Skip to content

A Casual Acquaintance

July 15, 2015

We can never know the extent of our impact on those we meet who are casual acquaintances. Perhaps this is just as well, for it would be a huge burden to carry if we were to go through life pondering our effect on the thousands of folk with whom we come into contact. Mostly, I suppose, it is unpredictable – some who affected us greatly may have forgotten us completely, others, whom we felt hardly noticed us, may carry our memory for years. It’s part of the unknowable joy of humanity.

These reflections were prompted when I noticed, belatedly, online, an announcement of the death in March of Maureen Haugh of Kilkee, Co Clare, and Chicago and Fort Lauderdale.

I originally met Maureen on my first visit to Kilkee in 1966.

The only child of a widow, I revelled, like so many others, in the freedom that a Kilkee holiday gave me.

On that first day, released from the Hydro Hotel after a huge breakfast, I made my way tentatively along the sea wall at the West End. At Edmond Point, outside Sykes’s, still ignorant of the disaster which gave the spot its name, I scrambled over the rocks, examined the pools and watched the waves surge and retreat. I made my way along the road to Newfoundout and vowed that there would be no way I would ever dive off those boards (a resolve I have kept!) and headed down the slope to the car park at the end of the road.

There was a weather beaten shop there, more of a shed really, with a lopsided caravan behind it. It was placed in front of what looked to me like a miniature golf course.

I knew nothing of Pitch and Putt, but, living less than a mile from the Royal Birkdale Golf Course in northern England, I was interested in golf, though I had never played it. I wondered if this would be a way to try it out.

Even at 14, I was a shy child, especially with adults, and I am still faintly surprised that I summoned up the nerve to enter the shop.

There was little space, filled with a counter, and behind it shelves of sweets and chocolate bars and soft drinks. A rather forbidding elderly man was to one side, (referred to later by locals as “Old man Haugh”!) but it seemed a younger couple were running the place.

I bought a chocolate bar while I formulated my request to play on the course. As she took my money, the woman said: “Do ye fancy a round on the pitch and putt?” and I nodded gratefully. It was a positive first meeting with Maureen Haugh – and it set the trend for the rest of our encounters.

She took my money and, as I walked towards the back door of the shop, handed me two clubs, a ball, a small scorecard, a couple of plastic tees, and a stubby pencil. I must have looked lost, because, as I went through the door, she said: “Bernie will show you the ropes.”

And that was how I met Bernie and Maureen Haugh and played my first ever round of pitch and putt.

I was hooked from the start. God knows how many strokes it took me that first day, but posting a “record” score became an obsession for me and for the rest of that holiday, and for many years to come, it would be an unusual day if I didn’t play at least two rounds.

I suppose it would be a normal occupation for a child who was fairly solitary, though I made many friends each year in Kilkee, most of whom were press ganged into pitch and putt challenges at the West End. I even played a few times on the pitch and putt course at the Golf Club at the East End of the town, but the attraction of the West End was undoubtedly Bernie and Maureen.

Before long, there was a cheery greeting of “Hiya, John! Gonna beat the record today?” Sometimes my mother would come along and chat to the couple while I hacked my way around the 18 holes, constantly distracted by that view up the coast across past Georges Head and as far as the Aran islands on a clear day. The sun, the sea, the coastal air and the personal challenge of the ‘record’, all combined to make it a kind of heaven for that teenager.

There was an attractiveness about the Haughs – an easy going approach which I suspect came from their time in the USA. Kilkee was a very faraway place in those days – the morning papers arrived on the 6pm bus, and fashions were local rather than international. It had a pace of life removed from the mid Sixties hype and hustle – so the modern clothes and slight American twang of Bernie and Maureen made them stand out a little, I suppose.

Even in that first holiday, I became one of the thousands worldwide who fell deeply in love with Kilkee. It was not just about pitch and putt – it was the beauty of the place, the people who were there – visitors and locals, the excitement of a teenage holiday in the sun. I cried when I left that first year, and whenever I return I have the same reaction as I turn away from the Strandline and head up past the Square and out of town.

We summered in Kilkee every year from 66 to 75 and then, as a student, I would visit the town three or more times every year, in all seasons. This continued until the mid 80s when family responsibilities, and others to be considered, reduced the frequency of my visits.

Every year, I would go down to the West End, and Maureen would greet me with: “Hiya, John, nice to see you back – how’s your mother getting on?” Bernie, it seemed, remained working in America for the summer, but Maureen’s welcome never faltered.

The friendly welcome became as important as the pitch and putt, if I’m honest, and, as the years went by, the chat lengthened and the ‘record’ became less important. I was always amazed that she remembered me – out of the thousands of visitors who must have played the course, and I always looked forward to what became my ‘welcome back’ to the town.

When I started visiting ‘out of season’, the pitch and putt would be closed, but, when Maureen knew I was in town, she would leave a couple of clubs and balls in the front porch of “Dunearn” where she lived in the West End, and I would pick them up and drop them off – “no charge”. Sometimes, if she was around, there would be an invite in for a cup of tea and a chat about the passing years.

I last met Maureen in 1991.

Having won a prize at Listowel Writers’ Week, I escaped the festivities for a day and headed for the Killimer ferry and thence to Kilkee. It was my first visit in a while, and I was both excited and nervous. I invest a lot of love in the town, but I am always aware that my version of Kilkee is partly artificial – a construct of memories and favourite spots. Towns – and people – change, and I was not sure what I would find when I turned down the familiar O’Curry St.

There were changes, of course –some I had known about, and others which were a surprise – but Kilkee has always been more than just buildings, and there was a pleasing continuity about the scene.

I parked by the Hydro – now “Old Moore’s Apartments”, and walked along the road towards the West End, shadowing my first ever walk in Kilkee. I took in the various changes – and the parts that had stayed the same, and then, with a little trepidation, turned the corner by ‘The Dickie Harris house” and looked down the hill.

Nothing seemed to have changed – but there was no guarantee that Maureen would still be behind the counter, or, if she was, that she would remember me after all this time. It felt like an important moment – daft as that may sound – and I did consider walking on to the Diamond Rocks without stopping.

However, as brave as I had been at 14, I pushed at the door and entered a shop which was basically unchanged since 1966.

Behind the counter was Maureen. She looked up and said. “Good afternoon!” When I replied, she said, with no surprise at all, “Well, John – we haven’t seen you for a while – how is your mother doing?”

I don’t have the words to describe the reaction that generated. On one hand, it was a retailer recognising a good customer from former years, there may be dozens of people to whom Maureen showed such kindness and attention, on the other hand, it was a link with my childhood in a place which had brought me so much joy.

