Monday 12 November 2012

Haunted by my past with Twink

While others quake at the prospect of Twink Unzipped, the autobiography of colourful Dublin entertainer Adele King, I’m betting she doesn’t disclose my personal part in her secret past.
But just in case it turns up in one of those extracts in The Irish Sun or even in revised text for the delayed publication of the book some time in the new year, I’ll come clean myself. And so I hereby reveal that I was once the ghost writer for Twink’s ‘Agony Aunt’ column in the Daily News back in the early 1980s.
Yes, it is true that while a giant Twink smiled down on us like a star from Dublin billboards and trundled along the streets of the capital on side-of-the-bus ads as our resident font of wisdom on troubled relationships, I lurked in the shadows writing the actual column.
It was just a minor part of my otherwise important duties at the Daily News, of course, as we struggled to establish Ireland’s first fun-sized daily tabloid in 1982.
The drill was that I would meet Twink for lunch, discuss a range of letters (mostly penned by me to kick-start a suitable flow of correspondence from readers), note her comments and then go off to write up the cheeky column for that week with the assistance of several glasses of good wine for inspiration.
The subjects of the letters, as I recall, were not always the 'run of the mill' troubled personal relationships and needless teenage angst that readers could find elsewhere. We also sneaked in some subjects that we knew would be regarded as quite risqué or even slightly sordid by the social mores of the time.
Our aim was to provide a contemporary spin on the traditional Irish advice column (as provided by veteran columnists of a previous generation such as Angela McNamara of the Sunday Press and Frankie Byrne of RTÉ). After all, we were providing a modern no-holds take on Irish life in the bright and breezy pages of our full-colour tabloid at a time when rival daily newspapers were uniformly grey and conventionally boring. Looking back with the wisdom of age, I suppose we were aiming in our youthful enthusiasm for the Liffyside equivalent of Sex and the City, long before even the Big Apple was ready for it.
Twink as she was then.
At least that was the brief I took along to lunch at one of Dublin's trendier restaurants of that time.
Mind you, Twink spent a lot of our time together talking about her impending marriage to David Agnew (the core subject of much of her impending autobiography, I understand), and I was expected to offer my own advice on that too… but not in writing, I hasten to add.
In any case, no matter what is disclosed in the fall-out from Twink Unzipped when it actually reaches the bookshops, I accept no responsibility for what transpired because we only had a few lunch dates before the column folded (along with the newspaper) – and that was more than 20 years before her marriage came unzipped!
I had long given up my ghost role as an Agony Aunt by then.

Saturday 1 September 2012

Timely thoughts on coming home

The Toronto Star coverage of the story
that broke while I was up in the air.
It was a turning point in my life that began when the Air India flight touched down at London Heathrow. As we began to disembark, I felt none of the usual numbness of overnight trans-Atlantic travel. Having been upgraded (by carefully engineered chance) to Maharaja class, I was well fed, rested and revived. So as I shuffled towards the exit ramp I was alert to the conversations of fellow passengers, whispers that became more urgent as the circles of contact widened. Several faces registered shock. Out of concern and curiosity, I asked what was the matter: ‘Princess Diana has been killed.’
Over the coming hours, days and weeks, that news would consume much of the wider world, but it became just the coincidental backdrop for my life, a pointer that fixes it to a definite date in history. For that was the day I ended more than a decade as an immigrant in Canada and, after a brief stopover in London, became a ‘returned emigrant’ in Ireland.
The story of emigration is still being told.
Much has been written about emigration – most of it misinformed, maudlin or fanciful by those who can’t recognise the difference between a young, single backpacker with a smart phone and a short-term working visa and those who leave (usually by choice) with families, job skills/experience, and the guts to seek opportunities by cutting themselves adrift. Yet while the story of emigration is distorted, it is told. Little has been written about the process of coming home to a place that no longer feels like home for those who have invested a sustained effort in making a new life in their adopted country. In my case, that final return flight began a wrenching experience even if it seemed at first like the start of another holiday.
There was indulgence for my ‘Canadian’ ways, such as  little vocabulary adjustments or pronunciations, my naïve questions about life in Ireland, my constant comparisons between here and there, my confusion and doubts about the step I was taking for myself and my two children who travelled ahead while I tidied up our affairs in Canada. 
So those initial days passed in a haze. I continued to shuffle along as if the fog would lift suddenly and I would be ‘home at last’. Yet it didn’t happen that way in September 1997, no more than it had in January 1987 when I had passed though Immigration Canada in Toronto as a ‘Landed Immigrant’.
A culture shock in a Dublin taxi.
I remember several cultural shocks in those first days of return: A Dublin taxi driver whose racist diatribe prompted me to get out well short of my destination; the smug arrogance of early harbingers of the Celtic Tiger; the fixation on English soccer and popular culture by those who suggested I had compromised my identity; the bizarre bureaucracy of reinserting myself into Ireland. So as the weeks passed, I could feel my frustration grow and the sufferance of others decline in equal measure. There were fewer smiles when I ‘turned Canadian’, made a comparison, or asked a question about what others regarded as the ‘bloody obvious’ and I was challenged, ‘You know rightly why that is; sure aren’t you from here?”
I suppose those bafflements and annoyances indicate my psychological readjustment to a cultural environment that was familiar yet strange enough to befuddle. My body had been transported back across the Atlantic, but my mind was still in transit and it would take a long time for them to reunite.
Other problems were largely work-related. Having had a successful career in journalism before I left, I presumed I could re-insinuate myself into the fold. In Canada I had built another successful career in journalism, adding valuable experiences and technological skills that were only beginning to take hold in Ireland. Yet I might as well have been outside the door twiddling my thumbs for all the good that did me in the jobs market. I even felt at times that my absence was regarded as a failure and my age (mid-40s) a handicap. So I was not even called for interview when my additional skills were specified, possibly because I had not acquired them in Ireland.
Fifteen years later, I look back on those early days of uncertainty as among the most difficult of my life. I eventually scrambled back. My vocabulary readjusted and I learned not to utter comparisons that receded over time. I built a successful career for the third time in my life, but I’ve never truly settled. Along the way, I’ve written four books, and raised two sons as a single parent until they graduated from university and set off on their own lives overseas.
Canada – my adopted country.
So happy ending? Not really, because I fear the reception would be no different for returned emigrants today. When I returned to Ireland on 1 September 1997, I found a country absorbed to the point of selfish obsession about how it had changed in my absence. There was little acknowledgement that I had changed too, and exponentially in comparison. Unlike the traditional Irish emigrant’s experience of a social support network to complement institutional assistance for newcomers, I found impatience for me to deal with change alone. Unlike Canada and most modern countries built on immigration where help is available to exploit newcomers' skills, there is no agency in Ireland to help returned emigrants adjust.
There seems to be a prevailing Irish notion that emigrants are those who failed and fled and returning home just compounds the failure. I hear similar reactions from every returned emigrant I meet. And it is the ‘small stuff’ that niggles most, issues like an ease of passage for children into the education system, or getting a driver's licence (I had to pass my test for the third time because there was no ‘reciprocal exchange’).
Emigration is not easy, yet so many of us find the practical and emotional support as well as the energy to adjust to ‘living away from home’. Often we are bolstered by the excitement of a ‘honeymoon’ transition and the promise of ‘happy ever after’. Returning home is different for those who manage to find a window in complicated lives. No matter what the circumstances, returning can be like emerging from a failed marriage (and I know what that is like), with an obsessive compulsion to rekindle an old romance, then finding yourself shrugged off or simply not recognised. It is hard to find the energy in such circumstances
So today, fifteen years after I began my new life in old surroundings on the day of the death of Britain’s fairytale princess, I raise a glass to returned emigrants and wish each and every one health, happiness and a hero’s homecoming.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Going for the border bus bonanza

It pays to take the bus from Lifford to Dublin, through Strabane.
Would you go the extra mile for Bus Éireann, Ireland’s national bus service? I did yesterday (Tuesday) when I took the Letterkenny express bus to Dublin.
Not only that, I went the extra mile on the outward and return journey – and I saved myself €5 (or £4) for each of those miles. Surely that must be the best (or worst) mileage rate in the land and it was all courtesy of yet another foible of our fickle frontier.
I got the 9.45am bus from Lifford to Dublin Busaras and returned on the 8.45pm departure. On each leg of the journey, I went through Strabane, just over the bridge from Lifford. From where I live, Strabane would be the more expected point of my departure and arrival.
A small cross-border mile with a big saving.
The reason I set out from Lifford on the Letterkenny-Dublin express service is that I booked my Bus Éireann ticket online. That does not allow the option of boarding in Strabane, presumably because it is ‘across the border’.
In any event, I discovered that my same-day return ticket would cost me €21.85. A bargain, I thought so I enquired about the alternative to online booking. That would have been to go to Strabane bus station, a mile closer to where I live, and purchase from ticket from the booth there. My phone enquiry to the Translink service revealed that I would have to pay £25 for a same-day return to take the same Letterkenny to Dublin bus, boarding just a few minutes after its departure time from Lifford.
On the conversion rate for the day, that worked out at €31.81 – an extra €10 (give or take a few cent) for a journey that was shorter by a combined two miles.
So I walked the extra mile. Well, I drove it, but I could have parked my car in Strabane, walked over to Lifford for the connection, come back on the bus through Strabane (checking my car en route)  and then  disembarked there on my evening return. The online ticket only stipulates a point of boarding and who was going to prevent me getting off a stop earlier.
Next time I'll take a stroll past the 'Tinnies'.
That way, I could have saved my tenner and had a pleasant stroll up Bradley Way, across the grassy knell of the quaintly named Camel’s Hump with the wonderful ‘Tinney’ sculptures in the ‘Let the Dance Begin’ installation. Now that I’ve found my way to Dublin, spent my saved tenner on a hearty pub lunch, and returned again all at the border bonanza rate, I think I’ll just do that.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Rocky road to Rio 2016

Filling in the faces for the next Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
So now that the most wonderful Olympics ever have come to a close with London 2012, and golfer Rory McIlroy has turned in a hugely impressive win at the US PGA, the speculation has begun on where he will hang his cap in the Olympic Village for Rio 2016.
Will the Hollywood, Co. Down wonder opt for Team Ireland or Team GB in four years time?
Some on-air speculation from Dublin today followed the increasingly familiar pattern of born-again cross-border deference to difference.
Golf champ Rory is up for grabs for 2016.
One contributor wondered if the new US PGA champion would go for Team Ireland given that the Golfing Union of Ireland financially supported his early professional golfing career development.
On the other hand, sure hasn’t he the choice by virtue of his birth in Northern Ireland to opt for Team GB? And good luck to him whatever he decides.
Where is the passion? Where is the tribal resentment? Has the very essence of our sporting rivalry been boxed to a standstill in the ring last Saturday night during the bout between John Joe Nevin and Luke Campbell? 
Instead, the airwaves gush with the milk of human kindness after the Friendly Games.
So here at the Frontier Post, we are left alone to shout at the radio that Rory should be ours because the official name for the British team pointedly excludes Northern Ireland. It is our job to keep an eye on such legalities of jurisdictional demarcation. 
In the after-glow of London 2012, even the most truculent and resentful must concede that Northern Ireland  is a de facto constituent of the United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but it most assuredly is not in the Great Britain of Team GB.
Furthermore, nobody thought to ask if the Team GB brand name would even be appropriate for Rio in 2016. Or would Scottish Premier Alex Salmond’s 2014 referendum on independence put paid to that?
Scotland's gold
If the Scottish Nationalist Party leader has his way, Team Scotland will be entering the fray in 2016 and Andy Murray and his fellow athletes will stand to attention on the winners’ podium for a rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland’.
In that event, could those of Ulster-Scots background (Graeme McDowell) opt for Team Scotland too?
Meanwhile, would a truncated team from the biggest island of the British Isles be renamed Team Britain. And would that then transform Team GB into Team B? Hardly the most auspicious acronymn for the fastest, longest, strongest etc.
I’ll bet none of the branding experts thought of this when they settled for Team GB over Team UK.
Maybe Rory should just declare for Team Ireland now and avoid all this uncertainty and embarassment between here and Rio.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Signs of the times

Northern Ireland’s Minister for Regional Development Danny Kennedy was accused this week of being ‘pretty petty’ in his insistence on erecting ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland’ signs on Border road-crossings. At the Frontier Post, we think he’s also being rather picky in choosing nine roads to signpost – at a cost of almost £200 a sign.
Two of the new signs have been uprooted already – both in the Clones-Roslea-Newtownbutler area – and there seems to be general expectations that the others will be vandalised also. The DRD is reported to be on standby to replace the signs in such an event.
The official excuse for the signs, meanwhile, is that they will remind motorists that they are entering another jurisdiction where speed limits are measured in pounds, shillings and pence and not in those foreign ‘European’ currencies. Most motorists can be forgiven for thinking that the signs saying that ‘speed limits are in MPH’ were erected for that very purpose.
So obviously in the interests of road safety, the minister is using taxpayers’ money for a ‘belt and braces’ approach so that motorists can then adjust their speedometer gauges, or something like that.
Dannk K – a belt and braces guy
Meanwhile, here at the Frontier Post, we are somewhat peeved that Minister Kennedy does not come clean and acknowledge that our 2 February blog, Size Matters in Border Rivalry, comparing our border with the one between Scotland and England might have spurred him to action. Obviously the Ulster Unionist Minister was upset by our observation that the much smaller Border across the water is festooned with signage, while ours boasts only a few ‘Fermanagh Welcomes you… Naturally’ signs, as well as some signs on the southern side reminding us – in German, French and English, but not the first official language – to drive on the left.
So besides needing to replace the two signs in the Clones area, the minister has had his signs positioned on the following roads: Strabane-Lifford, Kesh-Pettigo, Aughnacloy-Emyvale, Derrylin-Belturbet, Belleek-Ballyshannon, and even one near Wattlebridge on the road from Clones to Cavan where it makes one of its forays into Fermanagh. Soon also, there will be signs erected on the old road between Newry and Dundalk, on one of the Derry to Letterkenny roads – probably at Bridgend – and another near Middletown on the Armagh-Monaghan road.
We reckon that this leaves only 300 or so roads with no signs to inform motorists that they are crossing the Border and they are welcome to do so!
Mind you, at a cost of about £200 each, the spending on replacement signage for the stipulated roads, should keep a medium-size signage shop and half a dozen DRD road crews busy for a while. It will certainly supplement the work of replacing and restoring the defaced direction signs for ‘Londonderry’.
But it’s good to see that we are all being welcomed along the road to a shared future, even if only on a few choice border crossings. Time was – and not really that long ago – that Unionist politicians seemed hell-bent on keeping our cross-border roads closed. Now Danny K is rolling out the Welcome mat, even if disgruntled locals would prefer to keep their Border location a secret.

Tuesday 31 July 2012

With one mighty boundary, our hero is free…

The chief acknowledges his subjects at the coss-Border rally in Ballyconnell.
The exhortation that all ‘Border people’ should come out in support of bankrupt billionaire Seán Quinn and his family is just as troubling as the troupe of widely known GAA stalwarts who lined up to pay homage to the ‘Mighty Quinn’ at Sunday’s rally in Ballyconnell, Co. Cavan.
Their projection of an alternative constituency of rural solidarity based on shared values of 'home and hearth', almost disguises the incredibly slick public relations campaign now underway.
That the campaign is centred on the periphery of both jurisdictions – while one of the main players is using its convenient escape route to avoid jail for ‘contempt of court’  – is almost sheer genius.
Yet there is nothing spontaneous or innocent about the scale and potential of this PR campaign.
Some of the people, all of the time.
Seán Quinn fastidiously avoided his ‘enemy’ until everything was in place. His carefully chosen first foray into  the media campaign was with the local Northern Sound radio and the local papers in Fermanagh and Cavan. Next his ‘fugitive’ nephew was featured at a couple of local football matches – in the company of his former GAA president dad – and then came the rally which appears to be the first of a snowball sequence.
So even after all the highly troubling and detailed exposure by BBC’s Jim Fitzpatrick of the Quinns’ sophisticated criminal manipulation of assets through dubious channels in Russia; clear and proven breaches of specific court orders; and unequivocal findings by respected judges that this was blatant contempt of the law to cheat Irish taxpayers on an unprecedented scale, the Empire has struck back.  
The bandwagon struck up on Sunday and the ‘Border people’ and all those who share their honest, down-to-earth family values are expected to clamber aboard.
Sure, isn't he one of our own!
Suddenly a high-roller casino capitalist – who wagered his entire ‘empire’ (and all its subjects) in a golden Gordon Gekko moment of quintessential greed – is pleading the poor mouth.
Suddenly the man who failed to achieve bankruptcy on his own terms in Belfast High Court is now the victim of bankruptcy, hounded by the Irish courts, the ‘Dublin media’ and, most of all, Anglo-Irish Bank.
Suddenly the family which has siphoned off hundreds of millions worth of assets in breach of court orders, is facing ‘debtors’ prison’ or ‘walking the roads’ after summary eviction.
Where will it end? The novel notion that the true Irish values of honesty, decency and family solidarity maintain a lonely residence on the border between Fermanagh and Cavan is a powerful incentive for those who refuse to acknowledge the facts.
They line up to hail their chief, backed by an array of  GAA leaders who, quite frankly, should be ashamed of the message they are conveying.
Meanwhile, the notion that there is even such a constituency as the ‘Border people’ is news to us at the Frontier Post, where we maintain a vigil on a vast array of communities and districts which did not benefit from the Quinn Group, even in the ‘good times’.
One thing for sure if this campaign succeeds though is that we’ll all be picking up the tab while the Quinns laugh all the way to Belize.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Right to the heart of a Maiden City

