Gerry Conlon: From languishing in jail to £2,000-a-day cocaine habit
Sentenced to 15 years as one of the Guildford Four for a crime he didn’t commit, Belfast man Gerry Conlon fought his own considerable demons beyond the prison walls. In an extract from his new biography, In the Name of the Son, boyhood friend Richard O’Rawe recalls his restless, impulsive character and chaotic, if charming lifestyle.
By February 1995, Gerry Conlon was in chronic disarray. He had no direction in his life, no cause to fight, no one to lobby, no female friend to pamper and no reason to get out of bed other than to escape from his nightmares. Then he met Angie in a bar in Kilburn, London.
Perhaps it was because Angie was a crack addict, or it might be that he saw a part of himself in her, but he liked the convivial young lady who called everyone "Darlin'" and spoke in an earthy Devon accent. She was down-to-earth, easy to talk to and, impressively, a good listener.
What Gerry did not know was that Angie had the fire of Queen Boadicea in her belly - and a temper to match: no one, certainly not Gerry Conlon, would intimidate her.
Besides his flat in Belfast, Conlon also had a flat above a bookmaker's premises in Camden, and that was where the pair retired to after leaving the pub. Angie remembers: "Gerry talked non-stop to me. I think it was because I got a raw deal and he could relate to that."
During their all-night conversation, which inevitably entailed Conlon rehashing his experiences at the hands of the British Establishment, Angie told him that she could not look herself in the mirror. Conlon was aghast at this. In his worldly view - a view that would eventually stand him in good stead - the highest in society could fall by the wayside and often did, but that did not mean that person could not pick themselves up again.
Angie gulped hard as she recalled Conlon's words: "'What do you mean you can't look yourself in the mirror?' Then he took the mirror off the wall and held it in front of me. 'Look at yourself'. I couldn't. I turned my face away. See, I didn't like the person who'd be looking back at me. 'F****** look at yourself when you're told.'
"To shut him up, I glanced in the mirror. 'What do you see?' he said. I told him straight: 'A junkie. A worthless junkie'. 'What else?' 'Nothing else. There's nothing else there.'
"Gerry had this stare. He kinda looked right into your eyes when he'd something important to say: 'Hey, wee girl. You're better than most people. What the f*** is the matter with you?' Then he told me I wasn't a worthless junkie: I was a junkie, but not a worthless one. That seemed kinda funny. We laughed our heads off at that.
"He taught me a lot, he did. He took everyone at face value. It's a quality that not many people have. If he liked you, he liked you, and if he didn't, he told you to f*** off. But he built up my self-esteem."
And therein lay part of the conundrum that was Gerry Conlon: he had met a young woman whose life was in turmoil, who was floundering in self-pity, and he stepped in with chivalrous gallantry to rescue her, telling her that she had worth, that she had a future.
Yet, he undeniably wallowed in his own despair and self-chastisement over the arrest and death of his father.
This man was well read, his favourite book being The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.
(Dublin-born, Tressell's real name was Robert Noonan. His timeless classic is an expose of the social inequality that existed in the town of 'Mugsborough', the fictional setting for the novel. The 'Philanthropists' are the workers, on whose backs the capitalists generate personal wealth).
Moreover, Conlon had read the Bible several times in prison and could quote whole passages from it verbatim. Time and again, those who knew him spoke of Conlon's great sympathy for his fellow human beings.
For the likes of Angie, he was a physician and a healer. Yet, he chose to ignore the biblical proverb, "Physician, heal thyself". In the torture chamber of his mind, there was no room for self-healing, or self-absolution.
Impulsive, given to trying to run before he had learned to walk, Conlon took Angie to Belfast the next day, where she stayed in his sister's house for two weeks. During her time in Bridie's house, Angie met the rest of his family. Ann McKernan was impressed with Angie's hard-boiled attitude: "She went with Gerry for years. Every one of my girls, my mum, everybody loved Angie. She and him murdered one another, but Angie gave him as good as she got."
When Ann was speaking of Angie during an interview, there was a smile on her face; it seemed as if she was proud of Angie for standing up for herself.
Throughout these two weeks, Angie visited Gerry's Osborne Park flat where a few pipes of crack cocaine were smoked. It could have been worse.
