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In Complete Circles: The Memoirs & Travels of an Ageing Schoolboy…

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More Memoirs: The Class Struggle, Urban Myths and Rural Legends

Here’s yet another instalment from  my long long awaited book “In Complete Circles”.  I have written the bloody thing, but I’m just finishing the proof reading. I do hope to get it published soon!

 008When I talk about class war or class solidarity in this book I’m not referring to the manifestos of Karl Marx or the latest campaign by some left wing socialist workers’ organisation.  I’m in fact alluding to the daily rivalry between 1C and 1D or 4A and 4E which formed a major part of my school days.  There were the legitimate forms of inter-class competition such as football, debating and quizzes.  A quarter of a century later and I still feel gutted at being on the losing 1C side in the final of the first year league which 1B narrowly won by a single point on a very wet and muddy pitch.  I wasn’t in the best of shape having had my fingers badly bruised after accidentally getting them crushed by two shot putts during athletics practice a couple of weeks earlier, but still managed to get on the scoresheet. 

Being an all boys school of raging hormones there were also the unofficial class conflicts.  If a fight broke out between two boys from different classes the unwritten rule was that you supported the one from your own class, a bizarre state of affairs given that we had no say in what class we were put in. 

If a brawl didn’t get resolved in the classroom or the yard, if the two combatants were rudely interrupted by the bell or the intervention of a meddlesome teacher it would often be rescheduled for after school with a neutral territory as the venue.  One such fight had been arranged to take place in the large public pay-and-display car park beside the school which hundreds of school boys and girls passed through daily on their way home.  The two opponents on this occasion were Skins Fallon and Cheese McArdle.  At this stage of the book I’ve run out of names given that there were so many Seans, Shanes, Pauls and Michaels (or variations including Mick, Mickey, Micko, Mike or Mikey) during my time at the school, so I’ve had to resort to using fictitious nicknames.

No doubt the school boys of today film fights on their mobile phones and post the footage on Youtube and Facebook, but back in the day we had to rely purely on memory and eyewitness accounts of varying degrees of accuracy and exaggeration.  Young people reading this (ie anyone under 30) could be forgiven for thinking we were living in some kind of primitive dark age back then.  In many respects we were.  This was a world without e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, blogs, i-pads, i-pods, Skype or Google.  Back then an i-pad was a surgical dressing which you wore if you had an infected iris.  Blackberries were still fruits that grew on thorny bushes at the side of the road.  Androids were something out of Doctor Who and a wiki was a small metal implement used to open a small door or padlock.  An app was what you took when you were tired.

Although I know I’m getting on a bit now that I’m in my very very late 30s, I don’t consider myself to be particularly old.  I draw some consolation from the fact that I’m still young enough (in theory at least) to be a goalkeeper at a top Premiere League club. It’s a lonely position to play in at the best times, but I often wonder how ageing goalies must feel being the oldest player on the team and surrounded by young lads half their age. But I’ll leave this discussion for another time.

 The fight started in classic style with a bit of pushing and shoving and the odd insult thrown in.

 “So do you want a fight, McArdle?”

 “That’s what I’m here for, Fallon!”

 “Is that right?”

 “Oh, you think you’re smart do you?”

 “So what are you going to do about it?”

 It was as if each party was playing for time by deliberately prolonging the dialogue.  A substantial crowd had gathered.  Things were about to kick off as the customary pushing and shoving had started, when a traffic warden – or more accurately the council-employed jobsworth with the peaked hat whose task it was to check if the car owners had paid and displayed with those annoying adhesive square stickers you put up on the inside of your windscreen – intervened.  He was a small chubby man with a moustache.

 “This is a public car park!” he screamed.  “You can’t get up to this kind of carry on here!”  It was probably safe to assume that he had an MBA (Master of Busybody Administration) from the “Ken Blowtorch School of Management”.  Naturally his interference wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms, especially when a bunch of exuberant schoolboys had been looking forward to a bit of entertainment.

