Monday, 30 January 2012

Drawing the line

Given our precarious position in a place that is not even half a centimetre wide (even though it is 360 kilometres long), the Frontier Post is extremely sensitive and vigilant on matters of historic and geographic accuracy as it pertains to partition.
We were irked therefore to read the following in the Irish Times on Saturday (Loose Leaves column, Arts & Books, Weekend Review, 28 January 2012, p. 12):
William Carleton
‘A poignant but celebratory commemoration will take place (in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin) tomorrow when a wreath will be laid on the grave of the cross-Border writer William Carleton (above). Born in Clogher, Co. Tyrone, Carleton was from a small farm background and was educated in hedge schools, one of them in the Emyvale area of Co. Monaghan. A convert to Anglicanism, who wrote widely about the issues of his time, he died in Dublin in 1869.’
While delighted that Carleton is recognised and honoured through the sterling work of Michael Fisher, Jack Johnston and others, we are quite sure the great Tyrone novelist would be astonished to see himself described as a ‘cross-Border writer’ in Ireland's 'newspaper of record' since the frontier was not established until more than 50 years after his death.
If the reference is not to his having attended school in the neighbouring Clogher Diocese parish of Donagh East, then it might be to his having moved to Dublin which, of course, was and remains outside the province of Ulster and within the Pale.
It does seem rather fickle however, to allude principally to Carleton's natural migration from the Irish countryside to the city with a mere passing reference to his move from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism.
Yet retrospective affirmation of the Border by extending its longevity back into the mists of time is not unusual. Nor is the increasing predilection of Dublin-based media to reduce the status of those beyond the Border to secondary status (if even that) in the Irish nation. This was most manifest in the recent presidential election when so many commentators seemed to believe that Ireland ceases to exist at Carrickarnan on the northbound lanes of the M1 motorway (i.e. the cross-Border M1).
Nor is it confined to journalists writing to tight deadlines, as might be argued for the Irish Times blooper above. Consider the following:
‘The paternal family of the poet, John Worthington Johnston, had farmed south of the border in County Monaghan from King William’s time, until in the 1860s, as a result of some skulduggery by the landlord and his steward, who wanted the prosperous farm for himself, they had to move. In the Clogher Valley, Johnston’s grandfather started afresh and turned unproductive land into a fertile farm…’
Ruth Dudley Edwards
The coincidence of ‘cross-Border’ moves between Tyrone and Monaghan and references to the 1860s, is probably no more than that. However, the latter quotation comes from Ruth Dudley Edwards (above) in her 1999 paean to the Orange Order, The Faithful Tribe (pp. 33-34). As well as being a writer, columnist and commentator, Dudley Edwards presents herself as a historian (UCD and Cambridge).
Little wonder, therefore, that the Frontier Post regards with growing alarm this pervasive ignorance of history and geography by writers and their sub-editors/copy editors. Even without reference to the political nature of partition, it should be basic knowledge that the Border could not be crossed until after its 1921 establishment under the Better Government of Ireland Act and subsequent 1922 acceptance by the Dáil majority of the Free State as outlined in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. 
Even today, the vast majority who cross it on a regular basis have difficulty accepting the Border as a legitimate frontier! It remains a subject that requires precision and care by those who write and edit.
The Great Gageby
So although he could be described more accurately as a ‘cross-Border writer’ – even though he too was born before its establishment –  the legendary editor of the Irish Times (and previously of the Evening Press) Douglas Gageby (1918-2004), above, was a stickler for accuracy in such matters.
A Belfast Protestant whose identity and vision encompassed all Ireland and beyond, the great Gageby always followed up errors or carelessness on issues related to partition with stern admonitions of his staff. 
Standards have slipped in the migration of the Irish Times from Dublin's Fleet Street to Tara Street, no doubt. So one suspects that those who turned up for yesterday’s William Carleton wreath-laying at Mount Jerome Cemetery may have noticed some disturbance in the adjacent grave of Douglas Gageby.

