Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Waxie's Dargle of Irishtown

Dublin, Ireland, Waxie's Dargle

In the middle of last month I caught up with an old schoolfriend in Belfast. We got talking about what was the first concert we would have both seen together back in the day. We settled on a gig The Clash performed at the Ulster Hall in February 1984. This was towards the end of their career when guitarist Mick Jones had left the group.

I can't remember much about the evening to be honest apart from the video backdrop they used that night for the Police On My Back cover and the fact that singer Joe Strummer played most of the set with a towel held at arms-length from his face as a barrier against the rich volume of spit and  phlegm directed towards him from the fans at the front. I read years ago that at one point Strummer had contracted  heptatitis from one particular discharge of sputum which made the perfect rock n roll trajectory all the way down his throat during a punk gig.

Some months after this Clash concert another friend told me about a Belfast gig he attended at the same venue where the artistes performed with a similarly strange onstage accoutrement - this being a tin beer tray which one member of the support act smashed against his head in time to the music. This of course was Spider Stacey the tin whistle player of The Pogues who were opening for Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

The first of The Pogues' seven albums was Red Roses For Me and was released in October of 1984 on the Stiff label. It contains some great breezy instrumentals in The Battle of Brisbane and Dingle Regatta as well as the first of the group's paeans to the now long lost soul of the British capital in Transmetropolitan and Dark Streets of London - a city of dreams, struggle, light, shadows, nightmares and epiphany. 

The album title is taken from a 1943 Sean O'Casey play and the thirteen tracks include their impressive reading of Brendan Behan's The Auld Triangle. The best song of the album in my opinion - Sea Shanty - also lifts a vintage line from Behan's Borstal Boy in "Compliments pass when the quality meet". This being a wonderful personal aside from one person to another when having overheard examples of verbal vulgarity in public that have surpassed all boundaries of social acceptability and redemption.

Track four is the extraordinarily ribald roar of Waxie's Dargle which I suspect was the main song in their early repertoire to incorporate the beer tray headbanging thing. Covered by several artists over the years including Sweeney's Men, the first time I ever heard the song was in a long-forgotten 13-part Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series Cities which transmitted a few times on the ITV network in the early Eighties. The Dublin documentary in the series was presented by director John Huston and Waxie's Dargle was duly performed by a hirsute duo called The Jacobites.

The title is such a strange pairing of  disparate words - especially as placed alongside the namechecking of working class Dublin quarters as Monto and Capel Street  - that in essence it could almost be the recollection of a regularly underperforming racehorse at Leopardstown in the Fifties or a physically vanished pub in The Liberties. The actual historical background needless to say is both genuinely fascinating and just a wee bit bloody glorious.

Hence the legendary Waxie's Dargle - as mentioned in James Joyce's Ulysses - was a jolly excursion for the cobblers of Dublin in plebeian imitation of the gentry's own annual society picnic jaunt to the banks of the River Dargle near Bray and Enniskerry which lies south of the Irish capital. The cobblers were known as "Waxies" because of their use of candlewax  to preserve the thread which stitched the shoes and "going to the Dargle" had long become a part of Dublin vocabulary for an annual day out.

The cobblers trip on loaded-up flat dray carts or jaunting cars was at Easter and with the original Waxies Dargle having been part of Donnybrook Fair until it closed in the mid-1850s due to riotous behaviour. Subsequently the annual procession - which extended by default to workers from all backgrounds - went nowhere near as far as Bray but only to a grass-covered triangle of land at  Irishtown between coastal Ringsend and Sandymount in the south of the city. Irishtown had been the location of the main Gaelic settlements outside Dublin following upon the native population expulsions of 1454 from the city by the English authorities.

Therefore this classic and indeed globally renowned folk song is essentially a discursive consideration between two male friends in a pub on how their wives aim to fund familial attendance for this day of merriment, drinking and music- Monto was Dublin's large red light district while many pawnbrokers' shops were located in the old Jewish quarter of Capel Street.

A similar Easter-time public excursion within Ulster social history is captured in Glenn Patterson's 2012 novel The Mill For Grinding Old People Young. The narrative of the story follows the course of the 19th Century in Belfast from the aftermath of the United Irishmen rising through to the surges of the industrial revolution - the narrator Gilbert Rice at one stage walking with hundreds of other young people up to the environs of the Cave Hill in the north of the city. Indeed many of the older generation in Northern Ireland to this day will recall Sunday afternoon and evening walks to the Belfast hills - up from Woodvale Park on the Shankill Road to the Horseshoe Bend at Ligoniel in my own parents' case - when the roads were crowded with people taking the weekend air. And of course in the north of Ireland too there was a rich vernacular associated with trades, professions and labour. The most famous by far relates to the "millies" or mill girls of the many linen factories in North and West Belfast.

Returning to Irishtown and according to some online resources an engraved stone near a pub in the area commemorates the location of the Waxie's Dargle. I haven't been able to find any confirmation of whether it still stands there but, should it do so, it represents a wonderfully understated memorial to the toils and trials and concomitant warmth and community of the Dublin working people.

In turn, back in 2010, a magnificent city council-funded statue to the mill girls was erected at the corner of the Crumlin Road and Cambrai Street in West Belfast. This was in close proximity to the former Ewart's, Brookfield, Flax Street and Edenderry linen mills that provided such a dynamic for the city's initial wealth and industrial expansion. The tens of thousands of millies - both Catholic and Protestant - would work long hours for minimal pay (or "buttons" in Belfast slang) while under threat of horrendous industrial injury and a raft of appalling lung and chest conditions.

When I saw the statue some years back around teatime, the surrounding streets - which would have once been black with hundreds upon hundreds of workers leaving the factories at that time of day in the earlier half of the last century - were completely and utterly deserted. And there the wee Belfast millie stands all alone by herself this very night - waiting for her mates who are now in the main all long departed this earthly life and its associated joys and pains.

The inextinguishable respect the Irish still have for their forebears and the hard lives they lead so clearly unites people on both sides of the border and - along with a love for the staggering physical beauty of the island - remains one of the most important underpinnings of the deep living soul of Ireland.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Born Of Golden Sand And Sky - Elvis Presley as Johnny Tyronne


Elvis, Elvis Presley, Harum Scarum, Harem Holiday, Ireland

Over the course of the Christmas break here in Ireland I took two wonderful long drives around the Tyrone countryside - north through  the Sperrins range and then around the Clougher Valley to the south. I will reserve comment on the genuinely magick destinations themselves in order to avoid leaving a commercial scent for any ambitious media location scout to follow upon and despoil.

Tyrone - to use the anglicised form of Tir Eoghain - was once an Irish kingdom and later an earldom that incorporated swathes of  present day County Armagh and County Londonderry. The last great leader of Gaelic Ulster -  Hugh O'Neill Earl of Tyrone - fled to Europe in 1607 after the Battle of Kinsale alongside Rory O'Donnell of Tyrconnell. Aside from its association with the legendary Flight of the Earls from Lough Swilly in Irish history, Tyrone is also closely associated with the October-December 1921 Treaty negotiations  in London between the British government and Sinn Fein delegates including Arthur Griffiths and Michael Collins. This by way of the arguments which ranged around which of the six North East counties would surely come under the jurisdiction of a future southern polity in a final settlement  - both County Fermanagh and County Tyrone within the northern part of the initial 1920 partition having Catholic demographic majorities.

Tyrone is the eighth largest of Ireland's 32 counties and the second largest in the old province of Ulster by size - the tenth and fourth  largest respectively by population. Famous sons of Tyrone include the Easter Rising leader Tom Clarke, writer Flann O'Brien, dramatist Brian Friel and folk musician Paul Brady. Like many other locations in the British archipelago the name of the county has been transplanted across the Atlantic from Ontario to Pennsylvania to Georgia - there is even a deserted mining town called Tyrone in New Mexico.

The common usage of the proper noun "Tyrone" also extends to both christian names and surnames - most notably in the case of movie actor Tyrone Power and theatre director Tyrone Guthrie. Interpretations of first name meanings in this instance seem to link directly with the Irish county or possibly as an English version of the name "Eugene" which means noble or well-born. Surname usage is much less common, has Anglo-Saxon and Huguenot origins (like many names found today in Northern Ireland with respect to the latter source) and is associated with variations such as Terron, Terrans, Tyron and Tyrell.

In fact the surname Tyrone is so extremely rare that the only association I have ever recognised across the public domain in my lifetime still lies in one specific fictional characterisation. Surprisingly this is not a minor background figure of driven and renegade Irish Republican bent  in David Lean's Ryan's Daughter or the earlier classic Jimmy Cagney thriller Shake Hands With The Devil. No, in this instance I am thinking of Johnny Tyronne  in the 1965 Elvis Presley MGM musical Harum Scarum - directed by Gene Nelson, produced by Sam Katzman, shot on the original set of Cecil B DeMille's The King of Kings and as marketed as Harem Holiday in the United Kingdom.

Elvis - whose complex  family heritage incorporated both Irish and Scots-Irish blood ties - acted in thirty one motion pictures over the course of his career. Harum Scarum was the nineteenth and by far his worst. The dementedly criminal waste of creative talent being amplified in this instance by the witless  and bungled mangling of the ancient Tyrone-surname by writer Gerald Drayson Adams in what one must logically assume was some ill-considered attempt at underscoring the character's romantic, untamed and manly appeal early-on in  the narrative proceedings with a linkage to Oul Ireland. A significant amount of English-language commentary and critique to be found online regarding this film refers to "Johnny Tyrone" by default.

The plot takes American movie star Johnny to Babelstan in the Middle East to premiere his new Valentino-style dramatic release where he is kidnapped for the purpose of utilsing his martial arts skills in the assassination of a king. He escapes his captor's clutches and then attempts to foil the plot by joining a musical troupe and return incognito to the town of Bar Esalaam. The rest is endless, merciless and idiotic tedium which ends in the besting of the evil masterplan and a return to Vegas with the beautiful Princess Aishah in tow as his besotted bride-to-be.

The soundtrack of the film reached Number 8 on the Billboard album charts and consists of nine movie songs (with titles closely gauged to the mysterious otherness of the Arab world) along with two extra tracks as bonuses in Animal Instinct and Wisdom of the Ages. All of which, with the potential exception of So Close, Yet So Far (From Paradise) as crooned from a prison cell to the captive moon which has no potential for astral escape, represent the nadir of Presley's career.

Tellingly no singles were ever lifted from the album. In fact the diabolically ill-coordinated final scenes of the movie show Elvis on stage in Nevada in arguably his most limp, lifeless and broken form - far superseding the final befuddled and overweight physical manifestations of the 1977 CBS television special footage. Here he looks as if he has been given a brutal diagnosis for shingles on Christmas Eve one minute after somebody whispered in his ear that all the dancing girls on stage really fancied him.

Back in the early-to-mid Seventies Elvis movies would flit all over the BBC television schedules and even in interfaces with children's programming - something similar befell repeats of Sgt Bilko in this period. Harum Scarum had very regular placements in this remit alongside other Presley movie standards such as Kid Galahad, Fun in Acapulco and It Happened At The World's Fair. 

In hindsight of course this cinematic feature mirrored The Banana Splits' animated insert The Arabian Knights in pace and design - heroic sagas, karate fights against bad guys and leopards alike, strange esoteric locations, blinding technicolor, beautiful veiled Caucasian girls, cracker barrel and zany American humour and great songs spontaneously performed in the marketplace and at the oasis. The appeal to a seven-year-old in rainy Troubles-era North Belfast is clearly unquestionable.

Actually around the very same mid-Seventies period in Northern Ireland that I was watching this very movie and other goofy sun-blown Presley features like it I also recall hearing one of apparently several comedic parodies of the downbeat religious recitation The Deck of Cards which was a hit for Wink Martindale in 1959. This version was voiced by somebody impersonating Protestant political leader the Reverend Ian Paisley and when reaching the "face cards" he would note how the Jack was naturally the papist jackanapes of Rome while the Queen was of course Queen Elizabeth II the Defender of the Faith. As for the King - well that was obviously "Elvis Presley!!!"

The history books show in sober black and white Gothic script that Elvis touched down twice in the British Isles.  In 1967 the MGM movie Double Trouble had Presley heading a rock combo on tour in London and Belgium. His leading lady Annette Day from Telford in Shropshire never worked again in cinema after this, her first and only film performance. The feature however does lay claim to some historic importance due to the late Norman Rossington being the only actor to appear in both an Elvis and a Beatles movie - Double Trouble and A Hard Day's Night respectively.

The opening credits and theme song from the movie retain some kitsch appeal although the one minute and twenty seven seconds long single lifted from the soundtrack album - Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On) - bombed at number 63 in the Billboard Top 100 singles and 49 in the UK charts. The album also contains one of the total lowpoints of Elvis' life in the irony-free duet with Day on Old McDonald. Presley allegedly screamed "It's come to this" during recording of this track and was only becalmed by being assured it would not appear on the forthcoming soundtrack album where in fact it remains to this day for all the world to hear forever and ever until the end of time. The soundtrack was actually released on the same day as The Beatle's Sgt Pepper album.

Double Trouble of course was filmed entirely in Hollywood. In reality Elvis' single fleeting presence on the soil of the British Isles came on March 3rd 1960 at Prestwick Airport near Glasgow while in transit home to America from military service in West Germany - as lampooned in the famous "Elvin Pelvin" episode of Bilko. The airport in Ayrshire was also used at the time as a USAAF air base and during his brief two-hour stop-over Elvis signed autographs, met fans at the NCO's mess and gave a brief press conference. On exiting the plane he had asked fans "Where am I?" with the crowd shouting back "Prestwick!"

I personally got to visit Memphis during the late Nineties - as uniquely haunted a city then as that captured in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train without question - and have in my possession to this day my own parents' copy of the iconic 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong album that I have been playing now for over forty years. That collection contained the utterly raucous proto-punk roar of Big Hunk O'Love while the other June 10th 1958 tracks from that solitary recording session just after he had joined the army - including I Got Stung and I Need Your Love Tonight - are mortifying reminders of where Elvis' career could have gone in the earlier part of the Sixties.

The surreal and dispiriting Hollywood haze that came to pass - of which Harum Scarum was the most infamous component - included Easy Come Easy Go from 1967 where Elvis played navy frogman Lieutenant Ted Jackson and whose trailer boldly proclaimed "The bottom of the sea - where the action is!" There was Charro! from the following year featuring Elvis in a cool beard, a striking Hugo Montenegro score, dramatic horse rides through the Superstition Mountains at Apache Junction and not much else really for what was meant to resemble a gritty spaghetti western. I actually have read somewhere that during the grim endgame of his Hollywood years this was planned as the first of several television movies. Also there was the final Elvis dramatic role of all in 1969's Change of Habit with Mary Tyler Moore as a nun drawn to Dr Presley's lush sideburns and black University of Tennessee at Memphis sweat-shirt while helping to raise the spirits of the downtrodden with some tasty Latin beats at the community Fiesta of Saint Juan de Cheguez .

The Seventies in turn was naturally a mixed artistic bag for Elvis Presley though a lot of his commercial output has dated very well in hindsight. Be that renowned tracks of the ilk of the stunning Burning Love, Promised Land and Always On My Mind to criminally overlooked songs such as Pieces of My Life, If You Talk In Your Sleep and particularly Paul Williams' Where Do I Go From Here. This last song perfectly capturing a sentiment comprehensible to so many millions of us treading water in life year after year in familiar places now changed beyond recognition in spirit and appearance:

If I knew the way I'd go back home
but the countryside has changed so much I'd surely end up lost.
Half-remembered names and faces so far in the past
at the other side of bridges that were burnt once they were crossed.

The mostly melancholic From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis,Tennessee album from May 1976 - the artist's penultimate album - would include a moving version of the most famous of all Northern Irish folk songs with just a simple piano accompaniment and as recorded at Gracelands itself. Danny Boy - which is often used as a non-contentious alternative to the British national anthem at certain sporting events involving Northern Irish representatives - was first published in 1855 as Londonderry Air by Dr George Petrie after composer Jane Ross had transcribed a tune from local fiddler Jimmy McCurry in Limavady. The famous lyrics of exile, loss and love of Ireland were added in 1912 by an Englishman Fred Weatherly.

Returning to Prestwick Airport on that historic day of Elvis' fleeting hours on the soil of the British Isles, I also recall that there was even a children's television dramatisation of Elvis' visit to Scotland in the Dramarama series of the Eighties on ITV - Waiting For Elvis as produced by Scottish Televison. Presley furthermore was also the subject of a 1979 Play For Today on BBC television with regard to Neville Smith's Long Distance Information. This was about an English disc jockey and Elvis-obsessive presenting his radio show as the news of Presley's death is broken across the world.

The play ended with one of the characters reflecting upon how if Elvis had been born British then surely "we would have looked after him" or some such. An affectionate and moving sentiment in hindsight - and especially in light of how people of an older Britain saw themselves as a fundamentally grounded nation. Though then again that national character never stopped the career of GeorgIe Best ending on New Years Day 1974 at the grand old age of 27.

So today on the 84th anniversary of Elvis' birth in Tupelo Mississippi as the surviving twin to Jesse Garon Presley - and in a year when the soul of the Celtic peripheral on both sides of the Irish Sea yet remains a flickering light of hope in the deconstruction of the West - it is interesting to recall the strange and probably confused word association heading up Harum Scarum's cast list. That four thousand mile-long linkage between ancient Ireland's people and her old ways with the helter skelter life path of America's most blessed son in that own country's most glorious and optimistic heyday.

Safe Home Elvis - Safe Home Johnny Tyronne.

