month long time denizen of the Irish Echo,
Jack Holland, wrote an article about the difficulty
faced by some former republican prisoners who have
tried to carve out a new life for themselves and their
families in the United States. One family he referred
to was the McAllisters. They had been involved in
a lengthy battle against deportation back to Ireland.
Jack Holland hailed from Belfast so he appreciated
the importance of a fresh start, and the devastating
effect it could have on a family to be forcibly returned
to Belfast. Even if the threat of assassination had
receded, what would the bore capital of Europe have
that would draw other than trouble tourists and masochists
to it? For Bernie McAllister and her family - whose
sole misdemeanour on this earth was to
have been the wife and children of Malachy McAllister,
a former H-Block prisoner - it seemed at last that
they had turned a corner and were gazing on a beautiful
vista just the other side of the interminable maze
of the American legal system.
Monday, on her 46th birthday, Bernie McAllister succumbed
to cancer. Four days later Jack Holland did likewise.
Their futures denied them, there is now this void
we stare into. The mirror has been cracked and nothing
can ever put it right again.
is many years since I last saw Bernie. She fled Ireland
in 1988 with her husband and children after loyalists
launched a gun attack on their home in South Belfasts
Lower Ormeau Road. She settled in Canada but had to
uproot yet again to avoid deportation and arrived
in America in 1996. From she left Belfast until her
death last week there was no resting place.
always think of Bernie McAllister as Bernie Robinson,
the attractive teenager who with her friend Eleanor
would walk the area arm in arm, my best mates
girl, my friend Marys wee sister.
When she lived in Gosford Place I tormented her as
teenagers do, winning the wrath of Mary more than
once for my devilment. During my sojourn in Magilligan
prison in 1975, on sunny days like today, I would
write to her, or receive a letter from her. It is
at moments like this that I wish I had kept even a
few of her written words. I wonder now what two teenagers
had to say to each other in a world that looked so
different, when the years in front of us seemed to
greatly outnumber those we had already spent? We didnt
talk politics. Did we discuss music, my upcoming November
release, her happiness with Malachy? Being useless
at handicrafts, I implored a friend to make a little
keepsake for her two mahogany hearts with her
and Malachys name on it Bernie
& Mock. It was simple, but she loved it.
29 years later they were still together, he sharing
her final breath.
day since I heard she would be leaving us for the
last time, I kept in touch with her brother-in-law.
At one point the end looked to be only hours away,
but she rallied. Her sister Mary reached her, having
flown in from Ireland, bathed her face and told her
she was in our thoughts. When the phone call came
though from New York on Monday, it was over. And Bernie
had gone. Another light from our childhood switched
Friday evening, learning that Jack Holland had died,
I felt the chasm prized open by Bernie letting go,
suddenly widen. For days I had exchanged e-mails and
phone calls with friends in the States, as I sought
to stay abreast of Jacks condition. He took
his leave so rapidly, my chest tightened on hearing
he had passed. Carrie set aside the card she had just
bought for him, wishing him well. Occasionally, he
and I would speak for quite some length on the phone
or keep in touch via the internet. Earlier this year
we were part of a panel on Radio Free Eireann. Almost
four years ago Carrie, he and myself sat in our living
room in Springhill discussing political developments.
His intellect was razor sharp but he was most unassuming
in his application of it. And like a surgeon with
a scalpel he didnt miss the mark. He had the
courage to say in print what others skirted around.
It is rare that we can say of a writer in an American
newspaper that they had a more incisive grasp of politics
in the North of Ireland than most journalists who
live here. But it can be said of Jack. In a house
with over a thousand books hugging the walls in every
room, all of a sudden Jack Hollands jump out
at me. I dont think there will ever be a time
when I shall casually pass over his name as I would
another author in my search for whatever. And there
is a particular poignancy for me to be in the middle
of his book Deadly Divisions. What thoughts will cross
my mind when I next pick it up to learn from him?
His intellectual influence will outlive him by many
was a typically protective mother who maintained that
all her efforts to resist deportation were not for
her or her husband but her children. Jack was a voice
of clarity in an Irish American press world that could
otherwise pass as fiction manufacturer. When it was
busy shedding its integrity he maintained his. If
a supportive humane voice were ever needed, Jack would
be there; as he was for Bernie, highlighting the injustice
she battled against. The lives of both the writer
and the written about, like faces in the sand along
the shoreline, have dissipated, one after the other.
As if the first wave came in, gently carried off Bernie
and returned for Jack.
a sense both friends marked separate eras in my life.
Bernie, with her love of discos - my teenage years;
Jack with his penchant for political writing - my
adult existence. It was a strange symbiosis of different
developmental stages in my life to watch them slip
away within days of each other.
friends die in distant places, I am reminded of the
frustration of the prison years. We could not be there
to attend the funerals of those we cherished. It is
the worst sort of goodbye, a terrible finality without
the consolation of closure.
Mhaith Jack and Bernie.
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