We nearly forgot about it.
Let’s hope for the best, but the coming Brexit reminds us that the conflict in Northern Ireland has a long braking distance. No one knows that better than Gerry.
About a footballer, a super talent, and what happened to him.
It’s 2011. We had something to celebrate and I told someone of our plan.
‘Oh, Ireland!’, she exclaimed. ‘Do you know In The Name Of The Father‘?
A silence followed.
Two days before our departure we find an envelope in our letter box. In it: a dvd.
One day before departure. I want to check something on the hotel website and google its fascinating name: ‘Aghadoe Heights’. But in doing so I end up on a site that is concerned with beings that don’t need a bed: ghosts and spirits. (Spot the difference). Are they on active duty in Ireland?
‘You bet!’, claims a couple that has been visiting the island for thirty years. And where, in their experience, are those creatures the most active? At Aghadoe Heights, the place and the name of our hotel. That spot is ‘haunted’ the couple proclaims on the internet.
Hm, are we going to experience the same thing?
On the day of our departure my eye catches our new dvd at the last instance. I grab it just in time and take it along.
Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland.
There it comes, the shuttle bus of the hotel. Its chauffeur greets us. It’s Gerry, his badge gives him away. A real Irishman, so we think. Spot on? Well, not quite. Time for small talk, on the way to the hotel. We have taken a film along, In The Name Of The Father. Has Gerry, by any chance, seen that one?
The answer arrived an instant later than could have been expected for a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. After all, though, it came rather swiftly, now that we know that our question landed behind the steering wheel as a bomb shell. And that on a day that had begun so routinely, even though, already for ages, in Gerry’s life ‘Have a nice day’ had been something strictly reserved for the guests.
So stupefied had the driver been as a result of our question from the back seat, he told us later, that the same afternoon he couldn’t withhold himself in front of his manager.
‘I brought people in who asked me about In The Name Of The Father!’
‘No!’, his boss had cried out, in disbelief. What a coincidence!
The answer to our question was ‘Yes’. Gerry had that film keenly in mind.
‘Of course!’, any Irish person would say, as we now suspect. Irish people who haven’t seen In The Name Of… are probably quite rare. And still, it was remarkable that Gerry saw it too. That he somehow managed to do that.
We move into the hotel. Our room is splendid, but the view zero. Well, nearly. Rain and mist reduce the panorama to an absolute minimum. Only the graveyard is barely visible. Celtic crosses, weathering the bleak conditions. The crosses are probably used to it, while we are not. Seeing them, that is.
How many five star hotels would there be in the world with a Graveyard View? Some of the crosses are tilting a bit, as if the wind always wins in the end.
We install the dvd-player Gerry has given us. And Gerry adds a pledge to it: ‘After you have seen the film, I will tell you something about it’.
First, though, time to sleep. During the night the weather gets rough. Seriously. The wind yanks at the roof and the rain lashes the grave stones on the cemetery. But inside, not a ghost to be seen.
The next morning Ireland shows itself from a different side. The cemetery is now merely the overture of a Lake Side View, encompassing the lakes of Killarney and the surrounding hills. Admittedly, the sky isn’t a ‘radiant blue’, but that is not what you come to Ireland for. Clouds, mist and filtered sun are the perfect ingredients to accompany a visit to the graveyard, laying there now irresistibly.
More Irish it cannot be. Murphy, O’Sullivan. O’This, O’That. Strangers seem totally absent here, although losing a son feels the same everywhere. Only the last line may differ here and there:
It broke our hearts
To lose you
But you did not go alone
For part of us went with you
The day God called you home
A bit further on, a family is praying at a freshly dug grave. A minute later the children run by, noisily. Life goes on. Hide and seek.
Gerry passes by, to see if the dvd-player works. In the process he sees the dvd we brought with us. Only that sight proves to be too much. He can no longer contain what’s inside.
‘That film is about me’, he says. It is about him, in a way. Gerry’s brakes let go. It comes out in flashes. He quivers. Or is it the air around him? Because of high tension. He looks at us as if our eyes are mirrors.
