Good day one and all and thank you so much for visiting my little site here and if you wish to read my latest entries please go to the paragraph immediately below this one as they go in reverse order (most recent to oldest) from there.
For those that do not know me, I am to technology what a sumo wrestler is to synchronised diving i.e. I just cannot do it. I have just conjured up a mental image there that I really wish I hadn’t.
I have owned this site for about 15 months now (as of July 2019) and have been working very hard trying to resurrect writings from long ago which were previously on other websites, one callously killed off by illegal corporate greed and the other by lack of interest by the owners.
Eventually I have worked out how to pin (I believe that is the techie term) this page so it remains at the top of my front page. I have decided that the only way for me to make any vague semblance of sense here is to backdate the entries of my various trips to the relevant dates which may make them hard to find and so I am creating this page to assist you – hopefully! I shall keep you informed here of completed travelogues and those under construction.
Firstly, I did write for a while for a decent website called blogspot.com which I know is much used by travel bloggers. If you want a look at what was admittedly a very user friendly site and looks like not being killed off any time soon, then here is a link to my pages there. They deal mainly with my trip to the Philippines in 2012 but also with an earlier trip round SE Asia which happened to coincide with my 50th birthday shortly after I retired. There is also the beginnings of a piece on a month I spent in Malta but which I never really finished there and so it will be migrated here and a link posted in due course. Note that it is still under construction.
If you want to know about rather unusual trip which happened in 2017 when I went to meet a friend for four days (and had packed accordingly) in the Southern part of the Netherlands and flew home from Rome eight countries and over three months later then look here.
If you want to know about yet another trip that took rather longer than expected then have a look at my recent excursion back home to Northern Ireland which is detailed here. A week for a family reunion turned into two and a half months but that is the way I am.
As I mentioned above I started a blog on my trip to Malta in the blogspot site but I left there before it was finished so that is my current project here (as of July 2019). If you want to have a look of what I have posted so far and keep abreast of updates then this is the place to begin. Yes, the first few days will be unashamed cut and paste from the former site (I do not believe in wasting energy) but hopefully I can bring that to a conclusion here relatively quickly.
After that, I am very much in your hands. I have three extended trips to Canada to write up, three to Sri Lanka, another couple to Northern Ireland and a few to Scotland. I have a month on Madeira to write about and many other adventures besides. If you have anything you would like to read about, please tell me. It is all the same to me, it will all take time but this really is my last chance at writing online. If this one goes wrong then I am out of here.
Perhaps Burma, Lao or Cambodia are you your liking or maybe a great trip through a couple of the former Yogoslav Republics (Serbia and Macedonia) with some dear friends plus the briefest of side trips to Albania. Honestly, I was there for 15 hours, border to airport via Tirana. Imagine visiting a particularly secretive country where you never had a penny of the local currency in your pocket, did not speak a word of the local language and still got where you needed to be. That was Albania, proper “flying by the seat of my pants” travel and I loved it, I must go back some day. The Algarve in Portugal, Greece and Cyprus are all in the mix as well.
Please get in touch if there is anything you would particularly like to read about and I shall certainly prioritise it. As I say, if I live long enough it will all get done sooner or later and I do not really mind what order I do it in.
As for the image which heads up this page, it is not really very relevant to anything I have written here bar a passing reference to Burma. I just wanted to liven up the page with an image and this is one of my favourites to the extent I have it as a screensaver. It was taken from the grounds of the Shwedagon paya in Rangoon, Burma at sunset which is undoubtedly the best time to visit if you happen to be there. My dear Burmese friend Zin had very graciously given up her day off to show me round that fascinating city and we had had a great time. Not only do I find it aesthetically pleasing as it is one of my few half decent amateur efforts but it stands for the reason I travel, the reason I write about it and, ultimately, the reason this site exists at all.
Right, so much to do and time I got back to work so, as always, stay tuned and spread the word.
Hello again and I’ll bet you were not expecting to hear from me again so soon with my contemporaneous pages having been so shamefully neglected for so long for various personal reasons and in favour of trying to get my numerous previous trips up to date. This is a task I realise is probably never going to happen but I’ll keep plodding on at it regardless. The Malta 2013 trip is nearing a conclusion and I am already considering what to do next. I’ll keep you posted.
I have to start this entry with a slight confession of a little skullduggery on my part regarding the last entry which was dated 13th July and when it was written. I had gone to my favoured pub, the wonderful Montagu Arms as I have no internet at home. I did work diligently but in a bar full of mates it can be difficult to get your head down to concentrate and it was full after the parade in town which I mentioned. I did say that the “Sham Fight” attracted large crowds and estimates of the crowd were that it was in excess of 100K which is some gathering.
The truth about the entry is that by the time I had proof read the text for the umpteenth time, added and captioned images, created hyperlinks, researched various entities and all the other tasks that attach themselves to running your own website it was actually 0040 the next morning (14th) when I pressed the “publish” button. Honestly, I genuinely did not realise how much work was involved when I took this site on but it does give me something to do and boredom is potentially my greatest enemy in retirement. Anyway, the staff were putting the chairs on the tables, I was the last man left in the bar (no surprise there) and so rather than leave it to rewrite I did a bit of a naughty and just backdated it 40 minutes, I do hope you don’t mind!
Having thus unburdened my soul I want to tell you about yet another of the unbelievably odd coincidences that seem to follow me about. If you look back to the last entry you will find that I mention a village called Caledon in passing where I lived briefly in the early 80’s. I also mentioned Boom Hall whilst speaking of the Siege of Derry, all in the space of a few sentences. Admittedly, I had briefly spoken about Caledon to my brother in a totally unrelated conversation a few days ago but I had not even thought about Boom Hall for literally decades. I like a bit of a read before I go to sleep and I started a new book last night entitled “Irish Generals” by Richard Doherty and which was a tie-in with a BBC radio series. As the name implies the book deals with the disproportionate amount of British Army senior officers in the Second World War who have Irish connections. If you do not believe what I tell you next the book is ISBN 0 86281 395 6 in the paperback, published in 1993 by Appletree Press. Chapter two deals with General Harold Alexander and I shall reproduce a few sentences verbatim here which detail the history of the Alexander family. I promise you I had no idea of any of these facts when I wrote my recent piece. “Originally of Scottish planter stock, the Alexanders settled in Donegal and then moved to Londonderry where they were prominent in the business life of the city. Alexanders were aldermen and the family owned a large house called Boom Hall on the banks of the River Foyle, North of the city. In the late eighteenth century an ancestor made a fortune in India and built Caledon Castle in County Tyrone, which became the fmily seat”. If that isn’t spooky I do not know what is and to think that at various points in my life I used to pass the entrance gates to both establishments on a daily basis just compounded the weirdness of the situation.
Another small piece of tidying up to do from the last entry and that is to do with the War Memorial in Tandragee. Again, my piece from Virtual Tourist will suffice here, slightly edited to include more recent census figures.
“I have mentioned in other tips that I am quite interested in military history and Northern Ireland has certainly produced it’s fair share of service personnel over the years. The exploits of the 36th Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme in the First World War are legendary, and the numbers of casualties appalling.
Like so many small towns and villages in the Province, Tandragee has a memorial to the fallen of both world wars. It is of itself not remarkable save that it employs the older spelling of the village as TandEragee, the first E having fallen into disuse now, but it is very typical of the style you will see. I often stop and have a look as I go about my business, and reflect on the generations of (mostly) young men who perished.
I have included all four faces of the memorial to illustrate a point. Although expanding rapidly, Tandragee is not a large place and it is the kind of village where it can take you an hour to walk down the main street just because you meet people you know. The last census in 2011 shows a population of 3,486 compared to just over 3,000 in 2001, a small rise of less than 2% over the period. Obviously, this figure was much less in the 1930’s and considerably less at the time of the First War. Count the number of men commemorated here and try to imagine the impact then on what is still a close knit community now. As that wonderful singer / songwriter Eric Bogle put it in his wonderful song “The band played Waltzing Matilda”, “a whole generation that was butchered and damned”
If you are interested in War Memorials in the United Kingdom, I would recommend the National Inventory of War Memorials website. This is run under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum in London, along with several other bodies, and it’s aim is to record the details of every war memorial in the United Kingdom including images. Perhaps you might want to get involved yourself. I certainly intend to as I think it is a worthwhile thing to do”. (Update: since I originally wrote this piece I have submitted numerous images to the organisation).
On the theme of the Great War, I had seen some guys earlier in the week retouching one of the murals for which Northern Ireland is rightly famous. This particular example is just beside the roundabout right at the top of the town where the Armagh and Portadown roads meet. The quality of some of these very public works of art is quite honestly amazing and the example in the town commemorates the fallen of that bloody conflict of local men.
Many of the local Protestant community had been members of a paramilitary force called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) prior to the hostilities. This was an organisation determined to resist Home Rule i.e. Irish independence by any means but with the outbreak of war most of them joined the regular British Army and tended to be posted to units together in much the same way as the famous “Pals Battalions” mainly recruited in Northern England. In the case of Tandragee most of the local men were posted to the Royal Irish Fusiliers, specifically the 9th (Service) Battalion which, oddly perhaps, was raised in Belfast in 1914 although it recruited from volunteers from the counties of Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan (the latter two being now in the Irish Republic although geographically in the Province of Ulster – I told you it was complicated!). After training they were shipped to France, arriving in Le Havre or Boulogne (depending on which website you read) in October 1915 and thence to the front.
It is interesting to note that there was never conscription in any part of Ireland in either World War although there was in the rest of the UK. Given the political sensitivities of the island in WWI and the portion of it ruled by Britain in WWII it was deemed to be politically fraught. This did not stop hundreds of thousands of Irishmen volunteering for service in the British Army, even in WWII when men from the Irish Republic volunteered for the War. To this day, there are still plenty such men serving with distinction in the British forces.
Those that know anything about me, either personally or through my online meanderings will know that I have an inquisitive nature which honestly verges on mental disorder somewhere in the obsessive / compulsive spectrum. If I discover something that interests me I will not be content until I have ferreted out every single piece of information I can about it and so it has been these last days with 9 RIF to use a bit of military jargon. Fortunately, there are many excellent sources online now whereas in my youth I would have been physically trawling public Record Offices, Regimental Museums, the local library and who knows where else? It is so much easier now.
If you have no interest in WWI military history I suggest you skip to the bottom of this entry now or even to the next one when it appears but I just have it in my head that I needed to research this obviously very limited topic in the history of British arms and as this is my website to share it here. I just have this feeling that having looked at the photographic image in the mural of a group of young men, most of whom never returned here, and having visited the War Memorial on so many occasions that I owe it to them. When I lived in Northern Ireland I moved around a lot but I do not feel like Armagh or Belfast or Lurgan or anywhere else is home for me now as they once were. Tandragee is my “home” when I come back these days and I do feel a great affinity for it even if I was not born nor raised here. 70 odd years earlier, if I had lived here then it could have been me in that Unit and in that carnage, a sobering thought.
Let’s start with the RIF, a very famous regiment with a long and proud history. Like so many British, and specifically Irish, Regiments it is actually an amalgamation in 1881 of two previous units although decades of defence cuts since have now rendered it part of the Royal Irish Rangers along with just about every other outfit with any sort of Irish heritage. Whilst I understand the rationale behind moving forward into the 21st century with all the challenges of modern warfare and the need to streamline, I cannot help but feel that much has been lost in terms of unit pride and when the sole reason for wholesale cuts and amalgamations is financial rather that operational, it becomes abhorrent to me. Don’t get me wrong, the Rangers are excellent and well-regarded but it is just not the same.
The two regiments I alluded to above were the 87th (Prince of Wales’s Irish) Regiment of Foot and the 89th (The Princess Victoria’s) Regiment of Foot. The 87th was raised in 1793 by Dubliner John Doyle and distinguished itself in the Peninsular / Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. It was the first regiment to capture a French eagle (equivalent to a British standard) at the Battle of Barossa and went on to fight in the Capture of Mauritius in 1810. With Napoleon eventually defeated they were posted to Asia to spend 12 years fighting in Nepal and Burma during the Gurkha War (1814–1816) before some unusually far-sighted senior officer decided we were better with the Gurkhas on our side instead of fighting them. Since then, they have served the British with incredible distinction to this very day. For a relatively small Brigade, Gurkhas and their British officers have won an amazing 26 Victoria Crosses. When the 87th weren’t doing this they fought a Burmese War and the Indian Mutiny. Busy boys.
The 89th was raised the same year as the 87th by Lieutenant General Andrew Thomas Blayney, 11th Baron Blayney, and was known as “‘Blayney’s Bloodhounds” for it’s efficacy in hounding down Irish Republicans during the Rebellion of 1798. When they were not busy quelling rebellious countrymen they found time to distinguish themselves in the Peninsular War (1808-1815), specifically the Battle of Fuengirola, distinguished themselves again at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm during the Anglo-American War of 1812 and also served during the Crimean War (1854) and the Indian Mutiny (1857). Another bunch of busy boys.
When these two battle-proven entities got together the new regiment was likely to be greater than the sum of the parts and so it was to prove. A stint in the Boer War (1899-1902) soon proved this and showed that they were a force to be reckoned with.
The British Army is awash with nicknames, some more easily understood than others and one of the several that attached to the Fusiliers was the “Old Foggies”. This does not refer to an engagement fought in climatic conditions of poor visibility but rather to their motto / battlecry of “Faugh a Ballagh” which is Gaelic for “Clear the Way” and with faugh in this case being pronounced like “fog” rather than “laugh”. Laughs were certainly to be in short supply in their next major engagement, the First World War.
The 9th RIF, including most of the Tandragee lads, were posted to the 108th Brigade which I must admit I had never heard of as a unit designation until I started researching this and only reinforces yet again my belief that I learn so much whilst doing this vaguely travel related writing. The 108th comprised five battalions of Royal Irish Rifles (RIR), two of RIF, a mortar company and a machine gun battery. They in turn were part of the 36th (Ulster) Division which will be well known to anyone with the slightest interest in this particular war and is almost part of the collective consciousness, if not the DNA, of people from Northern Ireland to this day. The fighting spirit of the Irish is the stuff of legend, often in a slightly joking way, but with a firm foundation in truth. The almost incredible bravery of these often ill-educated farm boys and manual labourers from the towns and cities stands to this day and having digressed so far I might as well go the whole hog and provide a few quotes relating to this legendary Division, and I do not use the word legend lightly as I feel it is much overused nowadays.
After the war H.M. King George V had this to say, “I recall the deeds of the 36th (Ulster) Division, which have more than fulfilled the high opinion formed by me on inspecting that force on the eve of its departure for the front. Throughout the long years of struggle, which now so gloriously ended, the men of Ulster have proved how nobly they fight and die”.
Winston Churchill, who was to become the iconic figure of the war which proved that WWI was not “the war to end all wars” said, “The record of the Thirty-Sixth Division will ever be the pride of Ulster. At Theipval in the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916; at Wytschaete on 17 June 1917, in the storming of the Messines Ridge; on the Canal du Nord, in the attack on the Hindenburg Line of 20 November the same year; on 21 March 1918, near Fontaine-les-Clercs, defending their positions long after they were isolated and surrounded by the enemy; and later in the month at Andechy in the days of ‘backs to the wall’, they acquired a reputation for conduct and devotion deathless in military history of the United Kingdom, and repeatedly signalised in the despatches of the Commander-in-Chief”.
Finally, Richard Doherty, the author and broadcaster whose book on the Irish Generals I am currently reading and have mentioned here before, said, “Whether town dweller or country lad, volunteer or regular, officer or other rank, Catholic or Protestant, the Sons of Ulster knew a comradeship and a trust in adversity that should be a lesson to us all”. I told you that things tend to go round in circles for me and I only discovered this quote whilst researching this piece and never having heard of Mr. Doherty until about three days ago. Very strange but in the divided, violent and bloody history of the island where I was born I think it is perhaps the most fitting quote of them all.
That the Division won nine Victoria Crosses (the highest UK military honour for exceptional bravery in the face of the enemy and very rarely awarded) perhaps speaks even louder than the words of monarchy, politicians or academics. Yes, without any embarrassment, I am bloody proud to be an Ulsterman.
That then is the general setup of the massive groupings that formed a Division in WWI but what of my “mates” in the tiny cog of that huge machine sending men to be butchered in the mincer of the Western Front? Obviously there is much less information available about them but this is what I have managed to cobble together.
The 9th moved to Newtownards in February 1915 and thence to Seaford in November of that year. If you are unaware, and I know I have readers all over the world, both these places are in what is now Northern Ireland and then they were sent, literally, into Hell with 652 men sailing to France in October 1915. A look at the excellent website here gives very comprehensive details but for those of you who do not wish to read through it I shall try to give a brief (as brief as I can ever be when on a roll) overview.
After a week of heavy enemy bombardment with associated casualties the 1st of July rolled around. This was to be a day that will forever be written into the annals of British military history as it was the “Big Push” in the Somme region when military tactics on both sides seemed to consist of pointlessly ordering countless thousands of men to their death in a conflict where the technology (machine guns, gas and murderously heavy artillery) had far outstripped tactical or strategic thinking. That alleged thinking from both sets of general staff seemed to be that if you could afford to sacrifice more men than the enemy then you would win. What exactly you might win was never really considered properly as little thought seems to have been given to strategic objectives but rather it was a matter of “we are going to advance”. Back again to the Eric Bogle line quoted earlier, “a whole generation that was butchered and damned”.
This was the first day of what was to become called the Battle of the Somme and which is still commemorated with a large Orange Order parade in Belfast on that date. There are numerous reports of men going “over the top” to almost certain death to the accompaniment of fifes (a small piccolo like flute) and drums as they would have done in an Orange parade at home. Many of them died. Even if you do not read the entire war diary which I have attached above, I would encourage you to look at this one page. During that awful day and the early hours of the following day two officers were killed with another five missing believed killed. Eight were injured and one was evacuated with shell shock. Of the other ranks 56 were killed, 303 were wounded and 159 were missing, most never to return. Mere numbers can often blur the reality of historical events so think of it like this. The numbers above add up to a total of 541 dead, missing or wounded, many with horrendous and life changing injuries. Imagine if you will, six full double decker buses and a few more standing at the bus stop all killed or injured and that is the scale of what you are looking at. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Early on the 2nd July, the Battalion handed over the line to the 87th Brigade and withdrew to Martinsart although they were not done with the action as they spent the next three nights searching no man’s land for casualties during which the Adjutant, Lt. Cather, was killed.
So what happened to the 9th and it’s Tandragee men after that bloody and awful day? With approximately one third of the strength either killed or wounded even the 10th (Reserve) Battalion could not make up the numbers and so men of The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) were drafted in in August followed by 103 men, mostly of The London Regiment, on 26 November. Whilst still nominally an Ulster Battalion this identity was being rapidly eroded by circumstance and it was not over yet.
Obviously there were the usual casualties of war in the period up to 16th August 1917 but they pale completely into insignificance compared to the events of that day and the Battle of Langemarck, which is situated in Belgian Flanders and constituted part of the third Battle of Ypres (or Wipers as it was known to the definitely non-polyglot average British soldier). It was an engagement that was yet again to virtually wipe out the Battalion.
Conditions were appalling for the British / French attacking force as they were attacking uphill and a mixture of heavy unseasonal rain and a devastatingly heavy artillery bombardment prior to the advance had reduced the entire battlefield to a quagmire where it was virtually impossible to move forward. Back again now to my earlier comments about the military strategy, or rather woeful and criminal lack thereof, and it was a case of “Right, lads over the top and get killed” and get killed they did in vast numbers.
When considering this action and many others I cannot help but think of the classic Pink Floyd line, “Forward he cried from the rear and the front rank died” and this line of thought also gives rise to the title of this entry which is a fairly famous quote describing the undoubtedly brave other ranks being led by stupid and incompetent officers. The exact origin of the phrase is disputed but my well have been uttered by a Russian officer during the Crimean War (1850’s) and reported home in a letter by a British soldier.
Once again the 9th including what was left of the Tandragee lads I started out researching here were in the thick of the action and suffered for it. I wonder how many of the original men, many of them little more than boys, were still left in the Battalion by this point and I know that by the end of the day there would have been less as the casualties on that terrible day in the mud and the blood of the oft-quoted “Flanders fields” were only marginally less than the decimation of the Somme debacle. No less than 456 all ranks were killed, wounded or captured – think of the double decker buses again as that is possibly the only way you can get your head round the sheer scale of the waste of human life involved in this whole obscenity, for such it was.
What was achieved for this repugnant loss of young men’s lives? Frankly, very little. The French on one flank had made a bit of progress but the British General Staff eventually, and far too late, realised they were going nowhere fast and put the offensive on hold until the weather turned in September, the ground dried out and they started again, eventually taking the Gheluvelt Plateau by October when the rains returned.
With the 9th so badly mauled you might think they would have been stood down and amalgamated into another Battalion but perhaps the senior officers in a rare example of intelligence knew what these men were worth and so rather than move them elsewhere, they reinforced them in a move that was to restore the Ulster identity somewhat although at what a cost was that identity recovered. The Second North Irish Horse, a cavalry unit, had been disbanded and compulsorily dismounted i.e. turned into infantry. There was no place for horses in what had effectively become mechanised slaughter. This was in the days when cavalry had become redundant and the modern role of them being light, mobile armoured was but a distant dream. In WW1 tanks had just been invented, were unreliable, difficult to steer and in terribly short supply.
It is interesting to note that the North Irish Horse were not a regular unit and were designated yeomanry i.e. part timers / Territorials / militia or whatever designation your country uses. They were the first non-regular unit to be deployed in WWI. They were drawn from what had been B and C Squadrons of the original unit. I shall return to the North Irish Horse in a future blog as yet another very odd thing has just happened whilst researching this.
I know little about British Army Cavalry armaments prior to WWI but I am guessing they may have used saddle holstered carbines although not the .303 Enfield which was the weapon of choice for the infantry so how useful they were as infantrymen, a completely different discipline, is open to debate. Whatever their efficacy, 570 men were transferred to the 9th in September. It still wasn’t over for whatever was left of the contingent from my home place as in November 1917 thy lost 89 men in an action at Moeuvres during the Battle of Cambrai. This is nothing compared to the earlier massacres but go back to your double decker bus mindset and that is another full one wiped out.
Surely the gallant 9th must have done enough by now. Wrong. In early 1918, the 7th/8th Royal Irish Fusiliers was disbanded and the 213 men remaining were transferred to the 9th. What the proportion of Ulstermen was in that draft is now lost in the mists of time but I cannot think that there were many Tandragee men involved in that or regular enlistment except those that had become old enough (or lied about being old enough, a common practice) as they had all volunteered at the outset. It appears the 9th had not done enough as all but destroyed in the retreat from St Quentin to Ypres.
Yet again they were reinforced by what we in the Forces would have called “odds and sods”. Another 122 men from the London Regiment, 14 from the RIR, 105 from the Service Corps and, perhaps most bizarrely, 68 men from the Army Veterinary Corps. I suppose if they had dismounted most of the cavalry then there was less need for veterinary trained troops but it still looks odd to me. Were there any Tandragee men even left by this point? There was to be one final draft in 1918 of 137 RIR men so I am guessing the Ulster identity was reasonably restored and they were needed as the Battalion fought almost constantly from August to 26th October, a mere two weeks before the Armistice.
Just to complete this piece, I shall include here the names of those who did not make it back to my home village after both World Wars and I cannot help wondering how many of those who did return after the First were even fit enough to attend the unveiling of the Memorial in 1925.
There you have it, I am done in more than one sense of the word. I have now spent almost three full days of my waking hours when not visiting my Father, feeding myself or late night reading of some interesting books in bed researching the 9th of the RIF. Yes, others have done it better, I have relied heavily on them for my source material and I would never set myself up as any authority on the subjects touched on here. I am actually posting this on the evening of the 16th although I will backdate it so it makes sense in the scheme of the website. I have been working here on finishing this for over five hours now. Sure, I have had the benefit of a couple of pints of cider (no, I am not drunk before you ask) and a bit of chat with my mates but basically working. Frankly, having not slept too long last night I am feeling a bit done, hence the opening sentence in this paragraph.
As always, I should like your comments on this piece. I realise it has become something of a dissertation of a very tiny proportion of the British Army in WWI and as such may be of very limited interest to many of you but I would refer you back to an earlier comment here. I looked at the mural, looked at the faces of the youngsters (for the most part) looking at me from a monochrome print, thought of the complete biological accident of the year of my birth and the potential repercussions had I been born another time and I knew I had to research it and share it.
Do you think it is of any interest or is it something you can find out for yourself if you have an inclination so to do. I do not merely cut and paste chunks from other websites but I attempt to add personal anecdotes and so on which I believe “adds value” to use an awful marketing phrase. I shall certainly welcome and consider any and all constructive comments although I am fully aware that I am very much a “one trick pony” and can only write the way I do. Free now of the constraints of commercial sites who were sometimes hyper-sensitive, I can say what I think although I shall never be offensive to anyone and will be quite prepared to back up anything I write. I spend long enough researching it to be able to back it up!
Would you prefer me just to regale you with stories of the sometimes quite bizarre things that attach themselves to me like iron filings to a magnet. I really am finding my way here and any sort of feedback is greatly appreciated.
I shall attempt to post this now which may take some time with the various processes that have to be gone through but I shall do my best and just to round it out a bit I should point out that I did not even go to the pub, which is unusual for me. What I did instead, as I worked on this was to sit at home and watch the final of the cricket World Cup in the most dramatic of circumstances on the last ball of a “Superover”, basically the cricket equivalent of a football (soccer) penalty shootout. Whilst this game was in progress, the British Formula One race was taking place and the men’s singles at Wimbledon ended up in an equally thrilling encounter where Novak Djodkevic narrowly defeated Roger Federer in the final game, final set finale. Just to put the icing on the cake, in two days time the British Open Golf Championship will open at Royal Portrush, normally 90 minutes drive from where I am typing this but which will be virtually inaccessible for the duration. For a relatively small nation we do seem to punch way above our weight in sporting terms.
I think I am in a position to wind this saga up now but there is much more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.
Hello again and I do realise it is a few days since I last posted so I thought I had better catch up as I do not want to get too far behind. Although it was not the reason for my visit, as previously explained, I am here in the middle of what is generally known as the “marching season” which has been the cause of much contention and violence in recent decades although thankfully it seems to be relatively peaceful in the last couple of years, but I am getting slightly ahead of myself here.
Whilst I may be getting ahead of myself there is little to report as my life continued in a very regular way that will be of absolutely no interest to the reader. Daily visits to see my Father, occasional laundry, cooking for myself which I love but I confess has amounted to not much more than big “fry ups” as is my wont here and ready meals from a local supermarket. This is not something I usually do too often but I have to say that we are very well served here in Northern Ireland as there are several local companies producing such meals that are of a far higher quality than the comparable products churned out by the huge multi-nationals and sold just about everywhere in England. A couple of additional benefits are that these companies tend to use very local ingredients which are excellent and this keeps local farmers in business as well as cutting down on food miles if that is a concern for you.
On now to yesterday, Friday 12th July which is the largest of the marching days where members of the Orange Order parade to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. If you are not too well up on Irish history, and believe me it is a fairly complex area of study, I shall attempt to give you a very brief rundown. After a falling out with the Pope in the 16th century, King Henry VIII had broken away from the Catholic church and formed his own religion, the Church of England aka Anglican church. It was effectively part of the beginning of what we now know as Protestantism.
Protestantism had mostly held sway throughout the 17th century but there were still many who would have had a Roman Catholic monarch in England (and by default Ireland as well) and it eventually came to a showdown between the Dutch Protestant Prince William of Orange (hence the Orange Order) and the Roman Catholic King James. For various reasons, this confrontation happened in Ireland rather than mainland Britain.
William had landed in Carrickfergus, quite close to Belfast, in 1689 and there had been a series of indecisive battles at Derry, Aughrim and Enniskillen. The decisive conflict was at the River Boyne, now in the Irish Republic, where William defeated James and subsequently ascended the throne of England. This is seen as being the beginning of a Protestant monarchy in what is now the United Kingdom where Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is not only Sovereign but also the titular head of the Anglican Church. To this day all British coinage carries the legend “ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA FIDEI DEFENSATRIX, meaning “Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen and Defender of the Faith” reflecting her position in relation to the official religion of the country.
The 12th of July is a very big deal in Northern Ireland to the extent that it is a Bank (public) holiday. There are a number of parades all over the country with Orangemen marching, all wearing their sashes to denote their membership of the Order and accompanied by bands and a specific type of drummer of whom more in a moment. The largest parade is in Belfast as you might expect and then each county has it’s own parade. Whilst the Belfast route is the same every year, in the counties the location rotates round the various Districts of the Lodges in the County. In Co. Armagh, which is where Tandragee is, the rotation is an 11 year cycle and this year it happened to be in the town so I didn’t have to go far to see the festivities. It took me my usual 15 minutes to walk to my local, the Montagu Arms, which had very helpfully opened early so I took myself there, grabbed a seat at the bar with a couple of friends and awaited the parade which was going right past the door.
Latery Fife and Drum aka “Peaky Blinders.
One of the bands which did rather catch the eye and was the subject of much subsequent discussion was Latery Fife and Drum LOL #222. who were all attired in tweed flat caps. I do not know if this is a tradition of theirs or if it is a nod to a massively popular UK television drama series called “Peaky Blinders” which, for the benefit of people who do not have access to it, is about a criminal gang in the English Midlands in the interwar period. The rather unusual title derives from the fact that they sewed razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps which they then used in fights to slash opponents across the bridge of the nose and eyes thereby blinding them – charming! I am quite sure Latery only have them as a fashion statement.
12th of July Orange Order parade 2019
I was surprised how quiet the bar was initially as they had lot of extra staff on, they had constructed a beer garden complete with mobile bar in the back carpark and my mate Scoot was running a burger / hotdog stall in the archway beside the bar. I need not have worried with the place soon filling up as the parade approached and the first part of the parade began.
The local Lodges assemble at the War Memorial at the top of the town (I shall provide a full history of the Memorial in due course) and then they do a circuit of the town before returning to the top to “greet” the visiting Districts. The other Districts had previously assembled in a field a little way out of town and then processed into the town before going all the way to the bottom end (Tandragee stands on a hill) and the to “the Field” where there is a religious service and a few speeches before everyone processes back up the hill. At the top of the town the local Lodges disperse to their Lodge buildings and the visitors return to the assembly field before being bussed back to their respective towns and villages.
Emergency services handling of the 12th demonstration in Tandragee, 2019.
Emergency services handling of the 12th demonstration in Tandragee, 2019.
It was a great family day out and I was surprised by the very light police presence, at least overt police presence although I was told by friends that there were plenty of plain clothes officers about the place, everybody knows all the local cops in Northern Ireland as it is such a small place. When I left Northern Ireland in 1988 the 12th was one of the major policing operations of the year with all police leave cancelled and a huge Army backup in support. Yesterday, in what was the second biggest parade after Belfast I saw four officers on traffic duty at the top of the town, one motor cyclist at the conclusion of the march and another two pedalling slowly on bicycles in the middle of the parade which struck me as an eminently sensible method of policing. The Ambulance Service had the same idea and there were two paramedics on bicycles as well. The only problem I could see with it was that pedalling that slow they were all having difficulty staying upright! Have a look at the photo.
It is perhaps no surprise that the Armagh parade is always so big as it was in this County that the Orange Order started in 1795 in the cottage of one Dan Winter at the Diamond just outside Loughgall which is about seven or eight miles away from where I am writing this and where Loyal Orange Lodge (LOL) #1 was formed. All Lodges have numbers and names and I was chatting to a guy yesterday from LOL #3 which is obviously a fairly early Lodge.
The Orange Order is easily the largest of the Protestant fraternal groups but they are not the only one. There is also the Royal Black Preceptory (RBP) which was formed two years after the Orange Order in 1797 and is generally regarded as being the more exclusive “senior” arm of the whole grouping. To quote from their XXX attached website they were formed “with its foundations based firmly on scriptural truths and the propagation of the Christian Reformed Faith”.
They were parading today in Tandragee although I did not go to see it prior to everyone decamping to Scarva, which is about three miles distant, for another annual tradition called the “Sham Fight” which takes place every 13th of July. People dress up in costume to re-enact the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and it is always massively attended even though the weather is anything but summery today. Overcast and not too warm would best describe it. I am not a huge fan of large crowds, less still a six mile round trip walk with the very real possibility of rain. The RBP hold their main marches on the last Saturday of August.
I have mentioned the two major Orders but there is yet another one known as the Apprentice Boys of Derry, a somewhat odd name which probably needs a bit of explanation and so here it is.
I know there is considerable contention about the name of the second city of Northern Ireland as in Londonderry / Derry (or even Doire in the Gaelic) but in the days to which this story refers it was known in English as Derry before the London prefix appeared. In 1688 at the beginning of the Williamite wars the city was strategically important and was walled for purposes of defence and, indeed, the walls are still in good order and walkable for the full distance. A Catholic Jacobite force tried to attack the city by way of a surprise attack on the 7th of December of that year and very nearly succeeded but for the actions of a group of 13 apprentice boys who charged down to the gate and barred it just ahead of the invaders. Tere were subsequent attacks including one where James himself appeared and was commanded by French officers.
The initial attack had been thwarted but there then ensued a 105 day long siege from 18th April to 1st August 1689 which led to appalling starvation and death. Rats were changing hands for huge amounts of money as sources of food. To prevent any sort of relief force sailing up the River Foyle the besiegers erected a boom across the river a couple of miles downstream. As a child (I lived there until I was 11) I remember playing with my younger brother and local friends round the remains of an old semi-derelict manor house which probably wasn’t the safest thing to be doing as it was just about falling down even back then in the 1960’s. The name of this crumbling edifice was Boom Hall as it was where the boom had been sited. Today, Boom Hall is long gone and the whole grounds are now a rather salubrious housing development. Eventually the siege was relieved without the town capitulating and the event is commemorated every August with the Apprentice Boys parade through the city. Of all the various parades in the “marching season” this one probably has the greatest potential for violence as the Cityside (as opposed to the Waterside across the river) is predominantly Roman Catholic / Nationalist / Republican and the route goes very close to some extremely hardcore Republican areas. I suspect the PSNI (local police) will not get away with two bicycles, one motorcycle and a few foot officers on traffic point for that one.
I realise that anyone writing about Irish history and politics, specifically those of Northern Ireland, runs the risk of allegations of bias one way or another and so I have been at great pains to be as objective as possible. I do hope I have succeeded as the last thing Northern Ireland needs is more rubbish talked about it.
Orange Order banner.
Orange Order banner.
Orange Order banner.
There are a couple of other things to mention in relation to the images you can see here and the first is the banners. Nearly every Lodge has a large banner of the type you can see which will have generally have the LOL number, Lodge name and two artworks on front and back. Some of the smaller Lodges make do with a smaller bannerette but that is not usual. The banners range from religious scenes to historical events to depictions of the people for whom memorial Lodges are named. In this category I noticed Stronge Memorial a lodge named for Sir Norman Stronge who was murdered along with his son by the IRA in 1981 at his home in Tynan Abbey in Co. Armagh. I worked for a while in nearby Caledon and revisited Tynan a few years ago with my Canadian friend Lynne. I wrote a piece for the Virtual Tourist website at the time and I shall reproduce part of it here to explain about Sir Norman.
“Although I had lived in Northern Ireland all my life I don’t believe I had ever even heard of Tynan until an event in January 1981 which, even by the standards of a country that had witnessed so much brutality in the previous 12 years, shocked most people and it is this incident that people probably most associate with the place.
On that date, eight heavily armed IRA terrorists attacked Tynan Abbey, murdered Sir Norman Stronge and his son James. Sir Norman was 86, a decorated veteran of both World Wars, having fought in the Battle of the Somme in the First before pursuing a career in politics where he rose to be Speaker of the Northern Ireland House of Commons. James, his 48 year old son was also a retired Army officer who had taken up politics on leaving the Forces and actually succeeded his Father as Speaker when the former retired due to ill-health. He was also a part-time volunteer RUC (police) officer. After murdering the occupants the terrorists fire-bombed the 230 year old building leaving it irreparable. It eventually had to be demolished on safety grounds in the late 1990’s”. Interestingly, the IRA Active Service Unit (ASU) who perpetrated this atrocity, led by a mass murderer called James Lynagh were effectively wiped out in a joint SAS / RUC operation in 1987 in nearby Loughgall as they set out to perform another act of mass murder.
Regarding the banners of historical events, one which particularly caught my eye was the “Drowning of the Protestants” in the River Bann in nearby Portadown in November 1641 during the Irish Rebellion of that year. It was fairly graphic with naked women standing waist deep in water and protecting their modesty with their arms whilst surrounded by leering armed men. Whilst it is a representation of an actual historical event, it is hardly likely to engender cordial community relations.
Basically what happened was that the “plantation” of Ireland had begun in the very early 17th century whereby Protestant English and Scots were given grants of land, predominantly in the North of the island. This created much resentment amongst the indigenous population and there were many instances of armed Irish rounding up “planters” and marching them to boats on the coast to be forcibly repatriated to mainland Britain. One of these “roundups” happened in Co. Armagh and the prospective deportees were imprisoned overnight in a church in Loughgall which set me to thinking how many momentous events have occurred in what is still little more than a village there over centuries and right up into my lifetime.
The next day the prisoners were marched out and it became clear that there was no intention to repatriate them. At the River Bann they were stripped and herded into the water. I can personally attest to how brutally cold an Ulster November can be and most perished by drowning or exposure with those that remarkably did not immediately perish being dispatched by musket fire. It is now believed that approximately 1,250 Protestants were murdered in Co. Armagh, just another sorry episode in the history of this part of the world which never seems to end.
Speaking of cordial relations as I was above before my dissertation on the massacre, I should note that my local is a mixed bar and whilst there is some good-humoured banter loosely regarding religion and politics, it never gets nasty and several of my Roman Catholic friends, at least one of whom I know is very Nationalist minded although not violently so, were in and happily drinking with men in suits who had obviously been marching. Orangemen are not allowed to wear their sashes in places serving alcohol and there are even temperance lodges although I think this is merely nominal nowadays but it was obvious who they were, most of them were locals in the bar anyway. Even as the night wore on and with a considerable amount of drink consumed everything remained very convivial which is exactly as it should be. Would that it had always been thus.
The second thing of note are the large bass drums played with long pliable malacca sticks and are generically known as “Lambeg drums” after the village of Lambeg in Co. Antrim, perhaps 25 miles away from here. I have also heard them referred to as Killyman Wreckers for the townland of that name near Dungannon which straddles the Armagh / Tyrone border. They do not accompany bands as would a standard bass drum but beat out unusual rhythms unaccompanied. Part of the reason for this is that they are, along with bagpipes, one of the loudest acoustic instruments on the planet and can easily reach volumes of 120db thereby effectively drowning out completely the melodic instruments they are meant to be accompanying.
During the summer months there are often drumming competitions in various towns and villages across Northern Ireland. These consist of a number of drummers standing about in a circle and are not so much a musical contest as an endurance test. The drummers batter away until they drop out and last man (it is always men) standing is the winner, a process which can literally go on for hours. I have personally lifted one of the drums off the ground and they are very heavy so it really is a tough business as the drum is generally held in place by a single leather strap around the neck. As you can see from one of the images, they do start them young and you will sometimes see quite young lads drumming pretty competently on appropriately downsized drums.
Whenever I work out how to do it I shall post a collage of the several film clips I took of the event on Youtube and post a link here as it will give a much better general idea of what the whole event is about than any amount of my prose.
After the parade had been and gone, I retired to the bar to avail myself of the internet and have a couple of pints but the early start meant that I was just about exhausted and was home and in bed shortly after 2200 which is ludicrously early for me but it did have the knockon effect of causing me to rise at the equally ludicrous hour of 0600, oh dear. A few hours, a bit of offline writing of this piece and a breakfast and it was time for a rather early version of my customary afternoon dozette. I should point out a couple of things here in relation to this, a) I took breakfast which is a thing I rarely do and b) despite the Montagu being open I am writing this at home at 1740 having consumed nothing stronger than green tea and coffee all day. I must be getting sensible in my old age but I am considering a move imminently so I will hopefully get this posted when I get down to the pub this evening. There will be live music and it is generally good fun.
I have another ten days here and in the meantime I shall content myself with trying to get my Malta series finished, a situation that actually looks vaguely possible now. There will obviously be other things to report on from this trip so stay tuned and spread the word.
OK, OK I know, it has been a while and quite a long while in fact since I posted anything here on the contemporary entries although I have been posting certain historical posts regarding a 2013 trip to Malta which you can read about here. Again, I like to be honest in my reporting here and I must admit that even this has tailed off recently. I fully appreciate that this is no big deal as I have such a limited readership but to those who do keep up with my meagre scribblings I apologise.
In my last entry I mentioned that I was going to try to get to Sri Lanka last November to see my friend and catch some of the cricket series with England as the visitors. For reasons far too mundane to bore you with, that did not happen and the date got pushed back to Xmas, then the New Year and still awaits although it is the wrong time of year to visit now so that looks like another few months before that may become reality.
Unusually for an inveterate traveller like me I had been nowhere since last November until last weekend when I returned to Northern Ireland and hence the slightly odd title of this entry and accompanying image. Those of you who have read my previous entries will know that when I am in the Province I stay in my Father’s house in Tandragee, Co. Armagh and tend to have a daily “Ulster Fry” which is near enough the national dish and which I love. I hope I do not sound conceited but I reckon I make a fairly reasonable version a “fry up” and I have not poisoned anyone with my cooking yet to the best of my knowledge. The offering pictured above is from Sunday, 7th July and it was very tasty if I do say so myself.
So what am I doing back home in the land of my birth? A couple of reasons actually. I had been invited to my cousin’s wedding (of which more in a moment) and also I wanted to come home to see my Father who sadly had a bit of a tumble a while ago and spent some time in hospital with a broken leg which has now thankfully healed nicely but he is still not able to look after himself at home and is in a nursing home at present and so I had decided to spend a few weeks at home. Here is a quick precis of what has happened so far.
I left home on Friday, 28th June to make it to the wedding on the Saturday. As is my wont I had decided to go train and ferry via Holyhead and Dublin which would have got me home at about 2200 that evening and I knew my brother and sister-in-law would give me a lift to the wedding the next day. Those who have followed this blog from the beginning will know that last year the ferry company let me down badly by sailing 90 minutes late which caused me to miss the last train to Northern Ireland from Dublin and led to an enforced night in the Irish capital after having trudged round several establishments trying to find a bed. I must be jinxed on this route now although this time the railway / ferry company were not to blame but rather a taxi firm which I have been using for over 30 years with excellent results. I really did not fancy lugging a suitcase on the Tube (Underground / Metro) and so I had ordered a minicab in plenty of time to get me to Euston for a train which would be the first leg of a journey getting me back to Tandragee that night.
The appointed hour arrived and no sign of the minicab. I told you I must be jinxed on this route and I must be as my mobile (cell) ‘phone had died and, indeed, I have had to replace it now so I could not call the cab office. I left it for a while and then bit the bullet and dragged my kit up to the cab office where they denied any knowledge of my booking which is very unusual as thy have never failed me before. I was still in good time and asked if they could get me a cab then but “no can do” and it would be up to a couple of hours as they were busy with contract jobs and were short-staffed. They told me I would be quicker getting the Tube which I did, arriving at Euston in time to narrowly miss my train. That train was my last chance to get back to Northern Ireland that night and it was now rattling North through Watford Junction with me standing on the concourse in London. Brilliant but not disastrous as I knew I would have to spend the night in Dublin but I could get an early train to Belfast and go straight to the wedding, luggage and all.
The journey was totally uneventful and, despite my logistical problems I still prefer this to the hassle of flying short haul nowadays. I got as far as Dublin and headed straight for the hostel I had stayed in last year which is near Connolly Station where I would depart from and which I had found perfectly comfortable on my previous visit. It is called Jacob’s Inn and you can check it out here. I was a little concerned about the availability of beds as it was the day before the Dublin Pride march and I knew that large crowds were expected. I had no problem thankfully and I scored a “pod” (for which read coffin) in a 10 person room which cost me over €40. I honestly believe that Dublin is far more expensive than London which is historically supposed to be one of the dearest cities in the world. I didn’t sleep much but that is just down to my slightly crazy sleep patterns and nothing to do with the surroundings.
Come the Saturday morning and I was up early, scrubbed and dressed in my finery and in good time for the Enterprise train to Belfast where I arrived several hours before the festivities were due to begin. It was way too early to go to the hotel where the wedding was scheduled for 1500 so I mooched about drinking coffee and checking e-mails before grabbing a cab to the venue for about 1300. I went to the reception, named my cousin the groom and asked where the ceremony would be. She gave me directions to a suite and I said I would wait in the bar where I unusually only had a soft drink as I didn’t really feel like a pint, strange times indeed! About ten minutes later, another lady from the reception desk approached me and asked me if I was there for the X wedding to which I replied in the affirmative. Looking slightly embarrassed she dropped the bombshell that it had been the previous day! What? I pulled the invite out of my pocket and indeed it had been on the Friday. I still do not realise how the lady on the reception had made the same mistake as me and not spotted that the wedding had been and gone. How I had managed to do this I have no idea as I must have looked at the thing dozens of times but I had presumably established some mental block and was aiming all along for the Saturday.
It was a strange sensation, a mixture of feeling extremely stupid, very regretful I had missed the event and slightly terrified of my Aunt’s reaction after I had promised her faithfully I would be there “come Hell or high water” to use the exact phrase I used in my reply to her e-mail. The gates of Hell had not opened, there was no Biblical flood and it was merely my total stupidity that had tripped me up. I felt awful but was cheered up slightly when I was approached by a middle aged man who introduced himself as the father of the bride and was charm itself and not in the least reproachful about my “no show”. I was later to discover that he is a minister of religion and had actually conducted the wedding service himself. He took his leave and I was not feeling quite so bad when I was approached by my cousin who I took a moment to recognise as I have not seen him for many, many years. With him was his new bride, an utterly charming young lady whom I had never met before and a young girl who is her daughter from a previous relationship. The child was terribly well behaved and polite and we got on like a house on fire. There is also apparently a younger child but I did not get to meet him. It is a source of constant amazement to me that people tell me I am really good with children and I suspect that it is a fair assessment although I cannot for the life of me work out why as I have no offspring of my own. Perhaps they sense a similar type of mind, who knows?
We chatted away for a while and they were most graceful about my failure to appear, correctly ascribing it to the genuine error it was. I would hardly have turned up in all my finery a day late had I just wanted to avoid the entire event. At least I had the opportunity to give them my gift which was much better than having to post it. I still had to face the potential wrath of my Aunt but at least the main protagonists did not seem to bear a grudge towards me. There was not much point in me staying there any longer so I made my way back to Tandragee and went to my brother’s house but he was not in so I went to my Dad’s, let myself in, got changed into some half sensible clothes and settled down for the evening.
What happened next was that life quickly moved into a very quiet and domesticated routine that actually suits me very well as it did last year. For some reason, I manage to sleep at vaguely civilised hours and I eat much more regularly than I do in my own place. I have no explanation for this but it seems to be a fact. Every day my brother and sister-in-law pick me up in the afternoon and we go to the Nursing Home to visit Father. The weather has been normal Northern Ireland standard i.e. rubbish and not at all like the unseasonal but very welcome heatwave I enjoyed at this time last year but Sunday was a reasonable day between the showers and we took Father for a walk in the fresh air in his wheelchair to the end of the drive (the Nursing Home was formerly a large country mansion complete with mews) to see the horse which is there. Sadly you can no longer feed the animal as it has laminitis and is on limited grass but my Father seemed to enjoy petting him as he was quite a good horseman in his younger days.
I realise it will be of very limited interest to most readers but I am back to my earlier principle that this is as much for my remembrance as it is hopefully a valid travel entity and so you will see above (l. to r.) your humble narrator, my new best friend the very placid horse, my Father and my younger brother. Thanks to my sister-in-law for doing the needfuls with the camera.
Other than these daily excursions I have done very little and have not even been going to the pub which is my usual habit when at home. Those that know me well will find the next statement surprising to say the least but I didn’t have a drink for over a week and one packet of cigarettes lasted me four days, both of which are unheard of situations. I popped into my local pub on Saturday for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to catch up with my friends round the town, having been home for a week and not spoken to any of them and also because I have no internet at home and need to go to the wonderful Montague Arms to do what I need to do, including posting this. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Other than that I had a quick run into Portadown and a couple of hours in Armagh, both of which were quick trips down memory lane as I had lived in both places many years ago.
The day I went to Portadown, I had arranged to meet my brother at the train station as he was collecting my Auntie (mother of the groom at the missed wedding) to take her down to see my Father. I was dreading it but I need not have worried. My Aunt appeared with her friend in tow who she grew up with in the ’50’s and who has lived in Canada for decades, returning for one of her infrequent visits. Again I was reduced to grovelling apology for my total stupidity but I need not have worried. I have no idea why but I suspect I have always been a bit of a favourite of this particular Auntie and she seemed rather more concerned that I had missed out on what was by all accounts a great day rather than castigating me for my absence. Phew!
I think that is me fairly well up to date here now so what does the immediate future hold for me and this site? The simple truth is that I do not know. Being at home undoubtedly does me good and I do actually enjoy it here albeit I do nothing of note except my daily visits to visit my Father. I have a dental appointment in London towards the end of the month which I can alter but the big kicker in the whole affair is the Broadstairs Folk Week (BFW) which I have played for 29 of the last 30 years, only missing 2016 as I was travelling and playing occasionally in Canada. Eventually, this will form the basis of another travelogue when I ever get round to it but I have ruled myself out of being formally booked now for that gig as my fairly unconventional lifestyle means I am never sure where I might be come the second week in August.
I really should explain the situation regarding my position with BFW as it may appear a little confusing. Over the 30 year period mentioned I have attended in various guises from roadie through troubadour (one man and his guitar) to duos, trios and full bands. I will bore you some other time about me sitting in a bar 40 minutes before a gig making ‘phone calls to try to find someone to play with me or being dragged (physically by the arm!) by the Artistic Director to play a gig when I had never even met my fellow musician before to cover a band who had broken down on the motorway. Tony Brown, take a bow here.
I suspect that this is why they tolerate me as I am certainly no great shakes as a musician but I would like to think I am a fairly steady accompanist and can manage to follow most things even if I have not heard them. In one very “honest debrief” the aforementioned Artistic Director (now retired after 18 years of very hard work) I asked her why the Hell she ever booked me as I personally knew at least a dozen guitar / vocal “sidemen” that were far better than me. Kim looked me straight in the eye which was only possible as we were both sitting as I am 6’5″ and she is about 5’4″ and said, in all sincerity, “I like having you round Fergy as I know you are always here, I can get the crew to find you by trawling the pubs and I know you’ll just step in and do anything. I have any amount of brilliant musicians here (she did book some great acts) and you are not one of them (I told you it was an honest debrief) but you are my insurance policy. You are a showman and you’ll either do it yourself or get someone with you because you know everybody. I know when you are here, I’m covered”. The reader might consider this to be somewhat of a backhanded compliment but it is absolutely true and I was so chuffed when she said it. It was one of the nicest htings anyone has ever said to me.
My main thing at BFW however, when not playing my own gigs is the daily playaround currently being held in fantastic George pub, a mere 120 yards door to door from where I stay with my friends which is handy. For those of you not aware of the nuances of the folk music world and, let’s be honest in saying that, for most people it ranks somewhere between alchemy and necromancy a playaround is an open music session where anyone of any musical ability can turn up and join in and I love them. Singarounds are the same for songs rather than tunes. For playarounds there are usually one or more “leaders” to keep the thing from degenerating into mayhem which it can do. The leader goes round the room in order and calls upon everyone to “lead” a tune although there is no stigma attached if you do not feel confident enough, the baton passes to the next player. I’ll tell you about the specifics of the BFW playaround now.
