Neil Loughran: They don't make them like Francie Arthurs any more

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

The award=winning picture of Francie Arthurs running through the streets of west Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann
The award=winning picture of Francie Arthurs running through the streets of west Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann The award=winning picture of Francie Arthurs running through the streets of west Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann

THEY don’t make them like Francie Arthurs any more.

It’s a funny thing, but sometimes there is a sort of sixth sense about the person you’re going to meet. Francie’s good friend, Seamus Loughran, had filled me full of a lifetime’s worth of stories, but it was an award-winning picture by Irish News photographer Mal McCann that said more than words ever could.

There, running up a narrow street lined with cars, a flock of pigeons forming a halo around him, was Francie in his element. Eyes glowing behind thick-rimmed glasses, more than a hint of mischief as a smile spread across his lips, the picture didn’t just capture Francie’s image; it encapsulated his spirit.

The second you walked through the door of his apartment, opposite the entrance to Falls Park, you knew. Oversized teddies in one room, trophies as far as the eye could see in another, pictures and prints, an Aladdin’s cave of trinkets from all four corners of the globe, mementoes everywhere of a life lived to the full, barely an inch of wall to spare.

When offering directions, he explained that his block was beside the fold “where the old people live”. Francie was 81 at the time.

As soon as he rolled up his sleeves to reveal, on his left shoulder, a tattoo of his dog Sparky, and on his right an image of cat Snowie, any lingering doubt was immediately erased. This was going to be good.

And so unfolded an odyssey that covered surviving the ‘Blitz’, hazy memories of Belfast’s mills giving way, a child’s eyes watching on while flour filled the night sky as Nazi bombs fell like confetti.

The sound of the drones, and the smell of destruction, would never leave him.

Mostly, though, it was happier times – growing up in Sailortown, a part of the city where his black and white image can still be seen aboard a Lambretta. Francie’s friendship with the famous one-armed footballer Jimmy Hasty, so callously gunned down in a sectarian tit-for-tat killing.

There were the days working as a cabin boy at the docks, a taste for travel developed during regular sailings to England and France.

Outside of his five-to-nine as a BT engineer, he was a lollipop man at St Gall’s primary school before becoming a youth leader in Ballymurphy, the Troubles raging on the streets around him. His eyes widened as those days come flooding back, taking survival courses and teaching street-smart youngsters how to safely snare hares with a shoelace or wading into Donegal waters to catch fish with their feet.

Those same youngsters would meet him on the street decades on, often with their own kids, his shoulders shuddering as some of those countryside capers were relived.

Mostly, though, he talked about running, and all that it had given him. A 60-a-day smoker, the 48-year-old Francie was packing 14 stone into his 5”6 frame. Once the habit was kicked, armed with new air in his lungs, a second chance at life was ready to be grasped.

It started off with charity runs, then 5Ks, 10Ks and eventually marathons - Belfast, Dublin, London, all over Europe in fact. He had clocked up over 100 when all was said and done, even running New York dressed as a leprechaun, then carrying the Olympic torch for a stretch alongside Patrick Kielty – 34 years Francie’s junior - in 2012.

“He’s nearly half my age,” he chuckled, “but he couldn’t run the length of himself.”

The tattoos of Francie Arthurs's beloved pets
The tattoos of Francie Arthurs's beloved pets The tattoos of Francie Arthurs's beloved pets

And the spirit of adventure remained undimmed. That was the most amazing thing about the man. Francie and late wife Maureen used to spin the globe that sat on top of their bookshelf before making plans to visit wherever it stopped.

In 2005, at the age of 68, he strapped a tent to his back and headed for San Sebastien. Bus, taxi, boat, taxi, boat, taxi, train, bus. Two days later he arrived in the Basque country, 24 hours before he was due to represent Ireland at the World Masters Athletics Championships.

At the Anoeta Stadium, Francie reached the final and finished 24th in the M65 marathon - exactly the same position he finished at the 1999 Worlds in Gateshead, and in Brisbane two years later, behind exactly the same 23 men.

The following morning, breakfast was served with a side dish of dark humour.

“I was saying to them ‘would any of youse ever think of dying so I can get myself up a few places?’

“And one of them said ‘f**k sake Francie, we’re waiting on you so we can knock it on the head’.”

Yet the bucket list was nowhere near done yet. For his 80th birthday, Francie wanted to run the Great Wall of China, so he did. In 2019, a few weeks before his 82nd birthday, he did the Belfast marathon again – his first time attempting the 26.2 mile distance since 2005.

Half of recent years would be spent in Benalmadena, soaking up the sun and enjoying the company of friends during regular visits, while Parkruns with his beloved West Belfast Coolers crew remained a staple until illness took its toll in recent weeks.

Francie passed away on Saturday, and the world is a darker place without his wit, wisdom and lust for life - though he would have enjoyed Fr Anthony Devlin’s eulogy at Tuesday’s funeral mass in St Paul’s, and the next part of the race to be run.

“Let’s face it,” said Fr Devlin, “poor oul St Peter is having to get a pair of runners to try and follow Francie. It’s going to be a tough one.”

They don’t make them like Francie Arthurs any more.