Friday, 27 January 2012

1966 and all that!

Ah, poor oul Admiral Nelson is no longer in the air, toora-loora-loo…
In 1966, the IRA marked the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising by blowing up Nelson's Pillar in Dublin. This week in Trafalgar Square, London, this huge crane with giant yellow wrecking ball was taking aim at Nelson's Column.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Airport ordeal at the Gates of Hell

It has pride of place on top of my low bookshelves where it now nestles snugly amidst a half-dozen other bottles. It is called simple ’93.50’ and its label promises that it is so ‘huge on the palate’ that one of the judging panel described it as ‘hot embers at the gates of hell’.
Me and my whisky

I got it yesterday as a belated but much-appreciated Christmas gift from my son Sam. Apart from being a young gentleman and scholar, Sam is now a professional 'judge of good whisky'. He works for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in London which offers this superior single malt whisky (58.6% vol) from a single cask that produced only 275 bottles. When these bottles are imbibed, this wonderful whisky will never exist again.
Choosing the ’93.50’ was not undertaken lightly. It followed several days of devoted research on my part, and diligent guidance on Sam's at the society’s private club in London.
After the appropriate tastings, I chose '93.50' because I like its full flavours of black pudding, roast pork, cherries and liquorice. This is a full Haggis main course, followed by dessert in one glass raised in a toast to the wonderful craftsmanship that created it by distillation on 17 April 1991 and the miraculous alchemy wrought over 20 years in an oak barrel.
This certainly is not a whisky to glug, gulp or adulterate with anything more than the merest hint of pure water to release its spiritual essence.
Yet when I get around to breaking the seal and pouring myself a dram of this malt nectar, I know already that it will leave a sour note.
That is because it cost more to transport across the Irish Sea than the price of my own flight from London to Belfast.
Aer LIngus offer
Let me explain. After several direct and indirect promptings, I availed of the Aer Lingus special offer of a £19.99 singe journey flight each way to see Sam who had not been able to make it home for the Christmas/New Year holidays. I stayed with him from Saturday until today (Wednesday) and only brought carry-on luggage, more than sufficient for my needs as well as a couple of gifts for Sam and his girlfriend India.
For my return, however, I had the ’93.50’ to consider. I wrapped it carefully in my thick wool and silk scarf and surrounded it with laundry in the middle of the bag to ensure it would come to no harm in transit.
But it is not that simple. Some bull-necked genius in the world of aviation has presumed that I might pose a threat to fellow passengers, as well as the crew, using a bottle of superb scotch as a weapon during the one-hour flight. I could not be trusted if I got on board with a 70cl bottle, so the British Airports Authority deployed an army of securocrats to guard the gates of hell.
Like wash-bag fascists, these uniformed guardians seem to delight in humiliating passengers while enforcing ridiculous prohibitions. They preside with blank stares as elderly men shuffle in abject embarrassment through screening machines clutching beltless trousers in their fists to prevent them cascading into a puddle at their shoeless heels. The rest of us are bullied into acquiescing on their pointless regulations.
Once I was caught with shampoo in a container bigger than the approved 100ml. It was confiscated on the spot. Another time, I was put through the wringer for not having my few toiletries in the correct ziplock plastic bag. These come three at a time in a £1 plastic ball that won’t bounce, but each passenger is allowed only one bag.
So what to do with my scotch? I went to Heathrow early to check if there was any way of getting it on board. The woman on the Aer Lingus desk sympathised but said I would have to check in my carry-on bag. That’ll be an extra £24, thank you.
I considered other options:
• I could try and secrete it somewhere, but even someone schooled early in smuggling contraband across the Irish Border could not get through this checkpoint;
• I could break the seal and decant the whisky into small 100ml containers – if I could find those – and put them in a see-though ziplock bag. However, only five items are allowed in the bag, so 200ml would be lost.
• The most appealing prospect was to find a quiet spot and a glass and set about carrying the whisky on board in my bloodstream. However, this would render me incapable of finding the correct gate for my flight, much less drive my car from Belfast International Airport on arrival.
• Or I could throw a party offering fellow travellers a dream of a dram for Auld Lang Syne on the birthday of the immortal bard. However, I would need more than one glass for this.
The main disadvantage of all these options was that the whisky would be gone forever and with it the prospect of imbibing those hot embers from the gates of hell.
I was stumped and, in the end, I shelled out the cash to put my whisky in the hold where it would pose no threat to the safety of our flight.
Wee tasters of malt
Bagless in the departures lounge, I checked out the ‘World of Whisky’ – dozens of bottles from Scotland and Ireland with single malts ranging from £35 to £130. I thought of my much superior malt chugging its way to our Belfast reunion along conveyor belts, rattling on tractor trailers and languishing in the cold and dark hold. I knew it did not deserve such ill-treatment.
To add insult to injury, my bag was the last item on the luggage carousel, a good 15 minutes after all those carry-on smart travellers had departed the airport. For those agonising minutes, I imagined the ‘chuckers’ at Heathrow baggage handling had happened on a bottle of ’93.50’ and decided to toast the immortal bard.
However, it now sits intact on top of the shelf, but at 11.50pm on Burns Night, there’s time to break the seal, pour a dram and let those airport fascists go to hell.

