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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
Thomas Henry Irwin. Born May 1940; died September 2002.
A THIRD WAY FOR ULSTER
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