Continued from last week
“HE had the spirit of the true and gentle knight. He knew how to do things quite simply. He was full of high-bred chivalry towards him, the ignorant and the poor. He gave everything to them, and it made him happy to take Poverty as his bride for the good of men…” These words were spoken at the graveside of a man whose work for the impoverished people of Ireland in the nineteenth century is all but forgotten. Vere Foster was born in Copenhagen in 1819 where his father was a British diplomat. He died in Belfast in December 1900 and is buried in Belfast City Cemetery. He was educated at Eton and began a law degree at Oxford which he abandoned after two years and followed his father into the diplomatic service, during which period he was posted to Brazil and Uruguay. On his return to England in 1847, Foster visited Ireland. His family had an estate, Glyde Court, near Tallanstown in County Louth. Here he saw the effects of the Famine. He was horrified at the number of starving men, women and children he saw staggering along the roads. Many were desperately trying to reach a port where they might flee to a better life in another country. From here on, Vere Foster regarded himself as an Irishman and dedicated his entire life and the family fortune to help the poor people of the land. Upon receiving news that his father was seriously ill in England, Vere paid 10 shillings for a first class ticket for a sailing from Drogheda to Liverpool. However, he did not stay in his cabin but was determined to witness the journey from a poor emigrant’s experiences. These people were on the first stage of their journey to America. Below decks, people were crowded together, far more than the ship was capable of holding, animals and livestock were herded in the same living space. There were no toilets or washing facilities. The noise, smell and prevailing sickness made it a nightmare journey. Arriving in Liverpool where they had to await the arrival of a ship bound for America, the problems were far from over. Many of the emigrants could only speak Irish and were easy fodder for unscrupulous robbers and conmen. So-called ‘porters’ made off with their meagre belongings and tricksters sold false tickets to America or ‘converted’ foreign currency giving a few cents in exchange for someone’s life savings. Swindlers, known as crimps, sold the unsuspecting emigrants legal deeds for tracts of land in Canada and America, which were entirely false. Some landlords confiscated luggage so the traveller was forced to stay in their lodgings. Vere Foster dedicated himself to addressing the plight of the Irish people. He set up a scheme whereby 40 girls in dire poverty would be enabled to emigrate to the USA. He felt that girls were the least able to improve their situations at home. Each emigrant was bought their ticket, food for the journey, clothing, cooking utensils and money for expenses till they found employment. Vere only asked in return that, when possible, they send some money back to Ireland to help other starving families. In 1850 he boarded a schooner, the Washington, dressed as an emigrant. The people were herded together like cattle. He kept a diary of his experiences. The journey was to surpass even his worst fears. For the first three days they were denied any supply of water. When the Washington finally docked at Sta Island in December 1850, Vere Foster and other seriously ill passengers were hospitalised. For two months his life lay in the balance. He was suffering from dysentery and damage to his right eye, due to a blow by a member of the ship’s crew. As a result of his accounts of the journey, the British Government and the US Congress passed a new Passenger Act which improved conditions for emigrants. On returning home, Vere Foster set up an office in Dublin to deal with applicants for his emigration programme. Not only would these people be aided to emigrate, they would be provided with employment and given temporary accommodation on arrival. All candidates had to prove their good character. However, these people were also penniless and Vere paid for their fares out of his own pocket. Foster’s dedication to the Irish poor was so complete that he never married. He enlisted the help of a trusted shipping agent, Henry Boyd, who ensured only trustworthy ship owners and captains transported the emigrants. By using his family connections in Ireland and England, his enterprise was recommended to public figures and potential employers in New York and Washington. Twice yearly Vere travelled to the US and Canada to ensure his clients had obtained the employment arranged for them. He encouraged these new settlers to befriend and support new arrivals. He also secured the backing of the Catholic Archbishop of New York, the Most Reverend John Joseph Hughes, and the local clergy to form a network of help for Irish emigrants. Vere Foster was to continue his Assisted Emigration project, at his own expense, until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. He became increasingly aware of the fact that the vast majority of those he helped to emigrate were illiterate, since the education system had been greatly damaged by the Famine. Most schools were too small with earthen floors, leaking roofs and no desks, books or maps not to mention a complete lack of lavatories. At this stage he turned his attention to helping schools and his work in this field greatly enhanced the system of education throughout Ireland. To be continued...
