Tuesday 29 November 2011

45 – 'Ach, would yez catch yerselves on?'

Sunset over Strangford Lough, Islandhill, near Comber, Co. Down
November 14, 2011

The clocks have changed and it's getting dark quite early these days – "There's a qu'er change in the evenin's."  But strangely enough, despite all the dire predictions from the weathermen of prolonged sub-zero weather, we've actually been experiencing warmer temperatures than we had during our so-called, summer, earlier this year!  We haven't really had a proper frost yet!  It just goes to show ye what it shows ye – ye can never predict the weather in Ireland.  It's always got a wee surprise in store for ye.

Mind you, mild as it's been, we've certainly been havin' more than our fair share of rain –  'Mingin' is a good Belfast description of it (that means it stinks).  Or you could say, 'It's bin putrid!'  'It's bin comin' down in bucketfuls' – or, 'bucketin wi' rain.'  Or, "It's teemin' down out there."

I was gettin' some work done to my car the other day and the radio in the garage was playing fairly quietly.  I was only able to hear it because I was standin' right by the speaker.  A good summary of the weather forecast for the next day would have been, "Well, it's not gonna rain the WHOLE day!"

My mother used to use a great expression for a downpour, she'd say, "By the lucks of it I'd say we'r' in for a right thunderplump!"   Usually, when it rains here, it's not that heavy.  We'll say, "There's a wee bit of a mizzle," or "Sure, it's only spittin' a wee bit."  Or, "The weather's a bit saft, today."

We're used to rain, but the wind, now, can take us unawares.  When it get's up a bit we might be heard to say, "There's a win' out there would clean corn!"  That's ano'rr one my mother was fond of.  Or maybe, "That win' wud cut clean through ye!"  In Irish ye might say, "Tá mé fuar agus fliuch""I'm cold and wet." 

A discussion about holidays might start, "Where yez away anywhere the year?"  "Aye we were'n Spain for ten days, so we were."  "Right.  What sort of we'err did yes git, over there?"  "Ach, it wuz dead onn, so it was.  Right'n warm, like."  As I've said before, we're not that well geared up for extremes of temperature.  When it freezes, we're 'foundered', an' when it's unseasonably warm we're 'boiled', or 'melted'.  An' the winter weather in this part a' the world is mostly just, "Desp'rate, altoge'rr!"

Some of the expressions that we would use without thinkin', here, would leave outsiders totally flummoxed.  Listenin' to somebody tryin' to control a chid, or two, can be very entertainin'!  "Ach, would yez catch yerselves on?  Runnin' aroun' there like a hen on a hot griddle!  Quit yer bullickin' about, or I'll give yez a clatter roun' the lugholes, so a' will.  Yez are doin' my head in wi' yer actin the maggot, there."  Or, if the child happens to be climbing too high, "Git down ah' that, afore ye fall 'n' kill yerself."

The word, 'look' usually gets pronounced as 'luck'"Luck what yer doin', there!"  Or, "Luck after yerself, now."  Not to be confused with the word, 'lock', meaning 'a lot'  – as in, "There were a lock a'  boys hanging aroun' tonight, so there were."  Or, "A lock a' people wouldn't even bo'rr wi' that."  Or, "If ye'd a right lock a money, ye cud do a whole lock a' things."

When it comes to phrases to express someones cleverness, or the lack of it, we aren't short of a few.  "Have a wee titter a' wit, there, now."  Or, "He hasn't an ounce a sense, has he?"  "There's more brains in my boot, now, so there is."  "Some people havn't the sense they were born with."   Or, "He's a few stories short of a bungalow."

Watching somebody make a hash of a job, we might comment, "Aye, if ye'd brains ye'd be dangerous!"  Alternatively, ye might hear, "Yer man's no dozer, is he?"  Or, "If he was any sharper he'd cut himself!"  And, "Do ye think I came up the Lagan in a bubble?"  

When asked if we are able to do something, we might reply, "Dead on.  No problem!"  Or, "Ach, no bo'rr."  Or perhaps, "Aye, wee buns!"  In other words it'll be 'dead aisy.'  If somebody calls in unexpectedly for a brief visit, ye'll probably ask them, "Will ye take a wee cup a' tae?"  To which they'll probably make some excuse.  So ye'll say, "Sure, go on – A've the tae already wet."  How can ye refuse, eh?