Before I could get too emotional, she said – and I swear the American accent had become more noticeable – “We had a guy in a couple of weeks ago used to come round here with you and your mother back in the 60s – can’t remember his name….” It was the perfect introduction to a conversation in which we reminisced and she learned about what I had been doing – and the fact that I had a son and wife who had already visited Kilkee.

I bought a bar of chocolate, for old times sake, and headed off to the Diamond Rocks. As I closed the door she said: “See ya!”

Thanks to the internet, it has been possible to keep up to date with at least some Kilkee news without actually visiting. I saw at some point that Maureen seemed to have moved a couple of houses along from “Dunearn” to “Duggerna” and realised, as time passed, it was unlikely that she would still be running the pitch and putt.

I paid a flying visit to the town about four or five years ago. I knew from my online news that the “Diamond Rocks’ Café had been constructed at the West End, as had the statue of Dickie Harris in racquets pose, so I had no false illusions of what I would find as I drove down to the end of the road. A “danger” sign in Polish served to illustrate the changes through the years – but I was glad that Kilkee seems to prosper thanks to the townspeople’s hard work. The café attracts rave reviews and I occasionally treated myself to a look at the view from their webcam – a view that remains familiar.

It seems the business is still in the family – though Kilkee has so many Haughs you would be hard put to work out relationships! I hope so – because it would be a good continuation of the entrepreneurial spirit shown by Bernie and Maureen.

Until I retired a couple of years ago, I was deputy headteacher of a 1200 pupil secondary school just outside of Edinburgh. It was an enjoyable and rewarding job – but it could be stressful. On my office wall I had pinned a large panoramic view of Moore’s Bay, taken from the garden of the old Hydro Hotel. When I needed to be calm and to reflect, I would take a walk round the bay in my head.

I would walk down from George’s Head, past Burns’s Cove and the derelict “Dutch”, along past the Thomond, where Christian Brothers would sit in holiday mode in the glass fronted lounge, past the Strand –where the craic was always good, the spot where Maggie sold winkles from her barrow, the Esplanade with its peculiar shade of green, the back of the Arcadia, the sun lounge of the Marble Bar where Mrs Egan, Johnny and Ray Russell reigned supreme – with Ted Kavanagh playing the Hammond Organ each night in the middle bar, past Wally’s Amusements, the Vic, Murphy’s Café, the West End Stores, the spot on the wall over the racquets courts where I opened the telegram that told me I had gained the exams to get me into university – the smell of the seaweed as strong and as redolent as ever, past the beach shelter where we sang to the guitars of strangers, the croquet lawns of Clar Ellagh, and past Sykes’s and Newfoundout to “The Billows” and down the hill.

It never failed to relax me and lighten my mood, and at the end of the road would always be Maureen Haugh, behind the counter in that cramped little shop, to say “Hiya, John!”

I couldn’t call Maureen a friend. In reality we knew very little about each other – but what a legacy, to be a casual acquaintance and to make such an impact on a stranger’s life; to be a kind of totem for the effect of humanity, kindness, and friendliness. How many more people, I wonder, were affected so positively by that lovely woman in the West End?

Whatever the reality on the road to the Diamond Rocks, I think she will always be there, waiting with that friendly welcome, that recognition which said, somehow, that you mattered.

It would be nice to think that she has encountered my mother in that part of Heaven which isn’t Kilkee, and I hope they are having a good catch up.

And as for that record, Maureen: I never bettered 38, and I guess I never will.

Rest easy, and thank you.

Brand New Experience!

July 7, 2015

Imagine if FIFA decided to re-work qualification for the World Cup. Indulge me, and envision that tournament being divided into two levels: an international version of the Champions League and Europa League, if you like. Then, anticipate the joy if you were to learn that the second level tournament – for teams world ranked 9-18, was to be held in Scotland and Ireland, and there would be 20 tournament games and 8 warm up matches in Edinburgh and Stirling inside two weeks.

Currently, that would mean the chance to see teams such as Spain, France, England, Switzerland, Rumania, Czech Republic and Italy. And then add Scotland, as home nation, to that list. While you are salivating over that intensive football diet, take in the marketing news that only 6 of those games will be ticketed and the rest will be free entry.

It’s not difficult to imagine the media interest and fan discussion which would be generated by such an event – and yet, in cricketing T20 terms, that is exactly what will be happening in Scotland between the 6 and 18th of July, when Afghanistan, UAE, Netherlands, Scotland, Canada, Kenya, and Oman will be battling it out in Scotland, while Ireland, Nepal, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Namibia, USA and Jersey lock horns over in Dublin. The top 6 sides qualify for the ICC World Twenty20 in India next year, against the major Test playing nations.

It’s a timely tournament for Cricket Scotland – providing a surge of game action in a year when the excitement of the World Cup is receding and the regular action of the County One Day league is still being missed.

It’s also a great opportunity for sports fans in Scotland to take a look at cricket –perhaps for the first time.

Two of the most regular reasons given for a disinclination towards the game are: “I don’t understand it” and “It takes too long”. The T20 format dismisses those excuses easily.. It is basic cricket – “big bash” if you like, with something obviously happening all the time, and a match lasts only 3 hours – hardly more time than you would invest in attending a Saturday afternoon football match.

With settings such as New Williamfield at Stirling, and Grange, Myreside and Goldenacre in Edinburgh– where better to spend a few hours on a summer day watching international sport? Historic castles overlook three of the venues and the sight of Craig House on the hill above Myreside is hardly less dramatic – and for the vast majority of games there is no entry charge. There is also an opportunity to support a Scotland team in international sport at a level of which the football team can only dream.

I suppose, ultimately, if you are not already a cricket fan, whether or not you avail yourself of the opportunity, will depend on what kind of sports fan you are.

There are those for whom sport is almost exclusively about watching the elite at the highest level. Through the wonders of cable television, they can choose a non-stop diet across a range of sports in which they seldom view a team or performer outside of the world top six. They count themselves as connoisseurs and are more familiar with the footballers of Barcelona than Alloa, happier watching the All Blacks than Melrose, and more comfortable with Australia v India than Freuchie v Falkland.
Their chosen point of observation is more likely to be sofa than stand, though they may be inveigled out of the house if there is a tempting Hospitality package, or premium seats are available.

However, their confederates in the world of sports spectating take a wider view. Well able to appreciate the game at the highest level and as susceptible to the skills of superstars as anyone, for this type of supporter, the thrill of the game is completed by “being there”, close to the action, and with the constant possibility of spotting a nascent champion, an unexpected demonstration of talent, or merely to enjoy the thrill of live action a few feet away. Though they can fully appreciate the sublime skills of Messi, Linlithgow Rose v Newtongrange Star on a wet Tuesday evening may hold equal allure, they grew up admiring Shane Warne, but are often to be found watching the lusty hitting number 6 at Fauldhouse. Sport at all levels fascinates them – and each fixture offers promise in differing ways.