ON my first teaching practice in the early 1960s I was in a school in East Belfast. I have forgotten most of my experiences there but one stands out. At lunchtime on the first day I met a ‘master’ who had been retired but brought back into service because of a shortage of trained teachers. Master Smith was reading a magazine entitled ‘Béalodeas’. I had earlier been told to keep my distance from the old warrior as he didn't suffer fools gladly, but over the first few days I got on well with him and he lent me two copies of the magazine over my first weekend. Béaloideas was the annual magazine of the Irish Folklore Commission and was edited by Seamus Delargy who had been born in Cushendall in 1899. The family, who were fluent Gaelic speakers, had moved south to Wicklow and, having graduated with a degree in Celtic Studies from UCD in 1926, Seamus helped found the Folklore of Ireland Society who published an annual magazine the following year with Delargey as editor for over 50 years. The Fianna Fáil government of 1935 renamed the society the Irish Folklore Commission with the Cushendall native, now known as Séamus Ó Duilearga, as director. He instigated what became one the most successful projects in Irish cultural history, the Schools' Collection Scheme, in which the children attending National Schools were encouraged to talk to their parents and grandparents about the past and to write their stories. Between 1937 and 1939 this task was overseen by members of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation in schools across the 26 counties and resulted in a collection of 750,000 pages of historical interest. Master Smith told me that efforts to have a similar initiative in the six counties were met with threats of instant dismissal from official sources here. Some work was done but the results were never collated and good material was lost. Master Smith told me that his mother and granny had known the Delargey family well. While he lauded the work done, he also raised the possibility of vivid imagination tainting the facts of the past. His grandfather had been a master in a school on the Ards Peninsula in the middle of the 19th century. A school inspector, knowing his interest in history, told him and the principal about an elderly lady, almost ninety years of age, who lived in a cabin between Groomsport and Donaghdee and could recall exciting incidents in the 1798 uprising by the United Irishmen. When the inspector was safely out of the way the two masters dismissed their pupils, mounted their horses and headed off to find the lady in question. An hour later they arrived at the door of the cabin and knocked. An old shawled lady opened the door. They explained what they had heard and asked if she would tell them some of her experiences. She agreed on condition that she would be compensated for her time and after being handed five shillings, she brought them to her fireside and told them her stories. On asking his grandfather if the visit was worthwhile and if he had learned anything new, his grandfather told him: “It was more than interesting. She remembered ’98 well. She was a brave lump of a girl at the time and her father called her in from the byre where she was milking the cow to show her a man hanging from the shafts of a cart. “She then saw a soldier on a big black horse being pulled to the ground by a dozen men and stabbed to death with big long pikes – ‘Messy things, those pikes!’” Master Smith told his grandfather his journey was hardly worthwhile if that was all he heard but his grandfather disagreed. “She told us a lot more. While my principal was busy taking notes of her story I asked her if she knew about Oliver Cromwell who had visited Ireland a good time earlier. She told him that she did. Her father had called her in from the field where she was digging the new potatoes and pointed to a man riding a white horse down the brae. She said that her father told her, “That's Oliver Cromwell and don't you forget it.” She said she always obeyed her father. Before Master Smith's grandfather could ask about Queen Elizabeth I or Noah's Ark his principal closed his exercise book and stood up. The dear old lady had earned her five bob. He had had enough.
