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Making a difference

April 20, 2015

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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From a table in the corner

March 9, 2015

Dingle-Skellig-Hotel-and-Peninsula-Spa-6b5f2833-9d5d-4b0d-ad57-ceda49e8629aFor most people, aside from seasoned business travellers, I expect hotels are pretty personal things. They are, or should be, home from home, stress busting venues, and repositories of family holiday history. They offer shelter and, hopefully, hospitality, but they also build dreams and memories.

It’s a tall order for fulfillment – and different hotels around the world attempt to meet expectations in different ways. There is exclusivity, opulence, size, location, staffing, and ‘themed house style’ as well as a variety of other marketing approaches. Perhaps one of the joys of holiday making is for the guest to seek a hotel which seems to meet expectations – in price, atmosphere, and welcome – and, having identified it, discovering it is all he hoped it would be.

Happy the traveller who finds his hopes fulfilled.

I first visited Dingle in west Kerry in 1971. It would be nice to report I was drawn westward – as far west as you can get in Europe – by my love of the Irish language in this Gaeltacht area, its history, its people, and its stunning views – but all that came later, the truth is more prosaic, and a lot more artificial.

As a teenager I holidayed in Kilkee, Co Clare – and when we arrived there in 1970, the town was still abuzz with the news of the previous winter: the hotels had remained open all though the close season – occupied by film crews from MGM who were making a film down in Kerry. A second unit had been sent to Kilkee – to film a ‘storm’, and had waited around for the best part of nine months to get the right shots. The film was being made by the famous David Lean, Trevor Howard and John Mills had been in town – and already it was rumoured there would be Oscars.

I had long fallen in love with the west Clare coast, often thought it should be a location for film making on a grand scale, and, without knowing anything about the film currently in production, was delighted that the area would be seen on the big screen, and filmed by that genius of film making, David Lean.

The other news was that, in typically grand style, Lean had built an entire village on a mountain top in west Kerry as part of the ‘set’ for his epic. We thought this sounded interesting and waited for the film to appear with huge anticipation.

When “Ryan’s Daughter” emerged, later in the year, it garnered a mixed reception from critics – who largely felt the epic nature of its landscape and cinematography overwhelmed the simple tale, based on “Madame Bovary” of a girl’s dreams leading to infidelity and disaster. Forty years later, in context, it is more valued – and certainly treasured by a large number of ‘old fashioned’ movie buffs. When I saw the film for the first time, I was more concerned with the locations. It was brilliant to recognise well loved areas of west Clare on the panoramic screen, but the scenes on the Dingle Peninsula were nothing short of dazzling. If any partnership could bring beauty to the (very) big screen, it was Lean and his cinematographer, Freddie Young – who rightfully won an Oscar for his work on this production.

Returning to Kilkee for my holidays, I noted the impact the production had made on the town and area – financially and in infrastructure. Muddy paths out on to the cliffs were now cobbled, a trip down to the nearby Bridges of Ross uncovered some of the props used in the storm – still being cast up on the rocks and in the inlets of Goleen.

Dunquin, on the Dingle Peninsula, where much of the production was based, would have to be visited.

We hassled local taxi man, PJ King, into taking us down to Dingle and set off with great hopes of what we would find. In those days it was a long and winding journey, but we eventually arrived in Dingle, made enquiries, and set off into Corca Dhuibhne. More directions led us up a steep lane, surprisingly well constructed for a mountain track., with a style of cobble recognisable from the paths constructed in Clare..

Eventually, after a hard climb, we came to the top of the mountain, Carhoo, on Ballynahow Commons. The sight that met us was a cobbled village street, surrounded by the remains of demolition. The village had gone, but the street was identifiably still there – a bizarre sight in such a remote location. Those who have seen the film will testify as to the beauty of the location. Those who love film will understand the satisfaction of matching film fantasy with geographic reality: a strange sensation.

I picked up a fibre glass slate from one of the cottages, and identified each bit of the street: Ryan’s pub, the RIC Barracks, the platform where Moureen Cassidy and her pals hung out. Amazing to think of a year’s filming in this purpose built location; bizarre by the standards of today’s CGI productions.

From the end of the street I first gained a view which still makes my heart leap whenever I see it: the Blasket islands, sitting hunched against the wild Atlantic waves.