Cross the river to avoid constraints.
As a fairly regular commuter to Derry, I have a strong interest in the proposed upgrading to a dual carriageway of the A5 road from Aughnacloy to Newbuildings. Despite more than 2,000 objections, a public inquiry has now1 given the go-ahead  for the work which already has a budget of £330 million.
However, at the risk of prolonging the tailbacks and road hazards, I want to raise yet another objection. It is based on empirical research and, while it might seem impertinent, I think it should be on the table before the bulldozers move in. This is not least because it might stand a better chance of winning back the €400 million that the Dublin government allocated to the project before backing out of the deal.
Agreeing a cross-border road to Derry City.
So here is my concern: the planning has focused on the wrong road entirely, well, the wrong route from Victoria Bridge to the Maiden City.
For those familiar with the North-West Passage, this is the part which snakes its way for about 20 miles through (or around after the roadworks) Sion Mills, Strabane, Ballymagorry, Cloghcor, Bready and Magheramason (all in Co. Tyrone) before drawing up to the traffic lights in Newbuildings, Co. Derry, and the final Prehen stretch into the city which is excluded from the work.
Roads Service in Northern Ireland has wrestled with this part of the route which hugs the east bank of the River Foyle. All along, the answer to their problem was over on the west bank; i.e. in the other jurisdiction.
By entering Co. Donegal, the route could:
• Avoid major centres of settlement;
• Extend right into the heart of Derry City;
• Link with the dual carriageway (plus under-deck) Craigavon Bridge;
• Better serve Letterkenny and all north and west Donegal;
• Provide a road that can readily justify Dublin government funding.
Such a road would depart the current A5 route just north of Victoria Bridge, following the general line of Bells Park Road to cross the Border and the River Finn between Clady and Strabane. (The Finn is barely wider than a normal two-lane road at this point.)
With upper and lower decks, Craigavon bridge
offers three lanes each way to connect entire city.
It would then sweep west of Lifford towards Letterkenny before resuming its course to Derry up the Laggan Valley side of the Foyle past Porthall, St Johnston and Carrigans. There it would cross the border into Co. Derry, following the Balloughry Road to join up with the Letterkenny Road, before making its grand final  sweep along the scenic and unimpeded passage down past the Brandywell (GAA and soccer venues) to Craigavon Bridge.
This route would be no longer than the current proposal and it would better serve the entire north-west region in both jurisdictions. Apart from achieving the overall objectives listed above, it would:
• Allay the deep objections of Protestant landowners north of Strabane;
• Allow Derry city nationalists to drive to Dublin through Donegal;
• Provide a real and more direct road link connecting Dublin and Letterkenny;
• Preserve the core integrity of the Foyle; and
• Stake a Dublin government claim to the Maiden City itself.
Now even in these straitened times, that must be worth at least €400 million.

1 A5 Road Upgrade 'To Get Go-ahead' After Public Inquiry,  by Kevin Magee, BBC, 11 July 2012:

Monday 25 June 2012

New hospital opens old wound

The new £276-million hospital outside Enniskillen has opened with all the bells and whistles of a modern health care facility. And along with en-suite rooms for every one of its 300-plus patient beds, the new hospital embeds a geographical anomaly that seems to hold mighty sway with officialdom in this part of Ireland.   
That’s because the new facility is officially known as the South West Acute Hospital, a name that most residents of Fermanagh and Tyrone probably think would be better suited to a facility in Limerick or Kerry.
South West's West Tyrone campus in the north west at Omagh.
But the name does join a growing pantheon of illustrious institutions centred on those northern counties. This includes South West College – with campuses in Omagh, Enniskillen, Dungannon and Cookstown.
There is also BT’s ubiquitous telephone directory for the ‘south west’ region, representing a terrible annual waste of trees for an early twentieth-century form of communications from the company that dominates telecommunications here. The scope of the ‘south-west’ phone directory extends from Belleek as far as Lurgan in the north east corner of Armagh. Those in the know will note that Lurgan is comfortably east of the River Bann.
So apart from being struck by the woeful lack of imagination in naming public institutions and services, here at the Frontier Post we have been wondering what the name of the new hospital signifies. That is, in terms of its location – beside Wolf Lough, which is between Enniskillen town and Trory Roundabout on the Irvinestown road – where exactly is it ‘south west’ of?
Where exactly in the North is south, much less south west?
Such a fixation on place (with precise SatNav directions) could be required when the new facility will incorporate its planned teaching facilities. We are told that, apart from Queen’s University Belfast, this might also include link-ups with the medical faculty in NUI Galway. This raises the prospect that medics dispatched to the South West Acute Hospital might head off south in the direction of Ennis instead of north to the Border and Enniskillen unless provided with precise details.
In our search for a fixed point to determine the south-west nature of the new hospital, naturally we thought of Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, seat of governance and administration. That seemed the natural place to look because it is where matters such as naming hospitals, further education colleges and phonebooks would undergo much high-powered deliberation and intensive examination before a final decision.
But no, Enniskillen town sits at 54.34 degrees latitude, against Belfast’s 54.37. By our reckoning, that puts the new facility on Wolf Lough at 54.35 – almost exactly west of Belfast Lough on the same line of latitude.
So could it be Derry city? No, the new hospital lies almost directly south of the historic centre for those living west of the Bann.
Then it struck us. The new hospital is perched almost on an exact southwest radiant from Omagh (latitude 54.596) in the projected catchment area for its patients. Omagh is actually where many argued – and still believe – the new hospital should have been located all along.
‘South West Acute Hospital’ – talk about rubbing salt in the wound!