ON the first Saturday in August the President of the GAA, Larry McCarthy, came to Glengormley for the official opening of the Naomh Éanna sports hall. There was a big turnout for his visit. He became aware of the various facets of club life often taken for granted but missing in many clubs throughout the land. Back in Armagh where I grew up in the GAA, most clubs played just one code. For most of them this was Gaelic football and back then many of the rural clubs fielded just one team in the senior league. I can remember my own club having to amalgamate with two neighbouring clubs to field an under-18 team in the minor championship. Larry McCarthy learned that Naomh Éanna field teams from under-6 to senior level in Gaelic football, hurling, ladies’ football and camogie and, with the sports hall being now fully used, the club now participates in handball competitions. He saw that the club has two full-size pitches as well as a juvenile pitch with plans to develop another full-size pitch in the pipeline. The President was also impressed by the flourishing Gaelscoil in the club grounds, with plans in the pipeline for a new buildingDuring the summer the club makes use of two playing fields in the nearby Edmund Rice College as well as a nearby Council pitch. Coming past the college one evening, I noticed that the car park was full and the two pitches were full of players and a host of spectators. Curiosity got the better of me and I parked my car on the footpath and went in to see what was happening. I assumed there was an inter-club blitz in progress but was told that it was just a routine trading session for under-5s and under-7s in football. There were 59 under-5s and just 50 under-7 boys playing. Back outside on the footpath a mother and her five-year-old son were looking through the fence. I asked if the boy played. “He would love to but it's probably too late in the year to join. We've just moved into a newly-built house further up Hightown Road.” I brought them with me and introduced them to a club official inside the ground. After the boy’s details were noted he was out in action like a veteran. I was told that three new players had joined earlier. The club has been attracting players from Glengormley and North Belfast, but now more and more immigrant families are being represented. Eddie Brady played hurling as a youth. He was out in the park a few weeks ago with his dog. Using his hurling stick he sent the ball up the park and his dog raced after it and fielded it some thirty metres away before it struck the ground. A young boy approached him and asked if he could hit the ball. Eddie gave him the stick and he struck the ball perfectly. Eddie asked the boy how long he had been playing hurling and the boy said he first hit a ball just five days beforehand. He took Arsha over to his car and gave him a hurling stick and sliothar. Eddie put details of his experience on social media and told his story in the Naomh Éanna clubhouse that night. The following day two club officials picked up a full kit from the club shop and went to the Chimney Corner Hotel where the family are being accommodated. They discovered the boy hitting his ball off the hotel wall. They asked him to bring out his father. It transpired that the family had been forced to leave their native country, Iran, where they were considered to be well-off because of the mother’s reluctance to wear a burka. They initially went to Greece but eventually came to the North of Ireland. Both father and son, who are fluent English speakers, were guests at a senior hurling championship match at Hightown the following day and young Arsha is now a member of the under-11 hurling team. He has fitted into the hurling team seamlessly where he has a host of new friends.
“WHAT are they looking at?” asked Billy Gillen as we walked up High Street some time ago.In front of us stood a group of people gazing upward, some of them focusing their cameras. Billy looked back and sighed, “They're admiring the Albert!” He was, of course, referring to what is officially known as the Albert Memorial clock tower. Once the focal point of the town of Belfast, it is now ignored by the locals but greatly admired by visitors to the city. The group we saw were on a walking tour. While being central to the life of the citizens of Belfast for a long time, it has been a source of controversy since the decision to build it was made. When Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861 the Lord Mayor of Belfast from 1863 to 1865, John Lyttle, who was a wealthy wholesale grocer, determined to build a monument in Belfast to honour his memory. Lyttle contributed £1200 towards the erection of the Albert Memorial clock. He served as chairman of the Prince Albert Memorial Committee who organised a competition among architects for the design of the memorial. In 1865 the contract to build the tower was awarded to Sir Charles Lanyon, who designed the redbrick building of Queen’s University, the Custom House and many other prominent buildings. However, news was leaked that a Newry-born architect, William J. Barre, had won the competition but was overlooked. There was a public outcry and Lyttle was forced to give the contract to Barre. Barre had worked for TJ Duff, who designed St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral in Armagh. Designed in the German Gothic style, the tower, with a full sized statue of Prince Albert, looked up High Street to Castle Place where the Chichester family castle then stood. The clock faces on the four sides were to be visible for miles. The two-ton bell could be heard eight miles away at that time before motorised transport. Work on the project was delayed as it was discovered that the River Farset ran below the site. The course of the river had to diverted. By the time the building was nearing completion in 1870 Barre had died, aged just 37, suffering from tuberculosis. The building was constructed from Scrabo stone on top of timber piles which would give rise to problems later. There was controversy over the height of the tower. Lyttle said it would stand 143 feet while later measurements showed it to be 141 feet (43 metres). Within thirty years it was noticed that the building had begun to tilt due to the inadequacy of the timber piles. There were fears that the building would fall, which gave rise to many arguments within Belfast Corporation. Down the years the Albert Clock was a gathering place for ringing in the New Year for one section of the Belfast community. From 11 o’clock the crowd would gather with bands of every description, fife and drum, accordion, brass and pipe would play the favourite tunes more popularly associated with July. A few minutes before midnight a hush would come over the crowd and when the clock began to chime a mighty cheer would be heard while a hail of bottles which had earlier been emptied would be smashed against the base of the monument. Oul’ Lang Sang would be followed by God Save the Queen and after much handshaking the crowd would drift back home. A combination of violence, a strong police presence and the introduction of television sets in most homes saw the end of that outing. Another event was featured before the increase in traffic. It was the race against the clock. Starting at the corner of Bridge Street and High Street, runners would set off at the stroke of midnight and hope to touch the base of the clock before the last stroke sounded. Very few were able to accomplish this, but Paddy Black from Carrick Hill was carried home shoulder high when he did the trick on a summer night in the early 1930s. When scaffolding was erected around the tower in the spring of 1924, rumours spread that the tower was to be demolished. The city surveyor told the Belfast Corporation Improvements Committee that the tower was “very much out of plumb” and might have to be removed. He disclosed that he had invited quotations from a number of firms for the repair and renovation of the tower but none was prepared to tender except on the basis of time and materials. The stonework had decayed and it would cost thousands to renovate. The Corporation voted to remove the tower but this decision was later overturned. The upkeep of the tower and clock would feature very frequent try throughout the years. In 2002 a project to preserve the tower was completed, bringing the clock tower back to its original glory. Increasing throngs of tourists marvel at ‘Belfast’s Leaning Tower while the locals continue to ignore it. A ticket for a guided tour to visit the Albert Memorial Clock costs £15.
