Mourners from around the world have arrived in west Belfast to pay their respects to Gerry Conlon at his funeral this Saturday, June 28th. Funeral Mass will be held at St Peter’s Cathedral.
The 60-year-old served 14 years in jail after being wrongly convicted by the British courts and thrown in jail amid an IRA armed campaign in England. He was one of the Guildford Four whose convictions were finally overturned in 1989.
He died of cancer last weekend. In a statement, his grieving family said Gerry had “brought life, love, intelligence, wit and strength to our family through its darkest hours. He helped us to survive what we were not meant to survive.”
In 2009 he wrote about the personal and emotional battles he suffered as a result of his incarceration and fight for freedom. He suffered two breakdowns, attempted suicide and became addicted to drugs and alcohol following his release.
Mr Conlon said he only began enduring nightmares after securing freedom. “The ordeal has never left me,” he said.
The jailing of Mr Conlon and the other members of the Guildford Four - Paddy Armstrong, Paul Hill and Carole Richardson - is arguably the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
His father, Guiseppe Conlon, along with members of the Maguire family - who became known as the Maguire Seven - were also arrested and jailed for possessing and supplying the IRA with the explosives for the bombs. He was arrested while travelling to London from Belfast to help his son. Guiseppe Conlon died in prison in 1980, still protesting his innocence, and never saw his son freed.
In June 1991 his conviction was posthumously overturned by the Court of Appeal along with those of the Maguires. A public apology was finally made to Gerry Conlon and the families of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven in 2005 after 10,000 people signed a petition.
In recent years, Mr Conlon continued to campaign on justice issues, highlighting other potential miscarriages of justice and lobbying for fair trials for a number of republicans including Marian Price and the Craigavon Two.
Paying tribute to Mr Conlon, Paul Hill, who was wrongly imprisoned along with Gerry Conlon, said many of those who this week extolled his virtues had done nothing themselves whilst he was incarcerated.
He recalled an “ordinary man who suffered an incredible injustice”.
“It’s incredibly difficult to try to explain to someone exactly what the loss of 15 years of ones life is like,” he said.
“Gerry fought the demons that an injustice unleash, but I know that he mostly fought those alone and in the dead of night.
“People have expressed the opinion that Gerry must have been an incredible man. No, he was not. He was an ordinary man, who suffered an incredible injustice.”
He said “very ordinary people” had also believed in him when it was not politically acceptable to do so.
“Irish America always stood with us - thank you. Irish governments and Irish embassies did not. I want to thank the folk who stood in the rain outside the British embassy who were accused of being the fellow travellers of terrorists,
“The ordinary folk in Ireland who were harassed and photographed by the special branch for having the courage to attempt to right a grievous injustice.
“We have come a long way, along a harsh, painful road. Gerry helped us all along that journey.”
Family friend Margaret Walsh said Mr Conlon never fully got over his wrongful jailing at the hands of the British state, and died “blaming himself for his father’s death”.
She said the family had received messages from “all over the world” from those paying their respects to Mr Conlon.
“He did lead a troubled life, spending so much time in prison for something he didn’t do,” she said. “And he always blamed himself for his father’s death although everyone told him that had nothing to do with him.
“Even after he got the apology, he always felt the British government had let him down because there were other personal things they didn’t follow up on.”
In a statement, his family said he brought “life, love, intelligence, wit and strength to our family through its darkest hours. He helped us to survive what we were not meant to survive.
“We recognise that what he achieved by fighting for justice for us had a far, far greater importance - it forced the world’s closed eyes to be opened to injustice; it forced unimaginable wickedness to be acknowledged; we believe it changed the course of history.
“We thank him for his life and we thank all his many friends for their love.”