End of an era for Hill Street's Black Santa
Tuesday, 6 December 2016
NEWRY'S Black Santa has decided to take a back seat after 25 years of his sit-out on Hill Street at Christmas time writes Colin O'Neill.
John Dalzell MBE has been a constant feature at Marcus Square for a quarter of a century over the festive season, with the efforts of he and his team raising a highly impressive £1,383,000 for the Southern Area Hospice over the years.
John, who will turn 75-years-old during the sit-out, told the Democrat that this is the last year that he will be heavily involved in the organisational side of the sit-out, but that he will still drop down to Hill Street now and again.
The appeal will hereafter be known as the John Dalzell Christmas Appeal.
He also recalled how the charity drive began after a conversation with a nun who worked in Daisy Hill hospital inspired him to follow the lead of Belfast's Black Santa, Dean Sammy Crooks.
“I sat down with Sister Teresa and some other nuns and had a cup of tea with them and suggested helping them," John explained.
"But the Hospice then was £200,000 a year to run - now it's about £2.4 million.
“It had only been started about a year or a year and a half and I thought: 'I'll offer my services and do something like get a wheelie bin and stand on Hill Street.'"
And that is exactly what he did.
Although in later years he graduated from a sentry box to a heated mobile shelter for his annual sit-out from 8am to 6pm, when he began all he had was that wheelie bin, a table, a chair and a little tape recorder.
“I sat there in the wind and the rain, and I used to shelter against the Christmas tree," recalled John.
“The wind would blow the tree and it would only be blowing the water off the tree down on top of me.
“I remember people bringing me Christmas dinners and all. Businesses would order an extra one. I would sit on Hill Street and I would get the plastic knife and fork and I couldn't feel them. They would break in my hand because I couldn't feel them and I was putting that much pressure on them."
At the time John began his fund raising for the hospice, he had already been a veteran in the field. Thousands of pounds were raised by him for cancer research, and he was also a member of the Salvation Army.
“I have done different things down through the years," said John.
“I was the conductor of Heatherbrook silver band in Bessbrook, which was named after my daughter Heather. I started that and it was a cross-community band which went everywhere and played.
“We paid for a thousand children who had night blindness in Africa to get their sight back and we put in two wells in Africa too.
“Then there was a machine that went into the city hospital for people who were undergoing big cancer operations or anything like that.
“It was called an infusion pump. And they could clip you onto that - you had no call for any other injections - it administered the right dosage going into you for to keep you out of pain."
John, who was awarded an MBE in 1998, is ideally placed to ask about the changes he has seen on Newry's main thoroughfare over the years. Unfortunately, he has witnessed a change for the worse.
“What stands out is that it has got a lot deader," he said.
“It used to be there was no shopping centres and I would be standing there to nine o'clock at night and there would be people going up and down to Woolworths, whereas now there's none of that.
“Come four o'clock or half four - Hill Street is just dead. They go to the shopping centres - so it's completely different altogether."
One thing however that he is certain has not changed is the generosity of the people of Newry. John would love to see the total raised pass the £1.5 million this year.
“People have even got better," he insisted.
“I know that there was one year it was a £105,000 that was raised but it was around £78,000 or £80,000 last year.
“It's still a lot of money and there are a lot of people who wait until the end of year and send in by post. And there are also schools and businesses that come to me.
“The people are the last word, and it's great to see it. And it's that fund raising team that needs all the praise because it's them that's doing all the work - it's them that's keeping the hospice going.
“I hope we get to one and a half million this Christmas.
John will be out from December 17-24 on Hill Street, and whatever about him modestly deflecting credit onto others - his steadfastness and determination are worthy of the highest praise.
He says that he enjoys Christmas but "sleeps through the most of it".
“As soon as Boxing Day is over - I'm away out around lifting the buckets and tubes that I put around the shops, and I take them to the counters," said John.
“I enjoy Christmas surely, and you enjoy it even more thinking about what you've done."
If you would like to make a donation to the Appeal in aid of Southern Area Hospice Services please come down to John's Sit Out on Hill Street, make a donation to one of his collectors around the town or send your donation to: Southern Area Hospice Services, St John's House, Courtney Hill, Newry, BT34 2EB.
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