Joe and I were pen pals. I looked forward to his letters and read each one at least five times when they arrived, which seemed like every other week. He was funny and insightful, with a point of view I admired and tried to emulate.
We didn’t have much in common. I was a twenty year-old college student living in Florida. Joe was 35 years old, spending his days in a Manhattan jail, awaiting extradition to Belfast.
Although Joe had been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison for killing a British soldier, he’d escaped and found his way to New York. After being captured by Justice Officials while tending bar at Clancy’s, Joe held the distinction of being the longest held prisoner in America without being charged with a crime.
He was my friend.
An active member of various organizations supporting a united Ireland, I had a habit of befriending people who shared similar ideological views. Some were known, but most were not. These were heroic types doing anonymous work. You won’t read about them in history books, but they are responsible for a great deal of good in the world.
I was often urged to be more anonymous, quiet. Always for my own sake. Only now, do I see the value in such a lifestyle.
For a long time, I went the other way.
I wore a baseball hat with IRA printed boldly on the front. I wrote articles, spoke loudly, organized demonstrations, and worried my mother and Marc on a daily basis.
An outspoken demeanor can be its own kind of powerful protection.
I put a bumper sticker on my car proudly proclaiming that the 26 counties in Ireland, plus the 6 in the north, equaled one country. Not two. Someone scribbled NEVER on the sticker (“Math major?” Marc asked) but in pencil. Typical.
I erased the remark and the message lived on.
Joe appreciated my views and answered my questions with thoughtful contemplation. He, too, believed in a united Ireland and told me stories about what life was like in the north for the Irish. It sounded difficult and demeaning. But Joe was never bitter.
When I wrote screeds denouncing his treatment in America (political prisoners were often given asylum here, but our government was too concerned with its relationship with Great Britain to do the right thing), Joe called for patience. He loved the United States and its people. He suggested I feel pride living in a place where I could freely organize and rally to right injustices. Joe never missed an opportunity to encourage within me patriotism and hope.
Two years later, my country shipped him back to Belfast.
I almost never see disappointment coming, and that’s why it hits so hard.
Anonymous and not-so-anonymous heroes continued to work diligently. In 1998, Joe was released from prison as part of the Good Friday Peace Accords. If Ireland is to be united, those accords decreed, it will come as the result of a majority vote.
The struggle continues…quietly.