In six hours this past January, all the good that Pól Brennan had ever done came unraveled.
The 56-year-old Belfast-born carpenter and his American wife Joanna Volz were in their brand-new Sportsmobile camper van, heading from Volz's parents' home on South Padre Island to Austin to visit friends. From Austin, they would start the long drive back to their home in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Brennan decided to drive the Harlingen-Austin leg of the trip. He would never make it to Austin.
Irish Republican Army
Volz napped as they whizzed up Highway 77 under the warm winter sun through the lonely brush of the King Ranch. When Brennan eased up to the Border Patrol/Department of Homeland Security checkpoint in the tiny hamlet of Sarita, he woke Volz. He knew they would be stopped and questioned, as the van still had temporary plates. As it turned out, the van's registration was the least of his worries.
The two cars ahead of the Sportsmobile were waved through. The guard shoved an upraised palm at the Sportsmobile.
"You a U.S. citizen?" the patrolman asked Brennan.
"No," Brennan replied. "I am Irish."
The patrolman asked Brennan for his papers. Brennan complied, handing over a valid California driver's license and his yearly federal work permit. "I didn't know anything was amiss," he would say much later.
In fact, the Border Patrol would find very much to be amiss. For starters, Brennan's work permit had expired. The patrolman told Brennan to park the van and come in the office for further questions.
Although he still held some hope, Brennan could already feel his life slipping away. He had one card up his sleeve: He dialed up his San Francisco lawyer, James Byrne, on his cell phone, and asked him to fax his papers to him — his pending applications for a new work permit, a green card and political asylum. All were sent, and none was enough. "I had thought that maybe the faxed paperwork would save me," he would say later. "When they hold you for six hours, you know it's not good."
Because at the same time the fax was humming with papers coming over from Byrne's office, the Border Patrol's computers were churning out other information, and it was exciting stuff. The slight, scholarly-looking Irishman with the glasses, close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and the Mephistophelean beard was no mere tourist or snowbird.
Reams of information on Brennan's past came humming over the transom — an old Interpol warrant detailed how one afternoon in Belfast in 1976, Brennan and a companion had been caught with a gun and a 23-pound bomb they were alleged to have been intending to plant in a shop, and how he had been sentenced to 16 years in Long Kesh Prison, or Maze, at it was also known. And how, seven years later, he and 37 of his fellow Irish Republican Army cohorts had busted out of the Kesh in the largest jailbreak in the entire history of the United Kingdom.
For patrolmen accustomed to catching run-of-the-mill Mexican, Caribbean and Central American immigrants and the occasional drug-runner, this was a red-letter day. The shark fishermen had netted something more exotic, even if it was probably no threat — a giant squid, perhaps.
In a posting to his Web site, Brennan would later write that the Border Patrol agents' "little eyes were jiggling with excitement" as they downloaded Brennan's picaresque adventures, "acting as if they had caught the terrorist Al-Zarqawi."
Brennan tried to explain that those matters had been settled in federal courts in San Francisco, where he had been living openly since 2000. He argued that he had filed for the extension to his work permit on time, and that it was the government's fault that he hadn't received it. He told them truthfully that he was no longer being actively sought by British authorities.
All to no avail. They were more interested in that bomb he was caught with in Belfast in 1976 or that day 25 years ago when he broke out of jail. Volz eventually headed to Austin alone. Brennan went to jail, where he is now fighting to avoid deportation to a country he hasn't seen in 25 years.
Brennan's current plight is unusual but not unique. There are at least 15 former IRA prisoners living in America today. Many or most of these people are married to Americans and/or have American-born children, and many have faced deportation.
As it stands now, former IRA prisoners in America cannot travel back to Ireland to visit friends and family, and must renew their work permits often at great expense and danger to their employment. (Often, the applications are delayed; in the interim, employers are at risk if they allow the immigrants to work.) Additionally, a handful of former IRA members — an estimated five or so — are still hiding and now have no incentive to come in from the cold.
Earlier this year, two former IRA prisoners — Paul Harkin and Matt Morrison — announced the foundation of Thar Saile. (Pronounced "Har Sail-ya," the Gaelic name means "Overseas.") Thar Saile's stated aim is "to end the uncertainty for these men and their families by providing them with a permanent legal status and the right to live, work and travel unencumbered."
Reached at his home in St. Louis, where he has been living and working as a registered nurse for more than ten years, Morrison characterized the Bush Administration as negligent at best and, at worst, as apparently acting on the belief that the Troubles in Northern Ireland were still at their peak.
"The word I employ the most is 'anachronism.' The reality is that there has been a peace dividend all around for almost everybody that was involved in the peace process," says Morrison. "And it would seem on the face of it that former Irish Republicans here in the United States are much further behind the starting line than everybody else."
