Standby for a big day out.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions as they say and it is certainly as true of my blog writing as it was of my well-intentioned efforts to keep up with tips / reviews when I was writing for the wonderful Virtual Tourist. Nine days without a peep out of me although up until the 23rd there was damn all to report with the little there is will follow here shortly. I do hope you like images of fried breakfasts!

15th July – nothing to report. Fry-up (didn’t even take an image), visited Father in the nursing home, couple of pints and then home for an evening of documentaries (mostly Food Network, which I love) and then bed for a read. I managed to read eight books in the month I was there.

16h July – ditto. As we used to say in the Forces when asked for our hourly Sitrep (situation report) – “All Quiet, nothing to report” which leads me in one of my all too frequent rambles to exhort you to read the book “All quiet on the Western front” by Erich Maria Remarque, himself a German WW1 veteran. It is a very powerful work about the horror and sheer bloody (I use the word in it’s proper sense here) futility of that War, or any war for that matter. It has been adapted for film and TV and somehow this apparently random thought seems to fit in seamlessly with the rest of my writings about this trip, many of which seem to have been hung on the First World War in one way or another.

17th July – more of the same which I won’t bore you with.

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I was rather proud of this.

18th July and at least I have a do have some images here to bore you with for this day. That brunch was put on the table just after 1300 which is about my normal time for eating. I just cannot eat for several hours after I wake, no matter what time that may be but a plate like this is my absolute delight and I virtually live on them when I am back in the “old country”. Yes, I did tart up the presentation a bit for the image, I am like that but I do like to present my food well anyway. Be honest, it looks almost good enough to eat, doesn’t it?

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These images are of the War Memorial at the top of the town and I already have dozens of images of it so why take more? It is to do with a newish hobby of mine although it is tangential to something I had been doing for a number of years.

Those that know me and even those who have recently come upon my somewhat demented and incoherent ramblings will know that I have a great love of military history which extends to military graves, War Memorials, Regimental Museums and all the rest.

I do not have a particular period that I specialise in, I love Roman military history, the Crusaders are a particular favourite, medieval knights and all that entails are a joy to me and indeed on my trawl of the numerous charity shops in the London Borough of Havering on my return to London I scored a mint condition book on Eleanor of Aquitaine (look her up, she is some character) for the princely sum (pun absolutely intended) of 50 pence. Moving on chronologically, I have a huge interest in the Peninsular / Napoleonic Wars and again things come round in circles. In the late 18th (Indian campaign etc.) and early 19th centuries (both campaigns mentioned above), over 50% of the “English” Army was composed of Irishmen and good proportion of Scots not far behind. Whilst there were certainly plenty of “stout English yeomen” they were definitely in the minority.

Forward again through the Boer War (further Irish involvement as you shall see shortly) and we come to WW1 which seems to have permeated so much of this trip one way or another. On again and a mere 20 years after the “war to end all wars” although the world was to find out that it wasn’t when Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito made a bid for world domination like some sort of bad cartel of James Bond vilains.

Again, men from the island of Ireland (it had been partitioned by this time) were to the fore and one of the many books I read back home and as mentioned above, was simply called “Irish Generals” by a guy called Richard Doherty. I think I have mentioned it before and I am not going to go dredging back to check but do check out the book. “Monty”, “The Auk”, Tim Pile (I’ll bet you have not heard of him but look him up as he is an incredible man), Alan Brooke, arguably the best ever commander of the British army ever are all from the tiny island of my birth, there are many more and that is only the Generals! Put in the rank and file including my uncle Tommy, murdered by the Japanese whilst a POW, my aunts Peggy and Maisie who served in the WAAF, my uncle Freddie in the RAF etc. etc. and the contribution becomes massive. I know there are other members of my late Mother’s family who also served but I do not know the details and so will not post speculation here. This is my site and I want to be able to stand by every word I publish. Old-fashioned I know but I am old-fashioned and make no apology for it even in these days when a liberal media controls the country.

Oh dear, I am at it again, I do hope I am not boring you. This first part of the the entry was meant to be a fairly quick whizz through some fairly uneventful days before getting onto the good stuff later on and now look what has happened, it is bloody “War and Peace” all over again. I really must find another literary work to use as an analogy. I am thinking Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” perhaps and I am physically restraining myself here from launching into another diatribe about that particular book.

The reason for all this was to tell you about my new “hobby”. For years now I have always taken images of Commonwealth War Graves wherever I have found them in the world. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is a first class organisation who have catalogued hundreds of thousands of war graves all over the world and photographed many of them which is where my problem came in. Certainly in the British Isles just about every war grave has been photographed and by a team of very professional people (albeit they do not get paid) using excellent equipment. Every grave I photographed on my little battered compact camera had already been done and much better than I could do it. Please do not misunderstand here, I do not visit CWGC sites purely to score brownie points on some imaginary list, I do it because I think it is the right thing to do.

There was always a “sideline” with the CWGC site which was linked in to the Imperial War Museum, another fine institution, and that was the recording of war memorials. Fortunately, the two projects have been separated which makes them more manageable and the War Memorial work has been well funded from various statutory and voluntary bodies. The definition of a war memorial is very broad and again I think they are worthy of cataloguing. Yes, we all know the obelisk standing in the middle of the town or village nearest us and with the names of the fallen inscribed. That is great although there are many issues with it which I will discuss in a future entry.

However, the official IWM definition of a war memorial is much broader and rightly so. Since my return to London I took images of a church hall that constitutes one! You have numerous inscriptions on gravestones e.g. “In memory of Mary and John Smith and also their loving son Francis who was killed in X on Y date and is buried there. Again, a war memorial. Park benches, plaques, tablets in places of worship, books of remembrance in schools, the list goes on. They are all war memorials and whilst I have decided the Graves project does not need my very limited ability, I am good at ferreting out unusual little places, indeed I “discovered” several in a place as grand and well-visited as Armagh (Anglican) Cathedral which you will read about shortly.

Naturally, with my hugely inquisitive nature they all had to be researched and what stories they had to tell. I would encourage you to get involved, it is great fun and a good excuse to visit out of the way places. If you have kids, let them take a pic of the memorial and then go and research it online later (under supervision of course). It is like a treasure hunt for real and will teach them much about war, death, mortality, morality and so much more but I am not going to get into that or we will be here all week! If you do want to play, start here.

Right, am I back to my trip to Northern Ireland again? I think so.

19th – same old same old and so with 20th, 21st and 22nd. Because I had the house to myself I found myself slipping into a very comfortable routine and one that frankly suited me. It surprised me greatly because even a few years ago a couple of weeks back in Northern Ireland would have had me going round the bend as it is so quiet. OK, Belfast is a kicking city and is a major tourist destination now but Tandragee has not changed for years. Maybe I am just getting old and slowing down although I did spend a bit of time sketching out a trip for after Broadstairs Folk Week which I have come back to the mainland for. I am sure most of you know but I am do not lie about it and I shall be 60 before the end of this year. I will speak more of this in my summation in the next entry.
The next few days are a whole load of nothing so I shall skip to the 23rd July which was D-Day (Departure Day) – 1. I knew my brother and sister in law had to go into Armagh for a meeting at lunchtime and then going to visit Dad in the nursing home which is only a couple of miles outside the City so that sounded like a plan.  I could go and have a wander round the City where I lived briefly (for about eight months) and could then get a lift home. Happy days.

I had not set an alarm but I woke up ludicrously early having read until about 0300 but it did not seem to affect me. It was that bloody “Irish Generals” book again, I swear it is a page turner! I had been drinking little (by my standards), eating quite a lot (again by my idiotic standards) and generally sleeping quite well so it must have been doing me some good.

Again, this is a bit of an in joke for those that know me but I even did a bit of gardening. The complete lunacy of this statement will only become apparent when I tell you that I have never lived in a dwelling with a garden I was responsible for in my life although obviously my parents had them. I do not know a rake from a hake, a hoe from a whore (although I believe American urban youth have adopted the word) nor a mower from a molar. As always I consulted the kid brother who had very helpfully trimmed the hedge and mowed the lawn whilst I was there. He knows about these things. Had I started with the hedge trimmers I would undoubtedly have lost a limb, and the lawnmower would have blown up the garage as I filled it! The problem was this.

The route from the front of the house to the back (kitchen) door is covered by a beautiful wooden archway which I love as it is covered with creepers. As well as that, the back path from the kitchen door to the garage where the washing machine and dryer are was being seriously overgrown by an ivy type creeper plant (do not ask me what it is) and which was also slowly covering my Father’s bedroom window. On the other (garden) side was a lovely rose bush with yellow blooms but they were on stalks about four foot long and drooping down over the path. I snagged my trousers on it on several occasions. Having spoken to “The Kid” as I call him (he is 58 years old so hardly a kid any more) and he told me just to savage everything. Father was not there to enjoy the blooms, it was in danger of causing structural damage to the rear wall, it was unsightly etc. I took to it with a will. Sanctioned wanton destruction of beautiful things, what a joy. Let’s be honest, Damien Hirst has made himself a multi-millionaire out of doing just that. It was one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.

I have spoken pretty disparagingly about public transport in Northern Ireland and not without reason, it is utterly appalling and merely there to provide large salaries for the 13 senior executives (see the link below) which is about all I can find out about this disaster of an outfit.

No matter what bus I got from Tandragee to Portadown (scarce enough) I would have a 30 – 40 minute wait for a bus to Armagh. No joined up thinking at all. From Tandragee to Armagh is about 12 miles direct via Richill. It is six miles to central Portadown and then 13.6 miles to Armagh and so a total of over 18 miles. Tell me how that works. You are basically doing two sides of a triangle to suit the whims of whoever owns Translink and, try as I might, I cannot find out where the money actually goes. Obviously, that is the way they want it. The best I can manage is that it is a public corporation and a look here shows that it has 13 “fat cats” all licking the cream whilst steadfastly failing to provide an adequate transport infrastructure. I am seriously considering sending in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to see how much these leeches earn.