There is also the excitement of the unfamiliar.

Watching Afganistan, there is the knowledge of their amazing climb up the world ranking against a background of war and uncertainty; how will the athletes of Kenya adapt to the plush, sea level turf of the Grange, shouldn’t Jersey be playing French cricket, are the Dutch cricketers as technically proficient as their footballing counterparts, will a Canadian batsman drop his bat and head for point after a good shot, how many sweaters will the guys from the UAE and Oman feel the need to wear?

With wall to wall sport on subscription television these days, it sometimes feels like a growing number of viewers are watching a dwindling number of top teams and superstars on an ever more regular basis. The T20 Tournament is a chance to witness something new, which is urgent, important in international terms, and on our doorstep.

It would be nice to think that Scotland – and all these teams visiting our shores – can run out to a good support, a deserved level of interest and media coverage, and a tournament which will leave happy memories of skill, competition, comradeship, and accomplishment.

Three hours in the Scottish sun (!) may prove to be a good investment for sports fans with open minds, and the desire to see a Scottish team qualify for a world finals tournament.

Even as a fully paid up member of the Old Gits club, whose cricket of choice is four day county championship fare, I’ll be traversing Edinburgh this month, supporting our guys, and learning about our guests.

It’s what makes sport important.

Feeling the way through the dark

May 11, 2015

h_00205084

When I was growing up, the “Blitz” in Liverpool was well known to me – which is odd, because I was born in Edinburgh, some 200 miles to the north, in 1952 – ten years after the last bombs fell.

However, my mother was born and brought up in Albany Rd, Kensington, a residential area of Liverpool, just to the north east of the city centre, and her reminiscences were scattered not just with local street names: Hall Lane, Empress Rd, Guelph St, Adelaide Rd, Wavertree, Old Swan, Jubilee Drive – but with references to the second world war – the blackout, the shelter, the Blitz.

Of course, when you’re growing up, your parents’ youth seems like the early years of a previous century, and the matter of fact way in which she made the references deflected any chance I had as a child of truly understanding what she had been through.

I suppose I was well in to adulthood before full realisation dawned. Firstly, the events of which she spoke had taken place less than a decade before I was born, and, secondly, from the age of 22 to 28 – theoretically perhaps the most free and exciting years of your life, she had lived through the threat of war. Indeed, even her 21st celebrations, a year previously, in Septemebr 1938 had been under threat just because of the threat of approaching warfare

The generality of that was hard to understand – but it was in the details that the reality really took hold – and her stories were filled with details, because, invariably, when she spoke of the war it was incidental to some other tale she was telling about her younger days. She never made a big deal of the war, though she never hid her memories, and always claimed that her mother, being a gentle soul, died so soon after the war ended because she had been worn out by the terror and the uncertainty.

Without a doubt, war had been unkind to my grandmother. When my grandfather was in the First World War – he was a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery, who saw service at Paschendaele – she had moved around England to see him in his various home postings – from Shoeburyness to Gosford and various points around the coast, taking along with her my mum, who was only months old, and her sister only a couple of years older. In the Anderson Shelter during the second war she had been terrified by the bombing, and not helped by her husband, by then an ARP Warden, with Great War phlegm, stating: “Don’t worry, Rose, you won’t hear the one with your name on it!”.

So my mother’s stories related the ‘mundane’ every day realities of living in war time: feeling your way home along the wall in the total darkness of blackout; the move from ‘under the table’ to cellar to ’Anderson shelter’ as the bombing intensified over the months, and the destructive power of the bombs was illustrated on a sometimes daily basis.

One day she came out of the shelter to go to work and saw that a house further down the terraced street on the opposite side to her own had been taken out by a high explosive bomb; houses on either side of it, apart from smashed windows, were apparently untouched; the family, whom she knew well, had all perished in the cellar, the only upstanding thing in the wreckage of bricks and wood was a bird cage on a stand, the canary dead inside.

h_00712625

Civilians, she said, started to talk like soldiers: “Who bought it last night?”

The answers would be general or specific: “The Maloneys on Jubilee Drive” “Blacklers in town” “Jimmy Kelly, crossing Smithdown Rd” “Mr and Mrs Rimmer in Empress Rd – the dog survived” “The Pier Head caught it badly” “The ice rink.”

Of course, the bombing didn’t occur on a nightly basis. The raids started in late August 1940, when 160 bombers attacked for three nights, and over the next three month period were a succession of attacks, some ‘minor’, others involving up to 300 aircraft, leading to incidents like the deaths of 166 people in the Durning Rd air raid shelter. This period ended with the “Christmas Blitz”, when over 360 folk died, mostly in direct hits on public air raid shelters between December 20th and 22nd.

h_00205127

However, it was the uncertainty of where or when the bombers would strike which shredded the nerves. Thirty years later, when an air raid siren was incorporated into the credits of the hit TV show “Dad’s Army”, the BBC had to limit its exposure due to complaints from people who were severely affected by the memories the sound brought back to them.

Civilian bombing depends, inevitably, on demoralising the public by creating a sense of fear and tension. The bombs would often be aimed at docks, factories, and other important installations – but ordinary homes were also targeted. When the sirens sounded, there was no way of knowing whether you would be ‘in for it’ that night.

Sometimes death was arbitrary – a stray bomber dispensing its load as it headed home, a church too close to the docks, a hospital mistaken for a factory. My mother’s sister had married before the war and moved out to the Childwall suburbs. Sometimes mum and her parents would stay out there to avoid the worst of the raids – but even Childwall was hit. Years later I would play in the ‘shed’ half covered by earth in my aunt’s garden with not the remotest idea it was the Anderson shelter where they had spent nights during the war.

But, wherever you were, the horror was inescapable. Mum described tuning in to “Lord Haw Haw” – William Joyce, who would broadcast from Germany on a nightly basis. Obviously, the Germans had detailed street maps and knowledge of Liverpool. Indeed, Hitler had close family in the city and had stayed there pre-war – an irony being that the house which had once been lived in by his relatives was destroyed in an air raid.

As a result, Joyce would read out a list of streets which would be bombed that night. Mum would recount the horror of sitting in the small living room, clustered round the radio, hearing the bizarre tones of Joyce announcing: “Tonight, the Luftwaffe will drop bombs on Kensington, Albany Rd, Saxony Rd, Albert Edward Rd, Empress Rd, Adelaide Rd, Leopold Rd.”

At this distance, it’s impossible to imagine the dread instilled by hearing your own street read out as a target for bombers in a few hours time.

Of course, the point of the broadcast was that you never knew if Joyce was reading out from a list provided by his Air Ministry, or whether it was mere psychological warfare. Similarly, when the siren went off, there was no way of knowing whether an actual raid was incoming – or it was a ‘false alarm’ – that phrase remaining today in our every day speech.

