From the Cradle-up
Gerry Conlon was my life-long friend. I was three months older than he and we lived in Peel Street, in the Lower Falls area of Belfast, literally a stone’s throw away from each other homes. Our mothers, Joan O’Rawe and Sarah Conlon, took turns at minding us in our prams. As the saying goes, we were reared from the cradle-up.
So, where do I begin with Gerry? Perhaps I should start with Christmas, and with some gunplay....
I had just put on my cowboy outfit and inserted the caps into my Lone Star guns when I heard a loud knock on the front door. I knew who it was: it was that dirty sidewinder from across the street. I had just time to tie my holster strappings to my legs, when I heard him shouting up our hall: ‘O’Rawe! Get out here, ya lowdown coyote!’
A low-down coyote, eh? That was it.
We circled each other in the middle of the street. He looked mean, very mean. ‘Folks around here say you’re the fastest draw in Peel Street,’ he said menacingly, his open hands hovering above his guns, his fingers twitching.
‘Yip,’ I said.
‘I’m running you out of town, yellaw belly,’ he said. ‘Go for your guns!’
’You go for yours first!’ I replied.
He did. He winged me in the arm but I put three slugs in his chest. He said I didn’t. I know I did. Just last year we had this argument all over again.
If I was the fastest gun in Peel Street – which I was – Gerry was the sharpest dresser. In fact, he was the first person I ever saw in a Beatles suit and winkle picker shoes. He wouldn’t have been much more than thirteen at the time but he already had long hair and fancied himself as a Paul McCartney lookalike. Sarah Conlon, his mother, was a lovely lady, but Gerry was her only son and only sons have ways of manipulating doting mothers. So Gerry got his Beatles suit and winkle pickers: but would he have the balls to wear them out? It wasn’t even a sweat. Gerry walked down our street with his collarless coat and pointed shoes, and our mouths dropped open. He approached me first. ‘What do you think?’ he said out of the side of his mouth, his eyes searching my face for the twinkle that told him I thought his get-up was hilarious. He found it. I burst out laughing. When the laughter died down, we all took turns at wearing the Beatles coat. It didn’t fit me; I was too big.
When Peel Street was demolished in 1970, our families went in different directions. Gerry’s family moved to Cyprus Street and we moved to the Ballymurphy area. He and I kept in touch and had the occasional pint together but our lives were already going in different directions. I was politically involved with the republican movement and was getting myself interned and sent to jail fairly regularly, while Gerry was bobbing and weaving.
It was while in the Crumlin Road jail in 1975 that I heard Gerry had been charged with the Guildford bombing, in which five people were killed. Rather naively, I never thought for a second that Gerry would be convicted – he’d only ever gone to England in the first place to escape the wrath of the IRA. But convicted he was and I never saw him for the next fifteen years. Then, shortly after he was released in 1989, I was in a record shop in Castle Street, in Belfast city centre, and I noticed a figure in the corner. I knew who it was. ‘Gerry!’ He turned abruptly towards me, smiling, and we hugged, delighted to see each other. We walked out of the shop and bumped into none other than my former H-Block cellmate, Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes, the IRA commander who had set aside an order to kneecap Gerry for petty criminality in 1974 and who had given him an opportunity to escape to England. The three of us had some craic that day.
Every fortnight for years, until a month ago, Gerry and I would’ve gone out for breakfast and rummaged through humanity’s affairs. We talked of the importance of truth and of justice. If only we had been in charge of the world then peace would have reigned and all would be well. We swapped many stories and had many laughs.
Three weeks ago, Gerry phoned me from the Royal Victoria Hospital to say that he ‘...wasn’t well.’ When I asked him what he meant by that he said, ‘Richie ... it’s not good, and I want you down.’ I asked him what he needed and he put his order in for a sausage and egg soda. When I put down the phone I asked myself: how bad could it be? Just a fortnight before, he and I had had breakfast and ambled carefree around Belfast city centre.
During our hospital visit we ate our sausage sodas together and talked personally and privately, a conversation between he and I. After forty five minutes he began to tire and I knew it was time to go. As I took my leave and was walking out of the side ward, he shouted after me, ‘I love you, Richie.’ I told him that I loved him too, and then I left. I never realised that these would be my last words to Gerry Conlon, my lifelong friend: the dirty sidewinder from Peel Street.
Really lovely and a heartfelt memory which in its own way feels it should not be intruded upon,so in the cowboy theme,Riccie you could say 'I rode with this man and I had no problems with him.I note with horror the squabbling between those fucking hypocrites Adams and Kenny over the injustice meted out to the Guilford Four,neither of those two bastards are fit to to speak on this mans early and untimely death,they would,nt know the truth if it hit them in the face.ReplyDelete
A powerfully moving personal tribute I had forgot all about the days of cowboys and Indians the old westerns at the picture house, loading up a roll of caps blasting away up the street, I can still remember the smell more so than the crack of the caps.ReplyDelete
Without doubt your friend would be proud you remembered him in such a meaningful way. Happier times the innocents of childhood always blurred after 69, so well penned I could see the gunfight, and laughed at the ribbing about his suit, and boots I got lost in your happier memories but its Belfast and for some reason remembered the arrival of the Brits I should say invasion as that is what it was.
It is shameful to think of those that smear the name of Vol. Brendan Hughes he done the decent thing and made the right call.
Unfortunately we all know the story of the Guilford 4 and the Maguire 7 and how British injustice would go to any length’s to make sure we would know these people tried and convicted as an example and to satisfy the English publics call for revenge.
You are a good man Richard and thanks for sharing your personal memories and putting some happiness into what is otherwise a terribly sad narrative with an equally sad ending.
Very well said lads, agree one hundred. Great article and a fitting one tooReplyDelete
I always remember Gerry from growing up in the falls went to st peter's with him, after school we played football in the street usually top of Peel street or Balaclava street they were the widest streets for a game, also playing would have been Paul Hill and Joe McKinney rip John Donaghy rip such great times little did we know what lay ahead Joe and John killed on active service Gerry and Paul ( benny )tortured framed and jailed for years in English prisons i consider myself lucky apart from a few jail terms here in the north i came through it unscathed at least in the Crum and kesh i was surrounded by lots of Comrades so unlike the horror irish prisoners had to endure in English prisons. Well written Richard R.I.P Gerry.ReplyDelete
Eloquently written piece Ricky. We all feel your loss in these words.ReplyDelete
Justice has lost a courageous voice mo chara....
He never lost the ordinary factor and that's what appealed to people.
He never tried to impress or be something he wasn't.
He was just an ordinary man caught up in sad and extraordinary circumstances and he never lost sight of that.
A man who used his experience, as Paul Hill said to shine a light for others.