In the torture chamber of his mind, there was no room for self-healing or self-absolution
In the following extract, O’Rawe chronicles a particularly wild period for Gerry, as he frittered away his compensation money on hard cases andharddrugs:
By February 1995, 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. ‘I said, look at yourself’. Nah, I wasn’t going there. ‘Fucking 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 fuck’s the matter with ya?’ 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 fuck 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 selfpity, 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 exposé 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, for womanhood.
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 amongst 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, darlin’. Then he’d say: ‘Don’t you fuckin’ dare come round here!’ I used to terrorise him, I did. 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 pissed 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 ’cause 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, and 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 fucking Piccadilly Circus,” Angie said, “there was that many call girls coming and going. But he wasn’t shagging them.” Surely that negated the whole point of sending for