Every cloud, as they say, has a silver lining and I got a chance to go and take some more photos of memorials I had taken before and also one I had omitted and another that was not there last time I was in Portadown. They are all clustered round St. Mark’s Church at the top of the town and so it was about 200 yards walk from where the bus dropped me and literally the width of a street to get my connection. They are pictured above and are all fairly self-explanatory although I should say that the Church tower is included as the entire structur3 is a memorial to the war dead and the memorial I had previously omitted was the Somme memorial bench as it was not there last time I was taking images there.

The silver lining mentioned was Gaynor’s, a proper little back street cafe just behind St. Marks and it is a true gem. I moved to Portadown from Belfast in 1981 and I am sure it was there then, if not it opened fairly shortly thereafter as it is just part of my “folk memory” of the town. Having used up a few of my minutes photographing the memorials, I did not have time for one of my favourites which is their small fry-up. I said I cannot eat for a long while after I wake and Gaynor’s is tailored for “normal” people so they do huge fries in the morning but there is no way I could do that. I could face it about 1400 but they have moved on to the (excellent) lunch menu by then. If I get in about 1130 off the bus, I can manage the small fry and it is always gorgeous. I shall dig out some very old images here to give you an idea. Obviously they are not as good as my fry-ups but the are a very creditable second! I contented myself with a coffee, sat outside to have a smoke with it and ambled across the road to the bus stop. I noticed that there was very little traffic and I did not even have to go to the pedestrian crossing. Portadown is dying on it’s feet.

Just a word now, and another rant against Translink. Apart from the ridiculous routing, it cost me £2:60 from Tandragee to ortadown and another £3:60 onward to Armagh. If my appalling mathemstics does not desert me, that is £6:20 for a 12 mile “as the crow flies” journey. I’ll let you do the price per mile computations yourself.

I got into Armagh and was deposited in the new bus depot which was certainly not there when I was in the City and I am thinking it was waste ground although that is by no means sure. I took off out of the front gate and headed right. Unless you know the geography of Armagh and the history of the late 20th century in my homeland that will mean nothing to you but in 1981 I would have been heading left. I do not want to make a whole thing of this as far, far too much has been written about it, mostly complete rubbish by people who were not even there, but history is inescapable. Basically turning right took me into an area of the city I would not have been very welcome in back in 1981.

 

I took myself off up round the Shambles which, if you did not know was an old middle English word for a meat market. The butchers would throw the offal, ribs etc. into the street where the dogs would consume it or they would rot with an appalling stench and now, centuries later, a pre-packed half rack of ribs will set you back a fortune. Funny how things go. I honestly cannot remember if the Shambles Market was operating when I lived in Armagh. As I say, it was not a part of town I went to much in those days although I knew the layout of it enough not to get lost. Whatever my past remembrances of the market building were (I do remember that) I found signs all over the place pointing me towards it. Another urban re-generation stunt obviously as will be proven shortly, but despite hating shopping, I love a market and so in I went. What a disappointment.

The entrance was lovely and rigged out with old artefacts but after that it went to blazes. The majority of the premises to the right was sectioned off and the “working” part to the left consisted of less than a dozen stalls, most of the complete tat variety. Think six cigarette lighters for £1 or ten batteries for £2 and you have it. Rather disturbingly, on a stinking hot July day, one of the largest displays was of ski masks, much beloved of terrorists worldwide, and I was prompted to ask myself why. I have no gripe with the stallholder who is only trying to make a bob to keep a roof over his head but the concept did freak me out a bit in these days when it all supposed to be love and peace in my home country (believe me, it is not, it is just brushed under the carpet to perpetuate the myth).

As always there was a silver lining, good things happen to me although I hardly deserve them. For ages I had been looking for a cigarette rolling box. Yes, I know smoking is stupid not to mention bloody expensive and if anyone who may read this page, which is doubtful, is thinking of having a cigarette then the answer is simple – DON’T. Amongst the numerous ludicrous things I have done in my life, starting smoking (age 11 in 1971 if you must know) ranks way up there on the stupidity list. However, I had my box for a mere £3 and was well pleased with my purchase even if I was sorely disappointed with the market. The images will hopefully give an indication of how tawdry this place is despite the obviously good intentions and additions to the Council Tax of my family.

Onward, ever onward, and I was heading for the Cathedral which I had visited before but wanted another look at. When I say Cathedral in Armagh you may become a little confused as there are two. Just to further complicate the matter they are both called St. Patrick’s due to his alleged association with the city and the Bishops of Armagh (Church of Ireland / Anglican and Roman Catholic) are both regarded as the heads of their religious faiths on the island of Ireland. I believe at time of writing that relations are very good between the two men of the only very marginally differing faiths, and this pleases me. I have seen far too much horror and obscenity perpetrated in the name of religion (it wasn’t) but again we are back to the absurdity that is the place I did not choose to be born in.

So, I was heading for the Anglican Cathedral as I knew there were some military memorials there. Remember I told you about those? Naturally, nothing was going to be simple.

Wandering along in my usual disordered fashion I caught sight of a blue plaque on a totally unremarkable terraced house in Edward Street which I know was not there when I lived in the city. For non-UK readers I should explain the “blue plaque”. It was an idea which started in London as far back as 1866 whereby a building where a famous person had been born, lived or died was commemmorated by a round blue plaque. Notable events involving more than one person are also sometimescommemorated. Other cities, towns and countries have adopted the very worthy principle and this particular example is placed by the Ulster History Circle.

If you are not aware of him, Patrick Magee was a very fine actor who counted Samuel Becket and Harold Pinter amongst his very close personal friends never mind acting in such huge films as Stanley Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” (a favourite of mine), “Barry Lyndon”, “Zulu” (another favourite) and the multi-ward winning “Chariots of Fire”. Magee was yet nother flawed Northern Ireland genius (think George Best and Alex Higgins amongst others here) and was a heavy drinker if not a full-blown alcoholic as well as a compulsive gambler. Undoubtedly the former condition contributed to his ridiculously early death from a heart attack at the age of 60.

It was gone 10 in the morning by now and I had arranged to meet my brother and sister in law at about two in the afternoon so I did not have too much time to explore although it had already been a productive day for learning and writing here but there was so much more to come. I am not going to bore regular readers with my usual lecture about how much you can discover even in places you think you know if you just keep your eyes open as you know the story by now.

I kept walking up the hill of which there are seven in Armagh, just like Rome and I think I have walked all of them in both cities. Whilst they are hugely dissimilar in many ways they possibly have more in common than they have differences. They are both ancient sites and of huge importance to the Judeo – Christian faith. I have mentioned the religious significance of Armagh and both are major tourist centres with a wealth of history and although they are poles apart in terms of size they are not so far apart in other respects.

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They really are making the effort to attract tourists.

I was musing on this as I made my almost automatic way to the Cathedral, pausing briefly to look at some of the many bright new signboards that seem to have sprung up describing the St. Patrick’s Trail (another innovation since my day) and various other more localised walking routes. There is obviously a bit of money being thrown about in terms of tourism here. It is strange to think that in my lifetime and the brief period I lived there, a “tourist” i.e. stranger would probably have either been beaten up or even  murdered as a potential British agent or just a person of the “wrong” religion.  If they were lucky they would have been politely escorted from the city and sent on their way to somewhere safer for them like Bangor. That is not hyperbole, it is fact. I know as I was there. Things are very much calmer now and I really would encourage anyone who reads this to visit the country of my birth and, if they do, then a visit to Armagh is a must.

There I was, contemplating fairly heavy things, reminiscing about less happy times now past, noting the upturn in the City and getting closer to the Cathedral which you cannot miss as it sits on one of the hilltops and is a fairly impressive building. Although I was not thinking in these terms at the time it was quite a perfect day for me. I was wandering around alone, discovering things I did not know about, revisiting places of my past with a new “hobby” to amuse me and at least the weather was not as evil as it had been and at was not delivering deluges upon my head even if it was not properly summery. I really was enjoying being back even if in nearly a month and with departure the next day I had done next to bugger all. With the Cathedral in sight a few yards away I stopped to take an image of the “old hospital” as it was referred to in my day here which is now a local Government office (planning department I believe) but is a magnificent structure as I hope my image shows.

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The old hospital, Armagh.

The building was originally constructed in 1774 to the design of George Ensor but all is not exactly as it seems. In 2015, as part of a highway widening project (I swear I am not making this up), the entire old hospital building was demolished very carefully and then rebuilt, brick by numbered brick, a few feet back. This was part of the legacy project of the old Armach Council before it became subsumed into the new ABC (Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon) Council and, whilst I rejoice in the saving of this beautiful building I cannot help but wonder if the money, which must have run to millions, might not have been better spent elsewhere. I had no idea of all this at the time and only discovered it whilst researching this piece. In truth, I did not even notice the resiting although, in my defence, it is getting on for 40 years since I lived in Armagh.

With the gates of the Cathedral within spitting distance I noticed another place on my right that I had not looked at properly before. Certainly I had seen the structure but I had no idea what it was. It turns out it is a library and we will come to it later in this increasingly lengthy entry. On into the Cathedral grounds, which I knew pretty well from previous visits but I was on a mission now to look closer and see if I could find any war memorials as defined above. I certainly did that and in the process found a wonderful example of a piece of funerary thinking that I only learned about a couple of years ago, also when I was in Northern Ireland. Take a look at the image above which is the one I originally was interested in as it provided a memorial to Capt. W.A.R. Daly of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers who was killed in the Second World War. It is an addition to the gravestone of his wife although he is buried in Tunisia and thus it qualifies as a war memorial. I added it that night to the War Memorial site so I had done my little bit to increase the knowledge base that I believe so much in.

Look closer now at the image and you will see that the adjacent grave is on a completely different alignment i.e. 180 degrees from that of the Daly plot. What is all that about? I’ll tell you. All the graves were on the same alignment as the Daly plot except this one. You will note that the second grave is that of one Herbert Cassidy who had been a Vicar Choral (i.e. a Minister of religion in charge of the music) in the Cathedral. The thinking runs thus. When you are buried (in that faith), you are buried so you are “looking at” the pulpit /altar and can see and hear the word of God. If you are a cleric, you are buried the other way round as if you were still at the holiest part of the place of worship, facing the congregation and still preaching from beyond the grave, as it were. I found this fascinating when I heard it and was unsure whether to believe it but experience seems to prove it to be true.

