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!