Big Handy was how we knew him. It summed him up concisely. He was both big and handy. I first met Paul McGoran shortly after my release from prison. He was doing some DIY work in the house of an imprisoned friend, whose family I had dropped in on. There was Handy, screwdriver in hand, working away at something in the kitchen. We were introduced and so began a friendship that lasted right through my time in Belfast.
Handy is the fourth person from Springhill Rise to feature in the TPQ end of year obituary section. Attrition has had its effect. "The Rise" where I last lived in West Belfast was a small cul-de-sac and Handy lived at the end of it, two doors up from me and next door to Joe Armstrong who too has since passed. Often the three of us would gather in one of our houses, have a can or beer or smoke a joint.
If something needed fixing Handy would come up and sort it. He was rough and ready but effective. There might never have been any ribbons on it but the job always got done. If there was something he didn’t know how to put right, he invariably knew somebody else who could.
He was as irreverent as myself, having little time for the pieties of the faithful. Before his illness he would enjoy many of the Morning Thoughts I would put out on Facebook. His attitude to blasphemy law was pretty much like my own and he just loved blasphemers. He would roll his eyes while telling me about two of his aunts who would bless themselves on the quarter of every hour and thank the Lord for having brought them this far. Handy was a joint man rather than a Jesus one. Nothing better he liked than to relax with Jesus the Reefer hanging from his lips. Jesus the Redeemer was for others, so long as they left him alone. His partner Barbara had her hands full with him, at times imploring me to take him up to my place and smoke or drink up there, anywhere - just not under her feet.
He adored his kids and brimmed with pride around them. Often he would be seen traipsing off at breakneck speed to get them to school on time. Some busybody/do-gooder once commented to me that he rushed them too much. My response was that if everybody gave the same amount of time to their children as he gave to his, the estate would be a better place.
Out for a pint with him he could down it as fast as any man or woman. When he’d say he was off to get the next round I’d tell him to hold on as I was only starting. That produced a quizzical look of faked contempt. When the Sinn Fein mob picketed my home and the IRA leadership paid it an unsolicited visit, Handy was one of those neighbours who was there for us. It was a synchronised act of intimidation, directed not only against myself and my wife but which was also about letting the wider community know that speaking out against Sinn Fein's preferred violence would come with a price. Free speech in West Belfast was never free. In spite of that, Handy was not one to stand behind his curtains peeking out the window. He proved to be the embodiment of the old maxim a friend in need is a friend indeed. Never once did he shirk from calling to my house or having me in his. Not that he was interested in politics. He was just there for his friends.
He was raucous, ribald and full of devilment. He told us of a visit to Sweden he had made for the purpose of laying Tarmacadam, loudly giving out about the bitter cold that enveloped him from the moment he got there. The company he was labouring for were scammers, and while he was en route from one job to the next there was a police alert put out for the squad. The foreman had enough Swedish to understand. After that it was a race to make the ferry, Handy laughing while he recounted the exploit.
One of his favourite stunts was to walk into one of the big stores in the shopping mall and fill his trolley with groceries, then brazenly bull straight out without paying. His stories were the cause of much mirth, told with typical nonchalance that conveyed his devil-may-care attitude to the consequences, expressed in the comment what are they gonna do? His view was simple: a big growing family to feed – better in the house fridge than warming the bank account of some Supermarket CEO. Handy didn’t much care for convention.
The only time he seemed short fused was when he was suffering from a bout of sciatica, which would lay him out on the settee, his face grimaced as he constantly shifted position in search of elusive relief. I never realised the unforgiving nature of the ailment until experiencing it myself many years later.
It is ordinary people who never make the news apart from maybe some court appearance for a relatively minor misdemeanour that often make up an important strand in the fabric of life in working class communities. Characters, chancers, streetwise, generous, friendly, no airs and graces, ready at the drop of a hat to help a friend or somebody in need. Those people who go about their lives for the most part anonymously, never courting attention or publicity. The unsung heroes of routinised working class life, who so often by virtue of their presence and an ability to live by their wits, make the drudgery less pervasive. Big Handy - loveable rogue, likeable rascal, lasting friend.
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