Voices of the past

MY career as a creative writer has taken a modest step forward. A contribution to a new book, The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working Class Voices, has been accepted and the editing process is underway. It is expected to be published by the crowdfunding group Unbound in May 2021. Mine is quite a personal contribution and recalls the life of my aunt Annie who was a mill worker in the linen industry in county Derry. I look forward to assisting with the promotion of the book next summer and to reading and discussing the contributions with my fellow writers. We can only hope that the Coronavirus is no worse next year and we will retain the right to move around and meet in small numbers. I have also completed short story number 30, New Ireland, and I now have more than enough to fill a book. I have begun the process of seeking a suitable agent with the help of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2021. I hope that regular subscribers to William Long Books will enjoy the latest tale which is set in Belfast in August 1971.  

For me August 2020 was a month that contained significant highs and lows. The high point was a visit from my old friend Norman who has lived and worked in Scotland for the past 35 years. We have been almost brothers since we first met at the Ulster Polytechnic in the 1970s and he never seems to change. He came to stay with me in Fermanagh for five days and it is clear he has not lost his lust for life. We enjoyed a good meal out with friends, drank too much Jack Daniels and visited a few border pubs to spend time with the many fascinating characters to be found in this part of the world. Norman was born into working class stock in Omagh, county Tyrone, and the tales of his youth have provided me with much source material over the years, for which I am grateful. Meanwhile my sister, who lives in Fermanagh, reached 60 years of age and my wife and I were invited to a family barbeque to celebrate. It is good to have time together after many years when our days were consumed with raising families and making a living. I have become close to Hazel since our parents died and I’m very proud of her sons. One is on his way to becoming a surgeon and is currently at a hospital in Dumfries in Scotland. The other is a civil engineer working for a firm in Cavan. Our clan has come a long way from thankless toiling in the mills of rich men.                                                                                                                 

The lowest point was the loss of a good friend and neighbour. Brendan Hehir was 77 and had survived major heart surgery but another serious illness was too much for him. I spoke with him on the phone while he was in hospital and even his family were unable to see him. Brendan was born in Lismore in Waterford, grew up in Dublin but settled in Bangor. Both our fathers had been soldiers and public servants. He was one of the pioneers of Irish television and ended his career as production manager of Ulster Television. His son recalled how Brendan achieved the most valuable pictures of the Men’s 100 metres final at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 by bribing Russian officials with Jameson whiskey and Carroll’s cigarettes. The BBC was forced to buy RTE’s footage. He was a fluent Irish speaker and had an interest in politics and culture on both sides of the Irish Sea. He helped me with the language in several of my stories. Our families have been close for over 30 years and our children grew up together in north Down where he was laid to rest. I will miss his wise counsel, his generous hospitality and his warm sense of humour. His passing is a sharp reminder to us all that time is limited and why how we spend it is important.

Few will spend it as selflessly as John Hume. Like many people of my generation, who enjoyed a free education to university level, I respected and admired the politician who also left us last month. He was a consistent voice of reason during the dark days of my childhood and a profound influence on the political awareness that came with a career in journalism. He was a European socialist, an Irish nationalist and above all a Derryman. I could identify with this stubborn outsider who wanted his ideas to be heard in high places and to help us break free from the chains of our past. With his wife Pat he did a great deal for the working people of his native city. The eloquent tributes which marked his death, at the age of 83, were effusive but captured the qualities of a man who devoted his life to peace, reconciliation and prosperity in this troubled land. However, only Bill Clinton’s National Security Advisor, Nancy Soderberg, remarked upon his tremendous sense of humour and fondness for a good joke. As the only journalist at the Belfast Telegraph with an interest in European affairs I was a regular guest at the European Commission offices on the top floor of Windsor House. I recall an entertaining lunch with our three Members of the European Parliament. Jim Nicholson was his usual lugubrious self, as if the world lay upon his shoulders. Ian Paisley had been unwell and had lost a lot of weight but was in his usual combative form. John Hume was looking forward to retirement and was demob happy. Over French cheese and biscuits he told us his favourite joke. “A Derryman went to Altnagelvin Hospital with a terrible pain in his side. They told him he had acute appendicitis.

“The Derryman said: ‘Doctor, I came here for a diagnosis, not a compliment.’”

Paisley roared with laughter and even Jim Nicholson chortled.

© Maurice Neill 2020