Our “Ireland Calling” columnist John Spain brought me to the worst restaurant I can remember.

On a trip back to Ireland many years ago, I went to see John, who was our columnist from day one of the Irish Voice, and a man who never shirked a fight or held back expressing an unpopular opinion.

We arranged to meet at a local restaurant. Our columnist for 34 years was clearly trying to impress me with the latest hot gourmet eatery near his lovely home in Howth, Co. Dublin.

The restaurant, I noticed, had an aviary or bird theme, a live bird in this case -- not just any bird but a great big one with a long yellow beak and black feathers. He was residing in a cage high above the diners.

The closest I can come to describing him is if you remember the old Guinness toucan advertisements. It was that kind of bird.

John and I had just sat down when the screeching began, worse than five babies throwing a hissy fit at the same time. We couldn’t hear a word the other said over lunch with the carry-on.

John apologized profusely but I was delighted. I had that dreadful lunch story to trot out any time I met John and he got ahead of himself.

John has decided to take a step back, and the loss will be profound here at the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.

From day one at the Irish Voice in December of 1987, he was the contrarian in the pack, the guy absolutely sent on earth to annoy, pester, sting, force people to take in a different form of truth.

I knew John from working from America for The Irish Press, the legendary de Valera owned newspaper where John held several leading editorial positions over time. I had read some of his editorials and knew he had a plain, uncompromising style and strong, direct opinions.

Did he ever! He made no secret that he disliked the Provos intensely, that Irish Americans were foolish to follow them, that Irish America was backwards and failing to understand the new Ireland, and so on.

The reaction to his weekly column was swift and savage. Irish America did not like being lectured to from Ireland about events there in such a naked and provocative manner.

Back then there was no internet, but I can safely say at his height, John was the subject of about 50 letters a week.

In fact, next to the outrage and boycott effort when we endorsed gays to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City, no other columnist came close in terms of reader reaction.

John was articulating very well a point of view that was essentially in the ascendancy in Ireland at the time. We forget the atrocities, the mind-numbing feeling every morning waking up to news of another killing by whatever side. There were millions like John saying enough is enough.

John caught the immediacy, the deep anger, hurt, and shame that such violence was happening in his beloved Ireland. He spoke for huge numbers in that respect.

That still didn't stop people begging me to pull his columns, but that never crossed my mind. The First Amendment is one of the greatest freedoms ever written into a constitution and I was not about to set it aside.

Looking back over John’s columns, I am struck by how prescient they were. They were also never written at a distance but from close-in experience. 

He was right very early on identifying the Catholic Church crisis for what it was, the definitive story of our times. He was insightful, predicting the property boom and bust in the ‘90s, the tensions around Sinn Féin north and south and so on.

This is a guy who understands the cross-currents that make Ireland such a fascinating place.

Let me finish up with another tragic development. John’s niece married my nephew so we are somehow related. The shame of it has caused me to withhold this vital information until now!

Welcome to the family John, and bring the toucan next time we get together to celebrate your extraordinary work. You will be sorely missed.