In the new Northern Ireland, former hardline IRA leader Martin McGuiness until quite recently shared power with virulently anti-Catholic leader the Reverend Ian Paisley. (Paisley retired from his post earlier this year.) Indeed, the two were photographed together in President George W. Bush's office, looking almost downright chummy. (Such a development once seemed as unthinkable in Northern Ireland as Michael Moore marrying Anne Coulter would be here.)
But that photo op was the exception to the rule with President Bush. Morrison, Brennan and other former IRA prisoners in America believe the President's neglect of the Irish question is a form of political payback: Unlike President Bill Clinton, who took a keen interest in Northern Irish matters, Bush did not owe any favors to blue states with significant Irish-American enclaves.
Morrison also believes that post-9/11 realities are at play. "In a post-9/11 environment, the government wants to be seen to be pursuing a hard line," he says. Which, he believes, is counterproductive to the still-ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland. "What you're seeing is the unfinished business of the peace process," he says. "There's a number of loose ends, and while they are not gonna stop the peace process dead in its tracks, they can fray the edge of the fabric.
"There is an irony here," Morrison continues. "And I'll tell you what it is: The irony is that guys like Pól Brennan, myself and the other guys that are involved in Thar Saile have been the very people who have been vociferously supporting the peace process throughout and have been keeping American supporters on board throughout the peace process."
The federal Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, where Brennan is incarcerated today, is a long way from Ireland in every way imaginable. Saint Patrick famously drove the serpents out of Ireland, but he never made it to this or any other part of Texas. A sign posted near the perimeter of the lockup warns of the presence of both venomous snakes and alligators, and green jays, Mexican eagles and ocelots patrol the brush.
Paradoxically, given these exotic surroundings, Brennan may be closer now to Belfast than he's been at any time since he slipped past the huge British dragnet in 1983. Though he has bailed out of American jails before, this time around the judge has denied bond. Unless there is a sea change in the drift of his case, Brennan could face deportation before the summer is out.
If you were to look for Pól Brennan's literary precedent, you could do worse than Jean Valjean, the redeemed criminal-turned-philanthropist hero of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.
Of course, you could also do better, as Brennan has hardly been a saint since he came to America. Nevertheless, at bottom, Brennan's conversion from active member of the Irish Republican Army to American working stiff has been dramatic.
And this year, the United States government has proven itself every bit the doctrinaire pursuer that Valjean's nemesis Inspector Javert was in Hugo's masterwork.
Brennan has detailed his most recent incarceration on his Web site, www.polbrennan.com. As the palest detainee in Port Isabel, he was subject at first to great suspicion from his Caribbean and South and Central American fellow detainees. He reports that people got in his face and demanded to know where he was from. Once he told them Ireland, they tended to become friendly.
More so than they are to each other: He writes that there is frequent tension between the Hispanics and the English-speaking Caribbeans, which often boils over when debating whether to tune in Spanish- or English-language TV.
Before his dispatch to solitary confinement, Brennan shared a cell with a fellow English speaker, a Jamaican named Dave Clark. The name reminded Brennan of the British Invasion pop group, and Brennan told him so. "Yeah, I've heard that before," the Jamaican answered. Brennan wrote that his conversations with Clark reminded him of similar scenes of Jamaican/Irish interaction in British jails from the Daniel Day-Lewis film In the Name of the Father.
But most of the time, life in the lockup is boring, Brennan writes. Other than Bibles, there is no reading material, so Brennan's supporters have set up a Web page to help supply him with the popular science books he loves — books like Longitude and Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. Brennan writes, reads, talks on the phone and tries mainly to keep to himself while maintaining good relations with all the different ethnic groups. On the off chance he gets control of the TV, he tunes in The Colbert Report, The Daily Show or BBC news.
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."
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.
Still, in light of the peace process in Northern Ireland, in 2000 President Clinton placed Brennan and a handful of other former IRA prisoners in "deferred action" status that allowed them to get work permits and stay in America indefinitely. While this was viewed at the time as a victory for former IRA prisoners, the celebration has proven short-lived.
Angelique Montaño is an attorney with Houston immigration and family law firm Tindall & Foster and, although she is not involved in Brennan's case, is very experienced with cases involving deportation.
"Deferred action is not a green card," she explains. "It's not intended to be a long-term benefit that you can eventually get citizenship through. Basically, it's a political tool."
And two years ago, Brennan got in trouble again: He was convicted of misdemeanor assault in California after a fight with a contractor over $1,000 in wages. He was levied a $1,500 fine and sentenced to 500 hours of community service.
But if the Feds were so keen on deporting Brennan, why didn't they do so then? Why would they wait until he stumbled into the Sarita checkpoint?
Montaño says that arrests like Brennan's are not unusual today. "All the databases are coming together and everyone's criminal information is coming up everywhere," she says. It's not uncommon, she says, for officials to wait for immigrants to come to them in airports or checkpoints or border crossings, rather than seek them out for arrest. "Whether you have a work permit or green card or whatever, they don't care that you've been running around free," she says. "It's not until those specific incidents that things get triggered."