‘You are seeing it’, Gerry says.
I try to calm him down. Sweat glistens on his upper lip. But he wants to tell it, he has to tell it.
All right then, we agree to begin at the beginning, but only at the end of his shift. First the story of the film, then his.
Gerry leaves the room while we go for a walk. But not for long. Our festive ‘dolce far niente’ is over. Our day of celebrations now comprises Gerry and the film. A tight schedule. We hastily return, order high tea, start the film.
It becomes Tea & Terror. A thundering explosion bursts from the screen. In The Name Of The Father is about the ‘Guildford Four’, four young people who end up behind bars during the Northern Irish civil war. Wrongly.
The leading character in this true story is… Gerry. Another one. ‘Ours’ drops in, ten minutes before the end of the film. He sits down on the edge of the bed, his eyes fixed at the images he already knows so well. Once, twice, three times he gets up, walks away and comes back. He wants to watch, he has to watch, but he can’t.
On the flat-screen acquittal is in the air. Our Gerry looks at the judge on the screen and shouts: ‘Say it, say it!’ He can’t wait for it.
The accused are discharged, the film ends. A deep sigh. What emotion!
A deep breath before we go up. We enter the penthouse of the hotel. Sheer luxury, now vacated by the guests. A cleaning lady hastily completes the last touches of her work and then leaves us alone, on the couch.
We begin, at the beginning.
Gerry comes from Derry. Is that the same place that is also called Londonderry? It is, Gerry affirms, but Catholics from that place don’t manage to get the London-part out of their mouths.
Gerry McGowan is born in 1961, just in time to grow up during ‘The Troubles’. It is a rather euphemistic denomination for a conflict that has torn Northern Ireland apart for tens of years.
‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland began at the end of the sixties. They were rooted in tensions between the Catholic minority and a Protestant majority. The conflict centered around the ‘nationalists’ – mainly Catholics who wanted secession from the United Kingdom – and the predominantly Protestant ‘unionists’ who resisted that. The militants on the Catholic side were called ‘republicans’, the Protestant ones went by the term ‘loyalists’. A prominent role was played by the (Provisional) IRA, the Irish Republican Army.
The question is, though, whether this simple representation of things was accurate, or remained so. Long after the drama had started, I met two Northern Irish men who explained the fact that ’their’ conflict continued to drag on with one word: mafia. According to them, over time religion and actual social contrasts no longer played a (decisive) role. In their view the hostilities and terror were mainly kept alive by criminal interests, whereby the ‘freedom fighters’ could be better described as ‘gang members’.
It brings to the fore the question to what extent conflicts in general go on for longer than is actually ‘necessary’. Probably other, improper factors are in play, like an addiction to power that is derived from the existence of an enemy. That enemy falling away may be even more frightening than the enemy itself. Suddenly reduced again to a normal citizen, the terrorist is left with the terrifying question ‘Who am I, now? Possibly, this also influences the occasional flaring up of Northern Irish violence.
As violence is concerned, ‘Bloody Sunday’ was maybe an all time low. It was the Derry-incident in 1972 during which many protesters were shot by the British army. Fourteen protesters died.
In all, during the Troubles more than three and a half thousand people were killed. The Troubles ended, in principle, with the signing of the so-called ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998.
Gerry is a normal boy, apart from two things. Gerry doesn’t throw stones at the English, as so may Catholic youngsters do, but he outdoes them in another field, football. He is so talented that he leaves for England, at the age of seventeen.
Wasn’t that seen in Derry as dubious? Not throwing stones and on top of that leaving to play for the enemy…
No, Gerry says. At the time, hating the English was seamlessly combined with supporting Manchester United or Liverpool. Football transcended, transcends everything. That’s why they understood that he went there.
There, the left midfielder is interned at the club Leicester City, at the same time as another young boy, Gary Lineker. After two years Lineker is offered a contract as a professional contract. Gerry, though, is presented with a pen after three days. There is no clearer indication of what they see in him. On the internet I find a fitting description: ’the greatest Northern Irish promise since George Best’.
And yet, in 2011 the name Lineker has been on people’s lips for decades, whereas McGowan?
Gerry was destined for another path. One single crack will end all he wanted. It is a strange thought for something so dramatic: probably it wasn’t even loud, that crack. Rather muffled, I suspect. Hardly a sound at all. ‘Pop’.
It happened on the fourteenth of February, 1979, on Valentine’s Day. Gerry was in Derry. And especially because his own one was among the hearts that were beating faster that day, he remembers exactly where he was at that fatal moment, when the heartbeat of another young man faltered.
With a single shot a sniper ends the life of a British soldier. But that bullet will hit Gerry too, even though he is not yet aware of it.
In the days after the killing more than twenty people are rounded up. If Gerry had anything to do with it, one would think, he would have been long gone on that unforgettable 28th of February. Two weeks are a very long time if you know you have to run.
After a raid on his house he is questioned at the police station. What follows is a nearly exact copy of what ’the other Gerry’ had to endure, the one of the Guildford Four. The questioning goes on for hours, without interruption. Day and night, although the suspect gradually loses his idea of the difference. Three full days he is pounded with the accusation of membership of the IRA, his complicity in the murder, and more. The classic interrogation trick is only the beginning: ‘Just admit it, because your pals have already confessed, also concerning you’.
Gerry sits next to me on the couch, on the verge of the difficult part in his story that is about to follow. Outside, the contours of the landscape begin to fade. He himself, still as lean as the footballer destiny denied him to be. By no means the killer type. A classic midfielder. No ‘bomber’ in the attack, not the ‘demolition man’ in the back. A real middle man.
As a matter of fact he is almost sure that among the arrested, then, were also the perpetrators. But Gerry is trained how to handle a ball, not to face this kind of pressure. The IRA-members, though, are prepared for it.
After the third day it is all over. Gerry breaks, mainly because the interrogators bring up ever heavier artillery. Exactly like in the film the screws are tightened to screaming point. They threaten to kill his father: ‘And when you read it in the papers, it will say the loyalists did it’.
It sounds incredible, now. But then, there… There was a war going on. Fanatics, the Protestant ones loyal to England and the Catholic republicans, killed each other on a nearly daily basis. And, as far as the interrogators were concerned, that utterly English expression ‘Not cricket’ for unsportsmanlike behaviour sounded more than ever as something from another planet. Gerry’s tormentors don’t stop at their first threat. Especially one of them suggests that he will, personally, rape Gerry’s sister. His sister of fourteen.
That is the moment when the combination of exhaustion, pressure and threats proves to be sufficient. Gerry signs the document that is held in front of him, ready to sign anything. He sees the saving of others now as his most pressing priority. As far as he himself is concerned, he assumes that all will end well, simply because he didn’t do what they said he did.
With him, three other young boys have succumbed under the pressure. They are incarcerated in the ‘political wing’ of the Belfast prison. It holds nearly exclusively real terrorists, from both sides. A strict separation between the two must prevent further killings. But even in ’their own’, Catholic camp they have to be careful with company like that. The detained IRA-members know that the newly arrived prisoners are innocent, but make clear that no help can be expected from their side. ‘Count on it that for the next twenty-five years you’ll be in here’, is their message.
The defense asks for a release on bail, making the IRA-members laugh. For release on bail for murder, even for only complicity, there is no precedent in the entire conflict.
Yet, bail is granted. After two months in jail, the four are released. Possibly, it is the result of a campaign that has been waged by sympathizers in the meantime. Among them is the prominent politician John Hume and the bishop of Derry, Edward Daly. Daly, too, carries weight. He is the man on the probably most famous picture of the whole conflict, waving with a bloody handkerchief during the incidents on ‘Bloody Sunday’.
The four wait more than a year for their trial. Again, ample opportunity to flee. They don’t. Every day they obediently report at the police station and take care to be home every night before ten.