THE Antrim Road is now one of the main thoroughfares of Belfast and may in the future be a route for the Glider, or ‘bendy-bus’, but, then again, the Shore Road may be preferred. The road began as a narrow country lane, becoming just a footpath nearing Pinkerton’s Row, which was extended as the New Lodge Road and linked up at Oldpark and Solitude with the Old Lodge Road. From the primitive Antrim Road, by-lanes branched off to the left to Vicinage and Dr Bruce’s Farm, known as ‘The Farm’. At Vicinage (now St Malachy’s College) lived Tom McCabe, the watchmaker and fearless patriot, who famously opposed slavery. He was a compatriot of Henry Joy McCracken and was also involved in the cotton industry. Interestingly, the name Vicinage connoted nearness to the town of Belfast, while not too far away Solitude suggested remoteness. Next to Vicinage was The Farm. This was acquired by Reverend Doctor William Bruce, minister of the First Presbyterian church and Principal of Belfast Academy. His estate was extensive. In the 1830s the new Crumlin Road cut through Dr Bruce’s estate and the sale of ten acres for the construction of Crumlin Road Gaol almost recouped the total price he had paid almost twenty years earlier. Dr Bruce retired to Dublin and his son, the Reverend William Bruce, succeeded him at The Farm. He in turn was succeeded by his brothers Samuel Bruce, Town Solicitor, and Harry Bruce. Their sister, Jane Bruce, died at The Farm in 1933 aged 101 years. The Farm was then sold to the prison authorities and the house was demolished in 1936. Thorndale, where Duncairn Avenue is now, had earlier been built for other members of the Bruce family and it became the home of James Bruce DL, who was the chief director of Dunville’s, one of Ireland’s leading whiskey producers. James was a flamboyant man. With his interests in Dunville’s and other manufacturing firms he acquired the Wingfield estate in Benburb, County Tyrone, establishing himself as a country squire. Here he built a new manor house designed by architect Harry Lynn, who designed Campbell College. The residents of the Antrim Road were treated to a spectacle in early summer every year as Bruce’s horses, resplendent in silver and polished leather trappings, their hoofs striking sparks from the stones, paraded in cavalcade from the Antrim Road to Great Victoria Street Railway station. The Squire of Thorndale, accompanied by over a dozen horses, six grooms and many servants, would board a privately-hired train. They would disembark at Trew and Moy station and parade the seven miles to Benburb, again watched by the local residents. The village is also home to the impressive Benburb Castle, built in 1611 by Sir Richard Wingfield on the ruins of a military fortification constructed by Prince Shane O'Neill, circa 1558, at the base of a limestone cliff overlooking the River Blackwater, the border between County Tyrone and County Armagh. James Bruce died in 1917 without any children. Thorndale later became a Salvation Army Hostel while the Benburb estate was bought by the Catholic Clonfeacle parish in 1947, later to become Benburb Servite Priory. Much of the land above Bruce’s Farm was owned by the Macrory family. It is said that in the early 1800s it was bought by the solicitor Macrory from the Donegall family – who were almost broke – for £2,000. The Macrory family prospered and in 1859 Adam Macrory donated the site for Duncairn Presbyterian church. It was intended that the development of this part of the Antrim Road should be upmarket. Eia House at the junction of Eia Street, was built in Scrabo stone. However, the cost was prohibitive and the adjoining houses were constructed in Belfast red brick. The origin of the little word ‘Eia’ has been one of the Antrim Road’s eternal enigmas. Billy Gillen says it's the only Street name that people spell rather than pronounce. When the buses first had the announcement system installed, Billy asked a driver how to spell Eia. The driver got it right but refused to spell ‘Ligoniel’, giving Billy a version beginning with F. I've been told that it was the symbol of the Macrory family’s hospitality – “Enter In Again”. Others say it was a combination of the first letters of the Christian names of the three Macrory daughters. Eia House was built in the 1870s by Robert A. Macrory, a Trinity College Dublin lawyer on ground gifted to him by his cousin. It’s said that in gratitude he adopted the name ‘Eia’ which was translated from Latin, ‘He permitted.’ I have no doubt that there are many other explanations as to how Eia Street was named.
