Lives Remembered

Tommy Hawkins: A Belfast man 'from the tips of his toes to Napoleon's Nose'

Tommy Hawkins suited and booted for a Holy Trinity boxing trip to Boston in the 1980s

Tommy Hawkins, still looking dapper at 90

Today, February 15, would have been the 93rd birthday of Tommy Hawkins.

Born in 1927 to Harry and Ellen (née McAnespie) Hawkins, the family lived in the New Lodge Road area of north Belfast, mainly at 13 Arlington Street.

Unlucky number it may be but not for them, the terrifying Luftwaffe Blitz of April 1941 obliterating houses on either side of their home, but amazingly not theirs.

Tommy and his siblings often spoke of vivid memories of a sea of flame as families fled to find safety with German bombs dropping around them.

For Tommy (happily) it meant the end of schooldays a few months earlier than planned.

After starting off as a message boy on the Dublin Road (‘Strong boy wanted for light donkey work’ was the job description), then a tea boy at the massive aerodrome sites under construction around Nutts Corner, Tommy began serving his time as a plasterer with Stuart and Partners.

Back then, to learn a building trade took slightly longer than it does today.

Five years and two weeks later Tommy finally got his indentures as a fully-fledged plasterer (the two weeks were to make up for a fortnight in hospital).

TIME SERVED: Tommy Hawkins's Plasterer Indentures from the 1940's

The wider Hawkins family were well respected in the Markets area (Tommy's grandfather, Henry Hawkins, enjoyed Irish pony-trotting fame back at the turn of the 20th century aboard the great champion Killarney) and they were, and still remain, great friends and relations of the Murdock family, legends in this bustling, tight-knit community area of Belfast.

Tommy's mother Ellen’s family hailed from Tyrone; her brother, Michael, was killed in Gallipoli in the First World War (''One of the lions led by donkeys,'' said Tommy, whenever the subject arose) while several other brothers were plasterers, some of them emigrating to Australia, working on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Henry Hawkins, Tommy's grandfather, champion pony-trotter and the great Killarney

In the 1960s he had the option of taking his young family Down Under to follow in the footsteps of his McAnespie uncles.

But, 'from the tips of his toes to Napoleon’s Nose', Tommy was Belfast born and bred and his love of ‘The Town’ won the day.

Over a few pints (and then some) and Belfast banter in his favourite boozers, such as Lynch’s, McGlade’s, the City Hibs (in later years, Casement and the PD), the aches and pains of the building game were gently soothed for this Belfast Celtic and Glasgow Celtic fan.

Even to his final days, Tommy could rhyme off the names of great Belfast players, teams and great matches he had attended, spanning over almost 70 years. Lodgeville, a New Lodge Road side, winning the Junior Cup was a highlight of his younger days.

Holy Trinity boxers and hard-working coaches including Michael Hawkins (front left)

In 1963 he settled his growing family in the sprawling new estate of Turf Lodge.

Alongside his wife Bridie, a wee woman with a huge passion for her new community, Tommy was one of a group of volunteer tradesmen who grafted alongside Fr Paddy McWilliams to help build the Holy Trinity Youth Club in the early 1970s.

The Holy Trinity Boxing Club quickly followed with Tommy and his six sons central to its success down the years.

Now world-famous, the club was a beacon of light, hope and inspiration for the children of this deprived area during the dark days of the Troubles and remains so almost 50 years on.

Tommy Hawkins with sons Harry and Gerard and Holy Trinity boxers Eddie Fisher (left) and Jim Conlon (front right) at Tommy's 90th birthday party

The death of Bridie in 2004 was a disaster for Tommy but despite his grief, his faith was strong, certain that one day they would be reunited, and another rousing Irish sing-song would begin.

Tommy hadn't been too well in recent times as old age crept in, but his Belfast humour never left him.

A primary schoolmate of Frank Carson in St Patrick's PS in Donegall Steet, Tommy's wit down the years was similarly in 'the way he told them' vein, and best enjoyed with a bottle and a half un and a bunch of bosom mates.

Tommy would tell the ''true story'' of a fella he knocked about with from Lepper Street back in the day; he shall remain nameless.

The fella, a real character around the district, bought a scarf, wore it for a week and then brought it back to McMurray's in North Street demanding a refund.

''I want to return that scarf, I want a refund,'' he says.

The shop assistant says: ''Why sir, what's wrong with it? We have to have good reason to give a refund.''

''Good reason? ' said the fella, thinking frantically.

'Aaaahhh, well, It's aaaahhh, no good, I tried it on last night and it was too tight.''

Tommy Hawkins at his 90th birthday party with just some of the Hawkins clan

Ill health took hold over the last three years, but the love of his family ensured Tommy would stay in his own home, his four daughters looking after him devotedly.

A very peaceful end came after he was rushed to the RVH on the morning of November 25 2019.

The crowds at his wake and funeral at Holy Trinity chapel were huge, a measure of his legacy, of the respect in which he was held.

“For all you mean to me, my thanks to you,” are the opening words to one of Tommy’s favourite songs.

Anyone who ever had the pleasure of his company will say the same of TH.

From the tips of my toes to Napoleon's Nose … I'm Belfast born and bred For our Da, Tommy Hawkins, on his 90th birthday, our thanks to him and his tales of Belfast back in the day

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Dublin has the Liffey, Cork it has the Lee But the Lagan flows through my hometown, And it means the world to me

From the tips of my toes to Napoleon's Nose ……… I'm Belfast born and bred

I've known the streets of Belfast, As boy and youth and man A lifetime's memories in my head, I love it heart and hand

The Matinee at the Lido, The pictures at The Ritz The magic of The Broadway, And a back-stalls teenage kiss

The Canberra gliding down the Lough, The liner's booming blast Titanic ships then being built, No longer now, alas

I climbed the first cave on Cave Hill, Got chased by Mickey Marley I missed the age of Pitch and Toss, But bet with Cheeky Charlie

From the tips of my toes to Napoleon's Nose......... I'm Belfast born and bred

Shipyard men, the Dockers, The women in the Mills The workers from the building game, Their stories with us still

McGlades, The Crown and Smithfield, The hymns of the Sally Ann When Rinty ruled the boxing world, The Toss.. Buck Alex ran

The bustle of The Markets, The brass balls of The Pawns Paper boys shout: `Sixth Telllehhh', The blare of factory horns

The GAA at Casement Park, And the Ulster Hall for boxing The Blues v Celtic, Windsor Park, and the whole of Belfast rocking

From the tips of my toes to Napoleon's Nose......... I'm Belfast born and bred

The grandeur of the City Hall, Of the best Carrara marble While the people lived two up, two down, And men took to the gargle

Tales of Belfast poverty, Of shouldering the hod A people worked down to the bone, I'm proud they're in my blood

It's a town so long divided, We've struggled and we've bled But the one thing that unites us all.... We're Belfast... born and bred

From the tips of my toes to Napoleon's Nose......... I'm Belfast born and bred

Copyright: Thomas Hawkins, February 15 2017

Bridie and Tommy Hawkins and family

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Lives Remembered