in 1975, his dad, Giuseppe, traveled from Belfast to London to help him, and the cops, bent as pretzels, locked Giuseppe up, too, on related bomb-making charges. After five years in prison, Giuseppe, an innocent man, died, and there is no doubt in my mind a big chunk of Gerry died, too. He blamed himself for getting his father dragged into it all.
Of course, Gerry knew it was corrupt police officers who were responsible, but Gerry never got over it.
If you ever saw the brilliant film, “In The Name of the Father,” that was Gerry’s story. Jim Sheridan, who is a terrific person as well as a terrific director, made the movie, and Daniel Day-Lewis made Gerry come alive on the screen.
Even before the movie became big, Gerry was sitting on the edge of his bed in the Meridien and he was alternately ecstatic and morose. Fame and money couldn’t repay what had been taken from him.
Like many people wrongly convicted and imprisoned, Gerry struggled mightily with freedom. He had been institutionalized. His relationships with loved ones grew stilted. He drank too much. He took drugs. He told me he tried to kill himself.
But then his Mum, Sarah, was diagnosed with cancer, and Gerry really stepped up.
Sarah Conlon was salt of the earth.
“Pray for the ones who told lies against you,” she wrote to her son in prison. “It’s them who needs help, as well as yourself.”
Gerry moved back to West Belfast, just off the Falls Road, to take care of his mother, and they had a beautiful time together. Gerry liked to have tea with her in the morning, when she was at her sharpest. He also loved to cook dinner for her. He learned how to cook for his Mum.
Sarah Conlon died six years ago, but not before Gerry found a psychiatrist who understood him. Gerry suffered from post-traumatic stress, from watching two men murdered in prison in front of him, from being beaten by cruel guards who defecated in his food, from having his father die in prison.
Gerry seemed to turn a corner. He was doing better than ever. He had devoted much of his life to helping others wrongfully accused and imprisoned. That made him unpopular with some people, but Gerry couldn’t give a toss about the begrudgers.
I am in Belfast this week and had hoped to have a cup of tea with Gerry. But he died a few hours before I arrived in Ireland.
He was 60, far too young, far too tortured, a man dead and reborn. He was, as he said that day in 1989 on the steps of the Old Bailey, when he walked free, an innocent man.
And so I think back to that long talk we had in the hotel in Boston, the laughs and the tears, and I remember Gerry Conlon said this: “I’ll never leave my friends. I’m not in awe of anyone, nor would I expect anyone to be in awe of me. They don’t let you get a big head back home. The humor is harder than a punch in Belfast.”