Sanctuary City—for the Irish Too

Historical Essay

by Nadya Connolly Williams

Originally published on Counterpunch, March 30, 2018


Photo by Jeremy Brooks

A starkly political film from the north of Ireland was an unusual choice for 2018's annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival, “Indie Fest”—held every February. The Fest screened the 2017 feature "Maze" which is based closely on the spectacular real-life 1983 prison break of 38 Irish Republican inmates from Her Majesty's Prison The Maze in Northern Ireland—a maximum security prison considered to be one of the most escape-proof in Europe. All escapees were members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and had been convicted of taking part in armed paramilitary campaigns during Ireland's anti-colonial civil war in the British-dominated six counties of the north of Ireland.

It seems that even the Indie Fest programmers might not have known that at least four of these men found sanctuary 25 years ago here in San Francisco in Trump's nemesis, the Sanctuary City by the Bay. Crucial to understanding the covert protection and care given by the Irish American community here to the escaped 'convicts' is the political concept that "One man's terrorist is another man's Freedom Fighter"—and one man's "criminal" is another man's Political Prisoner.

Billed as a "Northern California Premiere," the screening at the venerable Roxie Theater was introduced by a festival staffer as, "a film that will not appear in any mainstream cinema" on the West Coast, or anywhere in the U.S., he wagered. This writer was in the audience and pointed out to the host of the screening, and to the others in attendance, that at least four of the 38 escapees made their way to San Francisco by the early to mid-1990s.

In fact, a well-known Irish bar at the time, a mere two blocks from the Roxie Theater, had an "underground railway" in the basement that harbored the four, along with other escapees and assorted Irish who were sought by British intelligence forces through our FBI. All this was a total surprise to the festival staffer, and, it seems, most in the audience. I suspect that one of the Indie Fest programmers must have known about this San Francisco political fugitive history and sanctuary tradition to have made this unusual film selection for their festival.

Still burning - more huts - H Block 4.jpg

Quonset huts at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.

Photo: Still Burning, Flickr

The San Francisco escapees were known as "The H-Block 4" since the Maze prison blocks where they were held are H-shaped buildings. The Four were gradually apprehended in California between 1992 and '94 by the FBI to stand trial during the mid-to-late '90s in San Francisco courts for possible extradition. During the course of their incarceration and trials, the H-Block 4 were represented pro bono by some of San Francisco's top blue ribbon lawyers, made Honorary Grand Marshalls of the huge annual Saint Patrick's Day Parade, and supported by some of the most influential politicians and officials in the San Francisco and California state governments.

Little did the Indie Fest organizers know that the Dovre Club on 18th Street, near Valencia Street, was where the basement safe house was located, just two blocks from the Roxie cinema on 16th, near Valencia. The bar's owner Patrick Joseph "Paddy" Nolan is well worth a brief diversion now from discussion of the film and the H-Block 4. Although this article is about "Maze" and the fugitives, as you read on you will certainly agree that Paddy Nolan merits his stories to be told—and his link to the escapees will be well established.

Nolan was a well-know and vocal Dublin-born supporter of Irish Northern Aid, a major American organization in the movement to free the north of Ireland from British rule and to unite the Republic of Ireland in the south with Northern Ireland into a single Irish nation (the island was partitioned by Britain in 1922).

Besides harboring escaped Maze prisoners after their 1983 breakout, Nolan was most famous for an event that he carried out earlier in 1979 in front of one of San Francisco's most elite hotels when Princess Margaret of the British royal family was visiting The City. The princess had apparently called the Irish people "pigs." Here's a paragraph from the 1981 New York Times article, explaining why Margaret canceled a visit to the U.S. in that year of '81:

"Princess Margaret became embroiled in the Irish issue in 1979 when she allegedly said to the Mayor of Chicago, Jane M. Byrne, that the Irish are pigs. Although she denied making the remark, she had to withstand several noisy demonstrations, including a large protest in San Francisco."

So during the princess's '79 visit Paddy and cohorts loaded a large truck with piglets, backed it up to the entrance of the posh Saint Francis Hotel where Margaret was staying in the heart of The City over looking Union Square, dropped the tail gate, and unloaded the swine into the hotel's lobby!

