“The backs are back and the forwards are forward, and I hope you remembered to put your clock forward one hour last night.” These were the opening words of Michael O’Hehir as a GAA National Football League semi-final got under way in Croke Park on Sunday, April 19, 1959. There was great interest in the North in the Kerry v Offaly clash as Derry, led by Jim McKeever, had qualified for their first National League final the previous Sunday when they defeated Leitrim.
ON meeting people I know when out walking or in the supermarket, the conversation in the last few weeks inevitably turns to vaccinations. “Have you had the jab yet?” is the question that is asked. It's a case of who can ask first. Last week I recognised a former neighbour despite his mask. He had contracted Covid-19 some months ago. Having spent nearly two months in hospital, Oliver was discharged. Less than a week later he was rushed back. In all, he spent nine weeks in three different hospitals. A keen golfer, he is still in recovery two months later and although golf courses reopen shortly it will be some time until he can play again. A short time later I chatted with Raymond whom I first encountered when teaching a Primary 7 class some fifty years ago. He told me that he and his wife were both afflicted by the pandemic. They recovered at home in just two weeks. However, Raymond’s elderly mother died and they were unable to attend her funeral, a massive blow as Raymond is the organiser in that family. My thoughts were particularly with these people as I watched the news of the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Initially a small news item sparked off the developing story. Health authorities in Austria suspended inoculations from a batch of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine as a precaution while investigating the death of one person and the illness of another shortly after receiving the jab. A small portion of the country's AstraZeneca supply was suspended, but the rest was administered as planned. A week later it was reported from Norway that four people who had received a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine had experienced severe blood clots and one of them died. All were under 50 and it was reported that three were healthcare workers. Denmark suspended all use of the AstraZeneca vaccine and Norway followed Denmark's lead. In something of a domino effect, several countries including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Thailand suspended the vaccine. On Sunday morning, March 14, it was announced that the AstraZeneca vaccine would be paused in the South of Ireland too. It's worth noting that the European Medicines Agency has supported the continued use of the AstraZenica vaccine at all times. In the South the news was seen by some as a hammer blow in the already sluggish vaccine roll-out. Some 30,000 people – healthcare workers and people aged 16 to 69 with several underlying health conditions – who had been scheduled for vaccination this week were told their appointments were being delayed. Travel arrangements had been made to bring them to vaccine centres.The decision appeared to have divided the country's medical and scientific community. On Monday, I listened to Professor Luke O'Neill of Trinity College Dublin's School of Biochemistry and Immunology, who is one of the most recognisable experts on the pandemic. He said he found the suspension “dangerous”.
I FOUND myself watching Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland on RTE2 on Thursday evening. John Creedon has an entertaining way of getting his message across. Part of the programme was set in the Buttevant district of Cork, home of the first ever steeplechase. We were given the history of the first such event and a re-enactment. The steeplechase originated in Ireland in the 18th century as a cross country thoroughbred horse race which went from church steeple to church steeple, hence ‘steeplechase’. The first steeplechase is said to have been the result of a wager in 1752 between Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake, racing four miles cross-country from Buttevant Church to St Leger Church in Doneraile, Cork. My mind was drawn to the recent controversy in horse racing when a leading Irish trainer was photographed sitting astride a dead horse which led to his licence being suspended. I also found myself thinking of steeples or spires on churches.
IN the present pandemic many of us have become avid online shoppers. Many items, including furniture, are delivered in flat packs. The separate parts are packed in cartons and are accompanied by assembly instructions with tools such as screwdrivers, spanners, allen keys, wrenches.
ACCORDING to Mark Twain, There are only two types of speakers: “The nervous and the liars.” How true that statement is depends very much on the views of the reader! During the pandemic we have been subjected to many public statements which might or might not bear Mark Twain out. Two in particular stand out for me. Former Health Minister in the south of Ireland, Simon Harris, knows a thing or two on how to handle the media. Away back in June last year it was announced that he had to wait three days for the result of a Coronavirus test. He remained isolated in his home from the Thursday after he took the test, Zoomed into a cabinet meeting next day and remained at home until Monday when he was given the all-clear. This was at a time when there was concern about the time the time taken for swab results to come through. When the minister’s plight was reported the storm abated. Just two months earlier in a radio interview Minister Harris was explaining why a vaccine might not be found for some time. “Remember this is coronavirus Covid-19 – that means that there have been 18 other Coronaviruses and I don’t think they have actually successfully found a vaccine for any,” he told listeners to the RTE2FM morning programme.