Even the sound of the “All Clear” from the sirens was a mixed blessing: were the raiders really finished? What damage would they emerge to find, what bad and tragic news? Would my grandad, on fire watching and ARP duties, arrive home safely, and, if so, what tales would he have to tell of what he had witnessed? He was a Post Office Supervisor, and one night the head Post Office was hit – how many colleagues did he lose?

Inevitably, life went on as normally as possible – what other choice was there? Mum worked as a book keeper for a furniture store run by the Swifts – a well known Old Swan family who included two young lads who, as Clive and David would go on to become well respected actors. She also volunteered with the Girls Training Corps, and became an officer in that organisation, and supported young girls ‘in trouble’ in various ways, taking them on  residential stays to Llangollen in North Wales, as an escape from the city bound horror.

The Church was important to her, and she worked supporting those in need. As was the way at the time, much of her social life revolved around her church, her parish, and religious organisations, so that the bomb damage to churches, schools, and similar buildings around the city was painful to her, and she knew many who lost their lives or who were badly affected by the bombing and destruction. She very rarely talked about the young men of her own age who were killed on active service.

However, one story symbolises the people’s approach to the times.

She often spoke of a young priest who was a hugely talented pianist and much admired by his parishioners. Returning to the church house after the ‘all clear’ one day, he was putting the key in the door when a stray bomb demolished the presbytery. The door lintel fell on him. smashing his arms to pieces. When he died shortly afterwards, the general feeling was that it was merciful, as to live and be unable to play the piano would have been unbearable for him. I suppose that’s an example of how you cope with unimaginable situations.

Of 4000 people killed in air raids in Liverpool during the war, around 1750 died between May 1st and 7th 1941 – in the “May Blitz” – with the same number seriously injured. For seven nights it involved nearly 700 Luftwaffe bombers, dropping around 2500 bombs. As was the case throughout, death was random – pick the wrong air raid shelter, the wrong time to check on a relative, a different route home – and you might find it fatal – or, for that matter – your choice and timing might be life saving. During this week, a ship in Huskisson Dock – the SS Malakand was set on fire by burning debris from bombed dockland warehouses – and 1000 tons of bombs in its hold were detonated as explosion after explosion decimated the surrounding area.

h_00712617

When Mum spoke of the May Blitz, it was as if everyone knew what it involved – and, of course, if you had lived through it, that would be true. They had no way of telling how long it would go on for, and, when the Germans turned their attention towards the Eastern Front – from 1941 onwards, the people in Liverpool were still listening for sirens, still existing in a darkened world of blackout, shelters, and apprehension. Though they couldn’t know it, the last air raid on the city was in January 1942 – but the fear and alarm continued until VE Day.

In the sixties, we drew cartoons on our jotters of “Jerries’ fighting the ‘RAF’, we passed by or played on open spaces known as ‘bombsites’ without ever relating them to war, death, or destruction; we walked down streets and passed buildings where bombs had rained and death had become commonplace – we were ignorant. And folk like my mum told their stories quietly, possibly without any expectation that we could really understand, but not wanting the memories to be lost in time.

So I am ambivalent these days when anniversaries of the two world wars are marked with various celebrations and ceremonies, and when every military campaign and death is described as ‘defending our freedom’.

And I am worried that, in a very short time, those who have not experienced the actuality of war – at first or second hand – will come to see it as part of the great British ceremonial, with soldiers parading, flags unfurled, Red Arrows flypasts, and stirring speeches. Proud tradition rather than appalling tragedy.

Such an inaccurate, sanitised view merely increases the possibility of it all happening again, and we need to remember, and to honour those who died, in a more appropriate fashion.

For my part, I will recall the second war as a woman hunched over in a corrugated tin burrow, terrified at the wailing of the falling bombs, demented for the safety of her husband and children; a man ‘doing his bit’ for the second time in his adult life, trying to control the shakes as the impact of explosives detonating hurls him back to the mud of Flanders; and a young woman on her way home, feeling her way along the wall made invisible by blackout regulations, preparing for another night in the shelter, wondering what tomorrow’s dawn will reveal.

For the people of Liverpool, merely surviving was a kind of victory; making our lives better was the ultimate justification.

Two meetings, 40 years, and a journey of hope.

May 9, 2015
tags:

This is the tale of two meetings – and what happened in between them.

It is October 1974 and I am sitting at a shoogly table in the back room of what was once a plumber’s shop on the Southside of Edinburgh..

When I look round the table, this is what I see: an old man in a kilt and a tweed jacket, a young woman and her brother, recently returned from Australia, an economics lecturer with a London accent, a middle aged man wearing a deerstalker and plus fours, a Norwegian engineer and his Scots wife, a Mechanical Engineering lecturer, who has parked his three wheeled, yellow, Reliant Robin outside, an Irish Politics and History Professor, several “Morningside ladies”, a middle aged woman who runs a painting and decorating shop, and myself – with a passable Lancashire accent after a childhood spent away from my Edinburgh birthplace down south, and my American girlfriend – both of us students.

The names still remain: Dougie Stewart, Roseanna and Chris Cunnigham, Gavin Kennedy, Jim Campbell, Arve and Louise Johannsen, Kerr MacGregor, Owen Dudley Edwards, the Potters, Mairi Stewart, Mairigold Roche.

There were a few others with whom we constituted the activist core of Edinburgh South SNP – but I record their names because they were the folk who welcomed me into the SNP, who gave me a sound political grounding, and, most importantly, who had kept the party’s flag flying through hard times as well as good.

In later years, there would be many more folk I would have cause to thank and to celebrate the fact I had the chance to know and work beside them: Bob Shirley, Allan Lawson, Valli Shirley, Stephen Maxwell, Kenny Macaskill, Greg McAra, Iain Thorburn, Fiona Hyslop, Alison Purser. There were more whom I have forgotten – and many of these, no doubt, will have forgotten me.

The fact was – as that original list suggests, in my earliest days in the party, the SNP was composed of an extraordinary mixture of characters – unlikely and otherwise – and it would be fair to say that this was sometimes reflected in our ‘welcome’ in the streets and on the doorsteps.

A major motivation for my activism – on the doors or behind the keyboard – over the years was the Labour party agent in our constituency at my first “count” in 1974. We were chatting to the Labour candidate when the agent came up and said: “Oh – talking to the kiddies are we?” It was a sneering attitude which many in Scottish Labour still espouse, and played its part in this week’s crushing defeat.

However, in one respect, he was probably not far wide of the mark. Despite the expertise of various individuals, there was an overall political innocence about the party in those days, which, in one sense, could be charming, but, in another, limited our potential to win votes – or, at least, seats. We did the legwork up and down the multistorey flats, but we also shouted at people through poor loudspeakers on top of that Robin Reliant and introduced pipe bands to housing scheme shopping centres at 10 am on Saturday mornings. The party’s image – and probably its major appeal in those days – was related to a vague kind of patriotism, coupled with a desire for more social justice. It was fairly ill-defined and quite similar to the picture unionist parties have sought to paint of the current SNP. But it was forty years ago, and a relatively young and inexperienced organization.

