By Jamie Bryson
Jimmy Menagh often didn’t care much for my writing. He would scowl at me across the office and quip that I was “confusing people with those big words”. I asked him before he passed away for permission to publish a tribute to him, and he simply replied, “I’d like that”.
As I sat down this morning to write this tribute, having received the news of his death early on, I cried, I smiled, I recalled our arguments and most of all I felt proud to have had a friend like Jimmy Menagh.
In the office whilst I’d often be sitting writing- nothing which compares in importance to this article- meanwhile he would be putting together food parcels, or badgering me to give him a lift over to Comber or into Newtownards whereby he had arrangements with local supermarkets to obtain food which he would distribute- on foot- around the local area every week.
He never posted this on social media or got his picture in the paper for his acts of kindness (mind you, he did like a picture in the local paper- a friend from Ballybeen used to joke it was the ‘Jimmy Menagh weekly’, but this was simply because he went to every event, supported every worthwhile cause).
That was Jimmy Menagh: no fuss, no publicity for himself but rather dedicating himself to the service of his community. He did that his whole life.
A few weeks ago, we made arrangements to go for breakfast. There was the unspoken acknowledgement we would probably never see each other in person again. I will forever cherish those two and a half hours we spent together and the content of our conversation, which will forever remain private between us.
But I will tell you one detail about it. As we sat down to our table, Jimmy Menagh’s first words to me were “are you ok son? What about the family, do you need anything?”
Remarkable. Even nearing death, Jimmy Menagh cared more about others than he did himself. I had words with him shortly before that day as I had heard he was still out delivering parcels, even as he suffered terrible illness entering the final weeks of his life. He was a servant of his people until the very end.
We shared an office for four years. It was all out war from 9am every morning. On occasion I would arrive in about 10am, having stayed home to go on the Nolan Show. He would dismissively wave his arm and say: “what are you wasting your time doing that for”, before we would inevitably argue about the burning political issue of the day.
But on occasions when he, in his understated way, said “well done”, it meant something. Other times he would simply catch my eye across our small office, and nodding towards some ongoing issue he’d say “you done alright today son”, before turning around and continuing with his own work.
He did not much appreciate my regular disputes with the PSNI either. That isn’t to say he was reticent about challenging them, any local senior officer will tell you that Jimmy Menagh was no pushover. He stood up for his community, more than any other. Serving on the Policing Partnership, he was a formidable advocate.
I remember he invited me along one night, and after I’d started a dispute with the Chief Superintendent Brian Kee in the open session- which seemed to be like a ten-minute tennis match- he scowled at me on the way out “never again“. That amused me, and- the next day- him as well.
The community police officers in the West Winds- Emma and Mel- were people he valued immensely, they were his friends. They used to come in on a Friday and he’d be wagging his finger telling me not to give them a hard time. In partnership with them, he delivered many community-based projects and, in some respects, allowed wider community relationships to be built with local policing.
He had many friends who served in the security forces during the troubles. Often, he would recount that when working as a bar manager, local off duty RUC officers would come in for a “session” and would entrust Jimmy to mind their weapons in the safe. A trust he never betrayed.
Having been a well known and decorated football manager himself, he wasn’t much impressed with my team. I’d often ring him on a Saturday to tell him the result, he’d quip “pub team, just a pub team”. He’d then (falsely) claim our club was paying players (something he as a matter of principle detested in local football) and in consequence tell me I was a “cheat”.
This used to amuse me no end, not least because in the Shorts yearly tournament for staff, where Jimmy worked for decades and made many friends across the entire community, he used to load his team with Irish league players who had somehow become Shorts employees for the day.
I also had to remind him that on one occasion his team had a big game and he was short of players, surprisingly the goalposts were cut down the night before.
On occasion we did well, such as securing promotion, he rang me up and simply said “not bad kid, but I want to hear no more about it. Right, bye now”, before chuckling and putting the phone down.
He was loved in local football circles, doing all he could in his role as an elected representative to serve the people of his constituency and beyond. And it was this role Jimmy Menagh valued more than any other aspect of his public life.
Councillor (or as he used to remind me ‘Alderman’) Jimmy Menagh was proud to be elected by the people he loved, and those who cast a vote for him genuinely loved him back.
A vote for Jimmy Menagh wasn’t simply ticking a party box, it was a heartfelt endorsement of someone who everyone who cast a vote for him believed in. A Menagh voter was a motivated voter. They came out for their man: Jimmy Menagh from Newtownards.
Jimmy was an unashamed loyalist. He stood up for loyalism, sometimes when everyone else turned their back. But he also was forceful and unafraid to challenge anyone he felt was doing something with which he disagreed. In the sometimes frayed world of loyalism whereby different groups take different directions, Jimmy Menagh won the respect, trust and endorsement of all genuine loyalists. He was, in every sense of the word, an honest broker.
He valued his name and his reputation, in a traditional way. He would betray no-one, and would never sacrifice his own principles, no matter the potential benefit to himself. A rarity, he was someone who you could have a conversation with and when you said ‘this stays between us’, you could be absolutely certain that Jimmy Menagh would never betray your confidence. And he never did.
The passing today of Jimmy Menagh has left a gaping hole in the community of Newtownards, and across the loyalist family. He will equally be sorely missed by his true friends from “the other side” who he often spoke warmly about. Those friendships were deeply valued.
In June of 2021, he shared the platform- despite even at that stage being deeply unwell- at the Newtownards anti-Protocol rally. Of all those on the platform, I am most proud Jimmy Menagh was there.
In 2021, Jimmy’s great friend Stephen ‘Bert’ Irvine organised ‘Jimmy Menagh’s mass band’ on the 12th July. It was, we all sadly expected, to be his last tune. But, being the fighter that he is, the music played on for almost another full year. Heart like a lion.
The mass band was an unprecedented show of unity. An incredible turnout, with the streets packed, all there for Jimmy Menagh. He wouldn’t tell you this, but he liked that. And most of all, he deserved it.
We say goodbye today to our friend, our mentor, our representative and one of the greatest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Our thoughts are with Jimmy’s partner Nicola- who he adored- and his immediate family circle, all of whom meant the world to him, and who he loved deeply. I know, because he told me the last time I seen him.
As Jimmy Menagh closed his eyes for the final time, I hope he imagined himself walking along the Comber Road, with the streets lined on every side with family, friends, constituents and even opponents whose respect he won.
There would be loyalists, friends from the nationalist community, work-mates, constituents, footballers who played under him and against him, politicians, retired RUC and UDR officers, PSNI officers and all his constituents.
They would be cheering, applauding and waving at a smiling Jimmy Menagh on his final journey. I hope he waved back.
At the end of every phone call over the last year I would say “love you mate”, he’d reply “love you too son”, and with that he’d be gone.
Farewell Jimmy Menagh. Forever in our hearts.