TUESDAY was the sixth anniversary of the death of my friend and comrade Martin McGuinness. I travelled to the Derry City Hotel that evening for a public conversation about my relationship with Martin with Roy Greenslade. Roy is an author, broadcaster and journalist who during a long and distinguished career has held a series of senior positions in many of London’s main newspapers.
I recalled meeting Martin in Dublin and then behind the barricades in Derry in 1972 as we prepared to travel to London for secret meetings with the British Government. It would have been understandable if a 22-year-old working class lad from the Bogside was stressed and anxious about the process he was about to engage in, but not Martin. He was in control – calm, confident, a natural leader – wanting to talk about how we should approach the upcoming engagements with British Ministers, our agenda, proposals, bottom line.
The Martin McGuinness Peace Foundation was established in 2019 as a not-for-profit charity. Its purpose is to celebrate the life, work and achievements of Martin Mc Guinness, as a leader, a political activist and an international statesperson. It does this by promoting his progressive ideals of national reconciliation, unity and peace, conflict resolution and peace-building.
All of these ideals were at the heart of everything Martin tried to do as a political leader and in his work in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister with Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster.
Tuesday’s event was really good. I enjoyed talking about my friend. I hope all those who were there enjoyed it also. Thank you, Roy, for moderating our discussion.
Island beauty given new life
REGULAR readers will know that I am a big fan of Claddagh Records. Founded by Garech Browne and Ivor Browne, for decades Claddagh has been recording and promoting Irish traditional music and song. This wonderful enterprise has recently had a new lease of life and Claddagh is currently digging into its archival material and giving its collections space to breathe once again. As the result of an arrangement with Universal Music, these gems from our tradition are now getting global exposure. Well done, Claddagh.
One such production is Beauty An Oileáin – Music and Song of The Blasket Islands. I treated myself to a Saint Patrick’s Day present during a recent visit to An Chultúrlann on Belfast’s Falls Road and I am delighted that I did. Beauty An Oileáin is a really fine bilingual, hard-backed book filled with notes and interesting information. It also contains a CD of twenty six recordings. Some are quite short – snatches of seisiúns – others complete renditions of tunes or songs from seán nós singers and musicians. Treasures all. Many collected by Ríonach uí Ógáin in situ. We are indebted to Ríonach.
The Blasket Islands are special. There are six main islands, west of the Dingle peninsula in Kerry. They are uninhabited these days but once a thriving Irish speaking community lived there. They were hardy folk, as island people must be. Three books brought them to the attention of the rest of us: An tOileánach , Fiche Bliain ag Fás and Peig. Tomás Ó Criomhthain gave us the first one, The Islandman. Muiris Ó Súillebháin gave us Twenty Years A-Growing and Peig came from Peig Sayers. Published ninety years or so ago, these books give an insight into the life of a of a unique island community. Many other books have been written since then but one thing is clear. Music and song were part of life for the islanders.
So was dancing and story-telling.
As Beauty An Oileáin puts it: "It (music) was an expression of feeling, both joy and sorrow, and this musical expression drew on, and reinforced, island culture and tradition. Music served as a cohesive force within the community."
One of my favourite of all our traditional airs is the Blasket one, Port na bPúcaí. This is a tune which came in on the wind off the Great Blasket. I first heard it from the playing of Tony MacMahon. In Conway Mill one night he made the hair on the back of my neck stand up as he bewitched us with this plaintive tune. Seamus Heaney’s fine poem, The Given Note, captures and evokes the essence of this music of the púca, or ghost. The Poet and the Piper, another Claddagh production, features Seamus reading his poem and master piper Liam O Flynn with his version of Port na bPúcaí. Well worth listening to, as is Martin Hayes' version.
Beauty An Oileán gives us the story of the origins of Port na bPúcaí as well as a lilting version by Muiris Ó Dálaigh.
Other modern musicians and singers feature including the mighty Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich, Aoife and Deirdre Granville and Róisín Ní Chéileachair, all influenced by their island connections. Let’s give the last word to Ríonach uí Ógáin: "The tunes and songs on this CD continue to be played and sung."
Isn’t it wonderful that this is so? Long may it continue.
Beauty an Oileáin. Music and Song of the Blasket Islands. Claddagh Records. Claddaghrecords.com
The day Mo Mowlam wore an Easter lily
Gerry Kelly and Bairbre de Brún have recalled their experiences in the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement. This week Sue Ramsay remembers...
Following the elections to the Forum, my good friend and comrade the late Siobhán O'Hanlon asked me to provide administrative support to the party at Castle Buildings, where the negotiations were to take place. At that time I was a local councillor on Lisburn Council and was also working in the office of the six-county Cuige.
Our first few weeks in Castle Buildings were spent getting the offices set up. Sorting out passes for the party delegation. Getting to know the civil servants and support and security staff. Other parties were doing the same. But more importantly, we were tasked with breaking down the barriers with all of those who worked there.
Every day I made a point of saying good morning or hello to anyone I met, including the kitchen staff, cleaners and other party staff. Usually I got a mixed response – some nods, some smiles but a fair few grunts. But after a while this began to change, especially amongst the staff. Siobhán and I got to know some of them really well.
Sometimes when things were quiet in the office I would take a dander around the building and have tea with the staff or if I was really bored I would help by washing the dishes, because anyone who knows me knows that I always get up to mischief when I'm not busy.
A few weeks before the negotiations concluded and the Good Friday Agreement was achieved, I was in the office minding my own business when in walks the British Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam, looking for Martin McGuinness. I said he was away talking to someone. So off comes her shoes and wig – she was undergoing radiation treatment and had lost her hair – and she gave her head a good scratch.
As usual around Easter time republicans wear the Easter Lily to remember Ireland’s patriot dead. I had mine on. Mo asked me about it and I told her that it is to remember everyone who had died.
“Do you want one?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said and pinned it to her top.
So, shoes and wig go back on and she leaves the office. Two minutes later Martin comes in and leaves the Easter Lily back on my desk, shakes his head and smiles. I heard later that Mo was on her way to meet the Ulster Unionist Party. Martin bumped into her en route and diplomatically removed the lily. Imagine David Trimble’s reaction if she had still had it on. But, sure, I never learn.
Late on the Thursday going into the Good Friday morning the phone rings and I answer it. This woman with an American accent says she is phoning from the situation room in the White House for President Clinton and is looking to speak to Gerry Adams. I thought it was one of my friends Geraldine Crawford, who was part of our support team, winding me up.
So I said: “Aye, dead on, Geraldine, do you think I'm stupid?”
The woman paused and said: “Excuse me, this is President Clinton’s office looking to talk to Mr Adams.”
The penny dropped. I had nearly derailed the peace process a second time.
Two months later the election to the Assembly took place. I was selected to be one of the Sinn Féin candidates in West Belfast. The party won four of the six seats – Gerry Adams, Bairbre de Brún, Alex Maskey and myself. It was an exciting time and I remained an MLA until 2014 when I had to stand down due to ill health.
I have a few other funny stories, but I think I will wait until the 50th anniversary before I tell them. That way I will be far too old to get shouted at.
Éireann go brágh
Well done to Irelands rugby team. Brilliant work. And to Antrim’s footballers.