Monday 18 June 2012

The Queen and I

A cut above the rest?
Most of you will have noticed by now that I am not on the Queen’s Birthday Honours list this year. No MBE or OBE for me, much less a KBE along with actor Kenneth Brannagh (who has played in the top role of royalty before now) and the rest of the gang.
So as you negotiate your way through the alphabetispaggetti of royal rigmarole and bow or curtsy (as appropriate) to BBC Radio Ulster’s Wendy Austin and the others, I actually breathe a sigh of relief that I have escaped the British Empire once again.
Kenneth goes from King Henry to Sir Ken
(Mind you, we’ll not mention that oath for which I lined up before Kitchener Mayor Dom Cardillo in Waterloo City Hall back in 1993 when I became a proud Canadian citizen. Let’s just say there were crossed fingers behind backs as I intoned the Lord’s Prayer – as gaeilge!)
Since that day, I like to think that Queen Elizabeth II and I have had an understanding about where we stand in our relationship with each other. It is really a question of mutual indifference. Beyond wanting to keep her portrait on a few banknotes in my wallet, I don’t particularly care what she or her family get up to. I suspect she feels the same, apart from not having my portrait in her wallet, of course.
So unlike some who avert embarrassment at times such as this by saying they are not interested in, or worthy of, such royal accolades, I have never even had to feign indifference or unworthiness.
Yet with all the hoo-ha of the Jubilee, I’ve been feeling that I should come clean and confess the true reason for the fact that each time an Honours List rolls around, I can simply ignore it in the full and certain knowledge that I will not have to bow and curtsy with the other commoners, much less bend the knee for a sword-tap on the shoulder.
So here’s the secret – I don’t get on with Buckingham Palace. In fact, I am fairly certain I am ‘persona non grata’ with the palatial apparatchiks. I say this because we have had words in the past!
(Gasp! Horror! Shriek!)
It probably meant more to her at the time, but I think that our falling-out was back in 2006 when QEII was over here for a royal walkabout. There were the usual rumours, the excited gossip, a ‘possible schedule’, nods, winks and wishful thinking.
I was editor of the Ulster Herald and its sister papers back then and we were in the loop, of course, mainly because of a Royal Garden Party at the Loughrey College campus near Cookstown. At this event, the good and the ghastly of Tyrone would be expected to line up for an audience with ‘Her Majesty’ and it was all ‘hush hush, nod, wink…’ and all that Monty Python stuff.
This is a 'VIP'
I wish I could describe how excited I felt about being invited, but that would only be a lie. Of course, I did not want to appear ungrateful, so I used the invitation for a short news item in the Tyrone Herald about the pending event. The only change was that I substituted the notification of a ‘VIP” presence for the fact that Queen Elizabeth II would be in attendance – just as the entire county of Tyrone and surrounding districts knew.
The event passed without undue attention or mishap. I was not even missed. Then a few days later, I got a call – several calls, in fact. First from the Northern Ireland Office, which assumes precedence in such matters of state business. It was a rather curt rebuke for ‘breaking protocol’ by naming the ‘VIP’.
I fear I was less than suitably contrite: I seem to remember laughing.
But that was only the beginning. Subsequently, there was a call from Buckingham Palace, a plumy voice announcing a name or title I could not decipher with my simple commoner hearing. I proffered my excuse about the ‘dogs in the street’, but to no avail. My refusal to prostrate myself in abject apology brought the royal pronouncement that the Ulster Herald group and I would be banished from the realm of garden tea parties and press statements about ‘VIP visits’ for the foreseeable future.
There was no mention of OBEs or MBEs and I thought it would only make matters worse if I put in the ‘wee word’ for a Knighthood, so the call ended in silence. And that was my Royal flush.
She’s getting on now – QEII – and I suspect that this falling-out might be rankling a bit with her. But I hold no grudges and sure, if she’s ever back in Tyrone, she’s more than welcome to drop by for a cuppa, a wee dram or just a chat … so long as it’s not about any bloody empires, of course!