Then came the Garscadden by-election in April 1978. Though the SNP needed a 10% swing to take the seat, the press promoted it as a near certainty to fall to the Nats. When a young Donald Dewar won the seat for Labour, the media suggested the wheels had come off the SNP bandwagon. Certainly, opinion polls suggested our support had fallen from over 30% to under 20% and in the 79 Election 11 MPs became 2 and, with a little help from George Cunningham’s anti-democratic 40% rule, the 79 referendum was ‘lost’.

Times became hard for the SNP. I am still proud of my 79 Group m embership card and of the fact that it led to my expulsion from the party for being ‘too left wing’. But lessons were learned, as they must be if there is to be progress.

Ultimately, the party took the time to rebuild, to listen and to reflect. Building from a low position, it realized that connecting with folk and addressing their concerns was the only way forward for a truly social democratic movement. If you have a cause you believe in, it deserves to be presented in a professional manner and you need to attract the best talent to do that. People – and their persuasion – should never be taken for granted.

The media often portrayed the SNP’s development as “Fundamentalist” v “Gradualist” – but it was more sophisticated than that. Nicola Sturgeon is representative of young folk who joined the party at that time –and she said last year that, for her, independence was important in its own right, but more so because it was a means of bringing social justice to Scotland. It is this point of view which has transformed the party – a point of view brought about by an openness to new ideas and a willingness to let the membership decide issues. The unionist press frequently make disparaging reference to the SNP’s ‘party discipline’ as if it was a repressive machinery. They fail to recognize the difference between organizational discipline – which leads to electoral success, and politically controlling discipline which tends to lead to internal strife and electoral losses.

The burden of the party’s approach was as follows: if you are looking for social justice in Scotland, you are pushing at an open door, because a large percentage of Scots share that aspiration; the only thing blocking that door was the unwillingness of a controlling Westminster parliament to follow such a progressive agenda. Scottish Labour believed that, as part of a UK movement, that equality would come sooner or later. The problem was, post New Labour, that was not the way the London party was operating – winning middle England votes was their alternative agenda, and one which led, inevitably to a sort of ‘Tory-lite’ approach.

The result of the SNP’s slow but thorough re-birth has been a kind of unstated pact between them and the Scottish voters – especially those who had previously voted Labour as an article of faith.

In post industrial Scotland, Labour’s role was less clear than previously, its patronism less pervasive, its effectiveness hindered – especially by the New Labour project. Hubris replaced principles and they continued to view themselves as an immutable working class establishment, secure in their position.

The voters, starting to feel taken for granted, and seeing little benefit in voting for a party which pursued Westminster power before serving its people, and predicated policy on the focus group divined wishes of middle England, they started to ‘test’ the SNP.

In the Scottish Parliament, they gave them five years as a minority government – and liked what they saw enough to vote them in next time as a majority government. This should have been a warning to Labour, who had set up the Scottish parliament in a manner to preclude this eventuality ever happening. However, having viewed the Scottish legislature as a minor institution, most of Scottish Labour’s ‘talent’ were focused on Westminster – and, in Scotland, it showed.

Meanwhile, for many Scottish voters, the SNP were “passing the test”. A support for independence which had hovered around 30% for some time moved towards 45% in the 2014 Referendum – a sign, perhaps, that the voters were now looking for something more than the status quo if not outright autonomy – and when Westminster, and Scottish Labour, failed to divine that movement in aspiration – or at least dismissed it, the scene was set for a further rise in trust of the SNP’s position, and this time in a Westminster setting.

Which brings me to my second meeting.

This was at the Mound, on Edinburgh’s Princes St on Wednesday morning of this week – an eve of poll meeting which Nicola Sturgeon would address.

When I arrived there about 9.30am there was already a large crowd – most were activists, but as time passed and passers by enquired what was happening, the numbers grew exponentially. Eventually, there must have been five or six hundred gathered – not a bad number for a work day morning.

I had time while waiting to look around and reflect.

There was an understated professionalism about the set up which was a long way from Robin Reliants and wee men in kilts. A small stage was set up, and a PA system, protected from the incipient rain by two see through ‘Stronger for Scotland’ umbrellas, while a sound man checked it was working effectively. A couple of security guys protected the space around it. At the back of the crowd a table had been set up to distribute party merchandise. There was a sense of purpose rather than excitement, a confidence rather than any sense of entitlement.

I suspect the location was chosen for its central position but it was also quite redolent. We were next to a couple of famous Scottish institutions: the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy. Above us on one side was Edinburgh Castle with its Union Flag reminder flying from the battlements, on the other was the towering presence of the Bank of Scotland headquarters – an icon of what has come to be of priority for the elite in the UK state. Just along from us was the Scott Monument – a gothic pointer to the realisation of how far Scotland has come from the writer’s Bagpipes and Stags version of nationhood.

However, it was the people who most took my eye.

Compared to that back room in Grange Loan forty years before, the demographic was far wider: young and old, prosperous and less so, hipster and staid, folk who looked like business people and many who could be students, tradesmen, tourists or professionals. In short, the gathering reflected modern Scotland; it was beyond pigeon holing. Granted there were a few folk who could have graced the front page of a Sunday Magazine in their glorious idiosyncrasy, but, by and large, there was little remarkable about the people around me – they were representative.

When Nicola Sturgeon arrived – accompanied by husband Peter Murrell , the party’s national organiser, and a couple of assistants, there was no big fanfare – just an appreciative applause. She stopped and spoke to those around her en route to the stage, and after a stock stump speech, she stayed for ages to take the famous selfies, sign autographs and chat to the people who had turned up. It was as unlike a 2015 election event as you could imagine – no minders, no stage managed moments –simply a politician meeting voters – and those, like the tourists, who can’t vote, on the main street of a capital city.

Despite the best attempts of the mainstream media to portray it as otherwise, this is not demagoguery, not an artificially managed media event – those who attended were there to see and hear her, and she was happy to speak and meet with all of them. At one point somebody asked for a picture of her and Murrell together; she borrowed an SNP placard, handed it to her husband and gave the photographer a shot in which he was holding a sign saying #I’mwithNicola. As she satisfied the seemingly endless demand for selfies, she said to me (yes I did get one!) “I’ve First Minister’s Questions in half an hour (in the Scottish Parliament) I don’t think the Presiding Officer would accept ‘I was taking selfies’ as an excuse if I’m late!”

People warm to her because what you see is what you get with this particular leader; they also recognise that she is a conviction politician who cares, and knows, about people and their lives. It is quite a rare phenomenon in modern politics.