Northern Ireland had always been spared the ravages of hard drugs because paramilitary groups, principally the IRA, saw the taking and supplying of drugs as deviant behaviour which must be eradicated - by execution if necessary.
Thus it was, when the IRA announced a cessation of military operations on August 31, 1994, that the organisation turned its attention to drug dealers, and from 1995 to 2001, nine drug dealers were shot dead by an IRA front organisation called Direct Action Against Drugs.
There would have been few people in Northern Ireland taking crack cocaine, but Gerry was among them. While that would have been frowned upon by the IRA leadership, it is doubtful if it would have resulted in Gerry's execution, given his large public profile and the negative implications his murder would have had for the fledgling peace process.
With crack cocaine almost impossible to buy in Northern Ireland, Angie took on the role of supplying Conlon, making frequent trips to Belfast from England. She also sent crack across in the post. She was a central figure in what was a bizarre and sometimes violent relationship.
"It was a crazy time. We were taking so much crack. Gerry was seeing other women; he didn't hide it. And I was cool with that at the time, as long as I got crack. In London, he used to give me money to stay away and he'd have been having a party round there, loads of girls, loads of sex.
"I used to phone him up and say down the phone, 'Running out of money, darlin', running out.' He'd say, 'Don't you come round here' and I'd say, 'I'm on my way. Get one of the girls to put the kettle on.' Then he'd say, 'Don't you f****** dare come round here.' I used to terrorise him. I was his nemesis.
"I used to terrorise that poor man. He met his match with me. And every now and then, when he really p***** me off, I used to go around and smash all his windows. It was a mental relationship, but it was just how it was. My mum tried to get me sectioned because I used to turn up at his house and wreck the place and rip all his clothes up."
The madness of Angie was more than matched by Gerry's anarchy. Angie recalled: "I came back one day and no one was in the flat. So, I found out from a dealer that he was in a mate's house and I went round there.
"There he was with this Chilean call girl called Beatrice. You must have heard of her: 'Who's next, Beatrice?' No? Everybody knows her. I didn't mind him being with Beatrice, but I did mind that he tried to hide it from me."
Conlon was a familiar figure for the call girls of London. "Sometimes you'd be sitting in the flat over the course of the day and it was like f****** Piccadilly Circus," Angie said.
"There were that many call girls coming and going. But he wasn't s******* them."
Surely that negated the whole point of sending for call girls in the first place? Angie replied: "Gerry didn't need to s*** call girls. He was a charmer; he could've s****** any girl he wanted. He'd bring them in, drive them mad with his stories, kick them out and bring in another.
"My Gerry loved to talk and we'd all heard his stories. I could've told you what he was going to say before he said it."
By 1995, Conlon had been awarded approximately £300,000 in compensation, most of which he had given away, or spent frivolously. On top of that, there had been the money from his book deal and the £120,000 he had received for the film In the Name of the Father.
Angie said of his spending: "He was doing ounces and ounces of crack a day, thousands of pounds.
"I remember one day he came home like the Pied Piper, with maybe 20 people behind him, and he said to me: 'I'm buying them trainers in the morning'. And I said: 'F****** what?' They were a load of waifs and strays, people that looked like they hadn't been fed in weeks.
"He said: 'I'm taking them all out shopping and buying them clothes and trainers in the morning and I'm bringing them into McDonald's. Look at them, the poor b*******'. But that was just him; that was him. He wanted to give everything to everyone.
"F****** hell, he was literally giving his money away. It was like he didn't really want it. He never passed a beggar in the street without dropping them a tenner - all the beggars knew him by his first name. It was like he didn't really want the money."
When asked how Conlon could have spent £10,000 a day, Angie replied: "It's not that hard, believe me.
"When you're awake 24 hours - and Gerry tried to stay awake every minute of every day - and you've 15 people in the house, and this one's saying she hasn't got enough money for her phone bill, and that one's saying he can't pay his rent and he's going to be evicted. People used to turn up with their tales of woe and their bills and he used to fall for the stories and hand out money as if he was Robin Hood.
"I used to go mad.
"When his money began to run out in London, before he got the final payment of his compensation, I said to him, 'Where are your friends now? We'll see who your friends are when you run out of money and you've got f*** all in your bank balance.'
"In the end, when all the money was gone, there was only me and him."
- In the Name of the Son: The Gerry Conlon Story by Richard O'Rawe is published by Merrion Press, priced £15.99