PJ, our taxi driver, after checking the suspension of the car, headed back down the mountain and stopped again to ask directions. We parked, and headed up past a couple of houses, over a gate, and crested a hill. In front of us, a strangely familiar view of those islands, and immediately beside us, the Schoolhouse from the film – only this location was intact and exactly as it had been in the film – inside and out. To stand in the schoolroom, or in the rooms where Bob Mitchum and Sarah Miles silenced out their creaking relationship, was another confusing moment – what was real and what was make believe? Sets built in this way – and this was a perfect reproduction of a National School from the 1880s, even to the boys and girls entrances, the cobbled playground, and the mangle in the garden – – play games with your senses. And, from the road in front of the school, there were those islands – hypnotic, and claiming attention and thought.

That was my introduction to west Kerry, and, in time, I would come to learn that the arrival of MGM and Faraway Productions – ‘the last of the travelling circuses’ as Lean termed it, had a life changing effect on Dingle and the surrounding villages. Their isolation was broken, millions of pounds were injected into the local economy, and, in a kind of Faustian moment, some of its Gaeltacht ‘purity’ was lost, but many locals who would have emigrated were enabled to stay, and save Dingle, in particular, from a slow decline. Tourism numbers leapt, as folk like myself saw ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ and wanted to visit its locations. Fishermen became motor mechanics, farmers became guest house hosts, the unemployed became construction workers. Life moved on in this western outpost.

Having been first attracted by the fantasy of film, I remained hooked by everything else that the real Corca Dhuibhne had to offer.

As a student, I visited as often as I could – a journey that started with a ferry from the UK and ended up with hitching out to the guest house in Dún Chaoin run by Kruger Kavanagh – an amazing local character. In his bar, surrounded by some of those who had left the Blasket in 1953, I started to learn Irish phrases, found out about the real locality as opposed to that created by David Lean, and, sometimes. I was served by another local who would become a legend, Paidí Ó Sé.

I discovered more of the film locations: Coumeenoule Strand, the rocky outcrop at Wayland – where still could be seen the rough track laid down to allow the bus to approach “Killins Cross” in the film, and then on to other pieces of scenic magic – Ventry Strand, Clogher Strand with its ever angry breakers, the impossible slope down to Cé Dhún Chaoin, and those trips out to the bewitching Blaskets with the echo of tradition in the tumbling stones of the village, and the near perfection of An Tra Ban. There was the spiritual calm of Gallarus’ Oratory and the experience of Mass in Irish at Ballyferriter – whose pubs were also welcoming – and another opportunity to acquire and practise some more Irish. As a teacher, I was inspired by the successful fight to save St Gobnait’s National School at Dunquin, and delighted to see how it prospers. Dingle itself – from Church to pubs to shops to quirky lanes and avenues was a delight, none more so than the place with a claim to be the best bookshop on earth: An Café Liteartha.

Soon, the road to Ceann Sléibhe became not only familiar but an integral part of my life, travelled regularly in my head when the world to the east proved challenging or stressful, the memory of waves crashing on Coumeenoule Strand, the uneven squares of green fields, carved out of rock, and running down to brown cliffs surrounded by turquoise breakers, providing an antidote to the worst that could be thrown at me in my ‘other world’.

As life progressed, job, family, and other responsibilities, limited my visits – though in my head and heart, I was never far away.

Eventually, it was time to go back, and to make the Corca Dhuibhne experience a family affair.

In the mid 1990s, with my wife and son, I booked for our first stay at the Dingle Skellig Hotel. I had known of it since I first came to these parts, and once, as a student, seeking a pint, had made my way as far as the car park before deciding it was a little too grand for the likes of me and retracing my steps to the town.

I suppose, like Rosy Ryan and the Major, in Lean’s epic, it was a case of love at first sight. The three of us felt immediately welcome, comfortable, and relaxed by all that the Skellig had to offer. From Reception, to Bar, to lounges, bedrooms, and leisure areas, there was an inescapable feeling of being in a ‘home from home’. If you were planning a hotel that you would want to keep returning to, year after year, this would be the one. Nothing is too much trouble for a staff who genuinely seem to wish you as good a stay as possible. Throughout the years, whenever we have returned – and it must be seven or eight visits now – we hear the conversations of staff welcoming back guests, enquiring about family members, pets, life events. Hospitality training and marketing can only go so far – the Skellig staff seem to have a genuine investment in making the hotel welcoming and suitable for all who choose to stay there. The hotel staff from Corca Dhuibhne are rightly proud of where they come from – they’ll give directions, share local knowledge, and greet you out in town. Staff from elsewhere show every sign of being aware of their good fortune in working in such a hotel in such an area.

None will pass without a greeting, nothing is too much trouble to arrange; days are enquired after, plans are supported, joys are shared.

A pint in front of the fire in the residents’ lounge, a meal in the bar, a session in the leisure centre or Spa, the entertainment for kids, or the social dancing for the older folk: all is arranged to engender the memories and inspiration that a hotel should strive to provide. You can sit quietly and reflect – or join in the craic with other residents or staff; you are given the space to shape your contentment.

The Skellig has succeeded through the years in pulling off that most difficult of balancing acts – to provide a top level hotel experience – in accommodation, customer service, and standards – whilst somehow embodying the innate and joyously informal hospitality of the area in which it operates. It’s like going through an open door to find an effusive and genuine welcome, a kettle on the boil, and a pot of stew ready to serve.

I love the Skellig and I love its staff. I used to think we were in a special and exclusive relationship – but, over the years, I’ve realised that there are people all over the world who, when they close their eyes and seek some port from the storms of daily life, are transported to the lounge or bar of the Skellig, or the winding road that heads for Slea Head.

Likewise, the efforts of David Lean, Freddie Young and Faraway productions have drawn thousands to this part of heaven, and still do – where Moureen Cassidy’s laugh echoes on Carhoo mountain, Fr Hugh’s hangover thunders on the rocks of Coumeenoule, the children shout in the Schoolhouse playground at Cill Gobnait, and poor Michael still blows into the horn of the phonograph in the gusting winds of Waymont at Graigue. These days I am quite content that the fantasy of film brought me to the serenity of nature.

One more point about the Skellig.

It first came to my notice when I learned that some of the crew and actors made the hotel their base during the extended, and not always harmonious, shooting schedule. Indeed, their long and high spending stay at the Skellig enabled the hotel to expand in all directions.

The Dining Room, or Coastguard Restaurant, boasts a view, on two sides, out into Dingle Bay – surely one of the finest views from any hotel dining room in the world. There is a corner table in the original dining room area with windows on two sides. This was known as “David Lean’s Table”. Though he had ’company’ for some of the time, he generally dined alone – not choosing to mix with cast or crew outside of working hours. With high end wines and carefully sourced haute cuisine, provided by local chef, John Moriarty, the great Director would sit and eat and think – looking out on that inspirational view, creating scenes for his epic, seeing nature with an editor’s photographic skills, translating emotions into pictures, reality into dreamland.

I love sitting at that table – prosaically, it must be said, for the best full Irish Breakfast available anywhere, but, in more poetic tones, because it is possible to share that same view, to imagine great visions, and be grateful that rather repressed, obsessive and idiosyncratic Englishman made the decisions – artistic, financial, and creative, that brought me to this piece of perfection. This is a table from which you can appreciate humanity and nature, life and art. And Breakfast!

Thank you, David Lean. Thank you Dingle Skellig.

I’ll be back! Beidh mé ais!

Living with Words.

March 1, 2015

I enjoy Willie McIlvanney’s books, but, even more, I love listening to him speak. He has a slow, almost hesitant style which suggests thoughtfulness and reflection. Often, it prepares the way for a happy explosion of language which manages to sound grand but accessible at the same time. He gives conversation a good name.

He should have been the main character in a great Scottish novel, rather than just writing it. His attributes are those we would probably want to claim for “Scottish Man”: hard working class background, liberated by his family’s respect for education, able to inhabit the middle class world of letters without losing any of his credentials, smoking and drinking his way to a long life while cheating the nation’s health statistics. There is some kind of a connection there to a Scotland we all recognise and miss – whether it ever properly existed, or, indeed, if we were ever even remotely close to living in it. In the way his brother, Hugh, uses language to raise sport to an artistic level, Willie’s writing brings a dignity to working class family and community.

Yet there is a melancholy about him which almost brings a reassurance that, no, you can’t have it all: the films that were never made, the novels not written, the fortune that never quite materialised. In interviews you would call him resigned rather than happy, comfortable with his lot rather than victorious. How Scottish is that? “Aye, it was alright, I suppose.” There is an heroic recognition of reality, the freedom of acknowledging fate without ever quite fully accepting it.

And I thought of McIlvanney, and his world, when I read a wonderful piece by Fidelma Cook (http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/fidelma-cook-farewell-to-another-old-friend.119139929) on the loss of her former colleague and Chief Reporter, Gordon Airs, of the Daily Record.

Fidelma – once of the Record and BBC Scotland – now lives in rural France and writes a weekly column which benefits from the perspective of distant geography – in much the same way as McIlvanney reflects from the perspective of advanced age.
From the start of her cross channel move– recorded in a flurry of apprehension and concern – it was clear that her reports from La France Profonde would contain all the feisty honesty you would expect from someone shaped by Ireland, Scotland and Glasgow.

Not from her the bons mots of certainty about a life changing move to a bucolic countryside haven – rather the doubts about the future, the need to confront loneliness, the unhappiness caused by unsettling change. You would not read her prose for travel writing heaven – rather to consider the human condition – and its tendency to follow us round no matter our location.

And, in her piece on Gordon Airs, there is the same commitment to accurate reflection, as she reminisces on the life of a journalist back in the day – around three decades ago.

She is unflinching in both her descriptions and in her conclusions. Much as an elite sportsperson needs a kernel of selfishness to achieve top commitment to be the best they can be, so journalists in those days operated on a level of selfishness and focus which often proved destructive – both to themselves and those they loved and who loved them. They got the story, by hook or by crook, they worked the hours, they polished the prose, and they partied. Collateral damage was legendary and, I suppose, the only unharmed beneficiaries were the reading public.

Nobody writes the journalistic legend better than the journos themselves – from “The Front Page” through to “All the President’s Men”, from belted raincoats and slouch hats through to “Lou Grant” and “The Newsroom” – it is easy to track the telling of tales which make the professions seem glamorous and heroic. Recalling Gordon Airs, Fidelma suggests at times it was indeed as it was portrayed – as we readers like to see it portrayed – but she points out unflinchingly that it all came at a price. Through the perspective of distance shines the truth.

Just as McIlvanney evokes a wistfulness, a feeling that it all could have been better, so her account of the halcyon days of press journalism brings the sadness of loss – in an age when much of the copy in our papers appears to come from PR Agencies – but also a realisation that, as consumers, we demanded high quality journalism without caring too much about the personal cost of that requirement on the writers who provided it.

Nowadays, ultimately, the advertisers demand that the papers cover what the readers will buy, and the accountants focus on the sales demographic. That way lies celebrity coverage, compromised reporting, and the “justification” for hacking and other misdeeds. In all of this, the writing itself, the skills of journalism, and the satisfaction of shining a light on murky places struggle to survive.

Like the guy who runs beside the big parade, I have always been there or thereabouts with journalism and journalists. From an English degree onward, through a career as an English teacher, and a third age attempt at blogging and publishing, I’ve tried to define myself in some small way as a ‘writer’. Like Rod Stewart, attempting to fulfill his dreams by building a pitch in his garden and inviting famous footballers round to play with him, I have associated with journos, praised them, and enjoyed and appreciated their work. I have seen at first hand the downside of destruction to which Fidelma refers, but also shared, vicariously, their triumphs, when truth was uncovered, and injustice was rugby tackled to the ground with a well chosen turn of phrase, after months of painstaking enquiry.

In the excellent BBC Scotland film “Living with Words”, McIlvanney answers a question from a pupil thus: “ People are uncatchable in prose; we are, all of us, too various…(to be completely described)”

In essence, that was, I think, Fidelma’s message about old style jourmalism, and bygone heroes like Gordon Airs – for each description, there would be a qualification, no plus would come unaccompanied by a minus, the final judgement would always be unclear – but the project would always be worth pursuing.

In that film, McIlvanney indicates that those who claim to have “worked it all out” in life are either kidding themselves or have invented solutions. It has always been my belief that the best of journalism is aimed at helping us “work it all out”, well knowing the impossibility of success, but determined to try – and, in pursuing that aim despite that knowledge, there is a nobility and a justification for at least some of the negative moments, personally and professionally.

I don’t have a romantic or idealistic view of journalism, and like many, I have dark days when I wonder how it can survive present trends, but it still seems to me a crucial part of what humanity needs to make progress.

For that reason, I celebrate the words of Fidelma Cook, clear eyed in la France Profonde, caught between her keyboard and César the mad Afghan pup, living with words which call for thought and reflection, and sharing them bravely with those of us who value difficult truths.

And for that reason too, I am embarrassingly, pathologically, proud that my son works as a journalist, shining what light he can.

Words are the brushes for the canvas of our thoughts.

