When I heard politicians say they felt humbled, I used want to kick them. Since last night, I’m scrapping that one. No more did-he-say-'humbled'?/swift boot in bum. Changed man.
My conversion came as I emceed a meeting in Omagh, addressed by Martin McGuinness and a range of other people. It was a splendid evening except for one thing: the place was crammed. Four hundred in the Strule Arts Centre, another couple of hundred in the foyer. People were pressed so tight afterwards, it was a near-occasion of sin to move towards the exit.
Reason for conversion?Among the speakers were Charlotte Caldwell, Caroline McKinney and Caroline’s daughter Niamh ( on the extreme left in the photograph). Their stories would have moved a statue.
(i) Charlotte’s son Billy lives with severe epilepsy: with his life at risk, his mother refused to take No for an answer. All other doors slammed in her face, she appealed to McGuinness to help save the child's life. The DFM responded, the boy made huge progress, and a grateful mother made McGuinness a gift presentation. (ii) Caroline and Niamh McKinney were caught in the Omagh bomb in 1998. Niamh was a baby in her buggy at the time and both suffered terrible wounds. You try being a smart-ass MC after you’ve heard their stories - humbled doesn’t begin to describe it. Tears were in definite need of push-back.
A couple of hours earlier as I drove down the MI towards my old home town I had the radio on RTÉ and Mary McAleese was speaking and other people were speaking about her. It was a news programme but it wasn’t today: it was clips from 1997, when McAleese first ran for office. She was saying she’d make bridge-building the distinguishing feature of her time in office, and the media know-alls were predicting disaster – this woman is linked with Sinn Féin, this woman is a tribal timebomb, vote for Donald Duck before you vote for this woman. Leaks and lies and smears coming thicker and faster than fertilizer off the back of a lorry. I nearly crashed the car, the resemblance to today was so uncanny.
Of course they can’t call McGuinness close to Sinn Féin, because well um he IS Sinn Féin, so instead big eejits like Phil Hogan announce that McGuinness would be a terrorist in the Aras and bad for business. Knock-knock on the old cranium, Phil – anybody home? If you’re going to deal in facts and not fantasy you’ll know that (i) McGuinness was a central figure in turning the republican movement to peaceful politics and keeping it there; (ii) McGuinness is recently back from the US with an assurance of jobs for the north; and (iii) the IRA ceasefire was announced in 1994 – One, Nine Nine, Four. Jeez, Phil, that’s near to TWENTY YEARS ago. Those little blue pills can’t be doing you good, stop taking them, Phil, OK?
The Strule Arts Centre where the event was held is a sight to see. A dinky little foot-bridge across the river, leading straight to the entrance, and on a late late summer evening like yesterday’s, magic danced in the air and on the water. If it hadn’t been done already I’d have written a song and called it ‘The Town I Love So Well’.
PS: You’re probably thinking “Cheesh – that Collins - takes classy photographs that include himself, is there no end to the man’s talents?” Yes, yes, keep talking, I’ve stopped being humble now. Only the truth is, I didn’t take the picture above. This one was taken by Jude Browne of the Ulster Herald, a local paper my father got every Thursday of his life, and my thanks to Jude and the Herald for letting me use it. And btw, a smart christening move there, Mrs Browne.
PPS. The man on my right in the pic ( no, NOT McGuinness) is Danny Donnelly, who once a long long time ago got fed up with bed and board in HMP Crumlin and lepped over the wall, never to return. As if that wasn’t enough, he served a few years earlier in the same Omagh unit as myself: altar boys In the Sacred Heart church. Ah, memories.