Continuing the series where we look at some of our old friends who sadly are no longer with us. Here a South Belfast Volunteer recalls his friendship with big Tommy Mac–who will need little or no introduction to many who were about at the time. Tommy was a major character in the Compounds and some of the stories about him have legendary status….we all have a story about Tommy…mostly funny…here is just one………
Tommy was instantly recognisable with his large frame, gringo moustache and ruddy cheeks. He was a character and then some. Hard drinking, fast living, nonchalant but underneath with a heart of gold. I first met him in 1975. He never stood out as a hard man or made himself seem important. We had both decided to fight for our country as no one else was capable at that time. But soon Tommy was residing in the big house outside Lisburn along with hundreds of other Ulstermen. He gained fame as one of the Border Six. Tommy told me about getting caught with explosives by the Army in South Armagh. It was an easy assumption for the army to think that they had intercepted a Provo bomb gang. For a moment Tommy thought the army would shoot first and ask questions later. When the 6 men tried to say they were loyalists, the army were disbelieving until they checked them through.
I was in Crumlin Road Court the day all 6 were found guilty and sentenced. It was a grey and overcast morning that the families went to the Court House. Hopes were high and as all had been on remand there was a feeling that they would be walking out. All seemed to be going well until the judge asked one of the men there, not Tommy, what he worked at in his younger days. The answer was that he worked with explosives in a quarry. So that was that and as the sentences where read out it was obvious that none of them were going home today. 7 years, 5 years, etc. By the standards of those days, 1976, it was harsh-ish. One wife keeled over crying. Someone shouted ‘up the UVF’. There was a hint of trouble brewing and next thing they were all hustled out of the court.
Tommy didn’t plan to be in for long and decided to escape. He had health problems and was being treated under police guard in the R.V.H. One thing Tommy would not claim was that he was fit. He could do the 100 yard dash in about 2 days. However it entered our folklore that under the noses of his guards he actually knotted his sheets and waited for his chance. One man, sadly gone now also, had been sent to steal a car and wait on Tommy shimmying down the sheets. When the time came Tommy hurriedly made his way down the makeshift rope from a first floor balcony. He was aghast to see that his colleague had stolen – a mini. This was definitely not conducive to a quick getaway. After huffing and puffing and plenty of expletives the two set off.
Tommy went to a safe hideout and laid low for a while. Don’t tell anyone but he was at a caravan site on the coast. He spent his days going down to a local pier to do some fishing. During school holidays local kids would come down and fishing talk would start. One young lad would be down on a regular basis and got to know Tommy. One day the young man says ‘My mum and dad want you to come for dinner’. Despite protests the young lad convinced Tommy to go. Tommy got suitably dressed one evening and went with the young lad. Before they got to his home Tommy says by way of conversation, “What does your dad work at?” The young lad without a moment’s hesitation, says, ‘He’s a policeman’. Tommy assured me it was his longest mealtime ever. Whether he was rumbled here or not, he soon had the early morning rap on the door. “ Hi Tommy, get your clothes on and come on”. Back to Compound 21.
In the compound Tommy would be a wheeler and dealer. A real life Del Boy in the Maze. He had the nickname ‘burgermaster’. Not to do with his love of burgers but a nickname from a German film which showed a Burgmeister. The German equivalent of a Mayor. Tommy looked like the character in the film so the nickname stuck. He could trade and deal to get items, usually food.
After my own non-jury trial in a Diplock court and return to Compound 21 it was Tommy who offered to cook me an omelette. The omelettes here were quite special. Besides eggs there were onions, peas, tomatoes, cheese, ham and just about anything else he could put in. It was about 3 inches thick but it tasted brilliant. Welcome back!
Tommy was released without fanfare and went back to the south Belfast. The next time I seen him was when I got my first parole at Xmas 1988. My dad was working so Tommy brought my mother up to take me home. I found out later that he had been looking after my parents and reassuring them I would be OK. I will never forget that about him.
Unfortunately Tommie’s earlier wild living caught up with him through heart trouble. The short story is that Tommy found himself in Papworth hospital in England getting a heart transplant. He then had to live with their restrictions that came with that. He never drank alcohol after that. Tommy told me one time about driving to a party and getting absolutely drunk. He woke up, back in his own house but with no car, although the keys where in his pocket. Tommy had no recollection of what had happened. He ordered a taxi and asked the driver to drive around the estate where he thought the car was until he seen the car.
Things got worse when he lost the sight of one side of his eyes. But he kept on doing his own thing. I was surprised (and a bit apprehensive) when he agreed to go fishing one day except we were going out in a large canoe. Here was a big man, with a heart condition, out of shape and puff, not exactly agile and I had him out on a river paddling away. The buoyancy aid sat on him like a necklace! I didn’t even ask if he could swim. It was a sunny, warm day. Tommy just loved it. A gentle breeze on the water. Birds flying through the riverside reeds. Fish jumping. A great day. And just like Tommy, heart condition or not, he wanted to go and he went. Other times, 3 or 4 of us would go fishing and the slagging would be non-stop.
Tommy, as always, was a good man for a deal and making some money. He and my dad (who had retired) started up a little earner by making bundles of sticks for fires. They got a wee pokey shed and a band saw. They collected wood then spent hours sawing them into shape and bagging them. Tommy had the contacts and soon they were the firestick boys. This went on for some time until the rent of the shed got too much. I think both of them missed the action and the banter. I would see Tommy often driving about and a few times in my parents’ house.
It was a real sense of shock and loss, when the burgermaster died. My dad rang and told me. It was the morning and Tommy was getting up. He took a massive heart attack and Tommy was gone. There was one of the largest turnouts for a local funeral. My brother and I helped carry the coffin. My dad and I still go up to his grave and lay flowers.
Tommy was a character and a good man. Behind a gruff exterior was a heart of gold. We miss him. He was a friend of mine.