Elvis, Elvis Presley, Harum Scarum, Harem Holiday, Ireland, Prestwick Airport

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Back Road Home At Christmas - A Coral Island In Time


                                                  And as if through coloured glasses
                                                  we remember our childhood's thrill
                                                  waking in the morning to the rustling of paper
                                                  the eiderdown heaped in a hill
                                                  of logs and dogs and bears and bricks and apples
                                                  and the feeling that Christmas Day was a coral island in time
                                                  where we land and eat our lotus but we can never stay 

                                                  Louis MacNiece

It is the medium of television by default that provides the most effective portal for the diffusion of so much cultural memory and recall today. This in diverse respects too such as the regular passing of celebrities from childhood times gone by or just reflections upon particular periods of life transition that spring forth automatically from hearing certain and often obscure theme tunes again - Man Alive, The Family,  World in Action, Take Another Look, The Waltons, Weekend World, Robin's Nest and Sorry for myself personally.

Even long lost regional television station iconography such as the classic Thames Television and LWT logos, the concurrent Knight statuette and Golden Hind on Anglia TV and Westward Television respectively or even UTV's mighty "Antrim Road" start-up transmission music can often overwhelm the senses.

Children's television from the Sixties and Seventies alone is another huge self-contained world of nostalgic delights and for myself in particular that revolves around a  trio of wonderfully timeless American imports - Scooby Doo Where Are You, The Banana Splits and HR Pufnstuf. And then of course for so many people in their forties, fifties and sixties today there are the misty recollections of Christmas television.

There is a wonderful comprehensive 25-part overview of the Radio Times and TV Times editions from the Seventies and Eighties to be found over at the MAWH  blog that is guaranteed to bring back so many warm and fond memories of those days. All of them - even the overviews from the Eighties - seem so distant and from another world now.

Britain and Ireland in the Seventies as a given had a rich multiplicity of complex political and economic problems afoot and the decade was irrevocably the pivotal era when British national decline in particular ramped up several significant gears. However like many other people I look back to a childhood that entailed so much fun and laughter from so many quarters year on year - from the music, confectionery and cinema to the toys, comics and football obsessions.

Without equivocation the main boardgame enwrought with golden and silver light in my Christmas memory bank from those days was Haunted House from Denys Fisher. This  may have been a British rebranding of an American game Which Witch and was one of several such "spooky" products on the  market from glow-in-the-dark Universal horror movie figures to Dracula ice creams. The game entailed following footprints through four sectioned rooms - each of which harboured some threat or risk from a ball thrown down a central chimney. The cover of the game had three witches Glenda the Good, Ghoulish Gerty and Wanda the Wicked - hence one extraordinarily pleasant and two deeply malign - in close attendance behind the four young unsuspecting competitors.

Haunted House remains perhaps the truly definitive Seventies memory for  myself along with the galling realisation that I should have supported Super Leeds back in those days instead of Tottenham Hotspur and the awe I still hold for the two series of LWT's Catweazle. Richard Carpenter's story is basically about an English wizard who escapes marauding Norman soldiers by time-travelling through to modern Britain with his toad familiar Touchstone. In certain respects the figure of Catweazle shirking in terror from "electrickery" is a bit of a precursor to the modern Everyman - banjaxed and bewildered by both the scale and speed of technological change and the clear fact that every socio-economic dynamic in our society is irrevocably geared towards rank bedlam in the very near future.

Like for so many of us as well, the melancholy subtext to the programme is that the Anglo-Saxon Catweazle - minding his own business with mediaeval chemistry in his cosy man-cave before becoming accidentally sucked into a cosmic vortex - feels he belongs nowhere and just wants to go home. The first episode - The Sun in a Bottle - transmitted on the ITV network at 5.30pm on Sunday 15th February 1970. I was just over four years old then and Northern Ireland would have recently entered a year of complex political flux where  the outplay of rolling hatred and horror lieing ahead were not as yet foregone. Three nights after the first transmission a loyalist bomb destroyed a 240-foot high radio mast across the Irish border at Mongary Hill, Raphoe, County Donegal which had increased the reach of RTE television coverage into Northern Ireland.

Returning to Christmas television programming again and I have one strange memory long-lodged in my mind. It was definitely the very late Seventies and I remember opening my Christmas presents one morning in my living room back in North Belfast. I assume it was the commercial UTV channel on the television in the background showing an animated version of the nativity story. I recall at one point in the narrative John Henry Hopkins' We Three Kings of Orient Are was playing in concord to the visitation of the wee cartoon wise men. Just for a moment - and a moment I oddly enough can never quite forget - I felt that all was totally right with the world.

This particular hymn was included on the one collection of Christmas music I have been listening to every year since a child at this time of year - Mario Lanza's Christmas Hymns and Carols. Some posts ago I mentioned how from my old bedroom window I could see the Kings Hall in South Belfast where Lanza once performed.

This 1969 compilation of festive songs on the RCA Camden label   - which includes wonderful versions of I Saw Three Ships, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel - is either a reissue of a 1951 original release of seasonal sacred music Lanza Sings Christmas Carols, the recompiling from 1956 with new versions of some songs added or the full 1959 re-recording. Incidentally another beautiful version of The First Noel was recorded by the great Mario Lanza fan Elvis Presley on his second Christmas album released in October of 1971 - this also contains one of the great lost Presley classics If I Get Home on Christmas Day.

Lanza's deliveries on the Christmas album are not just impeccable but literally awe-inspiring at times. The singer once said that "I sing each word as though it were my last on earth"  - here the power of the complex Christian message never sounded more crucial and genuinely humbling.

Last December - with both Britain and Northern Ireland enveloped in a labyrinthine compound of problems centred around the fudging of the real social and economic triggers underpinning the Brexit vote, clearcut political corruption, crass historical revisionism and the grotesque social shortfalls created by the combination of the Ponzi housing scam and frozen salaries - I was listening to it in Scandinavia far far away from Belfast, my adult London life and those Christmas Days of long ago.

This year I am back living permanently in Ireland where nothing in the above raft of grim logistics has essentially changed unsurprisingly enough. The fragile peace on the island still interfacing with a European crisis which has overshadowed Ireland's worthy national reassembly around the constituents of division and identity and even memory. Such a numbed atmosphere of total uncertainty, deflation and risk has been left in its wake - the future is clearly unwritten.

Yet as 2018  draws to closure we must never forget the extraordinarily public spirit which the loss of the Belfast Bank Buildings animated and which underpinned the recent ribald reaction to the proposed attempt to rebrand and market a part of the port great city of Belfast - home of the Titanic, Van Morrison, the United Irishmen, CS Lewis, the Albert Clock, Our Jimmy, Linfield FC, Queens University, Georgie Best, The Crown Bar, Buck Alex and the Cave Hill -  after a Lower Manhatten neighbourhood. As in urban planning as with political change- we can only hope that the tribulations of the deconstruction of the United Kingdom and the endgame of European integration may oversee a defining transition for all the people within a new Church of Ireland.

In the meantime - and although looking back to our shared past from the perspective of Christmas and middle age alike brings more than its fair share of melancholy - at the same time we must remember that what backbone, character and decency yet remains in our society was put there in the first place by the working people of our country alone....so many of whom have long left us.  This immutable social and cultural anchorage can never be displaced by any degree of stealth from the falsest of friends around us.

Sincere best wishes to all readers and Twitter followers of The Back Road Home for Christmas and 2019.

                                                  It's good to pluck a single day
                                                  out of the sad year's grimy round
                                                  and make it an enchanted ground 
                                                  John  Hewitt

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Last Walk of the Sixties High King - Belfast 1970

George Best, Northern Ireland, Scotland, British Home International Championship

Some months back on a social media page about George Best's career in Britain and the USA a public commentator drew attention to a particularly quirky aspect of a contemporary Seventies press photograph. The picture is of Best walking past the wire mesh frontage of a stand packed with supporters at a football ground clearly somewhere in the British Isles by all downbeat and gritty aesthetic appearance.

It is hard to clarify whether the match is still in play or if it was a domestic or international tie. Either way the footballer as ever carries off his rugged male bearing with effortless charismatic ease - he appears lost in thought about the game with his hand covering his mouth and a white jersey draped over his bare shoulders as he passes the ranks of male attendees on the terraces.

Many of these appear to be still watching other activity on the football field though some follow the path of his exit. None however can match the attention of two teenage girls at the extreme bottom right hand corner of the photograph whose utterly besotted love for the Northern Irish star is clearly observable to an almost hypnotic degree - their smitten eyes and rapt smiles are affectionately focused on him and him alone across the universe and in utter dazed adoration. It is a wonderful hidden pictorial detail.

Another classic Best image worth retrospective consideration is from the 18th April 1970 British Home International Championship match in Belfast against Scotland - a game long recalled for his sending off by the referee after he threw mud in the direction of the official following a contretemps. The black and white picture captures his return up the players' entrance at the corner of the ground following the dismissal. Another oft-published photograph from the same match -  used generically on many occasions  to symbolise his stormy lifepath as a celtic hellraiser - is of an angry Best being restrained previously on the pitch by Wolverhampton Wanderers' Derek Dougan.

