- 21 Dec 16
Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly tell us what Leonard meant to him during his Long Kesh incarceration...
Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly (pictured) are not people you’d immediately associate with the iconic Leonard Cohen. But that may be down to the kind of lazy assumptions we tend to make about others.
The great Jewish bard became the subject of conversation, at the Sinn Féin offices in Dublin’s Parnell Square, back in 2008.
I arrived there to conduct an interview with Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Féin MLA for North Belfast – and spotted Gerry Adams, who just happened to be on the premises that day. I had already interviewed Adams the previous year for Hot Press, on the run-in to the 2007 General Election. Recognising me, the Sinn Féin leader gave me his customary warm smile and ambled over for a quick chat.
After discovering who I was there to meet – not everything is run by Il Presidente in advance – Adams had a suggestion. “Ask him about Leonard Cohen,” he said. Adams, of course, was himself of the generation that had been influenced by artists like Cohen, Bob Dylan and, in Ireland, Christy Moore, all of whom emerged from the folk boom of the 1960s.
As an icebreaker, when Kelly walked into the room, I told him that Gerry Adams had said that I should begin by discussing Leonard Cohen with him. As a fan of Cohen – I named my daughter Marianne after the character in the song, ‘So Long Marianne’ – I was interested to hear what the convicted IRA man thought about his music – and his lyrics. After all, Kelly had published his own poetry collection, Words From A Cell, in 1989.
It turned out that he knew his stuff – though what he’d have made of the later, more lascivious Cohen of ‘I’m Your Man’ is uncertain.
“I really like Leonard Cohen,” Kelly said at the time. “He’s a brilliant poet. I mightn’t agree with all his lyrics, but you’ll find many ex-prisoners either love him or hate him.”
Reflecting on the time he spent, serving a sentence in the infamous Maze Prison, Gerry Kelly confessed that he would listen non-stop to Leonard Cohen: it helped him to, at least temporarily, escape the confines of the cell in which he was incarcerated.
“I drove people around the bend listening to him,” the former IRA man laughed. “There is a brilliant example in ‘Bird On The Wire’, in the lines: ‘Like a bird on a wire/ Like a drunk in a midnight choir/ I have tried in my way to be free’. It is brilliant – there is nothing as free as a drunk, but it is temporary and it is very personal…”
Gerry obviously took the lyrics to heart in more ways than one. Both himself and another Hot Press interview subject, Bobby Storey, now the Northern chairman of Sinn Féin, masterminded the infamous Maze Prison breakout in 1983 – which was the largest escape from any prison in Europe since World War II.
They had tried in their way to be free – and on that occasion succeeded spectacularly...