A few years later, in May of 1981, Paddy enlisted the aid of Irish bar owners in the SF Bay Area to hold a three-hour shutdown of local saloons as a memorial to political prisoner Bobby Sands, the first of 10 hunger strikers to die in Northern Ireland prisons during a protest fast-to-the-death. "Sands alerted the whole world to something. The kid died for something," Nolan told The Chronicle at the time, adding that he, too, wanted to increase the public's awareness of the Irish nationalist struggle.

A sign above the door of Paddy's Dovre Club read, "Patrick's Irish Toast: Let's Drink to the Final Defeat of the British Army in Northern Ireland. Or Anywhere." The club is still around, but relocated down the street on the corner of 26th and Valencia. And the sign is still up.

Another much-loved caper by Mr. Nolan came about when Queen Elizabeth II had been invited in 1983 by then-president Reagan to have her first look at the West Coast of the United States from the royal yacht, the Britannia. Paddy got some boating buddies to load up several of their craft with rotting fish as the royals entered the Bay. It was hoped that the gathering swarm of seagulls following the boats, which were following the Britannia, succeeded in jamming the radar and radio systems. In addition, it certainly could not have cast a very pleasant odor across the waves either.

Paddy Nolan died of cancer in 1996 just as the trials of the H-Block 4 were concluding. His funeral program's cover was a photo of Paddy and his nephew, each holding a corner, using a British union jack flag to wipe under the tail of a huge boar!

And who were among Paddy Nolan's pall bearers at his funeral? Then-San Francisco City District Attorney Terence Hallinan, son of a famous legal family, and then-San Francisco City and County Sheriff Michael Hennessey. Incidentally, Hennessey was the longest-serving sheriff in the history of San Francisco and was the longest-tenured sheriff in the State of California—32 years in all. He was elected in 1979 (17 years before the funeral) and had been reelected in seven subsequent elections—receiving more than one million votes in all. That's quite a résumé for the pall bearer of a man who—everyone knew—harbored escaped "criminals."

Another thing that everyone knows now is that there are a lot of "illegal" Irish immigrants here— economic refugees. Starting with the 2007 Global Economic Rip Off (why not call it what it was?) the Republic of the south saw unemployment, heroin and emigration coming back, along with gentrification and a widening income gap. Sound familiar? So there are many mostly young Irish women and men who've come on tourist or student visas, but stay to work. False 'green cards' and social security cards are easy to get. Besides, these immigrants slip under Trump's Racist Radar because they are White English-speaking Europeans, not Latinos or Muslims.

Of the four Maze escapees in San Francisco, one was extradited back to the north of Ireland in 1996 and returned to prison, before being released less than two years later. He lives there today with his American wife and family. The remaining three were released to their homes in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1990s as legal wrangling continued.  In 2000 the British government announced that the extradition requests for them were being withdrawn as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. However, in 2009, one of the men, who lived in Berkeley, had married a U.S. citizen and was freed by the courts to resume life at home, made the mistake of accompanying his wife on a trip to Mexico where one of her relatives had retired. Upon re-entering Texas, he was detained on an old passport issue and deported to the Republic of Ireland, where he must now stay. The remaining two have been living peaceful lives in the SF Bay Area for over 20 years.

"Maze" focuses almost exclusively on an actual prisoner, Larry Marley, who was one of the masterminds behind the 1983 break. None of the H-Block 4 that San Franciscans know are identified in the film. The epilogue tells us that Marley was released from prison, but murdered in his home by a Loyalist (pro-UK) death squad. Though it is a gripping story and detail is exhaustive, the film might be a weak draw for those not familiar with, or engaged in, the political landscape of the modern Irish struggle. It has however, stirred a lot of interest - and controversy - in Ireland and Britain. True to actual events, the epilogue says that many of the prisoners were apprehended within two days, and fully half within two years of the breakout. Nineteen went on trial over the death of a Maze prison guard, who had been stabbed, but had died of coronary failure during the escape. The judge acquitted all nineteen as he could not correlate the stabbing to the heart attack.

Of the remaining prisoners on the lam, several died or were killed, and still others were apprehended over the years in various countries and jailed—to be set free later. However, some were arrested, but not charged nor re-imprisoned. Two of the 38 have never been caught and are still at large and free to this day.

Billed as "an amazing true story" of " the biggest prison escape in Europe since World War II" the film and the event itself serve as a history lesson for San Francisco and California. Since 1985, this has been a Sanctuary City and as of last year California is now a Sanctuary State, both Trump nemeses. A safe haven for many who deserve protection and political asylum—including the Irish.