As I left the meeting, I felt quite emotional. I’ve stuck with the SNP, in good and bad times, for the policies I support and those with which I’m less enamoured, for a lifetime. I’m proud that it has never veered away from its belief and principle that the good of the people in Scotland is best served by their taking control and responsibility for their own country and playing their full part alongside the nations of the world – and I still anticipate the coming time when it can be a force for good rather than a ‘region’ separated from the world through the decisions of another country’s parliament. It is good to have politicians of whom we can be proud.

Forty eight hours later, coming to terms with an incredible general election result, those two meetings, and all that happened in between, came strongly back to me.

And I thought of a wee man in plus fours and a deerstalker who took the trouble to come all the way up to my student’s residence room on a Saturday morning in December 1973 and give me my branch membership card.
“I just wanted to welcome you to the SNP!” he said.

Thank you to Jim Campbell, to all those folk round the table in that shop backroom, and the thousands of others who have worked tirelessly over the years to maintain the SNP’s message, its principles, and its integrity.

You all made this election result possible.

Now’s the hour!

Making a difference

April 20, 2015

10409369_10153251598457603_4303607119109606847_n

The Edinburgh International Climbing Arena is an imposing sight. Think of a quarry, roofed over, and with additional facilities, and you’ll be close to imagining it accurately.

So it provided an interesting backdrop to the launch of the SNP’s Manifesto for the Westminster Elections of 2015. As I’m sure the event planners calculated, even eschewing all the obvious metaphors involving climbing, reaching the summit, and showing true grit, the sheer scale of the place reflected the new reality for a party with over 109,000 members.

As someone who joined the SNP in the 1970s, such occasions still seem a little surreal –with the memory of similar manifesto launches being performed in pokey upstairs rooms or basements, accompanied by a deafening roar of apathy from even the Scottish media.

Today’s launch was attended by media from all over the UK and elsewhere, and by an attendance of around 1000 SNP members. The presentation was slick, the event well run, and the messages loud and clear.

Looking round the arena, I did wonder if the whole thing might go over the top. However, as Brian Tayor wrote later, this party is too experienced and too canny to make such elementary mistakes. Nicola’s entry was loudly welcomed with applause but there was not a sign of triumphalism or celebration. The mood in the hall was excited but focused; the SNP has got here through hard work and it doesn’t seem that they are prepared to give away their position through sloppiness or premature point scoring. This was not a rally, it was the launch of a manifesto. Those who cried it something else are maybe a little befuddled at viewing such enthusiasm from so many politically motivated folk.

How it was done was impressive, but what was important was what was said.

The SNP now has a coherent range of left of centre policies delivered with some passion and expertise by a leader who clearly and obviously believes in social justice. Indeed, she speaks with more conviction and understanding of what needs to be done to support the most vulnerable than any other politician in Scotland today.

It was a sign of the times that the first five or six questions from the broadcast media were from London based organizations.

Was she a hypocrite to complain when English votes decided on Scottish issues, but to look to seize the chance to influence UK politics from Scotland? As she pointed out: it was the Better Together campaign who begged Scotland to stay – to “lead the Union” not “leave it” – they can hardly complain at the result of just such a democratic vote.

If the SNP were in favour of redistributive policies, why had they not enacted any in their seven years in government? Nicola pointed out that the fact that no such powers were devolved to the Scottish Parliament was one of the reasons why independence was needed.

The assembled media have been unused to such extended opportunities to question the party leaders during this campaign, and were clearly enjoying the chance. “Why are the English afraid of you?” brought forth a startled laugh, and a suggestion that Mr Cameron might be, but that her own mail box was filled with folk in England asking how they could vote SNP.

As the mainstream media have pointed out, this manifesto reaches out to northern England in particular – a region which suffers, like Scotland, from the drag of power and resources towards London. Having lived in the north west of England for twelve years, and having family and friends there, I can vouch for the envy they have at the engagement in politics of folk north of the Border, and the feeling engendered by the Referendum campaign that ordinary people can make a difference. They would love to vote for a party like the SNP which can make commitments to the most vulnerable in society without monitoring the reactions of the middle England electorate whose support is required for a Westminster majority.

We saw in the Leaders’ Debate, generally speaking, that the more left leaning voters hear of the SNP’s plans, the more they take to them – right across the UK. Today’s Manifesto launch has attracted major interest from the UK media and will hopefully mark a continuation of a process of understanding – or at least listening to – the SNP’s actual policies, rather than presenting a 1970s picture of Braveheart Nats foaming at the mouth with hatred for the English.

Much has been made of the synchronicity between Labour ideas and the SNP manifesto – and, from some areas, a suggestion that the policies have been “stolen”. The real riposte to that is that the voters have seen time and again since the Blair years the difference between what Labour promises in opposition and delivers in power. Seemingly, they trust the SNP in their commitment to ‘hold the Labour Party’s feet to the fire’ over their left of centre commitments and to pull them away from their Tory-Lite policies. As the First Minister said today: “I didn’t say there was no difference between Miliband and Cameron  – I said they weren’t different enough.”

Labour have long claimed that Scotland supports Labour policies. I think they are right in that. The difference in 2015 is that it’s the SNP the voters trust to put them into action.

And Labour in Scotland would need to look at its own record to understand why that is so.

Marvellous!

April 10, 2015

590443-richie-benaud

I love cricket, I love words and writing, I love broadcasting. Richie Benaud excelled in each of these disciplines and was utterly unique. He’s been a role model and inspiration for all of my life in those areas. So when I say I’m going to miss him dreadfully, I really mean it.

Like many legends, the secret of his greatness was simplicity. He used to say about commentating: “Put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up.”

I don’t remember cricket without Richie Benaud. His Test career commenced the year I was born and ended when I was twelve – the perfect span to instil admiration and hero worship. I’ve always thought that the best way to captain is the Richie Benaud way – it’s a default position. It needs to be tough, ruthless, insightful and understated. Strategy is all, calm is crucial, and respect and understanding of the opposition is the vital ingredient.

In my childhood, he was an inspirational Australian captain, wily with his strategy, skillful with his leg breaks, and more than capable with the bat, achieving nine 50s and 3 centuries. He was the first player to take 200 Test wickets and score 2000 runs. He didn’t produce the explosive performances of a Lloyd, a Sobers or a Lara; he simply played cricket consistently well and he played it as it should be played.

When he made the transition to journalism and broadcasting, he took his talent, his understanding of the game, and his no nonsense approach with him. Not for Richie the flowery excesses of the personality broadcaster – though, ironically, in his very simplicity of approach, he became iconic. I’m not sure any one cricketer of my generation ever took a wicket or a catch, fielded a difficult shot, or perfectly timed a drive, without hearing, somewhere in their head, a calmly uttered: “Marvellous!” or “Good cricket!”

