Belfast Telegraph

Back Then: Musical memories of Paisley, the Big Man

How I ended up singing in perfect harmony with Rev Ian Paisley at City Hall

By Eddie McIlwaine

The hymn we were singing lustily one morning at City Hall, just after an Ulster fry in a little hall up the road in east Belfast, was How Great Thou Art.

Ian Paisley and I were in perfect harmony with The Southern Airs, a visiting gospel choir from California.

And when Winston, conductor of the all-male chorale, discovered that How Great Thou Art was a favourite of the Big Man's, he talked him into joining the line-up on the winding staircase to harmonise with the visiting singers.

I was dragged in too to make my debut as a chorister and I remember that people who had visited City Hall to pay their rates or meet councillors and aldermen, paused to listen.

And that's the story behind my picture of Big Ian and me, snapped by filmmaker James McClelland at Paisley's insistence way back in 1999 (I think that was the year). "Keep your copy as a souvenir of the day the pair of us were in perfect tune," he ordered me.

I've kept it in my album ever since. It isn't often I get photographed with a "man of destiny", as he was described by former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Hain the day Ian died.

Paisley and I had our skirmishes and disagreements down the decades of his controversial career, but we had a kind of friendship, too. I think it grew out of the fact that I had little interest in politics. When I went chasing Paisley stories I wanted to show the other side of him, the side away from the firebrand public image. He sort of appreciated that and gave me one or two good yarns to adorn my column.

Like the time Bobby Hanvey and I persuaded him to have his picture taken up in the air on a rickety platform beside the famous Stormont landmark statue of Lord Carson. The picture of Carson – the unionist leader who played a major role in the setting up of Northern Ireland – and Paisley went round the world.

Back in Belfast one hilarious afternoon, a national newspaper writer came out of a downtown pub in the city centre and literally bumped into Ian, who was passing by on the pavement.

Paisley gave this well-known political writer a searching look and declared: "There's a little public house that everyone should close – a little public house right underneath your nose."

Then he wished the journalist and friends good day and stomped off. I'll swear he was chuckling as he departed. They weren't anything like Breakfast At Tiffany's but being invited to those early morning get-togethers over eggs, bacon and sausages in community centres and church halls is how I got to know the Big Man.

We would enjoy a breakfast – he liked pork sausages I seem to recall – and then he would give the well-fed invited guests a talk on his life and times. The breakfasts – and there were quite a few of them as he was a popular man – always ended with a homily and a prayer.

Where I did run into trouble with Ian Paisley once upon a time happened when he telephoned around 1am and I thought it was a pal of mine imitating that thunderous voice. My outrage, ticking the caller off for waking me from my slumbers, wasn't fit to be heard by anyone, let alone Dr P.

To say he admonished me is putting it lightly when I established it really was him on the line and not journalist Trevor Hanna, who took Paisley off so well. I learned a lesson that early morning. It took me weeks to repair the damage.

I can say now that the passing of the Big Man has left a huge hole in my life. I'll miss him and his homilies and his quirky stories, never mind the politics. Sure, this fiery character had his faults, but haven't we all?

True romantic Donald and his hunt for honeymoon house in Belfast

Celebrated actor Sir Donald Sinden of the rich and cultured voice who has just died, loved to tell friends how he and his bride Diana (Mahony), whom he wed in the summer of 1948, spent their honeymoon in Belfast.

But although he returned to the city several times in recent years, Sir Donald never did manage to find the guest house where he and Diana stayed 55 years ago.

"Belfast has changed so much," he told me on his last visit for a play at the Opera House. "The boarding house was owned by a lovely lady whose name could have been Biggar and it was only a good walk away from the theatre where I was performing that honeymoon time in 1948, even though I had just got married.

Sir Donald, only weeks short of his 91st birthday, would have loved to have returned to the little B&B where he and his bride, who died in 2004 aged 77, spent the early weeks of their marriage.

"I'm a true romantic. That's why I was disappointed at not being able to find the lovely guest house where we spent our dream honeymoon," he said.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph