Remembering Henry McDonald

Matthew Collins - 20 02 23

News reached us late yesterday of the passing of author and former Guardian and Observer Ireland correspondent Henry McDonald.

The debt of gratitude we owe to Henry cannot be summed up in mere words. His caution and influence during my own time working in Northern Ireland is immeasurable.

He was a walking and talking encyclopaedia of ‘The Troubles’ with an address book containing the phone number of the entirety of Irish political and social life.

Journalists and friends have remarked that Henry was often weighed down by the things he had seen and heard in his decades of reporting from Belfast, his beloved home city. This weight and experience added only to the brilliance of his work – his no-nonsense frustration with paramilitaries and the perennial cycle of faults in the never quite satisfactorily resolved peace process.

He took his dedication to teaching and mentoring young journalists in their profession, where by all accounts he was loved and admired by the new generation of those who will go on to navigate their ways through the often complex geography of reporting Northern Ireland. They’ve have had no better mentor than Henry McDonald.

His books on the subject matter of Paramilitarism – brilliant biographies of The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) in particular, are magnificent encyclopaedic explorations of not just those groups’ deeds, but were also much appreciated portrayals of the main actors, their motivations and often most overlooked by others – their more than just simple motivations. This grounding, no doubt, held him in good stead for when he switched temporarily to crime fiction.

‘The Troubles’ and all that entailed are an historic picture of the most personal horrors and trauma. Henry was touched by the lives and the sufferings of the thousands of people across Ireland – across all communities affected by the brutality of others. He never sought to glorify it – but to report it so that we could understand the very real cost and suffering of innocent people caught up by it. He cautioned me on numerous occasions about naivety.

Henry was an old -school punk. He quizzed everyone on their musical tastes and then their football preferences. If you were English, he’d often ask if you could get him tickets to see his beloved Everton. I did once offer him tickets to see them play at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace, to which he replied “that’s a journey too far – even to see Everton”. He was living in London at the time.

We at HNH knew Henry because he was an Antifascist. A proper Antifascist. He had a strong disdain for hatred and saw racism as he saw sectarianism – as a great and pointless abomination.

It’s been well over a year since I last saw Henry. At that time he was standing in the doorway of Belfast’s Constitutional Club looking suitably uncomfortable. He asked if he could borrow my tie. As it turned out, they let him in anyway – because he was, after all, Henry McDonald.

His final job was as political editor of The Belfast Newsletter. We join with them, Henry’s family and his many thousands of friends and colleagues in mourning him. And thanking him. How glorious all life would be if we only had to contend with loud punk and shit football teams.

We’ll miss you, Henry.


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