On this April evening, a gaggle of young guys with last names like Sweeney and Joyce huddle over pints of Guinness, talking loudly about politics and global affairs. A union guy just off work downs his beers and complains about having to go home to his wife. The bartender, a woman in her fifties, makes sure everyone has a drink and that the jukebox continues to churn out Celtic music, a collection of lively jigs and slower, more melancholy songs.
Noel Cassidy, 51, is barely noticeable at the back of the pub, sitting alone at a table and sipping ginger ale. Slight and courteous, wearing jeans and a tweed blazer, he speaks quietly, with a lilting brogue and a minor stutter. A house painter by day, Cassidy teaches Gaelic language classes at night and was until last year an instructor at Oberlin College. With reading glasses perched comfortably on his nose, he looks like he'd fit in well in academia.
What he does not look like is a terrorist. But that's what the federal government called him less than a year ago, during an immigration hearing in downtown Cleveland. An Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) attorney accused Cassidy of conspiring to assassinate British soldiers and being a member of the notorious Irish Republican Army (IRA), the predominantly Catholic paramilitary organization that has waged a deadly guerrilla campaign against British troops and Protestant police for the past thirty years.
Cassidy, who has lived on Cleveland's East Side for the past four years, denied the charges. And in November, the government withdrew them. But the INS still wants Cassidy deported, despite the fact that he's lived peacefully in the United States since entering illegally seventeen years ago and has a nine-year-old daughter who was born here.
"I've got a couple speeding tickets, but other than that, I believe I've contributed to American society," Cassidy says. "I spend my money here. I don't send it home. My life is here."
Cassidy's plight has attracted the attention of at least ten members of Congress, including local Reps. Steve LaTourette and Dennis Kucinich, who have petitioned President Clinton unsuccessfully on his behalf. "What would be the point of taking someone who's lived in this country for seventeen years in a peaceful and law-abiding way, raising a family, working hard and paying taxes, and sending him back where no one wants him?" asks LaTourette. "It doesn't make sense to me."
There is a great deal about the INS case that does not make sense. What started as an investigation of an alleged terrorist has apparently devolved into a single-minded pursuit of a longstanding immigration violation. Within just the past few weeks, in the course of interviews for this story, the INS case appeared to shift again, from visa problems to Cassidy's marital status back to political charges.
Cassidy's nine-year odyssey through INS hearings will culminate Thursday, April 22, in the Anthony J. Celebrezze federal building on East Ninth Street, where an immigration judge will hear his final appeal. If the agency has its way--and there is no reason to think it will not--Cassidy will be riding a one-way ticket back to Ireland before the month is out.
To understand the case, and Cassidy's prominence in the Irish-American community in Cleveland, it's necessary to retrace the circuitous route he took to get here. It's a journey that includes a three-year stretch in a British prison as a self-proclaimed political prisoner; a crusade in the U.S. to raise awareness of his fellow prisoners' plight as ten of them starved to death; and the sectarian violence that has gripped Ireland for the past thirty or three hundred years, depending on whose version of history is to be believed.
Noel Henry Cassidy's problems with the British army began before he was even conceived. His Catholic grandfather was born in County Fermanagh, one of the six Protestant-dominated counties in Ireland that remained part of Great Britain when the island was partitioned in 1921. He says his grandparents were forced from their homes not long after the partition and settled in County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland, less than ten miles from the border of British-ruled Northern Ireland.
Both his grandparents and parents were republicans, meaning they believed the six British-ruled counties of Northern Ireland should be reunited with the 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland. His parents were both members of Sinn Fein (pronounced shin fain, Gaelic for "ourselves alone"), the legal political arm of the outlawed IRA.
Two years before Cassidy's birth, near the end of World War II, a neighbor of Cassidy's father hoisted a Union Jack up a flagpole in support of the British troops. His father promptly climbed an oak tree to take it down.
"The Union Jack is anathema to all republicans, because it's supposed to be a symbol for the union of England and Ireland--and of course we object to that union," Cassidy says. "Irishmen have objected to it for eight hundred years."
What the neighbor objected to was Cassidy's father taking down his flag. He came out wielding a shotgun and fired an errant shot at Cassidy's father. "Every time we drove past," he recalls, "my father would say, 'That's the oak tree. If that guy had been more accurate, chances are all you kids wouldn't be here.'"
