Northern Ireland news

Guildford Four man Gerry Conlon's life after prison the focus of a new play

A NEW play about Gerry Conlon will tell the story of his extreme highs and lows following his release - from a friendship with a Hollywood star to an addiction to crack and his later work as a human rights campaigner. Claire Simpson reports

Gerry Conlon on the way out of the Old Bailey after his conviction was quashed in 1989. Picture by Hugh Russell

When Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, was released from jail in October 1989, the elated Belfast man and his family were put up in a penthouse suite in a London hotel. But within hours, Mr Conlon became so overwhelmed by the new attention that he spent his first night of freedom sleeping in his uncle's home in a housing estate in the city.

In the years after his release, Mr Conlon developed a close friendship with Hollywood star Johnny Depp and the story of the wrongful conviction was turned into Oscar-nominated film In the Name of the Father.

But he also suffered from terrible guilt that his father Guiseppe, who had travelled to London to help his son, was himself wrongfully convicted as one of the Maguire Seven. That guilt led him to develop a crippling addiction to crack cocaine and saw him lose all his money and search bins for food.

It was the story of Mr Conlon's incredible life following his release, published in a book by his friend Richard O'Rawe, that prompted Belfast playwright Martin Lynch to ask the author if they could co-write a play about those tumultuous years.

Mr Lynch had known Mr O'Rawe since they worked at Belfast docks as young men

"It was a great human story that went everywhere a human can go, from tragedy to despair, to great joy and redemption at the end," the playwright said.

Belfast playwright Martin Lynch. Picture by Mal McCann

Mr O'Rawe, the author of In the Name of the Son: The Gerry Conlon Story, said it was "an honour" to tell his friend's story.

"He (Mr Conlon) came from the elation of walking out of the Old Bailey, with all the world's press on him, and putting his clenched fist in the air and say 'I'm an innocent man, I've been imprisoned for 15 years for something I didn't do'. He wasn't out 24 hours before he wanted back in again," he said.

"He couldn't handle the fame. He couldn't handle the attention. He couldn't handle the fact that his buddies were still in prison, particularly the Birmingham Six... He had all these emotions. He was meeting his mother and everyone wanted a piece of him."

In the one-man play, which is due to staged next year, actor Shaun Blaney will play Mr Conlon and dozens of other characters.

Mr Lynch said he was struck by the "eternal guilt" that Mr Conlon felt that "in his eyes, he had got his father into prison and his father had died in prison".

"That lived with him to his dying day," he said.

Richard O'Rawe with his friend, the late Gerry Conlon

Mr O'Rawe said Mr Conlon, who he had known since they were children growing up in the lower Falls area of west Belfast, was plagued by frequent and vivid nightmares, often about his father.

But the play also deals with Mr Conlon's successful rehab, his joyful return to Belfast and his work as a tireless campaigner for those who had been wrongfully convicted.

"Where there were people who needed a voice, he was there," Mr O'Rawe said.

In the Name of the Son opens in the Marketplace Theatre in Armagh on March 11, followed by performances at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast from March 17.

Shaun Blaney (left) and BJ Hogg in Three's A Shroud. Mr Blaney will play Gerry Conlon and dozens of other characters in a new one-man play

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