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Harry Irwin

HARRY IRWIN first ran into me on February 28th 1985.  Dr Ian Adamson was giving a lecture on The Ulster Identity to the South Belfast Historical Society in the Ormeau Road Library.  At the time I was publishing a little magazine called Ulster Sentinel.  I brought a few copies along to sell to the folk who came along to the lecture. Harry bought a copy and found himself broadly in sympathy with that journal’s radical Ulster-nationalism.  We have been in touch ever since.

 Politically, Harry started off as an enthusiastic member of Ulster Vanguard.  Its founder, the former Home Affairs minister, Bill Craig, started Vanguard as a radical pressure group within the Unionist Party.  It was Vanguard that published the influential groundbreaking pamphlet, Ulster a Nation in 1972.  It later became the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party.  At its peak in 1975, the VUPP won fourteen seats in the Northern Ireland Convention, but it split and fell apart after an argument over voluntary coalition with the SDLP.  After this debacle, Harry became disillusioned with party politics.  Years later, he often complained to me that Vanguard, despite its radicalism, had spawned an awful lot of the careerist politicians that he so despised; men like Reg Empey and David Trimble.

 In the aftermath of the treacherous Hillsborough Pact between Margaret Thatcher and Garrett FitzGerald Harry joined the Ulster Clubs movement where he and I were both members of the Ulster Clubs Executive.  Whenever protests and pickets were needed, he was always in the thick of things.  He was the man responsible for filing off the crowns from the top of Ulster Club badges.

Harry gave up on political activism after the Ulster Clubs movement had been effectively infiltrated, hijacked and rundown by the DUP.  He respected those of us who carried on, but he refused to join any more political organisations. 

 Most of the people who knew ‘Big Harry’ him knew him through the world of books.  A lot of friends think I’m bad when it comes to books, but they haven’t seen Harry’s house!  I have never seen so many books and so much dust in such a small space.  When Rabbi Mayer Schiller and his mum came from New York to Ulster in July 2000 for the Twelfth demonstration in the Ormeau Park, he allowed us to use his lavatory.  The amount of books in his home certainly left a lasting impression with them.

 Harry had his special subjects.  He was fascinated by the Kennedy assassination and claimed to have every book ever published on the subject.  I don’t doubt it, having seen his vast collection.  He knew a lot about the conspiratorial machinations of the secret state.  In particular, he was a great fan of the publications of Robin Ramsey, especially Lobster magazine.

 Harry was generous too.  He knew the types of books his friends were interested in.  If he saw a title he thought someone he knew was interested in, he would often plank it somewhere out of sight, contact the individual concerned and either lead him to the book or get it for him and get the money from him later.  Quite recently he got a cache of 1930s Social Credit pamphlets for me from the War on Want bookshop.  He once gave me written directions, to the very shelf, of the whereabouts of a first edition of Lorimer’s Scots New Testament.  This was to a second-hand bookshop in Glasgow!  Harry certainly had a nose for finding things.

 Harry liked to go over to Scotland, the Isle of Man and the north of England every so often to tour the second-hand bookshops.  In September, he rang me to say he was off on his travels again for a fortnight or so.  He was disappointed that the Seacat Rapide fast ferry service to Heysham was off after a recent fire on board.  He was going to have to take a longer route, but he was looking forward to his trip, and maybe to looking up old acquaintances like Robin Ramsey in Hull.

 That was the last I was to hear from him. Big Harry never returned to his dusty book-filled house.  He was found dead in a hotel in Lancaster.  He was only 62 and seemed to be in good health.  He generally walked everywhere.  The circumstances of his death are not yet clear

 Everyone who knew him will miss Harry Irwin.  As he said to me a few months ago about the early death of a mutual friend, Jimmy Barrett, “It’s funny that all the decent folk die young and the crabby oul’ bastards seem to go on forever.”  As an epitaph, Harry, it suits you to a tee.  Farewell friend and comrade.  

David Kerr,
October 2002

Thomas Henry Irwin.  Born May 1940; died September 2002.


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