"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Nostalgic Irish prose
Irish culture & folklore
Ulster-Scots short stories
"...stories birling through my mind..."
This week the sun was shining in Larne and the Orange Hall steps were ornate with dancers in emerald green, black, burgundy, royal blue, scarlet, navy blue and cerise. The festival was a positive experience made special by the charm of the dancers, the spirit of the musicians, the enthusiasm of the adjudicator, the generosity of visitors from across the province, the support from local people and the dedication of wee fairies who made it happen.
There was also a strong sense of history: the lady at the door danced competitively in the same hall as far back as the 1930s; the pianist had danced as a toddler in a variety concert in Ballymena during the second world war, and the wee fairies on the stage and in the kitchen included grandmothers, mothers and daughters who have been dancing their whole lives.
Few people realise is that Irish folk dancing, now primarily known as ‘festival dancing’ comprises Catholics and Protestants, almost in equal numbers. Even during the upheaval of ‘The Troubles,’ Catholics and Protestants continued to hold hands, literally and metaphorically, in towns like Belfast, Larne, Portadown, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Portstewart, Ballyclare and Bangor. Irish folk dancing, in fact, blossomed against the timbre of bullets and bombs. In 1975, one of the worst years for deaths during the conflict, the Larne May Day festival attracted 1,500 dancers.
Catholics and Protestants in the Irish folk dancing tradition have been dancing together for for ninety years, but further back in time, the harvest homes, lintings, punch dances and Mayday festivities also provided opportunities for Catholics and Protestants to come together. Traditional Ulster social dances like ‘A Soldier’s Joy,’ ‘The Sweets of May’ and ‘The Three Tunes’ were danced by Protestants and Catholics before the term “Irish dancing” was invented.
Libraries NI and Women Aloud NI are both at the fore of an effort to amplify female voices in fiction in Northern Ireland.
I have spent a year reading works from Northern Ireland authors, both male and female. The quality of literature in this country is high, yet local authors, particularly women, struggle to get their work published. The feedback from mainland Britain is often that the books are too Irish. The feedback from the Republic of Ireland is often that the books are too northern.
Once published, accessing shelf space among bestselling authors in bookshops is also problematic.
Libraries NI has gone the extra mile to ensure that local books can be seen by the public.
Why not pop into your local library this weekend and ask for something local. The three books that were selected for the Emerging authors events are available in Newtonbreda, Banbridge and Larne libraries. They can also be ordered from any other library in Northern Ireland. Here's a little bit more about each of the books for those who missed the Emerging author events.
I sit up and look out my bedroom window. Coloured bikes coast along the kerbs as children play. I catch a smile and a large shadow in the reflection. I’m nearly fourteen, it’s summer, and my perm is awake before nine.
I rap at the door of the bathroom, a hollow wood door marked by the fist prints of four children thumping.
‘Hurry on! I need in!’
‘Make me!’ comes a boy’s voice.
Another thump and a twist of the handle.
‘Get away you big pig!’ says the boy.
‘Hurry up you wee dope,’ I say. ‘I’m gonna be late for summer scheme.’
My plastic rake moves through the bramble bush facing the mirror on the landing. It tugs and toils and emerges all peach and unscathed from the undergrowth as my hair fluffs into round drupelets. A large foamy dollop of white, foamy mousse. A scrunch with sticky hands. A mass of beautifully ripe curls. Gorgeous, I think as I pat my perm, settle down the cow’s lick on the right side and hurl my voice through the hollow wood door one more time.
A wee story to warm the cockles of your heart:)
I was sick, sore and tired of the games that Harry and Gary played on the street. I was sick, sore and tired of BMXing, I was sick, sore and tired of A Teaming, I was sick, sore and tired of band sticking and I was sick, sore and tired of footballing.
‘I’m bored.’ I said to my mum.
‘How could you be bored? It’s summer. You’re off school. The street’s full of weans. Away out and play like the rest of them.’
‘They only want to play on bikes and all. I’m bored of bikes and all.’
‘Jenny’s on her own over there. Away and play with Jenny.’
My mum’s eyebrows were curved like question marks and she had a semicolon smile. She knew that I was not sick, sore and tired of Harry’s sister, Jenny.
Jenny goes to the Andrew’s school of dancing at the Town Hall. Each Saturday, I’m there alone on the boy’s side of the hall. Jenny is there on the other side surrounded by thirty girls.
It’s wile hard to be alone at dancing without stories birling through my mind.
I do the three-hand reel with the girls. There’s a jellyfish of a girl on my left with arms and legs that wriggle in all the wrong directions. There’s a swan of a girl on my right with strong arms and graceful legs. The swan girl is Jenny
A Belfast Tale, a soulful tale of troubles, love and friendship set between Northern Ireland and America, was published today. While I await its appearance in the Amazon store, I am all set to address the smudgy windows and the dusty skirting boards after a year and a half of relative neglect. (Yes, Jean Adams would take a turn in her eye!) Before I commence the post-novel-writing spring-clean and tidy all the books away, here are some of the many books that built A Belfast Tale.