The Fallon-McArdle bout fizzled out and attention instead turned to the developing confrontation between Mr Pay & Display and a big lad from the fourth form called Barry Bennett.  Bennett was none too pleased that his rights as a spectator to this feast of gladiatorial action were being curtailed by a small man in a uniform.

He squared up to him eyeball to eyeball and asserted himself, being a few inches taller than this uniformed killjoy.

 “And what the fuck are you gonna do about it, mister?”

Pay & Display Man was quite clearly getting very nervous and could only repeat his previous words, but this time in a much higher voice, as if a lobster had somehow crawled down his trousers.

“This is a public car park, you can’t…” he squeaked only to be cut off in mid-sentence.

“So you think you’re the big man do you?  This is nothing to do you with you!”

“I’m going to report you, you know.  You won’t get away with this!”

Bennett ignored this empty threat and continued his campaign of intimidation.

“Go ahead.  Go and put a ticket on some poor bastard’s car while you’re at it!”

The council employee backed down, humiliated at being made to feel small by a schoolboy.  The crowds of school boys and girls cheered and continued on their way to the bus station via the town centre.  McArdle and Fallon were even seen joking amiably with each other.  The car park incident inevitably became the main topic of conversation throughout the whole school over the next few days.  Everyone claimed to have witnessed it, even the boys who lived in the opposite direction to the “crime scene” and didn’t take that route home.  Not surprisingly the reports became grossly exaggerated and distorted.  Even though there had been no actual physical contact there were rumours that Barry Bennett had left Pay & Display Man lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood.

“My sister Sinead’s a nurse up at the hospital and she said he had to be treated for concussion and head injuries and needed 20 stitches.  You shoulda heard the roars of him!  The doctor said he was this much away (the storyteller at this point – not a medical expert by any stretch of the imagination – demonstrated a tiny gap using his finger and thumb) from getting his jaw broke.  Bennett just done it for badness, like.”

Another “roving reporter” expanded on this account:

“Sure the cops came round and cordoned off the area.  I seen them doing it.  The forensics boys had to take blood samples away with them.  There was a big queue of traffic all along the Kevlin Road for two hours.  The cops lifted Barry and took him round to the nick for interrogation.  They roughed him up a bit just for badness, but he still never told the bastards nothin’.  He gave them as good as he got”.

In an alternative narrative the traffic warden had actually attacked Bennett with a taser (or an Uzi sub-machine – or a machete – or a chainsaw – depending on who you chose to believe) and forced him into retaliating with his fists.

Not that I’m condoning thuggish behavior, but as the accounts of that day became more and distorted Barry Bennett became a bit of a legend after that, a Robin Hood character fighting injustice.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  Just like a few other (but by no means all) events described in this book….

Yellow jerseys and white lies

Lance uses his fingers to demonstrate the amount of times he's taken performance enhancing drugs

Lance uses his fingers to demonstrate the amount of times he’s taken performance enhancing drugs

It’s not about the drugs…or is it?

“I can emphatically say I am not on drugs”, I said… “I know there’s been looking, and prying, and digging, but you’re not going to find anything. There’s nothing to find… and once everyone has done their due diligence and realizes they need to be professional and can’t print a lot of crap, they’ll realize they’re dealing with a clean guy”.

LANCE ARMSTRONG during the 1999 Tour de France (from his autobiography IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BIKE, published 2000)

OK, so it’s easy (and some may say opportunistic) to kick people when they’re down, but some people deserve it. Texas may have a yellow rose, but no longer a yellow jerey.

Memoirs of An Ageing Schoolboy # 7: The Life of Larry

As some of you may know I’m currently writing a memoir concentrating mainly on my school days.  Just over a year ago I published some early extracts on the blog.  I’ve been working hard on it ever since and now hope to have the finished product out in time for Christmas.  And before any smart remarks come in – yes I do mean Christmas 2012.