ON Saturday night, March 16, 2002, a group of men gathered in the Bellevue Arms.There were stories from stalwarts such as Andy Kenny, Paddy Duffy and Charlie O’Kane. Paddy Duffy lamented the fact that we couldn't have a sing-song but Wee Alex Kelly warned us that if he as much as heard a cheep we would be out the door. Looking back, I think he was trying to encourage us but no-one had the courage to sing. On occasion Paddy would start a recitation...
"WHAT do ye do to pass the day?” said the text from Limerick man, Peter Sheehan, now living in the north for some 45 years, as I looked at my phone the other day. I was watching one of the evening Covid-19 updates from Downing Street where the blond-haired Prime Minister, giving an update in our crisis, waved his hands in the air, shrugged his shoulders, lamented the fact that well over 100,000 people had perished, but then assured us that everything possible was being done by his good self and his cabinet colleagues to make life as good as it can get. My mind went back to an evening in June 1982. I think that was the last time that the British government held press updates on an almost daily basis – the crisis then was the Falklands War.
MY mother used to tell us that St Brigid’s Day, February 1, was the first day of Spring. I never thought too much about this but I pointed out that there was snow later in the month. I can remember my mother telling me that I should also look out for something else white – snowdrops. Living in the higher part of lofty Glengormley I’m aware that we are a couple of weeks behind the rest of the country. The lawn mowers are put away earlier and reintroduced later than in most parts of the country. However, on St Brigid’s Day I was walking along the foreshore near Whiteabbey. I stopped for a breather. For some reason I thought of old Peter McKernon. Many years ago Peter would go to the Bellevue Arms on Monday, pension day. Later he would make his way up the Antrim Road. He would stop and look at the trees in Elmfield. I once said to his son, young Peter, that he had a great interest in nature but he told me he was just out of breath and was in a hurry to get to the Glen Inn for a couple of pints before teatime. Young Peter passed away before Christmas aged 93! As I looked I couldn't believe my eyes. I detected the smallest buds on a silver birch tree and the same on a nearby small alder tree. And there was more.
I WAS speaking to Paul McKeown last week. Paul is a busy man just now, having recently taken over as chairman of Naomh Éanna CLG after serving for a number of years as Secretary.
SOME time ago in a house in County Clare where I had booked bed and breakfast, I observed three young children play a board game with their mother. It was entitled ‘The Waiting Game’.
THE First Minister has suggested Northern Ireland’s centenary could provide an opportunity to examine the creation of a single education system in the region. "2021 can be an opportunity to re-examine the past decisions that shaped Northern Ireland," she said. “Lord Londonderry’s early proposals to create a common education system were not implemented. Is 2021 the time to re-start that debate?”
A FEW days before Christmas, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis told us: “2021 marks 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland, which paved the way for the United Kingdom as we know it today. We will use this opportunity to hear untold stories, to promote Northern Ireland on the world stage and to celebrate its people, culture, traditions and enterprise.” For many of us the question arises, what is there to celebrate? Can Mr Lewis be serious or is he reading a prepared script? May 3, 1921 was the day appointed for the establishment of the House of Commons for the governments of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. A week later a resolution was passed in Dáil Éireann stating that these elections were to be regarded as elections to Dáil Éireann. In the area designated as Northern Ireland 52 members were elected. 40 of these were members of the Unionist Party with six Sinn Féin and six Nationalists.From the start Ulster politics followed denominational lines. Protestants almost always voted Unionist and Catholics almost always voted Nationalist.The Protestant/ Unionist position was crystal clear with the inviolable tenet being that the union with Great Britain must be maintained. Sir James Craig, who became the first Northern Prime Minister after Edward Carson reneged, instead accepting a post as an appeal judge and a seat in the House of Lords, clearly stated the case: “It is necessary to keep on repeating that Ulster is British and is as much an integral part of the United Kingdom as Yorkshire or the Lancashire.” The Nationalist position was much less clear. Some were actively hostile to the union while others grudgingly accepted it was something they had to live with. Until 1925 no Nationalists attended the Belfast parliament after which they then did as individuals and it was only after some rudimentary party organisation in 1928 that they became anything like a cohesive unit. An act passed in 1934 made abstentionism impossible but even at that stage the Nationalists refused to become known as the Official Opposition since they held the view that an official opposition is a loyal opposition. The Nationalists often continued to act independently. Charles McGleenan had been an active Republican during the War of Independence serving with the 4th Northern battalion under the command of Frank Aiken. In 1950 he successfully contested South Armagh. Three years later he again won the seat uncontested. Charles was a neighbour of my mother. Whenever an election was announced, my mother would say to him, “Charlie, will you stand in the election?”