I FIND myself walking round the Waterworks two or three times a week. Free from traffic, it is an ideal place for walking. It often strikes me that it is one of the most underrated facilities in Belfast. For walkers we have a choice of routes, families can avail of the playgrounds while various sports organisations can use pitches for soccer, Gaelic football, camogie and hurling. Initially established as a site to supply water for the city in the 1840s, it was decommissioned some 20 years later when a much larger reservoir was built in the hills above Carrickfergus. In time it has been used for swimming, diving, regattas and model boat racing. When the German bombers attacked Belfast in April 1941 their first target was the Waterworks. It was thought that this was a mistake but it was soon realised that with the damage caused, the water pressure was greatly lowered, making efforts to fight the flames very difficult. Belfast Corporation took over the facility in the 1950s and many changes have taken place. The upper pond has been stocked with trout and islands constructed to encourage wildfowl breeding. Today it hosts a wide variety of geese, swans, ducks, coots, cormorants and many other species. My big gripe is that having been enhanced by the many changes why is still called the Waterworks? But given the partisan attitude to name changes in this part of the world, maybe we should just leave it as it is. No matter how often I walk round it my eye is drawn to Cave Hill, which is a God-given beauty which we accept automatically. Napoleon’s Nose is plainly visible from the Waterworks. Our Belfast Hills provide the city with a backdrop, the loveliness of which is comparable to any city in the world. Approaching Belfast on the M1 motorway we see the surrounding hills range from Divis in the south to Beann Uamha, the Hill of Caves, in the north. An older name for this hill is Beann Mhadagáin. The English interpretation for this has caused much controversy. One school of thought saya it is the Hill of the Red Dog or Fox, while another says it is the Hill of Madagáin, which is probably more correct as a noted figure of that name was progenitor of the clann Gormlaith who inhabited the place later known as Glengormley. Madagáin became King of Ulidia (Ulster) about 838 AD after his father, Eochaidh, had been murdered by his brothers. Madagáin killed his uncle, Aedh, and claimed the throne, but he later gave this up and became a monk and died ‘in religion’ in 855 AD. MacArt’s Fort, some 1200 feet above sea level, was a hilltop fortification of which only earth walls are preserved today. The view of the city below and Belfast Lough, Isle of Man and Scotland on clear days is unique and well worth the climb. It was most probably named after Brian MacArt O’Neill, who was Lord of Killultagh in the 16th century. Until 1838 the stone coronation chair of the O’Neills stood here but it was pushed over the edge and smashed into smithereens on the rocks below by those whose loyalty was to a foreign king. In this era when the dangers of climate change are becoming more and more visible, efforts are being made to use the Belfast Hills to improve our environment. The Woodlands Trust have purchased 250 acres next to Cavehill Country Park with plans to return the hills to native woodland. Over £600,000 has been spent acquiring the site. Two thirds of the land is suitable for native woodland with the rest being used for rich grassland and species such as the devil's-bit scabious. The aim is to increase tree cover to help reduce carbon emissions and tackle the decline in wildlife. The Belfast Hills will become a beautiful habitat for people and nature once again. As soon as the work is completed then it will be opened to the public with pathways linking Woodland Trust sites at Carnmoney Hill, Monkstown Wood and Throne Wood in North Belfast to Divis and the Belfast Hills. Locals were asked to suggest names for the ventures and after over 800 responses the list has been narrowed down to four and these will be put to a vote. The four names are Bellevue Wood, Glas-na-Bradan Wood, Gulliver’s Wood and Loughview Wood. It could be said that the efforts to create a natural habitat for fauna in the Waterworks over many years is now being developed and replicated in a few short months throughout the Belfast Hills.