Any good playaround depends completely upon a good “leader” and in Paul Lucas we have one of the best in the business. I have been playing with the guy for 30 years now and he is a genius. He plays banjo (very occasionally other instruments) and has a great singing voice. He has a repertiore of songs and tunes that must easily reach four figures and can follow just about anything he has never even heard before. They guy was well-established through his lovely wife Sue who had something to do with organising the Folk Week in times that mostof the current crop of artists would consider to be pre-history but we have had some wonderful sessions over the years. When we are finished there, he normally has something else set up for the afternoon, quite often in the excellent 39 Steps micropub where we are not even officially booked but we drag a few mates up and play and they look after us very well there. That is the joy of what we do, we just hang out and play and, thankfully, people seem to enjoy it.
The other main featrure of the BFW playaround is that one of the booked “proper” artists turns up every day as advertised in the programme and sits at Paul’s left side, I have possibly ridiculously done it myself in my heyday there. Last year (2018) for some reason the Thursday was still TBC (to be confirmed) and Paul asked me if I’d cover it. Of course I would and be happy to do so and so for that day I had to shift seats to Paul’s left side and do effectively what I had been doing on his right side all week although my newly conferred status as “booked guest” (albeit I was not even on the programme anywhere else) meant that I had to sing a couple of songs. Whilst it is very predominantly tunes, “booked guests” like me who are primarily accompanists are allowed to sing so I knocked out a few of my old standards which seemed to go down well.
Oh dear, it has happened again. I only intended a brief diversion into why I might be going back to mainland UK and ended up in a dissertation about the organisation and musical etiquette of Folk Festivals. I do hope I have not bored the reader too much. It is getting about time I was getting back home to make my dinner as I do not want to sit here all night drinking can you believe I just said that?). I’ll get this posted now with appropriate links hopefully and do a bit more offline tonight in relation to my Malta trip although I am totally reliant on having properly researched it all first time around but I shall still check all the links etc.
One way or another it seems like I shall be going back to mainland UK in a couple of weeks to start another little adventure, it has been far too long and I miss being on the road.
There is much more to come and I have a little time to write it up now, albeit under internet zero conditions but I’ll try to get my Malta trip finished asap so stay tuned and spread the word.
I fully appreciate that it has been a long time since I posted anything current here so allow me to explain.
I have not been entirely idle (which is a change for me) and I have managed to finish off a few series of travelogues which are hopefully “pinned” (as I believe the term is) to the top of the homepage here. I really am not good at this technology thing. Please do have a look at them as all my best stuff is old history and the only way I can keep track is to backdate it which means it all tends to get a bit lost.
So what has been happening? Well, quite a bit actually. I have fallen into the “Broadstairs Triangle” as I call it and which, it must be said, is far more potentially conclusive than it’s Bermuda cousin unless you know what you are about. This is not me trying to make a point but I actually know people here who came for a holiday decades ago and never managed to go home. It really is that kind of place. I know other places like this (Perranporth in Cornwall being a fine example) but this place really sucks people in and it is not hard to see why.
If I was just sitting about festering, now that the unseasonably good late weather has turned nasty (it is Baltic out there and howling a gale as I write) it would be difficult to explain my continued presence here but Broadstairs isn’t like that. I have been playing regularly, guesting at a couple of folk clubs and the icing on the cake came a couple of weeks ago.
My dear friends John and Jo own a tiny (and very good) little gastropub up the road called the Reef Bar which they had to close for a while as the beer cellar had been turned into a paddling pool by yet another failure of the local water company. Without wishing to labour the point, a foreign company (J.P. Morgan to be precise) have bought out a local utility on behalf of their shareholders and screwed what they were supposed to be protecting. That is multi-national corporate business for you. What do American billionaires care about a couple trying so hard to run a good little bar / restaurant. Answer. Square root of nothing. I try not to be too political but I am concerned about this.
Having fought the incompetent utility alleged provider through their insurance company and had to shut their business for about six weeks (a lot in a 30? cover) establishment, my friends are re-opening and, against all logic, they have asked me to play the re-opening night. No pressure then! In truth, I do not really stress about gigs, I just turn up and play behind other people usually but apparently they trust me to actually do the grand re-launch. I mean, come on.
The recently retired artistic Director of the Folk Week would never give me an evening gig as she wasn’t sure of what state I would be in, which is unkind. I was never Jim Morrison or Ozzy or whoever. I wasn’t that lucky. I have to say that I have never missed a gig (barring being a little late one evening when the London Tube broke down in the tunnel) and I have never been too wasted to play. I think people overplay my persona a bit and I certainly do milk it, it’s all part of the scene. I will not ever screw a gig.
I told you previously that this site is going to be brutally honest, which I suppose is only of any value of anyone ever reads it but for whoever may, at some point, here are the memoirs of a guy that could play about four chords and managed to play all over the world with them. Sure, I would have loved to have played like Rory or Gary or Jimi or Steve or whoever but I’ll live with that.
I have roped one great mate (a superb banjo / mandolin player) in and I hope to get a few more mates about me so wish me luck. I am sure it will be grand. If I can manage the technology I shall post here an image of the poster that Jo (by trade a graphic designer) has knocked up for the event. You cannot believe how embarrassed I get walking past a bar (it is on the only road about 400 yards from my door) and seeing my own ugly mug staring out at me in A3 size from both the tiny front windows. It really is bizarre.
When I get that out of the way I shall be back to London to attend the Cenotaph for the Act of Remembrance on the 11th November as I do every year when I am in the country. It is particularly meaningful this year as it is the 100th anniversary of the end of the “War to end all wars”, which apparently was not. Yes, I shall be sad to leave Broadstairs as I always am because it holds a very special place in my heart but I have other things to be doing and I do not want to overstay my welcome.
My next run is back to Sri Lanka. OK, it is a bit earlier than usual in the year (I got down just before Christmas last year and in January the trip before) and I normally only go there every other year but England are playing cricket and I might even get the last Test if I work it right! OK, I’m not English but I do like my cricket albeit never having played a game in my life and I fancy seeing a Test match overseas. I am aiming for Test starting on the 23rd November in Colombo as I can go there on the bus from where I will be staying. Imagine commuting to a Test match every day!
That is the current situation in my life although, having looked at my stats on this page, I am now debating the wisdom of even starting this blog as nobody ever looks at it. I know self-promotion is everything in the 21st century but I am of a generation that was taught that “self-praise is no recommendation”. I am one of the possibly noble or possibly stupid few (possibly both as nobility seems to be a dying art) that have resisted the supposed lure of Fartbook, Instacrap, Twatter and all the rest. I do not wish to add to Steve FZuckerbergs billions, nor do I want my personal details hacked and sold to Asian crimxinals for the purposes of fraud.
Enough of this. I shall backpost a few bits and pieces of the time that I have been here although being myself they do not amount to much, a few decent gigs, some not so decent gigs, hanging out with great friends and enjoying myself. Really, how bad can life be? I am in a great place (in all senses of the word), plotting my Southern winter migration to another great place (ditto) and I am one happy man. This retirement business is certainly suiting me and I cannot believe that next April I will have been a pensioner for ten years. How old does that make me feel?
When I have rubbed linament on my aching old joints, taken my various medications to try to stave off aging, deleted the various e-mails offering me a stairlift (how do they know I am old?) and all the rest, I’ll be back with another wild meandering idiocy of a post here.
I am now debating which of the many previous rambles that I have managed one way and another to write about and still have saved despite the best efforts of one particular evil corporate entity to destroy (having stolen the content, I use the word advisedly, for their own use). One other website just went down due to lack of interest and that is why I am here. If I can manage it or even find the necessaries in the wreckage that is my computer filing system, I think I might write up a little trip I had to Yorkshire where three friends and I took a canal boat out for a weekend.
I am sure I have mentioned before my love of canals and canal boats and this was a great weekend which I extended at both ends by visiting a part of my country that I knew (and still do) lamentably little about. As and when I get it done, I shall try to “pin” it to the “sticky (get me with all the technology) to the front page here so you can find it. Trust me, I am still really finding my way at this point. Website owner? Me? Are you bloody joking?
Stay tuned, wait for the meat pie episode on the canal and spread the word.
Hello again all and, as seems almost inevitable with this website which I so naively embarked upon a few months ago, I begin with an apology. Any of my handful of readers who were following matters sequentially will have left me back in Northern Ireland in early August 2018 where I had spent about two … Continue reading “I am back again.”
Hello again all and, as seems almost inevitable with this website which I so naively embarked upon a few months ago, I begin with an apology.