This was the 23-year-old George Best's twentieth international appearance for Northern Ireland and his thirteenth at Windsor Park in the south of the city. Northern Ireland lost all three ties in this 1969-70 Championship. His footballing career at Manchester United by this stage of proceedings - alike his equally high profile and media-engaged personal life - was already highly problematic, becoming more volatile by the day and clearly spiralling out of control.

In terms of the three groupings of human actors composing the photograph - and as arraigned around the seething departing sportsman - we see several policemen whose facial expressions range across a wide spectrum of sternness and with one in particular bordering on rank supercilious contempt. Interestingly, an equally well known picture of Best taking a corner kick at Swansea's Vetch Field on the British mainland seven days later also sees him surrounded by officers of much more benign hue in Wales than here at home at Windsor off the Lisburn Road. There are also two middle-aged or elderly members of the groundstaff clad in the ubiquitous flat cap of Belfast sartorial vintage - the gentleman on the right physically emanating the generational bewilderment that would track Best's entire career path as a metaphorical headshaking shadow.  Finally we have teenage boys draped over the barriers who are either dead excited at the turn of events or just struck dumb by proximity to such heightened, grown up and anarchic bad boy behaviour.

It is such a strange and brooding image in so many respects - let alone the fact that the player appears to be physically floating his way up the concrete incline - and with the even more melancholy backdrop that Best would only play in the international stadium five times again for Northern Ireland between then and 1977. In turn 1970 represented a complex political interregnum for the country itself as heightened civil disorder gradually gave way to the arrival of concrete terrorist onslaughts and concomitant mass murder. The violence in Ulster would continue on for another 28 years. Best would only outlive the qualified political consolidation in 1998 by a further seven.

Forging deeper into the dynamics behind this famous sports photograph again and there is clearly a sad forlorn atmosphere pervading it without question. Desperate times ahead for all parties concerned as the mood of the late Sixties quickly dissipated and much more complicated and fractious times arrived on Ireland's northern shores - for Best, the working classes, the cops and the kids. Everything was about to go very very wrong and just perhaps something reflective of this discordant fall  is captured in the photo's composition and tone.

Indeed this international fixture which saw Best sent off in April 1970 took place just three months after the Irish Republican Army split into Official and Provisional paramilitary wings and only weeks after massive civil disturbances erupted between the British Army and Republicans in the Springfield Road area of West Belfast following an Orange Order parade. At the end of June major disorder erupted again across the capital between the IRA and Loyalists with six fatalities on the Crumlin Road in the north of the city and in Best's native East Belfast.

So George Best took his long deflated walk back up the player's entrance in just the first third of the first year of the decade. By the time he walked down again for the four springtime Home International and World Cup qualifying fixtures in 1971 Ulster would be on the brink of utter disaster and catastrophe. The escalation of violence after the introduction of internment without trial of terrorist suspects in August that year would burn all remaining intercommunal bridges and herald barely contained civil war against a gargantuan military infusion. Hence the great port city of Belfast around and about the thousands of fans packed together on that sunny Saturday 15th May afternoon to watch Bestie outmanoeuvre the great goalkeeper Gordon Banks and tease the English defenders to take the ball from him would in many fundamental respects soon be gone forever in substantial form and spirit.

Needless to say the British Home International Championships are long defunct and unlikely to reappear in the game's currently demented commercial constitution. In the 1976-77 season Northern Ireland would compete under that specific national title as opposed to  "Ireland" for the first time, in 1980-81 the entire competition was cancelled off the back of unrest in Ulster associated with the IRA hunger strikes at The Maze prison and the last ever tournament in 1983-84 was won by Billy Bingham's legendary squad. Northern Ireland thus remain the reigning British champions alongside being victors in 1979-80 and joint-winners with England in 1957-58 and 1958-59. (Prior to the national partition Ireland won in 1913-14 and jointly with England and Scotland in 1902-03).

Ironically the picture under discussion also perfectly compliments the artistic representation of a literally crucified Georgie Best Superstar which graced the cover of his friend Derek Dougan's own study of the changing face of the game from 1981 - How Not To Run Football. Whether or not that professional martyrdom was essentially self-inflicted in the main or not, the photograph from Windsor Park that day is a truly fascinating encapsulation of the rise and fall of one of Ireland's greatest sons. From what we can glean from all written, visual and oral historical evidence Best's faults were clearly cancelled out both by his priceless and breathtaking talent within a sporting field he revolutionised singlehandedly and his fundamental grace, decency and warmth in private. His memory remains a steady pure white light in the hopeless and unsustainable morass of our days.

George Best, Derek Dougan, Northern Ireland, Scotland, British Home International Championship

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Heart Of The City - Bombs, Bullets And Bunion

Belfast Telegraph. Rowel Friers, Bunion, Fun With Bunion

The dark nature of the Troubles in Ulster would be of such mortifying scope as to quite effortlessly infuse itself into the already grim black humour that characterises hard industrial working class life by default. Little would be ethically off-limits in this regard such as the naming of loyalist interrogation locales after a globally-franchised children's television programme Romper Room for example. The author once appeared on Ulster Television's own presentation of this broadcast brand around 1970.

While the aforesaid generic wordplay was clearly constructed with considerable native wit and ribald urban savvy the dynamics of the usage itself remains yet so puerile and crass in historical context and consideration- let alone shockingly malign and utterly bloody depressing.

Another strange interplay of humour with the unrelenting political conflict in Ireland would be the presence in the second half of Belfast Telegraph editions during the worst years of the Troubles of  a particular cartoon strip that also appeared contemporaneously across the world  in different press outlets.

Whereas Rowel Friers' renowned cartoon commentaries on sectarian violence and constitutional collapse in the same journal were so unique and insightful as to warrant compilation at the time into no less than four volumes of Blackstaff Press publications between 1971 and 1974  - Pig in the Parlour, Riotous Living, The Book of Friers or The Book of Yells and The Revolting Irish - by comparison Fun with Bunion seems to have been lost to time and space. This despite I assume having been seen by the vast majority of the Northern Ireland population at some point due to the newspaper's national reach across the River Bann.

There is little information about the cartoon character online but the artist who drew the two-to-four panel Bunion strip in the Sixties and Seventies was George Martin and it was also a regular feature of other newspapers in Britain, Northern Europe and North America - such as apparently the Bath Evening Chronicle, Birmingham Daily Mail and Stockholm's Aftonbladet. Martin produced other children's strips for the classic DC Thomson British comics The Dandy, The Topper and The Beezer from the Fifties through to the Eighties. I gather from some public commentary on websites that Martin is now deceased.

Bunion was a small rotund middle-aged man and the strip basically recounts events in his married life at home, in various work scenarios and at play on the ubiquitous golf course for example. The wife is a typical angry harridan figure of vintage comedy presentation, his extraordinarily impressive CV ranged from vicar to trawlerman to astronomer to liontamer and  there are also some fantasy scenarios where the character is shipwrecked on an island, engaged  in nefarious criminal endeavour, riding an Indian elephant or getting lost in the desert.

On a Flickr compilation of strips I found there seems to be no suggestion that Bunion was ever physically resident in Belfast when I saw his japes and pranks in my youth there - this bar launching a ship, employment as a prison officer, fixing a broken window, tossing a coin in despair in a voting booth and briefly watching a UFO land and leave as soon as possible.

There appears to be nothing sidesplittingly funny about Bunion and in hindsight it is not even touched by any particular wry charm or unique spin beyond perhaps the fact it is dialogue-free in modernist style and of course there is some residual analogy to the BBC childrens' TV classic Mr Benn. Yet like the Ulster Television transmission start-up music discussed in an earlier post, Fun With Bunion definitely triggers deep memories of both happy and tragic times alike - let alone some of the strangest days ever yet lived by any group of people anywhere in post-war Europe.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Tragedy In East Ulster January 1953 - The Sinking Of The MV Princess Victoria And The Lord St Vincent Plane Crash

Ulster TT Disaster, Princess Victoria Ship Disaster, Nutts Corner Plane Disaster

In the fifty-one year history of the Northern Ireland state between 1921 and 1972 - and as standing outside civilian and security force fatalities caused by engagement in global conflict, domestic civil disorder and terrorism - the biggest death toll resulting from an accident was the sinking of the MV Princess Victoria in the Irish Sea on 31st January 1953.

Off the back of some research recently I was surprised to note how another major incident in Northern Ireland involving air traffic was so confluent in time to that major maritime disaster and indeed of a significant tragedy at a major sporting occasion back in the Thirties. These two events - in Country Antrim and County Down respectively  - are very rarely referenced within Irish social history compared to the MV Princess Victoria's fatal last voyage from Stranraer to Larne.

To provide some historical background to the period of the early Fifties, the post-war decade running up to the commencement of the IRA Border Campaign on 12th December 1956 saw Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the United Kingdom in a state of considerable security and anchorage. This following the state's belligerent status during the six year global conflict against the Axis powers and then the passing of the Ireland Act at Westminster in 1949 upon the declaration of a Republic by Eire the previous year.

