17th August 2022
MCE managing director, Paul McErlean, writes in his monthly Irish News column
Three months ago this Thursday, myself and one of my colleagues from work spent an interesting morning in Áras Uí Chonghaile, the James Connolly Visitor Centre on the Falls Road. If you haven’t been and even if you’re not interested in the life of James Connolly, do yourself a favour and go for a visit. It’s an outstanding, world-class exhibit housed in this year’s Building of the Year and the winner of the Liam McCormack prize from the RSUA (Royal Society of Ulster Architects), the highest accolade in local architecture.
Giving us the tour was Harry Connolly, the Executive Director of Failte Feirste Thiar, the west Belfast tourism development body which owns and operates the Centre and the Principal of the winning architects, Colm McGurk, and his senior colleague, Fergal Rainey. Many readers will maybe know who Collie was because in addition to being an inspirational leader and innovator in the world of architecture, he was also a GAA man of serious renown. Collie was an All-Ireland winner with Derry and Lavey in football and he won multiple championships in hurling as well as being a former Derry Senior Hurling manager. However, it was through his membership of the winning Queen’s University Sigerson Cup team (Irish inter-varsity Gaelic football) of 1990 that I really formed my bond with Collie. Over the last thirty-two years, we kept in touch regularly and found various ways to do business together and help each other out. Helping people out was one of the many things Collie was very good at and his untimely passing, which also reaches its month’s mind this week, has been very sorely felt on so many fronts: family, community, club, and business circles.
Unfortunately, Collie is the second person we’ve lost from that squad, the first was a young lad from Dungiven, Feargal Higgins, who tragically died not much more than a year after our win. I had graduated by that stage and was doing a gap year in San Francisco when I was told the news. I booked a flight that day and flew home for the funeral. We were all there and the following night, a good number of us were out in Belfast. It was late at night and Collie went to say cheerio and as he gave me a hug, he emptied his pockets of whatever money he had to help me get back to the States. That was typical of the man, he was still an architecture student and wouldn’t have had a lot of cash but whatever he had, he gave to me.
I met Feargal’s father and his sister, Shauna, at Collie’s funeral. And when I told Shauna that story, she told me a story about how Collie had driven to Dungiven the week of the 1993 All-Ireland Final to deliver a ticket to the game for the Higgins family. Collie said that Feargal would have been on the Derry squad had he been alive, and Collie wanted to give the family his ticket. You can imagine the pressure the players were under that week to source tickets and yet Collie took the time to drive up to the Higgins’ house to deliver what he believed was Feargal’s ticket. Another mark of the man. I suspect there are countless similar stories of Collie’s generosity and thoughtfulness, I experienced them virtually every time I met him.
His approach to business was similar to his approach to life, if he could help people (who were genuine), he would, even if the commercial opportunity or that person or group’s ability to pay, wasn’t always apparent at the start. Some people may think that is not a clever approach to running a profitable business, I think Collie would disagree; doing the right thing and leaving things and people in better shape than he found them was very important to Collie, from the young lads of the Lavey minor hurling team that he was coaching this year to communities in West Belfast and the Fountain estate in Derry where McGurk Architects is helping to deliver another innovative and valuable piece of community infrastructure at the New Gate Arts & Culture Centre. Innovative and often cross-community approaches to gathering a cocktail of private and public sector funding to get building projects delivered was also part of the service Collie would provide, he was a hard man to say no to. I never did.
Unfortunately, Collie was taken far too early, he had so much more to give the worlds of architecture and the GAA and most importantly of course, his family.
Since Collie’s passing, I also lost my mother. Wee Nellie wasn’t a titan of architecture, business, sport, or the community but she was the titan of our family. The glue that held us together; the worrier; the cajoler and the always enthusiastic supporter of her grandchildren. Even at 93, she had an energy and zest for life that very few people I’ve come across have matched and was a wonderful example to us all. Just like Collie. May they both Rest in Peace.