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Black Santa gives us the gift of feeling better about ourselves


Off the wall: Dean John Mann beside the plaque honouring the late Dean Samuel Crooks

Off the wall: Dean John Mann beside the plaque honouring the late Dean Samuel Crooks

Off the wall: Dean John Mann beside the plaque honouring the late Dean Samuel Crooks

Dean John Mann is continuing the long tradition since the first Black Santa appeared in 1976, in the form of Dean Samuel Crooks. It was also appropriate that a Blue Plaque in honour of Dean Crooks was unveiled at the Cathedral yesterday morning and that a tribute was paid to him by old friend Lord Eames, the former Church of Ireland Primate and Archbishop of Armagh.

Sammy Crooks, whom I knew well, was a larger-than-life character. He became Dean of Belfast during some of the worst years of the Troubles, where gloom and doom prevailed.

Almost every day there were grim headlines about violence and murder, and some of these took place within the precincts of the Cathedral itself.

These were desperate days indeed, but Sammy Crooks was not a man to be overwhelmed. Instead he set out to create good news, to give the people of Belfast an opportunity to demonstrate their generosity, and to raise money for needy people at home and overseas.

Dean Sammy set forth in his black gown and all-weather gear. He was quickly dubbed the Black Santa by the media, and that name has long been associated with his successors.

For anyone too young to remember Belfast in its worst days, it is difficult to describe the air of foreboding that hung over the city. People like me who worked daily in the city centre will never forget the tension, the barbed wire, the heavily armed security forces, the no-warning car bombs and the constant drip of the most awful violence.

To work in Belfast in those days was to take your life in your hands, but for most of us there was no alternative. As a journalist with the Belfast Telegraph I was in the thick of it, like the rest of my colleagues, and we not only reported news, but sometimes we also made it.

None of us will forget the day that the Telegraph building was bombed by the Provisional IRA, with loss of life. Those of us who managed to flee from the building made our way to our official assembly point - which was St Anne's Cathedral, where Dean Sammy Crooks himself provided us with comfort and shelter.

Throughout his time as Dean of Belfast he was like a beacon of light in a darkened landscape, and particularly during his Christmas sit-out where he symbolised the caring nature of the Church at large, and he also gave people the opportunity to demonstrate their better nature.

Donors from all religious backgrounds, and of none, came to the Cathedral steps to give their money.

Dean Crooks told me of the many characters he encountered, including old ladies whose "widow's mites" turned out to be substantial donations at great personal cost.

All of this created good news, it helped us all to feel better about our city and ourselves, and above all it raised huge sums for needy people.

Dean Crooks died prematurely in a road accident, but his successors have carried on faithfully his honourable tradition.

If anyone ever deserved a plaque from the Ulster History Circle it was Sammy Crooks who made the Christian message real all the year round, and not just at Christmas.

Happily, the good news is still here, and the Black Santa lives on.

Belfast Telegraph