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.