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Mixing sport and geography

Omagh schoolchildren greet the Olympic flame on its passage through Ireland.
It was probably no more than a slip of the tongue but it spoiled my breakfast… and it has been niggling since. The fact that it was a ‘good news story’ on RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland hardly alleviated the inexplicable feeling of being slighted once more.
Brother boxers keep her lit on the Border.
I didn’t even catch the name of the reporter who informed listeners that the Olympic flame was ‘now in Ireland, if only for a few hours’ after the symbolic handover between fellow Irish Olympians Wayne McCollough and Michael Carruth at the Border on the Newry to Dundalk road.
It jarred because, by no coincidence, I was actually in Ireland yesterday morning to witness the same Olympic flame making its passage through Omagh, having come from Derry City via Strabane before heading off out the Dromore Road towards Enniskillen and a string of other Irish towns and villages.
The feeling of euphoria I had felt since about the passage of the Olympic flame on a symbolic course that included both parts of Ireland was dissipated by the carelessness of yet another ‘professional’ news reporter who can’t even be bothered to look at a map and know the difference between a country and a state.
Jack Kennedy, 15, carries the flame through Omagh.
‘A few hours’ indeed, I thought, my mind tracing the earlier path of the flame from Belfast through Antrim, along the north coast and through each of these six Irish counties in Northern Ireland before its brief interlude in the Republic of Ireland.
Yet such geographical dismissal should be like water off a duck’s back by now, one would think.
For all of my life, I have listened to unionist politicians talk of ‘Ulster’ and the ‘Ulster people’ in a way that pointedly excluded me and all those in Northern Ireland who espoused Irish reunification, not to mention one-third of the actual province of Ulster. Such geographical and social selectivity was always deliberate, however, a contrived formula to bestow historical pedigree and political legitimacy on the partition of Ireland.
It was anathema to news reporting in most of Ireland, of course. Reporters were reminded forcibly by editors, who were sticklers for ‘House Style’ back then, that there were very precise rules on these matters.
Standards appear have slipped since the Good Friday Agreement (or ‘Belfast Agreement’ in Irish Times house style). And I blame soccer for that.
For just as we prepare to root for the Irish Olympians at the London games, the hype is reaching a crescendo for the European Football Championships. Notwithstanding that the Irish team taking part includes (controversially for some) players from throughout the island, it travels to Poland under the auspices of the breakaway Football Association of Ireland, one of the two bodies that persisted in fielding teams under the name ‘Ireland’ until the 1950s.
Representing Ireland against Brazil at Landesdowne Road in July 1973 were the Shamrock Rovers XI (from back left) Miah Dennehy, Tommy Criag, Paddy Mulligan, Martin O'Neill, Derek Dougan, Alan Hunter, Liam O'Kane and (front from left) Bryan Hamilton, Pat Jennings, Tommy Carroll, Johnny Giles, Don Givens, Terry Conroy and Mick Martin.
Fab Four – Don Givens. Johnny Giles,
Martin O'Neill and Pat Jennings .
It hardly mattered so much at a time when there was little prospect of playing on the world stage, but then the 1970s came along with the Troubles and possibly the best crop of home-grown soccer talent we ever produced. From this, a team was put together in 1973 by the two serving captains of Northern Ireland and the Republic – Derek Dougan and Johnny Giles. With no official backing from the ‘representative’ bodies, they engineered a match with the mighty Brazil in Dublin and, with no official sanction, they had to field as the Shamrock Rovers XI. That didn’t stop them racking up three goals against the world champions’ four.
Despite the continuous efforts of the great Dougan to unite the Irish soccer teams, the divide continues, bolstered by marginal success for Northern Ireland in 1982 and for the Republic on occasions since then. It has become firmly institutionalised with many professional reporters persisting in the belief that rugby’s adherence to an all-Ireland selection is the exception, rather than the rule. Indeed, soccer is the exception.
So as the FAI side heads off for the European finals with a team of varied pedigree, the Irish Football Association and its supporters resort to irony and self-derision. Their favourite chant in recent years is the refrain, ‘We’re not Brazil, we’re Norn Iron’.
As if we need to be reminded.
So as credit union accounts are raided for the road to Poznan, I’ll be looking forward to the Olympics and lamenting that the last outing for the Ireland soccer team was in July 1973 – a glorious sporting occasion ‘if only for a few hours’.

Friday 1 June 2012

What a Hooley in the Ulster Hall

A group of film Hooley-gans gathers around Terri on the Good Vibrations film set
At the world premiere of Good Vibrations in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, last night, the closing scenes of a fast and furious rock concert in the same venue 30 years ago was an exuberant triumph of local film-making.
The movie (directed by Lisa Barros d’Sa and Glenn Leyburn) topped the bill for last night's opening of the Belfast Film Festival and goes on general release by summer’s end. Make sure you see it.
It is a bio-pic of the legendary Terri Hooley, music shop owner, record label founder and concert impresario, but mostly rock and roll rebel of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Hooley, who was still loitering in the vicinity last night, channelled the mayhem of 1970s Belfast into an improvised, explosive mixture of punk rock, detonated it at the very heart of a divided society and left thousands alive for the very first time in their young lives.
Few of his bands – apart from those ‘Legenderry’ teenage kickers, The Undertones – made any impression outside their hometown, but as the Terri Hooley character observed, that wasn’t really the point. 
His character (played by local actor Richard Dormer) told the heaving audience why punk/new wave music was particularly suited their city: ‘New York has the haircuts; London has the trousers; but Belfast has the reason.’
The bearded Richard Dormer, as Terri Hooley, discovers punk in The Pound.
So more than 20 years after The Commitments revealed that Dubliners are the ‘blacks of Europe’ when it comes to Soul, Good Vibrations underscores the even more relevant truth that Belfast was the spiritual home of Punk – a raucous roar of defiance against the ghastly reality of life in a society being torn apart. 
In the Ulster Hall last night, we watched the mayhem unfold with the music and rejoiced in the knowledge that the appropriately named Victims, along with Rudi, The Outcasts and all the others thundered onto the stage and never sold out anything apart from grubby venues such as The Pound, The Harp and even the venerable Ulster Hall itself.
In the Good Vibrations screenplay by Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry, we could even see in retrospect how fitting it was that the rage and pace of punk rock was snuffed out in Belfast by the dawn of the Eighties.
Last night’s film premiere ended to a standing ovation, cheers and loud guffaws from many who probably recognised their young selves in the heaving mass of youth on screen. Then we poured out through the foyer of the refurbished 150-year-old Ulster Hall realising that it is such a long, long way from there to here.
Grim reality of 'night' life after The Pound in 1970s Belfast
I was back with myself in 1970s Belfast during one of many working/social visits to the city. We were spilling out of The Pound, ears ringing, hearts pounding from several hours of exhilarating and thunderous music that included one of the regular tribute anthem-like covers of Van Morrison's Gloria
The contrast outside is eerie, the dark, damp silent world of Belfast at the height of the Troubles – streets deserted, distant sounds of buses finishing final runs, security gates clamped shut, streetscapes of dereliction and desertion.
We scamper along seeking a safe haven as the shutters come down on Belfast and only the strict Sabbatarian silence of Sunday beckons.
Yet it is still only 6pm on Saturday with the day done and almost dusted in a city of fear where even young renegades and urban outcasts know they have to be back on home ground by teatime. 
No wonder the music was fucking angry!

