Dessie Black

Anthony McIntyre recalls a Springhill neighbour who died earlier this year.

Dessie & Cassie Black

Three years back TPQ dedicated one of its end of year obituaries to Cassie Black, a good friend and neighbour of mine when I lived in West Belfast's Springhill. At the time I wondered privately how her husband Dessie would fare in her absence, walking the way of the widower, they were that close.

Dessie managed another three years with his children and grandchildren, dying earlier this year. The last time I spoke with him it was after his wife had died. We discussed Cassie, how he felt, what the future held, his children and grandchildren. It was not by any means a sombre conversation and he seemed determined to give as much to those he loved in the time remaining to him.

He lived on the other side of the street from me. I need merely glance out my living room window to see his house. Dessie had good hands and a ready mind. Anytime something came up in the house, I would send for him and he would walk the few yards over with his tools and do what had to be done. If abroad I could phone him and ask him to check the house for me. In an age when we hear so much of neighbours from hell, even a non-believer such as myself could see instantly I had neighbours from Heaven. Once during my wife's pregnancy, his quick intervention served to protect us from potentially serious harm. We have never forgotten him for it, often relaying it to others when we discuss events of the time. 

When I decided to change from desktop to laptop, I passed my Acer onto Dessie who by then had moved up to Moyard, a few hundred yards closer to the mountain that towered over much of West Belfast.  Little did I realise the joy he would derive from a home computer opening, as it did, an electronic new world to him. Cassie said I should have given it to him years ago to keep him away from under her feet. Even had I, he would have wangled his way downstairs from the attic to sing Sweet Sixteen to her: a song his children played for him before he died.

I was a regular in his home where there was always a cup of tea ready. Often he or Cassie would phone, saying they had just cooked and there was plenty there if I would like to eat. I acquired a massive fish one day from somebody who had just caught it. It was a brute of a thing and I wondered how I would get it into the oven never mind cook it. Not having a clue I turned to Dessie who came over and baked it to perfection. There didn't seem much he couldn't turn his hand to.

On other occasions we might watch a match - his grandson Marty, frequently there, was a Man Utd fan while I plumped for a different set of reds - those from Liverpool. Dessie was a supporter of one of the London teams. I thought it was the Gunners or Charlton, but was corrected. He was a Hammers fan who had lived beside Highbury for a number of years.

He never seemed to leave the house to socialise, so I never got the chance to have a drink with him. Cassie would head off to bingo on a Monday evening but Dessie preferred to plant himself on the settee in front of the box where I would occasionally join him. We discussed everything from DIY to sport, even the best way to deal with bawling children. Dessie's witty solution was novel, and although said in jest is neither advisable or printable!

Life in Springhill then was still subject to an intrusive militarised presence. Houses would be searched and often wrecked as a deterrent to anyone who might consider allowing the IRA to construct weapons hides in their homes. Stop and Search was a monotonous regularity. Still, life had improved immensely from the time when the British Army could inflict massacre with impunity.

People who want to understand what it was like for residents living on the ground benefit immeasurably when they talk to people like Dessie Black, rather than read the official account. Hopefully someone in the Murph captures the voices of all those people who witnessed atrocity or experienced the sole of a British Army boot, before their lives expire. If not, so much will have been lost to posterity. Ordinary people trying to go about their lives thrust into the daily conflict with in-your-face British troops who rarely missed an opportunity to harass the community. I had worked but not lived in the area prior to imprisonment so would often talk to Dessie about events of a quarter century earlier.  A guy with no political axe to grind, his discourse conveyed the suffering of a community in a manner that was authentic and not embroidered for some particular audience. Once he gave me a small camping lamp, telling me not to lose it as it had belonged to the late IRA volunteer Jim Bryson.

There is always something interesting about ordinary people and their experiences. They might never make the limelight or draw wider attention to their existence. Their names will never appear in the papers or history books and they are most unlikely to flash across our television screens. But they can enrich immensely the lives of others around them, through their acts or even their words. Generous with his time and possession, the hours spent in conversation with Dessie Black were some of the most rewarding from my time spent living in Springhill.

Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.

Follow Anthony McIntyre on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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