Gerry Conlon, wrongfully convicted of an IRA bombing in the 1970s, dies at 60


Gerry Conlon, center, released from prison in 1989 after a British judge exonerated him and three others in a suspected IRA bombing in 1974. His ordeal was depicted in the film “In the Name of the Father.” (Associated Press)
June 21

Gerry Conlon, whose conviction was overturned after he served 14 years in British prisons for a deadly Irish Republican Army terrorist bombing in the 1970s, and whose ordeal was depicted in the film “In the Name of the Father,” died June 21 at his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was 60.

His family released a statement announcing his death. He had pulmonary fibrosis and other ailments and had a heart attack several weeks ago, according to news reports.

Mr. Conlon was 20 when he was arrested, along with three others, for the Oct. 5, 1974, bombing of the Horse and Groom pub in Guildford, England, near London. Five people were killed in the blast and dozens more were injured.

In addition to Mr. Conlon, the Guildford Four, as the defendants became known, were Paddy Armstrong, Paul Hill and Carole Richardson. In 1975, they were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Fourteen years later, they were freed when a judge ruled that the police fabricated their confessions — the only evidence against them — and forced the defendants to sign them. The case was described as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history.

“If the police were prepared to tell this sort of lie,” Geoffrey Dawson Lane, England’s lord chief justice, said, “then the whole of their evidence became suspect. On their evidence depended the prosecution case.”

The coerced confessions were also used as evidence against Mr. Conlon’s father and six other defendants, known as the “Maguire Seven,” who were convicted in 1976 of making bombs for the IRA. Mr. Conlon’s father, Guiseppe, who suffered from emphysema, was sometimes housed in the same prison as his son.

“My death is going to clear your name,” Guiseppe Conlon told his son in one of their last conversations. “Then you clear mine.”

As Mr. Conlon walked out of London’s Old Bailey prison in 1989, his fist raised triumphantly in the air, he said, “I have been in prison for something I did not do. I am totally innocent.”

He wrote an autobiography, “Proved Innocent,” published in 1990, that was the basis for director Jim Sheridan’s 1993 film “In the Name of the Father.” Daniel Day-Lewis was nominated for an Academy Award as best actor for his portrayal of Mr. Conlon.

In preparing for the challenging role, Day-Lewis went without sleep, was subjected to interrogations by former police officers and perfected Mr. Conlon’s working-class Belfast accent. He and Mr. Conlon spent a great deal of time together.

“I was most immediately struck by his sense of humor,” Day-Lewis told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “He’s very bright and very witty, and I was astonished to find myself howling with laughter at his descriptions of life in some of the toughest of Her Majesty’s prisons. The story is so relentlessly grim that I think that humor was terribly important.”

The film revolves around the legal battle to free Mr. Conlon — his attorney is played by Emma Thompson — and the brutal conditions behind bars.

He described his treatment in prison in an essay in Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 2009: “They would urinate in our food, defecate in it, put glass in it. Our cell doors would be left open for us to be beaten and they would come in with batteries in socks to beat us over the head. I saw two people murdered.”

But his most haunting memories were of his father, who was 56 and already dying from emphysema when he went on a hunger strike. Mr. Conlon was escorted from prison to visit his father at a London hospital in January 1980.

“I will never forget my father lying there,” he said in a 1990 interview, “surrounded by police officers, with tubes in his arm, an oxygen mask on, then him ripping it off and saying to the police, the Catholic Church, the Home Office officials, the politicians who were there: ‘I am an innocent man. I am dying. Oh, look at me.’ ”

Five days later, he was dead.

The remaining members of the Maguire Seven were exonerated in 1991.

Gerard Conlon, the oldest of three children, was born in Belfast in March 1954. His father — whose first name was derived from a Belfast ice-cream vendor — worked as a painter in the Belfast shipyards.

Gerry Conlon played soccer as a child but showed little ambition before becoming entangled with the British legal system. In his autobiography, he admitted to being a shoplifter and petty thief, but there was no evidence that he or any of the Guildford Four were members of the IRA. In fact, Mr. Conlon said, he had been kicked out of a youth branch of the IRA in his teens for being a slacker.

Mr. Conlon’s survivors include a daughter and two sisters.

In the years after his release, Mr. Conlon struggled to find his way.

“I have the most horrendous nightmares you could imagine,” he told London’s Mirror newspaper in 2001. “Irreparable damage has been done. There have been times when I’ve wanted to go back to prison. There are times when I’ve felt like it’s the only place I belong. That can’t be right.”

He spent his earnings from “In the Name of the Father” and the reparations he received from the British government on drugs and parties. He went to treatment centers to try to overcome his addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine.

“The truth was, I wasn’t prepared for normal life outside prison and I definitely wasn’t prepared for celebrity life,” he told Britain’s Observer newspaper in 1997.

“A sentence doesn’t just end when you walk out of prison. I should have known that back then, but I’ve had to learn it the hard way.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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