Jimmy Woulfe recalls the unlikely friendship that sprung up between Nora Bennis and a convicted murderer in the US which saw him become an Irish-speaking, GAA-loving, Catholic
Jack Potts spent the final 34 years of his life bearing the identity D-30320.
His address was cell 37, Block G2, at the Georgia State Penitentiary.
At the age of 26, he was sentenced to death for the murder of a motor mechanic named Michael Douglas Priest, a crime he admitted.
All his time in prison was spent on death row, where there was a room nobody talked about which had just one piece of furniture — the electric chair. A haunting contraption made of timber, metal and lots of leather strapping.
On three separate occasions, Jack had his head shaved to prepare him for execution. Men going to the electric chair were shaved so a metal dome could be placed on the head to hasten the final electric shock through the body.
For various reasons, his execution was deferred each time.
Jack was regarded as peculiar among his fellow prisoners on death row. While most of the other condemned men followed baseball, basketball, and American football, Jack followed a strange game in a foreign land and went around with an earpiece attached to a tape recorder listening to a language nobody had ever heard of.
The explanation was simple if not starling, given his circumstances. Jack Potts was a follower of the Limerick hurling team and learning to speak Irish.
He told how he had come across this amazing woman from Limerick City from a newspaper article in which she wrote about how women in the home caring for their families deserved to have their work acknowledged.
This connected with Jack. As a child, he spent countless days at home on his own because his mother had to go out and work.
He decided to try and contact her and fired off a letter addressed to “Nora Bennis, Limerick, Ireland”.
The letter duly arrived at its destination in Limerick’s Revington Park.
It was to trigger an amazing correspondence that spanned more than 20 years. During that time, she told him how her family were very involved in the gaelic sport of hurling and Jack wanted to hear more about the game.
As time went by, Jack gathered cuttings and photographs from newspaper reports of games Limerick played. He began to study the game from the reports and would write to Nora telling her how he thought certain players were doing. He was a big fan of Mike Houlihan and Garry Kirby. Over time, his cell wall was papered with hurling reports from various newspapers.
He was also very interested in the origins of the game and asked Nora to send him on tapes so he could give a shot at learning to speak Irish.
Jack spent hours in blissful solitude listening to the series of Irish-language tapes Nora kept sending him.
Jack Potts had the bragging rights on death row in Georgia as the only sports fan with the autographs of his team on the team jersey.
Before the prison governor could prepare Jack a fourth time for the electric chair, he became terminally ill in 2007.
On hearing of his death which was widely reported in the Georgia media, due to his three last-minute reprieves, the local district attorney said: “On the one hand, he can claim victory as the State did not get to execute him. But he still has to face the final and ultimate judgement.”
During his final years, Jack Potts changed religion and prisoner D-30329 died a Catholic, Irish-speaking GAA man, thanks to Nora Bennis — a woman he never met, but who gave him hope and a love of a game he never saw.
Nora Bennis died at University Hospital Limerick yesterday and her funeral takes place tomorrow.
And in another place, she may catch up with Jack Potts with the news that his team won the All Ireland Senior Hurling Championship for the first time since 1973, the year he was sent to death row.