It was a crazy time back in late 1989. Black 47 had just been formed and was making waves. Chris Byrne and I were political and there was much to be political about.
The four main Irish causes were the wrongful convictions of The Guildford Four, The Maguire Seven, and The Birmingham Six in the UK, and the attempt to deport Joe Doherty from the US.
There were many benefits and demonstrations and we helped supply the music – often while on the way to a paying gig.
There was great buoyancy in the Irish Republican and Civil Rights movement back then – great unity too, especially after the squashing of the rigged convictions of the Guildford Four. If the Brits could admit they were wrong in this case, then there was hope for the others; and with Prime Minister Thatcher facing down a Tory rebellion perhaps negotiations for a just end to the conflict were finally at hand.
When Paul Hill, Gerry Conlon and Paddy Armstrong came to New York to thank the many people who had campaigned for their release, Black 47 played at the reception. Paul, Gerry and Paddy were music fans and took great interest in the new style we were creating. Their favorite songs were Free Joe Now, Land of de Valera and a version of Patriot Game we curried with a hip-hop beat.
On the face of it, they appeared to be three slightly dazed, working class Belfast men whose lives had been cruelly interrupted. After a horrific mainland bombing the British authorities needed convictions in a hurry – for whatever inane reasons these three adrift Paddies and an English friend, Carole Richardson, fit the bill. Confessions were extracted under duress, evidence was concealed, lies were told, the cell doors slammed and the case closed.
Newly freed, they were treated like heroes and celebrities in New York City; still on a high, it was like they were on a mission to make up for lost time.
Though very distinct personalities, all three were lovely people, albeit with that endearingly sardonic Belfast sense of humor.
Paddy was quiet and didn’t care much for celebrity; Paul was stately and intense, while Gerry was voluble and passionate. Not surprisingly they had a powerful sense of the injustice that had been visited upon them, and were vividly aware of the many others around the world languishing in jails for unjust convictions.
They loved to party and stay out late and, oh man, did they hit the right city! They were a staple at our gigs, holding court by the bar and soaking up the atmosphere. You could tell Gerry and Paddy had never been political before their prison terms – they just weren’t the type. Paul, on the other hand, had strong political convictions.
By their second visit to New York Black 47 were the talk of the town, and home base, Paddy Reilly’s, had become a hotbed of politics awash with musical and Hollywood celebrities. Paul’s soon to be wife, Courtney, added the Kennedy mystique. Few went home before dawn. Gerry, in particular, never seemed to want the night to end. Darkness and solitude didn’t sit well with him. As soon as one party showed signs of flagging he was off to find another.
I thought of all three of them when news came of Gerry’s death, of the good times in London when we lived in Paul’s apartment while opening for The Pogues. But most of all I felt for Gerry and how he must have suffered on all the long nights down the lonely years when there were no more parties and he had to wait for the dawn alone.
I hope Paul and Paddy are well and, despite all the darkness they experienced because of a cruel and inept British legal system, they think fondly of the nights we rocked and rolled in New York City.
It’s a different town now and the Republican movement is no longer unified. As my grandfather used to say about the Irish Civil War, “it was a lot easier be against something than be for it.”
But, oh those were great days – and nights – when Gerry, Paul and Paddy first came to town.