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Reflections on a Quiet Rebel.

Cal McCrystal, senior journalist on the staff of The Observer and former foreign correspondent, recalls many interesting, many disturbing, and some quite mysterious events in the history of Belfast over the past fifty years. McCrystal was born in Belfast in 1935. That was another year of communal violence in the city, the culmination of a sustained campaign of sectarian agitation which had started in 1932, almost as soon as the Belfast Unemployed Workers' committee, a rare alliance of working-class Catholics and Protestants, had compelled the Board of Poor Law Guardians to improve wages and working conditions of men on out-door-relief work schemes.

McCrystal's father, Charles McCrystal, or as he was better known, Cathal McCrystal (Cathal being the Gaelic for Charles), may not have been a member of the Unemployed Worker's Committee but he would most certainly have approved the committee's programme and activities. Cathal McCrystal was a socialist who had also been, at the beginning of the 1920s, a member of the Irish Republican Army. He has indeed a minor but quite honourable place in the history of the Labour Movement in Belfast. He was a secretary of the Belfast Labour College which had affiliated in 1924 to the recently formed National Council of Labour Colleges. He organised the first NCLC summer school in Ireland in 1925.

This information is not, however recorded in Cal McCrystal's book but it can be found in the files of The Labour Opposition of Northern Ireland, published monthly during 1925 and 1926 by the Labour Party in Belfast. Cal McCrystal does mention some of his father's other activities for the NCLC: organising weekend schools and lecturing on English and journalism to local NCLC classes. Cathal McCrystal was a keen student of languages. He was fluent in Gaelic and Russian and could read German, all of which were unusual achievements for a working-class man seventy years ago.

McCrystal was a compositor and probably the only Catholic employed at that time by the firm of W.G.Baird, commercial printers and proprietors of The Belfast Telegraph, one of the three Unionist newspapers in Belfast. The fourth paper, The Irish News, was Nationalist and McCrystal was once offered a post as a reporter on this paper. That was also most unusual, for journalism in those times, and especially in both parts of Ireland, was a restricted middle-class profession. In the whole of Ireland there was not then even one member of the National Union of Journalists. Editors and senior journalists were, in the main, members of the Institute of Journalists.

Despite his attachment to the Labour Movement, Cathal McCrystal, for some strange reason, grew a toothbrush moustache that made him look a bit like Adolf Hitler during World War Two. Cal thinks that moustache was his father's 'act of defiance', an 'indicator of his temperament', and 'evidence of a certain contrariness which . . . caused him at times to reject conformity.' As a Gaelic speaking, Irish socialist republican, Cathal McCrystal was decidedly anti-English. That is why the Hitler-style wartime moustache is disturbingly symbolic. Nearly all republicans in Ireland were pro-German during World War Two, as their predecessors had been during World War One. There is no reason to think that the socialist Cathal McCrystal was pro-German, but if not, why the moustache?

One of the mysterious events which Cal McCrystal recalls is the murder in the winter of 1952 of the university student, Patricia Curran, daughter of Launcelot Curran, Attorney-General of Northern Ireland. Ian Hay Gordon, a young aircraftsman stationed in Northern Ireland, was found guilty of the murder but judged to be insane. Gordon was a friend of the murdered girl's brother, Desmond Curran, who later astonished his family and probably every Unionist in Northern Ireland by becoming a priest of the Society of Jesus. Ian Gordon Hay was released in 1959 after his case had been put to the Home Secretary by his M.P. Arthur Woodburn, Labour Member for Clackmannanshire. By strange coincidence the National College of Labour Colleges again enters the story. Arthur Woodburn was president of the NCLC.

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Author:Boyd, Andrew
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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