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Biography of Jack Holland

Jack Holland was born into a world that no longer exists. It was a world of cobble-stoned streets lit by gas light, where deliveries were still made by horse-driven wagons. Later in life, he would chronicle its passing in short stories and newspaper columns for the Irish Echo. Those columns gained him a faithful readership among many older Irish and Irish-Americans who also remembered living in a society that was still steeped in the Victorian age.

Born in 1947, Jack was raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He came from a mixed Catholic-Protestant working class family. He was the eldest child of Richard (Jack) Holland, from north Belfast, and Elisabeth Rodgers, from the Markets. He always spoke with great warmth and nostalgia of his early years. They were spent in a big house in Dougalls Yard in the center of Belfast, where his paternal grandfather, William Henry Holland, who had been wounded in the Battle of the Somme, kept the stable of carthorses that in post-WWII Belfast were still delivering milk and other goods to people’s homes.  Until his grandfather died he lived an idyllic infancy, an only child fussed over by adoring grandparents, parents and a paternal aunt and uncle, all of whom shared the large but cozy living quarters above the stables.

His grandfather’s death in 1953 coincided with the rise of the automobile and the end of the carting business, and the family broke up.  His Uncle Tom and his father, both amateur boxers and dance instructors, became truck drivers. Because of a public housing crisis at the time, in which many Catholic families faced long waits for homes in Catholic neighborhoods, “wee Jack” went to live with his parents in Highcliff Gardens, a newly built Protestant housing estate on the windswept outskirts of Belfast.  Till the day he died, that name filled him with dread: there he was marked as a Catholic by his school uniform, and he was beaten because of it by unenlightened little fellow Christians. He had a long and often dismally rainy commute to school, and he missed the warmth of the extended family as well as the hustle and bustle of the city center. It was a terrible shock to his sensitive little soul. 

His grandmother, Kate Murphy Holland, a strong-minded matriarch from Rostrevor, County Down, came to his rescue and insisted on raising him in a tiny two-up, two-down terraced house on Drew Street, in the relative safety of the large Catholic community of the Falls Road. Jack grew up there with his granny, Uncle Tom and Aunt Cissy, a linen mill worker. He would visit his parents their daughters Kathryn, Elizabeth and Eileen, and their youngest, Thomas, on weekends. Jack's sisters still recall how they used to delight in these visits because he brought them gifts and took them "to the pictures."

A recalcitrant student, Jack loved books as much as he hated school.  Uncle Tom spoiled him, indulging his insatiable curiosity by buying him books, toys and telescopes.  With the pocket money Tom gave him Jack would spend his Saturdays pouring over the used books in the Smithfield market, finding treasures like The Golden Book of Astronomy and Caesar’s “Gallic Wars.” He would remain fascinated by astronomy and ancient history for the rest of his life. Childhood friends still remember his enthusiasm as he shared his love of astronomy and military history with them.  At the age of nine, he was the youngest member of the Royal Irish Astronomy Society; Tom would drive him to their meetings in his grand Armstrong Sydney. 

As a young teenager he attended St. Thomas’s Secondary School, a huge holding pen for working-class lads, many of whose lives would later be defined by poverty, prison and political struggle.  He was fortunate enough to have the writer Michael McLaverty as his headmaster and Seamus Heaney as his English teacher.  When he was expelled from St. Thomas’ for insubordination, Uncle Tom managed to have him admitted to St. Malachy’s , a middle- class school which put him on the track to university. He was of that first generation of working-class kids who had access to higher education, and after two years at Magee College in Derry, he went to Trinity College in Dublin to finish his BA in English literature.

In 1971, after saving money for postgraduate studies by working for the Irish railways as a porter and a "snatcher," he went to the University of Essex in England and received a Masters Degree in theoretical linguistics.

In 1973 he met my mother, Mary Hudson, an American who was living in Paris.  They fell in love at first sight, and Mary left her life in Paris to join him in Dublin, where I was born in 1975.  At the time Jack was writing for the remarkable weekly Hibernia, owned by John Mulcahy and edited by Brian Trench.  Under their leadership Hibernia was the most audacious and perspicacious newspaper of its day, reporting fearlessly on political, cultural and literary issues.

In 1976 Jack accepted a job as a researcher with the BBC in Belfast.  There, with Jeremy Paxman and other outstanding journalists, he worked on the current affairs program “Spotlight.”  His roots in the working-class community were an invaluable asset there, as they would be throughout his journalistic career.

The following year we moved to New York, where my father made a living out of his freelance writings. Over the years, Jack published four novels and seven works of non-fiction, most of the latter having to do with politics and terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Parents, Jack & Elizabeth Holland (Undated)

Jack as a boy
Jack as a boy (Undated)

Drew Street
Drew Street, Belfast (1975)
The street where Jack grew up

Andersonstown (1975) - Jack with sisters Eileen, Elizabeth, and his mother

Jack at his desk in Hibernia magazine (1975)

One of them, “Phoenix: Policing the Shadows,” (with Susan Phoenix) was the story of a Special Branch policeman who died in the Chinook helicopter crash in June 1994 which killed the top anti-terrorist brass of the British Army and Northern Ireland police force.  The book would prove to be very controversial, as Jack was known as a member of the nationalist community and “Phoenix” was a sympathetic portrait of the man who led surveillance activities for the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Many still refuse to believe the truth about his relationship with the Phoenix family, castigating him as a sell-out if not a traitor.  

The truth is otherwise.  My parents met the Phoenixes in 1992 when they rented our house in Trevignano Romano near Rome, Italy, where we lived for 5 years in the late 1980's.  He wrote the book out of friendship, curiosity and absolute commitment to discovering the truth as best he could, regardless of ideological or political concerns.  He was fearless and fair in his reporting.  The book was a best-seller. Ian’s widow Susan, has now finished another book entitled “Out of the Shadows: a journey back from grief,” which was dedicated to Jack's memory and published in 2005 by Hodder & Stoughton.   

A talented versifier, my father wrote a parody of Byron’s "Don Juan," (entitled "Sean Juan") published by Lapwing Press in Belfast in 1994.  It recounted in “ottava rima” a fictionalized version of his life growing up in Catholic schools in Belfast.  He could frequently be found jotting down limericks parodying the events of the day. Among his most engaging rhymes is a series for children about dinosaurs, one of his many scientific interests.

Although he made his bread and butter writing about Irish politics, his real passions continued to be ancient history, literature and astronomy. He was a very witty and intellectually engaging man.  He taught in the NYU journalism department, where he was a popular teacher.  Aside from his books, he collaborated on a number of television projects, including a Channel 4 documentary commemorating the 25th anniversary of "the Troubles." He also wrote an award-winning television documentary “Daughters of the Troubles,” with producer Marcia Rock.

Statesmen like Ted Kennedy and Hilary Clinton depended on him to give a balanced and astute analysis of the political situation in Northern Ireland, and wrote my mother letters to that effect when he died, as did the President and Prime Minister of Ireland, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, and other prominent political figures.

When Jack died on May 14, 2004, he left behind many heartbroken friends all over the world.  He was loved for his sharp wit, his self-deprecating sense of humor, his kindness, his fairness and for his avid curiosity about life and other people’s stories. 


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