Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, dies at 60

Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, described as a 'shining light in the search for truth'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 3:26am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 3:53am

Gerry Conlon

As Gerry Conlon walked out of London's Old Bailey court in 1989, his fist raised triumphantly, he said: "I have been in prison for something I did not do. I am totally innocent."

One of the so-called Guildford Four, Conlon was a free man - his conviction overturned after serving 14 years for a 1974 Irish Republican Army terrorist bombing of a pub in Guildford, near London, that killed five people.

Conlon, whose ordeal was depicted in the film In the Name of the Father, became a central figure in one of Britain's greatest miscarriages of justice after he and three others were convicted and sentenced to life for the bombing.

Tributes have poured in from across Ireland for Conlon, who died on Saturday in Belfast at age 60 following a battle with cancer.

"His loss will be felt both within West Belfast and across the world with all those who work in pursuit of justice," said Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore.

Alasdair McDonnell, a moderate Irish nationalist leader in Northern Ireland, called Conlon's conviction and imprisonment "terrible and appalling" and called him "a shining light in the search for truth".

His family paid tribute to a man they said had "brought life, love, intelligence, wit and strength to our family through its darkest hours".

In addition to Conlon, the Guildford Four were Paddy Armstrong, Paul Hill and Carole Richardson.

A sentence doesn't just end when you walk out of prison
Gerry Conlon

A judge ruled that the police fabricated their confessions - the only evidence against them - and forced the defendants to sign them.

The coerced confessions were also used as evidence against Conlon's father and six other defendants, known as the Maguire Seven, who were convicted in 1976 of making bombs for the IRA during the period known in Ireland as The Troubles.

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."

Conlon 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 Conlon.

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

Conlon described his treatment in prison in an essay 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. 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.

Conlon's survivors include a daughter and two sisters.

In the years after his release, Conlon struggled to find his way. 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 centres 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 said 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."