Like many gifted folk, I suspect he could be hard on those who fell below his standards. He had no false modesty, and he knew his worth as a commentator and analyst. He never hesitated to give his views on the game he loved and the directions in which it ‘progressed’.

I only encountered him once.

As a commentator, he was an ever present for BBC 2 on Summer Sundays in the late 60s for the International Cavaliers charity games, which presaged the Sunday League in county cricket. Looking back, the array of talent on display seems incredible. The Cavaliers regularly played at Southport and Birkdale CC, my local ground – where I was able to watch veterans like Denis Compton, Cec Pepper, and Godfrey Evans, and Geoff Boycott, Graham Pollock, Fred Trueman, Ted Dexter, Charlie Griffiths, Rohan Kanhai, Gary Sobers, Clive Lloyd and all the Test and county stars of the day.

In those days, the autograph was the equivalent of today’s selfies – and for ‘the small boys’ who gathered round pavilion and boundary, getting the signature in autograph book, scorecard, or scrap of paper was all important. At this distance, with the signatures long lost, it is the memory of being close to legends and heroes that seems more important.

After one of the Cavaliers games, when I had hassled my way to as many player autographs as possible, I was meandering across the ground, head full of cricketing dreams as usual, when my attention was drawn to a group of figures on the other side of the field. It was the commentary team, down from their eerie, making for the pavilion.

One figure was Learie Constantine – a true great of the game – and another was Richie Benaud. I adjusted my direction so I would intersect with them.

Sir Learie would have been a fair age then and I caught up with him first; he very graciously signed my scorecard. Because he was moving more slowly than the others, this meant that Richie and his companion, presumably a producer, were a little ahead of us.

I headed after them, and realised that I was not impolite enough to interrupt an adult conversation for the sake of a signature – so I found myself, quite literally, walking in the footsteps of a legend. This probably made a clearer impression on me than a hurried autograph.

He was immaculately dressed in a cream suit with shining brown shoes. Even after a day in the commentary box, the shirt was crisp, the tie sharply knotted, and that famous hairstyle, silver even then, coiffed within an inch of its life. His tan was glowing. He had a briefcase and was carrying a bunch of papers, one of which he dropped without noticing. It was a fan letter, addressed to “Richie Benaud, BBC”. I wasn’t brave enough to hand it back to him.

He headed into the pavilion, and I went home, content to have seen the great man – and to have walked off the field with him!

I’ve always maintained that what makes cricket great, as much as its attractiveness as a game, is the atmosphere which surrounds it, generated by players and spectators alike – and also, in modern times, by those who write about the game or commentate on it. Richie Benaud was in the unique position of playing the game at the top level and in the right way, and then carrying on to contribute further to that atmosphere by his peerless commentary, and in the wisdom and vision of his many writings.

For generations of cricket lovers, the fabled thwack of leather on willow will always be enhanced and made more vivid by the equally pleasant sound of Arlott’s Hampshire burr and Richie’s Aussie twang. Snicko and Hawkeye have an impossible act to follow. He was the Neville Cardus of the microphone, and is irreplaceable.

I’ll stop there – to fulfil Richie’s dictum of keeping it brief, and letting the silence do the job – but it’s hard to accept that now that quiet pause for reflection will not be broken.

G’night, Richie.

Marvellous!

Saving Ryan’s Daughter

March 31, 2015

IMG_8667

Image copyright MGM Films/Faraway Productions

The world of film has come a long way in little more than a century. At the start, viewers were amazed to see scratchy depictions of moving monochrome figures, then talkies led a move towards more realism, and now we watch films in which Computer Generated Imagery makes anything appear possible – on screens from multiplex to phone sized.

Somewhere in the middle of that century of ‘development’, if not ‘progress’, there was a brief period, between the studio factory system and the dumbing down of films to compete with television and computer games, when works which could be considered ‘classical’ were produced – by Directors who had more in common with painters than accountants or computer technologists.

Perhaps one of the most accomplished artists in this field was the late David Lean – who had worked his early twentieth century way up from, literally, the cutting room floor, through editing, to directing classics like “Oliver Twist”, Brief Encounter” and “Great Expectations” and then the mid century mega-hits like “Dr Zhivago”, Lawrence of Arabia” and “Bridge over the River Kwai”.

His forte was the vastness of the background against which the plot was projected – deserts, wars, revolutions – matched by the scale of what was visually presented: crowds of thousands, hordes of camels, endless skies and landscapes.

In 1968, he went to Corca Dhuibhne, the Dingle Peninsula, and, in filming what was probably the last of the Great Epics made under mid century conditions, he very nearly put movie giants MGM out of business.

The spend for the film: “Ryan’s Daughter” was around £60 million overall in today’s prices – largely as a result of Lean’s perfectionism – with hundreds of retakes and delays for ‘the right clouds to come’ and his insistence on building a complete set on Carhoo mountain at Ballynahow Commons, as well as the need to retake some shots in South Africa. Over a year on location was prohibitively expensive but the MGM executives had to trust to Lean’s track record and hope he was producing another blockbuster.

The critics were not initially kind to “Ryan’s Daughter” – indeed their reaction put Lean off film making for over a decade – but the public were more willing to take this old fashioned movie to their hearts and, eventually, it covered its costs and is now reviewed more favourably for what it was – the last of the great 20th century epics.

I’ve written elsewhere about the impact of this production on the life of the Dingle Peninsula – economically and socially – and one of the major effects was the surge in tourism which resulted from the film’s panoramic views of west Kerry, produced by Lean’s Oscar award winning cinematographer, Freddie Young.

When tourists are inspired to come to Corca Dhuibhne by the scenery they have enjoyed in “Ryan’s Daughter” – and they still come in great numbers, as the film receives a regeneration on DVD – they also look for locations and signs of the film left behind. On top of Carhoo, they will find the remains of the village street, but none of the buildings – demolished shortly after filming was completed – and if they know where to look they might spot the ‘carved standing stone’ which marked the bus stop at “Killins Cross”, now standing outside the museum in Ballyferriter, in all its polystyrene glory!

However, the most substantial, physical, reminder of the days when Faraway productions and MGM came to Dingle , is the schoolhouse, built at a place called Cill Gobnait, on the clifftop near Dun Chaoin Harbour, and, which, as anyone who has seen the film knows, possesses one of the finest views of the Blaskets.

Unlike the village set, this was not built on commonage, but on land owned by local farmers, the O Sé’s, and there were no disputes over ownership or control. Faraway Productions who made the film, and had built the set, simply walked away and left the building as it had been in the film.