O Whisky soul o’ plays an’ pranks!
Accept a bardie’s grateful thanks!
When wanting thee, what tuneless cranks
Are my poor verses!
Thou comes – they rattle i’ their ranks
At ithers arses!

– Robert Burns, Scotch Drink

Friday, 20 January 2012

Cast a cold eye…

My first encounter with Aengus Fanning was on my very first day as a senior reporter for Independent Newspapers. I had come from Hibernia, where I had developed a particular interest in the meat-processing industry and its ‘colourful’ characters – cowboys with cash and butchers cutting a dash on a global counter.
Larry Goodman
For instance, I’d written an investigative profile of Larry Goodman, the man with the ‘biggest stake’ in the Irish economy! Nobody knew much about Goodman before that Hibernia article; it was reprinted by the Dundalk Democrat in Goodman’s home town, and in the Sunday Independent.
Perhaps that’s why I was hired by the Indo. For my part, I needed to finance a new family and home.
So there I was in Middle Abbey Street on my first shift, taking stock, when Aengus loomed in front of my desk. He fixed me with an unsmiling stare and introduced himself formally as Agricultural Correspondent.
‘I know you’ve written stories about agribusiness,’ he said coldly,and loudly, ‘but you will not do that here. That’s my area and you do not encroach on it without my approval … and I will not be giving it. Remember that.’
He turned on his heel and walked away. I sat dumbfounded while he made his way to his desk beyond the news editors, my face glowing from my public dressing down.

Aengus and I were colleagues (in the broadest sense) during my time at Independent Newspapers: we were never friends. He regarded me as an unwanted trespasser and we disagreed on most subjects, including the fundamentals of journalism.
I also resolved from that first day to get out as soon as possible. That happened when I was offered a better job with the new Sunday Tribune, ten months after passing through the portals of ‘Chateau Despair’.
During my time there, I learnt that such face-offs and in-house rivalries were commonplace. The then editor of the flagship Irish Independent Aidan Pender was about to retire. Successors were lining up and throwing shapes.
It affected us all. For instance, as general reporters, we were often instructed to ‘destroy our blacks’ (meaning we were to dump the carbon copies of typewritten stories) to prevent them being used by the next title. It was said jokingly that if the Evening Herald competed as well as it did against the (sister paper) Irish Independent, it might even take on the rival Evening Press.
I forged alliances. Then Sunday Independent editor Michael ‘Mixer’ Hand took me under his wing. We talked through the closing hours of Saturday night shifts in the Oval Bar. Mixer made no secret of being under huge pressure from rivals.
Vinnie Doyle
He showed up for my ‘going-away drink’, as did Vinny Doyle, Evening Herald editor. Vinny asked if there was anything I liked about Independent Newspapers. I told him I admired the ‘honesty’. He was surprised until I told him I meant the honesty of stabbing people in the front. He said he would use that himself … he did!
A few years later, Vinny was editor of the Indo and Mixer was out the door. I had seen off the Sunday Tribune and its short-lived cheeky sister, The Daily News. They collapsed at the end of 1982 and two tumultuous years.
I was now staffed at the Irish Press – where Mixer and Vinny had both learnt their craft – and had just been promoted to Agriculture Correspondent. I was back writing about Beef Barons.

At the Sunday Independent, meanwhile, new editor Aengus Fanning was shaping his ship. He nailed his colours to the mast, hired a crew of like-minded opinionators, dolled up his broadsheet with tabloid take-offs and pushed ‘personality’ journalism – where the reporter is central to the story – to deadly lengths.
He had bust-ups (and at least one full-scale fistfight), fall-outs and scurrilous campaigns, the most virulent against subsequent Nobel Peace laureate John Hume. His star Veronica Guerin was shot dead by drug criminals she baited on the Sindo’s front page. There were climb-downs, pay-offs and put-downs.
Backed by a Bean Baron, Aengus’s star rose steadily, seeing off the fatally mismanaged Sunday Press and stifling the resurrected Tribune by placing it in financial bondage. It clambered to the top with half the circulation of the Sunday Press in my time.
Bertie Ahern and Aengus Fanning
But it consistently lost readers as Aengus traded in ‘tottie’ and tittle-tattle, backed Bertie and Britain’s war on Iraq, shored up Seanie and fawned to Fingers, while inflating the bubble and roasting those he set his mind against.
Yet nothing succeeds like excess and he pronounced that only commercial success counts in journalism. Those who hail his death as the passing of Ireland's 'greatest editor' appear to agree.
Of course Aengus always had his champions, especially among those he elevated. One wrote this week: ‘He was brave to the point of bravado. He challenged all the accepted norms. More than 20 years ago he blazed a trail in his utter fearlessness in confronting all the undisturbed pillars of Irish life. Whether it was the Catholic church, Fianna Fáil or the IRA.’ (sic)

Life moves on and so do we. In 1986, I approached a few publishers with a proposal for a book on the Beef Barons. They declined. One said, 'Only farmers would be interested in that and farmers don’t read books.’ A few months later I moved to Canada. I had barely established a new career in journalism there when a bestseller emerged from the Beef Tribunal scandals back in Ireland. It made very familiar reading!
I’ve worked in a dozen newsrooms on both sides of he Atlantic Ocean over the past 35 years. I’ve learned that journalism is a craft honed on competition and collaboration. It thrives on mutual support, on mentoring and encouragement of those coming behind. As a reporter and editor, I’ve worked with many who disagreed strongly with me on a host of issues and I am proud to have had them as colleagues and friends.
On one occasion, I was exposed directly to the dark side of journalism. It came on that day when Aengus Fanning loomed like an avenging angel in front of my desk and smote me publicly.
He probably forgot his beef with me. I didn’t.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Real life in the rare 'oul times

During my recent festive musing á la recherche du temps perdue, I was intrigued by the reaction to a posting on YouTube. It was film footage from a car being driven around Dublin in 1974.
I was at UCD back then, so I studied the YouTube film carefully, wondering if I might even spot myself amongst those young longhairs striding up Grafton Street in flared jeans. I didn’t but I admit I was momentarily excited by a glimpse of a wee white Renault 4 that might well have been my first car if I could remember the registration: yet in 1974 it would another four years until Renée and I met for the first time and, alas, fleetingly before that bust-up at Pearse Street/Westland Row.
My interest seemed nothing however, compared to all the Facebook shares and glowing comments online about 1974 Dublin, particularly from those who were not even born at the time.
They gushed about Dublin in the rare oul times, a wonderful place where we cruised through streets with little or no traffic alongside footpaths thronged by healthy lean people with real jobs out shopping long before the ‘credit crisis’.
I had already encountered the YouTube film before it made the ‘What’s Hot, What’s Not’ list in the 30 December Irish Times magazine with a recommendation to ‘check it out’.
So now that the festivities are done, dusted and we’re into our remembrance decade, let me burst that bubble while I’m at it:
• There were traffic jams in the 1970s, mostly caused by atrocious driving by unlicensed/untested motorists, although most of us could not afford cars and had to rely on sporadic bus services without bus lanes, much less DART or Luas alternatives.
• This YouTube sequence was probably filmed during the First Oil Crisis when OPEC turned off the taps and you had to beg, borrow or steal petrol/diesel to drive anywhere.
• Those skinny people squeezed onto much narrower footpaths probably had no access to credit and their wages and salaries were a pittance; hence their half-starved looks. Even the very top executive jobs in the Irish Times were advertised in a section headed ‘£5,000-plus’!
• For a considerable period in 1974, Flann O’Brien’s final resort of ‘a pint of plain’ was denied to the working man by a prolonged strike in the Guinness brewery.
• Finally, 1974 was the year when bombs devastated Dublin and Monaghan on a day with a combined toll of 33 lives. Bombs were a feature of life and death in Dublin, along the Border and of course in the North during those worst years of the Troubles.

Yet it wasn’t all bleak and hopeless in 1974.
• I turned 21 and was dawdling through my second year as an Arts student at UCD, having completed the NCTJ course in Journalism at Rathmines College. Journalism was still a craft to be learnt, not a degree bestowed by some college.
• I was about to spend a wonderful working summer in London with a big bunch of mates blissfully unaware of what was befalling the Guildford Four.
• And hey, I hadn’t a prayer of driving any car though Dublin until I was in paid employment, which roughly coincided with the next Oil Crisis coming down the pipeline.
Happy days!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Blasts from the past

Ah nostalgia, they just don’t make it like they used to (as the old saying goes).
The thought struck me more than a few times over the Christmas/New Year season… all those ghosts of Christmas past, I suppose. And probably more so this year because of reminders that we are now entering a decade of momentous anniversaries, starting with this year’s centenaries of the sinking of the Titanic and Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant, seen as the start of a political process that led to the partition of Ireland and all that ensued.
I prepared gently for the first of these by reading Omagh-born author Martina Devlin’s evocative novel Ship of Dreams. It starts with survivors on one of the Titanic lifeboats and charts their lives over the following year, during which perceptions and accounts of their shared momentous experience diverge because of need and circumstance.
As a consequence, I believe this year we will celebrate a great romance largely shaped by a 1997 Hollywood epic starring Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio.
I am still wrestling with the other centenary, but I consciously began preparing for it a few years ago while writing Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band.
On 28 September 2009, I attended an event at the Bridgetown No Surrender Orange Hall in Castlederg. It was ‘open to the public’ and the advertisement said it would feature an exhibition of relevant historical artefacts and a ‘cultural workshop’ marking the 98th anniversary of Ulster Day 1912.
The speakers included Lord Laird of Artigarvan, who would set the scene from the 1801 Act of Union up to 1912, and former Lord Mayor of Belfast Ian Adamson who would address us on the Covenant and its aftermath. The latter failed to show and Lord Laird, like a music hall warm-up, regaled us with anecdotes and quips about Ulster Scots, Border Reivers and his perplexity about whether his ancestry was English or Scots. The Covenant got a passing mention, but he admitted he was no expert.
Sir Reg Empey
Not listed on the bill, but topping the speakers nonetheless, was then Ulster Unionist Party leader Sir Reg Empey (above). He had ventured into the Wild West to rally retrospective support for his pre-emptive liaison with the British Tories. (He got short shrift on that from local unionist kingpin Derek Hussey!) So the ‘cultural workshop’ on a pivotal historical event, became an impromptu meeting of the UUP on an electoral pact with the Tories – which sent them into their next election disaster under the unfortunate acronym UCUNF!
I squirmed, aware that those present who knew me must be wondering what I – clearly from the other tradition – was doing there. A local Protestant farmer sitting beside me even ventured that, while he admired my willingness to hear about his past, this was not what he expected either.
Lord Laird
Civilities were observed, of course, although my later attempt during tea and traybakes to open dialogue about the Ulster Covenant was repeatedly interrupted by Lord Laird eager to tell me that words I was uttering were Ulster-Scots! I finally remarked that, unlike him, I had no confusion about where I came from!
I have seldom spoken about that episode since, but it was a cautionary reminder that we are embarking on this decade of centenaries with little or no preparation and even less dialogue. The events we are about to celebrate, rather than commemorate, are so ingrained in our traditions that we cannot see the wood for the trees… and there is precious little interest in taking stock of timber.
Instead, we revel in exclusive versions and use them to bait each other. We know the outlines of the nationalist and unionist versions, of course, but there are northern and southern, eastern, western, local, global and whatever-you’re-having-yourself versions. Let’s not ignore the distortions of revisionists who take subjective trawls through the past, select what suits their current ideological line with little or no empirical research, and then convince themselves and others that they are above us all. We had plenty of that during 2011 without any centenary occasion!
Yet even after that 2009 night in the No Surrender Orange Hall in Castlederg, I persist in trawling, too, convinced there is scope for honest assessment of all the passions, fears, hopes, convictions and actions of those caught up in our shared past.
I began this from birth into a community shaped forever after by the events that began a hundred years ago. I continue my quest, driven by a conviction that I might find part of my own identity hidden by current interpretations reflected through the prism of ‘national’ soccer team allegiances.

The quest prompted my first book, The Sons of Levi, exploring the experience of proud, passionate Ulster Unionists consigned to the Free State by their fellow Covenanters in the six counties who even purloined their identity for decades afterwards by insisting ‘Ulster’ was different now.
My subsequent book, The Chosen Fews – Exploding Myths in South Armagh, dealt with proud, passionate Irish people jettisoned by fellow nationalists in Dublin and demonised since.
My last book on Loyalist band culture, Blood & Thunder, dealt with those involved in a proud and passionate search for their cultural identity in another Border location.
Yes, there is a pattern and I don’t expect to be finished any time soon!
However, history is catching up because we are now into the decade of centenaries (although mine certainly doesn’t end in 1922). On which point, I note by today’s date that we have already passed what I would regard as one of the pivotal events of that period without a squeak or a peep from anyone else.
Unionist resistance to Home Rule diverged sharply following a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in late 1911 which decided to seek exclusion for Ulster from the Home Rule Bill which about to be enacted. Up to that point, Unionist opposition demanded no Home Rule for Ireland.
The first significant public event in pursuit of that separatist Ulster policy was a big rally in Omagh addressed by Sir Edward Carson, the Marquis of Hamilton and Lord Dartreyfrom Monaghan (whose ancestor, incidentally, proposed the Act of Union at Westminster in 1801). At least 30,000 Unionists attended, most conveyed there by train.
The railway timetable for Omagh that day lists 18 separate arrivals before 11.35am. One is the scheduled Belfast train through Portadown, as one might expect. The others show that those who came to Omagh to resist Home Rule for Ulster came on special trains from Castleblayney, Cavan, Bailieboro, Belturbet, Bundoran, Cootehill, Clones, Smithboro, Monaghan and Glaslough. Others certainly came from east Donegal on the special trains from Strabane and Derry and by other modes.
Today, the Great Northern Railway station is home for the Omagh Boys’ and Girls’ Club and the railway lines for all of Tyrone, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal, as well as for most of Armagh and Derry, are long-dead victims of partition.
Yet this was the start of a momentous year for Ulster and for Unionism and among the very first to pin their colours to the mast were those who gathered in Omagh on a day that is described in minute detail by the Tyrone Constitution of Friday, 12 January 1912.
I wonder now if any of them had even the least inkling that so many of those present would be jettisoned in 1920 as superfluous to need! They certainly couldnot have known that the recent 1911 Census would be used to support arguments that including all Ulster would become a constant nightmare for unionism because of the precarious balance of Catholics and Protestants that almost exactly corresponds to the sectarian breakdown in Northern Ireland today!

Edward Carson signs the Ulster Covenant in 1912
The memories of that day, and the significance of that inaugural event in the calendar that led to Ulster Day are lost, ignored and forgotten, perhaps because an honest look into the past is bound to disappoint and trouble too many.
So welcome to a decade of remembrance and amidst all the hype and hoopla in store, please remember that I am here to debunk much of the guff you will hear.
I’ll even undertake to attend workshops in Orange Halls, Hibernian hideouts, former railway stations or other venues on either side of the Border, not excluding political gatherings, confirmations, investitures and Bar Mitzvahs.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Back to the Future as RTÉ turns 50

Barely a week into the ‘celebrations’ for RTÉ having invented television 50 years ago – thus providing a great leap forward for human evolution – I am perplexed.
I was around back in 1962 and actually at the very peak of my television viewing career (being eight years of age). Yet the arrival of RTÉ barely registers in my memory.
It is overshadowed by an event of a few years earlier when Ireland’s first television channel was launched. Full of Irish accent, foibles and endearing bloopers, it came to us from Havelock House in Belfast.
But I remember UTV’s arrival in our Clones home mostly because, on the very first evening it went on air (Halloween 1959), it showed The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Richard Greene in the title role with Bernadette O’Farrell from Birr and later Patricia Driscoll from Cork as Maid Marian.
It could hardly have seemed more Irish and, given the day that was in it, we were treated to a Halloween episode with ghosts and ghouls that bothered my first cousin Aidan Magee who was visiting from Irvinestown that day.
But not only was I bewitched and beguiled by continuity announcer Miss Adrienne (McGuill), I was cured of a bewilderment that had occupied much of my thoughts during all the tedious ‘test card’ hours before BBC broadcasts began in late afternoon with Watch with Mother (presented for a time by Patricia Driscoll, see above).
The arrival of UTV solved the greatest mystery of my early life – the purpose of that numbered dial on the Murphy TV set daddy bought in late 1955 from Charlie Slowey’s shop across The Diamond. Now by turning the dial from 1 to 3, we were transported from stuffy BBC in London to UTV in Belfast and all its familiar ads for Cookstown sausages and Cantrell & Cochrane ‘minerals’.
Negotiating those two simple digits was enough to realise that with seven more numbers on the dial, we had blasted off for a multi-channel world of the future.
When my mother roused me from sleep one night to ‘change the channel’ on the rotary dial because daddy was out, I knew I had acquired a level of technological skill beyond most adults at that time. Yet while I cast longing glances at the other digits and longed for their speedy deployment, I cannot now recall what number on was occupied by RTÉ when it came along. (Was it 9?)
Perhaps my exposure to those exciting other worlds brought to our pre-1962 living-room by BBC and UTV meant I was already emerging from childhood innocence when RTÉ joined the dial. My viewing habits were formed around firm favourites and I was not willing to be transported off on any old Wanderly Wagon that might happen along the road from Dublin.
Just a couple more years (1963) and we were tuned into Cool Britannia when Top of the Pops and Ready Steady Go! came on air from BBC and UTV. We embraced pop modernity and Sean Dunphy, Brendan Bowyer and that showband lot didn’t stand a chance against The Beatles and Van Morrison’s Them.
Yes, there were many times down the decades when I watched RTÉ, but it never really became my channel of choice. I do admit that I was torn for a short time between Dáithí Lacha and The Magic Roundabout! Daithi’s goose was cooked when I twigged on to some of the hidden messages from the animated carousel crowd.
Today, I squirm at RTÉ’s incessant self-congratulation and, as we face into a full year of how Montrose brought civilisation and modernity to Ireland, I expect I’ll be watching another channel… or none at all.