Lives Remembered

Tommy Roycroft: Consummate journalist was kindly in thought and generous in deed

THOMAS J (Tommy) Roycroft or, as he was known to some, TJR, was a former editor of the Northern Constitution in Coleraine and a leading figure in weekly journalism in Northern Ireland.

He brought meticulous and consummate skills to the profession, graced by his presence and influence for the best part of half a century.

He was widely respected and admired not only for his journalistic abilities but also for his many qualities of grace and nature, not least of which was a pleasant and engaging personality that shone through everything he did.

I first got to know him while learning the ropes as a junior reporter more years ago now than I care to remember.

He took the time, always in a kindly and encouraging way, to polish the rough edges off my early attempts at acquiring some degree of proficiency in the skills of newspaper reporting. Invariably he was generous in his praise and encouragement and gentle in his criticism.

I was not the only young journalist who benefited from his guidance and advice over the years. Many went on to make their mark in daily newspapers and broadcasting outlets at both local and national levels so it would not be an exaggeration to say that as a journalist, Tommy Roycroft was not only gifted but also inspirational.

His style of writing and reporting was clear and crisp and concise and it was easy to find within it echoes of Pulitzer’s famous maxim: “Put it before them briefly so they will read it; clearly so they will appreciate it; picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”

There is no doubt that during his lengthy tenure at the Northern Constitution, he helped to enhance the quality and standing of the newspaper. He would go to great lengths to ensure that within its columns all sections of the community were given “a fair crack of the whip”.

And he took pride in the fact that for many years it had the largest certified circulation of any weekly newspaper in the province.

Tommy possessed shorthand and typing skills of a high calibre.In the days before computerisation I well remember in the Reporters Room listening in awe to the amazing sound produced by the speed of his typing on a battered old upright Underwood when he was working on a report of a council meeting or a court hearing and rushing to meet a looming deadline.  

Such was the quality of his shorthand note-taking that frequently he would be asked by solicitors and barristers to provide them with verbatim reports of complicated court cases involving finely balanced legal arguments of which they needed to have an accurate record.

I knew him also as a man of deep faith and conviction, widely read and with an interest in theology, sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, charitable and generous almost to a fault. Of him it could be truly said that he was “kindly in thought, courteous in word and generous in deed.”

He had a nice sense of wit and humour, never offensive, which he carried easily and it underpinned many of the well-rounded stories he told of his experiences in the course of his long and fruitful career.

To have come under the guidance and wisdom of someone like him not only in the early years of my own journalistic path but also for a long time afterwards, was a privilege and a blessing.

Outside the work environment Tommy had a larger-than-life persona and here again I have only happy memories of the good-natured humour, big heartedness and fair mindedness which were the hallmarks of his character and personality.

One such memory stands out above all the rest and for a very special reason – to his door can be laid the responsibility of having introduced me to Thelma, who would later become my wife.

It all began on a beautiful summer day in the late 1950s when Tommy announced that he had made arrangements for an outing to Ballycastle and the Giant’s Causeway. He wanted me to join him on the trip along with another colleague, Uel Young.

He neglected to mention that Thelma and a couple of other girls would also be coming along. And as usual, Tommy did not do things by halves – he had organised the services of a taxi driver for the day!

In Ballycastle we enjoyed a nice meal in the Royal Marine Hotel and then it was on to the Causeway where a boat trip around the headlands was the highlight. Needless to say, the company was pleasant and jovial and the golden memories of that day are still fresh.

Years later, looking through some old files, I came across a little note from Tommy in which he recalled that memorable day. He wrote: “That Causeway visit defies measurement in terms of happiness. Despite my forty-seven years in journalism I do not know of any word that could ring a bell loudly enough in its praise.”

And he added: “The first line of a Gospel chorus I sang as an infant runs – ‘When we all get to Heaven, what a wonderful day it will be...’ The wonderful day the chorus links to Heaven comes to mind every time I think of our wonderful day at the Causeway.”

It was quite a few years on from that day, after he had retired, in fact, that Tommy entered into wedded bliss himself. He and Margaret had known each other for a good few years and they settled down happily to married life in Belfast.

In his latter years he struggled with Parkinson's and was lovingly cared for by Margaret. For the last few years he had been resident in the Bethany Nursing Home just off the Lisburn Road.

I called to visit him on a number of occasions and was saddened to see how he had been brought low by this debilitating disease and other complicating factors. Each time I was struck by the unwavering love and devotion shown to him by Margaret during this most difficult time in their lives.

Tommy died on March 13 at the age of 95.

His warm friendship enriched the lives of many people, and certainly mine, so I will end this tribute with a quotation about friendship. It comes from the pen of the great American author, Washington Irving:

“Sweet is the memory of distant friends! Like the mellow rays of the departing sun it falls tenderly, yet sadly, on the heart.”

Sweet indeed is the memory, my old friend. Sleep in gentle peace.

Maurice McAleese

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Lives Remembered