“I will, Rose, but I’ll not sit!” Constitutional politics overshadowed social considerations with Protestant working men voting for the Unionist Party and their Catholic counterparts voting Nationalist. Between 1922 and 1970 there were just five Prime Ministers of Northern Ireland while in the UK the position of Prime Minister changed 15 times. The powers of the Northern Ireland government were devolved upon it by a superior government unit, the parliament of the United Kingdom with powers and responsibilities only in matters defined and delegated by the Westminster government. This left the UK government with more time for other topics and in turn matters of local importance were given more careful scrutiny in the devolved government than they would otherwise have. Decisions to do with taxation, foreign affairs, foreign trade, the postal service, radio, coinage and copyrights were retained by Westminster. The Northern Ireland interest in these affairs was looked after by the 13 MPs elected to Westminster. After the setting up of the NI government Westminster took little interest in affairs in Belfast. A governor was appointed who gave royal assent to bills etc, the NI prime minister was to liaise with the Westminster Home Secretary and a Senate was appointed as the upper house mirroring the role of the House of Lords. The violence in the north, especially in the greater Belfast area, has been well chronicled with the first bout petering out in late 1922. However, it is often overlooked how the Unionist administration set about ensuring that Craig’s Britishness was maintained once the violence was curbed. The police force was largely Protestant and the B and C Special forces were exclusively Protestant. No effort was made to reinstate Catholics who were driven from the shipyards. In 1922 legislation was passed abolishing proportional representation in local government elections. At the same time a programme of revision was started resulting in the redrawing of boundaries, now known as gerrymandering, throughout these counties. An oath of allegiance was also introduced. When local elections were called in 1924 Nationalists refused to take part in many areas which was seen as further success by Unionists. This was their method of rewarding their faithful followers. There were two county boroughs (Belfast and Derry), two boroughs, thirty urban districts and thirty-two rural districts. Voting was restricted to ratepayers who were entitled to a vote, up to six, for every property they owned while tenants were not entitled to vote. Most local councils became dominated by Protestants/Unionists who controlled housing allocation and who set out to protect their inbuilt majorities. So successful were their endeavours in local government that in 1929 the Unionists moved to strengthen their grip on government by abolishing proportional representation in parliamentary elections on the grounds that it created a multiplicity of parties. In 1926 Catholics numbered 420,428 i.e. 33.5% of the population of Northern Ireland. By 1961 there were 495,547 which was 34.9% of the total. Given that it's an established fact that the Catholic birthrate has been consistently larger than their Protestant counterparts it's obvious that a great proportion of young Catholics (eight of our family of 12 left) emigrated leaving the Unionists with a natural voting majority for the first 50 years of the state. No doubt we will hear more from Mr Lewis in the coming weeks but I’ll not hold my breath. For me there is a more important event in 2021. In March we will be asked to take part in the census. I'm looking forward to comparing the 2021 statistics with those mentioned above. I expect a seismic change.
SOME of us will be aware that there's a slight stretch in the evenings. My old English teacher, Wee Tipps we called him, used to remind us of this on the first day back in school after the Christmas Holidays which was January 7. He solemnly informed us that we looked glum because we had lost our freedom having to return to school. Instead, he told us, our hearts should lift with the turning of the year and we should realise, whether we were aware of it or not, that spring is in the air. Within two months the black wood would be green and violets would be growing in the laneways.
Whenever I think of what we call Christmas boxes my mind goes back to the first time I sat on a trolley bus in Belfast. This was in the early 1960s on the Friday before Christmas.
ARRANGEMENTS are being made for mass vaccination using the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.