By Gerry Comiskey
With each passing year, I find myself regretting more and more that I did not pay more attention to the accumulated wisdom of so many men and women that I have encountered during my life.
This is true of the parishes that I have worked in here in Ireland and abroad, it has also true of relatives, neighbours, and friends in my own home place of Newtownmanor in Co. Leitrim.
When I was a teenager, I met Justin Nelson several times on the roads around my homeplace. He would be visiting his parents Peter and Tessie Nelson who lived nearby at Fivemilebourne. We knew that he was a camera man with RTÉ, but we did not know much else about him.
I found him to be a very humble man who was in no way anxious to boast about his achievements. I had more contact with him at the beginning of this millennium. I was planning a trip to Australia and New Zealand, I knew that he had cousins there who were also distant relatives of mine.
He was most helpful in putting me in contact with them. In the years that followed we exchanged emails and cards and sometimes met briefly at funerals. We always said that we would have to meet soon and talk about our shared interest of the history of our families and our local community. As is so often the case we never got around to it and sadly Justin died on April 2nd 2018.
During the pandemic I have been walking the hills around Leitrim and Sligo. I have also been reading and researching. I knew that Justin had published some books most especially I was aware of his beautiful production on the life of Michael Collins. In the autumn I contacted his daughter who has given me a wealth of information about the achievements of her father.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading “Why Me?” A pictorial memoir by Justin Nelson. First published in 2012 it is dedicated to the memory of his sister Bridie who bought him his first camera which made his subsequent career possible. The book gives a fascinating account of his travels and some insights into important moments that he experienced.
The accompanying photographs give added understanding of the places and people that he visited. Amazingly he received a personal invitation and return ticket from Chancellor Willie Brent to go and visit the notorious Berlin Wall at the Nuremburg Gates.
When John F. Kennedy visited Ireland, Justin awaited his arrival at Dublin airport. The live pictures from his camera were transmitted around the world via the recently launched Early Bird Satellite. He had the pleasure of the undivided attention of the lovely Maureen O’Hara over dinner in Cork.
Among his many achievements with RTÉ was to fly around the world to cover all sorts of sporting and cultural events. Without a doubt his two most famous achievements were covering the visit of Saint Pope the John the Second to Dublin in 1979 and the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Dublin in 2011.
He writes in his book, briefly but beautifully about his responsibility for covering the Papal visit. He had the privilege of bringing his mother to a VIP location in Knock on that memorable day in September 1979.
When Queen Elizabeth was in Dublin he was able to give her the gift of a photograph of Princess Margaret arriving at Shannon in 1960 with her husband Tony Armstrong Jones on a private visit to Tony’s mother in Birr Castle.
Justin had captured the moment when the first member of the British family’s foot touched Irish soil since the foundation of the state. Soon afterwards the Queens visit he received a letter of thanks from the Lady in Waiting at Balmoral Castle.
Justin’s book on Michael Collins, ‘The Final Days’, received a flattering review in the Irish Times by Garrett Fitzgerald. The book contains a photo of Garrett’s father (who was a member of Collins Government) at the funeral of the Big Fella.
The first time that Garrett saw the picture was at the launch of Justin’s book. Amazingly the pictures of Garrett and Justin launching the book were taken by the prize winning photographer Ray McManus. Ray’s mother was Nellie Martin who was born and reared less than half a mile from the Nelson’s homestead in Leitrim.
Justin’s father Peter and his mother Tessie Dolan were both born around the lovely Lough Doon in what could be described as the heart of Newtownmanor. Both his grandfathers had survived the famine years (1845-48) when the population of the parish and the country was decimated. Justin was the youngest of five in his family.
He married Loretto – for a long time the deputy leader of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. His devotion to her is legendary and their long and happy life together was an inspiration. They were fortunate in having three loving daughters – Aisling, Niamh and Tara.