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I also took more images of the memorial plaque to Brian Boru (Brian Boroimhe in the Gaelic) which again I already had. I went for a wander round the graveyard which did not yield anything more in the way of war memorial items and so I headed into the Cathedral itself. I knew that there was the memorial chapel of the Royal Irish Fusiliers there, which I had previously visited, but I was now looking for a different set of items and was sure I’d find them given the proud military tradition of the County. I wasn’t to be disappointed but I am getting ahead again.

I walked into a completely deserted building which surprised me slightly. This was late morning in what is meant to be the height of the “season” and I was expecting, if not a full coach party then at least a guided small group. Not a chance. The only other soul in the place was the volunteer lady on the desk and naturally, as is my wont, we got to chatting and I was telling her about my military interests. She told me most emphatically that when I was done in the Cathedral I should visit the Museum across the road and even named the particular volunteer who was on duty that day and who she told me had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Armagh. Great tip. She was equally insistent that I must visit the library just opposite the front gates which I mentioned above and I duly took all this on board which was to provide huge dividends as you will find out.

The lovely lady then rather apologetically informed me that if I just wanted to look around or pray then there was a charge of £2. I have no problem with that and consider that I had a complete bargain considering what I discovered even on a repeat visit but I am wondering if the reference to praying was merely a slip of the tongue. Even Westminster Cathedral which costs a fortune to visit does not charge genuine worshippers. These are places of worship after all and if you believe the mythology, did not the Jewish rabbi Jesus Christ throw the money lenders etc, out of the precincts of some temple or another? I am sure it was a genuine mistake and if it was not then the obscenely rich Anglican Church wants to sort it out asap.

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Memorial to Capt. Turner Macan, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh.

I could not buy a cup of coffee in one of the many coffeeshops that now infest (I use the word advisedly) Armagh, as they do the rest of Europe, inded the world, and my £2 spent here was rightly so as these old buildings take a fortune to maintain.  It was a complete bargain as I said. I had not gone five feet from the desk when I found my first wonder. I have visited many places of worship of all faiths over the years and am glad to have done so. I have seen thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Christian memorials but I cannot recall ever seeing Arabic script on a 19th century marble memorial in an Anglican cathedral. Regrettably I did not take a close up of it and my lamentably abused compact has not provided anything worth cropping but, believe me, it is there. It is on the memorial to Capt. Turner Macan of the Hussars who was “many years Persian interpreter to the Commanders in Chief in India”. I pointed out the Arabic to the lady on the desk who admitted she had ever even noticed it before and she works there! I do not know if the image here will stand up to it but of you want to have a try then the single Arabic word is on the support of the cross / sword (I am still unsure which it is due to the blunt end. I would love to know what it means.

Capt. Macan’s memorial was only the beginning and I took off again on my complete voyage of discovery. Not three feet further long the wall I found my second gem, a memorial to Lt. Kidd of the Royal Navy who died fighting ashore outside Sebastapol in 1855 during the Crimean War. Another stupid and bloody (again in the correct usage of the word) waste of young life. Lt. Kidd was 24. I remember once either reading or hearing a quote which I cannot repeat exactly but was along the lines of “war is a matter of old men sending young men to die for what they want”. Certainly war is a young man’s game and never was a truer word spoken.

This was turning into one fantastic day and I was only about ten feet inside the door of the Cathedral at this point. I was heading for the Fusiliers chapel but found a few other distractions on the way. Regrettably, due to the way the light was shining, my reluctance to use flash and the utterly battered condition of my poor old camera I have no images to assist me in telling you what I saw. My little Canon Ixus has served me well and been halfway round the world but it is about done now. I carry it with me constantly in my jeans pocket without a case and what happens is that the interior of the lens gets gunged up with condensation (in warmer climes) and dust and this one has just about had it. This is my third and I tend to think of them as quite disposable. I shall get another one in the next few days for less than £100 and will get about three years of use out of it which I think is a reasonable return. I tried running with a good DSLR some years ago and it gave great results but it is just so bulky and a pig to carry around.

 

Back to the Cathedral and I made the Fusiliers chapel, pausing to pay my respects at the Book of Remembrance, a page of which is turned every day. Tragically, it is a very big book. The men of Ulster have certainly paid a huge price in defence of freedom although it is probably true that today’s left-wing media who run the country (yes they do, politicians do not) would describe the brave young men who went to various conflicts as warmongers, babykillers etc. How I wish they would stop to think about how the freedom they enjoy to write their ill-informed drivel was obtained.

I had a look at the laid up colours noting the eagle on the Regimental colours (there are various types of standard) which is a reference to the Regiment taking a French eagle at the Battle of Barrosa during the Peninsular wars. The eagle was to the French what the Royal / Regimental standard was to the British and to lose yours in battle was an ignominy hard to live down. At Barrosa an Irish sergeant named Patrick Masterson captured an eagle belonging to the 8th Ligne. Actually a young ensign ( a very junior officer) named Keogh had seized it and been shot immediately through the heart for his troubles whereupon the good Sgt. Masterson retrieved it. I believe that in 1811 it was the first eagle ever captured by the British.  Rarely has the regimental battlecry of “Faugh a Ballach” (Clear the Way) been used more appropriately.

I have no basis for saying this but I suspect that Bernard Cornwell, who is one of my favourite authors, may have borrowed this story for his book “Sharpe’s Eagle” which is one of a large series and spawned a hugely successful TV series starring Sean Bean as the eponymous and totally fictional Richard Sharpe who rose from Private in India in the 1799 campaign at Serangipatam to Lt. Col. by the time of Waterloo in 1815. Ludicrous as it sounds, such things very occasionally happened. I do recommend the books and the TV series.

For his heroics, Masterson received a field commission and finished his army days in 1828 but regrettably only live another two years to enjoy his well-earned retirement.  It seems that reckless bravery was in the genes or DNA somewhere though as his grandson, Major James Ignatius Masterson received the Victoria Cross (the highest UK honour for bravery in the face of the enemy) during the Boer War at the Battle of Ladysmith. I have thought about this long and hard over many years and I still do not understand it. Why did so many Irishmen enlist to fight for an “English” Army when they mostly wanted self-determination, at least amongst the other ranks although the officer class were very much tied to Britain. I know that in the case of the enlisted men it was largely a matter of poverty, hunger and need. Too many children and not enough food, especially during the numerous potato blights / famines, and it was either join the Army, emigrate or die.  Not much of  choice really

Notwithstanding that, the roll of honour of Irishmen either in Irish regiments or elsewhere is phenomenal and continues to this day. I would refer you back to the previously mentioned “Irish Generals” book I read at home which lists no less than ten of the most influential senior officers in the Second World War, all of whom were Irishmen. It is a fairly famous saying that Ireland is a land of saints and scholars but I would dare here to add a third “s” as we are a land of saints, scholars and soldiers and seem to do each with equal aplomb. I could possibly add sinners as a fourth “s” but that will lead to another twenty chapters here so I shall refrain. Perhaps I shall discuss the Irish mentality in respect of reconciling piety, learning and sheer bloody violent slaughter on a slower day but there was still plenty more to be seen in the couple of hours I had left in Armagh.

Before I do move on I have only dealt here with the military aspect of the Cathedral and I feel I should give you a brief and more general overview of the Cathedral for which I shall refer back to a piece I wrote for Virtual Tourist a few years ago but which is still relevant.

“Armagh is largely built on the Christian faith, the post-pagan settlement here being ordered by St. Patrick in the mid 5th century. There are two fine cathedrals in the city with the Anglican being the one more associated with Ireland’s patron saint, and the history here is staggering albeit that the original church was a short distance from the present building in Scotch Street.

After the death of Patrick, there was a period of unrest where the place was sacked on various occasions by Danes / Vikings which unhappy position was only dealt with when King Brian Boru defeated them at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Boru’s victory, however, came at the price of his own life, and his remains are buried in the precincts of the present cathedral.

The turbulent history continued with a lightning strike in 995AD nearly destroying the Cathedral and subsequently having to be rebuilt. In 1566 the new building was again destroyed, this time by fire set by a rebellious local chieftan and again in 1641 it was burnt down (again) by Sir Phelim O Neill during a Catholic uprising. I told you it was a turbulent history!.

Numerous further restorations over the intervening centuries lead to the building you see today.

I have a tip for the visitor. If you approach the building from the city side, don’t go in! Rather, turn to the left and you will come to a series of wonderful gardens with various themes (herb garden, orchard garden etc.) and they are beautifully tended.

When you do get eventually get into the building you may feel, as I did, that it is not by any means the largest or grandest cathedral you have visited. There is, however, plenty to see and my favourite, being a fan of military history, the military chapel to the right of the altar is well worth a visit. There are numerous memorials and laid-up colours along with a Book of Remembrance.

 

Another quirky little thing, positioned by the wall about half way along the right hand side is the so-called “Tandragee Man” which resonates with me as that is my home village, and the artefact is so named because it was found in a garden there. It is actually a Bronze Age (c.1000 BC) stone carving of a mythical figure called Nuada of the Silver Arm. I won’t spoil the story for you but it is a typically Celtic beauty. You’ll just have to visit and see for yourselves”.

 

On the principle that local knowledge is priceless I headed across the road to the Museum as suggested by the lady in the Cathedral and wandered into a building as deserted as the Cathedral had been. It was tiny, the address of of 5 Vicar’s Hill giving a clue that it was once a private dwelling associated with the Cathedral. The museum itself effectively comprises the two downstairs rooms, which might have been moderately grand in their heyday and I set about a look round. At one point the chap that I had been told about appeared but was busy on his mobile (cell) ‘phone and just basically waved me to look around and enjoy myself. There were some interesting items there, mostly prehistoric which reflects the ancient origins of the city and surrounding region with nearby Navan Fort and which I had visited on a previous trip, being effectively the Royal court of Ulster. Again, a suitably edited version of old VT tip will explain about it.

