Back home – eventually!

Hello again and welcome to the final instalment of my Northern Ireland July 2019 trip. I know the last entry turned into a bit of a saga about what was effectively four hours sightseeing in Armagh and I do hope you all made it through the ordeal unscathed. This one should be shorter but I shall promise nothing as I know what Ican be like when I get my writing head on!

The 24th of July dawned and it was indeed D-Day, time to get back to London. I hesitate to say get home as I really do not know where home is any more. When I am in London I refer to Northern Ireland as home and vice versa. I am equally comfortable in either place and had really enjoyed my stay in Tandragee. I would have been happy to stay longer but I had one or two things to do back in my other home and there is always  Broadstairs Folk Week looming which I will undoubtedly play yet again and for the 30th year in 31. I missed 2016 as I happened to be travelling in Canada (and playing occasional gigs) which will hopefully form the basis of another little series here at some point.

I am not officially booked any more as my fairly hectic schedule means I cannot commit in January to an August festival when I do not even know what continent I may be on! That is no problem as I still get “musicians perks” and because I no longer camp then I do not need the wristband for access to the campsite. Despite my lack of official booking I managed to play about 12 gigs in the week last year so I’ll never go short of somewhere to jam. I just love it there at any time of year but especially Folk Week. A dear friend of mine once told me in all seriousness that it was my spiritual home and I do not think she was far wrong. Perhaps when I have to pack up the travelling I might go down there to see out my declining years. There are a lot worse places to be.

Whatever the reasoning, I needed to get back to London. I set an alarm for pretty early which is a thing I rarely do but I wanted to launder my linen and tidy up a bit. I know my sister in law willingly keeps house when my Father is there and does a Hell of a job of it but I didn’t think it was fair to ask her to clean up after me. I got that squared away and then awaited my brother who was giving me a lift to the train station as he always does, he is very good like that. He was more reliable than the taxi firm who had messed me up on the outbound journey and turned up in good time for a drive on quiet roads which got us to Portadown very quickly as it is only about six miles.

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Quicker? Really?

Having said our farewells I went into the station for a word with the ticket staff as I had a slight concern. I had made a check of my tickets the night before and which had been presented to me at Euston Station on departure in a little wallet as pictured. Whilst I had about six or seven different tickets for the outbound journey I only had three for the return and I was worried that perhaps the lady in London had not given me all I needed. I spoke to the charming ticket collector on the barrier and asked if what I had was sufficient to get me “home”. She was lovely and stated quite openly that she had never seen this type of ticket before and I know they seem to be somewhat of a novelty there as I know you can only buy the “Sailrail” option in Northern Ireland in the Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) travel centre in Belfast. I know that as last time “home” I had to make a trip at my own expense all the way to Belfast to buy a ticket to get back to London. Again, we are back to Translink and their incompetence as I railed (pun intended) about in the last entry. Why I cannot purchase such a ticket at one of only two stations served by the Dublin train in Northern Ireland i.e. Portadown and Newry is beyond me.  Surely it cannot be that difficult.

The Belfast – Dublin express is called the Enterprise and seems to be near enough full no matter what service you get and so I was happy to get my luggage stowed and get a seat. I got my book out and settled down, everything going nicely. Well, everything was going nicely for about ten minutes when the guard came on the p.a. to announce that one of the generators had packed up and we may be delayed which was the last thing I needed. There are so many changes on this route with a particularly dodgy bus service from Dublin Connolly Station to the ferryport that any sort of delay just wrecks your itinerary.
In 2018 I found myself wandering round Dublin on a busy Friday night looking for a bed, any bed, and luckily enough finding one in the Jacobs Inn hostel I have described elsewhere here. On that occasion it was an inexplicable delay to the ferry which had delayed me long enough to miss my last train to Northern Ireland.

I was definitely doing a bit of clock-watching as we sat there for what seemed an interminable length of time although was probably about 20 or 30 minutes and a guy in overalls and a high vis jacket wandered up the carriage carrying something that looked a bit electrical to me although I know nothing about it. I am guessing he was the engineer and he must have done the necessaries as we took off eventually and the driver, to his / her credit, seemed to be trying to make up time as we appeared to be going appreciably faster than before. This was not just me wishful thinking as I heard a couple of guys sitting opposite me commenting on it.

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The lamentably delayed Enterprise train I was unlucky enough to be on.

I had got myself online and was checking the options which indicated it was pretty much touch and go as to whether I would be in London that night for reasons I will explain now.

There are two ferry companies competing on the Dublin / Holyhead route namely Irish Ferries and Stena and they basically sail alternately in each direction. My ferry was Irish Ferries and time specific to the 1350 sailing as cheap advance travel tickets normally are. I am sure that if I explained the situation they would have let me on the next sailing, hours later, but that was going to get me back on the mainland in a position where I had to stay in Holyhead, Crewe or Chester (or points in between) as I could not get back to London that night. Additionally, wherever I stayed I would have had to buy another ticket at the obscene walkup prices charged on the British rail network as the Sailrails are date specific. Trying for the next Stena was just a non-starter as they were not going to honour a ticket from their fiercest rivals.

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My time-specific ferry ticket.

We eventually arrived into Connolly Station and I fairly charged up the platform, out of the gate and straight to the information office. I knew where it was from my previous debacle and I know they are hugely helpful no matter what tale of woe I give them, they are good people albeit they must be sorely tested at times. I also knew the bus stop was literally across the road from the station and I asked the guy for the time of the next one. He said I had just missed one (no surprise there) and asked what ferry I was on. Another quick check showed that the next bus would never get me there on time. Nothing else for it then but a taxi as I reckoned I could still just about make it.

I literally ran straight outside and grabbed the first available cab which was manned by a typically sociable old Dub guy with an accent you could have cut with a knife. When I got in I told him my situation and the delayed train he said, “Aye I heard, about half an hour”. How he knew that I do not know, it must have been the cabbies bush telegraph or something. We pulled out into the traffic and he appeared to be in no hurry to get anywhere albeit I was inwardly screaming “Get a bloody move on, you clown”, but he knew exactly what he was doing and we sat there and had a chat about all sorts of things. Still, he was driving steadily, never speeding and always keeping a good distance from the vehicle in front. He might have been on his driving test and I wish that all drivers were like that but on this one occasion I wished he would speed up a little before realising that it was pointless as there was nowhere to go.

I was watching his dashboard clock ticking along much as I suppose the condemned man must watch the clock (if there is one in the cell) until 0600 and his appointment with the noose and at one point I could not restrain myself any more and asked, “Will we be there on time”? Calm as you like he replied, “Don’t worry mate, I’ll get you there”. True to his word he did and there was more to come. During the journey he had been at pains to confirm which ferry I was on (apparently the cabbies bush telegraph does not extend to a knowledge of sailing times) and delivered me to the correct terminal.  The meter showed aobut €10:60 or thereabouts and he said, “Ah just give us ten, that’ll do”.  What an utter gent and a credit to his profession, his city and his country.  I do wish more London cabbies were like that.

Unlike Holyhead the terminals are not co-terminus and actually a bit of a distance apart so always tell your cabbie what boat you are on. Co-terminus, I love that word and I am so glad I got a chance to use it in it’s absolutely proper context, I love the English language.

Dashing into the terminal I saw a small queue at the check-in desk whereas I was expecting to be running up gangways alone at full tilt just as the boat was casting off but not a bit of it. Making enquiry I found out I had plenty of time before embarkation. I knew the departure lounge upstairs was no smoking and they do not open the smoking decks until the vessel is clear of the harbour so I had even time to go outside for a quick cigarette.

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It is a bit like walking into the mouth of Jonah’s whale!

Going through to security the guy there, yet another friendly Dub, ripped off a couple of old baggage tags before he checked in my suitcase and appended a current one for this voyage. With a conspiratorial wink he said, “Bloody British Customs will have you if they see those” (one was from a flight via Bahrain) which made me smile even though the only “official” I was later to see on arrival in Holyhead was a bored looking security guard not even looking at the arriving passengers. Perhaps North Wales Special Branch and HMRC (Customs) were all out playing golf or something.  I actually like this idea of them checking your baggage on a ferry, they never used to when I was young and I remember humping large Bergens (rucksacks) up and down gangways and stairs and trying to look after them if you went to the toilet. It is much more comfortable now.

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This is me trying to be arty and failing miserably.

The sailing went without a hitch although there was a very slight swell and chop which seemed to be causing some of my fellow passengers a bit of distress. Thankfully, I don’t have a problem with very rough seas (never mind this nothing) and do not suffer from travel sickness at all. The only sickness I felt was when I was presented with the bill for a pint of very ordinary cider being passed off as some sort of premium brand which it was not. It was €5.75 or £5.45 so needless to say I only had one. I do not mind paying for quality but this was not it and the purser on the till even had to go and remonstrate with the two barmen who were chatting with their backs to the counter whilst the queue grew longer. Product average, service very poor, sort it out people. Despite all the hassles, I still prefer this to flying.

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At least I am on the right island now, I can hitch if I have to!

I was in good time for my train to Chester where I changed again for Crewe. On some trains you only have to change once but this was a double change although that was still no problem as I have a little dodge regarding Crewe station. There is always a 30 -40 minute wait at Crewe for the connecting train so you go and ask the person on the gate very nicely if you can just pop out for a smoke and show them your connecting ticket. They invariably say yes but what you do not tell them is that you are heading straight across the road the the excellent Town Crier pub to have a smoke in their beer garden along with a pint that is going to cost considerably less than the disgusting rip-off on the boat. I have managed two in there on one occasion but frankly that was just being greedy, they were rushed and none too enjoyable. One is sufficient.

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Last stop, or so I thought.

Back onto the platform then to await the arrival of my Virgin train to London and after the potential hiccup earlier everything was going well and I looked like I might get back on time. Wrong. I mentioned in my last entry that I had two little adventures and you have only heard about one of them thus far. The train arrived in on time and I was glad to see that it was one of the Pendolino class which are rather comfortable and go fairly fast as they have the ability to tilt as the go round curves. I know that some people do not like the sensation but I do not mind it. They are officially designated as Class 390 for the railway buffs out there who probably already know that but for the rest of you they are pretty rapid as I said and run generally in service at 125mph whilst one has been clocked at 145mph under test conditions. What wouldn’t I have given to have been driving that.

I had no worries about seating as one of the few tickets that I had worried about all the way back in Portadown was my seat reservation for this service, seat F76 to be precise and normally I would not worry you with such minutiae but it becomes relevant shortly. Seat 76, as the high number suggests was near the door so I was right beside my luggage. I have an undoubtedly irrational fear that someone might make off with my luggage either intentionally or accidentally (look how often that happens at airports) and I like to be close to it to keep it in view. Secondly it means that I was three coaches from the buffet in coach C and I cannot resist another little travel tip here. If you are travelling on a Virgin train without a reservation, coach C is always an unreserved coach so it is handy to start there to try to get a seat. I did warn you that I could not get the old travel review concept out of my head!

I was settled down reading my book despite the efforts of the “lady” sitting next to me yakking on her mobile ‘phone incessantly. I swear I could write her biography from what I overheard and I was not deliberately earwigging, it was unavoidable. I was sure I had booked for the quiet coach as I always do but apparently not. I do wish people would be more considerate as I really do not want to know all about anyone’s personal life. I think the pendulum should actually be swung the other way with every coach except perhaps two being designated quiet and the “noisy coaches” having the most basic of facilities so people only went there if they really had to use their ‘phones and not be encouraged to just congregate there to indulge their socially indefensible addiction, which is what it amounts to. Why we cannot bring some common civility back to everyday living is beyond me or am I sounding like the fictional “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” here?

If I was head of Virgin Trains that is what I would do and it looks like there shall be a vacancy in that position in November 2019 as Virgin will probably cease to operate. They still own 51% of the operation but their associates, the multi-national Stagecoach who own 49%, have been barred by the Government from bidding for contracts because of a refusal to pay proper pensions to staff. Frankly, they should have been shut down years ago. I could tell you stories related to me by people who know about Stagecoach and how it was founded on the sharpest, if not downright illegal, business practices but I’ll let you ferret that one out for yourselves lest this entry becomes as long as the last one.

As we left Crewe the “train manager” (do we not have guards or ticket collectors any more?) had announced that one of the coaches was overheating due to a failure of the air-con and I was wondering if anyone in the British Isles still made trains that actually work, given my disaster on the Enterprise earlier. If memory serves it was in the ludicrously name Coach U in the middle of the train. I kid you not, a Virgin train is designated as folows, Coach A, B, C, D, E, F, U, G, H, J and K. Why? If you do not believe me then look here. What doombrain thought that particular piece of nonsense up?
In this case it isn’t just me being a grumpy old man again (although I most certainly am and would have loved an invitation to appear on that TV programme, I would have given Ian Hislop and Rick Wakeman a run for their money) but imagine here people who not only do not have English as a first language but do not have the Roman alphabet as their own.

The UK benefits massively from tourism and we have always had many Japanese visitors but now Chinese and Russians are increasing massive in numbers. Imagine a family party of any of these with limited English skills and little knowledge of our alphabet standing in the middle of the platform when carriage U pulls up beside them. They must think they are at the very back or front of a huge train when it is only nine coaches and then the panic starts. Carriage U in the middle?
Good, glad I got that off my chest. As I say, I am a grumpy old man but the lamentable thing is that in modern day UK there is so much to be grumpy about including what the popular media have named “rip-off Britain” which brings me nicely back to my narrative.
I had decided that although I knew I was going to be fleeced I really needed a drink and I saw from the menu that a standard 440ml. can of Magner’s cider was £3:50 which is a disgrace on a par with Irish Ferries but again they are working on the “captive audience” principle. Firstly, Magners is not a particularly good cider although it is popular due to a multi-million pound advertising campaign beginning some years ago and, secondly, why buy from overseas when there are so many excellent British ciders on offer? Incidentally, to put it in perspective, Magners is currently (02/08/2019) on offer at Asda and Tesco who are two of our big supermarket chains for overseas readers for £8 for 10 cans this size so do the maths yourselves. Whilst researching this piece I see that Virgin have made about £300 million from their soon to be demised train operation and skinning customers like this makes perfect sense of how Branson can afford to fund potential space flights for the mega rich, transatlantic balloons, a private island and all the rest.
I made the long trek to the buffet and did notice that it was indeed hot which I thought was associated with the air-con problem and I grabbed a can out of the fridge which was doing nothing to keep it warm just as the train pulled into Stafford. There was a member of staff busily loading the fridge shelves with product although on the evidence of my can it was a futile exercise. I waited for him to come and take my £3:50 but he just ignored me and I thought maybe he was the “stacker” and the proper person would be along presently. The next thing I knew was that I distinctly smelt smoke. I knew this was more than overheating and almost instantaneously the “train captain” came on with the message, “evacuate the train, evacuate the train, please get on the platform and stand behind the yellow line”. I have to say this message was delivered with rather less sang-froid than I had expected and are lauded on behalf of such staff by various very militant Unions that still plague our transport system. Off I jumped, leaving my much needed can behind.
The train had been fairly full and the platform was rammed. I wandered back up to the door of carriage F to keep an eye on my luggage and I saw a number of staff wandering about fairly aimlessly on the train so I decided I was not going to be separated from my worldly goods and possessions and I jumped back onboard and it was the matter of seconds to recover my kit. Whilst you may decry this action it was safer than crossing the main road outside my home and I reckon that my training would have rendered me better qualified to detect and deal with a fire then the headless chickens that were apparently employed to do it, they were abysmal and nobody seemed to be in charge let alone know what was going on.
I still do not know what the supposed fire was, although I knew something was burning somewhere from the evidence of my olfactory nerves, but I did not see a single fire appliance the whole time I was there nor a single firefighter. I can only surmise it was not that serious although I definitely did smell smoke even with my sense of smell being heavily dulled by heavy smoking. Surely a fire on a train would have warranted a full-on response from the guys in the big red wagons.
OK, nothing else for it, back onto the street and a quick smoke. I have to admit I was scanning the street for a hotel should it come to that but it was hardly going to, I was just going to be late home. I have only ever been to Stafford once for the wedding of my mate, an East End cab drivers son (i.e. pretty rough and ready), to the daughter of a millionaire owner of a pottery which is what the area is known for. It was a great weekend and I have very fond memories of it 30 years later although the marriage lasted about 18 months and the two dear friends I attended with, Tony and Geordie, are both many years in the grave. It is a lovely story which I may bore you with eventually and believe me they were both extraordinary characters. I just seem to bump into very interesting people as I have mentioned before many times here.
I wandered back to the platform expecting quite a wait but after maybe half an hour the announcement came on the p.a. to go to platform five I think it was. We were on platform one and whilst I may have got the numbers wrong it involved a trek up and down stairs to the other side of the station. The announcer told us they had diverted another train from it’s normal route to pick us up so fair play to Virgin and credit where it is due as I have been legitimately slating them here a bit. The announcer also told us that the train may already be pretty full with the implicit message being that we should rush although a station announcer would never say that.
You can imagine the chaos and after all the upheavals and transfers of the day my back was giving me gip so I really needed a seat as there was no way I could have stood in one place in a train corridor for two hours. The diverted train pulled in and I dived on, stowed the kit in double quick time and managed to bag a seat. Yes, it was fairly full but not unbearably so and I think the few people standing in the passageways between the carriages were doing so from choice as there were still a few seats left. I have certainly been on a lot worse on the sick joke that calls itself our railway system.
We started off again and I have to say the “train captain” here was much better than his slightly panicking colleague on the smoky but not quite burning train. He was at pains to keep everyone informed, apologised profusely to the original passengers on the train for the diversion and delay and explained that he had contacted his Control and been cleared to stop at all the intermediate stations for both services. Whilst this may have not been the best solution for people wanting a really fast journey it was definitely the best compromise for the largest number of passengers and it was handled well.
I would like to say that being evacuated from a burning train was up there with my surviving a 6.9 earthquake in the Philippines or living through a hurricane in Nova Scotia in a high-sided campervan (RV) but it really wasn’t. It would be another great “road” story but I don’t lie about things here and it was just another rather unspectacular pain in the derriere in a day that had been full of them.
I arrived at Euston, walked up the road to Euston Square without being hit by a runaway truck, got the Tube round to Stepney Green without derailment and decided that I really did need a drink now so I headed to my local. Unusually for me there was nobody there I knew and so I sat, quietly sipping and reflecting on my last month back at “home”, whichever home that is and thought about what I would write here as I always like to summarise a series of entries.
OK, I had screwed up royally by missing the wedding which still pains me as much as it embarrasses me but it appears I have been forgiven and I had a forwarded email yesterday (as always I am writing behind time and it is now 02/08/2019) from my Aunt but originating from the happy couple thanking me for my gift and making the effort at least! They are currently enjoying a honeymoon cruise in the Med / Adriatic so good luck to them as they are lovely people.
Yes, it was great to see my Father and my family again, I know I probably do not get to that “home” enough. I will obviously not go into detail but at 87 years of age, a fall where you break your femur is a major deal. Still, having visited on several occasions as documented here, I am content he is receiving the best care possible in a nursing home environment.
Yes, there is much more I could say but a public forum such as this is not the place to do it. I thoroughly enjoyed my time back in NI, renewed some old friendships, relaxed, read some great books, ate and slept better than I do in my London “home” and felt good for it. I should get back to that “home” soon, I still have the key and I know how to work the alarm!

I do not know what to do next here although I have a serious writing head on me at present. I am thinking maybe some short one dayers as I shall be off to Broadstairs soon so that will take all my time and I do not want to get all mixed up.  Actually, I suppose I should finish Malta before I do anything else.

I think I can best summarise my month back in NI with the picture of my Father, my brother and I in the grounds of the nursing home which is the featured image at the top of the page.  He was a very accomplished horseman in his day and visiting the pony at the bottom of the grounds gives him great pleasure.  I wish my sister in law could have been in the picture as well but she took it as there was nobody else about and I did not have my tripod to use the timer.  Despite the shortcomings of my poor battered old compact camera with the smudged lens etc. I really do rather like this image.

Whatever I do decide to do next please stay tuned and spread the word.

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.

Lions led by donkeys – a military history.

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Lest we forget.

Hello again and I’ll bet you were not expecting to hear from me again so soon with my contemporaneous pages having been so shamefully neglected for so long for various personal reasons and in favour of trying to get my numerous previous trips up to date. This is a task I realise is probably never going to happen but I’ll keep plodding on at it regardless. The Malta 2013 trip is nearing a conclusion and I am already considering what to do next. I’ll keep you posted.

I have to start this entry with a slight confession of a little skullduggery on my part regarding the last entry which was dated 13th July and when it was written. I had gone to my favoured pub, the wonderful Montagu Arms as I have no internet at home. I did work diligently but in a bar full of mates it can be difficult to get your head down to concentrate and it was full after the parade in town which I mentioned. I did say that the “Sham Fight” attracted large crowds and estimates of the crowd were that it was in excess of 100K which is some gathering.

The truth about the entry is that by the time I had proof read the text for the umpteenth time, added and captioned images, created hyperlinks, researched various entities and all the other tasks that attach themselves to running your own website it was actually 0040 the next morning (14th) when I pressed the “publish” button. Honestly, I genuinely did not realise how much work was involved when I took this site on but it does give me something to do and boredom is potentially my greatest enemy in retirement. Anyway, the staff were putting the chairs on the tables, I was the last man left in the bar (no surprise there) and so rather than leave it to rewrite I did a bit of a naughty and just backdated it 40 minutes, I do hope you don’t mind!

Having thus unburdened my soul I want to tell you about yet another of the unbelievably odd coincidences that seem to follow me about. If you look back to the last entry you will find that I mention a village called Caledon in passing where I lived briefly in the early 80’s. I also mentioned Boom Hall whilst speaking of the Siege of Derry, all in the space of a few sentences. Admittedly, I had briefly spoken about Caledon to my brother in a totally unrelated conversation a few days ago but I had not even thought about Boom Hall for literally decades. I like a bit of a read before I go to sleep and I started a new book last night entitled “Irish Generals” by Richard Doherty and which was a tie-in with a BBC radio series. As the name implies the book deals with the disproportionate amount of British Army senior officers in the Second World War who have Irish connections. If you do not believe what I tell you next the book is ISBN 0 86281 395 6 in the paperback, published in 1993 by Appletree Press. Chapter two deals with General Harold Alexander and I shall reproduce a few sentences verbatim here which detail the history of the Alexander family. I promise you I had no idea of any of these facts when I wrote my recent piece. “Originally of Scottish planter stock, the Alexanders settled in Donegal and then moved to Londonderry where they were prominent in the business life of the city. Alexanders were aldermen and the family owned a large house called Boom Hall on the banks of the River Foyle, North of the city.  In the late eighteenth century an ancestor made a fortune in India and built Caledon Castle in County Tyrone, which became the fmily seat”. If that isn’t spooky I do not know what is and to think that at various points in my life I used to pass the entrance gates to both establishments on a daily basis just compounded the weirdness of the situation.

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War Memorial, Tandragee.

Another small piece of tidying up to do from the last entry and that is to do with the War Memorial in Tandragee. Again, my piece from Virtual Tourist will suffice here, slightly edited to include more recent census figures.

“I have mentioned in other tips that I am quite interested in military history and Northern Ireland has certainly produced it’s fair share of service personnel over the years. The exploits of the 36th Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme in the First World War are legendary, and the numbers of casualties appalling.

Like so many small towns and villages in the Province, Tandragee has a memorial to the fallen of both world wars. It is of itself not remarkable save that it employs the older spelling of the village as TandEragee, the first E having fallen into disuse now, but it is very typical of the style you will see. I often stop and have a look as I go about my business, and reflect on the generations of (mostly) young men who perished.
I have included all four faces of the memorial to illustrate a point. Although expanding rapidly, Tandragee is not a large place and it is the kind of village where it can take you an hour to walk down the main street just because you meet people you know. The last census in 2011 shows a population of 3,486 compared to just over 3,000 in 2001, a small rise of less than 2% over the period.  Obviously, this figure was much less in the 1930’s and considerably less at the time of the First War.  Count the number of men commemorated here and try to imagine the impact then on what is still a close knit community now. As that wonderful singer / songwriter Eric Bogle put it in his wonderful song “The band played Waltzing Matilda”, “a whole generation that was butchered and damned”

If you are interested in War Memorials in the United Kingdom, I would recommend the National Inventory of War Memorials website. This is run under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum in London, along with several other bodies, and it’s aim is to record the details of every war memorial in the United Kingdom including images. Perhaps you might want to get involved yourself. I certainly intend to as I think it is a worthwhile thing to do”. (Update: since I originally wrote this piece I have submitted numerous images to the organisation).

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Wall Mural, Tandragee.

On the theme of the Great War, I had seen some guys earlier in the week retouching one of the murals for which Northern Ireland is rightly famous. This particular example is just beside the roundabout right at the top of the town where the Armagh and Portadown roads meet. The quality of some of these very public works of art is quite honestly amazing and the example in the town commemorates the fallen of that bloody conflict of local men.

Many of the local Protestant community had been members of a paramilitary force called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) prior to the hostilities. This was an organisation determined to resist Home Rule i.e. Irish independence by any means but with the outbreak of war most of them joined the regular British Army and tended to be posted to units together in much the same way as the famous “Pals Battalions” mainly recruited in Northern England. In the case of Tandragee most of the local men were posted to the Royal Irish Fusiliers, specifically the 9th (Service) Battalion which, oddly perhaps, was raised in Belfast in 1914 although it recruited from volunteers from the counties of Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan (the latter two being now in the Irish Republic although geographically in the Province of Ulster – I told you it was complicated!). After training they were shipped to France, arriving in Le Havre or Boulogne (depending on which website you read) in October 1915 and thence to the front.

 

It is interesting to note that there was never conscription in any part of Ireland in either World War although there was in the rest of the UK.  Given the political sensitivities of the island in WWI and the portion of it ruled by Britain in WWII it was deemed to be politically fraught.  This did not stop hundreds of thousands of Irishmen volunteering for service in the British Army, even in WWII when men from the Irish Republic volunteered for the War.  To this day, there are still plenty such men serving with distinction in the British forces.

 

Those that know anything about me, either personally or through my online meanderings will know that I have an inquisitive nature which honestly verges on mental disorder somewhere in the obsessive / compulsive spectrum. If I discover something that interests me I will not be content until I have ferreted out every single piece of information I can about it and so it has been these last days with 9 RIF to use a bit of military jargon. Fortunately, there are many excellent sources online now whereas in my youth I would have been physically trawling public Record Offices, Regimental Museums, the local library and who knows where else? It is so much easier now.

If you have no interest in WWI military history I suggest you skip to the bottom of this entry now or even to the next one when it appears but I just have it in my head that I needed to research this obviously very limited topic in the history of British arms and as this is my website to share it here. I just have this feeling that having looked at the photographic image in the mural of a group of young men, most of whom never returned here, and having visited the War Memorial on so many occasions that I owe it to them. When I lived in Northern Ireland I moved around a lot but I do not feel like Armagh or Belfast or Lurgan or anywhere else is home for me now as they once were. Tandragee is my “home” when I come back these days and I do feel a great affinity for it even if I was not born nor raised here. 70 odd years earlier, if I had lived here then it could have been me in that Unit and in that carnage, a sobering thought.

Let’s start with the RIF, a very famous regiment with a long and proud history. Like so many British, and specifically Irish, Regiments it is actually an amalgamation in 1881 of two previous units although decades of defence cuts since have now rendered it part of the Royal Irish Rangers along with just about every other outfit with any sort of Irish heritage. Whilst I understand the rationale behind moving forward into the 21st century with all the challenges of modern warfare and the need to streamline, I cannot help but feel that much has been lost in terms of unit pride and when the sole reason for wholesale cuts and amalgamations is financial rather that operational, it becomes abhorrent to me. Don’t get me wrong, the Rangers are excellent and well-regarded but it is just not the same.

The two regiments I alluded to above were the 87th (Prince of Wales’s Irish) Regiment of Foot and the 89th (The Princess Victoria’s) Regiment of Foot. The 87th was raised in 1793 by Dubliner John Doyle and distinguished itself in the Peninsular / Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. It was the first regiment to capture a French eagle (equivalent to a British standard) at the Battle of Barossa and went on to fight in the Capture of Mauritius in 1810. With Napoleon eventually defeated they were posted to Asia to spend 12 years fighting in Nepal and Burma during the Gurkha War (1814–1816) before some unusually far-sighted senior officer decided we were better with the Gurkhas on our side instead of fighting them. Since then, they have served the British with incredible distinction to this very day. For a relatively small Brigade, Gurkhas and their British officers have won an amazing 26 Victoria Crosses. When the 87th weren’t doing this they fought a Burmese War and the Indian Mutiny. Busy boys.

The 89th was raised the same year as the 87th by Lieutenant General Andrew Thomas Blayney, 11th Baron Blayney, and was known as “‘Blayney’s Bloodhounds” for it’s efficacy in hounding down Irish Republicans during the Rebellion of 1798. When they were not busy quelling rebellious countrymen they found time to distinguish themselves in the Peninsular War (1808-1815), specifically the Battle of Fuengirola, distinguished themselves again at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm during the Anglo-American War of 1812 and also served during the Crimean War (1854) and the Indian Mutiny (1857). Another bunch of busy boys.

When these two battle-proven entities got together the new regiment was likely to be greater than the sum of the parts and so it was to prove. A stint in the Boer War (1899-1902) soon proved this and showed that they were a force to be reckoned with.

The British Army is awash with nicknames, some more easily understood than others and one of the several that attached to the Fusiliers was the “Old Foggies”. This does not refer to an engagement fought in climatic conditions of poor visibility but rather to their motto / battlecry of “Faugh a Ballagh” which is Gaelic for “Clear the Way” and with faugh in this case being pronounced like “fog” rather than “laugh”. Laughs were certainly to be in short supply in their next major engagement, the First World War.

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Insignia of 9th RIF, wall mural, Tandragee.

The 9th RIF, including most of the Tandragee lads, were posted to the 108th Brigade which I must admit I had never heard of as a unit designation until I started researching this and only reinforces yet again my belief that I learn so much whilst doing this vaguely travel related writing. The 108th comprised five battalions of Royal Irish Rifles (RIR), two of RIF, a mortar company and a machine gun battery. They in turn were part of the 36th (Ulster) Division which will be well known to anyone with the slightest interest in this particular war and is almost part of the collective consciousness, if not the DNA, of people from Northern Ireland to this day. The fighting spirit of the Irish is the stuff of legend, often in a slightly joking way, but with a firm foundation in truth. The almost incredible bravery of these often ill-educated farm boys and manual labourers from the towns and cities stands to this day and having digressed so far I might as well go the whole hog and provide a few quotes relating to this legendary Division, and I do not use the word legend lightly as I feel it is much overused nowadays.

After the war H.M. King George V had this to say, “I recall the deeds of the 36th (Ulster) Division, which have more than fulfilled the high opinion formed by me on inspecting that force on the eve of its departure for the front. Throughout the long years of struggle, which now so gloriously ended, the men of Ulster have proved how nobly they fight and die”.

Winston Churchill, who was to become the iconic figure of the war which proved that WWI was not “the war to end all wars” said, “The record of the Thirty-Sixth Division will ever be the pride of Ulster. At Theipval in the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916; at Wytschaete on 17 June 1917, in the storming of the Messines Ridge; on the Canal du Nord, in the attack on the Hindenburg Line of 20 November the same year; on 21 March 1918, near Fontaine-les-Clercs, defending their positions long after they were isolated and surrounded by the enemy; and later in the month at Andechy in the days of ‘backs to the wall’, they acquired a reputation for conduct and devotion deathless in military history of the United Kingdom, and repeatedly signalised in the despatches of the Commander-in-Chief”.

Finally, Richard Doherty, the author and broadcaster whose book on the Irish Generals I am currently reading and have mentioned here before, said, “Whether town dweller or country lad, volunteer or regular, officer or other rank, Catholic or Protestant, the Sons of Ulster knew a comradeship and a trust in adversity that should be a lesson to us all”. I told you that things tend to go round in circles for me and I only discovered this quote whilst researching this piece and never having heard of Mr. Doherty until about three days ago. Very strange but in the divided, violent and bloody history of the island where I was born I think it is perhaps the most fitting quote of them all.

That the Division won nine Victoria Crosses (the highest UK military honour for exceptional bravery in the face of the enemy and very rarely awarded) perhaps speaks even louder than the words of monarchy, politicians or academics. Yes, without any embarrassment, I am bloody proud to be an Ulsterman.

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Most of these men volunteered to go to war.

That then is the general setup of the massive groupings that formed a Division in WWI but what of my “mates” in the tiny cog of that huge machine sending men to be butchered in the mincer of the Western Front? Obviously there is much less information available about them but this is what I have managed to cobble together.

The 9th moved to Newtownards in February 1915 and thence to Seaford in November of that year. If you are unaware, and I know I have readers all over the world, both these places are in what is now Northern Ireland and then they were sent, literally, into Hell with 652 men sailing to France in October 1915. A look at the excellent website here gives very comprehensive details but for those of you who do not wish to read through it I shall try to give a brief (as brief as I can ever be when on a roll) overview.

After a week of heavy enemy bombardment with associated casualties the 1st of July rolled around. This was to be a day that will forever be written into the annals of British military history as it was the “Big Push” in the Somme region when military tactics on both sides seemed to consist of pointlessly ordering countless thousands of men to their death in a conflict where the technology (machine guns, gas and murderously heavy artillery) had far outstripped tactical or strategic thinking. That alleged thinking from both sets of general staff seemed to be that if you could afford to sacrifice more men than the enemy then you would win. What exactly you might win was never really considered properly as little thought seems to have been given to strategic objectives but rather it was a matter of “we are going to advance”. Back again to the Eric Bogle line quoted earlier, “a whole generation that was butchered and damned”.

 

This was the first day of what was to become called the Battle of the Somme and which is still commemorated with a large Orange Order parade in Belfast on that date. There are numerous reports of men going “over the top” to almost certain death to the accompaniment of fifes (a small piccolo like flute) and drums as they would have done in an Orange parade at home. Many of them died. Even if you do not read the entire war diary which I have attached above, I would encourage you to look at this one page. During that awful day and the early hours of the following day two officers were killed with another five missing believed killed. Eight were injured and one was evacuated with shell shock. Of the other ranks 56 were killed, 303 were wounded and 159 were missing, most never to return. Mere numbers can often blur the reality of historical events so think of it like this. The numbers above add up to a total of 541 dead, missing or wounded, many with horrendous and life changing injuries. Imagine if you will, six full double decker buses and a few more standing at the bus stop all killed or injured and that is the scale of what you are looking at. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Early on the 2nd July, the Battalion handed over the line to the 87th Brigade and withdrew to Martinsart although they were not done with the action as they spent the next three nights searching no man’s land for casualties during which the Adjutant, Lt. Cather, was killed.

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Insignia of 36th Ulster Division, wall mural, Tandragee.

So what happened to the 9th and it’s Tandragee men after that bloody and awful day? With approximately one third of the strength either killed or wounded even the 10th (Reserve) Battalion could not make up the numbers and so men of The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) were drafted in in August followed by 103 men, mostly of The London Regiment, on 26 November. Whilst still nominally an Ulster Battalion this identity was being rapidly eroded by circumstance and it was not over yet.

Obviously there were the usual casualties of war in the period up to 16th August 1917 but they pale completely into insignificance compared to the events of that day and the Battle of Langemarck, which is situated in Belgian Flanders and constituted part of the third Battle of Ypres (or Wipers as it was known to the definitely non-polyglot average British soldier). It was an engagement that was yet again to virtually wipe out the Battalion.

Conditions were appalling for the British / French attacking force as they were attacking uphill and a mixture of heavy unseasonal rain and a devastatingly heavy artillery bombardment prior to the advance had reduced the entire battlefield to a quagmire where it was virtually impossible to move forward. Back again now to my earlier comments about the military strategy, or rather woeful and criminal lack thereof, and it was a case of “Right, lads over the top and get killed” and get killed they did in vast numbers.

 

When considering this action and many others I cannot help but think of the classic Pink Floyd line, “Forward he cried from the rear and the front rank died” and this line of thought also gives rise to the title of this entry which is a fairly famous quote describing the undoubtedly brave other ranks being led by stupid and incompetent officers.  The exact origin of the phrase is disputed but my well have been uttered by a Russian officer during the Crimean War (1850’s) and reported home in a letter by a British soldier.

 

Once again the 9th including what was left of the Tandragee lads I started out researching here were in the thick of the action and suffered for it. I wonder how many of the original men, many of them little more than boys, were still left in the Battalion by this point and I know that by the end of the day there would have been less as the casualties on that terrible day in the mud and the blood of the oft-quoted “Flanders fields” were only marginally less than the decimation of the Somme debacle. No less than 456 all ranks were killed, wounded or captured – think of the double decker buses again as that is possibly the only way you can get your head round the sheer scale of the waste of human life involved in this whole obscenity, for such it was.

 

What was achieved for this repugnant loss of young men’s lives? Frankly, very little. The French on one flank had made a bit of progress but the British General Staff eventually, and far too late, realised they were going nowhere fast and put the offensive on hold until the weather turned in September, the ground dried out and they started again, eventually taking the Gheluvelt Plateau by October when the rains returned.

 

With the 9th so badly mauled you might think they would have been stood down and amalgamated into another Battalion but perhaps the senior officers in a rare example of intelligence knew what these men were worth and so rather than move them elsewhere, they reinforced them in a move that was to restore the Ulster identity somewhat although at what a cost was that identity recovered. The Second North Irish Horse, a cavalry unit, had been disbanded and compulsorily dismounted i.e. turned into infantry. There was no place for horses in what had effectively become mechanised slaughter. This was in the days when cavalry had become redundant and the modern role of them being light, mobile armoured was but a distant dream. In WW1 tanks had just been invented, were unreliable, difficult to steer and in terribly short supply.

 

It is interesting to note that the North Irish Horse were not a regular unit and were designated yeomanry i.e. part timers / Territorials / militia or whatever designation your country uses. They were the first non-regular unit to be deployed in WWI. They were drawn from what had been B and C Squadrons of the original unit. I shall return to the North Irish Horse in a future blog as yet another very odd thing has just happened whilst researching this.

 

I know little about British Army Cavalry armaments prior to WWI but I am guessing they may have used saddle holstered carbines although not the .303 Enfield which was the weapon of choice for the infantry so how useful they were as infantrymen, a completely different discipline, is open to debate. Whatever their efficacy, 570 men were transferred to the 9th in September. It still wasn’t over for whatever was left of the contingent from my home place as in November 1917 thy lost 89 men in an action at Moeuvres during the Battle of Cambrai. This is nothing compared to the earlier massacres but go back to your double decker bus mindset and that is another full one wiped out.

 

Surely the gallant 9th must have done enough by now. Wrong. In early 1918, the 7th/8th Royal Irish Fusiliers was disbanded and the 213 men remaining were transferred to the 9th. What the proportion of Ulstermen was in that draft is now lost in the mists of time but I cannot think that there were many Tandragee men involved in that or regular enlistment except those that had become old enough (or lied about being old enough, a common practice) as they had all volunteered at the outset. It appears the 9th had not done enough as all but destroyed in the retreat from St Quentin to Ypres.

 

Yet again they were reinforced by what we in the Forces would have called “odds and sods”. Another 122 men from the London Regiment, 14 from the RIR, 105 from the Service Corps and, perhaps most bizarrely, 68 men from the Army Veterinary Corps. I suppose if they had dismounted most of the cavalry then there was less need for veterinary trained troops but it still looks odd to me. Were there any Tandragee men even left by this point? There was to be one final draft in 1918 of 137 RIR men so I am guessing the Ulster identity was reasonably restored and they were needed as the Battalion fought almost constantly from August to 26th October, a mere two weeks before the Armistice.

Just to complete this piece, I shall include here the names of those who did not make it back to my home village after both World Wars and I cannot help wondering how many of those who did return after the First were even fit enough to attend the unveiling of the Memorial in 1925.

 

There you have it, I am done in more than one sense of the word. I have now spent almost three full days of my waking hours when not visiting my Father, feeding myself or late night reading of some interesting books in bed researching the 9th of the RIF. Yes, others have done it better, I have relied heavily on them for my source material and I would never set myself up as any authority on the subjects touched on here. I am actually posting this on the evening of the 16th although I will backdate it so it makes sense in the scheme of the website. I have been working here on finishing this for over five hours now. Sure, I have had the benefit of a couple of pints of cider (no, I am not drunk before you ask) and a bit of chat with my mates but basically working. Frankly, having not slept too long last night I am feeling a bit done, hence the opening sentence in this paragraph.

 

As always, I should like your comments on this piece. I realise it has become something of a dissertation of a very tiny proportion of the British Army in WWI and as such may be of very limited interest to many of you but I would refer you back to an earlier comment here. I looked at the mural, looked at the faces of the youngsters (for the most part) looking at me from a monochrome print, thought of the complete biological accident of the year of my birth and the potential repercussions had I been born another time and I knew I had to research it and share it.

 

Do you think it is of any interest or is it something you can find out for yourself if you have an inclination so to do. I do not merely cut and paste chunks from other websites but I attempt to add personal anecdotes and so on which I believe “adds value” to use an awful marketing phrase. I shall certainly welcome and consider any and all constructive comments although I am fully aware that I am very much a “one trick pony” and can only write the way I do. Free now of the constraints of commercial sites who were sometimes hyper-sensitive, I can say what I think although I shall never be offensive to anyone and will be quite prepared to back up anything I write. I spend long enough researching it to be able to back it up!

 

Would you prefer me just to regale you with stories of the sometimes quite bizarre things that attach themselves to me like iron filings to a magnet. I really am finding my way here and any sort of feedback is greatly appreciated.

 

I shall attempt to post this now which may take some time with the various processes that have to be gone through but I shall do my best and just to round it out a bit I should point out that I did not even go to the pub, which is unusual for me. What I did instead, as I worked on this was to sit at home and watch the final of the cricket World Cup in the most dramatic of circumstances on the last ball of a “Superover”, basically the cricket equivalent of a football (soccer) penalty shootout. Whilst this game was in progress, the British Formula One race was taking place and the men’s singles at Wimbledon ended up in an equally thrilling encounter where Novak Djodkevic narrowly defeated Roger Federer in the final game, final set finale. Just to put the icing on the cake, in two days time the British Open Golf Championship will open at Royal Portrush, normally 90 minutes drive from where I am typing this but which will be virtually inaccessible for the duration. For a relatively small nation we do seem to punch way above our weight in sporting terms.

I think I am in a position to wind this saga up now but there is much more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.

The image tells you everything.

 

 

IMG_7364.JPGOK, OK I know, it has been a while and quite a long while in fact since I posted anything here on the contemporary entries although I have been posting certain historical posts regarding a 2013 trip to Malta which you can read about here. Again, I like to be honest in my reporting here and I must admit that even this has tailed off recently. I fully appreciate that this is no big deal as I have such a limited readership but to those who do keep up with my meagre scribblings I apologise.

In my last entry I mentioned that I was going to try to get to Sri Lanka last November to see my friend and catch some of the cricket series with England as the visitors. For reasons far too mundane to bore you with, that did not happen and the date got pushed back to Xmas, then the New Year and still awaits although it is the wrong time of year to visit now so that looks like another few months before that may become reality.

Unusually for an inveterate traveller like me I had been nowhere since last November until last weekend when I returned to Northern Ireland and hence the slightly odd title of this entry and accompanying image. Those of you who have read my previous entries will know that when I am in the Province I stay in my Father’s house in Tandragee, Co. Armagh and tend to have a daily “Ulster Fry” which is near enough the national dish and which I love. I hope I do not sound conceited but I reckon I make a fairly reasonable version a “fry up” and I have not poisoned anyone with my cooking yet to the best of my knowledge. The offering pictured above is from Sunday, 7th July and it was very tasty if I do say so myself.

So what am I doing back home in the land of my birth? A couple of reasons actually. I had been invited to my cousin’s wedding (of which more in a moment) and also I wanted to come home to see my Father who sadly had a bit of a tumble a while ago and spent some time in hospital with a broken leg which has now thankfully healed nicely but he is still not able to look after himself at home and is in a nursing home at present and so I had decided to spend a few weeks at home. Here is a quick precis of what has happened so far.

I left home on Friday, 28th June to make it to the wedding on the Saturday. As is my wont I had decided to go train and ferry via Holyhead and Dublin which would have got me home at about 2200 that evening and I knew my brother and sister-in-law would give me a lift to the wedding the next day. Those who have followed this blog from the beginning will know that last year the ferry company let me down badly by sailing 90 minutes late which caused me to miss the last train to Northern Ireland from Dublin and led to an enforced night in the Irish capital after having trudged round several establishments trying to find a bed. I must be jinxed on this route now although this time the railway / ferry company were not to blame but rather a taxi firm which I have been using for over 30 years with excellent results. I really did not fancy lugging a suitcase on the Tube (Underground / Metro) and so I had ordered a minicab in plenty of time to get me to Euston for a train which would be the first leg of a journey getting me back to Tandragee that night.

The appointed hour arrived and no sign of the minicab. I told you I must be jinxed on this route and I must be as my mobile (cell) ‘phone had died and, indeed, I have had to replace it now so I could not call the cab office. I left it for a while and then bit the bullet and dragged my kit up to the cab office where they denied any knowledge of my booking which is very unusual as thy have never failed me before. I was still in good time and asked if they could get me a cab then but “no can do” and it would be up to a couple of hours as they were busy with contract jobs and were short-staffed. They told me I would be quicker getting the Tube which I did, arriving at Euston in time to narrowly miss my train. That train was my last chance to get back to Northern Ireland that night and it was now rattling North through Watford Junction with me standing on the concourse in London. Brilliant but not disastrous as I knew I would have to spend the night in Dublin but I could get an early train to Belfast and go straight to the wedding, luggage and all.

The journey was totally uneventful and, despite my logistical problems I still prefer this to the hassle of flying short haul nowadays. I got as far as Dublin and headed straight for the hostel I had stayed in last year which is near Connolly Station where I would depart from and which I had found perfectly comfortable on my previous visit. It is called Jacob’s Inn and you can check it out here.  I was a little concerned about the availability of beds as it was the day before the Dublin Pride march and I knew that large crowds were expected. I had no problem thankfully and I scored a “pod” (for which read coffin) in a 10 person room which cost me over €40. I honestly believe that Dublin is far more expensive than London which is historically supposed to be one of the dearest cities in the world. I didn’t sleep much but that is just down to my slightly crazy sleep patterns and nothing to do with the surroundings.

Come the Saturday morning and I was up early, scrubbed and dressed in my finery and in good time for the Enterprise train to Belfast where I arrived several hours before the festivities were due to begin. It was way too early to go to the hotel where the wedding was scheduled for 1500 so I mooched about drinking coffee and checking e-mails before grabbing a cab to the venue for about 1300. I went to the reception, named my cousin the groom and asked where the ceremony would be. She gave me directions to a suite and I said I would wait in the bar where I unusually only had a soft drink as I didn’t really feel like a pint, strange times indeed! About ten minutes later, another lady from the reception desk approached me and asked me if I was there for the X wedding to which I replied in the affirmative. Looking slightly embarrassed she dropped the bombshell that it had been the previous day! What? I pulled the invite out of my pocket and indeed it had been on the Friday. I still do not realise how the lady on the reception had made the same mistake as me and not spotted that the wedding had been and gone. How I had managed to do this I have no idea as I must have looked at the thing dozens of times but I had presumably established some mental block and was aiming all along for the Saturday.

It was a strange sensation, a mixture of feeling extremely stupid, very regretful I had missed the event and slightly terrified of my Aunt’s reaction after I had promised her faithfully I would be there “come Hell or high water” to use the exact phrase I used in my reply to her e-mail. The gates of Hell had not opened, there was no Biblical flood and it was merely my total stupidity that had tripped me up. I felt awful but was cheered up slightly when I was approached by a middle aged man who introduced himself as the father of the bride and was charm itself and not in the least reproachful about my “no show”. I was later to discover that he is a minister of religion and had actually conducted the wedding service himself. He took his leave and I was not feeling quite so bad when I was approached by my cousin who I took a moment to recognise as I have not seen him for many, many years. With him was his new bride, an utterly charming young lady whom I had never met before and a young girl who is her daughter from a previous relationship. The child was terribly well behaved and polite and we got on like a house on fire. There is also apparently a younger child but I did not get to meet him. It is a source of constant amazement to me that people tell me I am really good with children and I suspect that it is a fair assessment although I cannot for the life of me work out why as I have no offspring of my own. Perhaps they sense a similar type of mind, who knows?

We chatted away for a while and they were most graceful about my failure to appear, correctly ascribing it to the genuine error it was. I would hardly have turned up in all my finery a day late had I just wanted to avoid the entire event. At least I had the opportunity to give them my gift which was much better than having to post it. I still had to face the potential wrath of my Aunt but at least the main protagonists did not seem to bear a grudge towards me. There was not much point in me staying there any longer so I made my way back to Tandragee and went to my brother’s house but he was not in so I went to my Dad’s, let myself in, got changed into some half sensible clothes and settled down for the evening.

What happened next was that life quickly moved into a very quiet and domesticated routine that actually suits me very well as it did last year. For some reason, I manage to sleep at vaguely civilised hours and I eat much more regularly than I do in my own place. I have no explanation for this but it seems to be a fact. Every day my brother and sister-in-law pick me up in the afternoon and we go to the Nursing Home to visit Father. The weather has been normal Northern Ireland standard i.e. rubbish and not at all like the unseasonal but very welcome heatwave I enjoyed at this time last year but Sunday was a reasonable day between the showers and we took Father for a walk in the fresh air in his wheelchair to the end of the drive (the Nursing Home was formerly a large country mansion complete with mews) to see the horse which is there. Sadly you can no longer feed the animal as it has laminitis and is on limited grass but my Father seemed to enjoy petting him as he was quite a good horseman in his younger days.

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I realise it will be of very limited interest to most readers but I am back to my earlier principle that this is as much for my remembrance as it is hopefully a valid travel entity and so you will see above (l. to r.) your humble narrator, my new best friend the very placid horse, my Father and my younger brother. Thanks to my sister-in-law for doing the needfuls with the camera.

Other than these daily excursions I have done very little and have not even been going to the pub which is my usual habit when at home. Those that know me well will find the next statement surprising to say the least but I didn’t have a drink for over a week and one packet of cigarettes lasted me four days, both of which are unheard of situations. I popped into my local pub on Saturday for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to catch up with my friends round the town, having been home for a week and not spoken to any of them and also because I have no internet at home and need to go to the wonderful Montague Arms to do what I need to do, including posting this. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Other than that I had a quick run into Portadown and a couple of hours in Armagh, both of which were quick trips down memory lane as I had lived in both places many years ago.

The day I went to Portadown, I had arranged to meet my brother at the train station as he was collecting my Auntie (mother of the groom at the missed wedding) to take her down to see my Father. I was dreading it but I need not have worried. My Aunt appeared with her friend in tow who she grew up with in the ’50’s and who has lived in Canada for decades, returning for one of her infrequent visits. Again I was reduced to grovelling apology for my total stupidity but I need not have worried. I have no idea why but I suspect I have always been a bit of a favourite of this particular Auntie and she seemed rather more concerned that I had missed out on what was by all accounts a great day rather than castigating me for my absence. Phew!

I think that is me fairly well up to date here now so what does the immediate future hold for me and this site? The simple truth is that I do not know. Being at home undoubtedly does me good and I do actually enjoy it here albeit I do nothing of note except my daily visits to visit my Father. I have a dental appointment in London towards the end of the month which I can alter but the big kicker in the whole affair is the Broadstairs Folk Week (BFW) which I have played for 29 of the last 30 years, only missing 2016 as I was travelling and playing occasionally in Canada. Eventually, this will form the basis of another travelogue when I ever get round to it but I have ruled myself out of being formally booked now for that gig as my fairly unconventional lifestyle means I am never sure where I might be come the second week in August.

I really should explain the situation regarding my position with BFW as it may appear a little confusing. Over the 30 year period mentioned I have attended in various guises from roadie through troubadour (one man and his guitar) to duos, trios and full bands. I will bore you some other time about me sitting in a bar 40 minutes before a gig making ‘phone calls to try to find someone to play with me or being dragged (physically by the arm!) by the Artistic Director to play a gig when I had never even met my fellow musician before to cover a band who had broken down on the motorway. Tony Brown, take a bow here.

I suspect that this is why they tolerate me as I am certainly no great shakes as a musician but I would like to think I am a fairly steady accompanist and can manage to follow most things even if I have not heard them. In one very “honest debrief” the aforementioned Artistic Director (now retired after 18 years of very hard work) I asked her why the Hell she ever booked me as I personally knew at least a dozen guitar / vocal “sidemen” that were far better than me. Kim looked me straight in the eye which was only possible as we were both sitting as I am 6’5″ and she is about 5’4″ and said, in all sincerity, “I like having you round Fergy as I know you are always here, I can get the crew to find you by trawling the pubs and I know you’ll just step in and do anything. I have any amount of brilliant musicians here (she did book some great acts) and you are not one of them (I told you it was an honest debrief) but you are my insurance policy. You are a showman and you’ll either do it yourself or get someone with you because you know everybody. I know when you are here, I’m covered”. The reader might consider this to be somewhat of a backhanded compliment but it is absolutely true and I was so chuffed when she said it. It was one of the nicest htings anyone has ever said to me.

My main thing at BFW however, when not playing my own gigs is the daily playaround currently being held in fantastic George pub, a mere 120 yards door to door from where I stay with my friends which is handy. For those of you not aware of the nuances of the folk music world and, let’s be honest in saying that, for most people it ranks somewhere between alchemy and necromancy a playaround is an open music session where anyone of any musical ability can turn up and join in and I love them. Singarounds are the same for songs rather than tunes. For playarounds there are usually one or more “leaders” to keep the thing from degenerating into mayhem which it can do. The leader goes round the room in order and calls upon everyone to “lead” a tune although there is no stigma attached if you do not feel confident enough, the baton passes to the next player. I’ll tell you about the specifics of the BFW playaround now.

Any good playaround depends completely upon a good “leader” and in Paul Lucas we have one of the best in the business. I have been playing with the guy for 30 years now and he is a genius. He plays banjo (very occasionally other instruments) and has a great singing voice. He has a repertiore of songs and tunes that must easily reach four figures and can follow just about anything he has never even heard before. They guy was well-established through his lovely wife Sue who had something to do with organising the Folk Week in times that mostof the current crop of artists would consider to be pre-history but we have had some wonderful sessions over the years. When we are finished there, he normally has something else set up for the afternoon, quite often in the excellent 39 Steps micropub where we are not even officially booked but we drag a few mates up and play and they look after us very well there. That is the joy of what we do, we just hang out and play and, thankfully, people seem to enjoy it.

The other main featrure of the BFW playaround is that one of the booked “proper” artists turns up every day as advertised in the programme and sits at Paul’s left side, I have possibly ridiculously done it myself in my heyday there. Last year (2018) for some reason the Thursday was still TBC (to be confirmed) and Paul asked me if I’d cover it. Of course I would and be happy to do so and so for that day I had to shift seats to Paul’s left side and do effectively what I had been doing on his right side all week although my newly conferred status as “booked guest” (albeit I was not even on the programme anywhere else) meant that I had to sing a couple of songs. Whilst it is very predominantly tunes, “booked guests” like me who are primarily accompanists are allowed to sing so I knocked out a few of my old standards which seemed to go down well.

Oh dear, it has happened again. I only intended a brief diversion into why I might be going back to mainland UK and ended up in a dissertation about the organisation and musical etiquette of Folk Festivals. I do hope I have not bored the reader too much. It is getting about time I was getting back home to make my dinner as I do not want to sit here all night drinking can you believe I just said that?). I’ll get this posted now with appropriate links hopefully and do a bit more offline tonight in relation to my Malta trip although I am totally reliant on having properly researched it all first time around but I shall still check all the links etc.

One way or another it seems like I shall be going back to mainland UK in a couple of weeks to start another little adventure, it has been far too long and I miss being on the road.

There is much more to come and I have a little time to write it up now, albeit under internet zero conditions but I’ll try to get my Malta trip finished asap so stay tuned and spread the word.

Same old, same old.

There are going to be a few days rolled into one here, as appears to be turning into a habit on my little site as, barring a day out in Belfast, mot much of note happened before I returned “home” to London on 10th August and which begged the question was I leaving “home” or going “home”. The facts of the matter are that I lived in Northern Ireland for the first 28 years of my life and have now lived in London (when I am not on my seemingly endless travels) in London for 30 now. As always, any comments would be most welcome on the subject of what you define as home?

I was helping to look after my Dad a little although his care programme, between some wonderful carers who attend him at home, and my brother and sister-in-law who live about 500 yards round the corner ensure that there is nothing to worry about on that score. I was just doing some little tasks and trying to help out where I could. In truth, I think he enjoyed the company, and I know for a fact that he was well pleased on one day when my S-i-L had arranged not to cook for him (she is a brilliant cook) and I knocked him up an Ulster Fry, the dish which has featured so much in this series of blogs and which he declared to be very tasty so that was good enough for me.

I had fallen into a bit of a routine which, on the evidence or previous visits home, had the potential to bore me to tears and yet it didn’t. I was quite happy pottering about the house during the day, taking the odd day trip to Portadown or once to Belfast for reasons which shall be explained later, going to the local pub in the evening for a few drinks with friends and jamming occasionally. I was eating regularly (as the images show and which is not necessarily the case at other times) and reading a lot of good books (my Dad has no internet access). Leaving aside my Father’s health for a moment, it appeared to be doing mine a power of good.

I do realise that this is all a bit heavy reading for the occasional visitor to the site who does not know me, and let’s be honest, I have a meagre bunch of followers here who I thank for their support but, as I said in one of my opening pieces here, this is my last shot at blogging. I am not going to risk another commercial site being pulled from under me and so this is, at times, going to be pretty brutally honest. At some point this site, such as it is and may eventually become, will eventually float about the ether and provide my epitaph to some degree. At least hopefully you’ll be able to read it online as a diary of mine would be totally illegible due to my utterly appalling handwriting!

Yes, this started off as a travel orientated site and it remains so although not exclusively. For the first time I have complete editorial control albeit I still cannot free myself of the mindset of travel sites but I am getting there. I have all sorts of odd ideas like daily limericks and who knows what else.

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Proper cheese on toast, Tandragee style.

So back to Northern Ireland on what had turned out, yet again in my case (a very small case as it happens) on what was intended to be a five or six day trip and I was two months down the road. If you have read some of my other exploits and if you read any of the many that are still to come then you will know that this is the way I am and, frankly, it suits me. My idea of travel Hell would be an organised trip as in breakfast at 0730 sharp, on the coach at 0800 sharp, famous museum at 0900 sharp, you get the idea.

I might as well start with one of my usual subjects i.e. the fry-up or ( often not so) healthy alternatives to it. The image above shows a little variant which is probably marginally less unhealthy than the Ulster Fry which has featured so prominently here. Let’s be honest, everyone loves cheese on toast but I love making it with soda bread. The effort pictured above features the said bread, Branston pickle, and a decent Red Leicester cheese I had picked up on offer at the little local supermarket. A quick crack of freshly ground pepper completes the dish. Again, I will digress here so I warn you in advance.

I am all in favour of a bargain in my food shopping and hunt out special offers in the same way I will go to a fresh produce market late in the day as they are virtually giving the stuff away. Also, I will mostly buy “own brands” from supermarkets for many things as they are every bit as good and often produced in the same factories as name brands but there are a few things I will not compromise on. Pickle of that type has to be Branston, English mustard has to be Colman’s and Worcestershire sauce has to be Lea & Perrins. Just about anything else is negotiable but these are not. Certainly there are a thousand other pickles and chutnies available and some of them very good, but this type has to be Branston.

I will certainly buy other styles of mustard (you can read in my European jaunt of 2017 on this site of how I went to Dijon in France purely to buy mustard for a foodie mate) but there is only one English mustard although the multinational Unilever, apart from their failed bit to Eurify to a single base in Rotterdam recently in September 2018 are moving from Norwich, it’s original home to two sites in Burton (Staffordshire, UK) and Germany. No surprise there and I wonder how that will play out when, or if, given the spineless nature of our alleged leaders, we eventually actually escape the mendacious clutches of the Federal States of E.
As for The Worcestershire sauce (which my Canadian friends call “W” sauce as they cannot get their tongues round the pronunciation, which admittedly is odd. I doubt I could cook without it (not that I can really cook anyway) to the extent that when I go to visit my friend in Sri Lanka I take a bottle of it with me as it costs a fortune when imported there for the expats. As a further digression off a digression, if such a thing be possible, why are there two pronunciations of the word pronunciation? Answers on a postcard please, as they say!

How can I write so much about a couple of pieces of cheese on toast? Very easily actually and I have just edited the above paragraph fairly seriously before I took off into a further digression about the origins of these fine British firms. Then again, I do have to keep reminding myself that this is MY site and I can do what I like.
I know opinion is very much divided about my writing style, if it can be called that, but on other commercial sites I have written for before more people seemed to like it than disliked it. In truth, I can only write in one style although I am trying to rein myself in a little bit. Being naturally inquisitive (for which read nosy if you like) I simply have to research everything I mention even tangentially in a blog entry and then include it in whatever I am writing. I reckon I’d have made a Hell of an intelligence officer in some field or another.

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What, no fry again?

Right, back to the narrative. That was brekkie on the 2nd of August, and the 3rd was equally subdued with a toasted sandwich and some tomato soup for the morning meal. What was I thinking?

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That’s better.

Thankfully, normal service appears to have resumed on the 4th as you can see above. A friend of mine who is a real foodie speaks of “food porn” which I used to scoff at a little but I reckon this is full on XXX rated. I am actually salivating now just looking at this image even if I did cook it myself. I swear this is turning into an Ulster Fry site!

I’ve rambled enough here so I’ll break off for another entry where I finally get back to Belfast so stay tuned and spread the word.

Time to catch up.

For those few of you that may have been following my little excursion back to the place of my birth I thank you and I do realise that it is getting on for three weeks since I posted here. As we have now entered another new month I thought I had better bring you up to date a bit once I have finished wondering where this year has gone to. Like so many clichés the old one about time moving quicker as you get older does indeed have a basis in truth and I really have no idea how the last seven months have slipped by.

I am still in Northern Ireland and enjoying myself although doing nothing worth writing about which is the first reason for the long absence here. I have not been at all idle on the blog front though despite my very limited internet access as I have been concentrating on constructing pages about my rather crazy ramble about Europe last year and have been quite pleased with my progress although it is time-consuming. The only way I can hope to keep myself vaguely organised here is to back publish entries to the dates to which they refer which means that you may not have seen them as they are buried away at the bottom of the homepage. If you would like to have a look you can click on the link here and see what you think. Believe me, it was a pretty mad journey one way and another.

There are a few bits and pieces for me to share with you and I shall start with the World Cup which was in full swing the last time I posted in this section. Despite the increasing hype in the British media football didn’t “come home” as England did very well but eventually fell short losing to Croatia in the semis. They are a young side who should get much better especially if manager Gareth Southgate remains in charge as he seems to know how to get the best out of them. They certainly did not disgrace themselves by getting to the semis.

When I saw the way the semis had worked out I actually managed to predict what would happen although in truth it was not too difficult. The fixtures were France vs. Belgium and England vs. Croatia and I said that either team in the first match would beat either in the second and so it was to prove. France beat Belgium and then an ageing Croatian side who are probably just about over as a group defeated the considerably younger English team.

In the game that I never see the point of i.e. the third and fourth place playoff a very decent Belgian team saw off England fairly comfortably. I didn’t think England looked that good in the game.

On to the Sunday and the Final and naturally, with the odd things that happen to me something a little strange took place. I was going to the pub quite early as I knew it would be crowded for the game and I wanted to get a seat. I popped into my local supermarket and saw a middle-aged guy wearing a Croatian football (soccer) shirt accompanied by a teenage lad who was almost as tall as me. I know that number of Eastern Europeans have moved into the village of late but I had not heard of any Croatians and I was intrigued as they seemed to be poring over a computer printout of a map with the young lad who works in the shop.

All soon became clear and it transpired they were a Father and son, the Father indeed being Croatian but they were now resident in the USA where they had flown from into Dublin airport that morning. They were heading for Limavady in the Northwest of the country as the son was playing in a large international youth football competition in that area. Almost unbelievably, the shop assistant did not know where it was which surprised me as Northern Ireland is such a small place and Limavady is a comparatively large town. How they had managed to deviate off the A1 and ended up in Tandragee is something of a mystery to me but here they were and in a bit of a bind as their hire car had no satnav and the guy could not get his American mobile (cell) ‘phone to work here. I told them the place was the best part of two hours drive and had formulated a route for them but when I told them that they would be struggling to get there in time for kickoff they asked if there was somewhere local that they could watch the game. No better man to ask and I told them to come with me for the 100 yard walk to the Montagu Arms of which I have spoken often.

In I walked with the two Croatians and announced to the assembled company that as it was the biggest day in Croatian footballing history I had arranged a couple of my own fans to help interpret the finer details of their team. Utter nonsense of course but my mates looked incredulous until the situation was explained and I bought the guys a drink (Cokes all round for them), introduced them and we all began to chat. As you probably know by now I am a great believer in the “interconnectedness of all things” as the late Douglas Adams so wonderfully termed it and also “what goes round comes round” as they say. Some years ago I had been in Zagreb during a major football tournament and I was staying in an obscure local area as usual. It was my practice every evening to go to a particular little locals bar to watch the games and I was treated brilliantly despite not a single word of a common language and here was I returning the favour to a couple of Croatians all these years later.

There still remained the problem of getting them to their ultimate destination after the match and fortunately my mate Ritchie was on hand. When Ritchie is not entertaining people with one of his selection of excellent guitars he is by trade a lorry driver and knows every road in the country. I had picked my route not because it was the shortest but because I thought it was the simplest involving mostly motorway driving but Ritchie came up with a shorter and apparently equally simple alternative which he managed to get printed off on the bar computer and explained in detail to our new Croatian friend who seemed well pleased.

When we are not slaughtering each other the people of Northern Ireland are the friendliest you will ever hope to meet and I am hope the man and his son will take home happy memories of their brief unplanned stop in a tiny village they had undoubtedly never heard of. What are the odds of such a thing happening? If I had been five minutes earlier I would never have run into those lovely people but, as the late Terry Pratchett once very intelligently remarked, “Million to one chances happen nine times out of 10”!

Whilst they may have been happy with the hospitality the result of the game was less to their liking with their home nation going down to a very talented French side who had played some stunning football throughout. Still, for a nation of a shade over four million people they had done remarkably well. For those of you who do not love “the beautiful game” that is the end of that although the domestic season is merely days away now.

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An unusual departure for me.

My other two staples of blog entries are breakfast and the weather so I’ll do breakfast first and it rarely changes although, in an unusual departure it was bacon sarnies (Brit slang for sandwiches), orange juice and coffee today which is not usual but I do like a bacon buttie (more Brit slang) now and again. I have posted photographic evidence of same here! I did hear once that the majority of vegetarians who go back to being carnivores do so because they want to eat bacon. This was borne out as one of my Father’s carers came round when I was “slaving over a hot stove” and the incomparable smell of bacon wafting about the kitchen. She told me that although she had eaten recently that her mouth was watering with the smell. I genuinely feel sorry for those that for religious or dietary reasons cannot enjoy this quintessentially British item that has kept armies of builders and the like going since time immemorial.

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Hard to beat.

Other than that it has been fries all the way so I’ll include another image here of one of my better efforts. This really is causing my poor Father some bemusement as he regularly sees me photographing whatever I am about to eat and, on the odd occasions my sister-in-law does not cook for him, what I have prepared to eat for him. I suppose he has a point but I reckon I shall have enough for a decent gallery of “Fry-ups of Northern Ireland” when this little jaunt comes to an end. I promise to post a warning at the top of it so you can pass quickly on if you do not want to induce a heart attack at the mere sight of my cholesterol-laden offerings.

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Normal Northern Ireland weather service is resumed.

The third part of my unholy triumvirate of topics here is the weather, that perennial staple of conversation here, and I really do not know where to start. I have been telling you about the record-breaking heatwave we had been having but, with it being Northern Ireland, that didn’t last. We had been hearing horror stories on the TV news from farmers (are they ever happy) that there would be no carrots for Xmas dinner as the crops were failing, we had a hosepipe ban and so on and everyone was praying for rain. Be careful what you wish for as last weekend not ten miles from here in Lurgan there were homes and businesses destroyed by flash floods. Today was absolutely awful with rain all day being driven by a blustery and none too warm wind.

In due course I shall get round to writing a series of entries here about my wonderful trip to Sri Lanka earlier this year where I had enjoyed 30 degree temperatures every day and watched TV images of Western Europe gripped by blizzards and battered by Atlantic storms. Six months later and we are having a heatwave and flooding in the space of a few days. What is going on with this weather?

In local news (as they say on TV) we have had what they refer to as “the marching season” in Northern Ireland which can be a lively time of year to say the least. Without boring you it revolves around a series of marches by the Orange Order which is a Loyalist organisation and which have caused (the marches, that is) untold trouble in years past for reasons mired in centuries of history in this all too volatile country.

Traditionally, the “11th night” i.e. the eve of the marches was a time when huge “bonies” (bonfires) were lit and when I say huge I mean huge. Vast pyres of wooden pallets and tyres were constructed over a period of weeks if not months and usually dwarfed the surrounding buildings leading to all sorts of issues for the Fire Brigade. There were some problems this year when contractors, who had to wear ski masks to avoid reprisals. were brought in to dismantle some of them. Yes, when I say that things have changed out of all recognition since when I left, there is still an undercurrent of fear which I think will last for many generations. I should be clear here and say that the visitor has absolutely nothing to fear because, as I mentioned, we are the friendliest people imaginable towards outsiders, it is purely an internal friction.

With the bonfires done, the marches themselves passed relatively quietly but all things are relative, especially here. In the lead-up to the marches there had been all sorts of trouble in the City side of Londonderry / Derry (they cannot even agree on the name) at the interface between the Nationalist and Loyalist areas with shooting incidents and so on. They have been roundly condemned, and rightly so, by community leaders on all sides and seem to have calmed down and yet again I must stress to the potential visitor that they have nothing to fear from this as they would need to be Hellishly unlucky to stumble upon it accidentally.

I have some more observations to make about the last few weeks but, as usual here, time is against me and the delightful Sam is going to kick me out of the bar shortly so that is my internet done until tomorrow. I think that if I work quickly I can get this posted and the further observations will wait so stay tuned and spread the word.

Surely football is not really coming home.

A bit of a lie-in this morning after a pretty late night reading and finally finishing my Tony Ward book which was a great read. I was so late up that Father had his own breakfast done.

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Industry standard for Fergy.

I had my standard fry-up for brunch although I really must get a bit of shopping done as my cupboard (not to mention fridge and breadbin) are very Old Mother Hubbard at the minute.

Three in the afternoon and here we go again, England vs. Sweden for a place in the semi-finals of the World Cup. High level stuff indeed so would the increasing hype about England prove justified? Is football really coming home? Again, I am writing this in real-time. Gareth Southgate has named the same starting XI as that which began the last match. Not much to report in the opening minutes except a few very wayward English passes.

12 minutes and the first decent strike from Claesen but it goes a little over the bar. On 18 minutes England break but Kane shoots just wide. Perhaps it is the heat in Samara but the game has been fairly slow for the first 20 minutes and the whole affair is pretty scrappy with nothing to raise the blood pressure yet.

29 minutes and England get a corner which probably did not need to be conceded and Harry Maguire scores his first international goal with a powerful header made easier by being about four inches taller than his marker, he really is a big old unit. England 1 – Sweden 0. 40 minutes and England have a decent attack but can’t get a final shot in. Two minutes later and Trippier, who is playing very well in the tournament, puts Sterling in with an inch perfect pass but he could not finish. Almost on the 45 minute mark, Sterling fluffs his lines again, taking far too long to get a shot off in a great position and ending up being hustled out of it. At least England seem to have woken up a bit and were exerting a bit of pressure towards the end of the half. Time for a smoke and making a coffee in the hope that the second period is better. Even if it is rubbish, England will be happy if the scoreline remains as it is.

Sweden must have had a rocket from the manager at half-time as they have come out all guns blazing and within a couple of minutes of the restart forced an excellent save from Pickford down to his left. He has been playing very well including the penalty save in the shootout against Colombia and it is strange now to think of the doubts that were raised about him before the tournament.

England have livened themselves now, forcing a few corners which suits them as they have been very good at set pieces. 58 minutes and the pressure tells. A header from a virtually unmarked Dele Alli puts England 2 – 0 to the good. Immediately following the goal England are beginning to run riot but Sweden break away as they do so well and Pickford makes a great point-blank save with Henderson blocking the shot from the rebound. Sweden need to do something and make a double substitution to try and change their fortunes. England are still flying. 70 minutes in and England are more or less knocking it about at will. 71 minutes and the same old story. Sweden break quickly, launch a vicious shot which Pickford tips over the bar. He is having a stormer.

82 minutes and a free kick to England in a reasonable position following a foul on Trippier who has also been excellent and naturally I have jinxed him as he takes the free himself and it is rubbish. Last minute of normal time and Sweden have a free just outside the England box but they sky it into about row L of the stand behind Pickford’s goal. Sterling is substituted by Rashford in injury time (five minutes), more to waste time than for any tactical reason.

Well, would you believe it? The final whistle and England into the semis against either Russia or Croatia which will be decided later this evening. The first half wasn’t great, the second half better but England won’t mind as they progress and possibly as importantly managed to keep a clean sheet which seems to be difficult for them.

My afternoon / evening dozette put paid to the first 15 minutes of the evening game which again I am reporting in real-time and at least I have not missed any goals.

As I have mentioned before Russia have surprised a lot of people by getting this far as they were the lowest ranked FIFA side in the whole tournament at 79th and nothing was expected of them least of all by their own fans and press.

27 minutes now and a Croatian attack leads to a guided header by Croatia. Unfortunately, it was guided about eight feet wide of the post. 29 minutes and a Russian free kick is well curled by Cheryeshev but ultimately held comfortably by the ‘keeper. A minute later, Cheryeshev goes one better and after playing a great one-two score a beauty from outside the box. Ally McCoist has just described it as breathtaking and I would not disagree. Russia are somewhat improbably 1 – 0 up and there really is a game on now. Russia are really doing all the playing now and the crowd are going nuts as you might imagine and the Croatians are racking up a goodly number of yellow cards but on 39 minutes they do something positive with a bullet header from Kamaric following a breakout. It is certainly much livelier than the first half of the England game earlier.

Second half just about to kick off and it could be good. I think a lot depends on how Modric performs as he really is the playmaker for the Croatians.

Ten minutes into the second period and Croatia are having the better of the play which is proved on 59 minutes and a clear-cut chance rebounds back into play off the post. Are the football gods with the home side?

66 minutes and the Russian goalscorer is substituted which surprises me a bit as he appeared to be one of the main Russian threats. A decent move in the 71st minute sees a Russian striker heading just over the bar although the keeper seemed to have it covered. Two minutes later Croatia make a like for like substitution at left back. 83 minutes and a Russian free kick for handball is well defended. Are we heading for more extra-time and the dreaded penalty shootout? 87 minutes and Croatia mimic Russia by substituting their goalscorer. A minute later they might wish they had not as Subasic, the excellent ‘keeper, appears to pull his right hamstring so they will have to wait until extra time to sub the ‘keeper.

Second of the five minutes of added time and Croatia are pressing again. Time ticks down and we are looking at extra time again so I am off to the pub!

Writing again the next morning and I made it to the Monty just about in time for the extra time and it was a beauty with lots of action. Croatia scored and were looking like going through but this really is the World Cup that keeps on giving and, with the with the hosts looking all but done, there was an equaliser well into the added time. Here we go again. Penalties, and by this time the Russian crowd, occasionally egged on by “Big Stan” the Russian manager, were making a noise to rival anything ever heard in a sporting arena.

Throughout the game there were some lovely TV shots of the Croatian premier and her Russian counterpart (not Putin, the other guy that he controls) who were sitting in the VIP area on either side of the FIFA President and who very politely shook hands with each other after every goal. The Croation leader was wearing a red and white checked top as those are the national colours and we were told in commentary that she had flown in that morning on a charter flight from Zagreb that had been put on for fans. I can’t see Teresa May or Angela Merkel doing that and I’ll bet her security detail weren’t best pleased at sorting that at short notice. I could get all philosophical here about the power of sport bringing people together etc. but I think the images said it all.

The shootout was the usual nail-biting affair and I had said before it started that Croatia would win and so it proved courtesy of a couple of awful pens from the Russians and a most freakish effort from the Croatians that Akinfeev got a hand to before it ricocheted off the inside of the post, looped over him and went in the opposite side netting.

Russia had exceeded all expectations in their home tournament and should be proud of themselves but it is Croatia that England will face in the semis.

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A masterclass in working a crowd- the mighty Rita.

After the football it was time for the usual Saturday evening entertainment which came in the small but extremely explosive form of Rita who apparently appears regularly in the Monty although I had never seen her before. She is a vocalist who sings to backing tracks which is a genre I am not generally fond of as it smacks of karaoke for one to me but I have to say she was very good.

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Time for a sit down, girl.

In the later part of the set she did a few modern tracks but the backbone of her set was classic rock tracks with AC/DC, Guns ‘n’ Roses and so on all getting an outing but the highlight for me was her rendition of Cowboy Song by Thin Lizzy. I must stress that I was stone cold sober and I am not at all given to singing in pubs unless I am “onstage” but I reckon I was singing louder than she was and she had the PA behind her, it ended up being somewhat of a duet really. She kept looking over at me, not in a “Shut up, you fool” way but slightly quizzical. She later explained to me that she loved that song but she had recently performed it and nobody in the audience had known what it was. I thought it was one of their better known tracks but apparently not. When I told her the tale of when Brian Robertson (Lizzy guitarist on that track) rolled into a gig of mine in London once she seemed most impressed.

Rita is apparently a big local favourite and not only knew most of the audience by name but enough personal details about them to engage in some great onstage banter. As I said to her, quite truthfully when I was helping her set her gear out after the gig, she had given an absolute masterclass in working a crowd. I have no illusions about my limited musical ability but I have been told that I am a bit of a showman, undoubtedly due to me talking far too much, but I really was in the presence of genius here. I would not advise taking your maiden aunt to see Rita as the onstage repartee can get a bit fruity but it was a great show and I thoroughly enjoyed myself especially as I was in company with Ritchie and Ann. I have mentioned Ritchie before, he is the guitarist with the apparently never-ending supply of guitars so he was right into the music as well.

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The crowd were loving it.

The night wore on as it tends to do on a Saturday there and it was quite late when I got home and straight to bed.

This week long trip is over a month old and looking like it might run a bit longer so stay tuned and spread the word.