Thursday 3 November 2011

44 – Patrick Brunty and the Brontë Trail

Patrick's mother, Alice McClory's house, near Rathfriland, Co. Down
November 03, 2011

Now, have ye ever heard of a guy called Patrick Brunty?  Probably not!  But you've most likely heard of his famous daughters, Charlotte and Emily Brontë – the authors of 'Jane Eyre' and 'Wuthering Heights', respectively – and their sister, Anne?

Patrick was born in 1777 to the east of Co. Down, near Rathfriland – not far from the Mourne Mountains.  Although he later went to Yorkshire in England and became a Church of England clergyman, he started out much more humbly and with very little education to speak of.

As a teenager he worked in a linen factory, then became an apprentice blacksmith.  He must have picked up some learning somewhere because, at the age of sixteen, he started his own school and took in pupils.  During the 1790s he taught at Glascar School and was apparently dismissed for forming a romantic attachment to one of his pupils.  He was certainly romantic – his wife to be once wrote to him as "My dear saucy Pat!'

Pat Brunty went on to teach in Ballyronan School in Co. Down, which is still there – just a small cottage, really.  And, in 1802, at the age of twenty-five, he won a scholarship to Cambridge University – an outstanding achievement for a self-taught Irish peasant boy in those days.  At University, he obviously decided to distance himself from his Irish background – a bit of a handicap at that time.  He changed his name to Brontë – possibly the result of his hero worship of Lord Nelson, Brontë being one of his titles.

In 1806 he gained a BA degree from Cambridge and was ordained as a Deacon in the Church of England.  He came home to Co. Down for several months after this, preaching in Drumballyroney Church, beside the school he'd left behind.  Back in Cambridge, he was ordained as a full clergyman in 1807.  Not satisfied with his success, he published a book of poetry, 'Cottage Poems', in 1811.  He also had a short lived romance with Mary Burden, before meeting and marrying Maria Branwell in 1812.  He published another book of poems, 'The Rural Minstrel' in 1813 – full of romanticism, wild nature, strong emotions and a love of the Irish countryside.  You can easily see where his daughters got their literary skill from.

Patrick Brunty – or Brontë, as he had become – was obviously a very ambitious and determined man.  He didn't allow his humble background to hinder him from achieving his ambitions, although he was to experience a lot of hardship in his life.  He became a curate in Yorkshire in 1820 and moved there with his six young children.  His wife died from cancer within a year.  And, unfortunately, the experiment of sending the four eldest girls away to school resulted in the death of the two oldest from poor nourishment and bad hygiene.  Patrick taught the remaining four children himself, at home.  He was, after all, an experienced teacher and he obviously passed on to them his own enthusiasms .

On one occasion Patrick lined up his four remaining children, and asked them a series of questions about their ambitions, and about the people they most admired.  From him they learnt to love the wild countryside around them, to read widely and vociferously, to feel deeply, to express their feelings frankly, and to desire, above all else, fame as writers.
Patrick died at the age of 84, outliving all of his children.  His daughters Charlotte and Emily, are probably best known for the heroes they created, Rochester and Heathcliff – fierce, wild, independent men, both. But they are matched with equally independent women, who are accepted as equals by their men. How much of this came from the influence of Patrick Brontë, encouraging his daughters to see themselves as individuals, not trapped by society, as he had done himself?

Patrick's home in Haworth, Yorkshire, has been preserved as a centre for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year.  Unfortunately, nobody thought of preserving his birthplace in Co. Down.  His mother, Alice McClory's house is still in existence, though it's a bit tumbledown, and the schools where he taught.  The remains of the cottage where Patrick was born have been preserved by the Brontë Homeland Trust.  You can go there and follow the Brontë Trail.  It's well worth a visit.  Stand inside the ruined walls, and realise that from these tiny rooms originated the genius that became known to the world as ‘the Brontë Sisters’.

Saturday 22 October 2011

43 – 'Give us a wee bit av a song there!'

MacCarthy's Pub, Castletownbere, Co. Cork  [Photo: RMcC]

October 21, 2011

Well, I don't know about where you live, but around here it's getting very like winter – windy, cool and wet!  The time a' year to find a nice cosy, warm spot and listen to some good music.  Here in Belfast you can now choose from two monthly bluegrass sessions, lots of Irish music, blues, rock, jazz – you name it.  

This weekend my wife is reading some excerpts from her two novels to date – an event which is part of the Belfast Festival Fringe – and my son, another friend and myself will be playin' a few songs, as well.

One of the great things about a session is that normally anybody can join in – that's the whole idea of a session.  And, if ye happen to play the bodhrán, ye can slip in and play quietly at the back for a while.  If someone notices you had a guitar, or mandolin with you, they may well ask you to get it out and play, or mebbe, "Do ye sing, at all – give us a wee bit av a song there, would ye?'" And, next thing ye know, ye're part of things.  That's only the way it should be, of course!

In fact, if ye walk into quite a few pubs in Ireland with an instrument, ye'll likely end up bein' asked to play and sing.  That happened to me once in Maddens, in the middle of Belfast, one evening'.  I was on me way somewhere else, and called in for a pint – as ye might do!  Next thing somebody's saying', "Can ye play that thing then?  C'mon, give us a song.  Do ye know any Christy Moore?"  Luckily, I did so, next thing ye know I'm playin' and singin' and bein' asked for more songs.

One night a few years ago, we had our boat moored in Ardglass, Co. Down, and had played with a few people the night before in the Dock Bar – including a local singer/guitarist and a visiting Dutch sailor on mandolin.  The second night my wife, Gerry, decided to stay on board and read and I headed up to the pub – just for half an hour or so.  There was only myself, one guitar, and this local singer/guitar player, John, from the night before.  But we kept takin' turns with the guitar and singing' a couple a' songs, until eventually we must have sung nearly every song we knew between us.  As one would play, the other would remember another song to add in.  By the time we finished, the sun was shining brightly again and there were only two other people left in the bar – the barman and the owner!

The same sorta thing can happen to ye anywhere – be it in Ireland, or abroad.  My daughter and I were in Winnipeg, Canada, and were invited to a Native-run coffee bar in downtown Selkirk Avenue.  It's held every week in a Polish Community Centre, not too far from the dodgy area, known as 'Moccasin Square Garden' – which should give you a pretty good idea of what goes on there at night!  My daughter, Kelly, had never played the bodhrán before, but gamely lifted it and tapped out a beat as I played the guitar and we both sang a few songs.

It turned out that the Native Americans there were more into Country & Western, than Irish music – which seemed the wrong way around to me!  But the fact of my daughter playing the bodhrán, which is very similar to the native hand drum, encouraged another couple of musicians – Bradley, who was Cree, and Veronica, from the Blackfoot nation – to get into conversation with us afterwards.  We ended up meeting them for lunch next day, listening to some of Veronica's songs, which she'd written on the hand drum, and recording an interview on camera for the documentary we were in Canada to make.

Several times in Israel I've gone busking – in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv – sometimes just for the fun of it and once, in Tel Aviv, for the extra money to get to the airport in the morning!  Busking is quite common in Israel – old men come out with fiddles and play classical music after the Shabbat is over on Saturday night.  The best people to busk for are Israeli soldiers – who tend to look about sixteen years old!  They usually throw notes in your guitar case, instead of coins.  In Jerusalem once I remembered the Hebrew words of a Psalm I'd learnt phonetically many years before – 'Ha teesh kah ee shah-ah oo la'.  A soldier came over and listened to me for a few seconds, then reported back to his mates, "This guys playing the songs of David", which is basically folk music in Israel.

I missed a train one night in Tel Aviv and had to wait nearly two hours for another one, so I got the guitar out to work on a song idea I'd had in my head.  My guitar case was closed, but some orthodox kids came and put some coins on it as I played, then other people noticed them and added more.  The owner of the fresh juice stand sent a girl over to see if I knew any Pink Floyd, and then sent me over a large fruit smoothie as I sang, 'Wish You Were Here'.  By the time my train arrived I'd collected up quite a few shekels!

At a hotel in Beijing, China, I was playing that same song outside in the garden, with an American I'd met, when a lady called Whaley – owner of Whaley's Bar, behind the hotel – asked us both to come and play for her in the bar that night.  That was pretty hectic – trying to be heard over a hundred or so noisy backpackers, with no PA system!  We needed every free beer she provided – and still we were hoarse by the end of the evening!  The moral is, I think – if you play an instrument, always have it with you.  You never know what it might lead to?