In June, in the Harlingen court of immigration Judge Howard E. Achtsam, prosecutors from Homeland Security reactivated the deportation case against Brennan based on his fraudulent entrance to America back in 1983, and opposed bail.
Byrne, Brennan's attorney, fired back that he had met bail twice in California and that he had a family and a job waiting for him in California.
Achtsam denied bail, ruling that Brennan was a flight risk based on his escape and a danger to society based on the assault.
Morrison, the Thar Saile activist, says the denial of bail is "really reprehensible." "They're saying he's a flight risk," he fumes. "For heaven's sake, he was an extraditee. Where's he gonna flee to? And what is he gonna run from? His wife? His community? His source of income?"
Brennan's next court date comes in August. Byrne has filed a request for an adjustment of status — he has moved for Brennan to receive a green card based on his marriage of 19 years. He has also requested a change of venue to federal immigration court in northern California. Montaño sees the wisdom in that maneuver. "If it comes to a court challenge where he has to go through all his removal things to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, it is the most pro-immigrant court circuit in the United States, if you can say that about any of them," she says. "The Fifth Circuit, which is Texas, is one of the most conservative."
Brennan is heartened by what is happening on his behalf on the outside. About 600 people have signed an online petition in his support. America's largest Irish-American group, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, has come to his defense. In contrast to his California incarceration in the 1990s, when only Irish ethnics and the likes of Noam Chomsky and Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn came to his aid, this time around Brennan also has support from the political right: In June, Long Island Congressman Peter King, the ranking GOP member of the House Homeland Security Committee, told the Belfast Telegraph that Brennan should get bail.
Nevertheless, the wheels are still grinding toward deportation. Brennan says that he was recently asked by a prison official, acting on orders from Judge Achtsam, whether he would prefer being sent to Ireland or Northern Ireland. Brennan declined to answer.
Save for a few weeks hiding out back in his IRA days, he has never lived in the Irish Republic and would have to start from scratch there. In Belfast, he possibly could have to pay some debts to a society he still believes is illegitimate, but he does have a large family there, including an aging father he hasn't seen in years. "If I go there, I might have to do some time," he says. "But I would get to see my family."
His American wife would have to start over and Brennan would have to scrap his life in California. His employer there has spoken highly of him. So have his supervisors at Oakland's Chabot Planetarium, where Brennan volunteers in order to indulge his love of the stars.
Once a terrorist, always a terrorist, and no matter if America was never your target. Illegal immigrants who are convicted of crimes must be deported, no matter how minor the crime. That's the way Homeland Security sees cases like this. Like Javert in Les Misérables, its goal is "not to be humane, not to be great, not to be sublime; it [is] to be irreproachable."
Still, all decent governments, Morrison maintains, allow themselves "wiggle room." "The [American] government wants to say, 'Well, these are the rules. Period. The end.' But you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that even a cursory review of governmental activity in and around immigration issues previously will prove that they can do anything they want when they want to do it."
Morrison cites the example of a famous world leader who was convicted of terrorist activities. "If you want to strictly apply the law, Nelson Mandela does not meet the requirement for gaining access to the United States of America," Morrison points out. "Do they stop Nelson Mandela from coming to the United States?"
Morrison wonders if there is even that much thought applied to Brennan's case. "I wonder sometimes if with all these agencies that have been subsumed under the general heading of Homeland Security, has a monolithic organization been created here? Where the individual organizations were dysfunctional enough to begin with, when you glue all that dysfunctionality together, it's hard to actually distinguish between what's actually a policy and what's just a function of bureaucratic ineptitude. And the real problem is, we don't know. It's like a black hole in space."
"I'm not being flippant when I say this, but all of us that belong to Thar Saile have got histories that don't look very good on paper," Morrison continues. As a teenager, Morrison was jailed for a decade for attempted murder of a policeman. The incident came at the height of the Troubles and, in Morrison's telling, was the result of a running gun battle.
"But the reality is that every single one of us have integrated into our communities in the United States. We've got American wives for the most part, we've got American children and we've been taxpaying, contributing members of our communities since the day and hour we've come over here, and I think there's been multiple proofs of that along the way. It's not like you're dealing with some invader from outer space.
"I'm a nurse by profession, for God's sake!" Morrison continues. "I've taken care of sick American children and sick American adults, and I've helped Americans to die when I worked for hospice. It's almost as if there's nothing we can do that's thrown into the balance. It doesn't matter what we do."
Brennan has been convicted of both offenses large and small and remains a fugitive to boot. The irreproachable thing to do would be to deport him. Javert certainly would. As for the humane thing, the sublime, the great, perhaps those are just the sort of gestures America used to make.
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