On the way in, the driver boasted that Belfast was safer than London, safest city in Europe. Only here could 15-year-old girls walk the streets at night without fear. No heavy drugs. Little random violence. 'Belfast is dead safe - apart of course from the Troubles.'
I was on the way to see Sarah Conlon, a small, still centre in one of the most turbulent political troubles of the last 25 years. She's the mother of Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. I was clutching her Falls Road address, given to me by Gareth Peirce, the London solicitor who represented them. Mrs Peirce herself will not be interviewed, but you will be seeing her likeness next month on the big screen. Emma Thompson plays Mrs Peirce in what will doubtless be one of 1994's most talked-about films - In the Name of the Father. Daniel Day- Lewis, the star of the film, plays Gerry Conlon.
The Conlons live just off the Falls Road, a modern little terrace house. Opposite is waste land, where the Divis flats used to be.
The door was opened - by Gerry Conlon. I'd been led to believe he lived in London, or America. He was on a Christmas visit, just for a few days. Unshaven, but lively- looking with long dark Seventies hair - very like Daniel Day-Lewis in the film. In fact in the US, where the film has opened, Gerry has been mistaken for Day-Lewis. He took me into the kitchen where he had a pile of betting slips, immaculately written out, and offered me tea. There seemed to be a lot of adults and young girls around for a very small house, but everything was spick and span, neat and warm.
Mrs Conlon was sitting on her chair in the living-room. It seemed a bit big for her, as she is a small, fine-boned woman in her sixties. Nervous, hesitant, nothing like her extrovert son. With her was one of her daughters, Ann, who is married with four daughters, all of them living with Mrs Conlon. The other daughter, Bridie, lives nearby, with her husband and four children.
The Christmas tree was still up, lots of cards, photos of the granddaughters in confirmation clothes. Only one religious painting. The biggest painting, above the fireplace, looked like a cheap Constable print. When I examined it, it was an original oil - by Gerry Conlon.
Born Sarah Maguire, his mother left school at 14 and worked in various unskilled jobs, such as sorting clothes in a scrapyard. She married Guiseppe Conlon in 1947. No Italian connection - his father named him after a local ice-cream maker.
In 1974, Mrs Conlon was working in the kitchens at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, earning pounds 28 a week. A job she loved and went on to do for 20 years in all, till she retired at 65. Gerry, her oldest child, was at the time aged 20, Bridie 16 and Ann 14. Before the birth of Gerry she'd lost three babies - one aged two from pneumonia, a stillbirth and a miscarriage. Guiseppe had been unemployed for 12 years through ill health, his lungs damaged while spraying red lead in the dockyards.
At 6.15 on the morning of Saturday 3 November that year, there was loud banging on their front door. This was in their old two-up- two-down terrace house round the corner, now demolished.
'Guiseppe couldn't go down, being ill, so I went down to see who it was. There were a couple of soldiers and a policemen banging my door in. They asked if Gerry Conlon lived here, so I said yes. They wanted to speak to him. Gerry was still in bed, asleep. He refused to speak to them till they left his bedroom. We only had two bedrooms. He and the girls slept in one, me and Guisep in the other. They closed the bedroom door and let Gerry get dressed. If he'd wanted to escape, he could have got out of the window there and then, into the back, hard and away.
'They took him to Springfield Road Barracks for questioning. I was very worried, though it wasn't unusual for young lads to be taken in for questioning, but as far as I knew, Gerry had done no wrong. I was on the afternoon shift, so I went to work, leaving Guisep to go to the barracks to see what was happening.
'I worked on Sunday, per usual. Guisep rang me at work. He'd heard someone talking about Gerry going to Guildford. The only Guildford I'd heard of is a wee village in County Down, and I thought - in the name of God, why are they taking him there?
'On the TV news that night, they were talking about an Irishman who'd been picked up and was 'singing like a canary'.
'On Monday, December 2 Guisep set off to England, to help Gerry, find out what was happening. I wanted to go, as Guisep was supposed to be seeing the doctors, but I had to work. He said he'd be back in a few days.
