Not long before he died in March this year, Joe Armstrong wrote a piece for TPQ. He had been up and about in the early hours and was struck by the plight of the homeless. So he took to writing about it. Joe didn’t talk about people, he cared about them. I had hoped we would get more from him, but it was not to be.
Although he hailed from the Lower Ormeau Road, the same neck of the woods as myself, I didn’t actually meet him until I was released from prison and moved into Springhill. He lived a few houses away, at the bottom of the street. While his political sympathies lay with the IRSP, we never much discussed politics other than his dislike for the strong-arm tactics Sinn Fein employed in the area. When times were rough Joe was a reliable friend as were many others in the small cul de sac where we lived. He was great company to be in.
Over the years I would call on him regularly. We would smoke a joint, share a beer and chew the fat. We didn't go out on the booze much but on one occasion he accompanied a crowd of former blanket men out on a Christmas session. I later slagged him for not going the distance, he had taken enough and retired early. He later borrowed a book from me about the blanket protest written by Laurence McKeown and two other former prisoners. It is still borrowed! But most of the books Joe got from our shelves were novels for his partner Angie who read voraciously. Often, when I called on him I would end up talking to her about crime fiction.
Then there was the occasion when we got word that he had been arrested in Donegal for something minor but was being held until bailed out. The bail money was ridiculously low and we probably spent more in petrol making the journey to Ballybofey Garda Station and back. He was delighted to see me and we embraced as soon as I signed the bail papers. He and I took turns at the wheel on the return journey. We were joking that we would be arrested by the RUC for speeding along the Glenshane Pass, maybe even, in my case for being over the limit, but I can no longer recall if I brought tins for the return trip or not. Yeah, we were socially irresponsible and not politically correct, living life in the Orwell rather than the Orwellian sense of wanting to be good but not too good and not all the time.
When I moved down here I kept in touch with him after learning that he had taken ill. He was unfailingly supportive. His real passion was for his family and would email or text photos of them at an event or family gathering. He seemed to be on the mend, but then was snatched away by a heart attack. In his forties it was much too soon for the life of the “sexy bastard”, as he liked to jokingly refer to himself, to come to an abrupt end.
As we step across the line and move into 2018, we know that 2017 was that much better for having "Papa Joe" accompany us for part of the way.
Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.