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Reformed gang boss Stephen Gillen says Irish roots helped set him on the right path to redemption


Reformed career criminal Stephen Gillen credits his Irish roots with setting him on the path to redemption.

The 49-year-old – once a feared gang boss in London’s east end – spent the first nine years of his life in Belfast, which he believes may have saved him.

Gillen spent years banged up in a high-security special unit reserved for dangerous inmates, with notorious armed robber Charles Bronson in the cell next door.

His memoir, The Monkey Puzzle Tree, is now being adapted for the big screen with Hollywood A-listers like Tom Hardy in the frame for the lead role. 

Stephen says memories of his early upbringing and the love of his mother’s family gave him the courage and strength to turn his life around years later.



Stephen Gillen outside the IOD London

His mum left him with her family in Northern Ireland while she tried to build a life in the UK, and he has fond memories of his aunt Margaret and uncle Gerard.

He told the Irish Sunday Mirror: “In them days it was very hard, there was no work, a lot of poverty. I saw a lot of traumatic stuff.

“I’ve seen someone get shot in a riot in front of me, he went down; he actually died in front of me.

“I was an eight-year-old boy hiding in the hedge, he called out for his mother, that stayed with me for many a year.”

Despite arriving in Ireland at the height of The Troubles in the 1970s Stephen credits the love of “a wonderful God-fearing Catholic family” for keeping him grounded.



Stephen says memories of his early upbringing and the love of his mother’s family gave him the courage and strength to turn his life around years later

He reluctantly moved back to London at the age of nine when his beloved aunt Madge, who he describes as “a saint”, died of cancer.

Years of physical abuse in a series of tough care homes left him angry and feeling “cast adrift by society”, and it wasn’t long before he turned to crime.

At 14 he was sentenced to eight weeks in a detention centre for theft and criminal damage – setting him on a destructive path of robbery, violence and drug addiction.

He revealed: “In them days it was called a short sharp shock, it was like an army boot camp. You would march everywhere.

“One corridor was called the M1 because it was so big and we had to scrub it on our hands and knees with a toothbrush.”



Stephen Gillen spent years banged up in a high-security special unit reserved for dangerous inmates, with notorious armed robber Charles Bronson in the cell next door

Stephen gained a reputation as a hard man, carrying a firearm and a knife in his sock, and cheated death hundreds of times despite mixing in dangerous circles.

His book recounts several violent incidents including one night when he got his head split open at the Camden Palace and came back with a posse for bloody revenge.

Stephen said: “That was a real pattern for me. I was the kid who would have been seen at that point as a loose cannon. A lunatic.

“Even though I did use this terrible violence and it did come easy to me, it was never me. Behind that, I’ve been in fear all my life.

“People are great at putting on this big act, but the truth behind that is much more practical.”



Stephen Gillen spent years banged up in a high-security special unit reserved for dangerous inmates, with notorious armed robber Charles Bronson in the cell next door

Stephen had to put on the hard man act once again after he was sentenced to 17 years for armed robbery, doing time in some of the UK’s most notorious lock ups.

His cell at one time was next door to that of Charles Bronson, real name Michael Peterson, who was banged up for armed robbery in 1974.

During his time inside Bronson has taken hostages in 10 prison sieges, and attacked at least 20 prison officers.

In 1999 he was given a life sentence after taking a prison art teacher hostage for 44 hours because he criticized his drawing.

He tied a skipping rope around his neck and led him around like a dog while holding a knife and a broken bottle to his throat.



Stephen Gillen and Daphne Diluce

But in spite of his violent past, Gillen describes Bronson as a man with a moral compass and “a lot of very good values”.

He explained: “He was old school, very protective of women and children. He was not someone to fall out within his younger days, but he’s old and he’s changed and got wiser.”

The turning point came when Stephen hit rock bottom. Sat in his cell on a segregation unit and contemplating suicide he experienced an “epiphany”.

He believes he was visited by the spirit of his late aunt Madge who gave him the strength and courage to turn his back on his old ways and forge a new path.

He said: “When I look back at my upbringing I was with decent God-fearing religious people. This stayed with me.



The Monkey Puzzle Tree by Stephen Gillen

“And they must have poured all that into me as they were the only role models I had. When I left Ireland, that’s when things started to go wrong. I was cast adrift.

“When I came out of prison I became a labourer, then a supervisor. I was running my own company within 18 months, then I did a degree in business.

“I wanted out of that life for a long time. I played that role really well, but it was not me. I just found the courage to find a way back to myself.

“I always had a good heart. I was very lost for a long time.”

Stephen did a degree in entrepreneurship and has since been back to prison to give motivational speeches to other inmates.

As a successful life coach, international public speaker, and jet-setting entrepreneur his clients include politicians, world champion boxers, and city CEOs.

He is now an awarded Peace Ambassador and last year was nominated for the prestigious ‘Sunhak’ International Peace Prize in South Korea.

His book is now set to be made into a major feature film next year with a budget of around €30 million.

The screenplay is being written by Kieran Suchet, son of broadcaster John Suchet and nephew of Poirot actor David Suchet.

Stephen revealed: “It in no way glamorizes any of this stuff. I’m heavily involved with the script and it’s authentic to what it should be.

“It’s a very human story and it has the power to change people’s lives. I get people who tell me ‘I was in a very dark place so thank you, you really helped me.

“This is one of the things that makes my heart smile the most’. When the lights finally came on I realised I’d lost so much of my life, I wasn’t going to lose a second more.”

The Monkey Puzzle Tree by Stephen Gillen, published by Filament Publishing Ltd and available around the world at all good book suppliers from 2 September, can be pre-ordered now from  www.stephengillen.com.



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