The Stormont elections of 19th February 1949 had thus taken place in a tense atmosphere against the backdrop of southern political and public support for the Nationalist Party in the North. It is also remembered in the main for the fundamental undermining of the Labour vote in Ulster for the next nine years - as discussed in an earlier post on the NILP.

The Unionist Party won 37 seats in the election to the Nationalists nine - there were also two Independent Unionists,  two Independents, one Independent Labour and a Socialist Republican elected. Compared to the 1945 election therefore one Nationalist seat had been lost along with two Labour and one Independent Labour. The October 1953 election - this the year of the MV Princess Victoria and Nutts Corner disasters - saw another substantial victory for the Unionist Party. The party took 38 seats to the Nationalists seven while the other representatives elected would be two anti-partition candidates, one Independent Unionist, one Independent and three others from an extraordinary multiplicity of Labour political brands standing for office.

Some of the more well recalled Members of Parliament  sitting at Stormont from the 1949 election as 1953 dawned included Prime Minister Basil Brooke, the Belfast Socialist Republican Harry Diamond, South Fermanagh's Cahir Healey, the Shankill Independent Unionist Tommy Henderson, William McCoy of East Tyrone who had pushed for Dominion Status for Northern Ireland as the prime guarantee against future Westminster ambivalence toward the Union, the former Commonwealth Labour figure Harry Midgeley, Dehra Parker the first female MP in Northern Ireland, Eddie McAteer of Derry and two future Prime Ministers in Terence O'Neill and Brian Faulkner. The Member of Parliament for Cromac Ward in Belfast in this parliament was Major Maynard Sinclair who had been Stormont Minister of Finance for a decade, was serving as Deputy Prime Minister in January 1953 and seen as a potential successor to Brooke.

The horrendous loss of the roll-on/roll-off MV Princess Victoria ferry has been analysed in considerable depth over the years. On the last day of the month - a Saturday - it set sail from Scotland in the morning as an extraordinarily severe storm gathered pace across Northern Europe. Spray broke over the stern doors and an emergency guillotine door was not lowered. On leaving Loch Ryan conditions worsened and waves further damaged the rear doors allowing water to flood on board the car deck. Unable to return to Scotland the captain attempted to reach Northern Ireland by a course that would minimise more damage to the stern. At 0906 the ship messaged Portpatrick Radio Station for urgent assistance from tugs - a SOS transmission followed at 1032. The final morse message at 1358 from five miles east of the Copeland Islands near Donaghadee in County Down reported that engines had stopped.

Multiple rescue attempts were made - neither HMS Launceston Castle nor HMS Contest could initially locate the ship. Portpatrick Lifeboat Jeannie Spears was also dispatched in the search. An RAF Hastings aircraft did not reach the scene of the disaster in time due to other rescue work in Scotland. As the location of the ship clarified in Northern Ireland itself the emergency services put to sea in appalling conditions - four merchant vessels also attempted to save lives. Finally the Donaghadee lifeboat the Sir Samuel Kelly arrived to bring survivors on board - Jeannie Spears and HMS Contest were also there in support.

The ship sunk in the North Channel with the loss of 133 lives including all women and children on board - their lifeboat having been dashed against the hull. 100 bodies were recovered and 44 people survived. Fatalities included Northern Ireland Deputy Prime Minister Sinclair - who assisted many women and children during the incident - and also the North Down MP Sir Walter Smiles whose home was at Orlock so close to the sinking site. Both men had military records from the Great War. Lists of those onboard show that the crew incorporated residents of Northern Ireland and Scotland while the passengers came from both countries, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. A maternal relative of my own from Carrickfergus in County Antrim was also numbered among the dead. He was returning to Ulster from training in Scotland for a new job.

An interesting article by History Hub Ulster traces the historical footprint of the disaster with all survivors having today now passed on - the graves of the crew and the passengers visited by the author of the piece includes Sinclair's at Drumbeg Parish Church near Lisburn and Smiles at Belfast City Cemetery on the Falls Road. Two senior officers of HMS Contest were awarded the George Medal for diving into the seas during the rescue, MV Princess Victoria Radio Officer David Broadfoot was posthumously given the George Cross for remaining at his post to allow passengers and fellow crew to escape and the captains of the merchant ships were made OBEs. Captain Ferguson was witnessed at the moment of sinking on the bridgehead giving instructions and saluting. From what I can gather online Sinclair's mother-in-law died of a heart attack on receiving news of the tragedy while one of the merchant captains also died prematurely in light of the stress of involvement in the incident.

Memorials to the disaster were erected in Larne (which lost 27 town residents in the sinking), Stranraer, Portpatrick and Donaghadee where a civic campaign to preserve the Sir Samuel Kelly is ongoing. An annual memorial service is held to the present day to commemorate the victims and rescuers. A sports pavilion on the Stormont estate and a children's ward at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald were named in memory of Maynard Sinclair.

The sinking of the MV Princess Victoria remains the worst United Kingdom maritime disaster in peacetime. On 10th October 1918 a German U-Boat had sunk the RMS Leinster from the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company outside Dublin Bay leading to 501 deaths - the greatest single loss of life in the Irish Sea. The biggest disaster in Ulster resulting from an accident prior to 1953 was the eighty killed and 260 injured in a June 1889 rail accident between Armagh and Hamiltons Bawn stations - to this day it remains the worst rail accident in Irish history and the fourth worst in the United Kingdom.

Of the two other tragic events mentioned earlier the aircrash occurred only twenty five days before the MV Princess Victoria sinking - on Monday 5th January 1953. A British European Airways Vickers Viking plane Lord St Vincent flying from Northholt airport in London to Belfast's Nutts Corner crashed on approach. On board were 31 passengers and four crew - 24 passengers were included in the list of 27 fatalities including four medical students from Queens University and an eighteen-month old boy who was killed with his mother. Another fatality was Captain Thomas Haughton who was married to Lady Moyola -  the future wife of the fifth and penultimate Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark. She herself survived the crash though was seriously injured.

The board of inquiry concluded that the cause of the crash was pilot error - the aircraft had lost height too suddenly on approach to the runway and hit a pole which supported an approach light near the aerodrome. Further collisions followed with more poles and a van before it finally impacted against an equipment store.

The automobile accident in 1936 which involved the general public happened during the running of the International Tourist Trophy for motorcar road racing which was then a massively popular event in Northern Ireland due to the legal slack pertaining in the province to closing off roads. In 1928 a triangular course was constructed  between Dundonald, Newtownards, and Comber under the sponsorship of Harry Ferguson and Wallace McLeod. By the mid-thirties cars had become faster and faster on the circuit and it was during the 1936 event that a Riley car lost control on Church Street in Newtownards and crashed into the crowd on the pavement after hitting a lampost. Eight spectators were killed including two fifteen-year-old boys, 40 were injured and a decision was made to end racing on the course. Several of the victims are buried in Moville Cemetery in the town while two of the dead came from Worcester and Hull in England.

TT motor racing on public roads famously returned to Ulster at Dundrod County Antrim in 1950 - the track was half the size of its predecessor though the event still attracted such famous racing names as Juan Manuel Fangio and equally huge crowds. The September 1955 event in rainy conditions lead to the deaths of three drivers - Jim Mayers, William Smith and Richard Mainwaring. The race was won by Stirling Moss but it was then decided that the Northern Irish roads were too dangerous for the sport.

No memorial exists to the Nutts Corner disaster and a very sad BBC article on the incident notes that even the specific site of the crash would appear unknown today to the general public - the airport closed a decade after the deaths there and with the field being used in the main for car boot sales thereafter. A piece of propeller from the plane is kept in the Ulster Aviation Society Museum at Langford Lodge near Lough Neagh- the organisation campaigns for a permanent memorial and held a sixtieth anniversary service in 2013.

In turn a memorial on Conway Square in Newtownards honours the original racing circuit in County Down - both the winners and those who lost their lives in general at the event. There is furthermore a plaque in Comber at the famous Butchers Shop corner on Castle Street and another marking the start of the race beside the Quarry Inn pub near the Ulster Hospital. An online forum discussion from 2003 notes how chipped masonry from the event could still be seen at that time on the approach to Conway Square close to the accident site.

The disasters outlined above cast such deeply sobering reflections on how random factors of time and place can have such fateful consequences for the human condition. This is not dissimilar to the Isle of Man's 1974 Summerland disaster which affected so many holidaymakers from Ireland - a  good friend from secondary school was inside the building when the fire broke out while I can myself recall to this day several trips to the complex in the summers beforehand.

Historical focus of course dissipates through time in truly uncategorisable fashion - one tragedy is overwritten by another in the public consciousness and therefore even something as unprecedented as the 1953 Great Storm's repercussions in the North Channel, Eastern England and Holland would appear to be relatively unknown to so many people today in Britain and Ireland. In the case of the MV Princess Victoria - and also the air disaster which preceded it -the waves of madness and division which hit Ulster's shores sixteen and half years after that day of abject horror in the Irish Sea certainly compounded this instance of strange historical distancing even further.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Belfast Bank Buildings - Reflection And Revelation

Bank Buildings, Belfast, Bank Buildings Fire

In the local Belfast press over the past few weeks there have been some very interesting nostalgic and analytical opinion pieces alike regarding the destruction by fire of the Bank Buildings on Castle Junction - both as to where this event sits in the linear narrative of our metropolitan history or amidst the ongoing architectural deconstruction of the city.