Thursday 22 September 2011

42 – East Cork, West Cork and Co. Clare, too!

'An Teach Beg' pub, Clonakilty, Co. Cork  [Photo: RMcC]
21st September, 2011

Well, last week Gerry and I took a much-needed wee break and travelled the length of the country right down to Cork – stopping off in Dublin on the way.  The road is motorway the whole way from Belfast, now – so you can cover the length of Ireland in just a few hours – with a few toll plazas on the way!  We'd a great meal in the centre of Cork City, at a restaurant called, 'The Strasbourg Goose' – don't ask me for directions, but I think it's just off the main Patrick Street.  

Our host, Doug, then took us to a very small pub, upstairs, where they have a great collection of unusual beers – lots of blond beer and a draught stout called, Dark Rocket, which tastes a bit like Murphys, only with a stronger flavour.  If you like stout then Cork City is great place to be, with two locally-brewed varieties – Murphys and Beamish – each quite distinct from Dublin's Guinness.  Ye'll have to make up your own mind as to which ye prefer.  Myself, I like them equally, but it's great to have a bit of variety.

We'd wanted to see West Cork, but we were staying just outside a wee place called Ladysbridge, in East Cork, which has a lovely thatched pub in the middle of it.  The coast in not far from there, so we took a trip the first day from Ballycotton Harbour, with its islands and lighthouse, right around the coast to Whitegate, facing Cobh and Cork Harbour – where we managed to see the QE II liner heading out of the harbour on its way to New York!

East Cork is very reminiscent of Cornwall, another beautiful coastal area, which we visited briefly a few years ago.  The shore is mostly cliffs from Ballycotton on, with small lanes (boreens) leading down to isolated beaches between headlands.  Each of these little beaches is different in character, but exploring them means driving down to the beach, then back up again, to continue along a level country road lined with barley fields above the cliffs.  To get from East to West Cork you have to rejoin the main road to Cork City, bypassing Cobh, which is another beautiful town built on an island in Cork Harbour.  The road now goes through a new tunnel under Cork's two rivers and continues as the South Ring around the city.  Eventually you turn south off this and you're immediately back in the countryside.

West Cork is a part of Ireland I've never been to before – and I was slightly disappointed to discover that there are few small harbours along the coast – in fact, most of the towns are large and slightly inland from the sea.  We only got as far as Clonakilty, that first evening, which has a beautiful, sheltered and still sea inlet, which just touches the outskirts of the town.  There is a  river through the middle of the town, of course, and the narrow streets criss-cross it, as do several buildings.  We were looking for a pub called, 'An Teach Beg,' which means 'the wee house,' boasting Irish music every night but, being September, it was actually closed until the weekend!

Ever resourceful, we managed to find another pub on the main street, De Bearra's, which had a collection of fiddles and other instruments on the wall – a good sign! – and some live acoustic music later on. The next day we were off to the far west, to Glengarriff, on Bantry Bay.  Glengarriff is a great place if you're a tourist wanting to buy stuff – its main attraction being the Italian Gardens out on Garinish, or 'Garden Island,' reached by a small boat.  After a wee nap, we headed on to the fishing port of Castletownbere, on the Bearra Peninsula, which has a small car ferry which will take you out to the large Bear Island.  Castletownbere is the home of the now famous, McCarthy's Bar, just off the Square, and across from where I had a great feed of freshly made chowder – and another pint of Beamish, of course.

Ricky Lynch, in Henchy's, Cork City
By now struggling to keep awake, we negotiated the mountain road to the other side of the Peninsula, joining the Ring of Bearra again. Suddenly you find yourself in Co. Kerry, with Kenmare Bay on your left.  Eventually, we crossed the bridge into Kenmare itself, and back to the City.  We were just on time to meet our friends there, and up to Henchy's Pub at Dillon's Cross, to hear a man called Ricky Lynch.   A bit of early Beatles, Bob Dylan and, when we managed to persuade him, his own material – which was great!  Very Dylan-esque!  You'll find a photo of Ricky on our facebook page, and I hope to play one of his songs as soon as I get the CD.

