Well, it’s a year ago today that Hearts defeated Hibs 5-1 in the Scottish Cup Final, and it’s still hard to write that sentence. When I wrote on my feelings in advance of that game, I said that, no matter the score, I expected to be proud of Edinburgh and shedding tears of emotion.
I guess I was half right.
It was certainly good to see a packed house at the National Stadium proving that there is football life outside of Glasgow, but the tears were rather more of shock and frustration than emotion. Hibs players, who I’d seen ashen faced on the team coach as they arrived at the stadium, just didn’t cope with the occasion.
However, as Nick Hornby wrote, the great thing about football is that there’s always next season.
Within weeks, my son Patrick and I were at Methil watching the ‘new’ Hibs v East Fife, and then we were off on a great pre-season tour to Belgium, Holland and Berlin.
Faced with a huge task to re-establish pride, confidence, and some class at the football club, Pat Fenlon has made a good fist of it, with some useful players brought in, youth developing nicely, a 7th place finish and …..another Cup Final!
Our cup run neatly mirrors our season really: guts and a bit of luck saw off the Hearts and Aberdeen, some lovely flowing football bulldozered Killie, and all of these elements combined into a sensational 45 minutes helped us overcome a plucky Falkirk in the semifinal.
So how am I feeling about this year’s trip west?
There’s always emotion, of course.
It’s not a month since we stood behind the East Stand and watch the unveiling of all those Terracing plaques, each with a unique memory or family connection, proud to see Uncle James take his place in Hibernian History.
It has to be said, though, that this Final is not of the same order as last year’s, and there are a number of reasons for that. One is the lingering disappointment of last year’s hammering, and another is the fact that this is Celtic, not Hearts. For while we are trapped in a permanent ongoing battle for supremacy in the capital with our neighbours from Gorgie, most Hibs supporters are much more sanguine when it comes to the Lesser Greens from the East End of Glasgow.
We know that without Canon Hannan’s inspiration, Brother Walfrid would not have thought up the idea of Celtic, and that, without Hibs’ initial help, and then the stealing of five of our players, Celtic would not have come into being. We can also be grateful that the hiatus caused by that incident enabled us to re-start our club, free from sectarianism, at a very early stage.
In other words, we are secure in our status as ‘first to wear the green’, and nothing Celtic do can ever change that situation. A defeat next Sunday, especially as they go into the game as favourites, changes nothing, whereas, at this stage last year, defeat by Hearts didn’t bear thinking about.
Don’t get me wrong – we are desperate to bring home that particular piece of silverware – but the tension is on a different scale.
However, there’s always emotion, of course.
At the start of May, my son and I headed for New York to watch a Gaelic Football Championship match – New York v Leitrim – our home county in Ireland; it was another great event where family, history, and sport mixed to great emotional effect.
Before we came home we spent some time with family on Long Island. Sitting at my cousin’s for lunch, she came up behind me and said: “I have a present for you which I know you will love”.
On the table before me she set down an old black and white photograph. Stuck on a cardboard mounting, it was a little creased and stained in places, but that was to be expected – it was, after all, 85 years old.
If you know your history, the background was immediately recognizable as the old West Stand at Easter Rd – except in those days it was the brand new main stand, recently built. You can make out an advert along the front of it for the Green Dispatch, Edinburgh’s old football paper, and in front are posed a group of footballers with their trainer.
They are wearing the heavy duty woollen ganseys with the roll necks which were de rigeur for training in those distant days of the late 1920s. However, they have that still familiar look which footballers carry in photographs even to this day: part shy, part cocky, part proud, part embarrassed.
As soon as I saw the picture, I burst into tears. For there, third from the left, was my Uncle James. I have a much treasured cartoon of James as a Hibs player, but had long ago given up any hope of ever finding a picture of him as a player. My cousin’s dad, my Uncle Frank, had emigrated to the States in 1929. He’d taken this picture of his beloved brother with him, and retained his pride in both James, and the Hibs, till his death some fifty years later. Now my cousin was passing it on to me.
I was seven when Uncle James died, still young in his fifties, but I remember the twinkle in his eye, his laughter, his talking to me of the Hibs, and his footballer trick with an orange – flicked from foot to thigh to the back of the neck.
And now here he was, a 23 year old, with his life in front of him, playing for the Hibs.
Old photographs, particularly of the young, draw us in. Their future is our past; we know which dreams were met and which escaped from them.
I look at Uncle James there at Easter Rd, younger than my son is now. I want to hug him and hold him close. I want to tell him that the nephew he threw a ball to never demonstrated anything like his football skills, but that he never goes to a Hibs game without thinking of his Uncle James; that for his nephew and his great nephew, living in the next century, he is still our biggest Hibs Hero. I want to say that, while his football career will be short, what he goes on to achieve will make him an even bigger hero. As a Franciscan Friar he will be loved by many for the concern he shows for the poor and the sick; he will be admired for the inspiration and wit of his sermons; he will touch many with his musical talent and entertaining ways. I would thank him for showing that, important to us all as the Hibs are, there are bigger and more crucial things in life – like caring for others and making the world a better place. And I would tell him how proud we are of all he accomplished and of all the help he gave to so many.
So, when we load the car next Sunday for the journey west, thanks to James, and that photo, added to the big green flag with the harp on it, and the supporter’s scarf of 47 seasons, there will also be a big dose of perspective: it is, after all, only a game. In the words of the old saying: “Nobody gets killed, nobody goes to hospital.”
Whatever the result, we’ll remember that – in disappointment or delight, and we’ll enjoy our day out with the Hibs Family, and James, and Frank, and my Dad all there with us, somehow.
If we lose, there’s always next year, and, if we were to win…………
Well, that’s uncharted territory, isn’t it?
They tell us that photographs capture a second in time, which is then frozen for evermore. But I like to think if the Hibs bring back that old Cup to Leith, for the first time since before he was born, then young James McPartlin in that wonderful picture will have an extra shine in his twinkling eyes, and that cheeky smile will have widened just a wee bit.
It will be difficult for me to tell of course…..
Well, I’ll be greetin.
When I heard of the death of Margaret Thatcher, I was driving on the M6 past the Lancashire village of Euxton. The relevance of that information will become apparent later.
I don’t believe it is ever right to celebrate the death of another human, so you will not find the phrase “Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!” in this piece.. However, as someone with a clear memory of the times before and after Thatcher, it’s perhaps not surprising that, like many of my generation, I should wish to reflect on her premiership and its legacy.
The stretch of motorway on which I was driving was completed in July 1963, but five years before that, the ground it covers had been at the far end of a country field which stretched out from a small wood leading from the house in which I lived.
I had moved to Euxton from my hometown of Edinburgh, and the freedom of the countryside was hugely exciting to a 6 year old boy.
The field sloped down to a hedgerow where we would pick rosehips by a brook, and, at the top of the hill was a huge oak tree, under the shade of which I remember enjoying a picnic with my mother on a sunny summer’s afternoon.
Is this a romanticized and sentimentalized picture?
Of course it is.
But it also serves as an iconic image for ‘the time before’.
In retrospect, the four or five years which spanned the end of the fifties and the start of the sixties were a burst of hesitant sunshine, caught between the grey skies of the post war recession and the mad thunder storms of the following decades. Some certainty was returning, while folk dared to hope for a bright future after the privations of war, rationing and shortages. Though there were only 4.5 million cars in the UK, compared to around 30 million today, the optimism was there to commence a motorway building scheme and the word ‘modern’ had an allure.
However, this brave new world had not entirely cast off from what came before.
In that small Lancashire village, there were still families who had been there at the time of the Domesday Book, doors went unlocked, and five year olds made their own way to school, untroubled by parental fears of danger. Neighbours knew and looked out for each other. Employment came from a nearby ordnance factory and the Leyland Motors works a few miles away, as well as traditional agriculture, and market town commerce in Chorley, the next settlement.
People had pride in their trades and crafts, shopkeepers, doctors and dentists were like family friends, and each family hoped their children would progress successfully through education and hard work. The word ‘opportunity’ hung over our lives like an admonishment to take advantage of all that the future offered. Politics was far away in London, and, while people had their views, and political meetings were well attended, government was, at least notionally, by some form of consensus; you would expect nothing else in the aftermath of war. There were toffs and workers but neither side seemed out of sight to the other.
This is, of course, an idealized notion of life at the start of the sixties. There was poverty and entitlement, and society was weighed down by a class system which still prized debutante Balls and hereditary titles. Brady and Hindley were at work within thirty miles of my picnic spot, and many were still trying to recover from pre and post war depressions. However, this is how it seemed to me as a child, and if it seems a strange world, then that reflects more what we have come to be than what we were at the time.
Am I going to claim that Thatcher got rid of all that cosiness?
Of course not.
Clearly change was coming. Technology was developing incrementally, the baby boomers were in their teens, the welfare state had been doing its job on health and living conditions, and these islands could no longer linger in the aftermath of the trauma of war – the winning of which had preoccupied the state’s focus and development for so long.
But McMillan’s Tories were old and ultimately distracted by ‘events, dear boy, events’ and it fell to Wilson’s Labour Party to take up the challenge of the ‘white heat of technology’ as the sixties progressed.
No doubt my Labour supporting pals will disagree, but I have always thought that, in simple language, the Labour Party bottled it in the sixties. They had a chance to use the chimera of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ to build something progressive and egalitarian for the British state, but they seemed to have an inferiority complex and to be unsure if they could convince the people of the benefits of their principles. There started a continuing trend of seeking to prove they could be ‘responsible in government like the Tories’ as if they really believed that the Conservatives were the ‘natural party of Government’. They had many Oxbridge types who convinced the party’s policy makers that principles were fine in Opposition but would not help a party remain in Government. There was a disconnection with the Unions, who were taken for granted as funders, but not part of a partnership. The welfare state, as shown by ‘Cathy Come Home’ needed to be re-energised, as did the state industries, but Labour faltered in following its original vision, as it has ever since. Other than the Open University, and a refusal to engage in Viet Nam, I struggle to think of a lasting positive legacy from the Wilson years.
So Thatcher inherited a country which, for many reasons, was overdue for change. It’s not so much that it had been mismanaged as unmanaged. She rode into town, with her ludicrous quotation of St Francis’s Prayer for Peace, probably the last time she uttered the word ‘peace’ outside of a threatening monologue, and set about creating the myth of Thatcherism.
The Thatcher myths are easily demolished.
After a disastrous start to her premiership, her opportunity to survive came via a Falklands war which could have been avoided easily had her Foreign Office been attentive to basic monitoring duties and had naval resources not been deployed away from the south Atlantic.
So was the Falkland War a sign of success and power?
No – rather a sign of a desperate politician taking advantage of a situation made by her own mistakes. The pity was, of course, that so many young men had to die to construct this particular myth.
Was she as resolute a leader as the myth proclaims?
No – she wobbled on Ireland, veering from the hardline attitude to the Hunger Strikers, to the pragmatic signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement. She wobbled on Europe, eventually signing the Single European Agreement.
Did she control her Cabinet with a iron fist?
No – she rather sidelined those who disagreed with her and, in her monetary and business policies, allowed many of her colleagues to pursue their own views on ‘wealth creation’ as a means of keeping them onside.
Was she the ‘great International Leader’ hailed in other countries?
Other than in a cartoon sense, no. Those overseas, especially in the USA, tend to praise her for ‘being decisive and holding to her word’. Without an analysis of the consequences of her intransigence, this is pointless. Many of her intractable views were almost hysterically wrong: Mandela was ‘a grubby little terrorist’, she supported and trained the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, allowed the US to base nuclear weapons on British soil, and based her foreign policies on narrow, often mistaken, precepts of self interest. In the Eastern Bloc, she was a useful, but totemic ally to those who sought change, and in Ronald Reagan she found someone who had a similarly limited vision to hers, and was equally enthralled by big business and profit making schemes. She enjoyed international flattery, but history, I suspect, will not be overly convinced of her role on the world stage.
Did she strike a blow for women in becoming the first female prime minister?
You need only look at female representation in British politics nearly four decades later to realise she failed in that respect also. Truth is, the Conservatives made her leader because of her political ideas and despite her being a woman. The ravages on society during her time in office – the miners’ strike, the rise in unemployment, the 79% increase in crime that her ‘devil take the hindmost’ political philosophy engendered, all of these traumatic effects impacted most devastatingly on women – as mothers, daughters, wives and workers. It was they, as always, who had to try and balance career with holding together families and communities, feeding children, supporting menfolk, seeking employment, developing their role in society – and Thatcher’s decisions betrayed neither empathy nor understanding of the impact of her policies on her gender.
However, it is, of course, on Home Affairs that she will ultimately be judged.
As I wrote earlier, I am not going to blame Thatcher for changing our society. Change was coming and it had to be managed. It was not that we changed, it was how we changed that is the pity. Countries throughout Europe went through a similar process; it led to many post industrial models – in France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. In the latter, particularly, it presaged a society were social democracy and equality came to be valued above economic elitism and pretensions to ‘world power’. Change could have come in a way which benefited the masses, but not under Thatcher’s limited views.
She believed mass unemployment was ‘a price worth paying’ for the changes she wanted to see. She worked from the simplistic dogma of her father in the Grantham grocer’s shop: “Hard work brings its rewards”. This is a great motto for a primary school pupil, but a fatuous base for running a country. It ignores the need for equality of opportunity – the one truism of egalitarianism – and it ignores the fate of those who, for whatever reason, are unable to avail themselves of these opportunities which exist. More importantly, it neglects to take into account the balance between the number of opportunities available and the number of people needing them. Classically, her sale of council housing gave many the opportunity to own a property, but the failure to replace the sold stock, left many homeless. Like Nelson, no doubt one of her heroes, she could, and did, turn a blind eye to those who suffered from her espousal of dogma.
Like the chance to own your own house, privatization seemed to offer an opportunity: those with money could invest – and get more money; but those without – they lost public control of state industries, the utilities, and part of the fabric which knitted society together – but then, for Thatcher, that society didn’t exist either – just the possibility of bettering yourself, if necessary to the demise of others. The laughable state of railways, power companies, domestic bills and infrastructure today bears witness to what happens when you are driven by the dogma of profit before people, business before citizens.
Her ally, Lord Tebbit has just declared she was driven by her scientific knowledge and religious belief – a statement which decries the humanity of scientists and mocks the support of the vulnerable which is any religion’s greatest tenet.
So why are there those who laud Thatcher for her premiership, and if she isn’t personally to blame for the change in society, who is?
The answer to both those questions is the same.
She claimed that being a ‘Grantham Grocer’s Daughter’ made her ‘one of the people’, but, in fact, her origins were a straitjacket from which she never escaped; her view was essentially provincial in everything she did; she could imagine no vision not based on Alderman Roberts’ restricted view of the world. Her brilliance was that of Mephistopheles. She understood the baser side of human nature, and used it to further her aims. Greed and a desire for personal advancement are intrinsic to mankind. In more sophisticated societies, these urges are balanced by enlightened government, shared concern, and cooperative thinking. By stripping these elements away, Thatcher gave permission for greed to flourish at the expense of concern for her fellow men. In her world, she was right, there was no such thing as society. The need to think of others only held one back from the core human business of making money and gaining personal power. At the top of her party, and elsewhere in politics, there was no shortage of folk prepared to agree. In short, Thatcher realized if she cried havoc and let slip the dogs of profit and greed, the howls of the vulnerable, the dispossessed and the charitable would be drowned out by the baying of the nouveau riche. In time the underclass would disengage from the political process and big business would be free to regulate – or deregulate – the world to its own advantage.
Thatcher didn’t need to change society; far too many in that society were more than happy to make it happen. She merely gave them permission.
So, do I hate Thatcher?
No – I hate the weaknesses in mankind which allowed her vision to flourish, I hate that too many were prepared to go along with her views, I hate that there was no party properly able or prepared to stand up to her, and I hate the fact that all political parties use where we have got to today as the acceptable starting point for where we go next, scared, as they have been today in the Parliament, to point to the death, destruction, poverty and despair which her governments visited on generations. I think the people deserve better; I fear she took that possibility away from them forever.
I hate what she did; to hate her would be to follow her creed, and I, at least, still cleave to St Francis’s words: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love”. She achieved what she did by sowing hatred; were I to stoop to that, she would have won. And she mustn’t.
And that wee boy, picking berries and having a picnic in that Lancashire field under the shadow of a proposed motorway?
I mourn for him, and all that he lost.
In 1958, he would have accepted that the motorway was necessary, but that the government could be trusted to serve the people, to maintain what was left of the field. He would have believed that there is a compact between those who govern and those who are governed -– that support would be rewarded by concern, and that national decisions would be made in the national good.
Instead, he grew to become a teacher who had to watch generations of pupils struggle against their parents’ unemployment and the fragmentation of communities, the diminution of public services, the absence of a voice which represented them in any meaningful way, former pupils going off to fight and die in politically and economically inspired wars, industrialists encouraged to grow rich on human misery, and a growing culture which said having is more important than being; what you own outplays who you are; watching your back is more important than supporting others.
Half of that field still remains, the wood is still there. Theoretically, berries could still be picked, picnics still enjoyed. However, the sentimental memories evoked by the thought of 1958 are not so much about the actions as the context.
Thanks to the world ushered in by Thatcher’s programmes, that context has changed. Optimism, brotherhood, cooperation and connectivity have all been privatized – they belong to an elite few in our society. The rest of us wait for opportunities which appear to have been cancelled; we can’t even rely on a replacement bus service.
I suspect these days, the berries would be sour and the picnic food processed.
If you see Sid, tell him.
It is August 1967. At fifteen, I am standing by the stage of the Hydro Hotel Ballroom in Kilkee, Co Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. It’s my second Irish summer. I am shy, not confident, and pathologically romantic. Ballrooms and Showbands could have been invented for me.
I was already going to concerts at home, had thrilled to the Who and others in big theatres like the Liverpool Empire – but this ballroom reaches other parts of me.
The Showband dance starts at 9 and finishes around 1am. During those four hours the band will play accurate versions of virtually everything in the charts plus a range of older dance numbers. They don’t play much original stuff but their musicianship is excellent; two or three of them will share lead vocal, and most band members play more than one instrument. In addition, the presence of a three piece brass section, to augment the normal rock group line up, means the live sound in the large ballroom is thunderous and elemental. By 11pm the dancefloor will be heaving, the boards bouncing, the glitterball flickering excitement, and the dancers’ ears ringing, their faces shining with sweat and excitement.
Holidaying at the Hydro Hotel is great – with a large group of teenagers to offset my single child status; bands are booked for a week, and often they practise new material during the day; the musicians are quite happy to chat and make friends with a starstruck teenager.
It’s only around 9.30; showband dances are teetotal, so most of the older dancers come in from the bars in the seaside town around 10.30. There’s about 60 of us in the hall, and I’m at the foot of the stage, catching the guys’ eyes, revelling in their nods and winks of recognition. I’m daft about music, and this is liggers’ heaven.
The band this week is “Kevin Flynn and the Editors” from Cahir, Co Tipperary. They are a good professional outfit, a mix of ages in their ranks, and they play a wide range of music to cater for all the tastes of the Ballroom. If it was Sunday night, the farmers would be in from the country and you would have a different atmosphere, more older women in the hall. At their height, the ballrooms were said to be where well over 60% of rural married couples first met each other. The rest of the week local girls, hotel staff and holiday makers provide an interesting mix; no wonder last week’s band, The Carousel, from Crumlin in Dublin, had just put out a single entitled ‘Holiday Romance’!
The Editors themselves have a single release – on the Emerald Record label. The B side is an original composition, sung by its composer, guitarist, Alex Steele: a slow dance country flavoured ballad: “If you change your mind”; the A side is a cover of the old Bobby Darin rock and roll hit: “Queen of the Hop”.
This is sung by rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist, Don Cotter. Now, to be honest, for 1967, the Editors, like most of the Showbands, are not exactly groovy in style. Their stagewear consists of matching brown mohair suits, white shirts, and narrow ties: smart, but not exactly Haight Ashbury! Some of the biggest arguments I ever got into back at school concerned my liking for showbands. They weren’t cool and just played other people’s songs was the accusation, and I’m afraid I lacked the ability to recapture the thrill of the live show in the ballroom, when defending my heroes.
However, in the Editors, Don Cotter was as close as it got to pop star. With shades and collar length hair, he looked a lot like Dave Davies of the Kinks, and tended to sing the rockier, pop numbers. Indeed, he did a mean “Death of a Clown” as performed by his doppelganger.
I liked going early to listen to the band’s first hour or so. Not only could I hang out by the stage, shouting out the odd request, but they slipped in a few of their own favourites before the hall filled up, and, best of all, was the echo of their sound in the half empty ballroom. To me it was a promise of mounting excitement, the sound of showbiz, the call to dance.
This particular night, as it gets on to ten or so, the band are warming up. A four song set of slow numbers comes to an end with Alex Steele singing Jim Reeves’ weepy: “He’ll have to go”, followed by the familiar: “That’s all for now folks, your next dance please!”
Most folk who frequented the Ballrooms will remember them for two main reasons: one was the ‘set’ dance system – the band played 3 or 4 songs in a row, then broke for a couple of minutes. This fairly added to the tension in the hall. If a girl stayed on the floor with you for the whole four songs, she must either be very nervous, awfully polite, or she quite liked you. If you liked her, the gap between sets was a chance to invite her for a lemonade, or keep her talking till the next set started. Most sets would be four ‘quicksteps’, but you would never know when they were going to announce “And now a slow set, boys and girls”. If you were particularly unsure of yourself, you had a couple of songs to get up courage to ask her to dance, and, if you were lucky, you’d get at least two dances out of it.
The word tension doesn’t really begin to explain the situation, and you would be surrounded by guys talking ‘tactics’ like they were on a football field. This set system also led to the other major memory most folk have, the peculiar arrangement whereby the girls would all sit along one wall, while the guys all stood opposite in a big group, waiting for the set to be announced. There would follow a most unholy dash across the width of the hall, and, as ‘intended targets’ were taken, there would be awful collisions as guys changed direction or bottled out at the last minute. The ‘changeover’ became more and more manic as the last dance approached.They called them ‘Ballrooms of Romance’, but ‘Ballrooms of Great Angst’ would have been a better description I always felt.
Anyway, on this occasion, the 50 metre dash is still an hour or two ahead; I’m just enjoying the music and admiring my heroes. Don steps up to the microphone, and, without any introduction, plays the opening G-D-C-D chords of the current No1: The Troggs’ “With a Girl like You”.
It is, and remains some 46 years later, a perfect pop moment, brought back to me sharply, and with a tinge of sadness, by the announcement of the death today of Reg Presley, who wrote and sang the song.
How could a lovesick 15 year old not feel the words were written for him, as he surreptitiously scanned the hall to see if The Girl’ had arrived yet.
“I want to spend my life with a girl like you
And do all the things that you want me to”.
On the brink of serious relationships, wanting the love of a partnership, without any clear idea of what it entailed, what it would ask of you, what you’d need to give, just knowing how good it felt to be smitten.
“I can tell by the way you dress that you’re so refined
And by the way you talk, that you’re just my kind;
Girl why should it be, that you don’t notice me?
Can I dance with you?”
Even the ‘Ba Ba ba’ at the end of each line seemed to echo the gibbering nerves of so many of us approaching the girl of our dreams, for that month, anyway.
The chorus rose musically in a reflection of our panic:
“Baby baby, is there no chance, I can take you for the last dance?
All night long now, I’ve been waiting – now there’ll be no hesitating”
And then, in the end, consolidating its position, as the national anthem of all of us for whom the hopes of romantic dreams outweighed the cold water of experience:
“So, before this dance has reached the end
To you across the floor my love I’ll send
I just hope and pray, that I’ll find a way to say:
Can I dance with you?”
Echoing across that half empty ballroom, the song was a manifesto for nervous youth, a promise of possibility if not probability. The whole point, really, of being a teenager. I loved Don Cotter for singing it, and I loved Reg Presley for writing it. I was not alone. This whole ‘asking a girl to dance and falling in love thing’ WAS difficult – even for a guy in a rock band!
Banal, simplistic, musically and lyrically naive? Of course it was. But then, they were all adjectives that just as accurately applied to the fifteen year old me. The song and I were a perfect fit, as I nodded to the guys in the band ostentatiously, hoping The Girl would notice how friendly I was with them, and some of the stardust might fall on my carefully combed hair, before I got too sweaty with my remarkably uncoordinated dance moves.
Innocent to the point of ridicule in these oh so fast days of the twenty first century; glorious as a trip to the moon in the late sixties.
I mourn Reg’s passing – not because he was a giant musical talent, but because, as his later life seems to have proved, he was ordinary enough to have given me a 150 second soundtrack to my dreams which, if I’m brutally honest, I’ve never fully shaken off. I hear those ‘ba-ba-ba-ba-ba’s whenever I catch an echo, or clicking steps across a polished wooden floor, and there’s a long haired man from Tipp in dark glasses singing to a half empty hall.
At some point in the evening, the local Guards would appear, stood upright at the back of the hall, caps in place, white belts round their uniform coats, large torches held like nightsticks. With little enough to do in those days, this was their way of patrolling the resort, the Sergeant serious and official, the younger Guard tapping along to the music, with the hand furthest away from his superior.
Later, there would be the final packed hour of the dance, the shouted conversations, the sweet taste and sticky floors of 7 Up, the hand around the waist, the tortured closeness of a slow dance,the meeting of eyes, and perhaps a wee kiss offering a hint of teenage perfume, as advertised in New Spotlight Magazine, or Fab 208.
Then it would be all over for another night: “Safe home from Kevin Flynn and the Editors Showband, Cahir, Co Tipperary. Hope to see you again soon.” Then rigidly at attention for the National Anthem,mumbling the words in laboriously learned Irish.
You would queue to get out in the suddenly bright lights of the ballroom, as the band behind you packed up their instruments, shared jokes, and looked forward to a pint in the Bar. Maybe you’d join them later.
Outside is a crush of cars, bicycles, couples heading off for a walk round the bay. There’s gangs of lads laughing and talking too loudly to disguise the fact that they’re going home alone; groups of girls joking behind their hands and handbags, about the girl who came with them but is leaving with a boy. Nobody’s drunk, and no drugs. There must have been unhappinesses submerged in that ballroom, but, right now, folk are high on life and summer.
The August night air hits you like a warm flannel in the face. You realise your shirt is sticking to you, a cold slap on the back, and you are blinking salt sweat out of your eyes. School science tells you that you’re on a chemical high from a combination of pheromones and endorphins, but, as a shooting star falls out of a sparkling sky into a dark sea, you prefer to thank Don Cotter and Reg Presley. Life is wonderful – and you just know the future is going to be good.
I hope it was good for Reg, for Don and the Editors Showband and for all the folk who danced at the Hydro in Kilkee in the 60s.
Thank you Reg.
I was one of the lucky 900 or so who managed to get tickets for the Edinburgh Filmhouse’s screening of the finale of Series 2 of the Danish television hit “Borgen’.
The event created quite a stooshie, with two showings added to the original one off, so that the show’s star Sidse Babbett Knudsen, who must have thought she’d have a fairly enjoyable weekend in the capital ended up doing a treble shift plus any number of media interviews – including one for STV by Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
No point in being coy: I love the show, and the unlikely and unexpected opportunity to see one of the stars in the flesh was the cause of great excitement in the household – partly because the two hour showing every Saturday night is one of the points of the week when we all gather before the telly in familial accord!
The agitation in the Filmhouse audience was palpable. The show has a mixed age audience, but whilst the younger element were preserving their cool and tweeting furiously, those of us at the more mature end of the demographic were bouncing with anticipation, and chattering away like starstruck teenagers – maybe we just don’t care anymore!!!
Ian Haydn Smith, editor of the International Film Guide, was no less able to conceal his delight at introducing Knudsen, largely, he said, because he ‘fancied the prime minister’. That was, perhaps, too much information, though, as it turned out, even divested of the trappings of Statsminister Nyborg, the Danish actress, resplendent in a tartan trouser suit, made for an impressive and beguiling guest.
The first question put to her at the Sunday 11 o’clock showing concerned Scottish Independence – the feasibility of a country similar in size to Denmark regaining its independence. She sidestepped this potential minefield adroitly, whilst admitting that a marketing tour (the Boxset awaits!) doesn’t usually involve fielding political questions.
The remaining questions, however, were still more socially than celebrity based: the effect of her portrayal of Birgitte Nyborg on women and in particular politicians in Denmark; the ability of a state funded tv station to produce such high quality drama; her own political insights after being involved in the series.
Fittingly, I suppose, given that her character leads a pragmatically based coalition, her answers were considered and balanced. She’s clearly a thoughtful actor whose dramatic range at home spans various genres and moods.
One question, which still has me reflecting, asked if it was possible to write popular political drama like Borgen and The West Wing based on a right wing, rather than neo Liberal, ‘left of centre’, characters such as Nyborg or Bartlett. Her view that it was easier to portray as sympathetic politicians who ‘cared about people’ perhaps gave away the only impression of her own political views. She was similarly guarded about the final series, currently on screen in Denmark, saying only that, as originally it was not part of the project, it has taken the opportunity to be slightly different in style and to show familiar characters in different situations. You could hear the anticipatory intake of breath!
Perhaps even more interesting than the programme itself has been the amount of column inches devoted, not just to it, but to its followers, in the weekend press.
Some of it has been favourable: Lesley Riddoch pointing out that, if it encourages ‘new men’ to out themselves in support of the travails suffered by Birgitte, Katrine and Hannah, then it’s doing a good job.
A few have suggested that, like the West Wing, if it suggests any positives about the political world, then it can only offset the almost terminal cynicism created by the actions of some politicians and media coverage of their misdemeanours.
However, a lot of the writing class have really been quite sneery about those who announce their devotion to the programme. Ewan McColm mocked Nicola Sturgeon’s fandom – and that of many Nats, reminding us ‘It’s only a tv programme’; Kevin McKenna, recently darling of the cybernats for seeming to switch from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’ in the referendum, painted a cynical portrait of the average Borgen fan: ‘Gilet, Aran sweater, walk in the park, and bottle of Cloudy Bay to hand’ was his summary. Was his suggestion that ‘folk like that’ should neither have tv enthusiasms nor evince any political views!
There has been much comment on the internet to the effect “Oh the Nats love it!”, as this was bad news about Borgen, or, indeed bad news about the Nats. From this point of view, Nicola Sturgeon, being pictured with Sidse, was an outrageous piece of political opportunism – which was a bit rich coming from supporters of the party who brought us ‘Cool Britannia”.
Actually, this mocking approach to what is, after all, merely people showing enthusiasm for what is a decent piece of programme making, says more about media commentators than it does about Borgen.
My twitter feed and personal conversations suggest that Borgen is popular amongst Nationalists, but the more common thread amongst its fans is that they are interested, though not necessarily active, in politics. That might mean party politics or, more usually, refers to workplace and domestic politics – that basic element for television success: watching how other people balance their lives, and comparing it to our attempts. In Borgen, high stakes politics gives the necessary frantic background, just as murder and corruption did in the other two Danish hits “The Killing” and “The Bridge”, and in their French cousin “Spiral”. In a 60 minute drama, action and decisions need to be highlighted against a stark background – the decisions the star characters are forced to make become all the more compelling if they are matters of state security or life and death. Ultimately, though, these characters live their lives as we do, with decisions to be made every day that speak of our beliefs and our attitudes. Perhaps it’s the schadenfreude of knowing our relationship challenges, decisions on our children, or work dilemmas are at least not held up for public scrutiny in the way we see on the screen.
In the same way as some folk relax by watching far fetched action films, others enjoy over dramatized life crises: I suppose it depends whether you see yourself as a doer or a thinker.
The linking of Borgen’s popularity to the independence question, particularly by those who take a negative view of its popularity in Scotland, is actually a reflection of unionist thought.
Were Scotland already independent, an interest in drama from Scandinavia would not be seen as odd or in some way as ‘political’. A country of a similar size to Scotland, and sharing the north Atlantic circle, would be a natural source for such dramas – in much the same way as Ireland often looks to Scotland or the UK for creative similarities.
The fault comes through the ‘British’ prism through which unionists expect Scotland to view the world: the expectation of being ‘a world power’, ‘the loss of the BBC in an independent Scotland’; ‘the shared experiences of the world wars’. It is this diminishing of Scotland’s ability to look out on the world, including to England, from its own place, in its own way, that is the true ‘separation’ in the argument for independence.
I have news for those who promote ‘British culture’: it disnae work!
I moved to England as a 7 year old and therefore had 11 years of my education south of the Border. I loved living in England, especially in the north – it’s a great country – but ‘British culture’?
In eleven years of schooling, I never heard a single mention of:
Any Scottish ruler apart from Robert the Bruce
Any Scottish geography apart from the Glasgow shipyards and Ben Nevis
Owen Glyndwr or the Welsh language – other than in jokes about Welsh TV programmes
Tune into University Challenge even now and marvel how the Oxbridge cognoscenti, well on their way to dazzling First Class degrees, have not the most basic knowledge of Scottish or Welsh geography or culture.
This is not a complaint. The education I received was fine and I remain proud of my school – but it taught the curriculum from an English angle, not a British one, so much so that, to gain any knowledge of Scottish history at all, I had to take it as a subject during my degree. It’s as well to pause and consider that many of today’s headlines in Scotland are concerned with the identification of the bones of an English king from the fifteenth century in Leicester. Had the bones of say, James IV, been identified at Hume or Roxburgh Castles, would such news have had the same prominence in London news bulletins? On the other hand, were Scotland and England independent countries, there might be a more equal chance of James receiving a similar news coverage in England as Richard has today in Scotland, albeit in ‘British Isles news’ rather than ‘Home news’.
Please be aware, again, that this is not a complaint, it is merely pointing out what happens when a small country is subsumed by a much larger one in terms of government and international identity.It is a small step from this to the ‘SCottish cringe’ – when to promote things Scottish is inevitably translated as being ‘anti-English’.
As Cameron’s joust with Farage is showing at present, post colonial Britain has always been too inclined to look in on itself and to view the world from a settled, rigid point of view. This is to the hindrance of development in all the nations of the British state, and also limits the real influence of these islands in other parts of the world.
Sidse Babett Knudsen was right not to be drawn on political questions about Scotland’s future yesterday – she’s an actress, not a politician. I doubt anyone who watches Borgen believes it’s an accurate portrayal of Danish political life – though it does raise issues worth thinking about in relation to politics and politicians, their motivation, and their connection with the world around them.
If a million viewers in the UK are prepared to devote their Saturday nights to such considerations, I think that’s a good thing. Maybe, in a small way, this programme fills some of the gap left by the shortage of positive and informed political reporting in the media.
Television is not a substitute for real life, but it can be a stimulus to thought and reflection. As a teacher, I watched the school based drama series ‘Hearts and Minds’ but gave up on ‘Waterloo Road’ after a couple of episodes.
Neither gave an accurate representation of school life, but I wasn’t looking for that, I was looking for an entertaining and engaging drama, not a documentary. In the same way, I enjoy the constantly churning relationships on Holby City, but I don’t expect my local hospital to be recognizable through the eyes of a soap opera.
Good, well written drama will out – irrespective of background or source.
That’s why people like Borgen.
FLEGS AND FRIENDSHIP
Forty years after the event, it seems a good time to recall how I met two of my longest lasting friends. Both hark back to university days, and, for ease of reference, I’ll name them Mick and Billy.
I came across both of them because we shared the same hall of residence in Edinburgh University’s Pollock Halls. Mick, being ages with me, was there from my first year.
Of Catholic/Irish provenance, he had something in common with me, but, at first, I struggled to recognize the fact. He was from the Lochee area of Dundee, a place where my uncle had worked as a Franciscan priest in the fifties, but otherwise a mystery to me. Most important in 1970, however, was his appearance.
Put bluntly, Mick was a skinhead. Along with his school pal, Tom, he appeared in university corridors in the full regalia: suede headed, Ben Sherman shirts, clumpy boots and washed out short jeans. You need to have a handle on the times to capture how truly terrifying was this vision in Fraser House, Pollock Halls in 1970.
Remember that my age group had grown up during the hippy years. The average male student when I started university would have flowing hair, a droopy moustache and maybe a great coat or even an afghan. We were, er, cool, man. There were, of course, all manner of styles and backgrounds, including a classmate who dressed in a hacking jacket and brogues, but one thing was sure: skinheads need not apply.
Knowing Mick as I do now, I realise his appearance was a bold statement: “This is who I am and where I come from: deal with it!” – but, at the time, I spent a fair amount of the first term diving out of the way when I spotted him at the other end of the corridor.
In those days, student accommodation was pretty basic: shared toilets and showers, one electric socket in the room (new fangled electric kettles had to be plugged into corridor sockets which were of correct voltage!) So, in each Hall, there was a TV room for communal viewing. Though some had the personality to demand the set be switched to the channel they wished to watch, most of us resigned ourselves to a tour of each television room, hoping to strike lucky and find the programme we were seeking. The exception was the wonderfully named Baird House, which, as it sounds, was entirely female. That was far too terrifying a prospect; I’d take my chance with the skinheads first.
And that was how our friendship started.
It was a good time for television if you were a student; imagine a Thursday night consisting of Top of the Pops, Mastermind, Colditz and Monty Python! Sometimes Fraser House tv room would be sparsely peopled, our colleagues having more exciting lives than us, I presume. I noticed, even in the darkened atmosphere that Mick was quite often one of the small crowd of others watching the same programmes as me.
Being students, a certain amount of immature banter, faux witty comments, and insulting invective regularly issued out of the darkness in the direction of the tv screen. Strangely, it began to emerge that Mick and I not only liked the same shows, but also had the same sense of humour and the ridiculous.
In the early 70s the troubles in the Six Counties were very much to the fore, and we were a generation who had grown up watching the US Riots, Civil Rights marches, the Paris Revolution on the nightly news. Given our backgrounds, it was inevitable that Mick and I would have a similar take on the Troubles. We started to discuss issues after watching the tv news, attended the same political meetings and demonstrations, discovered we liked the same music and literature.
In short, the skinhhead persona vanished when I was with Mick – to the extent that I remember he (two) toned it down gradually, but I couldn’t tell you when. He had clearly found the confidence to be himself and discovered, as I did, that who you were at university was ultimately much more important than your appearance or origins. That which united us was far greater than that which made us different.
We kept up intermittent contact in the years after university, but truly connected again three or four years ago thanks to good old Facebook. Like all deep friendships, the intervening years mattered not a jot. Though we had led different lifetimes, we still shared the same views, liked the same music, appreciated the same films, and meeting up again, we fell into conversation as if we’d been apart for a weekend rather than four decades.
I met Billy, who was younger than us, when he arrived in my fourth year, again in Fraser House, and in similar circumstances to my collision with Mick.
I’ve mentioned the predominance of the Troubles in the early years of the 70s. At the time, my pride and joy was a large Irish tricolour. It had been given to me by Joe Clarke, a Republican veteran who had fought at the Battle of Mount Street Bridge during the Dublin Easter Rising in 1916. Without any thought of the message it might send, I had it on the wall in my student room. There were fanlights above each door, so it was visible from the corridor for anyone who cared to look.
When Billy arrived, from Portadown, with an impeccable Loyalist pedigree, I had been vaguely aware of Ulster accents passing my room as his family helped him get settled. I had a fair number of northern Irish friends and always got on well with them, so I supposed I wondered if we would become friendly.
His room was between mine and the communal toilets and showers. The next night I passed by and glanced at his name plate to see his name. As I did so I was aware of something stuck in the middle of his fanlight. I looked up – it was a small but unmistakable sticker – of King Billy. It was a reaction to the tricolour.
Occasionally that term, we would both be at the wash hand basins together, doors were held open, nods were exchanged. I was relieved that he wasn’t about to attack me for my political leanings!
At some point in November, Fraser House decided to hold a folk evening. Naturally, Mick and I were up there, giving it Irish laldy. Billy was there too; I thought I saw him joining in with a couple of our songs. When it came his turn to perform, a couple of his songs were from what was politely termed the ‘other tradition’, but they were good tunes and he was a fine guitarist with a good voice: we find ourselves joining in with a few orange choruses.
As tends to happen on these occasions, we fell to discussing tunes we knew, songs we liked, where we came from, what we were studying. In no time at all, we hit it off and were meeting to swop songs and tales.
Billy and I would often bump into each other last thing at night as we went to brush our teeth. Invariably, these meetings would end up as hour or two hour long discussions about politics or culture or life in general. God knows why we never returned to our more comfortable rooms; maybe we always thought it would just be a five minute chat, but it seldom was.
Of course, certainly in those days, the whole point of University was to meet and discuss and reflect. It was invigorating, and many’s the time I struggled into a nine o’clock lecture after far less sleep than I had needed, and with our discussion of the previous night still echoing in my thoughts.
Though Billy’s Portadown upbringing had been in a Loyalist atmosphere, his parents, and I suspect , his intellect, had clearly led him to reflect on the situation. Even by the time I met him first, it was clear that his love of music had led him into unexpected areas of Irish culture, and, this, in turn, had opened his ideas and perspective. I suppose we saw him, as I’m sure he saw himself, as a nine county Ulster nationalist. We would occasionally fall out politically, though never personally, but each of us retained a respect for the other person’s point of view; we were able to accept that an alternative viewpoint could be legitimate.
Eventually, Billy and I formed a folk duo, which, in an accurate reflection of our banter, we called ‘Bord na Mona’. This is the name of the Irish Government peat or turf board, and Billy claimed it was the only Irish phrase he knew, garnered from radio adverts for peat briquettes.
