With her father close to death and without his knowledge, Isabel Heathcoat (Belsie) paid a brief visit to Dublin during the summer of 1947. Her quest was to find her eldest brother Tom Smith. Her mission, in all innocence was a well intended attempt to heal a 30 year old family division between a dying father and his son. For on a cold November morning in 1918, Tom stared at his father with repugnance for the last time as his sister Florrie’s remains were lowered into the ground. When he walked through the gates of Belfast City Cemetery, the two would never speak again.
The scars were deep, the mission thought impossible, but Tom did afford some time for Belsie when she turned up at his office in Dublin. He had no axe to grind with her; after all she had only turned 3 when he left. Tom was not heartless and was inquisitive about the well being of his mother; however his failure to comply with Belsie’s invitation was the final reckoning for those he had left behind in Belfast.
On her return, the extended family huddled in the small living room at the family home in Belfast to hear news of their estranged sibling. Belsie sat under two ornate swords that were proudly hung on the wall and brought home by Tom from the Great War. Clutching a handful of photographs given to her in Dublin, she reported their brother was in good health and earned a good living at Keegans as a Gunsmith. She communicated he had one daughter and had been a Captain in the Spanish Civil War some 10 years earlier.
When the photographs were circulated, a comment was passed from the corner, one which educated most in the room the Spanish Civil War, I knew it, so he fought with the IRA then? …he must be one of them now. And so the family’s perception of Tom grew that day in that small parlour house in Sandy Row. His memory there would become distorted with opinion rather than fact; he was now the black sheep, the one who rubbed shoulders with the enemy, the adventurer who lived in Dublin, who was no longer one of them.
Although Thomas Frederick Smith died two years before I was born, he had a profound effect on my life. The six year old boy who had been in the Egmont Street room that day in 1947, my father, recalled Tom was the only uncle he had never met. His vague recollection diluted the original story shared by Belsie, stating he was in the IRA, he fought in Spain and he owned a gun shop in Dublin. It was no surprise that for many years, I had a less than romantic vision of this person, as a rebel gun runner, as my only knowledge of IRA was that of the Provisionals and their exploits in the Northern Ireland troubles.
Looking back, I now realize how much this knowledge had affected my judgment and tolerance during the height of the troubles as I never subscribed to the stereotypical Belfast Protestantism I was born into. It did not matter whether this ambiguous story, peddled to me from a young age was correct or not, it was too late, the effect was spent. As a small boy growing up in Belfast during the 1970’s and 1980’s, it was easy to get caught in the sectarian web as your religion at birth determined your allegiance to one side or the other. It was my acuity of my families little secret, as well the fear of its discovery, that kept me from jumping on the bandwagon. Like Tom, I lived in a Protestant community, had Protestant friends and attended a Protestant school. This was normal, and I never had a compelling need to question anything.
I have lived in Dublin for many years, I continued to be totally intrigued to the point I was driven to reveal the truth and learn what I could about this man. As the details began to surface, I found it more interesting than the perception conceived in 1947. Those who were there that day were either gone or too young at the time to be of any help, with the exception of one person.
I paid a visit to Belsie’s son Ronnie who lives in Stranmillis. He was five years older than my father and may have better recollections of his mother’s trip to Dublin way back in the forties, I thought. I was disappointed with his reminisce of the occasion, however, he produced a rusty old biscuit tin from his attic. Amongst its contents were the photographs his mother passed around that day in 1947. One showed a young man posing in Royal Irish Regiment uniform (WW1), another, a passport image of a ranked army officer, several pictures of a little girl riding a horse and finally, a picture of a group of men, all wearing German WW1 issue officer uniforms with a pencil arrow with the word Tom beside it. Ronnie tried his best to commentate on each image however his testimony was vague and full of suggested maybes.
Armed with the contents of this rusty old biscuit tin, my research began in 2002, despite my enthusiasm, progress was painfully slow. Having already made the assumption Tom was long dead; I focused on finding his daughter. This proved to be an intimidating challenge, a female Smith with no clues to her given name, age or to whom she married, where does one start? I read the book “The Irish and the Spanish Civil War” by Robert Stradling. Tom was listed on the index pages and there were three accounts of his activities in Spain. I visited Stradlings research material archived in the University if Limerick and amongst its contents was a copy of the same photograph given to me in Stranmillis. This positive identification opened many doors for me.
It was only by chance that I eventually found Tom’s daughter, Alma after stumbling upon his obituary in a 1964 edition of the Irish Independent newspaper. A visit to the military cemetery at Grangegorman on Dublin’s Blackhorse Avenue revealed her address in Sutton in 1983, the year Tom’s wife Evelyn died. My visit there brought initial disappointment as I discovered Alma had moved on 20 years earlier. I guess it was only luck that her next door neighbours had kept regular contact through the sending of Christmas cards every year. I stood in their hallway for forty minutes as they jumped through hoops to facilitate this stranger by rummaging for addresses and telephone numbers on countless bits of paper. God bless Nuala and Brian Ramsey of Sutton because without them, my quest was finished.
Forty five years after his death in 2010, I finally met his daughter Alma and her family at their home in Ougtherard, County Galway. An unpublished manuscript Tom had authored was presented to me as well as countless personal recollections and photographs.