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Terry was on brink of suicide after wife's death at La Mon, instead built a legacy in her memory that lives on 7,000 miles away from Belfast

For over 25 years until his death in the Philippines last week, Terry Lockhart from Armagh rescued helpless children from exploitation and destitution. Filmmaker Michael Beattie, who told the story in 2003 documentary Christine's Children, remembers a man who turned personal tragedy in the Troubles into hope for the Asian country's most vulnerable

Published 28/07/2016

Terry Lockhart in the Philippines
Terry Lockhart in the Philippines
His wife Christine on their wedding day
Terry Lockhart and his wife Christine
Christine Lockhart with one of her collies
Christine on crutches aged 20 after losing a leg to cancer
Terry with friends and family at the orphanage in 2014
The bomb attack at the La Mon House Hotel
Terry Lockhart with filmmaker Michael Beattie

One of the first things Terry Lockhart ever said to me was: "Survival's the name of the game, you know. Life is what you make it." But I was soon to learn there had been a time when Terry didn't think he'd survive at all.

We were on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, where I'd come to see Terry running his 'children's village', giving new lives to 20 orphans and unwanted youngsters, the latest batch he'd taken under his wing following around 250 over the previous two decades.

We were sitting in his 'waiting shade', a little gazebo affair with a straw roof where he liked to sit in the afternoons.

Across the compound, past the children's dormitory cabins, was his vegetable garden.

"I've got spuds in there, y'know, and the first turnips ever seen in the Philippines," he said.

It seemed strange sitting in this alien place hearing such a thick Co Armagh accent.

I'd only ever spoken to him a few times before by telephone. He didn't have internet, didn't even have a computer.

I'd come to record Terry's story. The remarkable tale of a man who found redemption halfway round the world after facing the horror of his wife's murder. And strangely, a story I'd had a small connection with 25 years earlier.

"You talk about love at first sight," he said in his Armagh brogue.

"I believe in it. When I met Christine we just clicked. I told her within an hour of meeting her that we'd be married." Christine had laughed. But a year later they were married.

They'd met in Lancashire where Terry had gone to look for work after spinning and weaving jobs in Tandragee and Portadown.

But Christine fell in love with Ireland and they were soon settled in Richhill.

"We had something special. We just built our own wee world, us and the dogs," he explained.

They looked forward to having children. But not long into their marriage they discovered that Christine had cancer - a particularly aggressive form that led to several surgeries and finally a prognosis that she had just a year to live.

The doctors told only Terry, and he couldn't bring himself to tell Christine. He recalled how they would talk in the evenings about their plans for the future, and then he would lie awake into the early hours knowing it was all for nothing.

But out of the blue their local GP discovered a new surgery in London that showed great promise. It was extreme - Christine's leg would be removed, along with part of her pelvis. But she went ahead and the operation was successful. Christine was the first patient to survive.

"She was amazing," Terry told me. "Half time she didn't use her crutch at all. She could carry a tray with six taycups and not spill a drop."

They lavished love on their collie dogs in place of the children they now could never have. They belonged to the Collie Club, and won rosettes at dog shows. And Terry, blessed with a good voice, was making money as a country singer in the evenings and at weekends.

It was all to end on a February night in 1978. Christine had gone to the Collie Club annual dinner. Terry was playing a last-minute gig in Dungannon and planned to meet her later at the La Mon Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast. Terry finished his gig and as he left Dungannon turned on his car radio to hear of an IRA bomb at the La Mon. Christine was one of 12 people roasted alive when a fireball tore through the dining room.

As a journalist in Ulster Television at that time, I was at the scene. A day later I stood in front of the still-smoking rubble to report that the bodies were so badly charred it would be some time before it would be clear who they were. However, one of the victims could be named - identified because of an artificial limb.

Now, 25 years later, here I was on the other side of the world with that victim's husband.

Terry went to pieces after Christine's death. As the days passed he only felt worse. Until he decided to take his own life. "It was really strange. When I made the decision, I felt relief. Peace, almost. I gave the dogs a final big feed, had a good long bath, put on clean pyjamas, and took a big jar of tablets to the bedside. But just as I was about to take them the phone rang; just rang twice and then stopped. But in that moment something clicked inside me. I realised what I was doing and that Christine would've been ashamed of me. I threw the bottle against the wall and decided life is too precious."

But Terry couldn't cope with Northern Ireland. He said everything reminded him every day of Christine. So he decided to go. "Have guitar, will travel." And over the next few years he performed in Scotland, Canada, America and then Australia and New Zealand. His travels took him to the Philippines, where he eventually settled.

"I was doing OK, making decent money. I had a nice house, a pool, a gardener, two housemaids. And I was no saint," he recalled. But one night in Angeles City, north of Manila, everything changed for Terry. A girl on the street was begging and caught hold of his trouser leg. His Armagh accent coming through again, Terry told me: "I lifted my leg to kind of kick her aff. And then I realised she had a baby in her arms that I'd thought was a doll. It was dead. I realised she was the mother and she was only a child herself."

That night Terry was haunted. The next day he tried to find the girl. And only then realised how many street children there were. "My eyes were opened for the first time. It was in front of me every day, but I'd never seen it. Then I found out that the authorities weren't looking after these children and there were no charities looking after them. So I decided I would," he said.

And that started Terry's new life, using his performance money to have the children cared for. In 1997 he packed in his life on the road to fulfil his vision of a children's village. At home in Lurgan, his old musical partner Ray McLeod became his fundraiser, travelling round Northern Ireland churches, women's groups and youth clubs to gather whatever money he could. "I couldn't have done this without Ray and without the help of people back home. It's meant that I've been able to care for hundreds of children. And this is just not a short-term thing. I have them until they're maybe 15 or 16 and going out in the world. Then I try to find jobs for them."

Terry and I were to continue our chats in his 'waiting shade' for many days. Inadvertently, he gave me the title for the documentary, when he explained his feeling that every child he saved was a child saved for Christine, the children they could never have.

The more we talked and the closer we became, the more I could see the contradictions in his character. While he had certainly been "no saint", he had a child-like Christian faith. "I'm here because God brought me here. I wasn't sent by any man, or any mission society. The last thing we need here is more missionaries! I look after the children's practical needs and I have a local Filipino pastor who comes in to look after their spiritual needs," he said.

He felt free to do things no 'official' missionary could do. He would pay back-handers to local officials, if necessary. Like he did to get the road to his compound repaired after a flood. He told me that he had "bought" several children when there was no other option to save them from exploitation or abuse. He didn't care too much for rules and regulations. And he wasn't a man to be on the wrong side of!

While he was self-effacing in many ways, he was charismatic too. On his final visit back to Northern Ireland a few years after our first meeting, I organised a party with some friends. He made a huge impression on every one of them. And my colleagues making the film with me, David Barker and Diarmuid Lavery, both called me as soon as they heard of his passing to reminisce about the great character he was and the impact he had on us.

I remember how thrilled he was in 2003 when Christine's Children won a Royal Television Society Award. But more than that, he was thrilled it had touched so many Northern Ireland people who became regular contributors to his charity.

In his final few years Terry suffered from Alzheimer's disease and had forgotten a great deal. But the last time we spoke we laughed and cried over the yarns we shared in his 'waiting shade'. He hadn't forgotten those.

Terry's Filipina wife Sheila is determined to continue his work. His charity is Project Kneel Ministries, First Trust Bank, Portadown. Acc. no: 23755092. Sort Code: 93-84-08. Charity No. XR72649)

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