The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

A writer's writer

Jack Holland was a wise mentor as well an astute commentator


Henry McDonald • The Observer, 23 May 2004

Sinn Fein and the Loyalists complain that the International Monitoring Commission has abused their human rights. For stating the obvious, that the IRA and UVF are still engaged in violence and criminality, the IMC stands accused of subverting democracy or simply being unfair. In response Sinn Fein is taking the IMC to the European Court of Human Rights while the UVF has started killing people again. In the inverted moral universe of Northern Ireland's peace process, the perpetrators have become victims, the truth-tellers treated as slanderers.

Jack Holland would have savoured the delicious irony of all of the above. He was, after all, like Orwell endlessly fascinated by the way political leaders bent language and logic to suit their own propaganda. He was also the first person to show me that there was more to Orwell than 1984 and Animal Farm.

I rewind in my memory to a hot day on the balcony of Jack's holiday home north of Rome, the sunlight shimmering on Lake Bracciano and an assuring, restful silence enveloping the ancient cobbled village of Trevignano, a human settlement from Etruscan times. After lunch Jack disappeared downstairs into the shuttered darkness of his living room and returned a few minutes later with a battered brown-cover copy of volume one of George Orwell's Letters And Journalism.

He took a last few sips of a dry white wine and then retired to bed, urging me to take a siesta in the guest room given the oppressive July heat. So I spent the afternoon in the attic of a bedroom built into the rock of a medieval church dipping in and out of Orwell's constant literary battles to speak up for truth and plain language in the face of 1930s. Although that was 17 years ago I still recall the almost immediate impact Jack's counsel had upon me. Putting down the volume, rolling over to try and sleep, I was reminded of Immanuel Kant's famous remark about his first encounter with David Hume, the philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment. On reading Hume's sceptical reflections on the external world, causation and the existence (or non-existence) of God, Kant confessed that he was suddenly 'awakened from my dogmatic slumber'.

Like any credible writer and commentator Jack did not sing for his supper even in the normally sentimental, Celtic, misty-eyed world of Irish-America. While he never forgot the injustices the unionist regime of pre-1972 Stormont inflicted on the Northern Catholic minority, nor the role British military heavy-handedness played in pushing the nationalist working class into the Provos' arms, Jack refused to play up to the Noraid gallery. He maintained cordial warm relations with IRA gunrunners like George Harrison or former INLA leaders like Harry Flynn but he still clung on to the belief that despite the historical roots of violent republicanism the 'armed struggle' had become a futile cul de sac, from which they must reverse.

Jack was of course delighted to see the end of the IRA's armed campaign ten years ago. He left Belfast for New York once more in early August 1994, just weeks before the Provos announced their historic cessation of violence. Yet he could not and would not subsume the truth in the interest of any 'cause', even the 'cause of peace'. Unlike many journalists and commentators of his generation he believed there was no 'duty-to-process', no imperative to be 'helpful' for peace.

He was one of the few Irish correspondents whose reportage highlighted ongoing IRA cease-fire abuses as well as the criminal activities of the loyalists. None of this ingratiated him with the powerful peace-process lobby in politics or the media. The vitriol directed at him from pig-ignorant, Irish-American quarters didn't seem to bother him either. In fact he laughed most of it off. When an Irish republican supporter on a New York radio station dubbed him 'Union Jack Holland' my co-author and cousin was tickled. 'At least they haven't forgot me,' he quipped. Yet he spoke up for the plight of retired republicans who had gone to the United States to build a new life for themselves but now faced deportation. One of his last stories concerned the campaign to allow the McAllister family to stay in the United States despite attempts by the American authorities to send them back to Belfast. In a cruel twist of fate the wife of former republican prisoner Malachy McAllister, Bernie, died in the same week Jack passed away.

I have many fond memories of happy times with Jack: wine-fuelled discussions by the fireside of the Holland home in Belfast's North Parade; pints in Dublin's Palace Bar with Jack and I 'interviewing' former INLA members and lunch in a Parisian Brasserie near Place de Clichy, the two of us guzzling chilled Côte de Rhone on a bright July afternoon at the beginning of a summer holiday in 1995. But the fondest of all is of that blistering hot summer day in Trevignano when a sound piece of advice changed the direction of my life.

· There will be a memorial service in Belfast dedicated to Jack Holland next month.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

29 May 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


Door to Door: An Irish American House Call
Matthew Kavanah


Republicans who do not follow the Sinn Fein line are also entitled to their opinions
Dolours Price


What Made Us Distinct
Tommy Gorman


US Schools Must Disclose Information About Crime on and Around Campus - (Clery Act USA): Is Similar Legislation Required in Northern Ireland?
Sean Mc Aughey


Old Friends, New Friends
John Kennedy


Memorial Day on WBAI


No More Tears
Omar Barghouti


The Nothing Here to Celebrate Israel Parade, NYC
Mary La Rosa


Génocidaires In Gaza
Anthony McIntyre


A Writer's Writer
Henry McDonald


24 May 2004


Tipping Over Cash Cows
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Dying Easily
Anthony McIntyre


Danger to Society
Chrissie McGlinchey


The Moral Failure of the "Free World" in Gaza
Ghali Hassan


Colin Powell, DOA
Paul de Rooij


The Letters page has been updated.




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