The elder Cassidy lived to sire two sons and five daughters, who were soon indoctrinated into the cycle of violence that is part of life in "bandit country." (The name refers to a long stretch of farmland along the border that the IRA used as a staging ground for attacks in the North before retreating into the Republic of Ireland.)
Cassidy's earliest memories include playing sports with Fergal O'Hanlon, an athletic lad who joined the IRA when he was just sixteen years old. O'Hanlon would later be memorialized in a song found in virtually every jukebox in every Irish bar in America, after he was killed in an ill-fated raid on the Brookeborough barracks of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's Protestant-dominated police force.
"I knew Fergal O'Hanlon very well," Cassidy says. "He was eighteen when he was killed. I was nine, and I used to play Gaelic football with him, handball, that sort of stuff. He lived diagonally across the street."
O'Hanlon's death became the centerpiece of "The Patriot Game," a goosebump-inducing ballad that goes, in part: "My name is O'Hanlon and I've just turned sixteen/My home is in Monaghan, and where I was weaned/I learned all my life cruel England's to blame/So now I am part of the patriot game."
The words could just as easily have been written about Cassidy, who was also marked by radical Irish politics at an early age. Just a few months after O'Hanlon was killed, Cassidy was arrested for selling Easter lilies without a permit. In a land of incendiary symbolism, lilies remain a potent reminder of the 1916 Easter uprising.
The police put Cassidy in the back of their police car and lectured him before they let him go. "They said, 'We're confiscating your Easter lilies, we're confiscating your money box, and if we catch you again you're going to end up in jail,'" Cassidy recalls. "Which was kind of prophetic, because 21 years later, I did end up in jail."
Throughout much of his teenage years, Cassidy lived a relatively quiet life learning building trades. He went into business with his father and brother, doing construction, roofing, plumbing, and electrical work.
In 1968, Ireland, like America, was in the throes of unrest. Inspired by the civil rights movement in the U.S., Catholics in Northern Ireland began a campaign to end their second-class status, demanding equal jobs and housing. What started as a nonviolent campaign based on the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi quickly flared into confrontation. After riots broke out in Belfast and Derry, British troops were called in to restore order and quickly clashed with Catholics.
Hundreds of Catholic families fled their homes during the violence and streamed into Ireland. "It was almost like what you see now in Albania and Macedonia," Cassidy says. "My father and a number of other men opened up premises in Monaghan, where people came and gave us donations of clothes and food to help all these people coming over. Catholics were being burned out all over the North. So I joined Sinn Fein."
Cassidy became an activist, recruiting voters and organizing groups to fix roads between Ireland and Northern Ireland that British troops had destroyed in an effort to thwart IRA raids into the North. He became Sinn Fein chairman for counties Monaghan and Fermanagh, though he claims he was never involved with the IRA. "I was asked once, Why not?" Cassidy says. "Chances are, I'm a coward."
Cassidy was well-known to British troops and the RUC for his political activities. He says he was often harassed, arrested, and occasionally beaten. But all that would pale in comparison to the events that began February 7, 1978.
As Cassidy was driving with his sister and a friend back to Monaghan from Northern Ireland, they were stopped at a British army checkpoint. The car was searched as the trio waited in the cold. Then they were searched by British soldiers and turned over to the police.
According to RUC documents, police found a piece of paper in the pocket of Cassidy's black leather jacket that contained the names and vehicle registration numbers of British soldiers. "Cassidy was arrested by police and detained on suspicion of collecting, recording, and possession of information which would be useful to terrorists," according to a statement sent to the INS by RUC Inspector James Davison. "Cassidy . . . stated he agreed with what the Provisional IRA were doing in the North of Ireland at that time. He also admitted that he would support Provisional IRA men 'on the run,' and that men on the run had stayed in his house."
Cassidy shakes his head. "I did not say that. I told them the people who had come over the border because of the situation had been housed in our house. But I didn't mean IRA men, I meant people who had been burned out of their home or had left because of the intimidation."
