"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
"...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.
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.
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:
There’s a house at the top of the hill in the townland of Ballysnod, and a family with four children walk there every Sunday with a Tansad. The children skip down the Old Glenarm Road, swinging the toddler over the knobbly bits of the footbath. They stroll along the empty, barricaded Main Street, cross the bridge at Inver River, climb the crooked horseshoe bend and traipse up a steep, country road, trailing sticks from the thorny hedges along the tarmac. They stop to look at the town with its smoky chimneys and long lines of terraced streets and they point to their home by the giant sheds of the GEC factory before waiting and watching the Townsend Thoresen cross the turquoise sea.
I waited my whole life to go to Manderley.
At least, I was vaguely aware of its greatness for half my life.
As I trudged, strangely willingly, through the literary shell-shock of existentialism, communism and fascism in the French department at university, I often wondered what literary delights that period of the “interwar years” bestowed upon the students of the English department a few doors up. Were they as knee deep in la condition humaine as us? Were there to be men on the march of a red tide, all contemplating deep and meaningful isms? And Freud, let’s not forget him. Always there in the background with his dreams.
What of Rebecca? Was this the thinking woman’s novel of the 1930s? A white azalea in a path of blood red rhododendrons?
Rebecca is, on the surface, a feminine novel that has us squirming with discomfort as du Maurier tells the world our innermost thoughts and our most terrible weaknesses. We find ourselves protesting as we read: do we wish to be represented by a heroine who is weak and afraid and who stammers ‘little’ in almost every paragraph? Is our heroine betraying us by revealing our rambling dreamscapes and the winding paths of our imaginations that heave with monstrous plants and our own looming deficiencies?
Scene from Snugville Street
The Wedding Wisp
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
The linguist behind Ulster Scots.
Kailyard & Dusty Bluebells
Jean Park of Ballygally
Fiddles and Melodeons
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
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl