logoJohn McGonigle - Class of 1974
 A tribute by Billy Tate.


No sorrow can them now annoy,
Nor weakness, grief or pain;
No faintness can abate their joy,
They now in life do reign.
(John Bunyan)

During the 50s and 60s my father walked the six of us to Edenderry Presbyterian Church, every Sunday without fail. No matter how inclement the weather he accepted no sick-notes for church parade. The one person who later absented herself, as we reached our teenage-years, was my mother and that was unusual because she was devoted to her family and church.

We 'Blackmouths' lacked the warmth and friendship of her beloved St Mark's Church of Ireland. When her children were old enough, she returned to the mother church of her youth. She was always quoting from the sermons preached by the Rev McGonigle and sharing with us his all-embracing brand of Christianity. Mother and father now resting in Drumcree, the 'Blackmouth' forever a son of the parish.

The good-reverend-gentleman had all the virtues that the Irish people are famed for across the world. He was a most gregarious man-of-the-cloth and his wife was a lovely lady. My first sight of Barney has remained imprinted on my brain, as he strolled down our street on his way to see 'Lofty' Ballantine, the local cobbler in Thomas Street. My mum spoke to him and he told her that he was going to leave-in a pair of shoes for repair. To be truthful, I am not sure if she called him by his given-name Alan or Barney, the name by which he has been known to me for over forty-years. What I do recall was that he was in his Boy Scout's uniform and he was whistling loudly, very much at ease with life.

When I started Portadown College I was aware of Barney but time conspires to play a trick on me because I cannot remember exactly when we became friends. However, I was privileged to go through school and Stranmillis College in his company. My wife stares quizzically at people who can see my likeness in one of my sons or daughter. I am sure that Mrs McGonigle would glare at me if I said that Dad, Barney and John all looked very much alike to me. Three-peas-in-a-pod!

John was the younger brother by a couple of years but from an early age in school he had a presence that all the McGonigle men possessed. They had a magnetic personality and a willingness to help their fellow-man. No matter where I met him, he always had a smile and a kind word to share. He was an amusing lad who enjoyed a joke and that mop of blond hair made him stand out in a crowd. I am sure that if John was alive today that long hair-style would bring a smile to his face.

It was in a crowd that he belonged and he could charm his way into-and-out-off any situation. He was very good at reading the mood of his friends. When John spoke to you he always demanded your total attention; what he said was worth listening-to and he made you feel refreshed. What makes this so unusual is because he was the younger brother, an extremely difficult role to play in any school. Two years is a life-time at school and younger siblings tend not to make an impact with the older brother's friends.

I watched him progress through the rugby teams and he was determined to emulate the achievements of his older brother. His school rugby photograph of 73-74 does not quite capture the smile that transformed his whole countenance, one that is implanted fondly in my memory, but it comes close. If John were here today, he is the sort of lad that I would want teaching in my school. He had something that was worth passing down through the generations.

However, John chose to enter the hospitality industry and this was a natural choice for his talents. Hospitable is what he was and I am sure that he would have risen to the top in his chosen profession. John Douglas told me of John's untimely death. JD kindly offered me a place in his car, to travel up to Magherafelt and pass on my condolences to the family. 'Sorry for your troubles,' words this father, who greeted us at the door, had heard many times that night. It is only as a father, that I can come a little closer to an understanding of what the loss of a child might entail. However, there will only ever be one John and that sad experience can only be shared by Mum, Dad, Ruth and Barney. Only two peas remained in the pod.

As we drove up north, I reflected on the last time that I saw John before we lost contact. I was walking through Ballymena, near the old hospital, when I heard someone calling my name. Across the road was John, hand in the air, waving frantically and that smile lit up a dull winter's day. He told me all about his new job in Scotland and he was brimming with excitement. The boy had become a man but he still looked so young. A moment of friendship, as hand-clasped-hand, sealing an eternal bond and instantly frozen in time.

In my private moments that farewell image has returned to me almost every year since that day and it is one that I enjoy. It does not bring sadness to me but delightful memories of a charming young man who brightened-up some of my school days. I often wonder why God calls home young men like John and the answer to that question has tested my faith to braking point. However, John was a gift from God to loving parents and I know that they have made their peace. The time will come when I do likewise.

Among life's precious jewels,
Genuine and rare,
The one that we call friendship
Has worth beyond compare.


John is 5th from the left in the back row.