Moreover, Cassidy insists he carried no such list, that the first time he saw it was thirteen months later at his trial. If there was a list in his pocket, he says, it was planted there by the British army or the RUC.
"The RUC questioned me for three days," he says. "They beat me a number of times. They'd place me between two tables and force me backward over them until I imagined my back would break. I got my testicles squeezed."
After three days, Cassidy was charged under the Emergency Provisions Act of 1973, which gave British authorities broad powers in an effort to cripple the IRA. The Act created a now-discredited special court system for suspected terrorists, whose cases were decided in non-jury trials with only one judge presiding. The burden of proof was shifted to the accused. Confessions could be extracted in any way except through the use of "inhuman or degrading treatment," though what constituted such treatment was left up to individual judges. Some ruled that striking a suspected terrorist was acceptable.
Cassidy was charged with possession of information that was likely to be useful to terrorists, denied bail, and held in prison for thirteen months. Then prosecutors offered him a deal: Plead guilty, and he'd be sentenced to 26 months in prison with half the sentence suspended, leaving him free to walk. He refused the deal and went to trial in March 1979, convinced he'd be acquitted.
"I was innocent of the charge, and I believed I could prove I was innocent of the charge," he says. But after a three-day trial, Cassidy was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison.
"I was devastated," he says.
Horrors of Long Kesh
Cassidy was remanded to the Long Kesh prison, which has since been renamed the Maze. The looming garrison just outside Belfast was infamous for housing the most notorious criminals in Northern Ireland, including IRA members and their counterparts in the various Protestant paramilitary organizations, who together have been responsible for more than 3,000 deaths since 1969.
Long Kesh prison became a proving ground for the republicans imprisoned within its walls, testing political beliefs with an iron fist, demanding that principles be matched with deeds. Cassidy may be a soft-spoken handyman and teacher now, but in 1980 he was a single-minded prisoner whose refusal to wear a prison uniform ensured he would stay in prison for an additional eighteen months.
At the time Cassidy entered Long Kesh, IRA prisoners were demanding "special category" status, insisting they be treated as prisoners of war rather than common criminals. They refused to wear prison uniforms, instead wrapping themselves in blankets. As payback, prison officials did not allow them to use the toilet facilities. Though it meant living like animals, the so-called "blanket protest" and "dirty protest" became a rallying point for the republicans, a way for them to show they could handle the worst authorities could throw their way and still not compromise.
Such was the atmosphere Cassidy was thrown into on March 10, 1979, when he was taken to the prison administration building and given a uniform--which he refused to wear. "I told them as a republican I was not a criminal," he says. "I was innocent of the charge, and I wasn't going to wear a uniform because I wasn't a criminal. The immediate consequence was a bad beating."
The price of protest also included giving up the customary time off for good behavior, which would have cut Cassidy's sentence in half. Cleveland attorney Jack Kilroy, one of Cassidy's best friends, isn't surprised. "I really don't think Noel had much of a choice," Kilroy says. "It's not that he was coerced. But given his whole makeup, his whole history, I think his family and friends would have been shocked if he had done anything else."
Cassidy was given three blankets, a towel, and a plastic cup. He wrapped a blanket around himself and was led to his cell.
"[The cell] was indescribable. I had been told about it, but until you actually see it . . .," Cassidy says, shaking his head. "It was dark, and it was completely filled with excrement. And I lived in that cell for the next 23 months of my life."
Cassidy's cellmate was Tommy Gorman, who, like the other protesting prisoners, had long hair and a beard that gave him a Christ-like appearance. Gorman taught Cassidy how to survive in prison, tricks like smearing his feces on the wall. "We discovered if we plastered it up, it eventually dried and you couldn't smell it," Cassidy says.
The prisoners would pass the time exercising as best they could, repeatedly walking five paces forward, five paces back. They would recite entire movies or poems from memory. And every night they would pray the rosary together in Gaelic.
If Cassidy was not a member of the IRA, he nonetheless knew many of the IRA prisoners from home--a point that did not escape his captors, further convincing them of his guilt. "It would be extremely unusual for one to be accepted by the command structure of a paramilitary group if not affiliated to that faction," Davison wrote in his statement to the INS.
The prisoners were allowed out of their cells five times a month--once each week for mass on Sunday, and once a month for a half-hour visit. The only time they breathed fresh air was on the five-minute walks to see their visitors. "[Prisoners' families] would come visit us, and we hadn't washed in years, we hadn't shaved in years, we hadn't brushed our teeth in years," Cassidy says. "We'd come out bloody. It had to be excruciating [for] them on the outside."
Even more excruciating was the ritual Cassidy was forced to endure before and after each visit.
"They used to march us over a mirror and look up our anuses," Cassidy says. "They used to put pliers up people's anuses. You'd be searched, and [the guard] would search your anus with his hand and finger, then he'd search your mouth with the same hand. Every time we left our cell, we got a beating. It wasn't a question of if you got one--it was a question of how bad."
Cassidy never breaks his stoic demeanor recounting such events. He's spent a lifetime immersed in "The Troubles," as political unrest is referred to in Ireland, getting arrested, going to prison, seeing people die--including his best friend, Jack Travers, in a 1974 car bombing. In that context, tragedy and atrocity seem almost normal.
"I wouldn't wish it on anyone to be brought up in that situation," he says without a hint of resentment or self-pity. "A lot of people had it much worse. My case is not exceptional."
Meanwhile, the IRA continued its brutal bombing campaign on the outside. In August 1979 an IRA bomb killed World War II hero Lord Louis Mountbatten, his wife, and fourteen-year-old grandson. The IRA killed eighteen British soldiers that same day. The actions only steeled British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's resolve not to give in to the prisoners' demands for political status.
But by 1980, the events inside Long Kesh prison were heading toward an exceptional and historic climax. The republican prisoners, led by IRA commander Bobby Sands, issued a list of five demands, including the right to wear civilian clothing and organize educational and recreational pursuits. To prove they were serious, eight prisoners began a hunger strike in October. By December the British had crafted a compromise. But when the prisoners didn't agree with the way it was implemented, they began another hunger strike on March 1, 1981.
By then Cassidy had reached the end of his sentence. As he was being released, his fellow prisoners made a final request.
"I was asked by the prisoners and the guys going on the hunger strike if I would come to America and speak on their behalf, and let the American people, the media, and the politicians over here know about the conditions and the reason for the second hunger strike," he says.
So in March 1981, Cassidy flew from Ireland to Canada. Knowing that a convicted terrorist would never get an American visa, he sneaked into the U.S. over the Canadian border.
Fool for Love
Cassidy kept his promise once he was here, traveling all over the country and speaking out about the plight of the prisoners in Long Kesh. He met people who would play defining roles in the rest of his life, including Kilroy, now one of the three lawyers working on his immigration case. They shared a passion for chess, music, history, and sports.
Cassidy also met Carrie Williams, an Irish-American activist who lived in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The two became romantically involved, and Cassidy spent a week with her and her family before returning to Ireland in June 1981.
The hunger strikes wore on, with both Thatcher and the prisoners refusing to budge. Sympathy in both Ireland and the U.S. began to swing toward the IRA, as public outrage grew over the British government's apparent willingness to allow the hunger strikers to die. Sands was actually elected to the British Parliament while in prison. He was the first to die, in May 1981, after 66 days of fasting. His funeral in Belfast was attended by 100,000 people and was covered by media from around the world.
Cassidy talked often with Williams while he was in Ireland, and they decided to marry. He tried to reenter the U.S. over the Canadian border again, but this time was arrested. He pleaded guilty to illegal entry and was held in Buffalo for a few weeks before being released in Canada, where he and Williams were married in August 1981. Cassidy took his bride back to County Monaghan, Ireland.
"It was extremely hard on Carrie," Cassidy says of their life in Ireland. "Our house would be raided, I would get arrested once in a while. She came from an upper-middle-class family in Washington. She always had a phone, a car, access to money, and a comfortable life. And I bring her into a working-class Irish family. We didn't even have a telephone."
Carrie was so unhappy in Ireland that she returned home. After much thought, Cassidy, a man whose life had always been dominated by politics, made a decision based on something else--love. He flew to Mexico and applied for a visa, knowing it was hopeless. On Christmas Eve 1982, he crossed illegally from Tijuana into the U.S.
"I became a wetback," he says with a laugh.