Our friends were off to Israel on Friday so we were off to Co. Clare, via the old main road to Limerick and then the very impressive new Shannon Tunnel – motorway now the whole way to just outside our destination for the night, Newmarket-on-Fergus.  Our friends there live in Tim's great-grandfather's house, which used to be a grocer's shop – with an old iron safe built into the wall. Up on Saturday morning just in time to see Ireland finish knocking the stuffing out of Australia in the rugby world cup!  They say a change is as good as a rest so, on that basis, we had a very restful week!

Wednesday 7 September 2011

41 'Straang Fjord' and 'the low counthry'

Classic boats on Strangford Lough, near Portaferry, Co. Down
September 6, 2011

You may have noticed that I tend to go on a bit about Co. Down?  That's because it's such a beautiful and varied place.  I haven't even covered the half of it!  I was down near Portaferry the o'rr week, visiting a couple of old friends that we haven't seen for a while.  Amazin' how ye lose touch with people!  If ye noticed the photograph with the podcast of last week's show, they live there, right beside that fantastic view.  Portaferry is just one of the small towns and villages ye'll find on the Ards Peninsula, on the east side of Co. Down.  

The Peninsula – or as locals tend to call it 'the lower Ards', or 'the low country,' is sandwiched between the Irish Sea and Strangford Lough.  It includes the most easterly point in Ireland and is a continuation of the Drumlin country further west, on the other side of the Lough.  That's why it is called the Ards – meaning 'heights' after the small hills.  The Lough was named 'Straang Fjord' by the Viking raiders, (referring to the strong currents in the Strangford Narrows); though the original Irish name was Lough Cuan, which simply means 'lough.' 

After visiting our friends we went into Portaferry and bought a fish supper (that's fish 'n' chips, or French fries, to most of you!) and sat in the car watching the sun setting and the ferry racing across the Narrows with the current.  Strangford Lough is a bit like a spoon – wide and shallow mud flats at the north end – near Newtownards and Comber; but narrow and very deep at the Portaferry/Strangford end, where the Narrows are about 200 feet deep and the tide can run up to eight knots.

Across from us was the village of Strangford, with a stone tower facing the water and Audley's Castle a little further north; while on our side there is another fortified tower, Portaferry Castle, plus an old windmill on top of the hill behind.  In the Lough itself, there are over 300 islands known as 'pladdies', which are really sunken drumlins.  You definitely need a chart before you try to sail a boat in the Lough!  Portaferry's other claims to fame are the Exploris – an aquarium with fresh seawater tanks and displays, plus baby seals, etc.; and a sunken tidal generating turbine, set in the strongest part of the current, and which turns with the tide to generate electricity almost continuously.

Strangford Lough is where St. Patrick returned to as a missionary, after he had left Ireland and slavery behind for several years.  There are many old churches and monastic ruins, both on the shores and on islands in the Lough.  On our way to Portaferry, the o'rr week, we stopped off at Grey Abbey, which is a ruined 12th century Cistercian abbey of the 'Grey Friars', hence the name, 'Grey Abbey.'  It was founded in 1193 AD by Affreca, the daughter of the King of Mann (the Isle of Man, that is) and the Isles.  Acroos the Lough, on Mahee Island, near Comber, there are the ruins of a much older (5th century) monastic settlement called Nendrum.
Another great place we visited recently on the Peninsula, is the old Ballycopeland Windmill, which was restored between 1950 and 1978 to full working order.  I remember taking some Native American friends there for a visit, a few years ago.  Co. Down used to be covered with windmills, for milling the barley, wheat and oats that were grown in the fertile fields.  The drumlins were ideal places to situate a windmill – I guess we were way ahead of our time in Renewable Energy production, back then?

At the south end of the Lough, across from Portaferry, just near the end of The Narrows, you will find hundreds of grey seals basking in the sun.  The Exploris Centre in Portaferry rescue those baby seals that have been abandoned, feed them up, then reease tehem into the wild again. 

The north end of the Lough is where all the Brent geese, from Arctic Canada, fly to spend the winter.  They are protected here, and some years ago they fitted radio transmitters to several geese and followed their journey with the help of a satellite, all the way back to Canada.  One of the geese they tracked down to the fridge of a local Inuk hunter!  Ooops!  I guess the idea of conservation hasn't really hit that part of the Arctic, yet.

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