Skip to content

Annie and Ellen

January 19, 2017


Picture copyright – Brooklyn Public Museum

Genealogy is a capricious beast.

My grandfather and four of his five siblings emigrated from Co Leitrim to Brooklyn in the late 19th century. After a few years, grandad and his brother re-crossed the Atlantic and joined  their other brother in Edinburgh.

The three girls never returned, and, having married, and taken new surnames, were difficult to trace, though I had tried since I was in my twenties.

Then, suddenly, and by chance, last week, I discovered two of them, and their life stories. And, after years of searching and wondering, they became real to me, in only a couple of days.

Their stories were not totally joyful. Both endured widowhood, one of them twice. There were infant deaths and enough hints at poverty and ill health to give pause for sombre  reflection.

Phrases like “no education” “destitute” “aged and infirm” “day labourer” and “servant” provide a background which takes on vivid hues when applied to relatives, real people, named persons. Folk from whom I have maybe inherited a way of smiling, a nervous cough, a look around the eyes, some small movement that people say is  a “McPartland trait”.

Equally, the understanding that my folk were not specially chosen for hard and challenging lives, but were just individuals amongst thousands in an overwhelming cacophony of desperate living and crushed hopes,  brings home the  conditions in Brooklyn towards the end of the 19th century.

Given the nature of society, it seems almost predictable that my grandad and his brother (one  a trolley conductor, the other a labourer)  made their money and their decision, and came to Scotland after a few years, while the women, soon married, did not have that choice.

By coincidence, both my grandmothers also spent time in Brooklyn in their early twenties, but remained single, and young enough to flee from what both reported as the “oppressive” heat, noise, and atmosphere.

Not so my grand aunts.

They stayed, and were at different times, housewives, housekeepers, grocers, servants and seamstresses according to the various, hurriedly scrawled, census returns. Even allowing for the rapid urbanisation and mechanisation of the last hundred years, it is hard to imagine the reality of Brooklyn at the end of the 19th century

Like the medieval peasants who lived in shacks beneath the walls of the castles, seeking protection and a means of earning a living, these immigrants were in the centre of a vast mushroom cloud of economic growth – but they were not part of it. They made the wealth, but never had a share in it.

They turned the machines,unloaded the ships, loaded the carts, brushed the discarded wood shavings from the floors of wealth creation, served in the houses of the rich, drove the trams for their fellow workers,  and fought to keep a roof over their families, and bread on their tables. They kept their heads down and their minds busy, because stopping to wonder if emigration had been the right choice brought thoughts as haunting  as any ghost from their childhoods.

The industrial revolution created huge cities at a frantic rate, the need for transport of people and goods kept pace with this growth. If New York grew unimaginably towards the end of the 19th century, Brooklyn was the powerhouse of that development. 

Reflecting the millennium’s position between the old and the  new, they came on sailing boats and steam ships, wooden vessels and iron monsters. The boats struggled for space at the  piers, just as the people jostled for a tenement room or an outhouse floor.

The snap of the sails and the wail of ships’ sirens was drowned out by the noise of hard working, desperately striving, humanity. And it came in many languages – Irish, Scottish and English accents fought for a hearing over Italian, German, Norwegian,Yiddish, and a dozen Eastern European tongues. Brooklyn was a place were foreigners found home – the New Americans had arrived.

Many of them came from basic huts in remote country areas – they had no means of ever imagining the noise, the dirt, the crowds and the bustle to which they were headed. Even those used to town or city life had never seen anything like this twenty four hour, nonstop show, of work and commerce, buying, selling, making and dealing.

They came, and tried to survive, for many reasons. Some were fuelled by ambition, driven to test out “the American Dream”, but most were there because they had no choice. They were leaving lives that were so poverty stricken, hopeless, dangerous,  or insupportable,  that they had more faith in the unknown than the familiar. It had to be better.

For some it was an improvement, a chance at a new start, but for many came the realisation  that it can be hard to outrun poverty, illness, or despair.

They were there in their millions – the flotsam and jetsam of an economic system which needed their labour but was unwilling to fairly reward them.

Brooklyn was a paradigm of the world in those years: a coming together of nations and cultures, a last hurrah perhaps for the intrinsic strength of family and community life, made more precious by the absence of loved ones and familiar places.  In the years my family were most numerous in Brooklyn, the Borough grew three times over, well on its way to  becoming what would be the fourth “city” of the USA in population.

The noise, the dirt, the overwhelming sense of busy-ness must have been almost beyond understanding to many of the new Americans. Some, who had the opportunity, must have returned to their old countries, as did my grandmothers. Many, likewise, must have been trapped in a maelstrom of desperate poverty, the future made dark by a lack of hope, just as the streets were put in shadow by the ever growing tenements.


My grand aunt Annie had born seven children by the time she was 34 – only one survived, and, cruelly, that survivor, Mae, died when she was 19. In the end she was still working as a housekeeper in her 70s whilst her husband ended up destitute in the “Home for the Aged and Infirm”. Her sister, Ellen, lost one child after seven days, and then her husband when she was only 34. By the time she was fifty, she had been widowed again.

These statistics are hurtful when they refer to your own flesh and blood, but the real impact is in the understanding that these two women are just representatives of Brooklyn life at the turn of the millennium. It is tempting to recall that famous phrase used of the Hindenburg disaster across the river in New Jersey in 1937: “Oh the humanity!”

And, inevitably, conflict produced energy. The strength of the fight challenged folk to great levels of achievement – for some that was  mere survival, but for others it was the discovery of strengths and talents  hitherto unsuspected.

The next generations of Brooklynites were special. Lights shining out of dark cellars.  It was as if the struggle faced by their parents and grandparents made them grasp at every opportunity for advancement – and often it came through creativity and the arts. George Gershwin, Arthur Miller, Barbra Streisand, Woody Allan, Mel Brooks, Danny Kaye, Carl Sagan, the Brill Building’s Carole King, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann, Gerry Goffin and many more. The success of the children is often the reward for emigration.

However, immigration and poverty go hand in hand: the work comes and goes, the successful move on, and those who cannot move face deterioration of neighbourhoods and facilities. When my relatives went to Brooklyn, less than one per cent of the population were African Americans, now the figure would be around  40%, along with 20% Hispanic. Immigration comes in waves, driven by economics rather than by choice. The Borough, like the rest of New York, went through harrowing times, but the rate of immigration has doubled since the 1970s, areas like Williamsburg are being gentrified. In neighbourhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, there is grinding poverty, but you will also find magnificent examples of community action, and dynamic school leadership, as there always have been. The immigrant community roller coaster continues to rise and fall – bringing with it the screams of excitement and the gravitational pull of the downward slope.

In the end, through death and poverty, the first generation of Brooklyn McPartlands failed to make it. The reason I had trouble tracing their descendants was that  very few survived or made their life there. But the story of immigration, like the people it involves, is one of perseverance and legacy. A number of the following generation, having heard the family tales of New York, were not put off, and tried their luck in the New World – my Uncle Frank brilliantly timing  his arrival to coincide with the Wall Street Crash!

Despite that, their descendants flourish – in the East End of Long Island, and in Massachusetts, across in  Michigan, and over in California. In Queens, in Jackson Heights,  the most diverse community in the country, my cousin’s daughter, married to a Spaniard, raises their children among a dozen cultures – what better way to learn and grow and understand our world?

And so the story of a family illuminates the history of a Borough, the progress of a Borough informs the development of a city, and a city’s growth parallels that of a nation, and, at the heart of all this, are emigrants who bring their rich diversity to lend old world strength to new world insecurities.

If you seek to keep out this new blood, your communities will stagnate, they will fall prey to the greedy exploitation of those who are desperate to control and profiteer, and there will arise a self serving myth of “superiority” which will become “truth” in the absence of anyone to challenge it. It is the foundation of bigotry and prejudice.

I’ve struggled to write in reaction to Trump’s election since November, but my grand aunts – Annie and Ellen – and the lives they led, the strengths they showed, their transference of tenant farmer hard graft from Co Leitrim to the lodging  houses and rented apartments of Summit St, 8th St, Bergen St, Lewis Ave, Henry St, 8th Ave, Luquer St, Chauncey St, 14th St, 5th St, 9th St, and all the other places they called home in their new country – these two formidable women  have made the point eloquently and by example.

The disaster of Trump’s election does not lie in his clear incompetence, his knowledge of  the price of everything  and the value of nothing, his lack of any kind of intellectual or humane hinterland – though all these things are terrifying.

The horror lies in his ability to blind millions of Americans to the strengths of their nation: the power of diversity, the refreshing optimism of those who come to its shores and choose to become new Americans; the fact that the true “American Dream” is not about  making a lot of money, but rather the opportunity to fuse the old world with the new, to take the best of “then” and use it to make a better “now”. In simple language, it is, still, a young country which can offer opportunities – not to become rich, but to become happy, confident, comfortable with your own history, and that of your neighbours.

Of course, this is an aspiration. There are many examples of how, despite three centuries of trying, in the USA  many of the dreams of its founding fathers are not yet accomplished. However, the point, surely, is that it must remain a country, not only founded on those aspirations, but driven by them.

In this respect, Washington DC is, to me, a wonderful city.

Yes, I know, it is filled with self seekers and those for whom power is an end in itself, and, yes, you might struggle to find too many residents who are there for philanthropic or selfless reasons – but it was built as a symbol – a symbol for democracy, the people’s power, and the coming together of states and nations, cultures and  traditions.

It’s got a way to go to represent all of  that successfully, and the country of which it is the capital also struggles to live up to its constitution, but, when I walk its streets and view its buildings, it tends to be the vision I see rather than the reality – the city built in the swamp needs to be the city standing on the hill. Many Americans, irrespective of political leanings, come to DC, bring their children, point to the White House, the Capitol, The Library of Congress, and describe with awe what they represent.

Now, you can laugh at that as delusion, or you can use it as inspiration.

America needs people who are inspired by the dreams of their ancestors, not those who are well versed on how to rip people off so that they can make a quick buck.

Many times I have had my perfect breakfast, sitting in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, with a coffee and a pastry, reflecting on the symbolism of that mansion designed by an Irishman and built by slaves.

The USA can be a power for good or evil. I’ve followed her politics since 1960, and, while I don’t believe I have ever agreed with her foreign policies, I’ve taken plenty of inspiration from her greatest leaders, I’ve respected the aims on which their constitution is founded, I’ve cherished that naive aspiration that it is possible to have government of the people by the people and for the people; a living Republic.

That bench in Lafayette Square will not be graced by my presence in the next four years, that’s for sure. There are times when the strongest vision, the greatest symbol, can be obliterated by crass stupidity, greed, and a basic lack of humanity.

When the Soviets built a wall across Berlin, they said they were building it to keep out the westerners. Everybody knew it was to keep in the easterners, and try and isolate them from fresh and innovative thinking.

How ironic, then, that Trump talks of building a wall to keep out Mexicans, when his true building project is to isolate Americans from the very diverse influences which have made them great.

Constructing walls is easier than building bridges, and, traditionally, people cross bridges but knock walls down.

Progress cannot be stopped, history teaches the way forward, greed has a short shelf life, and, in the end, politics is about people, not politicians.

I remain optimistic that the dance they call America will waltz around Trump, and return the country to its true values.

That’s the future which is deserved by the story of Annie and Ellen McPartland, and so many millions of others.

A rude awakening

December 27, 2016

There was a time when bad news which occurred overnight was not transmitted by your radio alarm, or your first bleary glance at Twitter on an iPhone.

When I was a child, thank God, there were only a few incidents of my being woken by bad news, and none of them involved the family or people to whom I was close.

However, that didn’t mean they lacked impact, and probably the biggest moment came fifty years ago today in December 1966 – when my mother woke me to tell me that the grandstand at the local football club had burnt down.

My family, from Edinburgh, were long time football supporters, our team being Hibs, but when I was five, my dad died and we ended up in Southport, twenty miles north of my Everton supporting mother’s hometown, Liverpool.

By the time I was eleven I had started watching Southport FC in the old Fourth Division, and I seldom missed a game at the compact but atmospheric Haig Avenue ground.

In 1966, most football grounds, at all levels, were little changed since the war years. In the late 40s attendances had been sky high, but the local businessmen who owned and ran most clubs raked in the money without much thought of spectator comforts.

Given its position in the footballing food chain, and its perennial struggle to compete with the nearby giants in Liverpool and Manchester, Southport’s ground was relatively well appointed.

There was covered terracing behind one goal and all along the “popular side”, an open cinder and earth banking behind the other goal, and a 2000 seater grandstand along the other touchline. So, with three sides fully covered and a capacity of around 20,000, it was one of the better lower division grounds.

The “Grandstand” was probably the least impressive part of the ground. Long and low, wooden, and with tarred felt over its roof, it betrayed its origins as a showground stand which had been purchased and brought to Haig Avenue in the early years of the century – with additions and extensions made later.

Cramped dressing rooms, offices, a tiny gym and cupboard space were huddled beneath sloping wooden ceilings. Supporters sat on wooden bench seats – although Directors in the central area had individual seating. In front of the structure, there was standing space, known as “The Paddock.”

Though when it is viewed now it almost seems Victorian in its simplicity, there were a good few similar structures around in the football league in the mid sixties – and Southport’s stand would have attracted little adverse attention.

The team’s fortunes had long fluctuated, but I would be lucky in that my ten years spent in Southport would be the best decade in their history, and in 1966 they were on a bit of a high.

Billy Bingham, ex Everton and Northern Ireland, had been appointed as a young and ambitious manager in June 1965. It’s fair to say he had galvanised the club and raised high interest in a town which was traditionally quite ambivalent towards its football team. In his first year, he had taken the club on a cup run, with victories over Division 2’s Cardiff and Ipswich before bowing out in the fifth round at Hull City in front of a crowd of almost 39,000 in March 1966.

Now, in the 66-67 season, the team had their eyes firmly set on promotion from the fourth division for the first time. By Christmas, they were solidly in the top four, fighting it out with Stockport County, Barrow and Tranmere Rovers in a northern battle, though Southend and Wrexham were not far behind.

Because of that, there was a bigger crowd than usual in the ground for a tough game v Wrexham on Boxing Day 1966; victory was imperative and “Bingham’s Boys” were expected to do the business. So some 8,307 attended the game that day, around 3000 more than the average attendance – swelled, no doubt, by holiday visitors, and travelling support from Wrexham.

It was a dour game which Southport deservedly won by 1-0. Strangely, I can clearly remember thinking how packed the main stand and paddock looked that day – even more so than for the Cardiff game months previously, when over 14,000 were packed into the ground. It was just an innocent thought, not a foreshadowing of disaster.

old-standPictured during Southport’s 1966 Cup game with Cardiff City – the dimensions of the old stand can be seen – as well as the nature of crowding.

Delighted by the result, I headed home for a family meal. As is always the case around Christmas, what with the food and excitement, I slept well that night.

So I struggled a little next morning when I realised my mother was at the door of my bedroom and saying something. This was not unusual during school term time, when occasionally cold water from a face cloth had to be flicked at me to get me to come to consciousness, but normally in holiday time, I was left to rise at my own discretion.

She was saying something about Southport. WHAT?

“Southport’s stand has burned down.:”

Far removed from the modern trend of ‘citizen journalism”, there was no hope of “live video” or rolling news coverage; at that point, apart from the ship based pirate  stations, there was little that could be called local radio. It had been a two line item on the “national” radio news – no details, no explanation.

It was one of those moments which, in retrospect, highlights the innocence of youth. As we grow, we learn from experience, and when something extraordinary happens, we eventually have a library of emotional reactions from which to pick our response. At 14, I had never been faced with such news, my father’s death coming at an age when I was too young to fully react. Distant disasters happened – JFK being shot, my favourite footballer, John White, had been struck by lightning two years before – but I was detached from these events, they happened to other people, and elsewhere.

This had the alarming content of being close to home – geographically and emotionally. I had sat in that stand, I was at the ground every week, I had been looking at it only hours previously – how could this happen? What had happened? When did it burn down? All questions which twitter would answer in a flash today, but, in 1966, these thoughts were buzzing like wasps round my head as I got dressed and went downstairs.

There were no more answers, and so I acted on the most human of impulses, got on my bike, and cycled the couple of miles to the ground. I had to see what had happened to understand it.

As I pushed the pedals along familiar streets, following my Saturday route to the game, I tried to make sense of it. It should be remembered that disasters and mishaps at football stadia were not as pronounced in the fans’ psyche as they are now. There had been tens of people killed at Ibrox Stadium in 1902 and at Bolton’s Burnden Park in 1946 when walls or terracing collapsed, but I knew nothing of that. It was linking fire and football and my club’s ground that was so difficult – and I had no idea what I would find when I arrived at Haig Avenue – around 11.30, which would be around six or seven hours after the fire had been discovered.

There is a short ITN news film clip which shows the aftermath of the fire. In the foreground there is the 14 year old me, and even though the shot is from behind, it’s possible to identify the stunned nature of my reaction as I stand looking through what would have been the main entrance to the stand but which now allowed a view straight across the pitch to the terracing on the far side. I can’t remember the cameras being there, so it was quite a surprise to come across the film clip some forty years later.

at-the-sceneTo the left of the picture, my bike forgotten, as I gaze across the pitch, trying to take in what has happened

Basically, the whole structure was reduced to ash, apart from a handful of charred beams, a few bits of twisted corrugated iron, and an old fashioned metal safe which stood about seven foot tall in the middle of the devastation. Manager Bingham, and Chairman, John Church, were next to it, examining it, no doubt wondering how to access the contents, as the heat of the fire had fused it shut. There was a smell of burning and brokenness; though the day was damp, clouds of ash were raised by any movement; there was a rumour of heat about the place despite the firemen’s damping down of the site. It was scary to see a substantial structure reduced to this, a reminder that appearance is not always everything.

wreckage                               All that was left on the morning of December 27th 1966

Children are resilient. I had an initial fear of what this might mean for the future of the club, but that was very quickly replaced by a consideration of how it would affect our promotion challenge. The idea that the club might be threatened with extinction was too huge to be tolerated for long – at least for this 14 year old supporter. It never occurred to me at that point that everything had been lost – legal papers, kit, boots, training gear, records, and administration details.

I wandered round the scene of devastation for half an hour or so – the kind of access which would be unheard of today – and then cycled home, hopeful of more news about the impact of the disaster.

News trickled through – Chester had donated a full kit for the team to play in, and for one game, white shirts with thin blue stripes replaced the familiar old gold. Other clubs and organisations rallied round. The local school at Meols Cop, a hundred yards from the back of the terracing, would provide changing rooms, and it emerged that the club would be able to fulfil its fixtures. Fund raising events were organised and it was announced that a new stand would be built and that the club would be attempting to raise £70,000 pounds towards its construction – a huge amount of money in those days for a club of such thin resources. Luckily and coincidentally, one of the Directors ran a building firm, who would be responsible for the work. Meantime, two temporary scaffolding stands were erected for the Directors and season ticket holders.

All’s well that ends well they say, and at the end of the season, Southport were promoted in second place amongst scenes of great joy and relief. A cup to recognise their strength and perseverance was presented after the game by comedian Eric Morecambe, a big football follower, who happened to be performing in the town – a bizarre moment on the scaffolding edifice.

Next season, Southport performed well in the Third Division, and had gone from having one of the oldest to the most modern stand in English football – at least for a short time.

inside-ground                                                   A modern stand rose from the ashes

Of course, it is generally in retrospect that such events gain impact.

It was probably only when I saw those horrifying pictures of the similar stand at Bradford City’s Valley Parade ground burning fiercely during a game, nineteen years later, that the awful possibilities about the Haig Avenue fire really hit me. 56 died and nearly 300 were injured at Bradford. Given the lack of fire resistant materials in the early 60s and the crowded and constricted nature of Southport’s old stand, the possible casualties at Haig Avenue had the fire started during a game could have been of truly awful dimensions.

It emerged that the old structure at Haig Avenue had been under insured, and, even now, when people complain about the “nanny state” with all its Health and Safety implications, I can’t help wonder how many unregulated football grounds in those days came close to disaster without realising it. Certainly, the ground regulations which have emerged since Bradford and Hillsborough have transformed our grounds and limited the chances of further disasters.

When the Bradford fire was blamed on a dropped cigarette dropped through the wooden boards and on to accumulated rubbish below, many seized on that as a possible cause for the Southport fire – which had never been fully explained. There are, however, various reasons why this seems less likely at Haig Avenue: the construction of the stand, the time it took to smoulder, the ferocity of the fire at some points and not others.

In the end, it is all past history, and, thanks to good fortune, what might have been a defining moment in my life – I can’t imagine any who were at Valley Parade on the day of their disaster can ever get the sights or sounds out of their mind – has become an interesting footnote in my childhood.

For all that, it is still a big memory in the context of my football supporting life, and the promotion which Southport achieved against all the odds that season. Who knows? Perhaps the misfortune hardened their resolve and increased support for the club when they needed it most.

As has been pointed out, it was, in some ways, a fortuitous moment for disaster to strike. The club was on the up and had a positive aura around it; financially it was in a better position than most years. A year or two in either direction and the decision may have been taken to wind the club up as a financial basket case – not something that really occurred to me as a teenager.

Four years later, I was back home in Edinburgh at university and have remained here ever since. Hibs have reclaimed the foreground in my footballing affections, but, in the time honoured phrase, Southport’s result is still the first I look for, I watch them whenever I can, and I still feel very close to that 14 year old on his bike, heading towards Haig Avenue, full of doubts and questions about what had happened overnight. The players I idolised during those seasons are still heroes to me. When I met two of them – Eric Redrobe and Alex Russell – at Haig Avenue a couple of years ago, I was as star struck as I would have been in 1966. As a 14 year old, you are far more wrapped up in your life than during your later, busier, years. Southport FC were a big part of that life.

With perfect recall of that day and its events, it’s hard to credit it’s all of 50 years ago today.

I suppose it was an early lesson in not taking things for granted, and, on reflection, an indicator that there is a thin line between mere bad luck and absolute disaster.

Southport played Wrexham on Boxing Day again this year – although away from home. When they return the visit at the end of this week, I wonder how many of the older Southport supporters will glance at the once modern, now established, main stand, and think of December 1966, and how close we came to a nightmare.

And, because, ultimately, football supporting is a sentimental pursuit, I am sure the echo of those feet banging on the old wooden floorboards of the original stand will be hovering over the ground. As ever, we’ll be wondering – is it approval of the team’s play, or merely a desperate measure to offset the cold?

Enjoy the game, whoever you support!

You would never know

December 5, 2016

This short story is published in the current edition of the Leitrim Guardian ( 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



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.

Capturing a moment

October 26, 2016


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

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


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.