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The death of a decent man

The family of Belfast greengrocer Harry Holland, who was fatally stabbed trying to remonstrate with car thieves, tell Gráinne McCarry why they are determined his tragic and untimely death will not be in vain

By Gráinne McCarry

Belfast greengrocer Harry Holland believed in looking after the community - especially young people. He said all they needed was a chance.

Today, Harry lies buried in the City Cemetery. Yards from the greengrocer's shop he ran for 11 years and around the corner from where he reared his family, there is a plaque mounted at the former site of the Andersonstown Barracks which reads 'HARRY HOLLAND REMEMBERED BY YOUR COMMUNITY'.

He was attacked trying to protect his property from being stolen - attacked by the very young people he thought needed a chance in life.

"This wasn't a one-off incident," says his heartbroken wife of 31 years, Pauline, as she chats in their home at Norfolk Drive in west Belfast with her four daughters, Sarah, Meabh, Grainne and Gail. "This was at least the fifth attempt by joyriders to take the van so far this year.

"Harry used to park it on the street as it was difficult to get it in and out of the driveway. It was broken into and set on fire once and on another occasion it was found on the Glen Road."

Pauline admits that the incidents were causing her deep concern and she had raised the subject of moving from their home with her husband.

But Harry reassured his wife, just as he always did, that everything would be ok. However, on Tuesday, September 11, it wasn't.

Harry, a father of four daughters and grandfather of one, was stabbed in the side of the head with a screwdriver while he and a relative tried to reason with youths who had stolen his van.

Pauline and youngest daughter Gail were asleep in their house, totally oblivious to what was going on in the street.

"I didn't hear anything ..." she adds. It's clear from the pain etched on her face that this is troubling her, but her daughters are quick to reassure her.

They are deeply relieved that their mother did not waken with the commotion on that night - if she had, she would have most likely have witnessed her husband's fatal stabbing. Worse again, she herself could have been injured.

"Harry thought he could reason with everybody," Pauline sighs. " That's just the way he was.

"The night before Harry was murdered, our wee Hyundai car was broken into," recalls Pauline. "These incidents were beginning to upset me, but I didn't feel so frightened when Harry was around.

"We'd been up 'til 5am the night before because of the car getting wrecked."

Before heading out to his Tuesday night quiz, he reassured her again. " You're not worried about that oul car are you?" he said to her, playing down the incident in order to calm his wife.

By 2am on the Wednesday morning doctors were informing her that her husband wasn't going to make it and she had to begin the heartbreaking task of telling their grown-up children that their beloved father was dead. Gráinne and Meabh had to make the gruelling journey from where they worked in Gran Canaria to say goodbye to their dad.

"Harry's life support machine was switched off shortly after they arrived. He was kept alive until his family were all around him and we all got to say goodbye together," says Pauline.

The Holland girls have been a tower of strength to their mother since their ordeal began.

Although it pains them to see her distress, Pauline says they were raised to be strong and independent - inner strengths they inherited from their father.

Harry was the sort of father who was also a confidant to his daughters. When they were distressed, he was someone they always turned to for advice.

"He sat us down and taught us right from wrong. Respect yourself, respect your elders," recalls Gráinne.

"He gave the best advice, the most practical. He always told us to review all the facts, form your own opinions and don't be afraid to voice your own opinion.

"I remember he told me that money was nothing in this world and friendship is everything."

To compound their anguish, Harry's mother, Violet, has been seriously ill ever since the news was broken to her about the attack on her eldest son Harry and other son, Brendan, who was also chased and attacked during the incident.

"The whole shock of it ... she collapsed and nearly died when she found out. She's really, really sick and the doctors don't know if she'll ever pull through," says Gráinne, visibly hurt at the suffering the elderly woman is enduring.

"Any happiness that she'll ever have in the last days of her life has been destroyed."

Harry was a devoted family man, says Pauline, describing how Harry returned to Belfast from London in 1970 in order to help his mother run the family home after his father died of cancer while just in his fifties.

"He was always a hard worker," continues Pauline. "He opened the shop 11 years ago and he struggled to build up his trade, sometimes it was very hard."

The greengrocer's shop meant everything to Harry. It was one of his wishes in life to own his own shop. He made a living from the business, but Pauline says he particularly enjoyed the social side of his work. He loved chatting with customers about politics, music. Sometimes they'd talk in Irish.

Evidently his death had a huge impact on the local community. A 1000-strong crowd attended his funeral at St Matthias Church on the Glen Road a week after he passed away.

"Before he bought the van, he used to do two runs to the market every morning to stock the shop," says Pauline. "The van wasn't worth much - it was old and battered. But, he needed it for his trip to the market in the morning and most of all, he was proud of it. He worked hard to save up for that van. Each time people tried to steal it, he always went out and tried to talk sense into them.

"He would go off to the market at the crack of dawn and then work from open to close by himself. It was a very long day - from 6am to 7pm. He never missed a day, apart from when he had his heart bypass three years ago. He went straight back to work after he recovered."

The Hollands desperately do not want the death of their husband and father to be in vain and say they do not want to see any other family suffer as they are doing. And, in some sense, life must go on.

Speaking about the level of violence by young people in today's society, daughter Grainne says: "We've all experienced peer pressure, but you know in your heart that something is wrong and you walk away. We all know what it's like to want to fit in, yet, we knew to say know when something wrong was happening.

"There are politicians pushing for zero tolerance and we are 100% behind them - it's the only way things are going to change. We also want 50% remission abolished. Time on remand should not be counted. What is the point in people being sentenced, then having their time on remand taken into account and then walking free?"

Once again Harry's shop is open for business. Now, daughter Meabh runs it.

"Harry was talking about retiring so that we could spend more time together and he and Meabh had already talked about her coming back and running the shop for us," explains Pauline. "He was looking forward to more grandchildren." Given their grief, it's impossible not to admire the great determination of Harry's wife and daughters as they must look to an uncertain future.

And they fervently hope that it is a future where the streets are a safer place for Sarah's 18-month-old daughter, Gracie. The toddler was being taught how to walk by her grandfather; the poignancy of the fact he is not there to see her take her first tentative steps in life is not lost on anyone.

That's what the Hollands can't help but think of; what Harry will miss; the grandchildren not yet born that he will not meet.

There will be no more amiable chats in the greengrocer's shop; no more passing the time of day with friends and strangers alike.

What they do hope, though, is that no one else will have to die like Harry - and that's why they are determined that his death will not be forgotten.

"Harry was always determined to see things through," says his wife, her voice wavering as she explains why they are determined to speak out.

"He always had this thing that if he started something, he always finished it."

Standing up for what is right is something Harry would expect from them.

l Four teenagers, two female and two male were arrested for questioning about the murder of Harry Holland on September 12. One of the females was released without charge. A 17-year-old male was charged on September 14 with affray, attempted wounding and possession of an offensive weapon. On the same day, a 15-year-old female was charged with affray and assault and later re-arrested on October 4 for further questioning. She was subsequently released into custody. A 16-year-old was charged on September 15 with murder and separate charges of two counts of threats to kill, two counts of attempted wounding and two counts of possessing an offensive weapon.

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