I always think of Billy as a superb role model for his tradition. He has never turned his back on where he’s from, has always been his own man, and has been expansive enough to recognize you can walk the same road with friends without necessarily agreeing with all they believe or stand for.
As was the case with myself and Mick, what united us was so strong, that the symbols of who we were became insignificant. In musical terms, if the tune was good enough, we would sing it, irrespective of its origin.
So, when I read of the Belfast ‘fleg’ riots, though I may despair of their provenance, I can understand what lies behind them.
Unlike some who opine on the situation, I have been to Belfast often, and, indeed, first visited in 1969. I suppose I went as a ‘war tourist’ that first time, but through knowledge and friendships with Belfast folk, quickly found an affection for a place which I quickly realized was, as a city, about far more than riots and civil unrest.
My most recent visit was a couple of years ago, and, in common with most folk, I found a city much changed and in some parts very attractive. I made sure to visit places on the Shankill and the Falls which I had first seen in 1969.
For students of community architecture, the maze of streets which should, but don’t, link these two great main roads, must be fascinating. After the fires and destruction of the late sixties and early seventies, many areas were rebuilt, not with thoughts of the close knit communities they had once been, but with a view to controlling unrest. Streets zigzag strangely – to hinder escape and facilitate surveillance; they give off a strangely artificial ambience – almost like film sets. Most visitors are amazed at the size and scale of the ‘peace line’ – a Berlin Wall of a construction at what is called ‘the community interface’.
It was described, in a matter of fact manner, by a local, as we looked at a familiar build up of ‘on street’ parking at the edge of the city parking limits: “See these cars here? If the owners don’t move them before the gates are locked tonight, they would have a journey of miles to go all the way to the bottom of the road and back up the other side to retrieve them – and ye wouldn’t do that, cos everyone would know ye were from the other side”.
It’s normality, but not as we know it!
I think most folk realized that the ‘Peace Process’ emanated from a far from perfect agreement. It was forged, to be truthful, not out of a mutual understanding or coming together of the traditions, but out of a generation of tiredness. People on both sides were just too tired by all the Troubles to carry on going. Like a parent trying to keep the family peace between the older and younger child at bedtime, George Mitchell’s task was to work out how much would justify one side stopping whilst not aggravating the other side so much that they wanted to continue. It was always going to be a compromise, it had to be.
To be fair, at the time, Mitchell remarked that it was up to the people of the six counties to build on what had been started, and, in many ways they have. The fact remains, however, that the task of bringing together two opposing traditions was always going to be the work of years and generations rather than months and politicians. Indeed, such is the way of the world, that, as soon as local activists became politicians, they risked moving away from the most disadvantaged in their communities.
If all you have truly had to depend on for your identity are symbols, then they become unfeasibly important to who you are, and, while I can’t understand what is achieved by the rioting over flegs, and suspect for many of those who participate it’s merely an excuse for some aggro, I do have some insight, albeit from a rather more positive point of view, of the feelings that lie behind them.
On my last Belfast visit, we found ourselves outside the City Hall. To be honest, despite its grandeur, or maybe because of it, it was not a building of which I had ever taken much notice. In the parlance of the old days: it belonged to ‘them’ – union flags, war memorials, trappings of Empire.
However, on this occasion, we noticed a sign indicating a coffee shop in the Hall, and, having some time to pass, decided to go in for a coffee. That in itself was a major initiative for me; it had never occurred to me really that it was a public building and that passers by might have access.
Architecturally and historically, it is a stunning building. When you leave political considerations aside, Belfast achieved so much in Victorian times in terms of its industries and world influence – and this building certainly emphasizes the power of mercantile trade.
It was something on a far smaller scale than its magnificent cornicing, polished wood or stained glass that gave me a wee thrill as I wandered the corridors though.
The first sign was literally that – the signage. Signs for ‘Push’ ‘Shove’ and ‘Welcome’ – common to any local government facility, were dual language – in Irish and English.
Despite the Victorian gloom of the high ceilinged corridors, there were splashes of colour all round the place – and they were mostly pieces of art celebrating the city’s history, emphasizing both traditions, and, in particular, the contributions made to the city’s great successes by the working classes rather than the professional echelons of society:
I found this hugely uplifting and a positive sign that the two traditions could focus on what united them, rather than what separated them. One particular mural made the point succinctly:
“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
Here was recognition that the City Hall belonged to all the people of Belfast; the statements weren’t triumphalist, though they did give the Nationalist tradition a place in this edifice. They focused on the positive and the potential of people together.
I found that hopeful.
Others, of course, would find that insulting. For them, it is right that the City Hall belongs to one tradition, and any dilution of that fact is threatening. You can claim that is a wrong headed point of view, but you can deny neither its existence, nor its effect on the society in which it exists.
Mick, Billy and I benefited from being brought together, and from having the opportunity to look beyond the symbols. At first, I was dodging Mick in the corridors and fearful of Billy’s reactions. Once they became people rather than objects carrying symbols, the game changed. That is the long journey the people of the six counties face – that coming together to have the opportunities to see past the symbols. And, I have to say, if a sign on a door saying “Push” in Irish can be so important to me, there is some sense, at least in the current situation, in the Loyalist attachment to the union fleg.
It will take generations I suspect. There is a coming together – but it’s easy to be magnanimous when your life is good. Mick, Billy and I were university students, we had already won in life’s lottery, we could afford to use our abilities to gain perspective. There is, of course, a huge difference between the coming together of individuals and the acceptance of whole communities and traditions – but the longest journey starts with a single step. If your life is empty and you are being told you are losing the little you have, you may well react in an ill considered fashion. When life is improved for the most disadvantaged in the six counties, then the traditions will sit more easily beside each other – and that must be the goal for the politicians: good old fashioned, local politics – listening to people and working to improve the lot of the poorest communities.
In a Radio Scotland news report from Belfast a couple of weeks ago, a woman I would judge to be in her sixties was asked what she made of the fleg riots. Her reaction was not easy to take:
“Well, I don’t agree with rioting, it’s not right. But ye have to draw a line somewhere. After all, it’s not their country, it’s ours”
It was easy to recognize her history and mindset, but she was wrong. People don’t own countries, countries own the people, and are made of the people coming together. It’s not the fleg being waved that’s important, it’s the person who’s waving the fleg.
There will be people in the north of Ireland who will take a long time to realize that, and, sadly, there will people manipulating them who, for purely selfish reasons, don’t want them to come to that realization, but it will happen eventually, and it needs to happen in both parts of the island of Ireland.
For the common good, Wolfe Tone famously sought to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter in Belfast. It’s one of my happiest experiences that the three of us managed to unite Republican, Skinhead and Loyalist.
Next week we’ll be going together to see Strabane’s Paul Brady at Celtic Connections in Glasgow.
Maybe he’ll sing “The Island”!
Last week, they came to the green fields of west Kerry from the four green fields of Ireland: from Ulster, where the Gaelic game is so important to the nationalist tradition, from the spirit of the West in Connacht, from Leinster where the men of Westmeath remembered their greatest hour at Croke Park, and from Påudî O Sé’s own Munster where the Kerry people and the folk of Corca Dhuibhne were mourning one of their own and one of their greatest.
Kerry footballer, Påudî O Sé, embodied the people of west Kerry – in his love of his own place, his townland, his family, his language, culture and sport. He had the Gaeltacht mix of huge pride and self awareness to put achievements in context. Indeed, you couldn’t fail to appreciate man’s frailties when you looked at the mightiness of the Conor Pass or the power of the waves on Coumenoule Strand. There are those who would belittle the Irish language (Sure what good is it outside of the Gaeltacht?) and diminish the remoteness of areas like Corca Dhuibhne (A backward place on the edge of the world). However, the people of west Kerry know their worth, they know their context and they know what they have. For that reason, the funeral of PO was more than a celebration of a man – great though he was; it was a celebration of a culture, defiant in its survival, owing nothing to anyone, secure in its uniqueness, confident in its worth.
The music, the laughter, the declarative style of the tributes – they all matched the man. Indeed, passing the church in Ventry was much like passing Påudî’s pub – even to the numbers outside who couldn’t get in. The congregation mirrored the great man’s passions: GAA heroes – famous and unsung, politicians, musicians, neighbours and, emphatically, family. This peninsula is above all, about family and land, and the O Sé’s filled the chapel with their dignity in grief; what a tribute to a loved father, uncle and husband that, in remembering him, they couldn’t stop the laughter chasing their tears. And how good it was to be reassured by that voice of a thousand Sunday afternoons, Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, who had known and encouraged Påudî all his life, from schoolboy through player to bainisteoir. Micheåal’s own background, from the tiny hamlet of Mount Sion outside Dingle, is based on the same foundations as Påudî’s – family, land, football and culture, and he set the perfect tone for the tributes, drifting from Irish to English, from humour to reflection, from tenderness to pride.