In the meantime they all work their cases in a different way. One of the four has himself put under hypnosis on TV. Together, they collect ten thousand pounds to undergo a test by lie detector-expert Chris Gugas, who also examined the assassin of Martin Luther King. But all these private initiatives outside the judicial system do not count for the criminal trial, that initiates on October 13, 1980.
The next day, the trial is adjourned on request of the prosecution. And then, suddenly, for the four accused it is as if lightning strikes the Belfast court house.
The defense comes with an urgent appeal: ‘Run!’ That same night. For Gerry it comes out of nowhere. But the prosecutor has proposed a deal to the defense: if they plead innocent the prosecution will ask for life imprisonment, if they plead guilty they will ask for fifteen years.
The defense lawyers see no other way. Being innocent is not enough. Their ‘confessions’ are over their heads as Damocles’ swords. Their choice: prison or flight. Time to think: almost none.
Bewilderment, panic. What to do? They decide to flee. Time is running out, but at Gerry’s home dramatic scenes are going on. His deeply religious mother doesn’t want to let him go. The only one who can convince her is bishop Daly himself. Only if he agrees she can, no, then she must live with it.
Gerry visits the prelate who gives the four his blessing. Gerry’s mother now realizes it is inescapable and pulls out whole tufts of hair out of despair. His sister, the one the interrogator threatened to rape, clings to her brother, but Gerry has to go.
Taking almost nothing with them, the four flee towards the border. In the dark, straight through the fields, they reach County Donegal in the Irish Republic.
Garry carries on, in the penthouse of Aghadoe Heights. It isn’t far from where he lives now.
After the first reception by a priest, just over the border, Gerry went to Dublin. For six years he did all kinds of odd jobs, combining that with playing football for a Dublin club. Openly. So, one day he was arrested, together with one of the other fugitives. After a few days, though, they were released. A British request for extradition was not received. A miracle, so it seemed.
Then Gerry gets the same idea as we had: a weekend trip to Killarney. Forever, as it turns out. The local football club makes him an offer: come to us and we’ll guarantee you a job. Gerry is still good, but a real career is by now out of the question. The continued stress and sleeplessness have taken their toll. Besides, at that time semi-professionalism is the highest a footballer in Ireland can achieve and Gerry cannot leave. Officially, he still is ‘on the run for murder’.
In Killarney hardly anyone knows that. Gerry keeps it a secret. But he tells it to his bride to be. Not to his father-in-law to be. Otherwise, paternal approval, needed for his marriage, would never come. Fathers don’t rate a fugitive for murder as an ideal son-in-law.
So, Gerry continues to live as if in a cage. He also doesn’t dare to begin another career, outside football. He wants to keep a profile as low as possible.
His secret already gives him enough problems as it is. His mother falls ill, in Derry. She is dying and his friends urge him to go see her. Their incitements turn into reproach, but Gerry can’t tell them why he can’t go there. He goes to the funeral, though. But no funeral service could be as bizarre and heart-rending.
Gerry ‘breaks’ again, but now, after all that time, on the couch in the penthouse. He needs some time before he can continue. About ’then’.
The funeral cortège drives from Derry to a village, just over the border. There, Gerry waits at a small church for his mother, salutes her and closes the coffin. The cortège turns around. And so, gazed upon by her son who had left so suddenly, once more the hearse crosses the divide that was drawn by history.
Years later, the case unexpectedly reaches a turning-point. A law firm in Belfast hears about the case and jumps on it. The trial is reopened in 1999 and nearly immediately closed, definitely, by the highest judicial authority of Northern Ireland, the Lord Chief Justice.
The four are free. Twenty years on Gerry can finally go where he pleases. It frightens him. He goes to Scotland, but at the customs desk he doesn’t manage to keep his hand still, the hand that holds his passport. The fear of what they still might do to him isn’t gone. Also then, at the time of the incident, what he thought to be unthinkable proved to be possible.
