Alf McCreary’s personal pilgrimage of Keeping the Faith - book review

In Keeping the Faith, journalist Alf McCreary reflects on his life from Bessbrook to The Belfast Telegraph and beyond, and a career charting the horrors of the Troubles and the flourishing of peace

Alf McCreary pictured at his  launch  ‘Keeping the Faith’ on Thursday evening  at Queens University in Belfast.
Journalist Alf McCreary at the launch of his latest book, Keeping the Faith, which tells the story of his life and some of the remarkable people he has made during his career

Alf McCreary came into Ulster Television Studio One to report on a hockey match; this happened over 50 years ago and I remember being impressed - he was a journalist and that was something very special to a young woman with writing ambition.

Since then we’ve been friends and his books have charted the course of his career, each one examining some aspect of our local lives and beyond. However, it wasn’t until I read his latest publication, Keeping the Faith, that I really came to appreciate the man: his growing up in Bessbrook, Co Armagh and the intimate struggles of being born out of wedlock; a very personal story of his formative years in a village of mixed religions; and, although belonging to the Presbyterian church, he accepts them all, once even joining the Methodist congregation one Christmas morning. “In those Christmas mornings of my boyhood, the Incarnation of the Christ child seemed very real to me, but so too did Santa Claus,” he writes.

His latest book touches on his childhood and how it shaped his future. He was well churched but his faith journey began to gather momentum when he moved to Queen’s University Belfast.

It was only when representing QUB at a hockey tournament in Essen that he saw a memorial with the names of many Germans who died in the two World Wars: “The realisation that the Germans had also suffered horrendous casualties stopped me in my tracks.”

This realisation opened his eyes to agonies many of his subjects have experienced and gave him a notable empathy and desire for peace building, especially when writing about Northern Ireland.

He speaks of his respect for his first boss, Jack Sayers, editor of The Belfast Telegraph, Alf’s home newspaper to this day. He writes about the June 1968 civil rights march, the rise and rise of Ian Paisley: “In my journey of ‘keeping the faith’ I have encountered few such human beings who claimed devotion to Christianity but who also created so much misery and inspired so much sectarianism as the Iate Ian Richard Kyle Paisley, the evangelist and political activist.”

I think the heart of the book is the chapter on the Kingsmills Massacre. Here, Alf was having to deal with the aftermath of the murder of 10 Protestant workmen, among them his own primary school mates

To be fair - and Alf McCreary is a fair man (his nickname in newspaper offices was ‘Father Teresa’ and he was once taken for both Ian Paisley and a Catholic bishop in Armagh...) - he also talks Paisley’s positive side.

He records from the start of the Troubles in 1969 until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a total of 3,289 people died including 2,332 civilians, 35,669 shootings, 10,142 explosions, 5,104 devices defused, 20,568 armed robberies and over £29 million stolen.

He goes on to consider that in a population of 1.5 million the figures are shocking and when you realise that each of these events involve human beings, your shock and sense of tragedy begins to deepen.

This latest book, the last in the genre he says, goes behind the headlines, behind the stories which we read and then move on from. He talks of the men and women who lost limbs in bombings, doctors and nurses who had to face dreadful trauma, the interview with Lord Louis Mountbatten’s daughter, Countess Mountbatten, who was badly injured in the 1979 Provisional IRA bomb in a Sligo bay when the family were enjoying lobster fishing off the coast.

Alf McCreary pictured at his  launch  ‘Keeping the Faith’ on Thursday evening  at Queens University in Belfast.
Alf McCreary and Cecilia West, director of Messenger Publications, at the launch of his book Keeping the Faith

I think the heart of the book is the chapter on the Kingsmill Massacre. Here, Alf was having to deal with the aftermath of the murder of 10 Protestant workmen, among them his own primary school mates. He reflects not only on the tragedy but also being told his father - a man he’d never met and didn’t meet on that terrible day - was at the funeral of one of his friends. Some months later they did meet, writes Alf, “but he never admitted to being my father so there was no happy ending”.

Alan Lewis - PhotopressBelfast.co.uk               12-4-2024   
The inquests findings were made public  today , (Friday) at Belfast Coroners Court into the murders of ten protestant workmen who were taken off their works minibus and massacred in a hail of bullets on 5/1/1976.         
Original caption follows :          Richard Hughes - catholic workman spared by gunmen in IRA's infamous sectarian  massacre of 10 protestants at Kingsmills, County Armagh.
Many of those caught up in the Kingsmills massacre of January 1976 were known to Alf McCreary, making it one of the most difficult stories he reported on (Alan Lewis - Photopress Belfast/Photopress Belfast)

Speaking at the launch of Keeping the Faith, Alf asked: “Who is the real Alf McCreary?” In this book he will find himself and what he stands for: “It’s important to be positive. Nothing can be done without hope. This book is a tribute to the human spirit.”

With almost 40 books under his belt he moves on to the story of the Albert Foundry a subject far flung from the Troubles, and the many theatres of war he has written about. He quotes fellow journalist Cal McCrystal: “You will never become rich from journalism, but it will make you a rich human being.”

Keeping the Faith is published by Messenger Publications and can be found in bookshops and on Amazon, £12.95