Any of my handful of readers who were following matters sequentially will have left me back in Northern Ireland in early August 2018 where I had spent about two months at home with my Father having only intended to be there for about a week. I ended up staying until the 10th of that month when I returned to London for a literally overnight turnaround which entailed unloading the few dirty items of laundry (I had laundered at my Dad’s before leaving), replacing them with clean from the Himalayan pile of clean clothing awaiting ironing which may happen sometime before a politician tells the truth but don’t hold your breath. I swear that little suitcase has not been fully unpacked for about 18 months now.
The next day saw me on a train and heading for the utterly delightful seaside town of Broadstairs in Kent, which is about as far East as you can go in that county without getting wet as you will have fallen in the Channel! Apart from the many obvious charms of this delightful town you may wonder why I was taking myself there and the reason is simple, it was Broadstairs Folk Week which is arguably the largest and certainly my favourite of the numerous Folk Festivals that take place all over the UK every year.
Most UK festivals are weekend or long weekend four-day gigs but Broadstairs is one of the three week-long events that take place throughout the season (the others being Sidmouth in Devon and Whitby in North Yorkshire) and I am unsure exactly how many years I have played it but I reckon it is 27 this year. I missed one in 2016 as I was travelling in Canada but otherwise it has been an unbroken run. The Canada trip will eventually form the basis of another set of retrospective entries here but there really is so much to be done beforehand. Likewise I have more than enough images, memories and written pieces salvaged from other now-defunct sites to construct travelogues on many different years here but again it is all a matter of when I get time to do it.
I am something of a standing joke in Broadstairs although I have to say that that particular state of being is not at all confined to this location. The reason is that, like my four-day Dutch trip last year which took three and a half months and my week back in Northern Ireland which took two, I have a habit of not going home. I am not even going to start explaining my five-week trip to the Philippines in 2012 where I managed to substitute the word months for weeks and is yet another travelogue waiting to happen. I just tend to get marooned in places and last year I came to Broadstairs to play Folk Week but ended up going back to London in early November as I wanted to attend Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph as I habitually do if I am in the country. It is just the way I am, I get cast up on foreign shores and tend to remain.
You may well wonder how I manage to do such things and I do try to explain them as I go along in my various little travelogues here. I am certainly not a rich man and cannot afford to just sign into some hotel or another for months on end. I hope I can give a few tips in my writing about how to minimise costs for the independent traveller but in the case of Broadstairs it is very simple. I have two wonderful friends who live right in the middle of the town and are kind enough to put me up, allowing me to stay as long as I like even though I often tell them to throw me out when they are sick of the sight of me. They never do. I am not going to name them here for various reasons but they have my deepest thanks and are the most lovely people. Again I am drawn back to another of my travel / life mantras (is there a difference?) that there are a Hell of a lot more good people in the world than bad and so here I am on a gloriously sunny Summer day in a town I love with an almost ridiculous passion. A dear friend whose opinion I greatly respect once told me it was my “spiritual home” and, whilst I shy away from the term somewhat, it is undoubtedly true.
I am typing this in a great bar (the George) which is not 200 yards from my bed and “home” where I have my own key. I have free run of the kitchen and bathroom, access to the washing machine (vital when you travel as light as I do) and I am living with friends who I socialise with on an almost daily basis. How bad can that be? If any of you have been reading the account of my little European excursion last year you will have heard me speaking of the “travel Gods” who I firmly believe in. No, that is not a belief system nor religion and, no, I am not intending to start a cult worshipping them but I genuinely believe in their presence, not as deities per se but just some sort of “something” that looks out for travellers. I have a Hell of a life on the road and I fully appreciate that fact.
Enough of the philosophy and back to the details. I am in Broadstairs again for whatever length of time, I have been asked to play at the local Folk Club this evening which is generally a good laugh and I believe there may also be a firework display which really are spectacular here. I’ll keep you posted. I have been asked to play at a house party on Saturday for other friends where there will be a bunch of musos hanging about as the male half of the couple is a bass player in no less than three bands so that should be fun. Of course this sort of thing ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy as someone sees you at a gig and asks you to open for them the next Tuesday or “dep” (stand in for someone) at another gig and so becoming stranded here is not too difficult.
Right, I think that is me caught up with my present position but for anyone who is coming upon this site for the first time I shall provide a couple of links to the other travelogues I have alluded to as the only way I can keep any semblance of order here is to post events on the days they happened.
The European trip of 2017 as mentioned above is eventually finished and I am going to attempt to pin this entry to the top of the site (fingers crossed) so you can have a look at all the back entries I have done and the many more I still have to do. Honestly, this backdating is the only way I can ever hope to keep this whole enterprise in any sort of order.
As a final comment, thank you as always to everyone who has read my pages here and sent comments or “liked” them and there is much more to come so please stay tuned and spread the word.
The tenth of the month appeared and it was time to head off. My Father’s health was as stable as it can be at this point, he was being very well cared for and it was time for me to head off. Yet again I had managed to involve myself in a massive overstay although it was probably one that is slightly more understandable given the circumstances. I had gone “home” in early June for a family reunion on my Mum’s side of the family which I had thoroughly enjoyed despite some initial misgivings due to so much time and separation.
For reasons that I have outlined in previous entries I had stayed rather longer than my intended week or so and it was time to get off again. My brother had told me that there was effectively nothing useful I could do there (is there ever anything useful I can do?) and I had a little plan in mind. It was called Broadstairs Folk Week and it will form another series of blogs here shortly.
My kid brother (how can I call him a kid when he is 57 years old and Father to a 20 year old strapping lump of a son?) very kindly gave me a lift to the station and I started off on what should have been an uneventful journey back “home” to London for an overnight turnaround and off to Broadstairs to play and meet so many old friends. Train from Portadown to Dublin Connolly, no problem. Bus to the ferryport, no problem. Ferry, big problem. Surely it cannot be just me and my cursed bad luck but they had completely screwed me on the way out and then they screwed me on the way back. I will not provide links for Stena Ferries or Irish Ferries here as I do not want to give them the admittedly minimal traffic I generate but who knows, one day I may go viral. They are both abysmal and seem to exist purely for their shareholders with no regard for the travelling public.
To make a long story short, we eventually arrived in Holyhead, having missed our train. Not a major problem as there was one coming soon but it just shows the utter incompetence of the ferry companies running that route. The train I was not supposed to be on involved a change at Chester but I was already ahead of the game on that one. I had about a 35 minute layover and I knew that there was a better than decent pub just across the road from the station so time for a quick pint and a smoke before the onward journey but there was one potential problem.
Because of the ticket type I was using the system would have swallowed the ticket had I tried to use the automatic gates but I knew from previous experience that the gate staff here are pretty decent and will let you out the gate for a smoke if you ask nicely. In the event I needn’t have worried as the inevitable staff shortages meant that the gates were wide open as they legally have to be when they are unmanned in case of emergency.
Happy days. I took off outside, devoured a cigarette in no time flat and walked into the Town Crier which was quite busy at half seven on a Friday evening in decent weather but I was served quickly by a very friendly young barmaid who, after explaining my need for haste watched in some amazement as I skulled the pint in about no time flat. I really must make some time to visit this pub properly as I do rather like it and I only ever manage one hurried pint between trains in there.
OK, I was in a rush and missing my train after the cock-up by the ferry company was not an option as I would have been travelling literally all night. Sod that. Thanking the barmaid I went back across the road and was in good time for my inevitably delayed onward connection. I swear I do not understand how British railways can charge what I believe are still the highest mile for mile prices in the world and continue to provide such an abysmal service. Frankly, the word service flatters them as the only people they serve are their usually foreign shareholders and passengers be damned.
Back to London then without further mishap and I ran into the problem that always assails me when I get back form a trip. My nearest tube station is only about ten minutes walk from home, even with luggage but there is a slight impediment in the way in the form of the Half Moon pub where all my mates drink. Well, I had been away for a while and wanted to catch up on the news so in I went, complete with luggage, to be immediately assailed by a few mates all demanding to know “where the Hell I had been this time”. I told them about being back to Northern Ireland and a few drinks were had before I made my way home eventually at about 0100 to yet another appalling pile of mail, mostly complete unsolicited junk which I binned immediately. No, I do not wan’t a bloody stairlift and I know where the best eating houses are. I swear that is the worst part of travelling.
I did take an image but in my exhausted state I didn’t have the sense to turn the envelopes over and much as I love my few readers, you don’t get my home address that easily. I know I am not the smartest man around but I am not that stupid! Take my word for it, it was a bloody huge pile.
Leaving any correspondence that looked like it might be semi-official to be dealt with later, I hit the sack and slept like a baby. Thus ends this series of entries about my rather extended trip back to my home country and I hope you have enjoyed them but the break in my own home was to last all of about 12 hours because I had things to do, places to go, people to see and a guitar to play.
Because I always backdate everything to the relevant days, if you press next after this item you’ll see what happened later that day and which begins another series of ramblings which I am still engaged on in late October 2018! I swear I don’t know why I own a flat (apartment) as I am never there.
Stay tuned and spread the word.