- 28 Jul 08
With John Gilligan now released from prison, we delve into the Hot Press archive for an extraordinary interview conducted by Jason O'Toole in 2008...
When Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin was gunned down in cold blood on the Naas Road, the finger of suspicion turned on John Gilligan.
A career criminal, dubbed Factory John by the tabloids, he had already been accused of assaulting the reporter at his home in Enfield, Co.Kildare. John Gilligan was charged with the murder – and subsequently acquitted. In the court of public opinion, fuelled by the media and the film Veronica Guerin, he may have remained forever guilty, but he has always protested his smuggling conviction, here – in his first ever in-depth interview – Ireland’s Most Hated Criminal tells his life story, offering his version of some of the most dramatic events of the past 20 years in Ireland.
It was the controversial Italian lawyer Giovanni Di Stefano who rang me unexpectedly with an intriguing proposition. “Would you like to meet my client John Gilligan for an interview?” he asked, in his instantly recognisable chirpy London-Italian accent, derived from living in London for many years.
At first, I thought Di Stefano – dubbed ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ for representing numerous notorious clients, including Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic – was winding me up. He’s been known to pull the odd prank. But he was deadly serious. Ireland’s most infamous criminal was inviting Hot Press to visit him in Portlaoise Prison for an exclusive interview.
“He’s sick of all the lies being written about him. I told him you will at least give him a fair hearing and not twist his words.”
Di Stefano’s voice crackled down the phone from Baghdad, where he is presently representing Tariq Aziz and Chemical Ali.
“This interview is my idea. John Gilligan says he’s doing this against his better judgment, but he also says you can ask any question and he’ll give you an honest answer – or a ‘no comment’ if he won’t answer it. That’s the deal. But he won’t tell you a lie.”
Gilligan had, I was informed, put my name down on the list of visitors he would allow in to Portlaoise Prison, to see him. It was what you might call an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Two days later, I was seated in the visitors’ centre in the maximum security prison in County Laois. It was a strange experience, informing the prison officer behind the security window that I was here to see John Gilligan. I was half-anticipating to be politely told that my name wasn’t on the…er, guest list. But he was as good as his word. I was down. The officer asked me for my passport as proof of identification and details of my current abode. He went away to make a photocopy of my passport and returned a few minutes later with a visitor’s pass. He then instructed me to place all my possessions inside one of the lockers in the reception area and, after shutting it, to punch in a four figure code on its digital pad, to lock it.
I was ushered back outside and down to another entrance with a thick glass sliding door. Inside, I slid my visitor’s pass to the female guard standing on the other side of a sealed-off security monitoring hub. Then a second thick sliding door opened and I was inside the prison itself. Here, a prison officer asked me to follow him into a room where I was asked to take off my belt and shoes, which were put through an airport-style scanner.
Signs on the walls warned that it was a criminal offence to smuggle in contraband or mobile phones. Portlaoise Prison made the news last year when it was reported that two budgies and a widescreen television had been found in Gilligan’s cell. Given the extent of the security procedures, it’s hard to imagine how the hell anybody could smuggle anything in. As Gilligan would later tell me himself, “I never had a budgie – just a small pony (laughs)! No seriously, there was eight budgies on this landing and a cockatoo. It was madness. We were asked to get them off and so we did. Personally, I don’t need anything in here. I never had a widescreen TV like the papers claimed. Sure, how could I smuggle it in? Under my jumper?!”
As I was being patted down, the prison officer enquired: “Why would you be visiting John Gilligan?” It was as if he didn’t think it was a very good idea.
I was instructed to walk through a metal detector. “It’s for everybody’s security – including your own,” the officer apologised, as he handed me my belt and shoes.
I was led out through yet another door, into a courtyard, and instructed to walk across to a group of prison officers, congregated at an internal checkpoint. As one of the guards opened the gate, two soldiers with machine guns patrolled nearby. There are over 100 soldiers stationed in Portlaoise, equipped with anti-aircraft guns and machine guns – a legacy of the paramilitary era that makes it one of the most secure prisons in Europe.
Two prison officers walked me a few metres to yet another locked gate and, after opening it, instructed me to ring the bell at the next door. It opened and I was brought down a corridor and into a small room with a glass coffee table and several plastic chairs. A minute later, John Gilligan walked into the room and shook my hand.
“Jason, how are you keeping?” he asked. “It’s great to see you. Sorry, I can’t offer you a cup of tea. But everything has changed in here these days. Tighter security. Sit down there.”
Gilligan pulled two chairs up and we sat down facing each other. A prison officer walked in behind him and sat down in the far corner of the room. Gilligan was dressed smartly in a pair of Louis Copeland trousers and a designer shirt. He also looked fit and considerably younger than his age of 56, the shock of grey hair the only indication of aging. “I’m not into clothes. The trousers are from my court case,” he told me. “My daughter got them a few years ago and the shirt was given to me by one of the lads on my landing. But I do like to work-out in the gym.”
After a bit of small talk, we got down to business. Visitors are allowed a maximum of two hours and I had dozens of questions. As if he was reading my mind, Gilligan said, “We’ll have to talk fast.”
Nothing else for it then…
Here I was sitting eyeball to eyeball with a man widely perceived as the most reviled criminal in Ireland. He might have been acquitted of the murder of the Sunday Independent crime reporter Veronica Guerin, but the tabloids are still making John Gilligan out to be guilty-as-sin. It’s a depiction he is determined to change. In court, under privilege, he has already named another criminal, John Traynor, as the man who masterminded the murder.
I don’t know John Gilligan. Nor do I know what he has done, as a criminal or as a citizen. But as Anne Harris of the Sunday Independent famously said in a different context, everyone is entitled to tell their own story. It is up to the reader then to decide what has or hasn’t the ring of truth.
This much we do know: found guilty of smuggling cannabis on the evidence of a number of ‘supergrasses’, who had been given immunity by the State, Gilligan was handed what most people would consider a ridiculously lengthy prison sentence of 28 years for that crime. The perception is that it was a murder sentence by default. On appeal, the term was reduced to 20 years, but even that is wildly extravagant for a hash dealer. Giovanni Di Stefano is adamant that such a crime should only warrant a six-year sentence at the very most. “And that would be on a bad day,” he insisted.
John Gilligan is sanguine about it.
“I don’t cry over it because I did get away with plenty,” he says. “I don’t think I should have got 28 years, or 22 years. If I was caught for, say, armed robbery – which, I think, was 14 years – I probably would have been out after 10 or 12 years at the most. But I just take it as part of life. I also done crime that I got away with. So it’s swings and roundabouts, that type of thing.”
The sentence is one thing, the crime another. Did you order the murder of Veronica Guerin?
“No. Her death had nothing to do with me. For a start, the State accepts that I didn’t pull the trigger because I was in another jurisdiction. To this day they can’t even tell me what country I was in when it happened. Unbelievable! But because of the media, and the way they wrote about me, most people are convinced I was guilty. The way I see it, it doesn’t matter if you pulled the trigger or didn’t pull the trigger. Whoever organised it, if they didn’t shoot her, they’re still guilty. But it wasn’t me.”
He is aware that he has been found guilty in the court of public opinion, led by the media.
“If I was to go around threatening everybody who was calling me a cunt, I’d be dead before I’d find the last fella or woman,” he says. “So, I’m not going to go down that road. I don’t bother. It goes over my head. I understand why people back up their own – journalists write negative stuff about me because Veronica was one of their own. But, at the same time, they fail to remember that I was acquitted of the murder.
“The only court capable of finding an innocent man guilty of a crime is the Special Criminal Court, but they couldn’t even do it with the most hated man in Ireland at the time – according to the press – because there was absolutely no evidence. I don’t want you to just believe me – I want you to look at the paperwork. Look at the facts. If you were to do an exercise today that two and two is four – you won’t get six or five. Two and two is four. Full stop. That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about. I didn’t do it...”
We’ll get back to the details of what was a gruesome and cowardly murder later – but the finger of blame was pointed at Gilligan because Veronica Guerin was pressing assault charges against him at the time. She alleged that Gilligan had punched her and ripped her blouse when she came out to his equestrian centre in Enfield, County Kildare, to ask him some probing questions about his financial affairs. He denies the assault as well.