As was the case for tens of thousands of other people at home and abroad the Bank Buildings fire - and the near loss of the Kelly's Cellars pub below with its priceless human heritage of late 18th Century European liberalism and non-sectarian republicanism - brought back many memories for myself of not just years of bitterness and waste but also a deeper lost Belfast.  From the North Street Arcade to the Elephant Bar near Smithfield Market,  the Group and Arts theatres, disappeared bookshops such as Harry Halls and Just Books and Mullans, Gresham Street's pet shop, the Curzon and ABC cinemas, the Grand Central Hotel and GPO on Royal Avenue or even the long derelict Garfield Street where Caroline Music traded in the Eighties.

I remember walking into the latter one late afternoon in 1981 for a few minutes as an earnest sixteen-year-old to buy a cool Jimi Hendrix compilation double album and seeing loads of Stiff Little Fingers fans hanging around in the half-light for a signing session of the Go For It album - the fantastic and empowering instrumental title track blaring out ahead of their arrival. Over thirty years later and I tend to listen to North Belfast's finest a lot more than the Seattle guitarist if truth be known - I should have gotten real and stayed for a while longer that day until they came along.

Even though there has been long-term engaged public attention focused on the future of the Art Deco Bank of Ireland at the once thriving junction of North Street and Royal Avenue - a part of the city which looks so fundamentally North American and modernist in some photographs from the Fifties and Sixties - the scale of what has gone before is deeply sobering. You can see this when looking at  old images of the Queens Elms Halls of Residence houses facing the university (as below) or the stunning Northern Bank premises on Donegall Square West. Both of their brutalist replacements being aesthetically questionable in extremis. Only last week I heard in turn that the Masonic Hall on Rosemary Street which contained a mural by the extraordinarily talented Belfast artist John Luke has been sold for commercial development.

In particular there are two moments from Belfast history linked in my mind with the Bank Buildings. There is an interior photograph taken of an upper floor window on Victory in Europe Day on 8th May 1945 with BBC commentator Lt Commander Harry McMulllan broadcasting his observations on the crowd scenes below: "Belfast is letting itself go, that's plain fact - below me the population of this city, laughing cheering and dancing is surging past in great waves of colour and sound in brilliant sunshine." Then from not even a decade later on 27th February 1954 the bittersweet images captured as the last electric trams were seen off by a huge amount of spectators on their final journey from Castle Junction in front of the department store up to Ardoyne depot in North Belfast.

The loss of such cultural cornerstones and social points of reference as a building which has stood on the same site since 1765 - and existed in its modern form since 1900 - is understandably headspinning and certainly reinforces the insecurity which defines our own deeply uninspiring times. Sometimes approximating a daily battle to survive the end of everything good no less. Of similar emotional content to the historical shadowlands above I recently read some reflections on an internet forum of the cross-channel Belfast Steamship Company services across the Irish Sea to Scotland, the Isle of Man and the North West of England:

At the time I lived in Holywood, and could watch the nightly procession of cross-channel steamers going down Belfast Lough. The Liverpool service was first, leaving Belfast at around 8.30. Then came the Glasgow service about 30 minutes later, and finally the British Rail service to Heysham about an hour after that (it had a much shorter journey, as it had no river or locks to negotiate at the other end). And during the summer there were daytime sailings to Ardrossan and the Isle of Man as well.

I travelled often in the post-war years. I liked the Ulster Prince best, she seemed bigger than the Monarch. The Ulster Duke looked as if she had been refloated from somewhere. You could see what looked like tide marks on her walls. The first class in these ships was wonderful: all panelled walls, linen table cloths, soft lights and respectful stewards. The steerage was dreadful: a semi-circle of seats around a broad bare floor stinking of stale Guiness and piss. There was always a sense of travel, especially of departure. An older generation ( before the first war) could remember when a man used to go round the decks with a bell, shouting 'any more for the shore?' It was above all very pleasant to get up early, go on deck, and watch the Ulster coast slowly emerge out of the dawn.

Did you know that although most of the captains who sailed on the Belfast / Liverpool route were not not from Northern Ireland and would take the long way round the Copeland Islands. Those with local knowledge of the waters would take the shorter route between the Islands and the Mainland during the better weather. On its last voyage to Liverpool the Captain of the vessel, a local man whose name i have forgotten, sailed between the Copeland Islands and the Mainland to allow a last view of the ship and people on shore flashed their lights to say farewell.

So on August 28th 2018 a chapter in Belfast civic history came to closure in a matter of hours over the course of a working weekday - the tragic incident at Castle Junction clearly providing a tipping point for public consciousness into all that the city has physically lost to commercial development and urban regeneration outside the parallel context of international conflict and violent domestic discord. It also elicited an outpouring of genuine heartfelt communal love for a great European port that has had way more than its fair share of heartbreak and hardship.

Back in 1981 as Thin Lizzy's hard rock music morphed gradually into generic heavy metal, the album Renegade would yet conclude with the wonderful and still utterly overlooked  It's Getting Dangerous. Alike Van Morrison's Madame George the lyrics are obscure but clearly point to the patterns of change, growth and transition we have all experienced. The song also talks about the dangers constantly arraigned around us in life - be that personal corruption or by default immersion in societies guaged to venality.

The Bank Buildings fire opened up rare and fleeting space for reflection about past days of momentous industrial flux and political fraction, of who we are today as a community still beset by cultural division and where tomorrow will take us  in a period of highly credible short-term risk. As interfacing with Northern Ireland's grotesque institutional political stasis - and against the background of a still stagnant economic landscape in the North - the public reaction clearly was redolent of  deep respect and affection for an old friend who we suddenly realise is not going to be around forever if things progress the way they are going. Indeed neither may the political frameworks that put our now "branded" troubled times into their albeit qualified and edgy endgame.

Time indeed to Go For It again.


Queens Elms, Belfast, Queens University Belfast

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Strangers Abroad In An Ulster At War - Niedermayer And Heubeck


Thomas Niedermayer, Werner Heubeck, Ulsterbus, Ulster Troubles, Germany, West Germany

Consideration of the historical associations between the island of  Ireland and Germany tend to devolve to the two global conflicts of the 20th Century - the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish Divisions on the Western Front, Sir Roger Casement's attempt to forge a revolutionary Irish Brigade from prisoners-of-war on the continent prior to the Easter Rising, Abwehr spying missions in Eire, County Down's working farm for the children of the Kindertransport at Millisle, the Luftwaffe triple blitz of Belfast and the Glencree German War Cemetery in the Wicklow Mountains.

From what I can garner from the order of battle my maternal great-grandfather was in the second wave of Ulstermen attacking the Schwaben Redoubt on 1st July 1916 at the Somme - all the Irish soldiers of a then British Ireland would return to a deeply unsympathetic future. Twenty five years later both of my grandparents' houses in the Woodvale and Oldpark districts of West and North Belfast would be destroyed in the Easter 1941 air raids.

However as outlined here by the Goethe Institut, the cultural links between the two countries do extend well beyond this particular  remit. They include Franconian patron saint Kilian being born in County Cavan, the decisive role of King William's Commander-in-Chief Frederick Schomberg at the Battle of the Boyne, the emigration of German Protestants from the Rhenish Palatinate to southern Ireland at the start of the 18th Century and the premiere of Handel's The Messiah in Dublin in 1742. There was also the permanent residency in Ireland of Twenties cabaret singer and Allied black propagandist Agnes Bernelle while the country left huge cultural impressions on writers Friedrich Engels and Heinrich Boell.

In the historical context of Belfast there would also be the enormous contributions made to the civic and industrial life of the city in the Victorian and Edwardian eras by Otto Jaffe and Gustav Wolff of Hamburg. The lives of two West German businessmen meanwhile - Thomas Niedermayer and Werner Heubeck - fall within the long grim narrative of the modern Ulster Troubles and both are well recalled to this day by very many Northern Irish people for very different and deeply unsettling reasons.

Niedermayer was the 45-year-old managing director of the Nuremburg-founded Grundig electronics factory in Dunmurry on the outskirts of West Belfast and honorary West German counsel for Northern Ireland. He came to live in the province in the late Sixties and resided in the Glengoland district. The industrialist was kidnapped on 27th December 1973 by two members of the IRA. The abduction was witnessed by his daughters and it is believed the rationale behind the operation was to bargain for the release of Republican prisoners jailed after a mainland bombing campaign.

Although the choreography of events remains unclear Niedermeyer was murdered soon after by his captors - possibly in the context of an escape attempt - and buried in an illegal rubbish dump near Colin Glen which was a short distance from the family home.  His body was found only seven years later - face down, bound and gagged. The degrading nature of Niedermayer's killing was compounded by the suicide of his wife in the sea off County Wicklow in the Irish Republic an exact decade following his funeral and then that of both his daughters in the Nineties. His eldest daughter's husband also killed himself subsequently.