I boarded a bus to the city centre earlier this week. It was my first time on public transport for some time. Halfway down the Antrim Road a tall well built figure boarded the bus. He looked familiar but with his mask on, I didn't recognise him. However, as he sat opposite me I immediately knew who he was when I heard his growling voice. We chatted about recent events, football and other small talk. Big John told me that he was ‘fed up’ with the Covid-19 pandemic (having assured me earlier that he had the double jab) and that there were certain things that he missed. I thought he would mention not being able to enjoy the hospitality of his local pub during the breakdown but he told me what he missed most was being unable to attend funerals because of the restrictions imposed because of Covid. I had been wrecking my brain trying to remember when I had last met him and now I realised it was outside a local church after the funeral of a local musician over a year ago. As if to emphasise what he had told me he rang the bell to alight from the bus in Donegall Street. I looked out the window and seeing a hearse I realised he was indeed going to a funeral. They say that Irish funerals are like no other but over time they have changed too. I can remember when in primary school I was a little bit jealous of classmates who were excused to act as altar boys for funerals. On their return to class they boasted about the tips they received from relatives of the deceased. The Master didn't ask how big the congregation was but instead inquired about the total amount of the ‘offerings’. NeighboursFuneral offerings were part of the proceedings until the 1960s. It has been said that the practice was a throwback to Famine times when neighbours and friends made a contribution to the bereaved family to help with the expenses of the funeral but soon the contributions went into the coffers of the parish. After all the ceremonies of the funeral were completed a table was brought out to the front of the altar. At this stage many of the congregation had gone outside for a smoke but they listened carefully. The relatives of the deceased made a contribution of between one and five pounds each. A relative would tell the name to the priest who would then loudly repeat the name and the amount offered. Then cousins and close friends joined the queue donating ten shillings each. Near neighbours gave seven and sixpence or five shillings. After that the minimum contribution was two and sixpence. There was one fella who was the last man in the queue at every funeral within ten miles of Armagh City. When the priest intoned his name everyone in the church would silently mouth the amount ‘two shillings’. The table was then carried into the sacristy where the money was counted. The priest would re-emerge and announce the amount of the offerings lifted and assure the congregation that this showed the esteem in which the deceased was held. The coffin was then removed from the church for burial. While the custom of offerings was stopped the clergy have another source of revenue. When news seeps through of a death people go to the parochial house to obtain a Mass card. Very often the priest will ask a question such as, “How well did you know Jack?”He would write down the response which he would use when preaching his panegyric at the funeral. This would help him speak about the life of a person he never knew! It could also have an unexpected result too. I remember being in Eamon Maguire’s workshop in Brookfield Mill when news came through of the death of a man we’ll call Billy from the Bone. He was described by some as a ‘drooth’ very fond of the ‘cratur’ and a harmless ‘head the ball’. Standing outside the parochial house Freddie Mahinney and Eric McCullough told a group who had gathered that Billy loved the Irish rather than Scotch, a non-stop talker and a ‘head the ball’ who was never out of the local off-licence. Those who attended his funeral the next day were amazed to hear the priest say that Billy was a fluent Irish speaker and a talented footballer who always supported local businesses.
WE all dream of taking the bookies to the cleaners but very few of us have done it. One man who did was Barney Curley, a native of Irvinestown. He lived a remarkable life by any standards and his passing in May brought back great memories for many who knew him. When Barney was in primary school his granny used to send him to the bookies with a three sixpenny doubles and a sixpence treble every day when he came home for his lunch. One day he did a bet for himself and won £4, which was a real fortune in the 1950s. However, Barney was very religious and believed he had a vocation. On leaving school he entered Mungret College, Limerick, where he studied to be a Jesuit priest. One day when he was playing a soccer match he had terrible pains in his chest. He was rushed to hospital fearing he had had a heart attack but x-rays showed he was riddled with TB. He was sent to Forster Green Hospital in Belfast. “I had to lie on my back for twelve months,” he recalled. “They were dying like flies all around me. But I was young – I was just 21 at the time – and fortunately for me they’d just discovered a cure. The older folk and bad cases died. I was lucky to pull through.” The two and a half years in medical care gave him time to apply the philosophy he had acquired in college. “It took me another 18 months to get back to health. During my time in the sanatorium and the weeks and months of recuperation I formulated my own philosophy. I concluded that I wasn't going to worry about unimportant matters and that every day I woke up feeling fit and well was a bonus and that I might as well enjoy myself. For all the world like a person who wins a battle with cancer and gets another chance.” He returned to the seminary in Limerick but he decided that he would never be strong enough to finish the gruelling studies to become a Jesuit priest and returned to Irvinestown at the age of 24. This was in the early 1960s and his father’s shop had begun to fail. He and his father headed to Manchester to seek work. They worked a factory for £14 a week, renting a flat at £4 a week. They stayed just over a year and returned with enough money to renovate the home and re-open the shop.
