He had charm and wit which he would use to good effect. A phrase of his always stayed with me. In our early teens while combing his hair once late at night he quipped to us that “you never know who you might meet in your dreams.”
At soccer and long before either of us had reached puberty we would compete for the same goalkeeper’s jersey. He had the edge and more often than not I was pushed into second place at team selection for both the local kick-a-bouts and more competitive games. Nothing ever came of it for either of us. I did quite a bit of goal keeping on jail soccer pitches but have no idea if Willie ever pursued it beyond school days.
Willie grew up in the Lower Ormeau Road at a time when it was forced to compete with other stretches of road in Belfast for the unwanted title Murder Mile. I knew his family well. They lived in Artana Street, just along the River Lagan. His mother Agnes hailed from the Shankill Road but that would have afforded her children no protection from a predatory loyalism constantly on the hunt for Catholic prey.
Being young we never quite noticed the danger in the manner that our parents must have. Enough of them lost their children to marauders with an eye for rich pickings in the form of available targets. Those who found themselves at the end of a muzzle flash were invariably killed for being there and nothing else. The first life claimed by loyalists was that of Scruff Millen, a local Protestant member of the Official Republican Movement. Along with Willie and others we had just returned from a teenage disco on the Ravenhill Road one spring evening in April 1973 to arrive at the congested junction of Belmore and McClure Streets. The roars, perhaps of Willie’s older brother Tomser, to “Fight it Scruff, fight it” as the severely wounded man was being placed in an ambulance can still reverberate across a span of four decades.
The spectre of loyalists visiting death to the community spanned the decades. When Willie visited me in Long Kesh, on one occasion accompanying him was a teenager I had never met before, young Peter Magee who a few months after the visit was gunned down by the UDA in the attack on Sean Graham’s bookmakers. At 18, a life snatched away by the conflict before it had the chance to fully blossom.
Then there was the direct British state hassle to contend with. An older brother of Willie, Hugh, was constantly sought by the British before they eventually caught up with and interned him. The family were given no respite during the hunt for an 18 year old against whom there was not a sliver of evidence.
I was a frequent visitor to the family home for much of my teenage days, on occasion staying overnight. Never anything other than warm and welcoming, despite the occasional pigtail pulling with his sisters, the family was the type that all working class communities build upon.
Not living in the Ormeau Road upon release I didn’t much see him although we would always stop and chat when we crossed paths. In 1989 on my first Christmas parole he along with his wife Susan were guests at a party for me in the home of a close friend. I have a memory of him playing a tin whistle or something like that. Either that or my drunkenness has completely distorted my recollection of events. I guess the last time I saw Willie was at the funeral of his father Patsy.
A friend from the Lower Ormeau told me that “heavy on Willie’s heart at the time of his death was the health of his Grand-daughter Alara.” The seven year old had three years ago been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia which appeared to go into remission after chemotherapy. Just prior to Willie’s own death Alara had suffered a relapse for which a blood stem cell donation was required. Whether that fed as stress into the stroke that ultimately took him as he drove his car on his way to work we can only guess.
My childhood was all the richer for having spent much it with people like Willie Magee. The Willie I shared some of my teenage years with would have lived by the Ashley Montagu maxim that “The idea is to die young as late as possible.” I still think he died too soon.