In advance of a certain long-awaited reunion due to take place in just under a fortnight’s time, here are some further extracts to whet the appetite.Image

At the behest of our English teacher, a walrus-moustached Belfast man called Lawrence Muldoon, known among the pupils as Larry, a small group of us attempted (“attempted” being the operative word) to set up a film club.  The idea was to hire a film projector and show selected films of the more artistic type like Casablanca or Citizen Kane and profound subtitled European films from the likes of Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut rather than the standard current Hollywood blockbuster to an audience of appreciative younger pupils.

We managed to procure some used film posters from the local cinema and stuck them up at various locations around the school to publicise the imminent formation (ahem!) of the club.  Inevitably they were defaced.  On the Steel Magnolias poster two drawing pins had been strategically stuck through each of Julia Roberts’ breasts, and another one further south.

Due to a combination of apathy and logistical problems the film club never saw the light of day, even though about 20 pupils (mostly gullible first and second years) had already paid the £1 a head membership fee.   Where that money ended up remains a mystery to this day. 

Larry like many of that particular generation of teachers born roughly between 1940 and 1955 was a bit of a character.  He had nicknames for virtually all of his pupils based on agonisingly bad puns. 

If we ever had him for a free period (or study periods as the principal preferred to call them – even though during these interludes we did anything but study) he would go around the class asking boys their names.  A typical exchange would go like this.

Larry: What’s your name, boy?

Pupil A: Sir, Aidan Duddy.

Larry: Sir Aidan Duddy?  Have you been knighted? 

What’s your name?  (Pointing to Pupil C)

Pupil D:  Otis McAleer.

Larry: So what do they call you then? McAlnose?

Pupil D: No, they call me Curly because I’ve got curly hair.

Larry:  Where are you from?

Pupil D: Ballygawley.

Larry: Is that Ballygawley, Tyrone or Ballygawley, Zambia?

Pupil D: Zambia.

Larry:  What’s your name, son?  (Turning his attention to Pupil B)

Pupil B: Sam Teague.

Larry: I just asked your name, not your religion.  (To Pupil C) What’s your name?

Pupil C: Martin McTosser, sir.

Larry: Are you from Ballykilbollocks?

Pupil C: No, Killybastard.

Larry: I didn’t know there were any McTossers in Killybastard.  Sure McTosser’s not a Killybastard name.

Pupil C: My da’s from Ballykilbollocks.

Larry: Is your da called Pat?

Pupil C: No, sir.

Larry: Mick?

Pupil C: No.

Larry: What the hell is his buckin’ name then?

Pupil C: Frank.

Larry: Frank, the butcher?

Pupil C: No, he’s an electrician.

Larry: You mean electricity has actually reached Ballykilbollocks?

Pupil C (Unamused):  I wouldn’t know, I’m from Killybastard.

Larry: You didn’t have a brother at the school a few years ago?

Pupil C: No, I don’t have any brothers.

Larry:  And what’s your name?

Pupil X: Sergio McBastard

Larry: You’re not one of the Drumgallykilderrymore McBastards are you?

Pupil X: No, I’m one of the Castlegorfinmorebrack McBastards

Larry: You McBastards don’t half get around…

And so on…

There would be situations when certain troublesome pupils were making a nuisance of themselves in class.  Larry would pretend to get angry and bang loudly on his desk, then say: “Get yourself down to Brother O’Loscan’s office now!”  The miscreant in question would go out the door down the corridor and on his way to receive a bollocking or perhaps much worse from the Great Satan only for Larry to shake his head with a sigh and reveal his bluff, ordering a designated pupil to:

“Run after thon buckin’eejit and bring him back here!”

He would also indulge in the occasional spoonerism – If someone had left the door open he would bark at them – “Fose that cluckin’ door!!