He and Carrie bought a starter home in Rockville, Maryland. Cassidy began working construction and started a business, Cassidy's Homeworks, which meant he could pay taxes like any ordinary citizen. He sold the first house for a healthy profit and bought another home in nearby Wheaton.
Though he lived in a legal netherworld, Cassidy was by no means unusual. In many big cities in America, including Cleveland and Washington, D.C., there are strong Irish-American communities that take in recent arrivals from the auld sod and provide a support network that allows them to work, buy a home, and pursue their piece of the American dream--with or without a visa. Walk into any of the Irish pubs along Lorain Avenue, and it's not uncommon to hear a patron speaking with a brogue, recently arrived from Ireland. Nor is it unusual to come across IRA fund-raisers in Cleveland, particularly around St. Patrick's Day, with raucous Irish bands and drunken cries of "Kill the Brits!"
Except for his shadowy legal status, Cassidy lived a relatively sedate life in Maryland. He underwent surgery on his testicles to fix the damage caused by repeated beatings in prison. "I had them rearranged," he says, making a juggling motion.
The operation was successful, and the couple gave birth to a daughter that they named Eilis in 1989. But the pregnancy was difficult, and the couple's relationship was rocky even before that. Carrie went to her parents' home to recover and never really returned, filing for divorce shortly thereafter.
"Being illegal was a big thing, because every time we left the house, we were looking over our shoulders," Cassidy says. "It was an enormous strain on her, and I don't think she wanted to live like that anymore, especially with a child."
But soon Cassidy had more pressing concerns. On a crisp autumn morning in 1990, he left his home in Wheaton to go to work. Suddenly, a pack of federal agents descended on him, clad in flak jackets with guns drawn. A few hours later, after being interrogated by immigration officials in Baltimore, Cassidy was back in jail.
Cassidy's friends used their credit cards to bail him out, but a judge in Maryland ordered him deported. He appealed and was able to stay--but with his future gravely uncertain.
A Moving Target
Long before his arrest, Cassidy had been a frequent visitor to Cleveland, usually to see Kilroy, who was best man at his wedding. Kilroy urged Cassidy to move here, proposing that the two men buy and operate a bar together. They even looked at some pubs in Euclid, though nothing came of it.
Kilroy also introduced Cassidy to Tish Jones, a friend of his, at the end of 1993. They became romantically involved and, in 1995, were married in Washington, D.C. The couple moved to Cleveland Heights and settled in the Coventry neighborhood. While his immigration appeal was transferred to Cleveland and worked its way through the legal system, Cassidy worked as a painter, decorator, and Gaelic teacher.
Jones describes him as a charmer who rarely talked about his time in prison.
"His attitude was, it was one of the things you do, and you make the best of it," she says. "He didn't want me to know how bad it was." But Jones admits she was troubled by the uncertainty of Cassidy's residence status. That and other problems led to the couple's divorce, which was finalized last September.
What seemed at the time to be just another personal problem is now at the heart of the government's case against Cassidy, who currently lives in Eastlake. Immigrants who marry U.S. citizens are generally able to petition the government for citizenship. INS officials in Cleveland say that, once Cassidy's second marriage ended, it eliminated any potential exemption based on his marital status.
"We weren't going to object [to residency] because of the bona fide marriage to a U.S. citizen," says G. Michael Wick, the assistant district counsel in the Cleveland INS office. "But now that's not the case."
INS officials refuse to discuss the particulars of their case against Cassidy, but it seems to be a curious mix of flip-flops, backtracks, and "no comments." Though the agency pursued Cassidy for eight years, it was not until last year that it formally accused him of being a member of the IRA. Six months later INS agents withdrew the charge, saying they would not object to allowing Cassidy to stay. Once he got divorced, that changed.
In other words, in a span of eleven months, Cassidy went from being a terrorist to a productive member of the community to an unwanted alien.
"I'd rather not go into it," says Wick of the bizarre changes. "I'm not really allowed to discuss it."
Mark Hansen, the acting district director of the Cleveland INS office, is similarly tight-lipped. "No comment on that. That's information I can't discuss."
The public posture of the INS is that its case has nothing to do with politics. "Statutorily, he doesn't have a viable visa," Wick says. But the agency is apparently preparing a political case, soliciting the damning statement from RUC Inspector Davison, which was added to Cassidy's case file just last month. That shifting position has convinced Cassidy's supporters that his divorce is an excuse the INS is using to get rid of a political undesirable they've been trying to deport for most of this decade.
"Everything about this is political by definition," says Kilroy, pointing to a 1997 decision by President Clinton to suspend deportation cases against six other Irish republicans. "[The fact that] the President of the United States can recognize the special circumstances of Irish political deportation cases by suspending most of them shows the political nature."
"They're going to use whatever they have," says Cassidy. "It incenses me. They say all the politics is over, and then they get an affidavit from the RUC."
Wick insists that his agency has no vendetta against Cassidy.
"It has nothing to do with a Department of Justice or INS agenda," he says. "There are thousands of illegals from everywhere in the world--China, the Philippines, Mexico, India, Pakistan, all the African countries. If Noel was from one of those other countries, he'd have the same type of procedures. He just happens to be from Northern Ireland."
Justified or not, the INS case has cast Cassidy as a martyr to the cause of Irish nationalism, a tangible symbol of British oppression in America's backyard. Hundreds of Irish Americans in Cleveland and from around the country have rallied to his cause. Many of them plan to attend the April 22 hearing.
The pending showdown with INS seems to have lit a fire in Cassidy, who has barnstormed the country literally coast to coast, speaking about his plight and that of other former Irish prisoners who face deportation. Supporters have set up a website (fonc.logicle.com) and held fund-raisers. "They charged people $100 if they wanted to sit and eat with me, and people actually paid it," Cassidy says, laughing in amazement.
Cassidy and his supporters have also done an effective job lobbying Congress, eliciting a plea from LaTourette, Kucinich, and eight other representatives for President Clinton to intervene on Cassidy's behalf. LaTourette, the Madison Republican who represents Cassidy's congressional district, says the government's insistence on deporting him is misguided.
"Whether the court he was sentenced in was legitimate, illegitimate, or anything in between, he's not wanted for anything, he's not needed for anything, there's no outstanding problems, he's lived here since '82, and I don't see the need," LaTourette says. "I don't see why we're pursuing this deportation."
Much of Cassidy's family has moved back to County Fermanagh, across the border. He would not be allowed to visit them, because his 1978 conviction forbids him from entering Northern Ireland, Scotland, or England. It weighs heavily on the mind of a man who has been torn between two lands since illegally moving to the U.S. seventeen years ago. He may have physically left the troubles of his homeland behind, but they were never out of mind.
"I couldn't forget," he says. "I had friends in jail, friends dying. I was always part of it."
Cassidy has just returned from visiting his nine-year-old daughter in Maryland, where she lives with his first wife. They spent their time together going to movies. "I've been seeing The King and I, Doug's 1st Movie, things like that," he says. "She's getting glasses tomorrow, thinks it cool." She knows nothing of the case against her father.
Cassidy is keenly aware of the incongruity of his life compared to his daughter's--one nine-year-old watching movies and getting glasses, another getting arrested and losing a friend in an IRA raid. The comparison evokes his homeland, which has been in the grip of violence for longer than anyone living can remember, and where, if the federal government has its way, he'll be living next month.
"It looks like I'm going home to Ireland, but I don't have anybody there," Cassidy says. "I have lots of friends and relatives--I wouldn't be on the street--but I've been here almost twenty years. My family is here, my friends are here. My life is here."
Still, there are things about home he will always miss. "Every once in a while in the summer, I'd like it to be a soft Irish day with a little rain," he says wistfully, looking off to memories of a cleansing moment. "For 23 months we used to pray it would rain during our five-minute walks to the visitors' center. I love to walk in the rain, have the rain in my face."
Cassidy smiles and makes his way up the stairs of the East Side Irish-American Club. He has talked longer than he planned, and, though it's past 9 p.m., he still has to make a seven-hour drive to Rochester, New York, where there will be a rally for him in the morning. With his appeal just days away, there's nothing for Cassidy to do but drive through the cold Ohio night, hoping, after 51 years, that his luck will finally change.
Mike Tobin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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