Tuesday 19 May 2020

Celtic Roots Craic 72 – Lockdown, self-isolation and St. Patrick

St. Patrick – drawing

Well suddenly the world has become a very strange place indeed! New phrases have entered our vocabulary to stay – like ‘lockdown’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘self isolation’. Where will it end – and more importantly, when?

At least after two months we’re beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel here in Ireland. From next Monday we can go to garden centres again and recycle all those bottles I’ve been collecting up for months! 

But can you imagine being in Ireland and not a single pub is open? Who could ever have predicted that? And not a single church is open – they’ve had to move to YouTube and Facebook. The saints of Ireland could never have imagined such a situation! 

Mind you it’s not all bad – the church I belong to now has around 3 1/2 thousand people listening in – instead of a couple of hundred! And we’re even more in contact with our community – because we’re delivering medicines and food to people who are isolated, and getting a great response from local councils, the police, etc. 

I was thinking about the old Irish saints – I’ve talked about Colombanus recently, for instance. Like most of them he knew all about ‘self-isolation’. He used to make a habit of going off into the woods in France and spending days on his own in prayer. Mebbe we should take a leaf out of his book?

Patrick, Brigid, Columcille – all of these guys were known for the hours they would spend in prayer and isolation. When Patrick was forced to work as a slave herding on Mount Slemish in Antrim he claimed that, ‘in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same’. 

He described himself in his Confession as being, ‘like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then He who is powerful came and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall.’  And later he said, ‘Whatever comes about for me, good or bad, I ought to accept them equally and give thanks to God'.

Maybe we could learn from Patrick. I know these are very difficult times for all of us. We are suffering from the effects of this lockdown, from being restricted and unable to interact normally with those we care about. Patrick learned that giving thanks changed things – in particular it changed him – so that the difficult times didn’t bring him down, instead he was ‘lifted up’. 

You may not have the same confidence and trust as Patrick and the other saints, but I really recommend their way of looking at things – it certainly works for me!

Celtic Roots Craic 71 – The 'black stuff' – a traveller's tale!

The Bush Bar, Blacklion, Co. Sligo

Well, life can be a wee bit unpredictable, wouldn’t ye say? The whole world seems to have gone totally crazy at the moment. I was in a local supermarket the other day and it reminded me of news stories of GUM stores in Moscow before Glasnost came along! Ah, well, sure at least ye can relax for a wee while and enjoy some music ’n’ craic.

Normally we have a parade in Downpatrick at this time of year, but they’ve all been  cancelled. The health people recommend that we keep drinking plenty – though I think they actually had water in mind – uisce, rather than uisce beatha – the ‘water of life’! However, the choice is up to yerself!

Anyway, I thought I’d tell yez a yarn, to cheer yez up. When I was about twenty one, or so, myself and a friend, Davy, decided to take a wee trip down south. This was still during the troubles, mind, and we were hitch-hiking – not too many people were inclined to risk giving lifts at the time, but we managed. We started at the access to the M2 Motorway in Belfast and managed to get a lift for forty miles or so, beyond the end of the motorway at that time.

That took to what was then known as ‘bandit country’ in Co. Tyrone – made all the  more obvious by the local road signs being riddled with bullet holes! It took us ages to get through that part. Eventually we made it to the border – which at that point is between two villages – Belcoo, on the northern side, and Blacklion, on the southern side.

Traffic was scarce and lifts were even scarcer and we were seriously thinking of sending the night in a roadside workman’s hut when a car stopped for us. The occupant was a local pub owner, Vincent McGovern – known locally as ‘Vincie the Bush’, because he owned four bars, which he inherited from his father – on either side of the border – each called, ‘The Bush Bar.’

Vincent was also a reformed alcoholic, and – after treating us at his local bar to tea and sandwiches – gave us a ride to Sligo, while entertaining us with stories of his travels all over Ireland to help fellow alcoholics.

After a night spent in Sligo, we headed south again and found ourselves once again marooned – this time in the remote west of Ireland, with not a vehicle in sight for miles. Eventually we got a lift on a farm trailer carrying milk churns and passed by another couple also hitchhiking, waving as we overtook them. Shortly after they waved to us as they passed in a car. And so it continued – we passed them, they passed us – going only a few miles each time.

While we were trudging through Ballyhaunis a single driver in a yellow Ford Cortina pulled up and told could take us all the way to Galway City. We got in and thanked him, and I mentioned how we had kept passing this same couple all day. Sure enough, we caught up with them again and our driver agreed to pick them up also. I chatted with the driver, but the others sat quietly in the back listening to his music and not talking.

When we arrived at Eyre Square in Galway, Davy and I got out on the passenger side and the other couple got out on the opposite side, so they were halfway across the Square when the car drove off. Even so, I tried what turned out to be the magic words, shouting, ‘Buy you a pint?’ across the Square.

They responded and joined us in Richardson’s Pub in Eyre Square for the first of several pints that afternoon. They were husband and wife, Bernard and Nuala, from Sligo and we had a great conversation which led to a friendship which has continued now for many years – my wife and I visiting them every few years. Until that day I had only ever drunk Guinness shandy, but Bernard didn’t know that when it was his round so that was how I developed a taste for Guinness!

Celtic Roots Craic 70 – Down at 'The Yard' – The Titanic Quarter

Filming the Titanic Quarter from the Goliath Crane (100m up)

Now, I live down the road from Belfast – otherwise known as B’lfahst! – and Belfast’s main claim to fame is its history of shipbuilding. The Harland and Wolff company, who started shipbuilding there in 1861, was founded by local, Edward James Harland, and a German immigrant from Hamburg, Gustav Wilhelm Wolff. 

Harland had previously managed the existing Hickson’s Shipyard and bought this yard from his employer in 1858, making his assistant Wolff a partner in the new company. They built ships for the white Star line – the Olympic, Titanic and Britannic – between 1909 and 1914. Harland & Wolff also once owned shipyards in Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Southhampton.

In 1936 the company started an aircraft manufacturing facility with the Short brothers, known as Short Brothers and Harland Ltd. – known locally as Shorts.

In 1898 my great-grandfather died – he’d lived in Glasgow since the age of seventeen – and my grandfather and his older sister then moved back to Northern Ireland, where my great-grandfather was originally from. My grandfather began to work in the joinery workshop in Harland & Wolff’s shipyard – or ’The Yard’ as it was always known. 

During the Second World War the shipyard employed about thirty five thousand people, constructing six aircraft carriers and repairing several thousand ships. The aircraft factory – Shorts – were also building Stirling Bombers. In 1941 the Luftwaffe bombed the shipyard heavily, causing a lot of damage to the yard, the city and completely destroying the aircraft factory.

The most famous ship built at Harland & Wolff was, of course, the RMS Titanic, which unfortunately sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, via Cherbourg in France and Cobh in the south of Ireland. More than 1,500 lives were lost, because the ship didn’t carry enough lifeboats for all the passengers.

I had a great uncle – a man called William George Given – who in 1912 had booked to emigrate to Canada on the Titanic. However, he was so anxious to make the trip that he decided not to wait and took another boat instead – which turned out to be a very good move!

 A few years ago the Titanic Belfast visitor centre was opened in what is know known as the Titanic Quarter of the city. You can learn how the ship was built, the history of the shipyard and see what the luxury cabins and ballroom looked like, walk around the slipways, etc. You can also visit the sister ship – the SS Nomadic – which has been restored nearby.

The shipyard is still in operation, though it only employs a small fraction of the thousands who used to work there. Belfast’s skyline is dominated by the two huge yellow cranes – Goliath and Samson – which span 459 feet across the dry dock below and can lift up to 840 tonnes to a height of 230 feet. They were built by the German company Krupp in 1969 and 1974, respectively. Nowadays, instead of building ships the yard mostly repair oil rigs and manufacture wind generators.
In 2011, before the Titanic Centre was built I was asked to film some video from the top of one of the cranes for the new Titanic Belfast website. Four of us went up inside the tapered leg of the crane in a small lift. At the top there is a large room containing two huge diesel engines, which are used to propel the crane along rails. We were able to walk along the top of the gantry, which is over 300 feet above the ground, and film the harbour from it. 

While we were filming the weather suddenly changed from beautiful spring sunshine to wind and snow blowing horizontally – so we had to make a hurried escape back to the lift area!

Celtic Roots Craic 69 – Balagan – 'What are ye like?'

Balagan – a travelling puppet show, or a mess!

Here’s an interesting word for ye – balagan. It means a mess, but it could be the name of a town somewhere in Ireland, couldn’t it? Actually, it’s a Hebrew slang word that I first heard on a visit to Israel. It can refer to many situations – a traffic meltdown, the state of your kid’s room, Irish politics, Israeli politics, your complicated relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend – and so forth.

