A reminder of what it was like to be Irish in the wrong place at the wrong time
THE death of Gerry Conlon is a reminder to us all of a Britain and an Ireland that we all once lived in.
We may now live in a place where England supports Ireland and Ireland supports England but it really wasn’t always like that. And it really wasn’t always like that not so long ago.
Not so long ago at all, the suspect community of Britain was not the Muslim community but the Irish one and Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong, Carole Richardson, Annie Maguire, Patrick Maguire and his son Patrick Maguire, Vincent Maguire, Sean Smyth, Patrick O’Neill, Giuseppe Conlon the father of Gerry, Hugh Callaghan, Paddy Hill, Gerry Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker can all testify long and hard to the truth of that.
Gerry Conlon’s sad passing is a stark reminder to us all of those days, of a man who was brutally imprisoned at the age of 21 by one of the great democracies of the world, given a life sentence with a recommendation that he serve at least 30 years, and whom was completely and utterly innocent.
As Shane MacGowan so eloquently and simply put it he was only guilty of ‘being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time.’ Gerry Conlon, understandably, never got over what happened to him and his death at the age of 60 is as much a result of British justice as it is any medical cause.
But things are different now, aren’t they? The old hatreds and wounds, the bitter divisions and the suspicions are a thing of the past. And we can only be grateful that we have lived to see that.
Nobody would want that back, nobody could hanker for those times. So why does the death of Gerry Conlon leave, apart from a sense of sadness, a little doubt, a little unease about our more peaceful present and our bright future?
I was in Dingle when the Tories, after the years of Thatcher and Major, finally lost power. I came into the B&B we were staying in after a few pints and all I remember was the owner of the house sitting in front of the TV muttering ‘they’ve lost.’
I stumbled off again and ironically woke up the next morning with the realisation that after all those years of growing up under the Tories I wasn’t even in the country when they got their comeuppance.
A few weeks later though we were back in England and in the heady days of early Blair we were in a house after the pub when I sat and listened to someone talking with great glee about seeing Portillo lose his seat and generally joining in the post-Tory euphoria.
The only thing was, and it rankled with me so much that I had to mention it, thereby souring the mood somewhat, was that this same individual had voted for Thatcher in the past. Yet, such was the new dawn, that it was if people could even rewrite their own personal history and if the mood was now anti-Tory then we were all anti-Tory now weren’t we?
I remember feeling the same dizzying unreality here in Ireland during the boom when the Ken and Barbies of the Celtic Tiger strode across the decking of a new country as if Ireland had only just been invented and in the new, deracinated country there had never been any past, any emigration, any anything but shopping and dinner parties and new cars and how much is your house worth now?
What I think I’m getting at is that the new place, the new Ireland and the new Britain and the new England, where we are all friends and we swap shirts with each other, might well be a far better place than the one where we all eyed each other suspiciously and they sang No Surrender and we sang Ooh, Ahh, Up The Ra.
But is it a place where we have to forget Gerry Conlon and what he went through? Is it a place where we will all stand on our shared decking and whatever the agreed present is go along with it without ever admitting that maybe we voted for those who are so despised now, that we once sang that song we’d never sing now.
Is it just that the old divisions were easier because they were clearer? Or is it that a future where the past is erased and forgotten is a lie? Because the truth is that Gerry Conlon is dead and they started killing him when he was only 21 years old.