QUIZMASTER Billy Gillen contacted me with a poser. “I see you mentioned the Fleadh Ceoil last week. Where was the first fleadh held?” When I told him that it was held in Mullingar in 1951 he informed me that I was wrong. “It was nearer home and it was a long time ago.” Some time later as I walked through the city centre and was lamenting the number of empty buildings it struck me that Billy’s riddle was about the event which took place in the Exchange building at the corner of Waring Street. This was the Harpers’ Festival which took place in the Assembly Room in that building in July 1792. Dr James MacDonnell was the main organiser and he sent invitations to all the harpists known to be performing throughout Ireland at that time. The organisers had raised funds to cover the event and harpists were assured of expenses for their performances.The youngest performer was 15-year-old William Carr but most of them were of considerable age and some of them blind, including one woman harpist, Rose Mooney. The famed Arthur O’Neill from my home parish was one of the distinguished guests. He had travelled all over Ireland as a guest in the ‘big houses’ where he played at functions. O’Neill wore a silver button inscribed with the Hand of Ulster, the family emblem. He claimed to be descended from the royal O’Neills and always demanded to be seated at the top table. When he was just three years of age his eyes were damaged by a knife and his sight gradually disappeared. At ten he commenced playing the harp under Owen Keenan from Augher and quickly became proficient. On one occasion he was the guest of Lord Kenmare in Kerry. When dinner was announced all the lords and ladies present rushed to take their seats. O’Neill, being blind, groped for a seat near the foot of the table. Lord Kenmare said: “O’Neill, you should be at the head of the table, as your ancestors were the Milesians of this Kingdom.” O’Neill replied: “My Lord, it's no matter where an O’Neill sits, let it be any part of the table, wherever I am should be considered the head of it.” Some years earlier he had given instruction in harp playing to members of the MacDonnell family in Cushendall and although he considered himself semi-retired because of rheumatism, he felt obliged to assist MacDonnell’s venture. Another distinguished harpist present was Denis Hempson from Magilligan in Co Derry. At 97 he was the oldest performer and had the distinction of playing for Bonnie Prince Charlie on a visit to Scotland in 1745 for whom he composed a tune and added words. I hope to see the dayWhen Whigs shall run awayAnd the King shall enjoy his own again. Hempson’s favourites included ‘The Coolin’, ‘The Dawning of the Day’ and ‘Eileen a’Roon’. He married an Inishowen woman at the age of eighty-six. “I can't tell if it was not the devil buckled us together, she being lame and I blind.” They had one daughter. The Harpers’ Festival ran for four days with daily performances in the Assembly Room of the Exchange building with a great variety of styles – geantraí (lively) goltraí (slow airs) and suantraí (hushabye). Wolfe Tone was in Belfast that week and he was in the Assembly Room on Wednesday 11th and Friday 13th of July. He later wrote that three of the performers were very good. Apart from the harpists the most important visitor to the festival was Edward Bunting. Aged just nineteen he was regarded as a skilled organist and musician – he played in St George’s church, High Street. Originally from Armagh, he lodged with the McCracken family in Rosemary Lane. He attended every session and noted down every tune. For Bunting this was the start of a great adventure. He was so impressed by the harpers’ music that he decided to make a study of it. When he realised the wealth of material he had collected in just a few days he decided to travel throughout Ireland to collect harpers’ tunes. In five years he published a collection of tunes and in 1809 his ‘General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland’ was published by Clementine of London. One of the tunes he saved was ‘Carolan’s Concerto’ which was played every day at the festival by Arthur O’Neill. The Belfast Harp Society came into existence on St Patrick’s Day 1808 with the main aim being to provide tuition in playing the harp for blind children. Nine were selected from all over Ulster and brought to Belfast where they were boarded. The society had a house in Cromac Street where the young people were taught by Arthur O’Neill, who was now resident in Belfast. From 1809 to 1811 there were Irish classes in connection with the Belfast Harp Society, with James Cody as professor, the grammar used being that of Rev. William Neilson, D.D. Due to financial difficulties the society folded in 1813, but Arthur O’Neill was awarded an annual pension of £30. He returned to his native home place just outside Benburb where he died in 1816 aged eighty-three.