Friday 18 May 2012

Trapped by the Border: Ulster Protestants in the Free State

In December 1921, Major Somerset Saunderson declared, ‘Now I have no country.’ He echoed the sentiment of many others after the Anglo-Irish Treaty sealed the deal on partition. Like other Ulster Protestants who found themselves marooned on the wrong side, Saunderson was bereft of hope… and he was bitter.
Castle Saunderson now a shell at convergence of Cavan, Fermanagh and Monaghan
He never returned from England after writing that epitaph to Hugh Montgomery of Fivemiletown. Today, Castle Saunderson in Cavan, near its convergence with Fermanagh and Monaghan, is a shell overlooking the River Finn where it flows into the Erne.
Somerset Saunderson’s reaction is particularly noteworthy because his father, Colonel Edward Saunderson, was the first leader of Irish Unionism in the House of Commons. In his 2005 biography of Edward Carson, Geoffrey Lewis calls Saunderson the ‘authentic voice of Ulster Presbyterianism’ (he was Church of Ireland). Elected as a Liberal MP first for Cavan and later as a Conservative for North Armagh, he was ‘an Orangeman, pugilist and boat-builder and a man of narrow piety’. 
Col. Saunderson: Carson's mentor
He was also the mentor and inspiration for Carson and, like his parliamentary protégé, his roots were outside the six counties that would become Northern Ireland, but he was decidedly of Ulster.
The Saundersons were by no means unique in their fervour for Ulster and Unionism. I was struck by this recently at the start of our decade of centenaries amidst all the promised hoopla to mark the momentous year of 1912 when Ulster Unionism struck out on its own. I noted the unmarked passing of the 100th anniversary of Ulster Unionism’s first major rally. It took place in Omagh right at the start of January, long before April’s big gathering at the King’s Hall and Carson’s Trail to the Covenant.
It could be said that Omagh set the scene for 1912 when it drew a remarkable crowd of 30,000. They came from west, mid and south Ulster and many of them came by rail. I had a look at Omagh train arrivals for that day before the rally commenced at 11.35am.
There was the usual scheduled service from Belfast through Portadown and the other from Derry via Strabane. But there were also 18 special trains bringing passengers from Cavan, Bailieboro, Belturbet, Cootehill, Bundoran, Clones, Castleblayney, Smithboro, Monaghan and Glaslough.
Among Omagh’s platform speakers – with Carson and the Marquis of Hamilton –was Lord Dartrey whose ancestor, incidentally, had introduced the Act of Union at Westminster in 1801. The Dartreys or Dawsons from Monaghan, are now gone, like the Saundersons and Farnhams of Cavan; commemorated only in local street names.
Carson inspects UVF bicyle detachment at Raphoe, Co. Donegal
Yet though the big families would fade from view, there was no doubting the continuing commitment of ordinary unionists on the periphery of Ulster. Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal blood flowed among the signatures on that Solemn League and Covenant. Two full battalions of Ulster Volunteers were raised in County Monaghan alone and with others from Cavan and Donegal many of them marched off to fight for King and Country in the 36th Ulster Division.
Over the top at the Battle of the Somme
Yet despite obvious enthusiasm for the cause, they endured a decade of trauma and political uncertainty before they were told in no uncertain terms at the Ulster Unionist convention on 10 March 1920 that they were ‘surplus to requirements’.
In the immediate aftermath of the Ulster Hall shunning, Lord Farnham wrote to Montgomery,  'Apart from breaking the Covenant, what we feel more than anything is that we can no longer call ourselves Ulstermen. We in Cavan were prouder of being Ulstermen than anyone in the whole Province.' Montgomery replied, 'There is no use arguing about the meaning of the word "Ulster". Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan are part of Ulster, but they are not part of the Northern Ireland segregated in the Bill.'
Creating a combined Ulster Protestant identity.
And therein lies the nub. For a decade before partition, Ulster Protestantism had forged its new identity as being different from the rest of Ireland and of being united in Covenant. When the covenant was broken, the Ulster Unionists of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal were not only denied political redemption; they were robbed of their identity.
Although Monaghan Unionist leaders such as Colonel J. C.W. Madden dismissed this new ‘Belfast-made covenant’ of 1920 and Monaghan County Grand Chaplain remarked that in Belfast they are ‘all Home Rulers now’, that was face-saving rhetoric.
The grave prospect facing the Protestants of Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal was summed up by Monaghan’s Orange Grand Master and erstwhile Ulster Unionist Council member Michael Knight who said they must “no matter what eventually takes place, rely upon ourselves and upon ourselves alone”.
Trinity's R.B. McDowell
So as leaders of the new Northern Ireland administration set about forging a new political identity and styling themselves as ‘Ulster,’ what befell their former fellows in the ‘lost counties’? If we read the late Trinity historian R.B. McDowell’s history of southern unionism, Crisis and Decline, they just ceased to be Ulster unionists and joined the exodus. But while many did migrate across the new frontier, aided in some cases by those intent on shoring up vulnerable Unionist numbers in Fermanagh and Tyrone, many others didn’t give up quite that easily.
Just like nationalists marooned in the six counties, many southern Protestants in the border counties placed their faith in Article 12 of the new treaty – the boundary clause. When the Commission was eventually convened, it received representations from those pockets of Ulster Protestants left behind by the tide. As with most representations, they did not want to remain cut off from co-religionists by the new frontier.
So numbers were bandied back and forth, largely based on electoral registers and the most recent census of 1911. From these, we reckon that a total of 70,000 Protestants were living in the three Ulster counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal at the time of partition. The pattern of population and the ratio differed widely between the counties and, of course, within the counties themselves. So while Donegal’s 35,000 Protestants represented about 18% of that county’s population; Monaghan’s 19,000 notched up at almost 30%. East Donegal’s Laggan Valley was an Ulster Presbyterian stronghold, but north Monaghan’s population was remarkably similar to contiguous districts of Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh.
