Patrick Maguire: A time to heal
Patrick Maguire tells how the time in prison left him feeling suicidal, but he found redemption in his writing and art.
He may have been born in Northern Ireland but Patrick Maguire's accent sounds more like Chas or Dave than Frank Carson as he rattles off his rapid-fire thoughts about the childhood he lost thanks to his wrongful conviction in the notorious Maguire Seven bomb case and about his shock at the suicide of a cousin in Belfast earlier this year.
During a break in rehearsals in Andersonstown for a play which Patrick has written and which opens this week, the passionate crusader for justice reveals that he contemplated taking his own life more than once in the blackest days after he was arrested as a 13-year-old, the youngest of the Maguire Seven who were found guilty in March 1976 of operating an IRA bomb factory in their home in Willesden, north London.
His mother Anne, father Paddy, brother Vincent and uncle Guiseppe Conlon, father of Gerard Conlon of the Guildford Four, and two other people were also jailed on forensic evidence which was later discredited and the seven were exonerated 22 years ago, and later they also received an apology from Tony Blair.
Patrick says: "When we had our names cleared reporters asked me how it felt. I told them I didn't have to wait 20 years for someone to tell me I was innocent because I had known it all my life"
Patrick served four years in an adult prison but his mind has never been completely freed from the traumatic years behind bars.
He's still on mood-stabilising medication and occasionally anti-depressants and he still receives counselling and psychiatric help.
And it was during one of those sessions that he was encouraged to write down what was going on in his head.
Reluctantly, he started. And he found he couldn't stop. "I'm dyslexic and my spelling is awful. But once I got into it, my feelings just poured out. My brother then read what I was writing and told me there was a book in there"
The end product was an acclaimed memoir in collaboration with novelist Carlo Gebler called My Father's Watch, with the title inspired by a timepiece which Patrick Maguire Snr gave his son in the holding cells of the Old Bailey before they were sent to different jails in England. Patrick still cherishes the watch today.
The book is a raw and disturbing read which re-opened old wounds for Patrick who frankly admits that a number of years after he was released from jail as a 19-year-old he went off the rails, throwing himself into a life of crime, drugs and drink.
"I was angry and aggressive and I did some really bad things," he says. "But the police were still on my case. They subjected me to verbal and physical abuse. They drove me mad but I was bigger by that time and I was able to stand up to the challenge.
"And it was only when I became a parent for the first time that I began to sort myself out. I realised that I had to put the past to bed. I knew that violence and that sort of stuff wasn't the answer and I tried to put the anger away."
Patrick says his parents had brought him and his siblings up to respect the police.
"My mother always believed the police could do no wrong and my father told us not to fear the police if they arrested us but to fear him when they brought us home," he says
"But all that went out the window when we were arrested."
Maguire says his childhood ended that day after he came home from school to find the police raiding the house. "They said our home was a bomb factory. Yet they never found any bomb-making material. Nothing."
It was claimed that traces of the explosive nitroglycerine were discovered under Patrick's fingernails but years later the evidence and the convictions based on it were found to be unsafe.
Bizarrely, recent studies have established that handling soap, a deck of playing cards or even boot polish could have affected the results of the tests carried out on the Maguires.
Patrick says: "The entire case was ridiculous. I mean, what would a 13-year-old have been doing with bombs?"
Despite his youth, Maguire and his brother Vincent, who was three years older than him, were treated in prison as Category A prisoners. He once saw his name highlighted in red on a list of dangerous inmates.
"I asked why and a prison officer told me that if I and a murderer both escaped and they could only choose one to chase they would go after me because I was seen as a terrorist," he says.
Patrick still has flashbacks to his arrest and jailing nearly 40 years ago and he says his intense emotions come out regularly on canvas, in his work as an artist. "I let it out in the painting and I let it out in my writing. But unfortunately I used to let it out in more destructive ways -- by thieving and robbing."
The catalyst for turning Patrick's book into a play last year came from John Dunne, the artistic director of the London Irish Theatre company which was keen to bring it to Belfast.
Patrick says: "I met John by chance in Camden Town and we got talking over a coffee. I gave him a book to read and he came back shortly afterwards to suggest making it into a play which we have now reworked and brought to Belfast."
Patrick still has a large number of relations from the families of his mother and late father in Belfast but he doesn't see himself as Irish and he doesn't identify himself with republicanism.
"My parents watched the news and worried about the safety of their family back in Belfast where I was born. They thought it would be safer for us in England and I only spent three months in Belfast before we all went to London. I didn't go to a Catholic school or Irish dancing or anything like. I was a Londoner. End of.
