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You would never know

December 5, 2016

This short story is published in the current edition of the Leitrim Guardian (www.leitrimguardian.ie). Unfortunately, in the publishing process, part of the story has been lost – so the whole story is available here for readers who were wondering where the rest of it was!

 

When he was home staying with the cousin, he always tried to give the family some space, and he spent a fair amount of time out of the house.

This day he decided he would go up along the top road, follow a bit of the Miner’s Way, and take the path that fell at his feet.

There was  a sharpness in the mid morning air – a reminder that it was closer to September than July – but the sun had some heat and the patches of fuschia on the ditches were already glowing their deep red wine stains against the dark of the leaves.

He offered a small prayer of thanks to Coillte. Each time he came home, different sections of the mountain had been cleared of forestry, so he was always surprised by views down to the Lake from new or old  angles.

After a while he stopped for some water. He pulled the plastic bottle out of his bag and felt foolish as he realised he was sitting overlooking a natural, silver shining,  waterfall, chuckling at him as it fell down the mountain.

He closed his eyes. There was occasional birdsong and the feel of the breeze on his face, and far below, the long blue thread of Lough Allan separated the “us” of Tarmon on this side from the “them” of Ballinagleragh on the other. In the Lake were Corry Island and Drummans Island, and over to his right, the brown bulk of Sliabh an Iarrain, with Sí Bheag and Sí Mhor in the distance.

Smiling, he realised that he always pronounced those places with his father’s voice – he had heard him talk of them so many times – always with the reverence forged by distance and time.

The constant companion in his head, the thought that said: “What if it was Grandad who  stayed and his brother who had left for Scotland? What if  you had grown up in your cousin’s house? What if this view was your everyday view and not a summer holiday treat? –t hat thought-companion butterflyed around him, making him stand suddenly and get ready to move on.

In a few places the ditch was broken by a lane, often half covered, tunnelled in branches, heading downward, away from the road. As he was in no hurry, he followed some of them, led by curiosity and the joy of being outdoors with no agenda.

A couple of the openings led to freshly painted houses, positioned on gravelled hard standing, the stone and its joints impossibly clear and clean, with  open views to the Lake, and carefully tended garden plots. You couldn’t tell whether they were newly built or old cabins massively refurbished, but the shutters on the windows gave them away as holiday homes.

Other lanes – which promised less,  somehow gave more. Quickly the stone of the roadway was overtaken by the grass growing from the middle and at the sides; there was more  mud than road, and at the end there was just a stand of trees, bent away from the wind.

But that was not all.

A gap in a broken down wall, the remains of  a gate, a holly bush which would have provided Christmas decorations through years and generations, and, covered by the clay and the bog, the remains of a house, more like rocks than building stones. Beyond it, a lighter colour of green on the ground, and whins growing tall, marking out where the haggard had been.

These were lanes that had carried family footprints, seen joy and sorrow, youth and age, the excitement of new life, and the silence of death. It was impossible not to sense that the people of the years were still around here somewhere; he found it reassuring rather than depressing.

As he got closer to Arigna, the land changed. The ditches diminished so that the mountain came down to the side of the road, ragged edged, as if God had forgotten to finish off this part of the route. There was nothing more than a drainage channel running alongside the tarmac, and, on a whim, he took the decision to jump over it and head up the mountain into the bog.

In the fields here were all the signs of the touch of man. The left behinds from the coal mining were all around: twisted pieces of metal that may have been axles with wheels that once carried the hutches that brought out the coal; small metal box shapes, jagged toothed machinery wheels, no longer able to turn, attached to nothing and sinking into the daub.

The earth was scarred, the colours mixed and unnatural, and yet it was not entirely unattractive. It was as if, over twenty five years from the mine’s last working day, what had been brought out of the ground was slowly  returning to it. The black of the coal dust was turning to the brown of rust. It suited Corry mountain  better, he supposed.

He had to watch his feet as he climbed higher. The ground was uneven – there were hollows in the naturally undulating fields, and he had heard tales of unguarded mine shafts, or collapsed workings. A few times he caught his leg on something blunt and unyielding – and then, as ever, his boots would sink into the bog, the water squeezing out of the lace holes as he stamped on  his way to  comfort his feet in soggy socks..

The boots and socks would need to be cleaned and  dried out. He never minded that; it was impossible to get the land off them completely, and he was glad of that. A flake of that familiar dried daub spotted in the back of his car in that other country could do more for his day than any amount of good news.

As he climbed, the air grew thinner, the sound of the birds became less regular, more isolated, easier to notice, and the wind was in his ears. From this height, the Lake looked majestic, somehow part of the mountains above it. The occasional bright painted houses seemed in exactly the right places, the animals, in the fields, were toys of the landscape.

He remembered his cousin saying that there was a field on  the other side of the mountain where Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo all met in the middle. The next few minutes were lost in scanning the fields below, the patchwork of squares and oblongs and ditches following lines that made sense only to the farmers.

Then he realised, without a map, he was wasting his time – there would hardly be a signpost marking the spot!

Looking up he spotted the wind turbines in the distance, white windmills making a modern point. He knew if he started heading down the bog and kept them over his left shoulder, he would make it home.

Sure enough, he soon came upon a tarred road  heading down in the general direction of Drumkeerin. The scratch of his boots on the small loose stones kept him company.

The lower the sun sank, the more dazzling the Lake appeared in the distance. Nature was strange – the Lake could help you float or it could drown you, these hills could bring great joy to the walker or shed misery on anyone lost in their wild similarities. Like people – internal contradictions: capacity for happiness and sorrow.

He was so lost in these thoughts that he failed to notice the building till he was almost level with it.

It was placed back from the road on a  small rise of land. There was nothing else  around it, but, at first sight he could tell it was a national school – the familiar old square shape, with a front porch extending to the entrances for boys and girls.

On second sight, it was obviously abandoned. The playground was almost grassed over and one of the doors was lying open. The windows were not broken but they were blind with dust and grime. It was wild up here, he was impressed that the building had withstood the weather.

Pushing at the door, he found himself in a large classroom. Amazingly, much of the furniture remained: desks were strewn around, a map hung from the wall between the long windows, there were light patches on the paint where years ago notices had been pinned.

It didn’t look like school might be in session tomorrow – but neither did it look abandoned. The furniture seemed to date from the 1960s, perhaps, but there was no sign of vandalism, grafitti or ill use. At home a building like this would be derelict, ruined and savaged by thieves and casual visitors. Here, it felt like it was standing waiting to be used again, not closed down but quiet in the holidays.

The building was divided internally by a single wall, and in the middle of that was a door which was all but closed. He walked towards it, conscious of the noise of his boots on the wooden floorboards. He took in the  black iron stove in the far corner and wondered how many pieces of coal or turf, or peat briquettes, had been brought here daily by the pupils.

As he pushed open the door, he was tempted to shout  “Good morning, class. Dia dhaoibh ar maidin!”

He was pleased he had cleared his throat instead, because, to his great surprise, and slight embarrassment, he found he was not alone. As he entered the second room, he realised there was a figure sitting in a chair in the corner. This room must have been a classroom too – the connecting door meant one teacher could teach two classes, with the help of older pupils – but, apart from a blackboard leaning against the wall, and the chair upon which the man was sitting, it was empty, with just the straight lines of  the floor boards filling the space.

The man was a good age, red faced with milky eyes. He was  wearing an old tweed suit with a battered hat, his hands were crossed in front of him, resting on a walking stick. There was no acknowledgement of his entering the room, so he greeted him to cover his surprise.

“Hello, how are ye?”

“I’m grand. Just sitting thinking.”

“It’s lovely up here, isn’t it?”

“It is – and ’twas even more lovely when there were children here and classes being taught.”

“Were you a pupil here?”

“No – I was an Múinteoir –  the Master! And proud of it I was!”

The man’s head tilted up, his eyes shone, the authority of the master seemed to enter the room.

“They say a school’s not a school without the children – but, you know, they never leave. All of them, the ones I helped prepare for life, whether that was on the farm, in the town, or for the boat abroad – they are all still here – a part of what made them who they are will always be here. That’s why I come and sit here – to be with them!”

It looked as if he was going to stand up, then he sank down again, seemed to subside.

The atmosphere felt awkward. Gloom was gathering in the room.

“Well, it was good to meet you, Mr…….”

“Mahon – Ignatius Mahon. The children called me Iggy – when they thought I wasn’t listening. Good evening, sir!”

It felt like a dismissal, so he made his way out, quietly pulling the door shut, as if the school were still a functioning building.

Twilight followed him down the hill as the ditches got higher. There were no lights in any of the houses he passed, and he was glad to see the cousin’s house with all its signs of life as he rounded the bend in the lane.

He took off his boots in the yard, and as Angela opened the door, the smell of cooking hit the cooling air. Behind him he heard his cousin coming up from the barn, the dog scratching its way to the shed where it knew a dish would be waiting for it.

“Now!” said Angela, ushering him  through the kitchen and to the table, ready set, in front of the  picture window that looked down to the Lake. She always sat him for the view.

“Ye must have smelled the food from up above there! Ye can tell us all about your day over the meal. Will ye have a Guinness with it?”

Without waiting for an answer, she opened the can and brought it through with a glass, setting them both down on the table in front of him.

Pat came through and sat beside him.

“Good day then? Grand weather for it – were ye up on the mountain?”

“Aye – on the top road up towards Arigna and then over the bog and round the back.”

“Ye could do that and meet not a soul!”

“I came back down by the old school…”

“Did ye?”

“It’s in fantastic condition – when did it close?”

“Oh, let me see – must have been the mid 70s I suppose. Sure it’s out of the way up there, nobody would bother with it.  Angela – he’s been up at the old national school…..”

Angela sat down with her meal.

“Oh it’s nice up there – Pat’s mammy and daddy went there, didn’t they Pat?”

“They did, yeh. It was a busy place back in the fifties – kids went there from both sides of the mountain. In those days it would be the only way you’d meet anyone from over the back. That’s how mammy and daddy met – 5 year olds at school, and twenty years later they were married!”

“I never realised that – so our granddads would have gone there too?”

“They would have, yeh! It was a good school, pupils from there did well – though ye would think they’d have spent all their time looking at the views out the window.  The amazing thing is – it was open for over a hundred years – and only ever had three teachers! The original was a McPartland – fierce reputation he had, even years later.

When I started school I went down in town, because the school up there, it was quite a small roll then, and they always said it would be closing. But there was a woman teacher, Josie Reynolds, – she spent her whole career teaching there  – forty years. They said it would stay open  while she was teacher there because they were scared if they tried to close it she would have been down in Marlborough St, giving out to the Department. Right enough, it closed the year after she retired.

She’d started in the 1930s – took over from The Master – Ignatius Mahon. He was another legend, kids were terrified of him. I remember old lads down in McGovern’s shaking when they talked about him  – fifty years later, but they all thought he was grand altogether.”

“ The 1930’s? What happened to Mahon?”

“Well, he wouldn’t retire, the job was all he had, they said. He must have been still teaching when he was in his seventies. And he died up there. Saw the kids out at the end of a teaching day, closed the doors, sat down, and died.

Luckily, it was a Friday or the kids would have found him the next morning. As it was, Mossy Linehan from below, PJ’s dad that would be, he was passing on the Saturday morning and saw a window was open. He went in to close it and found him. ‘Twas a huge wake apparently – as I say, one of those teachers who terrified everyone but they all  thought he was a great lad. Aye – they all respected Iggy.  Different times!”

It was warm in the room with the heat from the stove, but there were goosebumps on his arms and sweat in the small of his back. If the echoes of children could be sensed around the schoolrooms, why not the teacher?

He took a drink and looked out of the window.

Far below, the last of the light was catching the waters on the Lake. In the gloom,  it looked like there was movement, people on the water, but it was difficult to tell.

It was like that here: you would never know.

Fit for Life

November 15, 2016

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Through Hibernian’s Community links with Lothian Health Board, and various other GameChanger initiatives, the idea of being “fit for life” has become a prominent part of the Club’s progressive development over the past couple of years.

Whilst health checks for spectators are now a common event at Easter Rd Stadium, through the partnership with “Living it Up”, health support for the players is also a priority. The Sports Medicine and  Science departments at the Hibernian Training Centre play a major role in the development of Hibs’ players at all levels, and the Development Squad Education and Welfare Programme also seeks to encourage the younger players to be aware of good practice in their own health habits.

As well as physical fitness, mental wellbeing is a crucial part of being a successful sportsman or woman, and so earlier this month, the education programme  topic, focusing on mental health, was of great importance.

Steve Mathers, of Penumbra Scotland, visited the squad to raise awareness of mental health issues and encourage the importance of seeking help and support. The players heard that adolescent males, as well as elite sports performers, were statistically at risk of mental illness, but, generally,  one in three of us can be affected by such issues in our lifetime, and at any given moment 20% of young people in this country have mental health issues.

He gave an outline of symptoms and of the treatment which is available, and warned against “bottling it up”. “To share the problem and seek help is a sign of bravery, rather than weakness”, he added, and pointed out that the sooner these issues were confronted, the less chance there was of them having a  major impact on our lives. Whether we had to deal with these challenges ourselves, or to support friends or family who were struggling, the key to improvement and renewed wellbeing was to share and seek support.

Footballers who have identified themselves as needing support include Stan Collymore, Andy Cole, Clarke Carlisle, and Paul Gascoigne, and, as Steve pointed out, Hibernian’s Head Coach, Neil Lennon has also spoken out on the issue, as well as being linked with “See Me”, the organisation which fights to end mental health stigma and discrimination.

In a wide ranging interview on the subject, referring to depression and its effects on a professional sportsman, Lennon has said: “I woke up one morning and I just knew there wasn’t something right with me. My thought process was different, I was feeling different, the main thing was the football, I just didn’t want to be there.”

Recently, the English FA reported a 20% rise in mental health issues amongst professional footballers and  FIFPro, the international players’ union, suggested from their surveys that between 3 and 9 players in a 25 man squad  could show symptoms of common mental disorders such as distress, anxiety or depression during a season, and that one in three footballers could experience similar during their career. Robbie Neilson, Hearts’ Head Coach, and former Hibs stalwart, Ian Murray, along with PFA Scotland, have worked hard to raise awareness of this growing issue in Scotland, especially within the football community.

During the session, Steve Mathers said: “It is important  that young players, like all youngsters know there is support available, and they are not expected to face depression or other illnesses alone.”

As Education and Welfare officer for Hibernian FC, part of my remit is to support young players who may be facing challenges above and beyond the pressures of playing for a top level football club. Whilst, to many, the idea of being signed to a professional club equates with  “living the dream”, it has to be recognised that the pursuit of success at the highest level brings its own pressures and stresses. In addition, we must remember that, apart from their football careers, these young men are going through all the normal development associated with adolescence, starting a new job, and perhaps moving away from home for the first time.

In addition, in a purely footballing sense, a player suffering anxiety or depression is unlikely to be able to perform consistently at his optimum level.

Scotland’s males traditionally find it difficult to express their emotions and discuss their anxieties, and the environment of a sports dressing room, with its competitiveness and drive to succeed, does not always make for the easiest atmosphere in which to admit to worries or concerns.

I believe a football club has a responsibility for the young people who wear its strip – not just in terms of their footballing progress but also in their personal development. Our education programme seeks to provide the kind of support young players may have received had they stayed on at school instead of pursuing a football career.

They need to know that support and advice for them is available at every level at the football club, and that being brave enough to share concerns is every bit as important as standing up to a determined forward, or launching a crucial tackle.

The current squad are a fine set of lads of whom  any club would be proud, and they deserve the best in the way of support and guidance.

Leeann Dempster, Hibs CEO, has pointed out that football can reach parts of the community which other agencies cannot – that is the point behind the GameChanger initiative. Hopefully, raising awareness of mental health issues amongst our development squad will lead to a positive attitude amongst them – for themselves and others – in knowing how to admit to any anxieties and sharing them to help maintain positive mental health. They can be ambassadors – within the game and in their own communities – to shed light on what is becoming an increasing problem for Scotland’s young people.

Many thanks again to Penumbra Scotland, Steve Mathers, SAMH, See Me, PFA Scoltand and all who have supported the campaign to raise awareness and remove the stigma attached to mental illness.

http://www.penumbra.org.uk/  https://www.seemescotland.org/  http://www.breathingspacescotland.co.uk

Capturing a moment

October 26, 2016

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How to review a film like “Time for Heroes” – Hibernian FC’s DVD celebrating their 2016 Scottish Cup victory?

Certainly not in a detached manner for this writer, whose family connections with the club go back to 1895.

But then, football clubs, and the love they attract, are founded on passion, partisanship, and a gloriously crazy commitment which at times can be almost totally removed from reality.

So Sky television’s James Matthews, an Edinburgher, well aware of the Hibs’ supporters’ expectations, was tasked with producing and directing this record of an historic event, whilst at the same time trying to capture the emotions generated in the city and far beyond by events at Hampden Park on May 21st 2016. If there was pressure on the players to  end a 114 year hoodoo, think of the pressure  on the production team to produce a film which accurately and fully encapsulates an event which thousands considered  “the greatest day of my life”!

The package contains two discs: Disc 2 is a re-run of the complete match, which, one would imagine, will receive more than a few plays during this year’s Christmas festivities. The other disc takes the form of a documentary, guiding the viewer through the successes and the tensions of the Cup run which took “the first to wear the green” all the way to their date with destiny on the south side of Glasgow.

Malonga’s goal at Starks Park against Raith; the unbelievable tension of two Derby ties against our closest rivals- with a brilliant last minute fight back at Tynecastle, and Cummings’ early goal in the replay; Stokes’ double on a wild night by the Moray Firth to dismiss Inverness Caley Thistle in another replay; and then the Roy of the Rovers fantasy of Conrad Logan, the man from Donegal, parachuting in to become the unlikely hero of a hard fought semifinal, and a pulsating penalty shoot out, against Dundee United.

This is standard fare for any celebratory DVD. What intensifies the impact of this particular coverage is the skilful use of interviews interspersed with the action.

All the interviewees are relaxed and natural and their passion for the club and their role within it is evident.

Supporters often confuse the personal character of the players with the role they play on the pitch, or judge them as people on the sound bites contained in the match build up and analysis.

On occasion, it is true: “what you see is what you get”, in “real life”, but there is a subtlety about the presentation of those interviewed in this film which gives the viewer an insight into the men wearing the famous green and white shirts.

Darren McGregor, Kevin Thomson and Paul Hanlon can’t hide their love for the Hibs. Long serving Lewis Stevenson’s humility shines through. Similarly self effacing, John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch, and Liam Henderson’s awe and excitement at what they and the team achieved belies their calm authority on the pitch. It is fascinating to become aware of the respect for the club so quickly gained by the English players Liam Fontaine and Marvin Bartley, and the calm determination of Fraser Fyvie and James Keatings.

Goal scoring hero, Anthony Stokes, who came good at exactly the right time, speaks with obvious enjoyment of the whole experience and a delight that he was part of it.

David Gray exudes confidence as befits the club skipper and crucial goal scorer, whilst Jason Cummings ……is just Jason Cummings! Conrad Logan speaks with the experience he has gathered through his career – and you realise he was probably the calmest person in the stadium during that epic semifinal.

We often talk of the Hibernian Family of supporters but it is notable how many of these players refer to their own families and the importance of their children, partners, and parents being able to share in their success. The humour which comes from a squad comfortable with each other is never far away either.

At one point George Craig, Director of Football Operations, and Chief Executive, Leeann Dempster, talk about the decision to appoint Alan Stubbs. They were both instantly sure he was the right fit for the rebuilding job required at Hibs.

Talking throughout this film, Stubbs demonstrates that quiet ability which gave the squad belief and ended the 114 year wait for Cup glory. Whether in his reflections looking back, or in the snatched footage of team talks on the pitch or at the team hotel, his authority, and the respect he receives from his players, is clearly evident.

Coach John Doolan also shines brightly in this tale of hard won success. Can anyone previously have understood Hibernian as quickly and completely as John did? Many fans have tales of his passion for the club and his bond with the support, and to listen to his interviews is a joyous reminder of both.

As coverage of the Final itself approaches, Hibs’ inclusivity is further highlighted with moments to remember. John Doolan’s dad, who died in the days leading up to the Final, is recalled, we see our oldest fan, the late Sam Martinez, and even Tom and Joyce McCourt of the kit room are recognised for their tireless commitment to the club.

The roller coaster Final is well covered, as are the dressing room celebrations afterwards, carrying on back to Edinburgh, and into the next day. The players’ joy is palpable, but, as many of them commented, it would take 24 hours or so to fully comprehend what they had achieved.

A feature of the Cup Final coverage – as is the case throughout all the Cup run action – is the focus on the supporters: so many faces, so many emotions, the singing, the chanting, the expectation, the despair, the hope – and finally the unmitigated joy of the realisation: “We’ve only gone and done it, we’ve only won the Scottish Cup.” Sunshine on Leith indeed.

The same goes for the amazing scenes in Edinburgh the next day, as player after player confesses their bewilderment at quite how much the Hibs meant to so many thousands of people -on the streets and in tenement windows, from the Royal Mile to Leith Walk, and in their masses on Leith Links. The footage from the open topped bus brings back to the viewer the enormity of the occasion – physically and emotionally.

Sir Tom Farmer talks of his grandfather and his brother who had placed the Cup on the sideboard in their Leith flat back in the day, Rod Petrie savours the moment with fifteen minutes to go when the crowd at Hampden decided to lift the team to victory, and Leeann Dempster talks of the impact of such success.

And in the background, surrounded by trophies and souvenirs, is the face of the greatest of them all, Gordon Smith – how could he be left out of such a production?

One thing this film will do will be to convince you of how much the people who run Hibernian FC care about the club, its traditions, and its supporters. It well demonstrates the growing unity between support and team, and it is a fitting tribute to, and record of, an occasion which will live forever in the memory of those who were there.

Of course, the faithful will lap up this superbly produced souvenir of the time of their lives – but its audience is wider than that.

When enjoying the excellent drone footage of a floodlit Easter Rd set against the Forth, or swirling above Hampden Park on May 21st, it is impossible, as the shot closes in on the pitch, not to remember those who have gone before and never witnessed this triumph, those who cheered the team before us, the ones who passed on the faith – they are never far from the atmosphere in this well crafted film.

And finally, realising that more than a few family members and friends who are not Hibs or football supporters will find themselves sat down in front of this DVD come Christmas Day, the film has one additional triumph.

It succeeds in the almost impossible task of capturing a moment in history and what it meant to so many people, and it does so in a gentle, joyful, thoughtful and evocative manner. It does feel like being there all over again.

Because of this, it gives a gift to those non-supporters – those who selflessly give up time with partners, loved ones, and friends each weekend so they can pursue their love affair with Hibernian FC – and the gift it gives them is an insight into why we are so besotted with our team.

It captures the magic, it explains the dream, and it reflects who we are.

“Time for Heroes” said the banner at Hampden – and heroes are in this film – on and off the pitch, in the stands, and in the production team.

Well done to all.

You have to go on

October 21, 2016
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School finished at 3.30. There was a train at 3.44, which you might catch if you got out on time and ran all the way to the station. Otherwise, it was 4.03. There seemed a big difference between arriving home at 4.10 and 4.35.

Such are the steadily accumulated, long remembered, routines of your schooldays.

That Friday, I was home by 4.15.

My Mother was ironing, in the familiar place in front of the television.

But something was different.

She had moved the angle of the ironing board, and the television was switched on.

I had never seen the old black and white set in action before 5 o’clock on a weekday. I’m not even sure if there were any programmes broadcast at that time.

I looked at my mother.

As she ironed, her eyes stayed fixed on the flickering images displayed on the small screen surrounded by dark wood and brown plastic.

I looked at the television. I could not translate the images. There was black and grey and crowds of people. I made out a roof, a mountain, and a black trail like a half finished road

“What is it? What’s happened?”
“It’s a school in Wales, a slag heap has collapsed on it. They think a lot of children may be buried”.

Even looking again at the flickering screen, it was hard to understand what had happened. Realisation slowly dawned over the next day or two, as the television news kept appearing at strange times, and people kept digging and clawing at the slurry, and the estimates of the dead kept rising.

I was only 14, but It wasn’t the first time a major tragedy had impacted on me. Three years before, standing in the same spot on another Friday, my homework completed, (there’s another school routine) I stared at the BBC’s spinning globe and asked what was happening. Tears in her eyes, my mother told me President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

I suppose that’s how we learn initially that, even if we have blue skies in childhood, cloudy days will litter our adult lives

The books tell me that the Sixties were a fun time to be young. I couldn’t disagree – but they also gave us the Skopje earthquake, the killings of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the nightly news from Vietnam, and, into the Seventies, Kent State, and the Troubles in Ireland. So the “love and peace” generation grew up in an atmosphere of episodic tragedy, as well as newly won youth “freedoms”.

Just as well, I suppose, that we were prepared in some way for Ibrox, Hillsborough, Heysel and Bradford; for Dunblane, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Paris, Brussels, and so many more.

Dunblane and Sandy Hook resonate starkly still, and always will, – because of the children, their age, and my career as a teacher. If I’m honest, Dunblane was so unimaginable, so close, and so raw, that I don’t think I’ve ever really coped with the shock of what happened there – that terrifyingly inhuman display of apparently human depravity.

But the awfulness of Aberfan – possibly as my first realisation that people younger than I could leave home in the morning and not return – has never really left me.

Living in west Lancashire, we received some news bulletins in Welsh, by train the Welsh border was only about 45 minutes away, we studied geography there, played sport against Welsh schools.

But it wasn’t geographical proximity that gave Aberfan its lasting horror, it was the closeness of familiar routine. As a pupil, and as a teacher, classrooms, rows of desks, assemblies, timetables, movement along corridors – for fifty years of my life – these were all my daily environs, so second nature to me that I was hardly aware of my surroundings or actions. I loved school and I loved teaching; it was a positive choice to spend my life in schools, and one I never regretted. How could you not enjoy watching children grow to young adults, supporting them, and their families?

So what was happening at Pant Glas junior school that October Fridaymorning in 1966 was too easy to imagine and understand – the silence descending on classes where the lessons had been set up and started, the occasional child in a corridor sent on an errand, the headmistress in her office, planning that lunchtime’s pre-holiday assembly – about keeping safe, heads bowed over desks concentrating on tasks, the contained excitement of half term approaching, the looks at friends, the searching for a sharpener, the odd sneeze or cough or creaking seat.

All of that is only too easy to see – even across fifty years.

What is harder, really too hard to contemplate, is the mounting roar of released slurry and slag, the heads raised in incomprehension, and the final momentary silence when the classrooms were buried. As so many have said this week in Aberfan. “It’s not right that that should happen to young children at school”

But, in the perspective of fifty years, a lifetime really, what are my generation to make of Aberfan, our memories of grainy grey television pictures, of blank uncomprehending faces, of tough miners in tears, of men in suits being interviewed, of the unbelievably buried school buildings, of the inexorably rising death toll, of all those pale faces, stretched tautly with sorrow and dawning realisation?

Like the seven tips which loomed over the village – part of the scene but routinely invisible, Aberfan has remained part of our growing up, briefly coming into view on anniversaries, during other tragedies, or in the rising tones of Welsh choral music, heard as from another room. When we stood in bitter cold, collecting for the miners and their families during the Strike, the symbiotic link between coal mining and disaster hovered above us, the inevitable fog over an industrial landscape.

What are we to make of it now? Has the horror been landscaped by the constant refurbishment of full lives led, and new memories forged? Or does something of the original view linger on?

I think my generation learned from Aberfan.

We learned from the reactions of the Coal Board, of Lord Robens, and the Labour Government and Welsh Office of the time that human grief and dignity do not outweigh the Establishment’s need to cover up and excuse its operatives. We received a clear indication that compassion, like everything else, is frequently costed by politicians in money spent against votes won.

We understood that generally disasters were not caused by a malevolent God or by nature alone, but through human error, neglect, or plain ignorance – and that those in power were often loathe to admit that reality.

As a result, my generation has had a basic mistrust of government and those who manipulate our lives through its actions. If anything came from the Aberfan disaster and its aftermath, it was a generation who would not give up – not on Blair Peach, Hillsborough. Bradford, Orgreave, or other miscarriages of justice or incompletely processed inquiries. And the more we have battered away at the certainties of the Establishment, the more we have discovered that our first suspicions were often to be proved true.

It was a generation that spawned folk like Mike Mansfield QC and Gareth Pierce, Ian McBride and Ray Fitzwalter and their dogged investigations for “World in Action”, and many “ordinary folk”, like those in Aberfan, who, often without publicity or widespread support, refused to give up in their search for the truth after losing loved ones.

We were the generation sandwiched between that unquestioning post war acceptance of authority – as a relief after the mayhem of conflict, and the twenty first century’s mixture of apathy, antipathy, and unfocused rage.

For me, Aberfan and its people were a graphic and awful representation of the strength of community, the employment of core values and strengths in the face of unwarranted and unbearable disaster. These people were beyond being patronised, as, even whilst reeling from the loss of their children, they acted with dignity and honour and commonality. For my generation, they would always represent a chilling and unlooked for demonstration that, in defiance of a later political philosophy, there WAS such a thing as society.

The world moves on and changes and doesn’t always learn the hard won lessons of the past. In terms of communication, the means of getting help to the valley, and organising and coordinating support on that Friday, seem very basic to our modern eyes. However, in one area, a point was made which was later largely ignored.

This was, in essence, the first rolling news event of the television age in these islands – a situation where programme schedules were ignored and almost continuous news reporting was beamed into our living rooms. The weight of the occasion – 144 dead, 116 of them children – justified this new approach. The ongoing search, the digging and scrabbling, the strained faces of those who helped or who waited – it all cried out for reporting beyond the established structure of 6pm and 9pm news bulletins.

Yet to look at that mid 60’s journalism now – the studio based summaries and the live or filmed reports from the scene – is to understand that, in those earlier days of television, we perhaps had a better understanding of how it can be most effectively used. With sparse and understated comment, the reporters let the pictures talk, realising that words could add little to the enormity of what was unfolding before them. Even in the murkiness of monochrome pictures – perhaps even because of that – the tragedy was palpable, the helplessness of the rescuers, and their despair, etched in every face, the appalling gloom that hung over the valley portrayed eloquently in every long, silent, sweeping scan of the cameras. Clearly the newsmen had no words, and were secure enough to eschew any embarrassment at the fact.

We should have realised that tragedy supplies its own commentary, and, conversely, speculation, tangential information, and endless recaps, only weaken the power of the pictures, diminishing our ability to truly understand what we are witnessing. The articulacy of the people in Aberfan, their open grief and frustration, powerfully transmitted to viewers the scale of what had happened. The last thing that was needed was a running commentary. Humanity – stripped down and hurting – was pictured, not described. The pictures spoke, even – especially – when words were of limited capacity.

How strange that broadcasters instinctively understood that then, but seem unable to operate in the same effective manner fifty years later.

Teaching, back in the eighties, when studying war poetry, I used to make use of empty desks in the room. I would point to them and ask the class to imagine they were empty because the men who would have been the grandfathers of pupils sitting there were killed before they could become fathers. It was a poignant and easily understood point – that lives lost continue to reverberate down the years.

Both world wars left the country with lost generations, but how much sharper must be the pain in a small village community missing nearly 150 family members, most aged within three years of each other, or carrying the generational resonance of being local primary school teachers. The absence will have been visible through the years, at every event for young people, and then adolescents, eventually, middle aged people and, soon, older people. In Aberfan, this gap seems to have been accepted and ameliorated to some extent by fellow feeling, community action, and a determination. “You have to go on” has been a recurrent phrase in all the interviews aired this week.

I faced pupils and parents with individual tragedies at times in my career, and the example of Aberfan helped me, I hope, towards empathy and understanding. It was one of the pointers for me in seeking to carry out my job with concern and respect for others and sensitivity for their feelings, a lesson in listening and hearing.

There was much to learn from what happened in Aberfan, and those lessons have followed my generation for a lifetime.

We learned that there is unimagined strength in communities who work together, and that it is the duty of authority to listen to those it seeks to control.

Never has it been more true that the people united will never be defeated – not even by a moving mountain of grief.

We don’t forget.

NÍ NEART GO CUR LE CHÉILE – there is no strength without Unity

October 8, 2016

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I read two pieces on Gaelic football this week – one by Darragh Ó Sé in the Irish Times; the other by Cahair O’Kane in the Irish News.

The basis of the Kerry man’s column was that Dublin were successful, and deserved to be, not because of a superior sense of entitlement as the biggest and richest county, but, conversely, because they have the humility to realise what they have to do to win, and the dedication to do it.

To those of us who support counties with records far below that of Dublin, it was a hard point to accept. It’s always easier to dismiss high flying sports teams rather than compliment them on their successes. However, Ó Sé’s advocacy was as rumbustious as his performances on the field for the Kingdom, and, in truth, just as hard to resist.

In essence, he was saying: “stop grumbling and get out there and do what ye have to do to win”. It could have been Paudí speaking.

O’Kane, on the other hand, writing in the aftermath of nine players withdrawing from the Derry panel for next season, took an entirely different, but sadly familiar, tack.

To him, it’s all rather pointless, when, realistically, more than twenty counties will never win anything – either at provincial or national level. He, rightly, pointed out the commitment needed from amateur players in what has become a game with a professional approach: three, four or more nights a week training, the travel, the emotional and physical toll inter county, and even club, football can take on a player’s life.

Even if you belong to a traditional “GAA Family”, who will at least understand your passion for the game, you could almost write off your adolescence and your twenties in terms of a regular social life or the building of relationships outside of the game.
Does he have a point? – Well, yes – if you believe the GAA is only about winning.

However, everything I know about the game suggest otherwise.
My home county of Leitrim is barely on distant terms with Sam Maguire – he may have stopped off a few times on his way to Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh or Mayo, but he would hardy be classed as a familiar presence around Lough Allan. Indeed, even his wee cousin, the JJ Nestor Cup, awarded to the Connacht Champions, has only visited twice – in 1927 and 1994.

But, there is more to be said.

I referred to my “home county” of Leitrim. The reality is that my grandfather left the county in the late 19th century – yet the connection remains, and in some ways, is most powerfully represented when I see the green and gold shirts of Leitrim in action – whether in Pairc Sean at Carrick, Ruilsip in London, or in Gaelic Park in New York.

There are a range of moments which demonstrate the power of the GAA and its impact on people – far beyond winning performances.

I remember meeting Colm Clarke of Drumkeerin GAA after Mass, one Sunday morning in 2009. His family had once farmed the land my family had farmed all those years ago. When he scored an opening goal for Leitrim that afternoon against near neighbours, Roscommon, in Pairc Sean MacDiarmada, the feeling was almost indescribable: a connection you would never get in elite professional sports.

Then, in New York to see Leitrim play at Gaelic Park in 2013, there was the unbelievable sight of St Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue packed out with Leitrim tops at Mass, and after the game at Gaelic Park, a stranger seeing our jerseys on 8th Avenue and stopping us to ask “How did the lads do today?”

Last week, I felt tears at the picture I was sent of a used GAA goalkeeper’s jersey. It was from our Edinburgh GAA club, Dunedin Connolly’s, and my son had worn it as a substitute towards the end of the team’s county final. Over a century after the family left Leitrim, there, again, is the connection – and how proud am I of Patrick, in his late twenties, taking up Gaelic Football, and so enjoying the craic and banter of his new club mates who are from all parts of Ireland.

There’s that connection again.

As I write this, flags are being flown, boots cleaned, kit and gear being prepared by the players and folk of Drumkeerin, our homeplace, – and by supporters all round the world – as they look forward to Sunday’s Intermediate County Final against Ballinamore/Seán O’Heslin’s. Quite simply, the town will be there to support the Pride of the Parish, and that includes those of us who are far away.

It’s easy to be sentimental about the GAA, and to ignore its many failings, but there’s nothing soft or easy about training in car headlights on a wind and rainswept field in the darkness of early Autumn or late winter, or in carrying the hopes of a community when you put on the geansaí. The GAA is often the mainstay of village or town life – when politics and media may seem distant and irrelevant to the folk who live in the remote west or north of the country, the shouts coming from the field will remind them of what is important – neighbours, mutual support, pride in where you come from. It’s about love of your homeplace – whether its outside the door or at the end of a plane trip.

One last scene may explain the importance of the GAA more clearly than another thousand words.

I live in a western suburb of Edinburgh, Scotland’s Capital. It is a predictable mix of neat bungalows and well tended lawns, the epitome of city life in modern Scotland. A couple of weeks ago, just before the All Ireland Senior Football Final, I passed a house in the street next to ours that had a flag flying. It was a Mayo flag. It flew right through the time between the Final and the Replay. Far from the waves on Achill, or the streets of Westport or Castlebar, a Mayoman, or woman, was flying the flag for the county – in this most unlikely of settings.

On the Saturday night after the replay, I passed the house again, the flag was still there, a little limp after the result, perhaps, but the whole front of the house was lit up in red and green. And I’m sure you would have found the same thing on every continent.

That’s the point of GAA football, that’s why the players do it, make the sacrifices, accept the likelihood of finishing with little glory and no medals. They do it for their families, neighbours, friends and the parish. They do it because they care about where they come from. They do it for all of us who cannot.

Come Sunday, I’ll be wearing every bit of Drumkeerin gear I can find; I’ll be glued to the updates and willing success to Kevie Forde, Colm Clarke, Jason and Patrick Byrne and all the lads. If they win I’ll be proud of all of them. If they lose I’ll be proud of all of them – because they ARE Drumkeerin.

Winning is important – but it’s far from everything.

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Sea Birds Flying

September 16, 2016

Three songs made me cry when, eventually, and after many years, I first heard them performed live – “Sounds of Silence” sung by Paul Simon, “God only knows” from Brian Wilson, and “Wichita Lineman” performed by Glen Campbell on his farewell tour

All three songs had been part of my life for forty years or more, but none of them had a special association for me, other than teenage memories. The tears were a reaction produced by the “perfectness” of the songs – the words, notes, production and the atmosphere they created.

They were like an automatic release of emotion in some recognition of the role that music can play in our lives. When it feels “right” it can almost take control of us.

This week, another song had the same effect, but for different reasons.

From “Wichita Lineman” onwards, the songs of Jimmy Webb have always affected me. There’s something about his lyrics, his arrangements, his subject matter, which seems, almost literally, to strike a chord. Just as Karen Carpenter’s voice and the arrangements of their songs made the Carpenters’ music attractive to folk who would normally eschew anything remotely middle of the road, so the combination of Webb’s words, music, and production has long delivered songs to be wondered at and admired – irrespective of one’s other musical tastes.

So I took the chance to go and see Jimmy Webb In concert at Dunfermline’s Carnegie Hall this week – a conscious decision to see him at a compact venue rather than in the bigger Glasgow Royal Music Hall later on in the week.

His current tour is based on the songs he wrote for Glen Campbell – a kind of tribute to the star who is now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. As such, we knew the songs would be familiar, and the anecdotes fascinating.

He came out, sat at the piano, and played “Galveston”. He played it in the originally conceived mournful style, rather than the more martial production familiar from Campbell’s hit single.

And the tears came.

When I was 17, my pal, Peter, from Dublin, had a battery powered record player. During our holidays in Kilkee, Co Clare, we would take the machine and a few “singles records” out to the west of the town, to an area below the cliffs, called the Diamond Rocks. It was a magical, ageless place with slabs of rock weathered through millennia by sea and wind, the Atlantic waves rolling out ahead, and a puffing hole spraying irregular surprises. You could not be there and not appreciate the grace, beauty and power of Nature.

In those far off days, long before the MP3 era of portable music, the song we played over and over again was “Galveston”. And why wouldn’t we – in that setting “Standing by the water, standing there looking out to sea”, hearing the “sea waves crashing”? It was, I suppose, a typically 60s teenage response to beauty.

The song fitted the scene before us perfectly. “You could make a film here”, I said, still ignorant of the fact that, only months before, David Lean’s Second Unit Director, Roy Stevens, had shot scenes here for the famous storm in “Ryan’s Daughter”.

Nor did I know that the previous year, in a predictably wild interlude between recording “A Tramp Shining” containing Webb’s “McArthur Park”, and the follow up album collaboration “The Yard went on forever”, Richard Harris had brought Jimmy Webb here, in his favourite holiday spot, and referred to the “Galveston” lyrics.

What were the chances of that?

At the time the song’s civil war or Viet Nam connotations were vague to us. It was a good song and fitted a favourite spot. We played it all the time that summer.

So I had started this week in a state of high anticipation: seeing Jimmy Webb, at last after all these years, would be a huge tick on the bucket list.

Then, on Monday, came the news that an Irish Coastguard volunteer, Caitríona Lucas, had drowned near the Diamond Rocks, while involved in a search and recovery mission

It has been a heartbreaking event for people in Kilkee, and in Liscannor nearby where Caitríona and her family lived. Her husband was also a Coastguard volunteer, and she worked in local libraries. She was well known, loved and admired.