From now on Gerry can also speak out freely to the people around him, in Killarney. In doing so, he is not for a small part helped by the release of In The Name Of The Father. People, who at first couldn’t believe that an innocent person could sign a declaration of guilt, now can.
And yet, among people there still lingers something like ‘Where there is smoke, there is fire’.
It happened to Gerry just recently. A building complex in his neighborhood had problems with harassment related to drugs.
Someone suggested to him with a conspiratory tone: ‘Can’t you do anything about it?’
‘Why me?’, Gerry asked, baffled.
‘Well’, the man whispered, ‘you are an IRA-man, aren’t you?’ Thereby referring to the terrorist methods practiced by the IRA in keeping the order, especially ‘kneecapping’, shooting a bullet through the knee. That, too, was part of the original indictment against Gerry, an accusation that was later withdrawn.
It probably is the gist of Gerry’s problem today: although an inquiry is ongoing at the office of the counselor for police matters and a civil case has been presented, they cannot vindicate him. He has been indicted but not convicted. That’s why the accusation cannot be undone officially, whereby the blame remains suspended in mid-air. And it’s that suspicion that Gerry would so eagerly get rid of, like a leper hates his skin.
That’s why he wants, why he must tell his story, to disseminate his innocence. That’s also why he cried out ‘Say it, say it!’ tot the judge on the screen, to get those liberating words out that he hankers after for himself.
There we still sit, there on that couch. Also for his wife and son In The Name Of The Father has been beneficial. They, too, now understand him better.
And Gerry himself, what is the strongest emotion that he feels after all that time? Is it anger, a thirst for revenge, bitterness?
‘No’, he says. Although, anger… He stares out of the window. The landscape now disappears in the dusk, something that somehow seems unable to happen with what has happened to him.
One thing he wants for sure, to ask that one interrogator: ‘Why?’ Asking him how he could possibly
have done what he did. But will it ever happen? Probably not.
Also it isn’t sure that the counselor’s inquiry will make clear to what extent the police actually knew the four from Derry were innocent, as was the case with the Guildford Four.
How life can take a course… Besides ’those four’ there were also ’those two’, Gerry and Gary. Would Gerry one day like to speak with him again, with Gary Lineker. No, too painful. Lineker is now famous, Gerry isn’t. Lineker radiates weekly from the TV-screens for the BBC. Yes, Gerry too has appeared on a program for the BBC, about himself. But that’s different. No glamour, but hard reality-tv. About how one bullet can randomly ruin the lives of people for whom the bullet wasn’t meant.
Anyway, a colleague in the hotel firmly believes that, after all procedures have taken their course, Gerry will become famous after all. Even more famous than Lineker. A book, a new film. Hollywood.
One thing is certain: the wounds are still deep. Gerry reckons that from all four he has come out best, and that is saying something. I look at him. The man beside me is having a hard time. Post traumatic stress, more than thirty years after the event. Five, six times in a two hour period he has been overcome by it all.
I tell Gerry about the site that described Aghadoe Heights as ‘haunted’. But he is haunted himself, a tormented soul.
Does he believe in ghosts? He doesn’t, not really. In fate, yes, but in ghosts… Although, he sometimes has called the soul of the slain soldier, as if it could still testify about Gerry’s innocence. And then, that one night when he was back in Northern Ireland for the first time – free at last! – that night someone stroked a hand over his face. He is sure and he shows me how it went.
Gerry woke his wife and asked if it had been her. No, it wasn’t. So, who was it? His wife shivered.
Maybe, Gerry ponders, it was his mother. As if she wanted to say:
© Joost Overhoff
In 2019 an out of Court settlement was reached with the Chief Constable, with no official acceptance of liability on the part of the police. However, Gerry McGowan and the others of the so-called Derry Four were awarded ‘a significant sum of compensation’.
In 2022, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland issued a media release concerning complaints brought by the Derry Four (in 2003). In it, the Ombudsman concludes that the four were ‘subjected to coercion and oppression before “confessing” to terrorist crimes‘; ‘statements which were not voluntary according to the standards of the time‘.