The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

When Friends Die In Distant Places

Bernie McAllister and Jack Holland
Anthony McIntyre • 16 May 2004

Last 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.

Last 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.

It 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 Belfast’s 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.

I 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 mate’s girl, my friend Mary’s ‘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 didn’t 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 Malachy’s name on it – ‘Bernie & Mock.’ It was simple, but she loved it. 29 years later they were still together, he sharing her final breath.

Each 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 off.

On 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 Jack’s 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 didn’t 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 Holland’s jump out at me. I don’t 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 years.

Bernie 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.

In 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.

When 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.

Oiche Mhaith Jack and Bernie.


 

 

 

 

 

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Index: Current Articles



16 May 2004

 

Other Articles From This Issue:

 

When Friends Die in Distant Places
Anthony McIntyre

 

The Murder Machine in Ireland then, Tibet now
Seaghán Ó Murchú

 

Green Unionists
Brian Mór

 

Holylands Community Report says Parking, Litter and Marching Season Are Major concerns
Seán Mc Aughey

 

Progressive Unionist Party
Rebuttal of the
First Report of the International Monitoring Commission

Progressive Unionist Party

 

Varieties of barbarism : from Fallujah to "free trade" in Latin America
Toni Solo

 

13 May 2004

 

The 1934 Republican Congress: Broad Front or Narrow Retreat?
Seaghán Ó Murchú

 

Better an Honest Socialist than a Lying Republican
Dolours Price

 

The Angrytown News presents: SinnAid
A Community Response

Jimmy Sands

 

No Minimum Wage Here
Anthony McIntyre

 

Further Serious Abuses of Republican POWS
Martin Mulholland, IRPWA

 

Free Tibet?
Liam O Ruairc

 

Thoughts on the November Elections
Chrissie McGlinchey

 

The Letters page has been updated.

 

 

 

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