As with all great men, Påudî’s passing promoted a sense of identity for those left behind, a time to reflect and take stock, and, for me, an outsider to his culture and place, it put in train an excitement of memories, an acknowledgment of my passionate, long term and slightly mad love affair with west Kerry and the Dingle peninsula.
I’m not alone in this; no less an authority than the National Geographic described the area as ‘as near to Paradise as you’re likely to find on earth’, yet, as lovers always convince themselves, I do want to believe that my affair with Corca Dhuibhne is an epic. Tell me you hail from west Kerry and I’m liable to jump in your lap like a dog seeking attention; to even mention that you’ve been there will presage an outburst of love declarations and over repeated anecdotes. Put up Connemara, Donegal or west Cork against Corca Dhuibhne and you’ll find me in combatitive and expansive mood. Put simply, I’m mad about the place.
And yet, the attraction was almost accidental.
My connection to Ireland is based at the other end of the country. My grandfather left Co Leitrim a century ago, but, though I love Edinburgh, my birthplace, and Scotland, dearly, there is a townland on the shores of Lough Allan which will always be where I come from. I have another, deep seated love for west Clare, where I spent so many happy holidays as a teenager and where I first became familiar with Irish culture and customs.
However, like so many other people I was first made aware of west Kerry through the cinematographical skills of David Lean and his homage to the landscape in the MGM film, ‘Ryan’s Daughter’. Part of the storm scene in the film had been filmed near my holiday spot in west Clare, and I was keen to see where the major location had been built for the rest of the film. So it was, in 1969, I first crossed the Shannon into Kerry and went out to Dingle and beyond.
The Gaeltacht, and indeed most of the west of Ireland, was a very different place in those days. It could take till the evening for newspapers to arrive and only single channel RTE flickered in the minority of houses which possessed a black and white television set. Local folk dressed differently to folk back home in Edinburgh, fashion slaves were not so much in evidence, and even in Dingle, Irish was, by far, the most commonly heard tongue.
My first, brief visits, took in no more than the scenery in all its magnificence. Driven along laneways ablaze with fuschia in the hedgerows, the pattern of fields on mountainsides, the fearsome majesty of the Conor Pass, the sweep of Inch Strand, the surprise of the Blasket islands as you rounded Slea Head. I left with an impression rather than a knowledge. But I knew I wanted, very much, to return.
So the early 80s found me following my instinct – heading as far west as I could and staying at Kruger Kavanagh’s in Dun Chaoin. Kruger’s had a fame about it of which I was sublimely innocent; all I knew, as an incomer, was that it was a magnificent place to stay. The Irish breakfast, the hospitality in the guest house, the craic in the pub each night.
It’s not my intention to glorify the people of west Kerry. I would be lying if I enthused about the welcome we received. People were cordial and happy to chat but also self contained. They felt no need to put on a show for tourists; it was a case of take us as we are. As Daragh O Se mentioned at the funeral, ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ had put west Kerry on the map. MGM was nearly ruined by the £5 million production (£70 million in today’s terms) but the amount of money spent in the area by the production totally changed, for ever, the local economy. There were fishermen and farmers who, almost overnight, became taxi drivers and garage owners. Not gradually, but over a twelvemonth period, the ‘outside world’ hit west Kerry, and the place would never be the same.
It’s true to say that west Kerry lost a lot of its economic and cultural innocence in the wake of the Hollywood circus hitting Dingle. Many folk became wealthier than they could have ever dreamt was possible. However, while, for some, this was a mere reaffirmation that a better life to be found through emigration, for others it was an opportunity, not to leave, but to stay. They had the money to keep farming, update machinery, expand the business a little. These folk were nothing if not shrewd, as MGM found when they tried to extend the leases on land for locations as the film overshot its time and budget. When they’d first arrived, bargains were easily had, but once the Kerry folk had witnessed the wealth and style of these movie moguls, their business instincts kicked in and financial matters were on a far more equal basis.
This, then, was the west Kerry that I started to become familiar with in the 1980s. In a sense, those who had stayed, had the best of both worlds. They had the cash injection which enabled them to stay on the land, and that had tided them over to the point where the national infrastructure was being modernized; transport and communications improved, living in remote areas became more feasible. It came twenty years too late for the people of the Blaskets, but, by the late twentieth century, living beyond Dingle, while never easy, was no longer impractical.
In those early years, I was still learning about Irish culture. I could see the young landlord, the Fear an Ti, in Kruger’s Pub, had the respect of the locals. I could see his abilities in holding an audience, his ease in dominating the room, his social skills in setting the tone and atmosphere. I knew nothing, then, of the GAA; I didn’t know this was county footballer, Påudî O Sé.
Most nights we would go late into the pub, when the music had started; that way there was no embarrassment as there often was when the pub was quiet: those at the bar having to decide whether to continue chatting in Irish, or switch to English, as the visitors entered.
The setting was idyllic. From the bedroom window was the small bridge in the centre of Dun Chaoin; quarter of a mile down the lane, a mystical journey after dark, was the harbour of Dun Chaoin, with its impossibly steep track down to the water, still in those days a landing point for cattle being brought over from the Blaskets for the winter or market.
I learned every yard of the road around Ceann Slî. It was, and still is, a road that sets my heart beating faster. I can tell you when a house is built or extended, when a shop changes hands, and most of all, I can tell you what will be round the next corner.
So many favourite view points, so many secret strands, so many familiar rocks and mountain tops. The sea has always fascinated me; around Slea Head it has a thousand personalities. It can whip up a wind to keep seabirds gliding, or it can bear a gulf stream heat that brings palm trees, and leaves the birds at rest. It can put lace tapestry covers on golden sand, or froth, turquoise and angry white, on dark and shining, jagged rocks. It can reflect the bluest of skies, or offer a gunmetal grey affirmation of the rain and storm which steals the view and the air.
Around one bend in the road it can offer an almost irresistible invitation to swim and float and surf and bathe; two hundred yards further on it can put on a show of nature’s power which is so ruthless, you would fear for your life in just watching it pound and break and lash. I’ve been there at times when it felt like you could watch it shaping the rocks and carving out the caves – not over centuries and millennia, but in the here and now.
I think Coumenoule would be my choice to symbolize my love affair with Corca Dhuibhne. It seems to contain all that the wider area has to offer, in a small scale strand.
Lines of tilted rocks stretch like fingers into the surf; they are like a brutal reminder of the sea’s power – tilted and scarred over the millennia; between these fingers, the sand, smooth as the palm of your hand, or ribbed with ebbing tidemarks. Dark caves hide under the cliffs, seabirds wheel overhead.
In the early 80s, a container ship, the MV Ranga, on its maiden voyage, lost power off the coast here and was wrecked. For twenty years, the stern of the boat lay stranded on the rocks at the western end of this strand – each time I returned, a little higher up the rock formation, a little more rusted. It should have detracted from the majesty of the scenery, but somehow it served to emphasise the wildness, the force of the waves and the weather.
Rock, sand, water, birds, shells and driftwood. Then, above you, the cliffs with their greenery and splashes of flora, and beyond that the careful fields, enclosed by rocks of the land; rocks and stones everywhere, more than fifty shades of grey; rocks in the fields, in the walls, on the mountains, rocks building houses and sheds, lining roads and paths, till it’s difficult to tell what is nature and what is man made. And on stormy days, sky, fields, houses and fields lie in monochrome, glistening in soft rain, gurgling with downhill streams.
Scattered along this road, especially around Fahan, are scores of Clocháns, or ‘beehive huts’, lived in first around 4000 years ago, piles of stones, hollow cairns if you like, memorials to the history of a place and its people, living on the land, protected by the rocks that make the land so inhospitable. And the huts are indistinguishable from the land that surrounds them. Like the people.
Coumenoule is west Kerry – people, sea, fields, rocks, sky and weather – all bound together, hard as history and soft as a spring breeze. As Dougie Maclean wrote in his song, ‘Solid Ground’:
It’s the land-it is our wisdom
It’s the land-it shines us through
It’s the land-it feeds our children
It’s the land-you cannot own the land
The land owns you.
Perhaps that’s the attraction of west Kerry for me: people, land, history, culture, language and life are bound indivisibly, without fuss and in a hard bitten way. You’d be crazy to think this would be an easy place to live; but you’d be mad to want to live anywhere else.