It has interesting origins, too. It seems to have come to Israel from Russia in the late nineteenth century. It meant the same thing in Russia, especially referring to the wagons used by travelling puppet shows. The word apparently originated in Persia – as balakhaana (from which comes our word, balcony) – and travelled via Turkey to Russia, Poland and Lithuania – and eventually, Israel.

When I first heard it in Israel and had the meaning explained to me, I thought, ‘This really ought to have been an Irish word!’  What we might say instead is that something is a ‘Horlicks’ – as in, ‘Ye’ve made a right horlicks of that, haven’t ye?’  We might also say, ‘Yer makin’ a right pig’s lug a’ that.’ 

If yer referring to someone mixing their food all up together ye might say, ‘Yer making a right stour of it.’  Stour is an Ulster Scots, or Scottish, word that can also apply to a cloud of dust – if you stir up a whole lot of dust yer ‘making a stour’. Stoor might possibly have originated with the Vikings, because it is also a Scandinavian word for dust.

I spent a hour or two wandering around Krakow, in Poland, with a Polish couple who used to live here in Northern Ireland. Camilla, the wife, kept finding opportunities to repeat the Ulster phrase, ‘What are ye like?’ – which usually means there’s something odd, or amiss, about the person referred to. We might also encourage this person to ‘Wise up!’ or to ‘Catch yerself on’.

Of course, I’m sure everyone is familiar with the Irish word – eedjit – a different way of pronouncing, idiot – for instance, ‘Ye eedjit, ye – what did ye go and do that for?’ or, ‘Yer man’s all right, like, but he can be a bit of an eedjit at times!’  

Another way of saying that would be, ‘Yer man’s not the full shillin’, or ‘He’s a couple a stories short of a bungalow!’ – calling into question someone’s mental capacity. You could also say, ‘Ye haven’t a titter of wit, have ye?’ 

In this part of the world we tend to excel at this sort of derogatory banter – we call it slaggin’. Strangers can be a bit taken aback when apparent friends start to ‘slag each other off’ – saying things like, ‘Ach, ye haven’t the wit ye were born with,’  or, ‘Aye, yer head’s a marley!’ (referring to a marble); ‘Sure he’s as thick as champ,’  or, ‘I think there’s air gettin in!’ or, ‘Quit actin’ the maggot, you.’

If we want to make fun of someone’s lack of height we might say, ‘Stand up, Jimmy – oh, ye are standin’ up!’  The opposite would be, ‘What’s the weather like up there?’ Or we might say, ‘If he was chocolate he’d be some eatin’!’

Celtic Roots Craic 68 – 'R'aper blades and the 'glass hammer'

Tilley lamp (as sold in Redmond Jefferson's store)

A wee bit a’ history here. When I was about 15, or 16, I used to work in the summer holidays in a hardware shop in the centre of Lisburn – called Redmond Jefferson. Redmond is from the same Teutonic root as Raymond – i.e. Raedmund, meaning ‘mighty and wise protector’ – but that’s just by the way!

Actually, a year and a half ago I found myself in Poland – in a town called Mikolow – pronounced Mikov – not far from Krakow. We were involved in a small building project in a poor area of town, and some of the local men came out to help us. I was mostly cutting up wood with a circular saw and one of the locals joined me to help hold the wood steady. We had no common language – I’d learned only a couple of words of Polish and he knew no English. 

After a few hours of repeating ‘dobre’, meaning good, ‘dziekuje’thank you, and ‘tak’, meaning yes, I got one of our Polish friends to translate for me and asked my helpful friend what his name was – it was Rajmund – spelled with a ‘j’ and a ‘u’ – then I told him my name was the same and he was delighted!

Anyway, I used to work for this firm called Redmond Jefferson. They supplied just about everything you could imagine in the building and agricultural line. A farmer would come in and ask for ‘r'aper blades’ – which were sharpened metal triangles which formed the teeth on a reaping machine. 

There was quite a dodgy store room on the second floor, where the floor was weak and sloped towards the middle and you had to walk carefully around the edges of it. This was where they kept rare items such as glass globes for Tilley lamps, carefully wrapped up in newspaper dated 1931! No it wasn’t the most up-to-date hardware store!

In the hardware shop I learned all about plumbing fittings such as male or female 1/2” bends, or tees, or a half-round ‘bastard’ file – that’s what it’s called! I even learned to cut glass, when the normal glass-cutter was on holiday. You had to lean a large sheet of glass on the edge of the bench, then let it drop flat onto the bench, which worked because the air underneath created a cushion and the glass didn’t break.

