On it, stacked near his computer, are notebooks, each one, page after page, chockablock with words written in his wide, looping hand, each cover labeled according to date and subject. There is one labeled "'View North' column ideas." Scattered here and there are pens and business cards and reference books, humble tools of a trade that he plied with such singular grace and clarity for more than three decades. Jack intended to be back.
But Jack left us last Friday, left us, the bastard, without a chance for a last pint at Rocky's or Brendan's or Langan's. He left us before he could pen that piece on the visiting exhibition from his beloved Linen Hall Library. It was a story that, seven days before his death from cancer (almost to the minute, in fact) he had called from his hospital bed to say he was working on. There was fight in that dog yet.
That Jack went down fighting should come as no surprise to anyone who has read his columns, as it was no surprise to us who knew him. It was certainly no surprise to his wife, Mary, and daughter, Jenny, who kept a bedside vigil as he willed himself to live a little while longer. Jack was always a fighter: a fighter for truth, a fighter against hypocrisy, a fighter for all that is and can be good about Northern Ireland. But he also was a fighter with a smile. Why slash when he could eviscerate just as completely with a hundred tiny cuts? With a flawless command of history, recent and ancient, he would craft, from a jumble of often contradictory facts, and in just a thousand words, an all but unassailable argument, like a good stone mason who turns a pile of New England glacial scree into a wall that is both sturdy and beautiful. To read Jack's column, to eavesdrop on his probing, probing, ever-probing interviews, was to be reminded each day that what we reporters do is important stuff. Jack took his work seriously, far more seriously than he took himself, and that was one of his many charms.
Jack, as a reporter and as a person, was at his core a realist, and as such believed that the pragmatic approach was usually the best way to approximate, if not actually achieve, an elusive ideal. That quality usually put him at odds with those cant-spewing ideologues, in and out of government, whose inconsistencies he gently, humorously and ever so thoroughly exposed, and who frequently returned the favor by savaging him personally in verbal and written diatribes.
And Jack would smile. How could he do otherwise? He had, after all, in balance to that pragmatic side, the soul of a poet, so he did. Shakespeare came as naturally to his lips as profanities do to those of lesser men. "If the doors of perception were cleansed," Blake wrote, "everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." Wiping the glass clean was Jack['s job. His writings forced people to face up to the uncomfortable complexities of our messy world.
And that world was always going to disappoint Jack Holland. He was enough of a cynic to realize that. So though he focused on the big picture in his work, at play he was a man who valued the little things. He collected people the way a croupier sweeps a roulette table. He suffered humanity gladly, gleefully, the fools and the wise men and everyone in between. In an age when much is made of the virtue of tolerance, Jack didn't merely tolerate; he celebrated. It didn't matter who you were, where you were from, or what you believed in, just belly up to the bar, friend, and have a, er, . . . chardonnay? Well, Jack did like his wine.
There is so much more to say about Jack, so many more sides to him to acknowledge, but let it suffice that those of us who knew and loved him miss him already. We miss his graciousness, his wit, his generosity of spirit. We miss his boundless curiosity, his boyish sense of wonder. We miss his laugh. For the Irish Echo, it's like we've lost our cleanup hitter. No matter how good we strive to be, no matter how hard we try to follow Jack's example, we know we'll never be the same.