And so, when Jimmy Webb played the opening, mournful chords of “Galveston “, I was, as always, transported to the Diamond Rocks, to that place of terrible beauty forged out of the unfeeling power of the sea. The impact of that song, and those emotions, in this week of all weeks, was quite overwhelming, the coincidence sharply felt. That my first time seeing Jimmy Webb should happen in the week when my associations with one of his songs took on such sadness was hard to believe.

And I thought of Caitríona, her friends and family, and all who were devastated by Monday’s events, and of David McMahon, for whom they had been searching, and as the tears came, I recognised that “Galveston” will forever now mean something different to me.

As will the Diamond Rocks.

And I hope the soaring notes, the beauty of the music, and the memories they bring me will help to celebrate the life of giving which Caitríona practised, and will, somehow, exhalt the human spirit she possessed in such amazing and compassionate quantities.

The magnificence of music can link together for me a country boy from Arkansas, a songwriter of genius from Oklahoma, and a wonderful woman from Liscannor, Co Clare.

And as the notes rise and thrill, I know they carry her spirit over the cliffs and ocean that she loved, and I pray her loved ones find solace in her inspiration, which, like the music, will last forever.

Looking out for Kilkee

September 13, 2016

I first visited the seaside resort of Kilkee, Co Clare, one August, exactly fifty years ago.

The town and its people claimed my heart in a way that I still find hard to describe, and it has been part of my existence ever since, accompanying me on my journey from teenager through middle age to the present. I’ve probably written more about Kilkee than any other topic, and I continue to do so.

Maybe everybody has an affection for the holiday places of their childhood, but, from my own experiences, and reading the internet, Kilkee seems to exercise a firmer grip on the emotions than most places. Maybe it’s the beauty of its surroundings, its horseshoe bay, its cliffs and walks, its remaining Victorian splendour, or the ever present power and beauty  of the sea upon which it depends for its existence.

I recently published a memoir of my times in the town in the 1960s, partially in an attempt to demystify its attraction – or at least to better understand it, and the answer I came up with – apart from personal memories – was the combination of its people and the sea  – which shapes so much of its personality as a place of welcome,  calm in the midst of such maritime majesty; a place where gentle waves can leave ripples in the sand, while, outside the reef, at the entrance to the Bay, the wild ocean gouges caves out of rocky cliffs, and belittles human endeavour in its eternal ebb and flow.

The year before, I published a novel, based in a fictionalised version of the town and extrapolating from a drowning in the bay which I had witnessed back in the early 1970s. It always seemed to me that the town and marine tragedy were inevitably linked – for all the decades of happiness the place gave to generations of holiday making  families. The first place I hunted for sea life on my first morning in the town turned out to be called Edmond Point, in commemoration of a fatal shipwreck there in the 19th Century. Further on, out along the much loved walk to the Diamond Rocks and Lookout Hill, was Intrinsic Bay – with waters foaming at the bottom of sheer cliffs where another ship had been lost over a hundred years ago.

Yesterday, news sources showed lines of people on top of the cliffs by Intrinsic Bay, a familiar red and white rescue helicopter – 115 from Shannon – hovered overhead. In attempting to recover a fatality from an earlier disaster, a man who was a teacher from the inland village of Lissycasey, volunteer coastguard units from Kilkee and Doolin had been sweeping the area beneath the cliffs in RIBs. One of the inflatables had been overturned as it started to head back to base; there had been two injured and a fatality. Caitriona Lucas, from Liscannor, up the coast, a  mother of two, whose partner was also a volunteer coastguard, had lost her life in the service of others, the first Irish Coastguard member to die on duty. When not serving the public as a coastguard volunteer, she served them as an assistant in  various branches of the Clare County Library.

The sea around KIlkee had reminded us, as it  all too frequently does, that its beauty is forged at a human cost.

My reaction came in a familiarly ordered sequence. “Disaster off Irish Coast” morphed to “disaster off west coast” and finally, through my mounting apprehension,  to “disaster at Kilkee”. Knowing the spot, knowing the folk who live there, having watched as the local community fought  to set up their own volunteer Rescue Centre, the awful news hit home hard. I don’t know many folk in Kilkee these days, but I knew many of their parents or grandparents, and, more than that, I know and feel for the community. It’s not too strong to suggest it is a community I love.

Later on the News came Manuel Di Lucia – a familiar figure throughout all of my connection to Kilkee, a man who, perhaps more than anyone, knows the seas around Kilkee, and has spent  a lifetime promoting diving, boating, fishing and, above all, rescue facilities in the town.  Although the public had no details yet, it was clear that he knew those involved in the disaster. He was visibly upset, but, as I had first witnessed all the years ago in the seventies, he exhibited the calm determination of local people to deal with what the sea had thrown at them, and get on with the business of supporting each other and seeking to learn from the latest calamity. That’s what they do in Kilkee – whether the sea sends them fish, seafood, storms, tourism, or death – they stoically continue their coexistence with their marvellous, awe inspiring, cruel and beautiful neighbour.  They support each other and they live their lives circumscribed by a sea they can neither control nor fully understand, but for which they have respect and a kind of fierce love.

When I came to publish my memoir on Kilkee, it was the folk at Clare County Libraries, where Caitriona worked, who supportively gave permission for me to use an old Hinde postcard as the book’s front cover – a typically technicoloured beach scene from the mid sixties, with families on the strand and a flat sea lapping at seaweed and rocks. It’s a perfect cover for happy memories – but, looking at it today, I can see it only reflects one part of Kilkee’s story.

I never knew Caitriona, her family or friends, but it is easy to mourn for her sacrifice, for the loving and giving person she most obviously was, for the gaping hole left in her family and community,     and amongst her brave coastguard colleagues.

But my deeper, and perhaps more legitimate, grief is for Kilkee, its people, and their knowledge that tragedy has visited paradise once again. I wish them continuing strength, that strength they have always shown, in accepting that the sea’s beauty brings the sea’s sadness.

So many folk around the world will be grieving for them and with them today.

I hope they can feel that love.