Niedermeyer's grave to my knowledge is at Christ Church in Derriaghy south west of Belfast. The shame of his murder and its mortifying repercussions - alike the French, Italian and Spanish fatalities of the 1974 Dublin and 1998 Omagh bombings  - remains a deep stain on the honour of Ireland and the life affirming folk soul it embodies for so many people around the world.

Five years after the end of the Great War Werner Heubeck was born in Nuremburg. During the Thirties he was a member of the Hitler Jugend and during the Second World War served in the Hermann Goering division of the Luftwaffe and the Afrika Korps. After a period as a prisoner-of-war in the USA he worked as a proofreader at the war crimes trials in his home city where he met his Welsh wife who was a translator. They moved to the United Kingdom and Heubeck became a British citizen. In 1965 he came over to Northern Ireland  to manage the Ulster Transport Authority buses - this the year before the first three political murders of the conflict were carried out in West Belfast by Loyalist paramilitaries.

The running of the rebranded rural Ulsterbus and then the metropolitan Belfast Citybus services  from 1973 were to be transformed during his 23 years of management. Heubeck remains an especial figure in the social history of the Troubles with respect to his actions in personally boarding hijacked buses during the worst years of the conflict to singlehandedly remove bombs planted by terrorists. Also for driving along routes that the company staff had been intimidated from, taking the first service run of the day along roads that had experienced overnight disorder, moving vehicles with explosive devices still on board or returning burning buses to depots for salvage. Heubeck was on first-name terms with the full raft of his company staff and counselled colleagues who had been affected by security incidents.

When I think of this kind of vintage stoicism I often recall the headmaster of my old Belfast primary David Russell who previously had worked at another school situated at a notorious and literally deadly flashpoint in the north of the city very near my paternal grandparents' home.  He had been in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp and underscored to Anthony Bailey - who authored the 1980 Acts of Union - that after his experiences in the Far East that "it's hardly likely that anything that happens on the Oldpark Road is going to worry me". Shortly before he died Mr Russell revisited Japan to meet a former miner who had treated him kindly during a serious bout of illness while imprisoned there.

Despite the widespread targeting of buses during the years of civil disorder Heubeck's leadership and belief in keeping services running to schedule represented a fundamental toehold on normality for a country spiralling on the brink of blanket societal collapse. Estimates suggest that over 800 of the 1300 fleet were destroyed during the Troubles while several staff  lost their lives including the horrific murders of Sydney Agnew in 1972 as a witness to a republican hijacking, four Ulsterbus workers at Oxford Street station on Belfast's Bloody Friday IRA blitz and Harry Bradshaw in 1977 for simply working a shift in public service during a Loyalist strike. In Lagan bus station in Belfast's Marlborough Street there is a memorial dedicated to all the victims of bombs on buses during the Ulster conflict while the Ulster Transport Museum at Cultra houses an original Daimler Fleetline Citybus in honour of the murdered drivers.

Werner Heubeck was awarded the OBE (like Niedermayer) and then the CBE for his services to civic life in a Northern Ireland at war with itself. He retired in 1988, moved to the Shetland Islands and died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 85. With his heavy accent, thick glasses, raincoat, trilby and fastidious Northern European fitness regimes in a nation not then particularly renowned for any form of holistic life management, Heubeck remains an unforgettable and truly charismatic figure from very dark times in Ireland.

In old Celtic and Hibernian parlance the term "blow in" is used to describe a person or group of people with no deep roots to either the physical locality or generic neighbourhood culture. It can be used in a dismissive or bantering fashion and overrides any quantitative length of actual settlement in an area. It is intriguing to consider the fateful course of life that brought such highly competent North West European professionals as Niedermayer and Huebeck to Ireland's shores in the late sixties - let alone to the political fragility of pre-Troubles Ulster with its potentially explosive ethnic makeup. Both men would experience the same daily tribulations which affected all the working people of the North for an unforgivable period of time - glowering tension, stark danger, rank strangeness and often utter insanity.

Ireland must never ever forget these two men and the lives they lead.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A Story For Today - Ulster Biography And Memoir

Derek Dougan, Northern Ireland, Wolverhampton Wanderers

Have just finished Fergal Keane's excellent Wounds history of his family's involvement in the Irish Revolution in County Kerry - so reflective of the bloody price the whole island paid over the 20th Century in the name of belonging, ownership and non-negotiable lines in the sand. A highly recommended work and looking forward to reading three other autobiographical and biographical pieces over the rest of the summer - Marianne Elliott's Hearthlands recollections of her Fifties and early Sixties childhood in the White City estate which was situated on the northern outskirts of Belfast, Alliance Party veteran Anna Lo's story of her life in Ulster after leaving Hong Kong in 1974 and Oliver Kay's acclaimed study of Manchester United youth footballer Adrian Doherty from Strabane who tragically died in the year 2000 at the age of only 26.

Just as two earlier posts have looked at fictional accounts of the Ulster Troubles and general Northern Irish history I want to bring together here some volumes of regional biography and memoir that I have particularly enjoyed over the years.

Of the massive raft of books on George Best the 2014 official biography Immortal by Duncan Hamilton stands head and shoulders above everything else without equivocation - deeply informative and very moving alike it keeps the wearyingly passe tabloid details to a minimum and instead throws up fascinating insights into the pathways Best's football career could have taken in Britain, Europe and North America. In terms of serious football writing this work is the equal of Hamilton's fantastic Brian Clough memoir and Eamon Dunphy's classic autobiography of a Seventies second-tier jobbing footballer in England Only a Game?

Four other superb sports works also spring to mind. In particular there is David Tossell's In Sunshine Or In Shadow biography of the Wolverhampton Wanderers legend Derek Dougan.  The Doog's football career started at Belfast's Distillery whose Grosvenor Road ground was situated in an inner city district which was unusually both working class and religiously mixed in complexion up to the late Sixties- he would play internationally for Northern Ireland 43 times between 1958 and 1973 including the World Cup finals in Sweden.

Like George Best he was an intelligent thoughtful man who was a great believer in the sporting and cross-cultural benefits of a united Ireland football side. Indeed he was one of the six Northern Ireland internationals to play in the Shamrock Rovers XI exhibition match against Brazil in 1973 which has been discussed in detail in an earlier post  as the sole modern performance by a de-facto all-Ireland team. He also once claimed during the early part of the Troubles that he and Georgie Best alone could fix Ulster's bitter fractures more than any feuding sectarian politicians could and that they should go over and sort it all out - he was clearly correct here on so many fronts that there is neither time nor space in this posting to even begin to analyse it properly.

Only last week I read a story about Dougan on an online forum which gathers together memories of Seventies First Division football culture. The poster remembered seeing the Ulsterman turn out for West Bromwich Albion at Jeff Astle's tesitmonial. After missing a proverbial sitter of a goal opportunity Dougan received some jeers from the home fans including chants of "Dougan IRA" to which the big East Belfast Prod went down on one knee and mimed shooting at the locals to ground-wide jocularity. In turn I have seen an early Seventies football magazine question-and-answer profile of Dougan where he claims his biggest thrill was meeting Ian Paisley and the person in the world he would most want to meet is Bernadette Devlin! The Doog was also the subject of a great April Fool's Day prank by The Guardian which recalled his days in the London and West Coast acid-rock counter culture.

Dougan, who carried Best's coffin and died in 2007, wrote an interesting autobiography The Sash He Never Wore in 1972 that is well worth investigating and also an overview of the questionable aspects of sports administration in the early Eighties called How Not To Run Football which featured a crucified Seventies Pop Bestie on the cover.

There are several accessible works available on the snooker player Alex Higgins - both Bill Burrows' The Hurricane and Tony Francis' Who Was Hurricane Higgins? are well researched and often outrageously funny reads - but it is the 2007 autobiography From the Eye of the Hurricane that opens up radically different insights into his personality in a frank revealing fashion.

The Munich Olympian Mary Peters' own story Mary P is an interesting volume juxtaposing her rolling global sporting success with blanket societal collapse back home in Ulster including the murder of several British soldiers in a literally neighbouring Belfast house  - it was published in January 1974 and is sadly long out of print. Finally Whose Side Are You On? is a massively overlooked work from 2011 by Teddie Jamieson which considers the full strata of Northern Ireland sporting success - including Joey Dunlop, Barry McGuigan and Dennis Taylor - against the background of his young adulthood during the Troubles in Coleraine.

Going back to biographical works from earlier in the last century and one of the most well-recalled works would be Robin Harbinson's No Surrender account of his Belfast childhood - the first of four such memoirs from the early Sixties. He also wrote a priceless travelogue of Northern Ireland shortly before the start of the Troubles in 1962 under his real name Robin Bryans - Ulster: A Journey Through The Six Counties.

The Belfast writer and broadcaster Sam McAughtrey is mostly associated with The Sinking of the Kenbane Head which centred around his early family life in Belfast's Tiger's Bay and the death of his merchant seaman brother Mart on the Atlantic convoys. His own autobiography On The Outside Looking In from 2003 is  highly readable and incorporates his association with the cross-border Peace Train Organisation of the late Eighties and his accession to the Irish Senate.

Brian Moore's The Emperor of Ice Cream novel from 1965 is directly based on his experience as an ARP warden during the 1941 Luftwaffe blitz on Belfast and remains an essential piece of Irish social history. Another important work relating to the Second World War is Martin Dillon and Roy Bradford's Rogue Warrior of the SAS biography of Blair Mayne. This traces his extraordinary life story from the Irish and British Lions international rugby squads to staggering military endeavour in the Western desert and Occupied Europe including the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Mayne died in a car crash at the age of only 40 on a December 1955 morning in Newtownards County Down.

James Young has been mentioned many times on this blog - two biographies exist about the fondly-remembered Ulster comic actor. His partner Jack Hudson wrote a general career overview for Blackstaff Press shortly after Young's death in 1974 and then Andrew McKinney produced a compact celebration of his life in 2003. Certainly matching Our Jimmy in terms of personal and creative flamboyance was Brian Desmond Hurst - The Empress of Ireland work by Christopher Robbins regarding his personal relationship in London with the Belfast-born director of Scrooge and Malta Story is an utter joy of a read.

In my previous post I mentioned the sole print of Mark J Prendergast's Irish Rock: Roots, Personalities, Directions as containing some excellent content on Horslips' career. An entire chapter of this book also covers Van Morrison's musical odyssey from Ireland to America and back again while Johnny Rogan's No Surrender emplaces the deep soul of the singer's work against long lost Belfast streetscapes and the timeless pastoral appeal of rural Ulster. I consider this one of the best rock biographies ever produced alongside Jerry Hopkins, Paolo Hewitt and Tony Fletcher's works on Elvis, Steve Marriott and Keith Moon respectively. In terms of the still healthy interest in the Seventies  Ulster punk scene both Terri Hooley's Hooleygan and Micky Bradley of The Undertones' Teenage Kicks are hugely entertaining memoirs.

As for Northern Ireland's modern troubled times -and going beyond the obvious default of Gerry Conlon and Paddy Joe Hill's hellish revelations - the Voices From The Grave:Two Men's War in Ireland testimonies of David Ervine and Brendan Hughes provide an extraordinary insight into how human agency interfaces with political critical mass. In terms of the separate sides of the nationalism divide I would strongly recommend the Straight Left autobiography of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and later Social Democratic and Labour Party figure Paddy Devlin and Derek Lundy's insightful Men That God Made Mad: A Journey Through Truth, Myth and Terror in Northern Ireland about three of his Protestant forebears from the Siege of Derry to the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion through to the Ulster Covenant. Although cogniscent of Kevin Myer's ability to deeply divide public opinion I remain hugely impressed with his Watching the Door Troubles memoirs as indeed with the A Single Headstrong Heart prequel regarding his strained relationship with his father.

Some final volumes to mention in his brief overview would be Geoffrey Beattie's We Are The People and Protestant Boy autobiographies of his youth growing up in the same troubled North Belfast locale I myself lived in during the Seventies and Eighties and the incredibly exhaustive biography of Ulster playwright Stewart Parker by Marilynn Richtarik. Lastly a flag for the former Beirut hostage Brian Keenan's extremely touching I'll Tell Me Ma memoir of his childhood in a Belfast district near the Antrim Road waterworks that would be so brutally degraded by Troubles violence that Fergal Keane noted in Wounds how it left his own father physically dumbstruck on seeing it for the first time since the Sixties when he had stayed there in a local boarding house for theatricals.


Christopher Robbins, Northern Ireland, Scrooge, Brian Desmond Hurst

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Horslips - Deconstructing Ireland In The Seventies

Horslips, Dancehall Sweethearts, Irish rock

The incendiary, unrelenting and ribald nature of Irish folk wit and banter at its level best is an awesome beast to behold. Some years ago I was walking around the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast and across Writer's Square facing The John Hewitt Bar on Donegall Street. Amongst the literary wordage enshrined on the ground there is Joseph Tomelty's scathing observation on life, fate and drudgery -  What a bloody awful place for a man of imagination.

Tomelty was a Northern Irish actor born in Portaferry on County Down's Strangford Lough shore who starred in the movies Moby Dick and A Kid For Two Farthings. He was also the author of many works including the novel Red Is The Port Light, the prototype folk horror play All Soul's Night and the classic Ulster radio comedy The McCooeys which provided the comic actor James Young with his commercial breakthrough. He was also the former father-in-law of Sting.

I was reading about Tomelty this weekend with regard to Carol Reed's classic Odd Man Out film of 1947 in which he had a minor role. This feature starred James Mason as an IRA man on the run in Belfast after a robbery at a linen mill and included location shots from the Crumlin Road and the Ligoniel area in the north of the city. It garnered attention from contemporary censors because of the violent content but was certainly a brave attempt at that time to analyse the complex dynamics of bloody political conflict in Ireland.

Another example of wonderfully surreal Hibernian word association that stopped me in my tracks in the past were the comments of writer Declan Lynch in the 2014 Return of the Dancehall Sweethearts documentary about Irish folk rock legends Horslips. Lynch noting how the five-piece group "took the constituent parts of what it meant to be Irish and they put them back together in a way that wasn't crap".

Everything you ever want to know about Horslips can be found in the 2013 official biography Tall Tales by Mark Cunningham (and also Mark J Prendergast's long out-of-print Irish Rock: Roots, Personalities, Directions) but it is worth reiterating here the truly unique role they played within the cultural life of Seventies Ireland. This not only in regard to their native Irish Republic as a national musical act that had the capacity and talent to have been one of the biggest commercial draws on the globe but as one of the few major rock artists to continue to play in Ulster during the Troubles. In fact Horslips' last ever live performance was at the Whitla Hall at Queens University Belfast in May 1980.

Of the nine studio albums released between 1972 and 1979 the two most well-recalled after their groundbreaking Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part debut would be the fusion of hard rock, traditional folk and Celtic mythological narrative on The Tain (1973) and The Book of Invasions (1976) - these based respectively on Ulster's tenth century Cattle Raid of Cooley legend and a twelfth century chronicle of pre-Christian colonisations of Ireland. 

Dancehall Sweethearts (1975) and The Unfortunate Cup of Tea (1976) have some leanings towards more prog and poppier material alike but the former in particular has dated very well. Two later albums based on Ireland's experience of emigration to the New World - Aliens (1977) and The Man Who Built America (1978) - successfully pulled off a harder American rock approach which (like Big Country's The Buffalo Skinners) really warranted a much bigger and appreciative audience. However in light of the distance this took them from the folk base, the final album Short Stories, Tall Tales was to be the weakest of the studio albums though does contain the utterly sublime Rescue Me.

The Seventies discography is rounded off by the massively underrated Drive The Cold Winter Away acoustic folk collection from 1975, two live albums and an early compilation of rarities including two quirky Beatles tributes from "Lipstick"and the utterly brilliant Motorway Madness. Horslips reformed for an unplugged live recording Roll Back in 2004 and in 2010 and 2011 further live albums were lifted from concerts at the O2 Arena Dublin and the Ulster Hall in Belfast.

The five individual members of the group were born in Dublin, Limerick, Kells County Meath, Ardboe by Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland and Middlesborough on Tyne and Wear. All their original albums were released in Ireland on their own Oats label with artwork designed by the group themselves - they also remained domestically resident in Ireland throughout the Seventies.

Horslips' commercial success may have been overshadowed by Thin Lizzy on an international scale but it is important to remember that the first LP release was the fastest selling album in Ireland in eight years, Dearg Doom from The Tain was a German number one single and The Book of Invasions reached number 39 on the UK album charts in the middle of a mainland IRA bombing campaign which may have possibly muddied some very clever people's marketing strategies. The passion and fire of their live performances in the British Isles, mainland Europe and North America are still talked about today with awe, respect and deep appreciation.

The King of the Fairies, Dearg Doom (as performed on the BBC Old Grey Whistle Test) and Trouble With a Capital T remain fairly well known to informed fans of classic rock music today but do take time to forge around Horslips back catalogue if you can. Go beyond the generic Celtic rock categorising and the draining bloody Jethro Tull comparisons to their fantastic second single Green Gravel, the wonderful instrumentals Ace and Deuce and We Bring the Summer With Us, to the great lost Seventies rock classic Sunburst, Self Defence from The Unfortunate Cup of Tea, the b-sides The High Reel and When The Night Comes, to New York Wakes off Aliens, The Man Who Built America's title track and particularly the entirety of the winter folk collection.

Without exaggeration Horslips stand alongside George Best in modern Irish social history as utterly unique creative talents who embodied so much of the soul and pride of the country during days of grim political turmoil, economic stagnation and shameful cultural division.

Horslips, King of the Fairies, Irish rock