One of the jobs I hated most was being asked to go for a stone of lime – this had to be scooped into a paper bag by leaning into a metal bin and you ended up breathing in the lime dust – not pleasant. 

On one occasion a customer asked for an 8ft by 4ft sheet of steel, which was leaning against the wall in the yard. I carefully pulled it upright and leaned it against my back, before carrying it to the customer’s trailer a few yards away. When I went into the office to find out the price of this metal sheet I discovered it weighed 2-3 hundredweight (that’s about 150 kgs!). After that I didn’t volunteer to carry any more sheets of steel on my own!

The other employees were quite adept at disappearing for long periods – skivin’ off, it’s called – and I would often end up trying to serve two customers at once at opposite ends of the shop. Of course, when you were the new lad the older hands had to try to ‘take a hand out of you’ by sending you off to another hardware store to borrow such non-existent items as a ‘glass hammer’, or for  the ‘long weight’. I never actually fell for any of these fool’s errands, but it never stopped them from trying. 

One of the regular questions they’d ask was, ‘Is yer da an Orangeman?’ As my father was not a member of any Orange Lodge, I said, ‘No.’ What they really meant was, ‘Are you a Protestant?’ – so, of course they then assumed I was Roman Catholic. Took me a while to work that one out!

Celtic Roots Craic 67 – 1798, a bridge and 'the priest's grave'

Kilmore Parish Church re-built in Ulster Folk Museum, Cultra,  Co. Down

Well, we’ve looked at some further away parts of the Celtic world recently – so I thought I’d update you on my own part of the world. My wife, Gerry, and I are sort of in transition at the moment. Yes, I’ve finally got the underfloor heating working properly in our converted stone barn, which we hope to move into permanently later this year. In the meantime, we stay there about one night per week. It’s about fifteen minutes from Downpatrick, Co. Down – just outside Crossgar. 

Crossgar is a bit unusual for Irish towns – because before the year 1800 it didn’t exist. There was a big house nearby called Crossgar House, which has since become the Passionist monastery of Tobar Mhuire, meaning ‘Mary’s Well’, after a holy well in the grounds. An Cross Ghearr in Irish means ‘the short cross’, so possibly there had once been a Celtic Cross there which was broken? There is no trace of it now, though.

There was also a pub close to the Glaswater River – glas, in Irish, means ‘grey’, by the way – where apparently, ne’er-do-wells used to hang out. The people of the much older – 800 AD – village of Kilmore about a mile away, used to refer to, ‘those drunkards down at the bridge’.

Now the bridge is the secret to the existence of the village of Crossgar. The local landowner, Price, in what is now called Saintfield, four miles to the north, planned out the village of Tamhnach Naomh – Irish for ‘Field of Saints.’  

Saintfield had taken a major part in the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen against the English. A force, led by local Presbyterians, ambushed a British force in a wood, killing around 100 men in total. The British retaliated by pretty much destroying the village. The name change to Saintfield, in English, took place around the same time.

Now after re-building and improving the damaged village of Saintfield, this same local landowner then turned his attention to what was to become Crossgar. You see, there were only two roads at that time from Belfast to Downpatrick – one was the route for passenger coaches, via Killleagh and Comber, to the east; and the other, which passed through our little hamlet of Listooder, was the route of the mail coach, which also passed through the village of Saintfield.

Price decided to build a new bridge – at Crossgar – with a new coach road running from Saintfield, over the bridge, and on to the County Town of Downpatrick. Now, both mail and passenger coaches changed to the new route and a new village grew up beside the bridge, named Crossgar after the nearby demesne house. Of course, this road also brought prosperity to Saintfield – half-way between Belfast and Downpatrick – which, of course, was Price’s plan.

As a result, both Kilmore – which means ‘large church’, and Listooder – meaning ‘Fort of the Tanner’, after the Celtic fort on the hill nearby, became backwaters, served only by minor roads – boreens, really. The original church outside Kilmore was later numbered stone by stone, and transferred to the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra, in north Down, and a new Church of Ireland church built closer to the village.

The area was once known as the seven chapels, dating back to around 400 AD – six of which can still be identified because of the remains of old graveyards. Just north of our hamlet of Listooder, there is one of these – Killygartan – known locally as ‘the priest’s grave’. There is also a ‘mass rock’ , from Penal Times, in a field nearby. The priest in question was one Fr. McCartan, who also gave his name to the Killygartan River, which flows past our front door.