“It’s an extraordinary love story between Sarah and Giuseppe.”
This is how journalist and writer Tom McGurk described the story of the Conlon family following a screening of the compelling drama documentary ‘Dear Sarah’ at the Nerve Centre this week.
Tom was in Derry to take part in a Q&A following the screening at the invitation of the Bloody Sunday March Committee.
Never released on DVD ‘Dear Sarah’ is based on the letters Guiseppe wrote from prison to his wife Sarah after he was convicted in 1976 along with six members of the Maguire family of running an IRA bomb factory in North London. He received twelve years imprisonment, but died in custody in 1980.
Sarah Conlon spent many years campaigning to clear the names of her husband, and son Gerry who had been wrongly jailed over the 1974 Guildford pub bombings. The others jailed along with Guiseppe were later released after serving their sentences, and the convictions were quashed on appeal in 1991.
Speaking in Derry Tom explained that Dear Sarah came about after he had made a film for Yorkshire television called ‘Aunt Annie’s Bomb Factory.’
“That was the first brick in the wall,” he explained. “In the process of making that film Sarah Conlon showed me this massive collection of letters between her and Guiseppe. It showed how these two people were trapped in an extraordinary nightmare.
“I just thought that this was an extraordinary love story. The story was very moving. It reminded you that those who were so called free, who weren’t in jail, were in another jail. How could you live your life if your whole family was locked up. Sarah was in her own jail, there were no locks or bars but she was in her jail.”
Dear Sarah was Tom’s first attempt at writing a drama documentary.
“It was a difficult and delicate enough one to get right,” he said. “I haven’t seen it now in so many years but Barry McGovern is just brilliant.”
Sarah Conlon permitted Tom to use her letters to write the screenplay.
“What had Guiseppe to say other than - another knockback, I’m on the third floor of the prison and I can’t walk up the stairs.
“It was an endless tragedy for all those years and it ended up with Guiseppe in Hammersmith Hospital in a sort of a cage surrounded by prison officers with dogs. That was how he died.
“In the end they had to get Guiseppe out of the prison because they thought the place would go up. At this stage everyone in prison realised how innocent this man was, It was an extraordinary nightmare.”
Tom deliberately kept the film as low key as possible.
“I think a drama documentary has to be observant and careful with the facts,” he said. “I was rigorous about that.”
But when asked what Sarah thought of the film, Tom says: “The poor woman was so out of her mind at the experience, afterwards she had journalists coming in the door. Gerry had just got out of jail.”
Tom also spoke about how difficult it was for producers to address the story.
And as the film details, how difficult it was for the Conlon family to get Guiseppe’s body home when an airline refused to carry his body.
“Nobody the whole way along put their hand up and said, something has gone badly wrong here.
“There was no mercy shown to the families, sometimes they would go to the prison for a visit only to find their loved one had been moved, and no one had told them,”
And the film details how Guiseppe refused to let prison officers open the Christmas card Sarah sent him because it was padded.
“For Guiseppe it was horrendous at the start because he would not accept IRA protection in prison,” explained Tom. “The problem is that when people are locked up when there is no evidence against them it is very difficult to find the evidence to unlock them.”
Tom said he doesn’t know what the film has never been released on DVD but added that he will ask about the film being made available.
The screening was shown as the opening event of this year’s Bloody Sunday programme.