Homeland Security Won't Let a Former IRA Man Out of Prison

After living in the U.S. for 25 years, Pól Brennan is now stuck on the Texas-Mexico border

But the S.H.U. (Special Housing Unit, or solitary confinement) made dorm life seem like a night on the Vegas Strip. "Life in the S.H.U. is a mixture of pettiness and frustrations," Brennan writes. "The days are long and boring, interrupted by moments of drama usually in the form of other inmates acting out their own frustrations and the guards' responses to these incidents."

Brennan was told his transfer to the S.H.U. — which most often stems from bad behavior — was to protect him from gangs. Brennan believes that it actually stemmed from prison officials' paranoia that he would once again take part in a breakout. In May, after four months in solitary, he was released back into the general population. (Brennan's supporters believe this came when his case started drawing publicity on the outside.)

Joanna Volz, his wife, has moved to the Rio Grande Valley to be near him and her family. Brennan writes that her life has been thrown into chaos. "Any time a spouse is left to cope on their own, the stress on them is tremendous — apart from the loss of a loved one there are the added financial and emotional burdens which such forced separations bring."

Pól Brennan just before his arrest in South Texas this year...
Courtesy Pól Brennan
Pól Brennan just before his arrest in South Texas this year...
...he is pictured around the time he came in from the cold in the 1990s.
Courtesy Pól Brennan
...he is pictured around the time he came in from the cold in the 1990s.

Los Fresnos is indeed a long way from Ballymurphy, the staunchly Catholic and Nationalist district of Belfast where Brennan was born in 1953. In the harsh logic of that time and place, Brennan's decision to cast his lot with the IRA was perhaps the only choice he could make. Ballymurphy also produced IRA leader Gerry Adams and was the scene of a 1970 riot that lasted a full six months.

"The police and the soldiers were kickin' in our doors every night," he recalls. "The Republican struggle was a new breath of life."

In 1976, when he was 23, he was picked up on the bomb charge, for which he was sentenced to 16 years in Belfast's ­maximum-security Maze prison. To protest their status as common criminals rather than prisoners of war, Bobby Sands, a one-time cellmate of Brennan's, embarked on a hunger strike. This would eventually take his life and those of nine fellow hunger strikers, but not before Sands was elected to the British Parliament and had become an international cause célèbre.

At the same time, plans were afoot for what the Republican side would come to know as "the Great Escape." In 1983, Brennan and 37 others busted out. Brennan eventually made it to a safe house, where he was given a choice: return to active IRA duty or opt for a new identity in America. Brennan chose the latter.

After slipping into America as "Pól Morgan," Brennan took jobs in construction and met single mother Joanna Volz in an Oakland bar in 1984. They were married five years later.

They settled into a typical American domestic routine: Brennan worked in construction, Volz as a legal clerk in the San Francisco public defender's office, and together they raised Volz's daughter Molly and two whippets. (Volz declined to be interviewed for this article, but she recently told New York City's WBAI radio that she had no knowledge of Brennan's past when they met.)

While still on the run, in a letter in the Irish People, a journal published by NorAid, an American fund-raising arm of the IRA, Brennan did his beat for peace: He publicly and strongly disavowed some of the IRA's more violent tactics. At about the same time, Brennan made an ill-advised decision. He purchased a pistol from a licensed dealer in California. Earlier this year, he told the Irish Echo newspaper that the gun was for nothing more than target practice and that, at his wife's behest, he soon sold it (again, through proper channels) to help finance his new hobby: astronomy.

Between 1992 and 1994, Brennan and three other Maze escapees in America were unmasked by the FBI and jailed. British authorities instituted extradition proceedings, which Brennan and his former ­comrades-in-arms fought for years. By 2003 they had won at least a partial victory — the British government had withdrawn its extradition request and declared that while Brennan was still on the books as a fugitive, he was no longer being "actively pursued."

But while the heat from Britain was diminishing, it would only increase in America. As time passed, new political realities — namely, anti-immigrant fervor and 9/11 — saw to that.

And in part Brennan himself is to blame. While he was detained on the extradition rap, the gun came to light. That he no longer possessed it did not matter: By purchasing a gun while still living under an alias, he had committed a felony, and he was convicted of using false identification with intent to deceive the gun dealer in 1995.

In 1996, get-tough federal legislation was passed dictating mandatory deportation for undocumented aliens convicted of many crimes. While it was not retroactively applied in Brennan's gun case — for which he was sentenced to six months time served — the conviction remains in his record. Although it is not mandated that he be deported on the gun rap, judges can use the conviction at their discretion.

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I'm probably the only person here who was born and raised in Ireland during the Troubles, so I want to state for the record that during the course of the Troubles, Mr. Brennan and his IRA comrades  murdered more Irish men, women, and children, than the British. And still do. Can you guess the damage those 23 pound bomb would have caused? If not, look up Bloody Friday, La Mon, the Remembrance Day Bombing, Omagh Bombing. This is the only charge he was jailed for. The IRA were kill Irish Catholics as well as Protestants - we have no idea how many murders he participated in. At least he gets his life - not many IRA victims did. You do the crime, you do the time.