Watch this space…

The Dubya-M-Ds in G-Dubya-B’s head

Oil be the judge of that

This week the Times is publishing serial extracts from a newly published work of fiction – the ghost-written memoirs of George W. Bush, Decision Points. This little gem caught my eye:

“When Saddam didn’t use WMD on troops, I was relieved. When we didn’t discover the stockpile soon after the fall of Baghdad, I was surprised. When the whole summer passed without finding any, I was alarmed.” [Yeah right – even thought the UN weapons inspections report by Hans Blix hadn’t found any evidence for WMDs prior to the invasion]

“The left trotted out a new mantra: “Bush Lied, People Died”. The charge was illogical. If I wanted to mislead the country into war, why would I pick an allegation that was certain to be disproven?”
It wouldn’t be anything to do with the fact that gaining a plentiful supply of cheap oil was more important than the truth by any chance? Or that Dick Cheney told him to?

“While the world was undoubtedly safer with Saddam gone, [try telling that to the hundreds of thousands who were killed after Saddam had been removed] I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false. ” [Somehow the word “intelligence” and George W. Bush don’t make good bedfellows].

“No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do.”

Oil be the judge of that – pull the other one, Georgie.

Blair opposed Freedom of Information Act

Blair - control freak


Of the many revelations which have emerged from Tony Bliar Blair’s newly memoirs the one which I found most interesting in my professional day job capacity was his apparent opposition to the Freedom of Information Act which his government passed in 2000.

It seems as if the Act was an inconvenience to Blair and many other poiticians regardless of party in the wake of the illegal invasion of Iraq and the MPs’ expensesd scandal. Blair apparently described the FOI Act as not practical for good government. Conveniently for himself it looks like the cabinet papers on the decision to go into Iraq (whose disclosure was actually approved under FOI by the Information Commissioner, but later blocked at ministerial level) won’t be made public any time soon.

And guess whose speech this extract is taken from?

Our commitment to a Freedom of Information Act is clear, and I reaffirm it here tonight. We want to end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surrounds government activity and make government information available to the public unless there are good reasons not to do so. So the presumption is that information should be, rather than should not be, released. In fact, we want to open up the quango state and the appointed bodies, which will of course exist under any government, but which should operate in a manner which exposes their actions to proper public scrutiny.

Freedom of information legislation exists in many other countries, including the United States and Canada and Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and France. The countries have sensible exemptions which the public here would understand and support. Information relating to national security, to law enforcement, to commercial confidentiality, to personal privacy, should of course be subject to exemption, as should the policy advice given by civil servants to ministers. But even with these kinds of exemption, there would still be vast swathes of government activity which would be exposed to public examination and to public debate.

And the Act would also be of practical use to individuals. In recent years we have finally been allowed to have access to our medical records, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Why should we stop there? Why should what is held on other personal files not also be available for us to see? At present we have a mish-mash of rules which allows us to see some files and not others, partly dependent on whether they are held on computer or held manually. But I believe there is a strong case for taking a consistent approach to giving people access to what is held on file about them subject of course to those obvious exemptions.

Yes, it’s Bliar’s speech at the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s annual awards ceremony in 1996 just over a year before he came to power .

The New Sherlock Holmes

Kelly Reilly who plays Dr Watson’s fiancée Mary

A review in one of the broadsheets described this film as something of a cross between James Bond and The Da Vinci Code. There are certainly elements of Dan Brown and Ian Fleming in the film, but an over-simplistic summary like this doesn’t do it justice – the film has much more besides.

Given that celebrity mockney Guy “the ex-Mr Madonna” Ritichie was directing it I wasn’t expecting a literary purist’s version of the works of Conan Doyle.  In typical Ritchie style Holmes relies on brawn almost as much as brain. While not strictly based on any of the canonical Holmes stories there are shades of such gems as Scandal in Bohemia, The Valley of Fear, The Sign of Four and The Final Problem.

Downey Jr as Holmes with Jude Law as Watson

I had my doubts about the casting of Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, but was pleasantly surprised. The great Jeremy Brett he ain’t, but he does make an excellent Holmes.  Downey’s post-modern Holmes is a scruffy, unshaven character who dresses somewhat flamboyantly in an almost Byronesque manner.  Also a dashing man of action in the mould of a Victorian James Bond with the nervous energy and subtle sex appeal of David Tennant’s Dr Who.  There are perhaps one or two fight scenes and explosions too many though.  The literary Holmes was a skilled pugilist, but was rarely seen in action.  Nevetheless Downey’s Holmes has the usual remarkable powers of irritatingly logcal deduction using the flimisiest shreds of evidence to draw conclusions and is true to tradition a master of disguise.  The plot is quite far-fetched and less plausible than any of the Conan Doyle stories, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment.  Downey’s Holmes is also considerably less dignified than the tradional interpretations and is subjected to his fair share of humiliating experiences throughout the course of the show. One could hardly imagine, for example the likes of Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone or Peter Cushing enduring the indignity of being drugged by a temptress waking up naked chained to a bed.  But then in this digital mass-media centred world modern audiences have an increasinglsy short attention span and are this so much more demanding than their predecessors of the late 19th/early 20th century.

Jude Law puts in a decent perforamance as Holmes’ loyal  sidekick the soon-to-be married Dr John Watson.  The doctor’s dignity and domestic duties contrast well with Holmes’ eccentric uncoventioanl behaviour.

Mark Strong as the villain has the menacing presence of Bond adversaries like Blofeld and Scaramanga or Dr Who’s arch-nemesis The Master.  One of his heavies is even vaguely reminiscent of the heavily-built metal-toothed Bond assailant Jaws.   Ironically Strong’s aquiline features and neatly greased back hair give him the appearance of how Holmes himself is traditionally portrayed. If this was deliberate then it’s a stroke of genius. It it’s purely coincidental it still works.

There is also the recurring theme of Holmes constantly solving the crime before the police much to the annoyance of Scotland Yard’s incompetent Inspector Lestrade.

For some bizarre reason The Rocky Road to Dublin by The Dubliners is played over the end credits as well as during a bare knuckle fight involving Holmes and a hulking gorilla of a man. Come to think of it Conan Doyle was of Irish origin, but this is probably just coincidental. There is also a number of very minor Irish characters in the film, including Derry’s Bronagh Gallagher who makes a cameo appearance as a street fortune teller.

Kelly Reilly and Jude Law


Rachel McAdams as American seductress Irene Adler provides the main eye candy.  Like Holmes she is portrayed as something of an action woman in the style of Lara Croft, who becomes a third unofficial member of the Homes/Watson team during the course of their investigations.  However Watson’s fiancée, the more feminine Mary is for this author more easy on the eye.

If any 9-year olds are tempted to go down to to their local police station in order to settle an argument with a schoolfriend as to the real existence of Sherlock Holmes (although as the film has a “12” certificate this shouldn’t be the case!) the standard disclaimer at the end should put their minds at rest “The characters in this motion picture are fictional and any resemblance to any real characters living or dead is purely coincidental”. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.  Pun very much intentional.

There is a very strong hint of sequel in the making, which I very much look forward to should it go ahead.  Despite a few forgiveable deviations from the literary Sherlock Holmes Downey has certainly proved his credentials as one of the three great iconic characters of popular fiction. He’s probably a little too old to play James Bond, but if Doctor Who ever transfers to the big screen…

Sherlock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

The new film - will it be a case of Downey and out or a Holme run? Or Watson the other side? Will Holmes' sidekick be a Law unto himself?

According to The Dreaming Arm the Holy Trinity of iconic characters in popular fiction (at least in the English-speaking world anyway) consists of James Bond, Doctor Who (and if any pedantic anoraks are reading this – before you write in to complain, yes I know his name is actually “The Doctor” and not “Dr Who” – so please self-copulate), and Sherlock Holmes. I can’t speak for the French-speaking world, but their Holy Trinity could be something like Tintin, Maigret and Asterix – ironically the former two are not of France, but of its trilingual neighbour to the north-east, whose other contributions to civilisation include fine chocolates, several hundred varieties of beer of multitudinous colours and flavours, quality lace, a dubious colonial legacy in the Congo, whose effects are still being felt today – and a statue of a urinating boy.
But as a certain diminutive bespectacled golf-playing entertainer and former star of a long-forgotten 1980s sitcom which gave the catchphrase “Language Timothy!” to a dysfunctional generation used to say – “I digress”. Anyway I’ve already written about Who and Bond in this blog, so to coincide with the imminent cinematic release of a new eponymously-titled motion picture this is The Dreaming Arm’s take on Sherlock Holmes.