Porty Town Hall, Me, and Ewan MacColl.

January 26, 2015

As is the case with people, there are some places and buildings which seem influential in our lives without necessarily being front and centre in our day to day experiences.

For me, this applies to the Town Hall in Portobello – Edinburgh’s seaside resort. It’s the third Portobello Town Hall, and, interestingly, was built in 1914 – some 18 years after the town was incorporated with Edinburgh City, and lost the need for a town hall. This was achieved as part of the deal to provide a meeting and performing venue (and also a seawater baths) in exchange for a vote in favour of incorporation.

When I started school in Portobello, as a five year old, in 1957, I had to get a bus to and from St John’s Primary in the resort’s Brighton Place. It had to be a number 12 bus because its route meant I wouldn’t need to cross the busy main road.

However, there was a problem.

Most of my new pals lived in ‘downtown’ Portobello, between the High Street and the beach. At the end of school each day, they all charged down Brighton Place, and, often, instead of catching the 12 bus at the school, I went along with them. We fastened our raincoats, cloak like, round our necks with one button and, arms outstretched claimed to be “Superman”. I enjoyed this – though, not being allowed comics yet, I had no idea who or what “Superman” was.

When we reached the High St, they all went their different ways, and I was left to get the bus home – at the 26 bus stop, by Portobello Town Hall. This was daringly dissident of me – to an extent which amazes me all these years later, for the route of the 26 meant I would have to cross the “busy main road” as it was always described. After a couple of minutes basking in revolution, I would spend the last seconds of the journey terrified that, somehow, my parents would see me get off that 26 bus on the ‘busy’ Portobello Rd and illicitly cross over. I have a vague memory of imagining my mother on the roof of our tenement with binoculars, scanning the area.

Compared to these days, the frequency of traffic must have been negligible, and I can’t remember how many times my subterfuge was discovered – though my worry must have been clear to see – but, to this day, whenever I pass the town hall I experience a wee frisson of guilt – especially if there is a 26 bus about.

Shortly after those times, we moved to England, but made annual trips back to visit relatives.

In 1966, on one of these visits, we happened to be in Portobello on a night when SNP Leader, Arthur Donaldson, was speaking in a meeting at the Town Hall. I had linked up with the SNP a year before and proudly wore my party badge in school, to the puzzlement of my north Liverpool schoolmates. That night, as only a teenager can, I muttered and hinted about the meeting, until, eventually, our host agreed to take me along, whilst my mother stayed with the rest of the family in the house.

Donaldson was an inspirational speaker – and this was my first political meeting. Unsurprisingly, I joined in the standing ovation at the end of his speech, while my relative did not. I was vaguely aware of some chatter about ‘embarrassment’ when we got back to the house, but it was decades later I discovered that my genial and obliging host, who had sat stoically through both speech and ovation, was at the time a high ranking Labour Party official. Oops!

A decade later, when I started teaching, I lived in Portobello for a year, but the Town Hall didn’t properly re-enter my life until 1988. I had seen a typically basic flyer announcing that Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger would be in concert at Portobello Town Hall. Everybody knew that MacColl was ailing and there was a sense of urgency about catching him live – so I went along with a friend who was a fellow ‘folky and lefty’.

I would love to be able to say that I became aware of Ewan MacColl through politics – the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, his work with Joan Littlewood in Theatre Workshop, or musically through his work on the Radio Ballads, and with Alan Lomax, Dominic Behan and Bert Lloyd – but, in all honesty, like many I know, I first became aware of him as a song writing credit, when I bought The Dubliners’ ‘Dirty Old Town’ on Major Minor records. It’s difficult to appreciate today the extent to which the establishment controlled access to the arts in the fifties and early sixties. MacColl was certainly not someone whose work and beliefs were easy to find, unless you were old enough to be part of the folk world underground.

Again, like for so many of my generation, my discovery of honest to God ‘folk music’, came about almost circuitously in a Fairport-Steeleye-Planxty-Christy-Gaughan progression, till, eventually, our music reflected our politics and, at every step, MacColl seemed to appear. The Johnstons “Travelling People”, Planxty’s wonderful “Sweet Thames Flow Softly”, Christy Moore’s “Go, Move, Shift”, or “Schooldays’ End” by Dick Gaughan.

At the same time, MacColl’s work in theatre seemed to be reflected in the frequent delight of performances by 7:84 or Wildcat Theatre or plays like “Willie Rough” and “The Bevellers” at the Edinburgh Lyceum.

MacColl and Seeger were hugely affecting that night at the Town Hall. MacColl was as uncompromising as ever, the anger as well as the gentleness in his songs filling the hall as if he were performing in a small folk club. Equally engaging was Seeger’s musicianship, and her concern for him, in her small unobtrusive acts of support as they went through the set.

Apart from the sense that we were watching a music giant for the last time, there was a kind of awe about the evening – something MacColl himself would have deprecated. “In the presence of greatness’ is an awful phrase, but I struggle to find a more fitting description of the atmosphere that night – a greatness which was made even more tangible by the understated presentation of this elderly man in a checked shirt on a bare stage. When you thought of the impact his words and music had had on our lives over decades, when you reflected on people all over the world believing that songs he’d written were actually ‘traditional’, when you considered his lifetime of fighting to present the case for society’s most marginalized – the working class, travellers, fishermen, miners – and the privations he endured because of his political principles, you couldn’t help but be awed.

Throughout that tour, he finished his set with “The Joy of Living”. It was, I suppose, a kind of acknowledgement that his time was drawing to a close and that we would not see him again. Those who categorized MacColl as simply a hard bitten, unreformed, political polemicist would have been surprised to see grown men leaving the hall in tears that night. He was easy to admire, he may have been hard to like at times, but he was also easy to love.

So – my first bout of dissident rebellion, my starting point for a lifetime of political meetings, and a live encounter with the folk laureate whose life’s work chimed with so many of my views and interests – thank you Portobello Town Hall!

Sunday would have been MacColl’s 100th Birthday and it seemed very fitting to be headed through to Celtic Connections for an evening to celebrate his work – on Burns Night. One of the disadvantages of an education in England is missing out on Burns’ poetry at school, and, as a result, I have never been a huge Burns fan – though I recognise his greatness and appreciate Fergusson’s poetry.

However, if anyone could fill that gap in my cultural hinterland, I suspect it is Ewan MacColl, especially given my childhood times in Lancashire. His evocation of Salford in ‘Dirty Old Town”, alongside Shelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey”, and Barstow’s “A Kind of Loving” were hugely formative in my teenage years – and the messages they gave put flesh on the bones of any political credo which has accompanied me through life.

Like MacColl, I found myself growing up a Scot in the north of England, and, like him, my origins – in my case Irish, came to define my viewpoint.

A favourite song in my music collection is a recording of the late Kirsty MacColl dueting with her Dad on “Manchester Rambler”. I’m not sure they managed to share a studio to record the track – MacColl wasn’t the greatest admirer of the world of rock, and Kirsty inherited a lot of his feistiness – but it is a wonderful recognition of the strength of family, music, and politics when brought together.

I had to admire the MacColl clan for their bravery in putting together a tribute evening for their patriarch. Publicly celebrating a family member could bring all manner of pitfalls. I had seen Gerry Rafferty’s clan and friends pull it off magnificently in this same hall at Celtic Connections – could Neil MacColl and company manage the same success?

The answer is a resounding “Yes!”. From the opening bars of MacColl himself singing “A man’s a man for a’ tha’ to the final encore of the massed ranks giving it laldy with “The Manchester Rambler”, this was a tribute which spoke of admiration, love, and respect for the character the family referred to as “The Old Man” or “The old Bugger”.

Neil MacColl pointed out that, though his dad was unimpressed by the ways of fame in the popular music world, he loved it when his songs were taken up and sung by other people – and that was the enriching experience we gained on Sunday night.

Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile gave us “The First Time ever I saw your Face”, Jarvis Cocker and Norma Waterson sang “Dirty Old Town” and then joined with Martin Carthy for the “Moving on Song”, after Martin himself had given us “The Travelling People”. Dick Gaughan, Karine Polwart and Eliza Carthy dazzled in their different ways, whilst the vastly underpublicised philosophy professor and multi instrumentalist, Chaim Tannenbaum, McGarrigle/Wainright alumnus, and musical collaborator to the MacColl’s, contributed to practically every number. A whole raft of MacColls and in-laws took part – with a family set of seas shanties (as promulgated by ‘the old bugger’ in the house while they were growing up) producing the kind of harmonies that only family and practice can achieve.

Neil pointed out that his dad wrote love songs to many things – the worker, the Communist Party, the working classes, the travellers and the marginalized – but he was not beyond penning impossibly beautiful love songs in the traditional sense. ”First Time Ever” is a classic example, but has there ever been a more poignant and affecting tale of lost love than the image strewn “Sweet Thames Flow Softly”? which was performed magnificently in this tribute.

Ewan MacColl had a long life and probably achieved an even greater impact that he could have imagined. Like many of his songs, he will become part of the tradition. For his admirers, his refusal to accept the power of the establishment continues to inspire, for his family, pride in his achievements and the solace of the beautiful heartfelt songs we heard on Sunday – written for his parents, his partners, his children, can reassure them of his humanity and love, not just for causes and countryside, but for those closest to him at home.

For many of us who were there, the abiding memory will be of Norma Waterson, one of the great folk family matriarchs, singing alongside daughter and husband, paying tribute to Sheila Stewart and Rae Fisher, and causing us to reflect, as MacColl would have wanted, that music is about humanity, folk is family, and family is folk.

As others see us.

January 19, 2015

THE PEOPLE’S REFERENDUM:Why Scotland will never be the same again.
Peter Geoghegan. Luath Press

9781910324479

Although he wears them lightly, Peter Geoghegan’s origins in the Irish Midlands, give him great perspective and detachment when reviewing Scotland’s Independence Referendum campaigns. An upbringing in Co Longford tends to equate with a long distance view of national politics happening ‘elsewhere’, so it is unsurprising that he gives us a clear headed and impartial view of events during the last eighteen months or so before the September vote.

For those of us involved. the campaign was a mishmash of the positive and negative, hope and fear, progress and frustration and – on occasions, personal enmity. If we are to reflect on what actually happened, and how it is still impacting on the people of Scotland – and indeed these islands – we need help to stand back and look at people rather than campaigns, communities rather than politics, and the totality rather than our own viewpoint.

What makes Peter’s book so effective in providing this assistance is his breadth of vision – from Coatbridge’s ‘Little Ireland’ to the solemnity of an Orange Hall, from Stornoway, to Easterhouse, to the Borders, and from Catalunya to the Balkan states, he witnesses ‘the stirrings of nationhood’ and talks to people to elicit their feelings and their reactions to what is happening. From the douce inhabitants of sleepy Borders towns, to ‘the last Communist Councillor’ in Fife, Peter brings to life the people who are working in, and affected by, the road to the referendum. What does it mean to “care about your country”? How can neighbours have opposing views? What shapes our ideas about community and politics? Are we more motivated by past experiences or future dreams? What makes an activist – and why are some apathetic or disengaged?

He relates how people in other countries view Scotland, chronicling their hopes or fears for the referendum result and its impact on their own situations. It is a breath of internationalised fresh air after the cartoon like “Scottish or British” rhetoric of the domestic campaign. The UK state has always been inclined to insularity and it was peculiar to note how the ‘No’ campaign emerged, ultimately, as more parochial than the ‘Yessers’, with its emphasis on “British values”, as opposed to the more outward looking perspective of northern Europe and Scandinavia espoused by the independistas. Peter’s travels shine a perceptive light on those parts of Europe where the nation is not the state, and the ‘normality’, or otherwise, of the United Kingdom’s political arrangements.

As well as giving us perspective on the past couple of years, the book refers to our back story and the possibilities for the future, providing a context sometimes overlooked in the heat of campaigning. Like the post campaign political world itself, Peter suggests there are not yet any conclusions.

The book is meticulously researched but not weighed down by extraneous facts. The author is willing to comment, but generally allows the people he met on his travels to speak for themselves. He engagingly transmits his own sense of surprise and discovery to the reader, in a style which is hugely accessible but eschews the facile or the obvious. If you wish to clear your head before reflecting on what happened here in 2013 and 2014, this book makes an excellent starting point.

Whilst understanding the long held reticence about ‘importing Irish politics into Scotland’, I felt the referendum campaign suffered from an unwillingness to learn from Ireland’s path to statehood. It is our nearest neighbour, a small country in north western Europe, and has a shared history as part of these islands. How it has coped with the past century of adopting to self determination, the successes and failures, as opposed to its means of gaining that autonomy, could supply answers to many of the questions raised in the campaign about re-establishing statehood and a place in the international community – especially in those crucial areas of debate – defence and finance.

The author, with his reflective and balanced approach to our political situation, proves to be a fine advertisement – both for Irish neutrality, and for the importance of seeing ourselves as others see us.

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