BY JIM GIBNEY
I had the honour, long awaited, to attend and speak at a welcome home function for my lifelong friend and comrade Gerry Hanratty in Dublin last Friday night. Gerry had finally received his freedom papers from the Portlaoise prison administration on Monday 22 May. A few days before this, he rang to tell me the good news and informed me he was having a party in a few weeks' time. I was determined not to miss the special occasion.
In a strange twist of circumstances, the day Gerry got his papers Dodie McGuinness unexpectedly called to see me in our new offices in Sevastopol Street. She asked me to pass on to Tom Hartley, for the Linenhall Library's archive (he's one of their archivists), a small empty packet of cigarette papers.
Stamped in bold on the front of the white packet is H.M. PRISONS ONLY. When I opened the packet, written inside was `Jan 1998 Frankland Prison, G. Hanratty POW'. I could hardly believe my eyes. The coincidence of these two events happening on the same day was truly remarkable.
As it turned out, the homecoming function was special not just because it was for Gerry but also because I met people and friends I hadn't seen in years. Most of them are now in their early forties. Some of them have spent their entire adult lives `on the run'. Others had been to prison for many years and then had to go `on the run' for one reason or another shortly after being released. In the midst of such personal upheaval, some managed to marry, have relationships and children.
I spoke about meeting Gerry for the first time when he was a young teenager and he landed into my cell in Crumlin Road prison in the Autumn of 1976, `C' Wing, cell 11 on landing 2. He was carrying a large brown bag he could easily have hidden in undetected. I met Gerry for the second time some six years later, when I was again back in the `Crum', in the same cell, when the door opened and in walked an older but still young Gerry with a similar brown bag.
Our friendship over the next 24 years was essentially centred around prisons. Either I was in gaol or he was, more him than me, and we were in correspondence first by letter and then, as change occurred in prison regimes, by telephone. Gerry's prison journey was to take him to a gaol in Germany for four years, to the H-Blocks, to gaols across England serving a 35-year sentence, and then finally to Portlaoise, from where he was released a few weeks ago. When he wasn't in gaol, he was an active republican. During this time, both of his parents died.
The remarkable thing about Gerry's story is that there are so many republicans with similar experiences and many of them turned out for his function. As I looked around the hall, it struck me, and not for the first time, that there is a republican community in exile living out their lives as activists, longing for the day when they can without fear return to their families and former homes.
This exiled community and their families have a story to tell. Some of it I already knew before the function. Seamus was a schoolboy internee. He was 16 years old when I met him in Cage 3 in 1973. He has spent his entire life since then in and out of gaols, `on the run'. Like Gerry, both his parents died during this period and he couldn't go home. He still can't.
Bronagh left home in 1980 and has not been able to set foot in it since then. There has been an empty chair at the family table every Christmas. She has missed the births of nieces and nephews, christenings, marriages and funerals. She did not see her friends grow into mothers, fathers and now grandparents.
Many republicans have had to lead double lives, their real names and identities hidden from their new found friends or people who provided shelter for them. Their families have had to endure their absence, the loneliness, the fear that they might be captured and imprisoned.
Yet throughout all of these years, indeed decades of pressure, these exiled republicans carried on the struggle, whether in the IRA or Sinn Féin. They deserve a special word of praise from the rest of us.
Now, of course, things are changing. The Good Friday Agreement provided for the release of political prisoners. Although many have been released and Long Kesh should be empty by the end of July, unfortunately there are still prisoners in jail, republicans facing extradition, and many more on the run.
In time, hopefully not too long, we will be able to celebrate the release of the last of our prisoners and also welcome home our exiled heroes.