On a cold New York winter’s day, the man in clerical black was huddled a little deeper into his coat, attempting in vain to keep out the near Arctic wind. He had just emerged from the grim fortress known as the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Inside the building, a man named Joe Doherty was passing yet another day. He wasn’t being corrected. He was simply being kept.
The man in black paused by a waiting car and answered the questions of a waiting reporter. No sirens or cavalcades announced the progress through Manhattan of Tomás Cardinal O Fiaich, primate of all Ireland, prince of the Roman Catholic Church. Fuss wasn’t part of O Fiaich’s style. Neither was it part of Joe Doherty’s. The two had just been talking for a while. Two men of the North. They had discussed the possibilities of a better future for the people of Northern Ireland, for all Ireland, because, in the opinion of both, there was only one to begin with.
Doherty had no idea just what role in that future, if any, he would ever play.
By the time O Fiaich sat down with Doherty, the latter was getting used to important visitors. It was not so much a case of who visited "Joe Doc" in prison; rather, it was a case of who’s left that hasn’t. It was simultaneously Doherty’s good luck and ill-fortune that he had become a symbol, in time a towering one, of a collision of hostile forces that were both minds and miles apart.
In the U.S. of the 1980s and early 1990s, Joe Doherty would be for many a symbol of freedom, a victim of repression, a folk hero and a cause worth both elevating and celebrating. At the same time, there would be those who would see him as a cold-blooded killer, an unrepentant IRA terrorist guilty of that foulest of human deeds: murder.
Doherty was neither. He was, in many respects, any old Joe who was forced into becoming anyone but. He was a regular guy, one from your neighborhood, who found himself in a most irregular situation. He was the inevitable product of a society that had lost its bearings, one that had succumbed to a mentality that seeks to turn a neighbor into someone not quite like "us," faceless, inhuman even.
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By his honesty, eloquence and sheer endurance, Joseph Patrick Doherty turned back every attempt to render him base, faceless, a mere object of society’s loathing.
In the end he both won and lost. He spent the better part of nine years in U.S. prisons, a victim more than once of politics placed before the law. He was deported in the dead of night back to another prison. But his going did not go unnoticed. Far from it.
Now, at 43, Joe Doherty has served well over half his life as internee and prisoner. But those who know him will be confident that the next half of his life will go a long way toward making up for the tragedy of the first.
Doherty’s battle to control his destiny gave birth to a battle cry of sorts: "No more Joe Dohertys." No more Joe Dohertys indeed. No more Herbert Westmacotts either. No more prisoners. No more lives lost or caged behind frigid steel. Just a chance for everyone to live a life free of the fear and ignorance that tolerates the process by which fundamentally good men are turned into demons. We wish Joe Doherty the best of luck with his finally found freedom. His time is finally over, and finally come.