Richard O Rawe’s biography follows Gerry Conlon’s life from his jubilant, warrior eyed exit out the front of the Old Bailey in 1989, to his death from cancer aged just sixty in 2014. Not the stuff of the Hollywood movie In The Name Of The Father, directed by Jim Sheridan in 1994, in which Conlon was portrayed by the charismatic chameleon of the big screen Daniel Day-Lewis. And yet, the events of this book are by far the most important part of his life story; the triumph of truth over lies, of forgiveness and grace over hate and retaliation, and of release from the most damning and hopeless of all prison cells, those in which we incarcerate ourselves
O’Rawe was Conlon’s childhood friend, and paradoxically it is because of this intimacy that he manages a largely dispassionate and empirically balanced account of Gerry Conlon’s experiences. While growing up together and when reunited later in life they were able to tell each other to ‘wise up’ as and when required (get real, be honest in Belfast terms). O’Rawe brings this rectitude to his writing too. He tells the truth about the callous and ultimately indiscriminate bomb attacks undertaken by the IRA in 1974 for which the Guilford Four and the Maguire Seven were wrongly convicted. As far as the IRA was concerned, ‘…if civilians got blown to smithereens, then so be it; it was their own fault.’ He acknowledges that Gerry Conlon was a petty criminal who cracked under extreme duress, signed a false confession admitting to carrying out IRA bomb attacks and also implicated innocent members of his own family. But he also gently reminds us that while some to this day still view him as perpetrator rather a victim because of this human weakness, Gerry Conlon was in fact the first casualty of his own signature. The blame for both mass murder and then the massacre of justice should be laid at the doors others, but not with Gerry Conlon.
The psychology of human induced disaster is a complex field. When isolated errors happen the consequences are usually contained. But when man made catastrophe strikes more often than not numerous mistakes and malpractices have aligned like a key in a lock. In an attempt to understand, some use terms like Conformity, Group Think, or Attribution Bias. Others speak of conspiracy.
For O’Rawe the initial miscarriage of justice against Conlon and the perpetration of this across long years was the result of an institutionally corrupt barrel rather than a single rotten apple. The prevalence of ‘noble cause corruption’ permeating the police, forensics and judiciary in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, the apparent suppression of an alibi witness for Gerry Conlon by the Crown, and the dismissal of an IRA confession to the crimes for which Conlon was serving time paint a bleak picture. The darkness followed Gerry Conlon long after his release. Tortured by nightmares and flashbacks, unable to create meaningful romantic relationships and blowing his compensation money on drugs and wild living, he was a man on the run from himself. And despite his encyclopaedic memory, Conlon struggled to recall the face of his father Giuseppe, so deeply did the guilt of his death in prison in 1980 remain locked up inside him.
Despite this gloom, it is the light and the hope that makes O’Rawe’s biography so important. We follow Colon’s unapologetic lust for life after his release when he lived in north London. He details how Gerry Conlon moved from one all-consuming reason for being to the next, and the passion, determination, interpersonal finesse and courage he brought to all he did. Conlon certainly made the most of his freedom; from the publication of his book Proved Innocent in 1990, to the realisation of In The Name Of The Father three years later, Conlon made things happen. His determination to do everything he could to free the Birmingham Six became a leitmotif in the last years of his life when he carried out unceasing work on behalf of miscarriage of justice victims internationally with MOJO. From the Aboriginal people of Australia to Native Americans in the USA Gerry’s work eclipsed the wasted years in prison and the time he’d wasted as a free man imprisoned to hard drugs.
And yet, it is the story of personal rehabilitation which Gerry Conlon finally managed which is the greatest message of hope. O’Rawe details the healing work of Gerry’s psychotherapist Barry Walle in every bit as much detail as he does the litany of failures and corruption that sent Conlon down. In 2005, the Guilford Four and Maguire Seven received an apology from Prime Minister Tony Blair. Gerry’s relative Patrick Maguire was just thirteen years old when he had been wrongfully convicted of having nitro-glycerine, and for many years was full of hatred for Gerry Conlon whom he blamed. That day he shook Gerry’s hand and spoke words of reconciliation. It took a long time, but in the end Gerry Conlon was, as he said on his death bed, ready to meet his father because he had finally forgiven himself. In contrast to his tortured sleep while alive, I hope he now rests in peace. I wonder if those people who played a part in his wrongful conviction and imprisonment can sleep as easy in their beds at night.