Earlier this month many people in Britain celebrated St. Patrick’s Day.
St. Patrick’s Day is a super time to remember Irish people’s invaluable contribution to English culture – the music, the literature… the Guinness!
I also found myself thinking of all the great Irish people who have enriched English life. Most lists of great Irish people tend to focus on the lives and achievements of Southern Irish people such as Bono and Bob Geldof. So, to redress the balance, here’s a list of great Northern Irish people.
1. Frank CarsonHugh Francis Carson was born in Belfast in 1926 and grew up in an area of the city known as ‘Little Italy’. You needed a good sense of humour to cope with the tough style of life in 1930s Belfast and Frank certainly had that. His tuxedo shirt and sideburns made him seem like the archetypal working man’s pub comedian of the 1970s as he starred in TV shows such as The Comedians and Tiswas. However, his quick-fire gag-telling transcended the fads and fashions of the comedy world and he was never short of a gig until his death in February 2012. A tireless charity worker, his “It’s a cracker!” catchphrase will be much missed.
2. Alex Higgins
Even people who didn’t like snooker loved watching Alex Higgins demonstrate his flair on a snooker table. The aptly-named ‘hurricane’ learned his craft while truanting in the dim snooker halls located in the backstreets of 1960s Belfast. Higgins won snooker’s world championship in 1972 and 1982. Given his exceptionally unorthodox talent it is surprising that he only won the title twice. However, considering his wayward hard-drinking lifestyle it is a wonder he ever lifted the trophy.
3. Barry McGuigan
Northern Irish snooker had Hurricane Higgins; Northern Irish boxing had Barry McGuigan – the Clones Cylone. McGuigan’s all-action boxing style won him a world title belt in 1985 and attracted admirers from across the Catholic-Protestant divide during politically-troubled times. Now a respected boxing pundit for Sky TV, McGuigan has taken a hands-on interest in the career of his son Shane – a promising fighter who could yet emulate his father’s success.
4. Liam Neeson
Famous Northern Irish actors include James Nesbitt and Kenneth Branagh but Ballymena-born Liam Neeson is arguably the Ulster actor who is the most likely to put bums on cinema seats. The 59-year-old has made a career out of playing strong and powerful figures such as Rob Roy and Michael Collins. His portrayal of Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List cemented his reputation as one of the world’s leading actors.
5. Van Morrison
Nicknamed the Belfast Cowboy, this singer-songwriter found fame as the leader of the 1960s pop band Them – a group which produced classic chart hits like Gloria, Please Don’t Go and Here Comes the Night.
Morrison’s breakthrough solo album Astral Weeks name-checks many of the places from his Belfast youth and has led to many music fans making the pilgrimage to Cyprus Avenue to follow in Van’s footsteps.
6. Mary Peters
British athlete Mary Peters’ road to Olympic glory was a long one. The Ballymena woman failed to win a medal in both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games but struck gold in 1972. Belfast’s Mary Peters Track is named in her honour – it is Northern Ireland’s premier athletics venue and Peters, who now lives in Lisburn, remains the province’s premier, and best-loved athlete.
7. George Best
At number 7, is George Best; the same number as the shirt he wore on his Manchester United debut. George Best died from liver disease after decades of alcohol abuse. However, Northern Ireland came to a standstill on the day of his funeral as his countrymen forgot his dark days and just remembered the moments of football magic the mercurial Manchester United striker had given them.
Despite Northern Ireland never reaching the World Cup finals during his playing career, Best proved what a world class player he was by helping Manchester United win the 1968 European Cup.
Admiring Spanish football fans dubbed Best ‘El Beatle’ because of his pop star looks, the people of Northern Ireland just knew him as ‘Our Georgie’; their favourite sporting son.
8. John Hume
Born in Derry in 1937, Hume shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble. Trimble and Hume are politicians from different ends of the Northern Irish political spectrum but their determination and hard work helped smooth the way to peace in Northern Ireland.
Hume took up a place in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 – no one deserved their place in the new parliament more than the man who did so much to make peace possible.
James Christie writes for arts and crafts company Yellow Moon.
Yellow Moon stocks a fantastic range of St. Patrick’s Day kids crafts which kids will love to make