“I never laid a finger on her,” Gilligan insists. “There was eight witnesses in the house. She wasn’t thrown off the property as such. I had never met her before. I didn’t read newspapers, apart from the racing pages, so I genuinely didn’t know what she looked like. She managed to gain access to the grounds – without permission – and then she didn’t even bother to knock at the front door – she came around the back to where the utility room was.
“I heard this tapping at the back door and I opened it. When she said who she was, at the backdoor, I said, ‘Get out of here’. I pushed her and I closed the door in her face. I was in a housecoat – I had a Penney’s robe on. They are all saying it was silk. Apart from that I had just a pair of jocks on. As I turned my back – and before I knew it – she was in the utility room, saying. ‘I want to ask you questions’. I just took her by the arm and brought her to the door and I gently pushed her out.
“I didn’t even bring her to her car. At the time, we had videos of that because I had video cameras all around the house. But the police took the videos.”
Giovanni Di Stefano believes that the forensic evidence couldn’t link Gilligan with an assault. This is the position Gilligan has maintained all along. It’s there in the court transcripts of the opening address of Gilligan’s defending barrister, and the prosecution did not object.
“What the Gardai’s forensic expert said was that the marks, and the tear on her blouse, were consistent with her tearing it – not a third party. No one assaulted her,” Di Stefano insists.
John Traynor was Veronica Guerin’s main source for news stories. Known as ‘The Coach’, Traynor owned a garage in Rathmines, which served as a front for his illegal activities, which included operating brothels and smuggling drugs. Traynor had worked on various capers with The General (Martin Cahill) before switching allegiance to Gilligan. It was from Traynor that Veronica Guerin learned of Gilligan’s involvement in crime.
For a crime reporter, the story of how Gilligan went from being a petty thief to running the biggest criminal empire in the country – or so they said – was potentially a major scoop. Gilligan was enjoying all the trappings of wealth in his equestrian centre, called Jessbrook, in Enfield. At one stage about 15 people were employed there. “But when major events were on it could be over 20 staff,” says Gilligan. “I had ordered ten timber homes – with four to six bedrooms – for holiday makers and a clubhouse. The quarry on the 23 acre site was going to be made into a lake for boats. Naturally, more staff would have been hired if all that had gone ahead.”
To all intents and purposes, Gilligan was a pillar of society, mixing with the affluent establishment. But how did he manage to go virtually overnight from living in a corporation house in a rough neighbourhood to lord of the manor?
It was a good question and Veronica Guerin wanted the answer.
It was all the more intriguing given his background. Born in Prussia Street in March 1952, John was born into a large family, with three brothers and seven sisters. When Gilligan was nearly four years old, the family moved out to a working-class corporation housing estate in Ballyfermot on Dublin’s south side. Gilligan attended the local school until he was 14 – leaving to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a seaman. “My dad and all my brothers were sailors,” says Gilligan.
To the casual observer, it might seem that Gilligan saw his father as a role model. After all, his dad was also involved in criminal activity as well as a sailor. Not so, however.
“I wouldn’t want to put myself close to me da,” he says. “I believe he was a bad da. He was also a Mickey Mouse stroker. He’s dead. I don’t get sentimental over bad people. He wasn’t a good father to me or my brothers or sisters, or a good husband to my mother. He died when I was a prisoner in England, but I would not have gone to his funeral if I was out – that’s how much I hated the cunt. He was a very violent man – especially if he was drinking. Not just to me. But he was very violent to me. He wasn’t a molester or anything. He was a strong fucker. I’m very strong – and I’m 56.
“Unfortunately, I was in jail when my mother and brother died – God rest their souls. My mother was a lovely woman.”
Sick of his father, Gilligan joined the merchant navy and literally sailed around the world. “I’d describe myself as a very, very hard worker. A real good worker. I could do the work of three men. That was my attitude in life. My dad and my uncles would say, ‘John’s a great worker’. They all wanted me to go to sea because I was a good grafter. Even when I was in prison, I’d be working in prison. Anytime I was in the ‘Joy, I always worked in the bakery. I wouldn’t lay about.
“I was at sea from ‘66 to ‘76. The first ship I was away on was from Dublin to Liverpool – you’d be away for three or four days. And then I worked on the B&I Ferries. And then I went away on a British ship to Canada and I went with New Zealand Star,” he recalls.