A GOOD friend of mine has been living in North London for some 50 years. Pat got interested in Arsenal and became the proud possessor of two season tickets. He has a “To Let” sign on one of them and over the years he has done deals with supporters of most of the other Premier League clubs and is able to do swops which enables him to attend away matches in many of the Premiership stadiums. So it came as no surprise that he procured a ticket for the Euro final in Wembley Stadium. He phoned me from Wembley Stadium just half an hour before kick-off in the Euro final as I settled down to watch the game on TV in St Enda’s clubhouse. He told me that he witnessed scores of English fans openly snorting cocaine in full view of police officers. “It was a complete disgrace,” he said, “ Cops just stood and watched.”
FEW of us will have heard of Marina Makeyeva. She was a Russian athlete who competed internationally in the late 1970s but she became well known when she married and began using her husband’s surname – hardly an unforgivable sin for Russian athletes. Marina Stepinova was (you probably have already guessed) a hurdler who held the world record for 400 metres in the mid-1980s when her name was seen as a gift to race commentators.
MARY Ann McCracken was growing up in the small compact town of Belfast at a time when it was growing too. George Benn tells us that in 1782 the population was 13,105, having risen from 8,549 thirty years earlier. The High Street with the River Farset flowing down the centre of it from Bridge Street to the ‘Key’ was the main thoroughfare , flanked on either side by Waring Street and Ann Street. It was connected to them by Bridge Street and Cornmarket and by a number of entries, many of which are still in existence. The Falls was then a distant village! In Bridge Street, Samuel Neilson was building up the woollen drapery business known as the Irish Woollen Warehouse – shortly to become one of the largest commercial concerns in the town. Neilson was born at Ballyroney, between Dromara and Rathfriland in Co Down. His father Alexander was a Presbyterian minister. He received a liberal education, excelling in maths, and entered the woollen drapery trade, serving his apprenticeship in his brother John's shop in Belfast
BORN in what is now Nigeria, Olaudah Equiano was sold into slavery in 1756 at the age of 11. After spells in Barbados and Virginia he spent a decade travelling the world as a slave to a British Royal Navy officer. In turn he was sold to a merchant in Montserrat, a British island in the Carribean. By now he was self-educated and was permitted to buy his freedom for £40 which was then the equivalent of a professional annual salary. He then travelled as an explorer and eventually settled in England in 1760. With encouragement from slavery abolitionists he began writing his memoirs and had them published in 1789. This was one of the first books published by a black African writer and it was an immediate success. By 1790 a fourth edition was published and Equiano came over to Ireland to promote the book. He spent several months in the south, visiting Dublin and Cork before coming north to Belfast where he spent three months. He visited all the local bookshops and travelled to fairs and markets throughout the north.
WHILE out for a walk on Saturday night I met an old friend, Kevin. He was in great form. He had just emerged from a local hostelry where he had watched the European Champions League final while “keeping an eye on the Armagh v Donegal tussle.” He was now heading to another pub in Greencastle and he invited me to come with him. Kevin is great company and I have in the past enjoyed many a good night’s craic with him, but while I was tempted I told him I’d hold out for a little longer. Earlier in the week I received a message from Thady, a Clones man now domiciled in Glasgow. He remarked that “beer hadn't passed through his lips since 9th OF October last. I won't have to do Lent for the next five years.” Given the announcement last week that the Glasgow lockdown is set to continue, Thady might well have added another Lent before he stands at the counter of his beloved Tollbooth Bar in the east end of Glasgow. Celtic might even have a new manager by then. As we move towards ‘normality’ again most of us will look forward to the hustle and bustle of life as we used to know it. Many will relish being able to attend sports fixtures, concerts etc which we took for granted in the past. Some will look back on the past fifteen months with sorrow, having lost a loved family member and been denied the opportunity to properly grieve. Others will have been struggling to cope with normal life during the pandemic and will be relishing the opportunity to meet up again with acquaintances and the prospect of better times ahead. It will be a haunting memory for friends and relatives of people who were sick and worried that they might have to be admitted, knowing that there was a very definite risk of catching the Coronovirus infection while in the ward.