Friday 18 October 2019

The self-sacrificing Niall Connolly I knew

He is the sort of person who sacrifices a career to help war refugees, not some undercover terrorist who concealed another life says Michael Sheridan.

IT WAS one of those occasions that you read a newspaper report, ingest the content and then do a double take. A Dublin man was being questioned in relation to terrorist charges in Colombia. There was mention of explosives and "technology" training of the left-wing guerrilla group FARC. Through the grey veil of print and the objective tone of the report, a name jumped at me. I then dismissed it as a coincidence.

Even media people do not expect someone they know to be subject of reports. That is what makes the job possible: it is easier to step back from tragedy or crime when the subjects, though real and human are ultimately but a name. Niall Connolly there could be any number of people in the country by that name but not many who had spent the past number of years in Cuba.

The penny dropped and my mind flashed back to Christmas and a late night of drink and discussion in my mother Patsy's house in Dun Laoghaire. One of the central jousts was between my mother and Niall who was back on holidays from Cuba for Yuletide. He was bright eyed and full of political chat, particularly in the context of South America. I had, in my youth, been a Che Guevara fanatic with the famous red and black image on the wall of the flat.

My political beliefs lasted as long as college but I understood the language of Niall's convictions, if not the step of actually going to Cuba to live where a number of friends visited and were royally entertained. It was clear from their accounts that Niall was got on very well with the highest echelons of the Cuban government.

Such discussions were part and parcel of our upbringing in Sydney Avenue in Blackrock where the Connollys all 14 children lived two doors away from the Sheridans with the Rowans (nine) on the other side. Over a period of two decades, those families were extensions of each other, went to the same schools, Niall and my brother Dave went to Newpark, became friends and stayed friends.

The Connollys were energetic and intelligent and, while I was more acquainted with the older members including fellow journalist Frank, the dozen or more times I met Niall, including a period he spent in London in the Eighties, I found him a very engaging and likeable young man who had a tremendous zest and appetite for life and a genuine concern for the less well-off sections of society. At that time, he was a great fan of Christy Moore and one time at a concert in the Albert Hall he climbed up on to a box and removed the royal insignia a political gesture that would have been applauded by the majority of the Irish immigrant population at the time.

But in the intervening years, his political commitment had become obvious to his close friends from schooldays and his frequent trips to Spain were not interpreted by them as a passion for bullfighting. It was more in the line of political business with like-minded left-wing Spanish groups.

During this time, and later, no one would have connected him with the IRA or Sinn Féin in any remote fashion. The only thing that Che Guevara and Gerry Adams have in common is their beards.

For 13 months between August 1992 and September of the following year, Niall worked for the Agency For Personal Services Overseas in El Salvador.

The project was in The Sequndo Montes region and involved a rebuilding programme for the refugees displaced by the war. Niall worked as a carpenter in a team building the houses. He was held in the highest esteem by the other team members and a field director who said that he was friendly, popular, hard working and totally committed to rebuilding. "Niall was already in El Salvador when he was recruited. He was in our opinion a very good guy, good humoured, hard working and, above all, fully committed to the programme and making a new life for the refugees who were returning to the region after being displaced by the war."

This is the Niall Connolly that family and friends knew, the sort of person who sacrifices a teaching career to help war refugees, the sort of person who wears his heart on the sleeve, not some undercover terrorist who had managed to conceal another life for all that time.

Cuba naturally welcomes foreigners committed to its cause, political system and way of life and to live within the economic restrictions certainly demands commitment. But there is also a culture, so vibrant and attractive that entrances both tourists and foreign inhabitants. Apart from believing in the political system, Niall Connolly loves the country and its culture and is settled and happily married there and is visited by friends and relatives.

At Christmas, Niall was giving vent to his passion and commitment to Cuba and its politics. At two clock in the morning in the middle of the biggest capitalist splurge of the year, it does not seem quite so attractive and my mother who loves an argument made her position clear she was not impressed. But the Connollys are just as verbally strident as the Sheridans and Niall kept going.

Patsy stopped him in midstream: "The politics have made you lose your sense of humour. It will be your undoing." Over the years, the great thing about the two families was that they could arguebut never fall out. In the present circumstances, nobody would want to eat her words quicker. We would all like to witness another argument next Christmas.

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