“I enjoyed being a seaman. I’d be able to sail a ship around the world now. I have navigation skills. I didn’t do exams to be a captain on a ship, but I know how to do it. I could go out there and sail any ship around the world. I was always going to be a captain – but then I got married. In them days you could be away for two years and then you’d be home for two weeks. So, you’re not married really, are you? It can be a good earner but it can be a waste of life. I suppose that’s what I decided.
“When I gave that up, I was always going to do something like own a pub. I went after one or two pubs and they fell through. And I had a garage. So, I was always going to be a businessman. I had a legit stroke in business that was second-to-none, in the horse business. If this didn’t happen – if I hadn’t been banged up – I would have been well on my way in business.”
Gilligan stayed out of trouble when he got onto the boats, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was keeping his nose clean. Gilligan admits that he was smuggling guns back into Ireland. “I wasn’t doing it to make money,” he states. “I could pick them up dirt cheap in South America. I was mostly bringing them back as a favour for mates.”
When it comes to describing his first major job, or stroke as he calls them himself, Gilligan is more coy. “I got away with it, so I can’t tell you!” he laughs. “I’ll be honest with you – it was before I was married. I was going away to sea and coming back and there was fellas doing things and – I was after getting things for them – and so I was asked to do a stroke with them. The fellas wanted to celebrate and they didn’t want to do another job for three or four weeks. For me it wasn’t quick enough. I had to keep working – I had to keep going. I went to go back to sea. ‘Ah, this is not for me,’ I said. But my girlfriend at the time, who became my wife, said ‘please don’t go back to sea’. So, I said right, I’d stay. That’s how it started really.”
Soon afterwards, Gilligan married his childhood sweetheart Geraldine at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Ballyfermot. The newlyweds moved into a rented flat on the North Strand in 1974, where they stayed until they got a council house in Corduff, out in Dublin West. The year was 1977. “I had an agreement with Geraldine – if we were fighting we’d meet in the middle of the floor at 8pm and we’d hug each other,” he says. “We’d never let the row go on after 8pm. I had that from the day I got married. I don’t care who’s right or wrong – after 8pm, finish it – it’s gone. I’ve often had a few rows with Geraldine when I was in prison and they’d go on because she was stubborn – but when we were together it would never go past 8 o’clock at night.”
Gilligan worked occasionally on the boats until 1976, but more and more of his income by this stage was derived from illegal activities. By the time their first child was born, he was already well-known among the Dublin criminal fraternity as the best in the business when it came to breaking into factories. There wasn’t a factory in Ireland that, as he puts it, didn’t “belong” to him.
“I never had a problem with alarms,” he reveals. “But I would never break into a small factory that belonged to some guy trying to earn a living. I never did small, independent factories. I’d only do big factories. There probably wasn’t a factory in Ireland that I didn’t rob. I didn’t need to use any violence. Sometimes when I was doing a factory I just needed to give money to the guy to look the other way.”
Did you get a buzz from stroking?
“Of course you did. I used to think that all those factories were mine. If I wanted to take anything out of those factories, I’d just go and do it. It wasn’t a case of, ‘Will I be able to do it?’ They were mine. In my head, I owned them. I know that’s a bad attitude, but you asked me a straight question and I’m not going to lie to you. I know the answer I could give! Maybe that’s what I thrived on – that and gambling – because I didn’t drink for 20 years. That was my vice – stroking and gambling,” he says.
Why did you give up drink?
“I was cranky on drink. I’ll tell you why exactly I gave up drink. I’m ashamed of it but I’m not ashamed to say it – when my son was born I got drunk. And I was drunk for three or four days. I came home drunk and Geraldine was doing the ironing. I walked in and hit my foot on a stool and I picked it up and threw it in the corner. And I didn’t realise – I was after getting a pram for my son and Geraldine had lifted the top of the pram – you know the way you can lift it off? – and put him, in it, on the floor in the corner. But I threw the stool and it bounced off the wall and it landed in the end in the pram. When I seen it, I just sobered up instantly. If he was turned around the other way I think the stool would have killed him. I went, ‘On his life I’ll never drink again’. She said, ‘ Just drink shandies from now on’. I said, ‘I have to go. I’m going’. I went down stairs and she came down and said, ‘John, don’t go’. I said, ‘Fuck, that nearly killed him. If that pram had been turned the other way he’d be dead’.
“I didn’t drink for 20 years because of that. One night Geraldine, Tracy and Darren said, ‘Listen, you are doing everything for us. Will you have a drink?’ I said, ‘I’m afraid. If I have a drink don’t give out to me. I won’t have a row because I’m afraid to have a row’, and I had a drink. I can tell you now that I get more happy on drink than anything else.”
John Gilligan was arrested in 1976 for possession of stolen goods and was locked up in Mountjoy Jail for 18 months. “I had to be the unluckiest man in Ireland to get jailed in 1977,” he laughs. “Do you know why? In 1977 there was an amnesty going. There was a huge number of cases backlogged. Cases were taking five years. It was told unofficially to every barrister that if your client pleads guilty he’ll more than likely get a suspended sentence – even if it was for armed robbery, banks, post offices – everything. I know loads of fellas that were up for three or four post office robberies who would’ve normally pleaded not guilty and tried to win them – but they all pleaded guilty. The whole town pleaded guilty.
“But I wouldn’t plead guilty. The fella down stairs on the North Strand was after having these cigarette lighters. When they raided the flat, they took them from downstairs and they brought them up and threw them on my floor. When they’d charged me, the copper realised that I wasn’t a bad fella – that I was at sea and all my family was at sea, because I was after being at sea for about seven years at that stage. He asked me to plead guilty. He said, ‘I don’t want you to go to jail’. But because I pleaded not guilty, I was sent across to Judge Martin’s court. With that judge, if the law was in your favour you got it, but if you got found guilty he’d give you the worst sentence you’d ever get.”
The way he tells it, halfway through the trial, Gilligan changed his mind and pleaded guilty. “They should have sent me back to the other court to get sentenced. I gave up my seaman’s book and the judge said he’d never seen a reference as good as it. He said, ‘I’m going to give you half the sentence I had in mind’. I was told I was only going to get nine months, but the judge gave me half the sentence he had in mind which was 18 months! I went up to the Joy and I got a visit the next day from Geraldine. I got five-and-a-half months off for remission. But it done me good. It smartened me up. That’s the truth. But it smartened me up as a criminal.”
Was it difficult to adapt to life in prison?
“No,” he says, “because I found life in prison very, very similar to life at sea. When you finished work at sea, if you were on the 8 to 12 watch you’d be working from 8am to 12noon and then you’d do 8pm to 12 at night. And then you’d do your overtime from 1am to 5am. You’d do five or six hours overtime every day. But when you’d be finished, you’d be at sea so you’d just go down to your cabin – it would be very similar to a cell. You wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. Going to Australia, you could be six weeks at sea if you didn’t go through the Panama Canal. So prison didn’t bother me a lot because when I was at sea I wasn’t seeing Geraldine and my kids at all. When I was in prison, I seen them once a week. I’m not one for saying life is hard...”
What do you miss most about being outside?
“I don’t talk about outside prison because I think that would do a man’s head in. I don’t think about it. That’s the gospel truth. On my mother’s grave. But seeing you asked the question, family life. I miss being able to go where you want to go and just to be free – to have a choice. I could go here or there. I could go meet people and go to the bookies. I could go have a drink if I wanted to go for a drink. I suppose them type of things.”
When you were in court earlier this year on January 29, you stated to the judge that you weren’t much of a father and it’s something that you regret. What was that about?
“I do have regrets. I wasn’t the type of father who brought his kids out every Sunday. I’d like to have done that. Okay, I was a father that provided plenty. I thought that was what a man was supposed to do – provide plenty of money for his family. And be there if they wanted to talk to you.
“I was a good dad in a way, but the only thing I regret about being in prison is that I wasn’t there for my family when they were sometimes going through pain. But you didn’t see that pain when you were out because I made the pain go away. And there wouldn’t be money problems when I was out. There would never be problems when I was out.”
Do you have regrets about your criminal activities?