"I wanted to join the Royal Marines. Always did. My father was in the British Army.
"Even when I was banged up I didn't see myself as a political prisoner. I don't care what anyone is -- black, white, Protestant or Catholic -- it's all the same to me. Right is right and wrong is wrong."
To that end Patrick has become a campaigner on behalf of a number of other people who he believes have been victims of injustice in England. "I don't want to see other people go through what I went through at a very young age."
After eight years of lobbying, Patrick and other supporters including actor Ray Winstone were successful in getting a man called Sam Hallam freed 12 months ago after new evidence emerged showing he couldn't have carried out the killing for which he was jailed for life.
Maguire is now campaigning on behalf of Colin Norris, the convicted Scot dubbed The Angel of Death nurse who is still protesting his innocence in the case of four elderly patients in his care who were said to have died from insulin poisoning.
Maguire who's 52 now is still suspicious of the police. "I know they have a hard job but they sometimes don't do themselves any favours with how they go about their business.
"You would have thought lessons would have been learnt from my family but the police still get it wrong."
Maguire's play pulls no punches about what happened to him. He says after he was taken to Guildford from his home in Kilburn the police there held a gun to his head and attacked him before showing him pictures of people who had been killed by IRA bombs.
"And all the while I could hear my brother was getting the same treatment in a nearby cell and I had no idea what they were doing to my Mum," he says.
Patrick believes his mother has been a tower of strength for her family during their ordeals. "My Dad passed away about 10 years ago but Mum is a special lady and her faith got her through.
"She's a very forgiving, understanding Christian woman," he says.
"Looking at her you would never believe that she did nearly 14 years in prison and was beaten up like the rest of us."
Anne Maguire helped make her son a calmer, more reflective man by telling him that his anger would only destroy him. Yet Patrick would still love to have answers as to why the Maguire Seven had to suffer what they did. But he isn't holding his breath that the truth will out.
"I reckon once I'm dead and gone, they'll make a documentary disclosing what was behind it all and that'll be the end of it."
Patrick, who has three children and another one on the way in July, has been a lorry driver and a painter and decorator, but "one of the loves of his life" has been art. He's had a number of successful exhibitions around London.
He says: "It's been my saviour. I was always good at art as a kid. But I feel very humble when it comes to someone buying one of my paintings up to the point where I'm embarrassed taking a cheque off them."
He says he isn't a close observer of the Irish situation but he's happy that the peace process has brought an end to most of the violence in Northern Ireland and in England. "But from a political sense however I have no views on it at all," he adds.
But he is concerned about one aspect of life -- and death -- here. And that is the alarming and spiralling number of suicides, particularly in Belfast.
"My own cousin who was in his late 40s took his own life a few months ago. It was only after his death that I found out that so many people are victims of suicide," he says.
"If that was happening in England, they would be trying to sort out. It saddens me that so many people who have gone through the Troubles are ending their own lives. Something needs to be done."
Patrick says he would be willing to talk to suicide-awareness groups here to establish if sharing his own story could help any potential victims.
"I had suicidal thoughts every day of the week and I am convinced that talking about your problems is invaluable," he says.
"I suspect though that many people here reckon seeking help from professionals is not a manly thing to do. But I know that it's been a tremendous help to me."
* My Father’s Watch is at the Devenish Complex, Finaghy Road North, Belfast tonight until Thursday at 7.30pm. For tickets (£10) and details go to: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.Irish-theatre.com
Flawed forensic evidence that sent family to jail
On March 4, 1976, Anne Maguire (40) was jailed for 14 years for possessing nitroglycerine.
She was carried screaming and kicking from the dock, shouting: "I am innocent you b*****ds. No, no, no".
Her husband Patrick (42) was jailed for a similar term.
Their sons Vincent (17) and Patrick (14) were sent to prison for five and four years respectively.
Mrs Maguire's brother William Smyth (37), her brother-in-law (right) Patrick Guiseppe Conlon (52) and family friend Patrick O'Neill (35) were each jailed for 12 years.
All seven, with the exception of Guiseppe Conlon who died in prison in 1980, served their jail terms.
In 1991 the Court of Appeal quashed their convictions, ruling that the evidence against them was unsafe and conceding that they could have been unknowingly contaminated with the substance found by the discredited forensic examinations. On February 9, 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a public apology to the family. He said: "I am very sorry that they were subjected to such an ordeal and such an injustice.
"They deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated."