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Secrets and Lies: Sam Millar

WHAT ARE YOU LIKE IN A RELATIONSHIP? ARE YOU A GIVER OR A TAKER?

YOU'D need to ask my wife. But I reckon I'm fairly flexible when people ask me for stuff - I always try to accommodate. Bernadette and I have been married for 20 years. She grew up just a few streets away from me and is 10 years younger. But when she was eight - and I was 18 - she told her mummy she was going to marry me. It's a happy marriage, though, like most it has its ups and downs. Still, being married for 20 years speaks for itself, doesn't it?

Bernadette is a full-time mum - and a very good one.

I first went to jail in 1973 - I was the first nationalist put away under the Diplock court system. That's a forgotten historical footnote, except for me. I was released in 1975 and then went back inside a year later after being caught with explosives in Belfast city centre. I was a member of the IRA at that time, but I'm no longer one.

Bernadette and I met properly in 1982, after my release. My father introduced me to her, saying: "I have got the girl for you. She will keep you out of trouble." Dad just wanted me to get a job, settle down and stay out of bother.

But then I got myself into a lot more trouble in the US, when I got involved in the Brinks robbery - the biggest robbery in US history. I got caught a year later and did six years in a penitentiary. Before I was caught, I'd spent a good bit of money because I was tipped off that the FBI knew who had done the robbery ... and that it was only a matter of time. I spent the cash on silly things, really, like opening a comic bookstore in New York. Bernadette knew nothing about the robbery. At the time of it I was running casinos and our lifestyle didn't really change.

As one of his last acts as President, and on the back of the Good Friday Agreement, Bill Clinton gave me a pardon. I came back to Belfast and started writing, though I never really thought I'd make anything of it because of my working class background.

My last book, The Redemption Factory, has been bought by Penguin in the US and Warner Brothers have bought the rights to my autobiography, On the Brinks. It's going into production now and originally Sean Penn was down for the starring role. Since the recent sudden death of his brother, however, I'm not sure if he's going to go ahead.

Given all that's happened to me, Bernadette is a remarkable woman, and I'm very lucky to have her. She has stuck with me through all the madness. I look back and I know this is the happiest period of my life.





ONLY CHILD OR ONE OF A CROWD?



I HAVE two brothers and three sisters, and I'm the youngest. We're all close - after our mother left us, we all had to pull together, and stick together, particularly since dad was a merchant seaman and away a lot.

We lived in Lancaster Street, just off York Street in Belfast, about four doors away from where the painter, Sir John Lavery, lived.

My childhood was all about surviving, getting through one day, and then the next.

I was eight when mum left. I didn't really mind at first, but later I was embarrassed by it. I would have told other children that my mum wasn't well and upstairs in bed. In the end her 'convalescence' was like something that should have qualified for the Guinness Book of Records - kids would have said: "Is your mum still sick?"

The truth is that I missed her an awful lot. When she first disappeared I took it for granted that she would be back the next day. But, as each day passed and no mum, it became a case of bewilderment. I would think 'this will be the day she will be waiting at the school gates'. But I never saw her again.

Mum suffered from terrible depression and before she left she had tried to commit suicide several times. The night she left, I was in bed but just had this feeling that something had happened - most of my stories are dark and gruesome and I think it stems from my childhood.

We always heard rumours that mum was in Birmingham. Little did we know she had been in Dublin all the time, but she never sent so much as a card ...

Our family has never gotten over it.





ARE YOU CLOSER TO YOUR MUM OR DAD?



I WAS very close to my mum in early life, but later became much closer to my father. Dad had a very tough life. He was very much a man's man. He was left with a daunting task of bringing up the children by himself - and he'd only have been at home for a week and then away at sea for three months. His long absences were probably one of the reasons mum was depressed. My older brothers and sisters looked after me - the eldest was 16 when she left.

As I've grown older, I've come to have tremendous respect for my father - I have a great wife, so I can't imagine what it was like for him, having to cope without my mother. Plus, in the Sixties there was a certain amount of scandal attached to a wife walking out. He was angry at his own predicament - all the whispers and the innuendo. It was a tragedy for him.

Dad was a strict man. His father - my grandfather - had been a leading Orangeman, who had married a Catholic woman from Cork. In those days the children had to be brought up Catholics. Growing up, we had an Orange sash on the wall of our house, as well as a picture of James Connolly.

Today, I have Protestant relatives over in the Tiger's Bay area. They came to a book launch in Eason's and I was pretty choked by it all. Around that time I also started helping out at some adult literature classes, across the divide here, but my past caused a few problems. I'm back doing that kind of work again, and I love it and don't want to see it collapse - which is why I'm so protective of my identity.

My mother died in 1982 and my father died three years ago.

I've hated my mother most of my life because things could have been different had she stayed. It's only lately that I've been able to forgive her. She didn't give me a normal childhood.





WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?



MY family, in particular my wife and kids. They have helped me so much and I'm so glad they are in my life.

I'm also proud of becoming an established writer. For a long time I believed the sword was mightier than the pen but now I know that's not true.





WHAT ARE YOU MOST ASHAMED OF?



WHAT I did in America. America was very, very good to me and I have since apologised to the US for my involvement in the Brinks.

But I've no regrets about being an active Republican. I know that will offend some readers but I have to give an honest account of myself. I saw a lot of injustice and being brought up the way I was brought up I just could not sit back and let other people do something about it instead.





HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO A LAPDANCING CLUB?





I THINK I may have been, though if my wee lad reads this he will be thinking 'what the hell was that all about?'

But it was a long time ago ... And, yes, Bernadette knew I went but then she knows me and knows that it would just have been for a laugh. It was in the US and from memory, we went in, realised it was 10$ for a beer, thought 'that's a rip-off' and left.





HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO A FORTUNE-TELLER?



I HAVEN'T, but my wife has. I think she has a slight belief in that kind of stuff. She told me that a fortune-teller had predicted I'd write a children's book - which I've just done.

It wasn't superstition but my belief in God that got me through my prison sentences. During my time in prison here there was some comradeship and that got me through. It was different in the penitentiary - there, people were getting killed every day in a row over the TV or a newspaper. I prayed all the time and held on to hope - without hope you have nothing.





HAVE YOU ANY PHOBIAS?



NOT any that I can think of. I can't even say that I was afraid when I knew the FBI knew that I was involved in the robbery. I felt fatalistic about it - I just got my house in order and waited for them to come for me. People said to me later: "You should have left the country." But it wouldn't have worked ... they would have caught me at the airport.

When they came to get me I was working in my comic book store in New York. Comics have played a huge part in my life. As a child I did most of my reading outside of school - and most of that was comics. It was all about escapism.





DO YOU TIP IN RESTAURANTS?



YES, I do. Tipping is standard practice in the US but it's only recently become more widespread here. When I first came back to Belfast I embarrassed some people by giving tips.

Service is still much better in the US - over here what you get can depend on the mood a person is in. Complain in some places and you are likely to be asked: "What the hell is wrong with it?"





DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD?



I DO - very strongly. He or She has been very good to me. What would God make of some of the things I have got up to? I like to think He would say that I have done certain things and He has punished me for them. I like to think that He's merciful.

I pray constantly, not on my knees, but maybe just a 20-second whisper. I also get a certain comfort from the idea that Someone is protecting me. And my faith lies behind my forgiveness of my mother. If I'm asking Someone to forgive me for the things I have done, then how could I not forgive my mother? Who was I to judge ... but if only she had told us where she was and I could have visited her.





QUICK DEATH OR TIME TO PREPARE?



TIME to prepare. I need to have a look at some of the baggage I would be leaving behind and make sure that it is neat and tidy. The idea of a quick death sends a shiver up my spine - I'd rather have time to say goodbye to the people that have been good to me. I think about death a lot, especially when doing my writing, which often deals with the subject. And I'm not obsessive about it, but I do wonder about what happens after the last second - where do you go? There's just this bafflement around the whole subject.





REGRETS ... HAVE YOU HAD A FEW?



MORE than a few. In particular I've a lot of regrets over what I did in the US - and also about the fact I wasn't able to find my mother. If I had looked harder for her, would I have found her?



The Darkness of Bones by Sam Millar (Brandon, £7.99)


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