“I know it’s not a nice thing to say, but I’m not actually ashamed of anything I’ve done. I’m not looking for a feather in my cap but I’ve done more good for people – I haven’t found a person that has done more for people than I have. I’m not talking about being religious and praying for somebody, but I don’t know anybody that went out of their way and would help people. I’m not talking about stuff like, ‘Here’s £200 for the rent you owe’, which I’ve done – I’m talking about helping them in every way. I’ve stopped people being killed. I’ve stopped people fighting: I’d give me word to both sides that he or she doesn’t want to fight and that’s the end of it. People kind of respected my words and said, ‘Right’ – because a lot of people who’d shake hands are plotting to kill you. I’m not a bad guy and I don’t have to prove that to anybody. Once I know, that’s good enough for me.
“I haven’t done a thing that if I had my life to live over again that I’d be ashamed to do again. I can’t say, for instance, the worst thing I’ve done was go into a bank and I shot 25 people or I was in a bank and a granny got shot or something like that. Because that didn’t happen. I haven’t got a moment of regret. There was loads of things I just wouldn’t do. But I couldn’t knock other people for doing them. Say I was a factory robber and you don’t like factory robbers, you’d rather go out and get a job. You don’t like it but I think it’s OK. I rob factories and I know another fella who robs houses – but I don’t like that, but I can’t knock it. There’s a lot of crime I don’t like – I hate anybody touching a woman. I hate anybody touching children. I hate anybody robbing houses. I hate anybody robbing a handbag. And I hate anybody going near old people.”
John Gilligan became involved in petty crime when he was still a kid. At the age of 13, Gilligan pulled his first ‘job’ when he and his mates decided to rob the local milk truck. They’d taken a handful of milk, butter and cream. Laughing and joking as they took swigs from the bottle of milk on their way home, Gilligan and his mates stumbled upon a plucked chicken in a bucket, which they also decided to take. Unfortunately, they were picked up by the Gardai – and blamed for stealing the chicken.
Between 1967 and 1993, Gilligan accumulated approximately 15 convictions for larceny, attempted robbery, burglary, road traffic offences, assault and receiving stolen property. He argues that this figure is an exaggeration. “I hadn’t got that many,” he states. “Some of the charges are duplicated. For example, two coppers did me for a traffic offence at the same time. I was arguing the point with one and then the other one did me!
“I read that the police were saying I was known as a very violent man. I don’t know how they could say that because, in fact, the only assault case I was convicted of, in fact was my brother. He’s dead, Lord have Mercy on him – but when I was doing that 18 months in 1977, he gave someone a dig. It was common assault – and that conviction got put down to me. The first violent incident I ever had was when I hit a chief officer here – which I did. I gave him a box and I got six months for it.
“I was never known as a hard man. The papers made me out to be a hard man – Williams and co, who have done me a disservice. I had plenty of fights with people but they’d be straight fights – win, lose or draw, we’d shake hands at the end of the day. I didn’t drink for 20 years, so when I lost, I’d go and have a coffee and I’d buy the fella a pint. But it would be only a box in the head or a black eye. There would be no firearms taken out in my day.”
Before the death of Veronica Guerin, when John Gilligan became a household name in Ireland, his most serious offence was actually for receiving stolen goods.
“I got six months for taking scrap off an old building site in 1975 or ’76 – but it was suspended. Then in 1977, I got 18 months for receiving about 60 cigarette lighters. I did that time and then, in 1982, I got 12 months for stealing 40 large cartons of Mars bars. The biggest one was in the Special Criminal Court in 1990, where I got four years for receiving IR£3,062 worth of hardware goods – trowels and shovels and that. And in between, I got six months here and there for driving with no insurance.
“I kept my head down,” he says. “I didn’t even drive when I got out of prison the last time. When you drive and the police stop you it comes over the police radios – then you come back into every policeman’s mind again. It would be a case of ‘Oh, is he out?’ because when you go away they forget about you.
“I wouldn’t even get a car now, because when I was in prison the last time, I noticed my problem was that I was well known. When I’d get stopped in a car, it’d come over a police radio, ‘John Gilligan going up Kylemore Road, engaged in crime!’ I’d hear it on my scanner in my car because I was tuned into the police. I’d hear it all the time. So, I said, ‘When I get out, the one thing I won’t be having is a car’. Out of sight, out of mind.”
John Gilligan says that he tried to go straight on several occasions. He opened as a second-hand car dealer in town. It was a profitable little business – but it didn’t take long before any money he was taking in was going out just as quickly on the horses. Eventually, a bookies opened near his garage and Gilligan could be found there most days of the week.
