YESTERDAY'S News Letter brought back a rush of memories of Tom Tracy, who died six years ago this week, but whose memory lives on in the remarkable Troubles archive he endowed at Boston College.
Tom was a larger than life character, on the surface almost the caricature of an Irish American – the sort of man who would stand out in any company, with a voice as loud as his clothes. In any gathering, the man in the 10 gallon hat and tartan trousers waving across the room or urging everyone to try a glass of the Macallan, his favourite single malt whisky, was bound to be Thomas J Tracy.
The stories about him are legion. When he visited Northern Ireland, he hosted banquets for an eclectic mix of journalists, politicians, church leaders and campaigners, giving careful thought to how he could break the ice amongst different sections of the community. On one visit, he flew in Gene Graytak, the actor who played Pope John Paul II alongside Whoopee Goldberg in Sister Act, to lighten the atmosphere.
At dinners in Belfast and Ballymena, Greytak strolled in unannounced in full papal regalia, nodding gravely, making the sign of the cross and inviting guests, including Ian Paisley Junior, to kiss his ring. It brought the house down every time, and more importantly it persuaded people to open up and made the conversation flow.
A tremendously wealthy man, Tom didn't just endow colleges and libraries from Boston to the Vatican. Nor did he confine himself to major charitable donations. He was also famous for his random acts of kindness. When driving through Portadown, he spotted a girl with a disfiguring port wine birthmark covering much of her face. He stopped, asked to meet her parents and insisted on paying for treatment to remove the blemish. He bought holidays for Troubles victims when he thought they needed them and paid off debts for individuals.
A devout Catholic, Tom traced his roots to emigrants who fled our shores at the time of the potato famine. His pride in this heritage didn't make him bitter or blinkered. He first came to Northern Ireland on a delegation from Fr Sean McManus's Irish National Caucus. Typically when Tom was here he became convinced that the unionist cause had more to be said for it than most Irish Americans realised.
Not only did he become a strong opponent of republican violence and Gerry Adams being granted a visa to the US, but he numbered people like Sir Ronnie Flanagan, Sir Reg Empey and Ian Paisley Junior amongst his friends. He fought for the unionist case to be heard in America, without severing his strong links with Fianna Fail and with the family of Kevin Barry, the young IRA man hanged by the British in 1920.
Tom was an early adopter of conference calls. When the phone rang, often late at night, about some favourite cause, I learnt to be cautious. If he asked an opinion of a politician, the person in question could be holding on the other line, or he could suddenly bring a leading academic into the conversation to put you right on a point of detail.
He didn’t do this sort of thing to trap people, though I do remember one Irish American publisher being caught making unfounded accusations against me while I listened in. He did it because he was himself a totally honest and upfront man, free and frank with his opinions; he didn’t expect others to say one thing privately and another publicly. His heart was always on his sleeve and he expected no less of those he dealt with.
The archive which Tracy endowed is typical of his commitment to honesty. It consists of the testimony of over 80 republican and loyalist paramilitary leaders recorded on the basis that they would not be released before their deaths. The first tranche will appear in Ed Moloney’s aptly titled Voices from Beyond the Grave which is due out in April, after prior serialisation in the Sunday Times and accompanied by an RTE documentary. It includes the testimony of Brendan “The Dark” Hughes, one of the most important IRA leaders of the 70s, who was once close to Gerry Adams, and David Ervine, the PUP leader, who talks about his days as a UVF bomb maker.
Other stories are like a ticking time bomb which threatens to blow away many of the lies and half truths which deny us the full truth about our recent conflict. Their release should be an encouragement to government to also open its archives so that more of the truth can be known.
That is the challenge which Tom Tracy poses to us all from beyond the grave.