IMG_8668

Image copyright MGM Films/Faraway Productions

It was a perfect reconstruction of a style of national (or primary) school built all over Ireland in the later 19th century – one big schoolroom, separate entrances and playgrounds for boys and girls, and basic accommodation for the teacher attached. It was built in traditional manner by local stonemason, Mikey Donoghue, and has remained more or less intact for over forty years. The one concession was a back wall which was ‘hinged’, so it could be lifted up to allow access to the huge film cameras of the day.

IMG_8670

Image copyright MGM Films/Faraway Productions

Initially, its position on private land meant tourists were not encouraged to visit the site. To do so required a walk down a private lane past a couple of houses and then a jump over a gate to join the laneway constructed by MGM. Sadly there was a deal of early vandalism of the building, and it may have suited the farmer to remove the back wall and allow access to his cattle. When I first visited the schoolhouse in 1971 it was almost as it had been in the film, two or three years later and the inside was less recognizable.

IMGP3955

Eventually, the Ryan family, of Ryanair fame, bought the building and there are now access gates at appropriate points. The path down to the building, which is still instantly recognisable, passes an old holy site of St Gobnait’s Well.

Through the years there has been much talk of renovating the place and making something of it – it has an obvious lure, even after all this time. Nothing has come of this and there was, I suppose, a delicious irony in the fact that this fabricated building from the 6os slowly fell into a state which was not dissimilar to that of hundreds of identical abandoned schools actually built in the 1890s.

IMGP3975

However, after a major storm in January 2015, much of the roof fell in and the building has clearly come to a crossroads. Over the next few years, it is likely it will deteriorate more into a heap of stone and eventually, it will become the former site of a “bit of the film” as is the hillside at Ballyhnahow Commons.

IMGP3952

There is an argument for saying: “So what?” This schoolhouse is an anacronysm of an anacronysm, a piece of left over make believe from a film which was made too expensively and too late. Surely the whole point of ‘the movie business’ is that it is ephemeral of its nature and should not be confused with reality?

It’s a fair point, but there is another angle. There always is in the world of film.

This simple schoolhouse is a reminder of an event which played an important part in shaping the 20th century of this part of Ireland and the Gaeltacht – for better or worse. Like the movie set village of Kirrary, once it is gone, it is gone forever – and there were some regrets at the destruction of that village set in 1970 almost as soon as the demolition crews had left the mountain.

However, it is more than that.

It is a final reminder of a phase in film making which we will never come again, a physical remnant of former times. As such it can speak volumes to students of ‘how things used to be done’. It is a visual aid to learning and history and has a role to play in the area still, I believe.

There was an excellent report from locally based Seán Mac an tSíthigh on RTE News at the end of January which highlighted the current state of play; it seems the owners are rather disinterested in the site but that there is local support for some action being taken. In the RTE film, Marcas MacDomhnaill of Comharcumann Dhún Chaoin, the local co-operative, expresses interest in some development of the building.

After years of neglect and inaction, perhaps the recent storm has indicated the need for some decisions to be taken.

The basic building is sound but the roof and back wall should be replaced. The surroundings – the playgrounds, walls and the street outside are also in decent condition. In addition, since the days of filming, this site is now close to the Dingle Way and the Wild Atlantic Way, and, of course, a few hundred yards over the hill from the iconic Ionad an Bhlascaoid – The Blasket Centre, so brilliantly run by Dáithí de Mórdha who has done so much to attract folk to the area and keep alive the traditions of the Blaskets.

The building has much potential. Once wind and water tight, its interior could serve as an exhibition space – with memories of “Ryan’s Daughter” and its production, but also of the area as a whole. It could also be a performance area – in summer, imagine traditional music being played in the playground area with the backdrop of the Blaskets and the Atlantic, or lectures and workshops on the area’s language, culture and traditions. Local craftsmen might want to give demonstrations for visitors too. For passing walkers, perhaps the original idea of a simple tearoom and café would be possible.

I would like to think that there could be some link to Ionad an Bhlascaoid – perhaps a route from the car park to the site of the schoolhouse, perhaps covered by a replica 1916 bus to take visitors. Access would certainly have to be carefully considered and controlled. The link to the Blasket Centre comes from the fact that the film undoubtedly introduced millions worldwide to the existence of the islands, and attracted more to visit the Centre and the islands themselves. For those unable to travel out to the islands, a walking or ‘bus’ route to the schoolhouse would give them an additional spectacular view of the Great Blasket in particular.

In addition, the refurbishment of the site would bring work to the area – to builders, to stonemasons and roofers, maybe even to road building – along the lines of the original cobbled boreens constructed for the film.

IMGP3983

Vocational students from Dingle and Tralee, and pupils in their Transition Year, could serve apprenticeships and gain work experience on the project, children from nearby national schools could visit this reminder of old time schooling, local businesses could contribute to the rebuilding.

Assuming there is local support for a refurbishment, that the owners of the building are happy to allow it, and that local landowners can have an involvement, the major problem would be funding.

These are hard times everywhere, and though Corca Dhuibhne remains a hugely popular tourist destination, investment in new initiatives is not easy to find. My answer to that problem would be to look to all the many organisations who could benefit from the project – or who have already flourished, directly or indirectly, from David Lean’s adventure in the neighbourhood.

The following is not an exhaustive list – but, in terms of film history, would it be too much to expect a contribution from Bord Scannán na hÉireann, and maybe work for local filmmakers in making a documentary of the project for RTE? Údarás na Gaeltachta might be approached, as well as Fáilte Ireland and Kerry County Council, Dingle Business Chamber, and Dingle Tourism. Local businesses individually might feel they could be part of it all – Benners and the Dingle Skellig Hotels, Louis Mulcahy Pottery, the Dingle Brewing Co, the Dingle Distillery, some of the pubs of Dingle town who were major beneficiaries of the likes of Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard and their legendary thirsts. If many organisations contribute, their individual contributions need not be unfeasibly large.

The relationship between Corca Dhuibhne and “Ryan’s Daughter” has always been cautious. While acknowledging the huge boost it gave to the local economy, and the benefits of the tourism it created, many are circumspect about its shadow over the area. Recognition of the film has always been understated in the locality, and the situation of the schoolhouse demands that such a development should be in keeping with this historically calm approach.

It would be a pity if this relic of film and local history was to be lost altogether. Even a commitment to make the building wind and watertight, as a first step, would be welcome.

David Lean referred to the film company who made “Ryan’s Daughter” as “The Last of the great traveling circuses” – surely it deserves some kind of permanent memorial?

Over on Great Blasket, in sight of the schoolhouse, Tomás Ó Criomthain, famously wrote of the islanders: “Ní bheidh mo leithéid arís ann” – There will not be our like again.

The same is true of the old time movie “Travelling Circuses” – and wouldn’t that strangely familiar old building on the cliffs at Cill Gobnait be a great place to commemorate the fact?

IMGP3980

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,876 other followers