“I gave the garage over to my brother. But what annoyed me was this: when I was straight that time, the police would stop me and give me a hard time. They’d find tools of the car trade in the backseat and be going, ‘John, you going to rob a factory?’ They wouldn’t believe that I was doing me utmost and I believed I was going to be successful. They just harassed me. In fact, I tried going straight three or four times.”
Nobody, he insists, called him ‘Factory John’ during the height of his infamy. “I wasn’t called that by my mates,” he states. “That’s the truth of God. How that came about now, right... when all this came out, that’s when they when they started saying, ‘He grew up and used to be known as Factory John’. I don’t think that came out until about 1997. I don’t believe you’ll find an article in any newspaper before 1996. I hadn’t any nickname. I was just John. I had no reputation like Martin Cahill, the way they are saying I am now. It was only from the time I got locked up that the papers gave me a reputation. I was known for being straight, honest and fair. If you had a row with me and we shook hands, that was the end of it. The nicknames only came out as a result of the newspapers, when they started saying ‘The Penguin’ etc, in order not to identify the person and risk being sued.”
After he was released from prison in 1993, Gilligan ploughed all his resources into smuggling vast amounts of cigarettes from the continent. It was a lucrative trade with minimum risks. “I think if you were caught, the most you could receive was a £1,000 fine, which wasn’t a big risk,” recalls Gilligan.
But the stakes became higher when Gilligan discovered that he could make substantially more money importing cannabis into Ireland via Amsterdam.
“I’m not saying that I smuggled cannabis – because I’m not going to admit to a crime, but if I had smuggled anything, it would only be cannabis,” he says. “I never dealt in heroin or coke. I wouldn’t do that in a million years.
“If some governments are allowing cannabis as a legal drug, are they saying it’s harmless? In Holland, if they catch you with heroin or cannabis in your pocket the police actually give it back to you. Now it’s probably breaking the law – but the reason why they do it is that they logically think, ‘If I take the heroin off him, he’s only going to go round the corner and break the window in a car and rob the radio out of it’. With heroin, when you take it you can’t get off it and, in the end, your whole life is gone really. It’s horrible. I’ve seen fellas give up coke and cannabis and they’d no craving. Morally, it’s wrong because heroin actually destroys lives because nobody can continue a normal life with being a user of heroin.”
Did you ever do drugs yourself?
“I never did drugs in my life. They also said that I was in the River Front club snorting cocaine. You want to know the truth? I ate a bit of hash – maybe twice or three times – and nothing happened. But the next day I was walking down the landing and I could just feel my legs go like jelly rubber. I couldn’t make it to the end of the landing. Not my scene.
“I never even took a drug tablet in my life. I don’t need it. I have a good enough personality and I’m happy enough with myself. But coke seems to make an awful lot of people paranoid. I’ve seen it in the prisons. I’ve seen fellas telling the guys on coke the truth – and when they walk off, you hear the fella go, ‘That’s a fuckin’ lying cunt!’ I wouldn’t bother normally, but sometimes I’d go, ‘No, he’s actually telling the truth’. There’s no point, because sometimes they are so stoned they don’t know what they’re after saying anyway.”
According to the newspapers, Portlaoise Prison is awash with drugs. Is this true?
“There are drugs in prison. You probably won’t get as much as the fellas would want, but you’ll get it. In prison, there isn’t drugs available every day of the week as they suggest in the newspapers – it’s either a feast or a famine. Fellas get caught bringing in drugs and there’s other fellas who don’t get caught,” he says.
“What the government do for the prisoners on paper is absolutely fantastic – but the reality is they do nothing. I believe when she was Minister for Justice, Nora Owen destroyed Ireland with drugs. How I think she done that was – indirectly – she started putting two and three in a cell. They were putting fellas from, say like, the outskirts of Tipperary and Waterford all in a cell with prison junkies. If that didn’t happen, I think drugs would have been curtailed to the inner city. If you want a load of drugs today, you can go and get them because they are on every street corner. They are a fact of life.
“They are never going to go away unless there is a miracle cure that people can take a tablet and they’ll never need drugs again. That’s the only cure I can see. In prison, if you want drugs you’ll get them.”