It is worth noting in passing that J.R. Fisher, former editor of the Northern Whig appointed by Westminster as Northern Ireland’s Boundary commissioner, had noted that dispersal of population. He had urged Sir William Craig to consider a new boundary to include all Donegal and North Monaghan with a frontier line from the southern tip of Upper Lough Erne to Bessbrook. This would shorten the border by almost two-thirds and leave out most of South Armagh. That would avoid, said Fisher, 'an Afghanistan on our north-west frontier, while including most of those we want and leaving out those we don’t.'
Boundary Commisioner Eoin MacNeill, left, on the frontier
In the event, the Boundary Commission recommended few changes from the county lines of partition. East Donegal was to transfer to Northern Ireland, part of east Fermanagh around Clones was to go to the Free State and the small district of Mullyash, between Castleblayney and Darkley, was to go north in exchange for Crossmaglen and Forkhill.
Not that any of that mattered because another deal was done and the line stayed where it was. The Protestant minority in Free State southern border counties were, as Michael Knight warned in 1920, on their own. Yet in many respects, they remained different from the Protestant pockets elsewhere in the Free State. Protestant celebrations continued through the 1920s, but ended when a parade of Black men from Monaghan and Cavan was attacked in Cootehill. Henceforth, lodges paraded locally without fanfare and then went north for the big events.
Of course they migrated steadily down the years, drawn to Northern Ireland by family ties, marriage and employment prospects as much as by the desire to recover their Ulster Protestant credentials. The imposition of Irish language requirements for public service jobs in the south alienated many. The overtly Roman Catholic veneer of public life proclaimed in the mammoth Eucharistic Congress of 1932 set the tone, and the 1937 Constitution accorded a ‘special position’ to the Catholic Church only removed in 1972.
A current map illusrates migration patterns along the Border
Protestant sons went north for jobs in the public sector and police, daughters went for nursing, teaching and other careers, as well as for marriage. Yet as late as 1934, East Donegal’s Protestants drew up a petition for transfer north with 7,000 signatures.
Yet it wasn’t all lost. In the years immediately following partition, Monaghan’s Protestant leaders devised a political strategy. While denied their Ulster Unionist credentials, they organised as the Protestant Association and forged an organisation that would maintain their presence, even during the darkest times. For years, they more than held their own in the affairs of Monaghan county council and urban district councils in Monaghan town and Clones. As late as the 1960s, the Clones council chairman Bobby Molloy declared openly that he was 'still an Ulster Unionist'.  A decade later, an elderly neighbour from across The Diamond in Clones, told RTE’s Tommy Gorman that when she died, they could turn her upside down and they would see ‘Ulster Protestant’ stamped on her… well, she did get carried away and I’m sure nobody looked!
In national terms, a pattern was established of electing a Protestant to Dáil Éireann, first for Monaghan alone and latterly in the combined Cavan-Monaghan constituency where Heather Humphreys recently took over from Seymour Crawford. Protestant politics in the three counties now leans towards Fine Gael but for a period Erskine Childers managed to wrest Monaghan’s Protestant vote away to Fianna Fáil.
But there was sea change with the onset of the Troubles. Already inclined to the reputed posture of Larne Catholics, Protestants in the southern border counties retreated from view. Clones High School, where many pupils came from adjacent areas of Fermanagh, closed some years after the GNR rail connections with Enniskillen and Belfast. So having grown up in a town with a strong Ulster Protestant demeanour in the 1950s and 1960s, I watched from afar as Clones changed, particularly after Bloody Sunday when huge numbers of Protestants left for Canada, Britain and even Bangor.
The grave of Bill Fox
Local Protestant politician Senator Bill Fox was killed in a botched IRA raid, the first member of the Oireachtas shot by the IRA since Kevin O’Higgins in 1927 and now all but forgotten in the fray. Interestingly, Fox had lost his Dáil seat when some Protestant electors became uneasy over his campaigning about border road cratering, which also imposed a huge impediment on Protestant farmers and church congregations.
A fictional voice
Meanwhile, I was researching my Masters thesis on the Boundary Commission, slowly realising that a huge voice from our shared past had gone silent. I later wrote a fictional voice for them, The Sons of Levi. That was after the peace process began and I remember at that time, having many encounters with people who had kept nervously to the shadows. One young man was about the same age as my older son Ross and had grown up in a strong Protestant community near Doohat Orange Hall. He described his schooling and social life, not much different to my son’s. I asked him if he ever went into Clones, a ten-minute car journey. He looked at me in horror: ‘No way, that’s a rebel town!’
Huge efforts by the Clones Community Forum and other peace-funded bodies has restored a more balanced view among all sides since then, not least the trapped minority of Ulster Protestants. The wonderful work of President Mary McAleese in building bridges has restored their place and their pride in who and what they are. The Ulster-Scots Agency, the Border Minorities group and other initiatives have begun to give them back a voice of their own.
Border Counties Band Forum lists traditional Ulster Protestant marching bands
Slowly, the trapped minority of the ‘Lost Counties’ of Ulster is emerging from the shadows. Rossnowlagh’s pre-Twelfth in Donegal and the quaintly named Drum Picnic – a traditional parade of Ulster marching bands in Monaghan – are providing public showcases for their culture.
On both sides of the Border, more and more people are realising that there never was a ‘clean cut’ as Britain’s Prime Minister Lloyd George promised in 1921. So the learning process goes on as we lick at old wounds and expose them to fresh air. We sense now that there was hurt and a deep sense of betrayal on both sides and that this persisted for the past century. With acceptance of our different stories, healing can take place along with the learning. For as I have discovered, we are reflections of each other, no matter on which side of the mirror or the Border we find ourselves by accident of birth.
© Darach MacDonald