Looking out to sea, climbing the sprawling mountain that is Carhoo, high above Dun Chaoin, looking down on to Clogher Strand, or over flat golden greenery to Dun an Oir, the view is like a deep breath: it invigorates you, affirms your humanity, reminds you of what is important, demands appreciation of the miracle we call living.
It’s a body scrub for the soul.
Alone, or with those you love, you find that you are holding hands with nature.
These islands, home to so many poets and seannachi, draw you – first your eyes – humps of rock and turf across the sound, then your mind – how did they live, what was it like, and finally your soul – straining to hear the cries of men rowing naomhóg through the middle of the last century, sheep skittering on wet piers, young men lost in the egg hunt, the weekly voyage to Mass in Dun Chaoin or the market in Dingle.
The village street on An Blascaoid Mor echoes silence, some houses no more than stones, others partially renovated or made water tight., occasionally one painted startling white, with new roof and the promise of life there still. The roads are grass but easy to follow, the strips of land still delineated, the voices of women and children long gone are not difficult to hear at the Well.
And you wonder at the isolation of an island life lived within sight of the mainland, watching lights in distant cabins, checking the waves for possibility of escape, climbing the hill to the top of the island, blocking your ears from the sound of the gulls, the expectations of family, and the call of next Parish America.
You remember that the Blasket folk always talked of coming IN to the island, secure in their own ground.
Some of the final 22 souls who left the island in 1953 have their final rest in the new cemetery at Dun Chaoin, sloping down towards the sea in sight of their Blasket homes; you want to mutter ‘Excuse me’ when you pass between the stones and crosses and their island view. Where better for islanders to be at rest?
And on towards Ballyferriter – the first place you ever tried to speak Irish, joined in the Mass responses in the days when churchgoers crowded roud the back door of the church and their cars clogged the lanes.
From high on Carhoo – where Lean built his film village of Kirrary, the exhilaration of the view is intoxificating. You will shout out loud for joy here, scaring sheep and companions equally. Far below, the rocky crag at Waymont takes your eye as does the horsehoe of Clogher Strand.
At Clogher you can watch waves and rocks fight it out to the death, immovable stone facing unstoppable wave, every last atom of energy squeezed out of the enclosing strand, spray, birds, foam, water, air and sound – cast about in a kind of madness of nature – till you feel you should be asking permission to watch.
You might sidetrack to Gallarus Oratory – a tiny chapel, possibly dating from as early as the 6th Century, a receptacle for continuity, local stones hewn to fit each other perfectly, another metaphor for the Corca Dhuibhne people, an upside down boat in shape that sheltered pilgrims from the storms of difficult lives. Wherever you look in place or time here the stones protect their message – here we are and here we stay.
Like anyone in love, I’m not responsible for my actions on the strands of West Kerry. I jump, I run, I shout. Frequently I laugh or cry for no appreciable reason – other than the joy of its magnificence. I suspect I’m not very good company, too busy reaching out to take the hands of too many memories, opening my ears to songs that only I can hear, drinking in my surroundings, getting drunk on the fresh air of beauty.
And when locals tell me, as they often do: “You can’t eat scenery!”, my response is sometimes spoken, sometimes not: “But you can feed your Faith with it!”
This, then, is my love for Corca Dhuibhne: not a beautiful, romantic chimera, but a long term, hard won, difficult journey over grey rocks and stones, with many a twisted ankle and grazed knee; with as much fear as comfort, and with a sense of awe that will never let us be equals, nor permit me comfort.
I can’t help but remember the lyrics of Horslips’ classic track: “The Rocks Remain”:
Silks and satins and crimson velvet will someday fade away
but the stones will stand across the land and love will have its day.
I realized tonight that I have spent 55 years in schools, as pupil and teacher.
In that time, I’ve seen four or five major changes in education policy, constant revisions of examinations, thousands of reams of paperwork updated and put in place.
Working in Guidance for the past 36 years, I must have met with and supported thousands of pupils and parents. Despite the emergence of ‘league tables’ and the professed importance of exams, I am in little doubt about what parents want most when they send their child to school.
They want their child to be safe.
This relates to statutory safety, of course – no slippy floors, sharp edges or poorly maintained equipment. It requires a duty of care from staff on supervision and suggests that a pupil will be safe from harm while at school.
But, of course, it’s much more than that.
Any parent who has left a child at a school gate knows that ‘safe’ is a word that applies at least as much to the emotional as the physical. They realise that acts of God – tornadoes, floods, Aberfan slag slides – cannot always be legislated against, but they rightly expect that the child will be safeguarded from bullying of all kinds – whether from staff or pupils.
As I have said many times to parents and pupils: the least that should be expected is that young people feel comfortable in school. Pupils should feel they are in the right place and that no harm will come to them. They should be able to flourish with a feeling of security – safe from a classmate’s cruelty or a teacher’s sarcastic tongue. The basic job of the teacher is to build confidence – in so many ways, and to gain the confidence of both child and parent. The overwhelming majority of teachers I have known in a lifetime operated as if the old legal phrase ‘in loco parentis’ applied always. This was fortified by the Children (Scotland) Act, the lynchpin of which was that we should always act ‘in the best interests of the child’.
Safe, and secure.
Those who know me, or follow this blog, will know that I have huge affection for the USA and for family and friends who live there. I believe it has the potential to be a strong force for good in the world, but my affection is not uncritical nor blind.
The parents who left their children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut this morning, just like parents in Scotland, and around the world, expected they would be safe – in body and mind. They would be focused already on Nativity plays, Christmas presents and holiday arrangements. The guddle of everyday life would be claiming their thoughts. There is no way they would be expecting the horror that visited that quiet town before 10am.
As a parent, I find their grief untenable; as a teacher I mourn, not just for murdered colleagues, but for the awful despair of helplessness that, as at Dunblane, must have swept over them as they realized what was happening. In Scotland, unfortunately, we do know how such an event spreads out from the affected community, how it affects children, parents and teachers far removed from the scene.
As it happens, Scots were involved in the construction of the US Constitution, the Second Amendment of which states, in relation to arms: A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.
For those without a political axe to grind, this clearly refers to civilian militias – as were common at the time of the foundation of the state.
It is time this mistranslation was tackled. It is time for gun control.
When someone with easy access to guns becomes unbalanced or nurses a grievance too strong for reason, the chances are they will follow increasing precedent and they will pick on the most vulnerable. They are, of course, only a minority of gun owners, but they exist in a society which, in many areas, sees gun carrying as ‘normal’ and many defend their ‘constitutional’ right to do so. If 100 possess a gun but only one uses it in a school, a shopping mall, or a college, that minority tag is of no comfort at all to the bereaved and bereft.
It is clear that more children will die if something is not done. It is clear that more homes will become ghostly at Christmas and birthdays and anniversaries, as empty places at the family table seem to fill more space than those that are filled.
Let those who would defend their right to carry and possess weapons be clear: to defend such a ‘right’ is to state clearly that the death of children is a price worth paying. It is to declare that the right to bear arms is of a greater importance than our children’s futures.
As for those who claim, incredibly, that the country will be safer if more people have guns, tonight they are suggesting teachers be armed in the classroom. Further comment is superfluous.
The hug I gave my son when I met him from school on the day of the Dunblane tragedy is burnt into my memory; the look of bewilderment on his face is an even stronger memory. Children don’t expect that it’s possible to be confronted by death in the classroom, the knowledge that it happens saps their innocence and feeds their fears.
Do they not deserve better?
I have blogged before about small town America and its delights, its positivity, its sense of community, the beauty of its optimism. We are approaching a Christmas season which that small town America has colonized to a certain extent – from ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Holiday Inn’ to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.
It promotes a schmaltzy, unreal, view of the season, but no more cheesey than my repeated message to my pupils and their parents: “You are precious, you are unique, and you are valued” What else would we want them to believe?
So my dream for this Christmas involves George Bailey’s Angel.
Is it too much to hope that he might visit 100 US Senators as they linger on the bridge between what is right and what is propitious?
And could that hope be demonstrated on Christmas morning when 51 of them tell their children that they have an extra present for them – that they have decided, irrespective of politics and job prospects, that they will vote for gun control – in the hopes that there will be no more stricken parents outside schools, no more bewildered pupils with their futures misshapen, and no more lame excuses for the slaughter of the Innocents?
A Christmas fantasy?
But the alternative is surely too real to contemplate.
God, please Bless America – and its children.