Another wee children's story:
I live at number one Greenland Grove and wee Harry lives at number three.
Harry is the best in the world at everything. He’s the best at BMXing, the best at kerbsy, the best at British Bulldog, the best at football and the best at up-against-the-wall-tennis.
He’s the best at pots and pans drumming, the best at marching, the best at playing the dummy flute and the best at tossing the red, white and blue band stick.
Harry has asthma, but he’s still the best at everything.
Last year, Harry’s band stick turned in the air five times. It wheeled and and it whirled and it cut through white woolly clouds like a shear, and all the children in Greenland Grove watched with tilted heads and bleating hearts.
I was sitting in Harry’s driveway footering with my red, white and blue duct tape when Harry said to me, ‘Gary, I’m going to enter the band stick competition and this year, and I’m going to turn it six times.’
Six times, I thought. You havenae a hope, I thought. I said nothing and I concentrated on my band stick.
My band stick is made from my mammy’s kitchen brush. Harry had to use an old yard brush. He hoked in the shed for an hour for it. Last year, there was a carfuffle over a missing kitchen brush. We both got a good clip in the ear for that.
It’s 1986, I’m ten years old, and God is reigning over Butlins.
I queue for the chalet key, take a deep breath and sigh because my heroine is right before my eyes, a beacon of amusement clad in a red blazer and a gorgeous, pleated skirt.
O to be a redcoat!
There’s an outdoor pool with a red and white fountain, and I skreich as my bare belly hits the icy water. I shiver and thaw in a towel by the side of the pool where adults slarry suncream on goose-pimpled skin. I grab my coat and my cousin and race through rows of pink and lemon chalets towards the Big Dipper, the Mexican Hat, the chair lift, the wee train, the Tilt-o-whirl and The Donkey Derby.
Dusk descends on the bonnie hills of Ayrshire, and I know that God is there when the silver moon of the Stuart’s Ballroom alights across a dance hall filled with children. ‘Let’s do the Time Warp again,’ I sing, and it’s astounding and time is fleeting as I jump to the left and skip to the right. I follow the white plimsolls in long lines of vigorous hip twisting, my heart thumping as ‘pi-a-pia-piano’ tinkles from the ebony and ivory of my fingers, my Dambusters’ aircraft sweeping through the room.
The Bully up the Brae
I went to Moyle Primary School. It was the best school in Larne. It was the best school in County Antrim. It was the best school in Northern Ireland. It was the best school in Europe. It was the best school on earth. It was the best school in the universe.
It was wile good.
I liked Moyle Primary School, but on my first day, there were girls and boys who were crying to go home. What did they have to cry about? There were fat, juicy pencils, the likes of which I’d never seen at home. There were trays with coloured cubes that made me feel so happy that my tummy got a wee bit fluttery. There were easels with big, white pages. They were the widest, shiniest pages I’d ever seen. I wanted to dip a brush into a big blob of blue paint and make a line of sky.
That was Miss McBride. She said children instead of weans. She had black hair and a lovely, long skirt that matched her scarf. She had a wile nice smile when she was happy, but when she was cross, she would say, ‘Now children. Don’t be naughty!’
We learned to read and write at Moyle Primary School. The teachers were smart, but they didnae understand the local language.
The Accidental Wife by Orla McAlinden is collection of short stories that pumps good language and the theme of bad blood through a body of work that has all the comfort of a novel.
There’s the language of farming and it’s sharp and metaphorical in a way that only one familiar with the metal spike on a velvet-soft muzzle could imagine, “The bull’s nostrils slammed open on the instant and he sucked in a huge, shuddering breath, rasping like a stone caught under a tight-fitting door.” There’s Irish mixed with Scots mixed with Middle English, all churning into buttery swirls of Ulster dialect on the page. When the Facebook generation appear with their like, like like, like, the reader pines for a quare oul trip back to the solid old oak Omagh dialect of Dominic and Alo.
In Primary one, in the midst of those fat, yummy pencils referred to here, a linguistic journey began for me that ended in a love for languages. It’s not unusual for a child to be exposed to two languages in the early years. The problem for children who speak Ulster-Scots is that the dialect is often mistaken for poor English, and the education system swiftly stems its progress as children adapt to Standard English. Those who started school with me in 1980 may well have been the last generation to be told to redd up the house, to get up at the skraik o' dawn, or to pay heed to the teacher. My mum and dad’s generation is likewise the last to sincerely belong to an ancient, poetic language that allows women who are gey and fond of a wee drap o' tay to be skunnered about the brave and long day at work.
It wasn’t until I read Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride that I actually learned to spell any of the words I was weaned on. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw the word blirt written down for the first time. I had always assumed it was a word that my mum and dad had made up.
Here are some wee things you might like to know about Ulster-Scots:
The Piper of Black Cave
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Last Day of Summer Scheme
Uniquely Girls' Brigade
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
A dander around Larne
God Created Butlins
History & folklore
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School