“I had previously visited the Navan Fort Visitor Centre, which I found to be OK but not outstanding. The Centre is here because of three local archaeological sites locally, namely Haughey’s Fort, Loughnashade (Lake of Treasures) and the “main event” which is Navan Fort itself, or Emain Macha in the Gaelic if you prefer. Now this is outstanding. Let’s get the technical details out of the way first.

Admission is free and you do NOT have to visit the Visitor Centre to gain access here. It is open daylight hours. Unfortunately, due to the very nature of the place it is not suitable for wheelchair users.

Now for the history.

There has been habitation in this area since Neolithic times but the main period of importance, when Emain Macha was the centre of the Kingdom of Ulster (named for the Ulaid tribe) was during the Iron and Bronze ages. It was then that the Celtic legends of the Red Branch Knights and others took shape. The sprits of Conor Mac Nessa, Cu Chulainn, Deirdre of the Sorrows and Naoise and many others walk here. Actually, when you visit you can almost believe it but then again, us Ulstermen have always been known for a touch of mysticism.

Leaving aside the myth, the cold, hard science of archaeology reveals a fascinating site. Looking at the mound it would seem indicative of a defensible site for occupation and there are extensive views for miles in any direction. Navan Fort was never used for this purpose however. It is purely a ritual site as I shall explain. This is clearly evidenced by the fact that the ditch is inside the rampart not outside as it would have been for purposes of keeping an enemy at bay.

The mound was built on a site that had been abandoned in the late Iron Age. As I describe this, imagine that these are people building with only the most rudimentary tools. Firstly, they constructed a huge wooden building comprising five concentric rings of oak posts (280 in total) whch was over 120 feet in diameter. At the centre was a huge oak post that scientists have determined was felled in 95 B.C. which dates the place fairly well. It was so large it was rested in a hole six feet deep.

Having toiled so hard to build this building, they did not use it at all. Instead they filled the entire structure with limestone boulders to a height of almost nine feet. The story does not end there, however. After all the work, they then proceeded to burn the outer timber wall, leaving just the cairn of stones, which they immediately covered with turves to leave the structure we see today.

Can you imagine the immense amount of work involved in all this? So what was it all for? The truth is, scholars do not really know. There is a suggestion that the mound was a mesocosm which is a halfway house between man and the cosmos. The huge central oaken pillar may have been an “axis mund” (axis of the world) which connected the three elements of the underworld, the Earth and the sky (“Heaven” in an age before Chritianity). It is amazing what people’s belief systems will prompt them to do.

Today, if you are lucky enough to visit on a quiet, crisp autumnal day, as I was, it is truly awe-inspiring. Stand on the top of the mound, look roughly North across the spires of the Anglican cathedral of Armagh, symbol of the religion that ended all that these people stood for, to the heartland of ancient Ulster. Turn round and look South over the uninterrupted vista at where the marauding hordes of Queen Mebh of Connacht would appear. If you listen really closely, you might hear a druid”.

Many of the artefacts in the Museum are from the Navan Fort area which is why I included this piece but let’s get back to Vicars Hill.

Have a look out the back window of the rear room of the Museum for a view of the immaculate gardens and a wonderful vista over part of the city. As far as I know you cannot go into the gardens which is a shame but it is also in this rear room that my favourite artefact is to be found. It is an ancient stone inscribed with Ogham runes. OK, I can hear most of you understandably say, “Ogham runes, what are they”?  They are an ancient system of writing consisting of marks running off a central stave and predate Gaelic or indeed most European languages. It was only deciphered relatively recently and I would have dearly loved to run my fingers over it to feel the magic of the basis of written language in Europe but I didn’t as you don’t do things like that in museums.

I would suggest to the reader that if they are planning a trip to Northern Ireland and specifically Armagh (both of which I recommend strongly) that they include this little Museum but realistically allow no more than half an hour as it is not so big. Leaving the museum I made the 30 second walk to the Library. I have compared Armagh to Rome earlier on in this piece and it would take you an hour to walk from the Circus Maximus to St. Peter’s Square in the “Eternal City” whist you can get from any one place of interest to another in no more than about 15 minutes on foot in Armagh.

Initially the Library appears slightly daunting with a heavy door and an entryphone system but do not be put off. I pressed the buzzer and a lady asked if she could help. Not being sure if the place was actually open I somewhat hesitantly inquired would it be possible to come in for a look round. Of course it would and I was told to just come upstairs which I did up a rather grand staircase. I passed some wonderful portraits and noted a stairlift should accessibility be a concern to you. Even though I am no longer writing travel reviews per se I do like to note these things as, in the words of a dear friend of mine whose late wife (RIP) was wheelchair bound for many years, “We are all potential wheelchair users”. Definitely food for thought I feel.

I entered a large high-ceilinged room and it is no exaggeration to say that there was literally a sharp intake of breath as I have never seen anything like it. There are two levels (you cannot go to the upper one for “Health and Safety reasons, what nonsense) but the general effect is stunning as the entire place is crammed from floor to ceiling with books. OK, it is a library and you would not expect tropical fish but I have never seen so many beatifully bound and obviously very old volumes in one place. I am sure that places like the libraries of some of the great Universities or the Vatican are probably the same but I have never visited any of them.

I was standing somewhat on awe of my surroundings when a lady approached me from what I later discovered was the office and greeted me in that most cheery fashion common to people allover the island of Ireland before enquiring if I was looking for anything specific that she could help me with. I told her how I had been directed there by the churchwarden in the Cathedral, whose name she mentioned and it became apparent that all three venues are closely linked of which more in a moment, and said I would just like a look round if that was OK. Certainly it was and for reasons which became apparent during our very convivial conversation.

At one point she almost begged me to sign the visitors book before leaving because their local authority funding is dictated by the number of visitors who are divided into Northern Ireland residents and, despite their best efforts they still were not getting as many “casual” visitors as they would like. Certainly they get foreign visitors (as the book attested, many from the USA) and a number of people using the place for research but not so many random “drop ins” like myself from NI and so I took the hint and gave my address as Tandragee rather than London.

The lady, whose name I have shamefully forgotten, then took me on a guided tour of the place and I do not know where to start telling you about what I learned. I know this is going to further extend what is an already lengthy piece but I really do not care. Whilst I am obviously hugely grateful for any readers I do attract, I am writing this as much as a diary for myself as anything else. Because we happened to be standing beside it we started with what I suppose is the star attraction here and that is Jonathan Swift’s own first edition of his book Gulliver’s Travels. Other first editions exist but this one is obviously special not least because of a series of annotations made by the author which tell us much about freedom of expression in the first half of the 18th century.

Swift had entrusted his manuscript to a London publisher called Benjamin Motte, who in the interconnectedness of all things I often mention was born not half an hour’s brisk walk from where I am typing this. The book was to be published anonymously to avoid prosecutions which were common in those days and Motte even sub-contracted out the publishing work to a number of others to avoid piracy and to put the authorities off his trail. Swift was first and foremost a satirist and some of the things he had written Motte considered a bit near the knuckle so he amended them without consulting the author which naturally infuriated him. I mentioned to the lady that with a mind and a tongue as sharp as Swift possessed any conversation or correspondence between him and Motte would have been worth reading or hearing.

One small example will serve to show how touchy things were then. Swift had named a tavern in the book the “Crown and Horns” and there is not too much wrong with that you may think. However, the monarch at the time was George the First who was widely reputed to be having numerous adulterous affairs with married women and so the Crown became the King and the Horns the cuckold’s horns traditionally associated with a man whose wife is being unfaithful to him. It really was that bad and how some of today’s authors would have fared is beyond me – probaby “dancing the Tyburn jig”. Whilst you cannot obviously touch the original they have very helpfully provided a modern paperback facsimile with all the annotations in it.

We hadn’t even started yet and my new-found friend then explained to me the filing system or lack thereof in the Library. In all innocence I said, “No Dewey decimal system then” and she looked at me a little moment as I suppose not so many people maybe know about it but it is the modern system of classifying books in a library. I had to explain that my late Mother (RIP) had been a part-time librarian when I was young and it is undoubtedly from her that I inherited my almost obsessive love of reading. No such technical wizardry back then, books were stored by size as they had to make the shelves to order, no Ikea adjustable bookshelves then which is probably why they are still there!

I have a dear friend called Sarah, another VT refugee and a brilliant travel writer, who is by profession a librarian and I know this will amuse her. At time of writing she is either in, or has recently returned from, North Korea which shows you how adventurous she and her husband are. They are proper travellers and I do encourage you to have a look at her blog here where the photography and the writing are of a standard I can only dream of.

They obviously try to keep themselves current in the library as there was a temporary exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing and also a display of old books about various sports to tie in with the Open golf tournament that had just finished at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland a couple of days before. I found this fascinating as well when I had a good look later myself. I also noticed a small play area with soft toys and the like and the lady said that they were trying to encourage people with small children to visit and they could be left safely there (it is only one room) whilst Mum and Dad had a good look round. They do really seem to be making an effort here and this idea was reinforced by my next meeting.

From a side door there came a gentleman in clerical gear who I was introduced to as being either the Dean or the Deacon (I think it was the Dean but I really cannot remember) who also happens to be the Librarian as part of his duties and actually “lives above the shop” as he had just emerged from what I was informed was his own private residence, what a lucky man. It is only relatively recently that visitors were able to enter the Library without going though his home (well, his predecessor’s home anyway). He was a lovely chap and we spoke of this and that, predominantly the election to be leader of the Conservative Party and ergo Prime Minister with the result due in the next hour. I thought clerics were not supposed to get involved in politics but I was left in no doubt as to who he was supporting!

My charming guide excused herself as she had to go back to work but left me in no doubt that if I wished to look at any volume then just poke my head round the door of the office and she would take it down for me and give me a pair of gloves so I could enjoy it at my leisure. In truth, I could have spent months of my life doing nothing other than sitting there reading those tomes but I set about just having a nosey round.

My only other companion was a young lady with an obviously very old book in front of her and typing away on her laptop. The is obviously still a place of academic research and I am not at all surprised. I did my best to be quiet and not disturb her and actually felt like a bit of a fraud just wandering around rubbernecking but the lady had left me in no doubt that I was welcome, it really was so friendly there. I spent rather longer than I had intended reading a book (a modern one on the reading table) of old images of Armagh City and trying to marry them to the city I remembered. Much of it has not changed a lot. I had to be a bit mindful of time and so I very reluctantly bade the ladies in the office good day and headed back out into the city where I could not resist yet another image of the Cathedral on the way.

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh.

I think you have probably gathered by now what I thought of the Robinson Library but I should re-iterate it. I dislike the term “must see” but if I were to ever use it then it would be in reference to this place. I know my trip was very much family orientated this time and this day wa really my only sightseeing outing compared to my usual gallivanting about but it was worth it just to stand in that magnificent room.

Like other places in the world where there are, or were, “tribal tensions” literally turning the wrong corner in an urban environment can lead you into trouble, the demarcation of “turf” is so defined as I mentioned when leaving the bus station. For reasons I cannot explain even to myself I decided to take a wander round place that I would have been at best very uncomfortable walking in 1981 but it was fine, nobody gave me a second glance. Truth to tell, there were not that many people there to give me such a glance as the city seemed a lot quieter than it used to be or maybe that is just memory playing tricks after all these years.

I stopped off into one of the many charity shops that seem to have proliferated all over the UK now with the sad demise of the “High Street” as a shopping option and so many retail premises now unoccupied. I headed straight to the book section and amidst all the Mills and Boon and Catherine Cookson nonsense I was delighted to find a copy of “A short walk in the Hindu Kush” by Eric Newby which I had had a copy of years before but which had got lost in one of my many moves. I was so happy I gave the lady a couple of quid instead of the marked 50p and it was still a bargain.

If you do not know of Eric Newby you simply must check him out. He was Michael Palin before Michael Palin was but he did it without the benefit of numerous fixers, a large camera crew, Governmental and military assistance and the might of the BBC’s coffers. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Mr. Palin in all his many guises and have all his travel books but I cannot help whilst watching being affable and natural on camera that it has all been set up for him.

On the other hand Eric Newby did it all by himself. He sailed on one of the last clipper ships and then joined the Indian Army at the start of WW2 before being posted to North Africa where he served in the Black Watch and the SBS (Royal Marine seaborne Special Forces), earning the Military Cross in an action where he was captured and taken POW. He escaped and hid out in the Apennine mountains being sheltered by a woman called Wanda who he was to marry after the war.

After some time in the fashion industry which was his family trade, he upped sticks in 1956 at the age of 36 and took himself off to wander with his diplomat friend round a remote part of Afghanistan which is the subject of my recent acquisition. The idea was to climb Mir Samir despite having only the most rudimentary climbing training in North Wales. Utterly nuts and I do beg you to find at least one of his books as they are hilarious as well as tremendously interesting and a glimpse at a bygone age. Think P’G Wodehouse meets Alan Whicker and you will be getting close.

I was heading back in generally the direction I had to meet my family when I was rather saddened to see the Wagon Wheel pub (latterly the Spider’s) still unoccupied and apparently falling to bits so I went to take a quick image of it for this piece but, horror of horrors, I got the message on the camera to change my battery. I know it was fully charged that morning and I hadn’t taken that many images but that was the end of the day’s photography. I reckon the poor old thing is about knackered and I have since laid hands on a new compact so hopefully the images will improve a few entries from now as the current model really is all singing and all dancing.

No chance of some up to date images of the several war memorials I wanted to visit in the area of the Mall and so it was into the Victoria Bar for a quick livener – well every cloud has a silver lining and all that as I mentioned above and which I do rather believe. There was only myself and the very chatty barmaid in the place and so a conversation inevitably ensued. I told her it was probably getting on for 40 years since I had been there although not much has changed. She was able to supply the information that the Wagon Wheel had been purchased by an evangelical Church and was going to be renovated as such because their current premises were now too small. I reckon they will have to exorcise the ghosts of myself and a lot like me before they can ever consecrate the place, it really was a madhouse in it’s heyday. I even did a few shifts as a DJ in a roller disco there when such things were all the rage!

Whilst her information about the pub was most welcome she was unable to enlighten me about the old jail building almost directly across the road which seems to have been lying empty for even longer than the boozer. A quick check shows it stopped functioning in 1986 so it must be a right mess inside by now by now although the facade looks as it always did i.e. grim and with a patina of vehicle pollution. The talk is that they are going to make it into an hotel but I have been hearing that for many years now and nobody seems to know anything definite. As it was built in the 1780s it is undoubtedly a listed building and the cynic in me suspects it is probably the old developers trick of leaving it untended until it becomes so unsafe it has to be torn down thereby leaving them with clear land to develop as they wish and that they will never get planning permission for otherwise. I have to say it would be absolutely the prime site in the city with views right along the length of the Mall.

En route to my rendezvous (get me with all the French in the one sentence!) I passed the Boer War memorial although obviously there were no images possible so again I shall rely on my old VT tip and some previous images to explain it here, suitably edited as always. I assure you that it has not changed one iota.

“I have mentioned elsewhere the large number of war memorials there are in Northern Ireland, primarily to the fallen of the two World Wars as you might expect. In the centre of Armagh, however, there is a memorial commemorating the fallen of an earlier conflict namely the South African campaign of 1899 – 1902. The Regiment commemorated principally is the Princess Victoria’s Royal Irish Fusiliers whose Museum is nearby at the far end of the Mall. A staggering 165 men from the Regiment perished in the campaign and their names are duly recorded here.

The memorial itself, which I find aesthetically pleasing, is of a bugler of the Regiment sounding the Last Post. The statue, which is bronze stands an impressive seven feet high atop a 12 foot granite plinth. The round plaque pictured shows the hard-won battle honours of the Regiment, many, like Talavera, earned during the Peninsular Wars. Irish troops have a long and proud history in the British Army”.

I met my brother and sister in law at the appointed spot and we drove the short distance to the nursing home to see Father which is where life settled down into it’s accustomed pattern. We spent some time with Father who was in good form despite the upheaval of having had to move rooms due to a technical malfunction in his usual one and then it was off for a quick run round the excellent little supermarket on the way home where they always have some great bargains and then back to Tandragee. I got the kid brother to drop me at the top of the town as always and went to the “Monty” to say my farewells as this was my last night for this trip. Whilst everyone was very friendly and wanting me to stay later I took myself off pretty early as I know the next day would be a long one.

Well, I think that is it and it has indeed turned into another rather lengthy piece but I did not want to leave any of this out, indeed there is much more I could have put in but reluctantly decided not to.

A final quick explanatory note. Due to other distractions and the length of this piece I am actually posting it on the afternoon of the 2nd of August. Certainly there have been other distractions but I dread to think how many manhours I have spent proof-reading this over and over, researching, appending new and old images, inserting hyperlinks and all the rest, it really is time- consuming and I do hope you think it is worth it. I know I love doing it.

In the next entry I manage to get home by way of not one but two “adventures” so stay tuned and spread the word.

Some sad news, the Musicians Union and a few observations.

The days of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the 6th, 7th and 8th June passed passed fairly unremarkably with me sitting in the back garden reading a succession of good books. My late Mother was a prodigious reader and instilled a love of reading in me. She left an extensive library at home which I still have not managed to wade my way through and my complete inability to walk past a charity shop without checking out the book section means that I have plenty of choice.

I say the days were unremarkable and certainly my activites were but there is one matter that is definitely worthy of mention here and will cause raised eyebrows amongst anyone reading this who may have ever visited the Province.

The island of Ireland is stuck in the Atlantic Ocean on the Western fringe of Europe and consequently gets the weather coming East across that huge expanse of water which usually consists of more water. For meteorological reasons which I do actually understand but won’t bore you with there is a lot of rain here and the relatively Northern latitude coupled with the maritime influence means that it never usually gets overly hot. It was with complete amazement therefore that I spent three days sitting with my shirt off, shorts and flip-flops on and roasting myself in what can only be described as a heatwave. It was upper mid 20’s each day with high UV levels and it was truly glorious.

An indication of how bright it was is that I was able to read a standard print book comfortably without my customary reading glasses. I have done that before but it has been in places like the Algarve and Sri Lanka and I really did not expect it in Tandragee. I am certainly not complaining but it did surprise me a bit.

I mentioned that I was wearing shorts and thereby hangs another tale. For obvious reasons I had not packed any but my sister in law came to the rescue and brought me round three pairs which my (sole) nephew had outgrown. I had met him the day I got back and I could not believe it when he walked in the room. I had not seen him for some time and had a mental image of him as a tall but fairly slim schoolboy. He has just turned 20, is studying at University and has taken to going to the gym which has bulked him up no end. He really is quite a unit now and would make a useful rugby player but, to my regret, has no interest in doing so. I suspect he takes after his Father (my brother) who is a keen spectator but never really played much. I loved playing although without any distinction but my Father represented Ulster at inter-Provincial level in the 1950’s and continued playing social rugby into his 40’s. I had the pleasure of playing with him a few times for a wonderful veterans team called  the Malone Tornadoes.

On the Friday morning my Father announced that he was going to mow the lawn. I said that I would do it but he would not hear of it as, despite his recent ill-health, he loves pottering about in the garden. Certainly my brother does the heavier work but it is effectively my Dad’s garden and if you have a look at the attached image I think you’ll agree that he keeps it very tidy.

There was one other small event of note on the Friday which demonstrates the legendary generosity of Northern Ireland people and the bond between musicians worldwide.

I believe I mentioned that my Father has carers who call and who I must say are very good. One of them is called Lana and she has red hair and lots of very well-done tattoos. When I say red hair I do not mean that in the tradtional sense of the stereotypical “Irish red-haired colleen” but something rather more crimson and obviously out of a bottle. I must say it suits her.

Under normal circumstances I would not subject a young lady to the sight of my ageing torso but I did not hear her approach to find me with no shirt on. She spotted the guitar tattoo on my back as well as the other two on display, one of which is a song lyric and the other the logo of a rock musician I know, which led to a conversation about tattoos and music. Of necessity it was brief as the ladies are on a tight schedule but I did find out that she was a multi-instrumentalist and played in a rock / blues band called Obsidian who had a gig the following night in Armagh to which she invited me but there was no way I could have got home late at night save walking about 12 miles which I didn’t really fancy.

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Thanks Lana, brilliant artwork.

She went on her way and I thought she had gone but a moment later she returned with the CD and sticker you see pictured. I asked her how much the CD was but she would not hear of it. Having been involved in the music game for some years I know that “merch” (merchandise) is often a necessary financial supplement to appearance fees for unsigned bands. With modern technology no more advanced than a PC you can burn CDs easily enough but this is professionally produced and the packaging is very slick. I particularly like the artwork which is the work of a local artist called Kevin Mahoney and struck me as very 70’s prog rock, which I love. For some reason I could not get the cover of the excellent “Wizards and Demons” album by Uriah Heep out of my head. Whilst I never had the opportunity to see Heep in their heyday I was fortunate enough to watch them perform the entire album at a festival near my home in London a few years ago.

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This might even make it onto the back of my guitar.

By way of yet another deviation which I promise is the final one for this entry, I have actually played on the same stage as Uriah Heep. Admittedly it was not on the same night but what the heck.

Some years ago, I toured Sweden and Finland with a group of Irish dancers called the Irish Folk Ballet company.  There were ten young female dancers, two equally young male dancers, a wonderful fiddle player called Lynne Butler, your humble narrator on guitar and vocals and two lunatic Finnish roadies named Kristal (yes, really, but we called him Kris) and Vesku. Our agents thought it was a good idea to send us up near the Arctic Circle in February and March and when we got to Vaasa it was -26C i.e. bloody cold.

One day we played two shows in the magnificent Tonhalle in Sundsvall in Sweden which is possibly the best venue I have ever played. Between the shows we were asked to sign a publicity poster which someone had put in a huge visitors book for everyone who had played there. With that done, I had a flick through the pages to see who had been there before and found out that Uriah Heep had played there only a few weeks previously. As if the  800+  crowd was not enough of an adrenaline rush, it really gave me a buzz to think I had fluked playing on a stage so recently graced by genuine prog rock legends. For the record, it was one of the best gigs of the tour.  I cannot believe the agents were apologising that one of the shows had about 50 empty seats although the other was over-subscribed.  I was used to playing to 50  people in a pub!

That is the somewhat meandering story of my unlikely early June sunbathing adventure in Northern Ireland, unlikely as it sounds but enough is enough and I was actually burning a bit so I’ll get my shirt on in the next instalment and get out of the back garden, pleasant as it is.

 

 

The 9th of June was a Saturday and the day I was due to return to London but I had changed my plans and decided to stay on for a while. Being retired I have the luxury of being able to do that. I had a couple of social engagements planned for the next weekend with old friends from the Virtual Tourist website but they were very understanding when I explained the situation. I do hope we can get together again soon as the phenomenal community spirit was perhaps the one aspect of VT that set it head and shoulders above any other travel related website. I have some knowledge as I have contributed to several over the years and VT really was unique.

A measure of the strong friendships formed is that long after the site was so disgracefully axed by the totally immoral and discredited Tr#pAdv&s%r (the typos are deliberate to avoid adding another mention of their reviled name for search engines to find) there are still annual Euromeets. Although I could not attend the 2018 event in Iceland, I did manage to get to the 2017 gathering in Kempten im Allgau in Southern Germany. The story of how I got there is a bit of a saga and may well form the basis of my next set of entries here.

Kempten was a great weekend with over 50 attendees and all because of a website that we could not even use for communication through any more. Although I do not use it I believe there is still a very active VT group on Facebook and at time of writing there is an online vote going on to decide between Newcastle-upon-Tyne in UK and Plovdiv in Bulgaria for the 2019 event. Both “bids” are from personal friends and I know either will prove to be a great success. I know that the majority of my small number of readers are old VT friends but if anyone else comes upon this entry and would be interested please get in touch with me and I shall put you in touch with the relevant people. Whilst the whole event was born out of a shared love of the website we are most definitely not prone to cliques and are a very sociable bunch with new people made most welcome.

As I do conversationally I am digressing again but as it is my website I can (cue evil film villian laugh c.1930). I shall have to guard against megalomania before I start hatching plans for world domination! Back therefore to a Saturday morning in Tandragee.

The day did not start well as it was today that I learned from the TV news of the very sad death by suicide of the renowned celebrity chef Tony Bourdain. I have mentioned before that I love cooking, cookbooks, cookery programmes and everything to do with the culinary art. It is just the eating part I have trouble with. I first became aware of him many years ago when a friend, knowing of my love of cookery, recommended his excellent book Kitchen Confidential which was a very much “warts and all” expose of the wirkings of professional kitchens. Tony started off washing pots in a New England seafood restaurant and eventually worked his way up to being one of the top chefs in the USA.

Much of the book focused on the appalling conditions faced by kitchen workers, often illegal immigrants, in the USA and this was an issue he fought tirelessly to change. It was a brutally honest piece which detailed his drug and alcohol abuse in the 1980s including stories about he and another chef staying awake in a chemically induced haze in order to prepare a completely over the top buffet and with much of the work being done in the freezer in well sub zero conditions. He certainly did not pull his punches and whilst I do not know where my copy of it has gone I shall have to acquire another one. It is too long since I read it.

Not only was he a world class chef with awards coming out of his ears but he was an inveterate traveller and many of his journies were recorded for various American TV shows like “No Reservation Required”. For a chef of his stature he was equally happy eating foie gras and truffle in a Michelin starred Parisian restaurant or sitting on a plastic stool in country X, Y or Z feasting on some obscure dish with the locals. This chimes very much with my own notions of travelling except that I tend more to the plastic seat than the Michelin star.

There are many TV chefs who do that like Greg Fiori, Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein (a favourite of mine), the late Keith Floyd (utterly brilliant and he would never be allowed to broadcast as he did in these politically correct days), the Hairy Bikers (more favourites and not even trained chefs) etc. etc. but Tony went a bit further in a way that was quite personal to me.

I have spoken above about the Virtual Tourist website which I loved before it was destroyed by a totally immoral bottom feeder called Kaufer. Some years ago Tony was a guest contributor to that site and I loved reading his pieces. He certainly was not getting paid a fortune as there was not a fortune to give, he did it for the love of the thing, love of travelling, love of what we had on VT which was so very special as I hope I have demonstrated.

That a man of his obvious talents and passion should die at his own hand without having shown any signs of it coming is nothing short of tragic. I know I am not alone in mourning the death of a man like Tony Bourdain. RIP, my friend.

After a little early morning mist had burned off it was another lovely day but I had roasted myself enough the previous three days and so I caught one of the three buses that run into Portadown on a Saturday. I know I mentioned this before but small towns and villages in Northern Ireland really are poorly served by public transport. I cannot see how anyone could live here without their own transport, especially if you have a family. In fairness to Ulsterbus, the buses they do run on the Tandragee route are always very punctual but I just wish there were more of them.

The first places I visited were the charity shops which appear to dominate the town now with the only new shops opening appearing to be grocery shops catering to the huge influx of Eastern European immigrants that have arrived. Every time I go back to Portadown and walk through the centre I see more and more shops closed and the heart really is being torn out of it. Even my old guitar shop has shut (as has the one in nearby Lurgan) and I now have to travel miles to either Newry or Lisburn to get even a few basic accessories. Like the rest of the UK everyone seems happy to shop in big out of town shopping centres of which there are plenty and inevitably this squeezes smaller businesses out in town centres. It also reinforces my earlier point about the absolute need to have your own transport in order to get to these centres.

This economic malaise is not restricted to Portadown and seems to be regrettably all too common in Northern Ireland. I was talking to an old friend the other night and he told me it is the same all over the Province apart from Belfast which is booming, largely due to the huge investment associated with the so-called “peace dividend”. It appears the £ / $ / € just don’t get far outside the capital.

Whilst I lament the loss of the traditional High Street, I am a great fan of charity shops and simply cannot pass one without checking out the book section. I cannot remember the last time I bought a book from a proper bookshop and I picked up another couple for a fraction of the published price. I think I have about six unread books on my bedside table now but I just cannot resist.

After my trawl of the charity shops it was off to Joe Mac’s for a pint. Whilst I was there I had a read of the local daily newspaper and amongst the usual petty sectarian political squabbling and much talk about “Brexit” (very topical as I am typing this a mere 15 miles from the border) was a story about a man who had been sentenced to nine months imprisonment for running two brothels in Belfast. Vile as that particular crime is it was not what caught my attention. I have reproduced the article here but if it is not clear enough on whatever device you may be using he was called Catalin Vasile Manea which instantly gave me a clue, confirmed by the next phrase “originally from Romania” and leads me to a few observations about the country of my birth.

When I was growing up in the 1960’s there were virtually no non-indigenous people in Northern Ireland save for a very small Chinese population who were almost exclusively involved in the restaurant business. One of my earliest memories is of being taken to one of the two Chinese restaurants in Londonderry where we lived at the time. It was a birthday treat and I reckon it must have been about 1967 or 68. After half a century I cannot be sure but something tells me I had chop suey which I had never had before and which instilled in me a deep love for Chinese cuisine which remains to this day. Whilst the food was a revelation it was the staff that made the greatest impression on me as I had never seen anyone that looked like them before even in books and certainly not in the flesh. Northern Ireland really was that parochial back then.

In regard to non-indigenous people I was in quite an unusual position in that I used to chum about with a lad called Jimmy Niagra who lived nearby. Jimmy’s family were from Mauritius and to this day I have no idea how they had ended up in Ulster but our friendship led to another culinary first for me. I remember my Mother having to show me where Mauritius actually was in an atlas and at eight or nine years of age I could not even comprehend how far away it was.

Mrs. Niagra had invited me to tea one evening and my Mother agreed. It was very close by and in those carefree days before “the Troubles” started so I went down by myself to Jimmy’s house where we played outside for a while. When we were called in to eat I was presented with a plate of something that looked vaguely like the stews I was so used to although not quite the same. When I took a mouthful I knew it was not like any stew my Mother or Grandmothers made. It was very different and quite unlike anything I had ever tasted before. You are probably ahead of me here, dear reader, but I had just had my first curry and I loved it.

I am sure Mrs. Niagra took it easy on the “heat” of the curry and, on reflection, I wonder where she got the spices. They must have been sent from her native country as I am quite sure there would have been none of the exotic seasonings we are so accustomed to now available back then. I remember going home that evening and gabbling on to my Mother about this funny tasting stew and asked her if she would make it for me. Unsurprisingly, I cannot remember it ever appearing on my plate.

My first curry led to a lifelong love affair with the genre and I could easily live on the stuff, in fact I do when I stay with my friend in Sri Lanka. Enough then of my childhood reminiscing and fast-forward to Portadown where I moved in 1981.

In the ninth decade of the 20th century, non-white people were still a rarity in the town and indeed Co. Armagh although there were a few more round Belfast than there had been in the 60’s and 70’s. I knew of two mixed race families in Portadown and that was about it. It was after I left and in the closing years of the last Millennium and first years of this one that the first major wave of immigration took place courtesy of the EU when there was a large influx of Portuguese into the town. I have asked many people the reason and nobody seems to know exactly although I suspect that it is the age old process of a few immigrants coming and then others coming to join them on the principle of sticking together in a foreign country. What I do know is that most of them went to work in the Moypark chicken factory nearby although I do not know if that is still true.

I first heard of this from my late Mother who had volunteered in one of the charity shops in town before she became too ill. She told me that groups of Portuguese women would come into the shop and literally buy up everything in sight. My Mother, being my Mother, took it upon herself in her 70’s to learn some basic conversational Portuguese to converse with them. She really was some woman. I shall return to this Portuguese influence in a moment.

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Yes, you’ll get as much Eastern European produce as you want here.

The second wave of immigration came with the accession of a number of other countries in 2004 when the UK was the destination of choice for a huge number of “Eastern Europeans”, specifically Poles in numbers that the Government of the day had underestimated by a factor of 10. With “the Troubles” more or less over, Northern Ireland received it’s share of these immigrants and I have already mentioned the presence of shops catering specifically for them. It suits me fine as I am partial to Polish cuisine and I can easily pick up a few bits and pieces. Older Northern Irish people tend to be quite conservative in their culinary tastes and I remember once making up a packet of flaki (tripe soup) at home and explaining what it was to my Father. His expression was priceless.

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Moved to much larger premises, business must be good.

What I am going to say now will possibly be controversial but is backed up by plenty of verifiable evidence including the newspaper report that triggered this whole portion of the entry. For the relatively small numbers of Romanians currently in UK where they can come perfectly legally, there seems to be a disproportionate percentage involved in crime, specifically prostitution and people trafficking. I do not wish to further digress into the matter of prostitution and the pros (no pun intended) and cons of legalising it but I do find pimps amongst the lowest forms of life and I do hope Catalin Vasile Manea receives the kind of reception he deserves in Her Majesty’s Prison but back now to Portadown.

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Oak Bar, Portadown.

Walking down Woodhouse Street I wandered into the Oak Bar and I may as well have been walking into a bar in Albufeira or Funchal as it really was a slice of Portugal.

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Portuguese sport in a Portadown bar?

There was a Portuguese sports channel on TV, a Portuguese bar snack menu and Portuguese was the predominant language amongst both staff and customers, although I did have a chat with a local couple sitting next to me at the bar.

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It was not like this the last time I was there a few years ago but I found it unsurprising for reasons as explained above.

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McKeevers Bar, Portadown.

Another short walk took me to McKeevers bar  which is yet another beauty of an old-fashioned place although not nearly as old as McConville’s which I mentioned in an earlier entry. As you can see from the image it only dates to 1944. but it appears to be fairly well unchanged since then and they still serve an excellent pint of Guinness. It was only when I was leaving that I noticed the poster for Long Meadow Cider which I had never heard of despite me being a big cider fan and which was apparently made by the McKeever family not far away. Some relatives of the publican presumably.

The interesting thing about the last two pubs mentioned is that, whilst I have visited them on subsequent trips home, I never drank in them when I lived here. Such was the tribalism then in vogue that I was the “wrong side” to drink in either of these establishments. Certainly there is still a lot of organised crime controlled by paramilitaries in Northern Ireland but things really have moved on a lot and I feel quite comfortable in any pub in the town now.

My last port of call was McConville’s again as it is pretty close to the bus stop in Carleton Street and I had my pint of Guinness ordered before I noticed that they sold the Long Meadow cider I had seen advertised in McKeevers so I had a bottle of it before I went. It is a little sweet for my taste but a decent drop nonetheless.

I mentioned in a previous entry about how I was plied with Guinness one evening and talked into playing a cannibal queen in a pantomime in a meeting held in a snug here in McConvilles. I enclose here an image of the very table over which the deed was done.

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Where I managed to change gender and colour one evening.

On the bus then and off home for my dinner, a bit more journal writing and reading and then bed.

There is more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.

 

Time for a daytrip.

After my impromptu gig with my mate Ritchie in the Montague Arms on the Monday night and a good night’s sleep, I was up on the morning of Tuesday 5th June and wondering what to do with myself. I thought I might take a wander round Portadown which is a mere five miles away but, as I previously explained, is a bit of a pain to get to owing to the parlous state of public transport in the Province. I managed to get one of the infrequent buses and got off for a walk round and with no set plan as always.

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River Bann, Portadown.

I wandered along to the river and proved another one of my many travelling maxims namely that you can always find something new. I strolled down to the towpath (canal boats used to ply this stretch of the River Bann having come along the canal from Newry) and found the plaque you can see in the image indicating that there was a World War Two air raid shelter on this site.

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I never knew about this.

I lived in and around Portadown for many years and never knew about this although I do slightly question the wisdom of putting an air raid shelter under such an obvious air target as the only bridge in a town with little else of potential value as one. In the event, I don’t think Portadown was ever bombed.

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There is an air raid shelter under here.
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Bit of an obvious place to put it!

There has been a bridge on this site since 1630 so it would have been a bit of a shame, not to mention a complete nuisance, if the Germans had done away with it.

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Gary’s Bar, Portadown.

I decided to visit a few of the old hostelries round the town and started in Gary’s Bar just across the bridge. In truth I didn’t really drink in here too much when I lived locally as it had a bit of a reputation but it was exactly as I remembered it, very old-fashioned and all the better for it. A quick pint along with the obligatory bag of Tayto cheese and onion (chips for my North American friends) and it was time to move on.

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Schvargo bar, Portadown.
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I wish I could remember what it was called before.

Back over the bridge and the next place I came to was Schvargo, not Zhivago mind you, but Schvargo. It has obviously been fairly recently renovated and has quite modern inside with no attempt at a faux traditional look which I really do not like. I know there was always a pub on this site but try as I might, and even after a few days, I cannot for the life of me remember what it was called. There was only one other customer in there and he was buried in his newspaper but I did have a good chat with the barman who will feature again in a moment.

 

Onward ever onward and on up the main street (there is a bit of a hill), past the Cope Inn and down the alley into Joe Mac’s. Yes, you read that correctly and I did indeed walk past a pub. The reason for this is that whilst the Cope Inn and Joe Mac’s are physically separate I know they are both owned by the same man and are even painted in the same colour outside. They are basically just two halves of the same establishment. I was sitting enjoying my pint and reading the local morning newspaper when in walked the barman from Schvargo and it was clear from his demeanour that he was the owner which was subsequently confirmed to me by the young barman. We had a bit of a joke about him stalking me before he departed and I wondered about him owning three pubs so close to each other. He must be doing something right.

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Three pubs in one alleyway, that is Northern Ireland for you!

Out the door of Joe Mac’s and an “arduous hike” of at least ten paces landed me at the back door of another pub where I used to drink a bit. It is officially called The Bar now but I still think of as Jameson’s. It is a very sports themed place with all sorts of memorabilia on the walls. The image posted above hopefully gives some idea as there are not one but three pubs in it with the image taken from the shared “beer garden” / smoking area. The red wall in the left foreground is the back wall of Jameson’s, the beige building in the right middle ground is Joe Mac’s and the building in the background with the sloping roof and satellite dish is the Cope Inn. A man could do a reasonable pub crawl in the space of about 20 decent paces. That’s Northern Ireland for you.

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Jameson’s Bar, Portadown.

As usual I fell to chatting with the two barmen and the very interesting guy that was sitting beside me at the bar and before I knew it I had managed to miss the last bus home. I believe I mentioned before how awful the public transport is to my village and the last bus on weekdays goes at 1740 which isn’t a lot of use. Still, no point in worrying about it and it gave me an opportunity for one last visit.

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McConville’s Bar, Portadown.

My final port of call on this little hostelry tour was the wonderful McConville’s. It has not been owned by the McConville family for many years although the name remains. I had been told earlier on in the day that it has been recently taken over again with the changes not being to everyone’s liking and consequent loss of custom in what used to be one of the busier pubs in town. I have to say that it was not overly busy when I went in and ordered a pint of Guinness which came up well-kept and well-served as I would have expected.

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Whilst the new owners have changed some things such as the ranges of drink stocked there is thankfully much that they cannot change as the whole building is a listed building. For my non-British readers who may not understand this term it means that the building is protected by an order which prevents it from being altered without special permission from the relevant authorities. I am so glad that Mac’s as it is locally known is so protected as it really is a beauty of a building and so typical of traditional pubs of the 19th century. It is all wood panelled with tiles on the floor which would have once been covered in sawdust to soak up spilt drink, occasional blood and, er, saliva in the absence of spitoons and which gave rise to the old expression of a “spit on saw” meaning a working class pub.

Macs also boasts that most quaint of traditions, the snug. A snug is a small area off the bar with one table and a door where you could go to discuss things in private and there are several here. In days past, there would have been a bellpull in each one to summon a waiter so you did not even have to go to the bar to replenish supplies but these are long gone. It was in one of these snugs that I was once plied with too much Guinness and talked into “blacking up”, donning huge false breasts, a fright wig, grass skirt and more costume jewellery than you could wave a stick at to appear on stage in the annual pantomime (Robinson Crusoe) in the Town Hall taking the part of Wotta Woppa the Cannibal Queen.

I was a member of the wonderful Gateway Theatre Group which still exists but generally confined myself to set-building, scenery humping, stage management, lighting, sound, SFX and all the other backstage tasks. It appears my mate Millie, the producer, knew exactly how to talk me into anything and so I spent ten evenings and two matinees singing and dancing with my “tribe” of six and seven year old little girls from the local dance school. I even had to go to tap lessons with them beforehand which was hugely embarrassing. I must admit that it was a lot of fun especially as my great friend Nevin took the part of Man Friday, again “blacked up” although he only had a loincloth to worry about by way of costume.

Whilst it was hugely enjoyable there was a logistical problem with the body make-up. It is supposed to be water soluble and to an extent that is true. Despite showering after every show and scrubbing myself raw I spent the run and even a few days beyond looking like a rather tall chimney sweep and my once white bedsheets found the bin shortly afterwards.

 

I love the way I can ramble on about things in this way where I was previously fairly much constrained to writing strictly about travel. I am becoming rather fond of having my own website even if I do not quite know how to use it. I’ve never actually been my own boss before although some of my previous management may have wondered about that on occasion.

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What is he for? Answers on a postcard please.

OK, here is a little quiz for you. Without recourse to Google, does anyone know what the charming little brass figure (pictured) on the bar do? I’ll tell you. In the days before a previous misGovernment of my country introduced the appalling smoking ban which cost innumerable jobs as pubs closed this little fellow would have had a small gas powered flame coming out of his rather oversized mouth (rather like the appalling creature who brought in the smoking ban) for you to light your cigarette on. I know of only one other example of this which is in the wonderful Crown Bar in Belfast which I shall write about in a future travelogue if I do not revisit on this trip.

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Quaint and remarkably comfortable!

I should say at this point that I am not in the habit of taking images of gents toilets in pubs (and certainly not ladies) but I include these images to show you just how old-fashioned this place is, it really is a gem. I have so many stories I could tell you about “Macs” but I shall save them for another entry as it is more than likely I shall return before I leave Northern Ireland.

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I have no idea when these tiles were laid.

Suitably refreshed I went round the corner to the taxi office and was home in no time flat whereupon I did a bit more writing of this blog, had my supper, read a bit and went to bed for another great nights sleep. It must be the country air or something but I am sleeping much better here than I do back in London.

Stay tuned and spread the word.

I got there at last.

If you have come upon this page other than via the previous entry then I suggest you read my entry for 1st June, 2018 as that explains how I had unexpectedly ended up in a Dublin hostel en route to my family home in Northern Ireland.

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The hostel by early morning light.

I may have dozed for a few minutes during the night but that was it and I was up again by about 0500. Going outside for a smoke, I noticed that security should not be a problem for the hostel as it is right next door to a Gardai (police) station, so yet another plus for what was an excellent venue in a great location. I had planned to get the first train North but a quick e-mail exchange with my brother let me know that it was not necessary as we would not be heading to our planned family reunion until mid-afternoon. I contented myself with doing a bit of internet work and then making the five minute walk back to Connolly Station.

I was going to catch a train about 1000 for the 90 odd minute journey to Portadown which is the nearest railhead to my home. I spoke to yet another helpful chap on the information desk who informed me that my ticket from the previous day was not valid even though it was not my fault I could not use it due to Irish Ferries failure. A new ticket cost me €29 which, added to the €36 I had forked out for my bed the previous night was making for an expensive journey and totally negating any savings on a scheduled flight but the railwayman told me that if I kept all my receipts then the ferry company were obliged to reimburse me. I have not put that to the test yet but I’ll let the reader know how it goes.

A journey on a comfortable train, complete with onboard wifi passed quickly and I was soon back in the country of my birth, crossing the border back into the UK somewhere between Dundalk and Newry. The Enterprise, as it is known, is jointly run by Northern Ireland Railways and what I still refer to as CIE, the rail service of the Republic. Since I have been home I have read in the newspapers that they are looking for a huge investment to update the Enterprise as the service is known but it seemed quite OK to me.

There was quite an interesting episode between Dundalk and Newry where I was joined by a young couple who obviously had slightly special needs and were great fun. The young lady asked me if I would use her ‘phone to take a few images of them which I was happy to attempt but there was a slight problem. I have mentioned that I am completely useless with technology and cannot even manage to take an image with my own ‘phone let alone one I do not even know but she very patiently explained it to me and I duly obliged. I was quite pleased with myself. Alighting at Portadown I was again pressed into service as “duty photographer” but I had the knack of it by now and again produced a couple of images that were pronounced passable.

As I had the luggage I decided to use the lift to cross the footbridge and had a rather ribald laugh and a joke with three elderly women out for a day shopping. Exiting the station I was greeted by another elderly female who I have never been before who engaged me in a conversation about the weather and I was struck again by the differences in Northern Ireland and London. Everyone talks to everyone else here whereas in London people just do not do it. Crossing the carpark I was making a beeline for one particular venue, Bennett’s Bar.

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A truly terrifying sight. Was it really closed?

It is a habit of mine that the first thing I do when getting home is to go into this fine hostelry for a pint. Rounding the corner I was aghast to see that the pub was completely enclosed by scaffolding. Oh no, surely not. I know from the evidence of my own village that pubs are closing down hand over fist but not Bennett’s which is one of the more popular watering holes in town. Hurrying to investigate I noticed a sign indicating the bar was open upstairs and this was confirmed by a burly young builder who came out of the main bar where there was obviously some serious refurbishment going on.

OK, up we go, luggage and all and it was hard going as it was absolutely pitch black, I mean proper coalhole but I was not going to be deterred. Feeling my way to a door I went in to find a completely empty and barely lit bar with a young lady in the corner working at her mobile ‘phone. Not wishing to startle her I gently cleared my throat and enquired if the bar was open. Technically not for another few minutes but she bid me come in and she’d get me a drink. In all the years I had been drinking in Bennett’s I had never been up here before as it is only used as a nightclub at the weekends and even in my younger days I was never much of a one for that kind of thing. The young lady started me off a pint of Guinness and then off to the DJ decks to put on some music which was of the boom boom “dance variety” although thankfully not too loud. The pint came up, well-kept and poured as I would expect here and which prompted another small ritual of mine which is to take a picture of the first drink I have in any country when I (re)visit it. You can see it here.

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First one this trip.

Whilst the barmaid was scurrying about getting ready for what she expected to be a busy lunchtime food service (the food here is very good) we were snatching pieces of conversation and she told me that the pub was still owned by the eponymous Bennett brothers, Niall and Tony, whom I have known for about 35 years. I was telling the young lady about some of the things we used to get up to when, as if on cue, in walked Tony who took one look at me, called me by name and asked if I still lived in London. Bear in mind that he has not seen me for about three years and it was an impressive feat of memory. He was quickly hard at work but we managed a few reminiscences including the pub charity rugby side we used to organise every season. Speaking of rugby I ended up having an impromptu rugby training session with a small boy using a soft toy as a ball. Long story for another time.

The bus service to Tandragee is pretty appalling on weekdays, worse on Saturdays when there are only three in each direction and non-existent on Sunday so it was round the corner to get a taxi the five or six miles to my brother’s house. Greetings duly exchanged and I was somewhat amazed by my 20-year-old nephew who has taken to going to the gym and is about twice as broad as the last time I saw him! To quote the late Sandy Denny / Fairport Convention, “Who knows where the time goes”? My only regret is that he does not play rugby! After that, it was up the road a short distance to my Father’s house where I would be staying, drop my kit and say hello and then off we went to “meet the family”.

We were heading for the little village of Castlederg in County Tyrone which is the area my late Mother came from. Northern Ireland is a relatively small country and I lived there for the first 28 years of my life so I thought I knew it pretty well but I cannot remember ever having stopped there although I know I have driven through it. My Mother was the youngest of a large family which for various reasons, including World War Two ended up dispersed all over the place which means I had uncles and aunts I had never met and even, at the age of 58, first cousins in the same situation. Time to fix all that.

We were foregathering in the Derg Arms, which proved to be an excellent choice as you will find out. It is a big premises which serves as bar, restaurant and hotel and several of my relatives were staying there, all speaking very highly of it.

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There were 13 cousins there and along with husbands, wives and partners there were over 20 of us who sat down for dinner. I chose the chilli beef with noodles and, this being Northern Ireland, had to choose a side dish of potatoes which seems odd but we do like our spuds where I come from. Everyone seemed very pleased with their meals and I did have a chance to compliment the chef when I bumped into her out the back whilst having a smoke later on. She said it had been a busy night and it must have been as they also had a football (soccer) club dinner which seemed to be well attended in addition to the usual Saturday evening diners. Despite all this, service was good and very friendly in that typically Northern Ireland fashion.

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Our private “withdrawing room”.

After the meal we all retired to a lovely room which was actually the private dining room of the owners, which I thought was very decent of them, and which kept us separate from the slightly boisterous football crowd and young locals complete with pumping dance music. I include one image here merely to show how homely it was.

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A highly recommended establishment.

I do not intend to bore the reader with a family occasion but one cousin who serves as the family historian produced a family tree, there were all sorts of old photos including some of my late Mother that I had never seen and plenty of chat. I met cousins I had not seen since the 1960’s which did make me feel rather old. One of the highlights was the attendance of what I believe is a second cousin of mine. I am no expert on these things but he was a first cousin of my late Mother’s and was the ripe old age of 100, he was great.

All too soon it was time to go as we had about a 90 minute drive back to Tandragee so it was pretty late when I turned in and was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. It had been a long day and a great evening and I am really glad I went.

Stay tuned and spread the word.