Journalist Alf McCreary talks about family, faith and the future with Martin O’Brien
Alf McCrearyconsiders himself a profoundly lucky man who but for the grace of God and the wisdom and courage of his grandfather could have ended up in very different and unhappy place.
One of the North’s most respected and prolific authors and journalists he has covered everything from Bloody Sunday to the papal visit to Ireland, the wedding of Charles and Diana and “most memorably” Blessed John Paul II’s lying in state and funeral.
Oh and at last count there are 33 books out there including a pioneering 1976 account of Troubles survivors, a penetrating study of Third World issues and a portrait of Belfast port timed for the Titanic centenary.
However, Mr McCreary (73), former UK Provincial Journalist of the Year among other accolades, including a MBE from the Queen, and current religion correspondent of the Belfast Telegraph, has waited until now and the publication of his memoirs to share a secret with the wider public.
A secret known only to his family circle and those he grew up with in his native Bessbrook, a “model village” founded by Quakers in south Armagh.
Speaking of Behind the Headlines: Alf McCreary, an Autobiography (Colourpoint), a wide-ranging book of well over 300 pages, he recalls: “That book became a therapy. It is only now, after more than 70 years on this earth I can really say everything is OK.”
“At the age of eight or nine someone came up to me one night and said Tommy McCreary is not your father. He is your grandfather. You are a bastard.”
Those words shook him to the core and confirmed a sense he had for some time that somehow he was not a normal member of his Ulster Presbyterian family.
“That hurt me deeply. How can a child or any human being be somehow considered unlawful? I felt living under a stigma, not being 100% a real person.”
It was a hurt fuelled by his rejection by his parents, especially his father who went out of his way to disown him right to his dying day in 2000.
The stigma surrounding “illegitimate” children, i.e. children born out of wedlock, is thankfully now a thing of the past in Ireland North and South.
But Alf was born out of wedlock to his mother, Lena McCreary, then aged 17 and his father Norman Leitch, then 22, in a very different age.
“I was wrapped in a blanket, put in a drawer because there was no cot, and kept out of sight in a backroom.
“It is hard to imagine now just how troubling it was for a girl to be ‘in trouble’ at that time.”
Norman, an unemployed labourer offered to marry Lena, but her mother, Minnie McCreary “considered him not good enough” and Alf was adopted by her husband, his grandfather Tommy McCreary, who became his guardian and “my hero”.
His father went to England to prove and improve himself becoming a millionaire businessman but Alf is not concerned he received none of his wealth: “It’s not about money, it’s about equality, fairness and recognition.”
When Alf deployed his journalist skills to track him down in the mid-seventies “our real relationship was the elephant in the room and he kept referring to my grandfather as my father, effectively disowning me, which was very hurtful.”
They had a relationship of sorts for nearly a decade. Alf sent him a book about the history of Bessbrook inscribed “To Norman, with affection, your son, Alf” and “I never heard from my father again”.
In 2010 Norman’s ashes were returned to Bessbrook: “I talked to him as I carried his ashes and said ‘Norman you won’t believe this. You ran away from me all your life and I am carrying your ashes to your grave’.”
Alf’s mother, now also deceased, left the family home without him, her first born, when he was five to marry and had five more children. “The experience has been etched sharply in my memory to this day. To our mutual regret our relationship never completely healed.”
Inspired by the famous words of another hero, Senator Gordon Wilson, whose “I must bear no ill-will” touched the world after his daughter was killed in the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing, Alf found closure.
“I have found something within me where the three of us, my mother Lena, my father Norman, and myself, who had a unique bond, can all be at peace. It is time to move on.”
The support of his wife, Hilary and their three children has also been a critical factor in his journey.
To this day Alf is haunted by the thought of what might have happened him had his maternal grandfather not brought him up “in a loving family environment” notwithstanding the pain he has endured.
The advice from Alf’s own mother Lena, and various aunts was to “put him away” and he is “very aware I could have been put in an institution like so many of my peers” with horrendous consequences of the type we now know so much about.
He grew up being taught about “God, a judgemental figure in the sky with a big black book who would mark points against me if I was bad”.
After Newry Grammar School he graduated in history from Queen’s University, where a classmate was Austin Currie. Contemporaries included Seamus Heaney and Robin Eames, the subject of a full length biography by Alf 10 years ago.
Alf pursued a distinguished career at the Belfast Telegraph over 20 years until 1984, left to spend 13 years as head of communications at Queen’s until 1998 while continuing to write professionally part-time. Since then he’s been a full-time freelance journalist and writer and his work includes the religious affairs brief back at the Telegraph and regular broadcast appearances down the years.
A committed Christian and ecumenist “not naturally bound by denominational ties who lives and will die a Presbyterian” he is not shy about venturing opinions on the religious scene today.
While scolding the Catholic Church for being “ecumenical on its own terms and male dominated” he also points the finger at some fellow journalists “who automatically kick all the Churches where it hurts while not really understanding them or what they are doing”.
He has a “great regard” for Cardinal Seán Brady, “a very good man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He recalls Dr Brady made “some remarkable speeches” about the moral issues around the Celtic Tiger.
Bridge to the future
While not “overlooking what went wrong” Alf stresses the cardinal has “built an enormous bridge to the future and walked a lonely path with great courage”.
He recalls being “one of the few journalists” who called for Cardinal Brady to resign “because he could not row back what had happened and the scandals had taken an enormous toll on his health”.
Mr McCreary senses the cardinal may have offered to resign and “that would have been the last thing the Vatican would have wanted because they wanted someone in there to take the flak.”
He cautions “We are in a society where the easy call is resign and very often resignation doesn’t make a blind bit of difference.”
Alf is “astonished by the numbers of Catholic friends who do not go to church” and more globally doesn’t think Pope Francis “can make much difference but I hope I am wrong”.
He points out Blessed John XXIII “made a difference and the Vatican spent the next half century rowing back from what he invented”.
Alf has visited and written from many parts of the world given his keen interest in international development.
He has visited Rwanda twice and contrasts the progress towards reconciliation there, where up to one million people were slaughtered in 100 days, with what he sees at home in Northern Ireland.
“When you ask them are you a Hutu or a Tutsis they reply ‘No, I am a Rwandan. Here we are still Unionist or Nationalist, Catholic or Protestant.”
If anyone finds such observations uncomfortable Alf McCreary will feel that he is doing his job and that his mentor the great bridge builder Rev. Ray Davey would approve.