'On the Wednesday I came from work about four. I'd been on the early shift. Bridie was at bingo. Yous (to Ann) were still at school. I took my coat off, made myself a cup of tea and thought, I'll peel a few potatoes for Ann coming home. Then I heard that Guisep had been arrested. I couldn't understand it. I've never done harm to anyone in my life.'
Her brother, Paddy Maguire, his wife Annie and their two sons, Vincent, 16, and Patrick, 14, had also been arrested. All of them were found guilty: Gerry for being one of those responsible for the Guildford pub bombing, while her husband and her Maguire relations - who lived in London - for possession of explosives.
'Somebody told me the news at work. So many things in my life seemed to happen when I was standing working in the kitchens. 'Sarah, I'm awfully sorry to hear the news,' said this friend to me. What news? 'Didn't you know? Your wee boy's got 30 years'.'
At that moment, Gerry bounced into the living-room. He sat silent for a few seconds, on the arm of his mother's chair, then started fiddling with the TV remote control. His mother told him off - imagine putting on the TV when we've got visitors] Gerry said he only wanted Ceefax. See how his horses had done. Mrs Conlon continued with her story while Gerry cursed under his breath as his horses let him down. She was mainly addressing Ann, not me, though Ann must have heard it all a thousand times.
'I was making a wee salad this day, and had sent yous to the greengrocer's, when I was told there'd been a phone call from England, from Birnberg's (the solicitors) to say that Guisep's application for bail was going to be heard at the Old Bailey. I should come over because I might be called to give evidence. I had to borrow the money for the plane. Guisep looked terrible. The judge, Lord have mercy on him, said he could sit. He didn't have the breath to stand, but later this policeman, I'll never forget him, opposed bail. He said my husband might abscond. Dear God. Nothing was more unlikely.
'His application failed and I said surely to God you'll let me see my husband. I walked round the Old Bailey hour after hour, waiting. I was eventually taken up inside the Old Bailey and into Guisep's cell - but they only allowed me three minutes with him. Then he was taken off to the Scrubs.'
'It was a joke,' interrupted Gerry. 'The whole thing was stage managed.' Then he bounced up and left the room.
In the early years of their imprisonment, Mrs Conlon fought their case on her own. Every day, after work, she would sit and write letters, to anyone, anywhere, she thought might help. Twice a year she went to England, saving up her money and her two weeks holiday, to visit her son and husband. Often they'd be moved to another jail, just before she arrived. Almost everywhere she went, once her accent was heard, she got abused.
'I spent one winter's night on a concrete bench outside Birmingham jail, not a sinner in sight. I'd asked if a bus was due and this man said to me 'Have you been visiting the Irish bombers?'. I said all I want to know is have I missed the bus. He told me one was due, but it never came.
'I was never allowed to see them on my own. The first time I was allowed to visit them was in February 1975 in Winchester. Guisep kept on saying: 'It's all a mistake, I don't understand it, all a mistake'. It hadn't sunk in. Gerry was into his stride, saying he was going to sue them for every penny they had.
'I once took Guisep some fresh fruit, as the prison food was so bad for him. He loved pears, my husband, God rest him. As he was about to eat it, this screw grabbed it from his mouth and said 'That is a luxury which is not allowed'. Yet I'd got permission to take the fruit to him. I hated the women screws. They searched me all over, every time. I'd only perhaps have half an hour in all, but I could lose 15 minutes being searched.
'One winter's morning, here in Belfast, going to work at 5.40, a man ran after me in the dark and threatened me. That was the worst ever. I really thought I was going to be killed.'
'That's what they told me,' said Gerry, reappearing. 'If I didn't confess, they'd see that my mother had an accident.'
'I knew they'd done nothing, but I couldn't work it out,' Sarah continued. 'I'd sit for hours here in front of the fire after work, praying to God, looking for little bits that would fit the jigsaw. I used to think that if only one of them was allowed out, let it be Annie Maguire. She's a woman.
'I was in prison with them, in my mind. But I had my two wee girls to look after and my work. That kept me going, and faith in the Lord. I tried not to get bitter and twisted. When I thought of that judge, and how one day he'll be crawling, I thought no, dear God, don't let me be like that. There are a lot of judges and a lot of police on this earth, but only one judge up there. If I'd gone mental, I'd probably be six feet under by now. Please God, I used to say, before I die, tell me why it all happened.'
By his own admission in his book, on which the film is based, Gerry Conlon was a petty thief, in lots of trouble. 'This is the honest truth I'm telling you, but I never knew anything about that till I visited him in prison and he told me,' says Sarah Conlon. 'His alibi was that the night of the Guildford bombing he'd broken into a house in London and stolen money. I said 'What? You've never been brought up to steal'. If he'd told me, I would have paid it back.'
When Gerry was young he had stolen pounds 68 from a neighbour's gas meter - the only occasion his mother remembers him being in trouble. She paid it all back, week by week. 'He did once go on the beak (play truant) from school, but he got a good hiding for that. He was fine at school, good at football, art and metalwork. I still have the poker he made me. He won a Cadbury's prize for his handwriting.'
Mrs Conlon didn't know either that at one time Gerry had joined Fianna, the youth wing of the IRA, but was chucked out after two weeks for his antisocial behaviour and generally being useless. 'I was a bit of a hooligan,' he said, smiling.
Why did you hide all that from your mother? 'My ma is so decent I would never tell her about anything I did wrong. She's so decent she's the sort who'd let British soldiers shelter in the hall - even though the next day they might be breaking your door down.'
Perhaps Gerry had been given too much freedom as a child, with her out working all day, her husband an invalid? Mrs Conlon bridled at the very suggestion. 'He wasn't left on his own - his granny lived with us.'
Then she remembered something a bit bad he had once done. It was after a fight in a disco, in which Gerry was injured and later awarded pounds 200 compensation. 'That was a lot to us. Gerry said he would give me pounds 50, and Guisep pounds 50. I was already working out in my mind how to spend it, but it never appeared. I got only pounds 5, which he owed me anyway. He lost a lot of it gambling, then went off with the rest to
Guiseppe died on 23 January 1980, aged 56. The same day, Mrs Conlon was handed a message from the Home Office, signed by Willie Whitelaw, saying that her husband was being released on 24 January, on compassionate grounds.
Gerry's sentence was quashed in 1989, after 15 years in prison. The court of appeal found that the conviction of the Maguires was unsafe.
'Of course I'll never get over it. My heart has been torn out, right here. Nothing can make up for it.' Has it made you cynical? 'I still trust my friends. I'm against all killing and violence. God created life and only he can take it away. But I'll never trust the police again.'
In the end, justice was done, so doesn't that prove the system works? 'After 15 years in prison] How many other innocent people are in prison that we know nothing about. I wouldn't want any family in the land to go through what we went.'
What about the film? I know you went to the Dublin premiere. Do you like it? 'How can they fit 15 years into two hours? The bit I hated was when in the film I come to visit them and they have me saying to my husband 'Bridie's dyed her hair blonde'. In the name of God, why did they have to say that? Bridie was always blonde. She was born that way.'
Some scenes and incidents have been fictionalised, such as Gerry and his father sharing the same cell, which they never did, and an attack on a warder, but on the whole, the Conlon family seem to like the film. Gerry is very pleased by Daniel Day-Lewis's performance.
'My trouble now is that half the people I meet think I'm some sort of hero, which I'm not, and the other think I'm a terrorist, which I never was,' he said. 'It's worst here in Belfast. I go to pubs and clubs and in lavatories everyone wants to shake my hands, and I don't know where their hands have been. I went to Glasgow for the Celtic-Rangers game and people I never knew were taking off their wedding rings and giving them to me.
'It's hard to live here now. I like London. I think the English are brilliant people. But I think I'll go travelling, go somewhere hot, write songs, perhaps another book.'
Has Gerry changed? His mother and sister looked solemn. In the film, and his book, he matures, becomes sensible and responsible.
'No, I'm still as daft as a brush,' smiled Gerry, jumping up to make more tea.
'He certainly can't sit still,' said his mother, sighing. 'That's for sure.'
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