The Great Triumvirate: Definitive Who?

I  remember having an argument when aged 8 or 9 with a schoolfriend by the name of Paul McGrade over whether Sherlock Holmes had been a real life character. I contended that he was purely a work of fiction, but young McGrade insisted that there had been a real Holmes at some point in time. In an attempt to settle the argument he advised me to pop down to the local police station and ask them to verify the past existence or otherwise of the great detective. I was confident in my assertion, so didn’t bother to take him up on this. But over a quarter of a century later I often wonder what the duty sergeants at the heavily fortified Omagh RUC station would have made of a 9-year old making such an enquiry. The image of a tall ruddy-faced moustached man sternly dismissing me with words to the effect of “Fuck away off, son and don’t be wasting my time!” provides many an amusing moment on these cold dark lonely winter nights.  In fact it’s becoming a rather tiresome running joke – as certain nameless individuals will be able to testify.

The Great Triumvirate: Premium Bond?

However to his credit some 5 or 6 years later the redoubtable Mr McGrade was to pen an excellent parody of a Holmes short story which captured the essence of Conan Doyle’s writing, yet sent it in up brilliant satirical style. To this day I think he could have been a great comedy writer (he also scripted an excellent monologue featuring the Hary Enfield character “Loadsamoney” for a 5th year school assembly, in which the cash-flashing tradesman was played by the present author), but I believe he’s now based in Westminster and doing rather well in the civil service.

I first became seriously interested in Sherlock Holmes at the age of 14 or 15 in 1988 or 1989 I think when the centenary of Conan Doyle’s character was being celebrated through various TV and radio documentaries, newspaper articles and the like. My unhealthy anorak-like obsession with Doctor Who was coming to a natural end (after all this was during the era of Sylvester McCoy when the show was at all-time low point) and the more mature and rational Holmes became the natural replacement. I devoured Silver Blaze, The Yellow Face, The Solitary Cyclist, The Engineer’s Thumb and The Hound of the Baskervilles with relish.

When I heard that the ex-Mr Madonna Guy Ritchie, he of the East End gangster film was making a new version of Holmes I was somewhat skeptical. I haven’t seen any of Ritichie’s previous works as the mockney hard bastard genre of film doesn’t generally butter my bread. Plus anyone who marries Madonna needs their head examined.. Although having said that it hasn’t done Sean Penn’s career any harm.
On hearing that Holmes was to be played by the high profile Hollywood actor and rehabilitated hell-raising former jailbird and ex-junkie Robert Downey Jr I had my concerns. Although Jude Law as Dr Watson seems like a safe choice, Downey marks a notable break in tradition considering that Holmes has traditionally been played by old school English character actors from the theatrical tradition. The most memorable is arguably Jeremy Brett who played the great detective in the Granada TV series during the 1980s and early ’90s. The Dreaming Arm’s occasional contributor Phil “the Austro-Hungarian empre got all the best cities” Larkin has described him as the definitive Holmes. I can see his point here as Brett’s interpretation of Holmes as a brooding misanthropic, asexual character with a brilliant mind, suggesting he’s autistic is remarkably close to the perfection of Doyle’s creation. Brett as the genuine article could thus be to Holmes what Sean Connery is to James Bond and what Tom Baker is to Dr Who – although the chances are that anyone 25 reading this will argue that the latter accolade should go to David Tennant. Nah – Tennant’s a great actor, but his Who couldn’t hold a candle to Baker’s Who.

The Great Triumvirate: Ideal Holmes?

Other fine thespians who have darkened the doorstep of 221B Baker Street include Ian Richardson (probably best known for his role as machievellian politician Urquart in the BBC drama House of Cards), Hammer Horror veterans Peter “Dr Frankenstein/Prof Van Helsing” Cushing and Christopher “Dracula/Lord Summerisle” Lee and even a certain curly-haired, goggle-eyed toothy-grinned, long scarf-wearing, rich mellow chocolatey-voiced former Time Lord and occasional voiceover artist known as Tom Baker.

Nevertheless I’m prepared to make the trip to my local picture house at some point over the Christmas/New Year period with an open mind and give “Sherlock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” a chance.
So watch this space for the verdict!

The Hero of Ulster

About 10 years ago I went a through a brief, but intense phase of  fiction writing.  The manuscripts were left to gather dust over time – until I came up with the idea of publishing some of them online.  Although the tedious, yawn-inducing topic of Northern Irish politics is generally something I avoid like the plague on this site, it forms the basis for the following short story in a comical fantasy context.  Both sides of the sectarian divide have drawn on ancient myth and legend to justify their bankrupt causes and give themselves some kind of twisted historic mandate to lend legitimacy to their campaigns – a concept which inspired this story.


The Hero of Ulster

The freshly painted red, white and blue kerbstones glistened in the suffocating summer sun. Some kids were wheeling a barrow full of tyres – late additions to the mountain of rubble in the middle of a patch of wasteland. Perched on top was the crude effigy of a Polish priest wearing a Glasgow Celtic football shirt. Some of the older boys were practising familiar party tunes on their flutes. Yes, it was that time of year again in Northern Ireland. An elderly Polish priest resident in Italy, a dead Dutch king with a citrus plantation in the south of France and two Scottish football clubs…

Sammy was in high spirits. It was 1999. A new millenium was just around the corner, but more imminently, tonight would be his first “eleventh” night since his release from the Kesh. He’d just picked up his cheque from the dole and was looking forward to the night’s festivities. He’d invested his giros along with some money that he’d borrowed from a mate wisely in recent weeks. The shiny blue sheen of his brand new Rangers jersey (with the name “AMORUSO,” the Italian star emblazoned across the back) went perfectly with the newly acquired red hand tattoo on his arm set above the legend “For God and Ulster” – £80 well spent. He’d also made some money after having backed a winning horse at the bookies the previous day – a horse called Orange Lily. That would buy him a few games of snooker and get him plastered in time for the celebrations. He might even have enough left over to finance another trip to the bookie’s.

Three hours later he emerged from the pub. His vision was slightly blurred, but he was in control of his senses. He’d almost got into a fight over the how many points the pink ball was worth, but the barman wasn’t going to allow any trouble. Sammy was after all the undisputed snooker champion of his wing at the Maze, having won dozens of tournaments which had kept him in smokes for weeks. Three years in that place had however greatly reduced his capacity for alcohol consumption, but he’d certainly worked up an unquenchable thirst during that time. He would still have time to get a bite to eat, get cleaned up and ready for a proper night’s binge. As he turned the corner towards the chippy, a tall, muscular figure in strange attire seemed to have mysteriously appeared before him. They stared at each other for a few seconds before Sammy broke the ice in the usual Belfast fashion.

“What about ye, mate?”

The stranger seemed not to understand but reciprocated the greeting.

“Greetings, stranger” he replied in a deep booming voice. “I am Cúchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, son of Lugh and Deirdre and nephew to Conchubar MacNessa of Emain Macha. I have trekked for many days across the waters of the Boyne, the ford of Bude, son of Bain, through the grove of the nine wise hazel trees, the Dyke of the Black Pig and the Shankill Road, through field and forest, mountain and moorland to avenge my people.”

“You must be knackered after all that travelling, mate. It’s these bloody border roads. Any bother crossing the border? ’Cause they’re really clamping down these days with all that smuggling going on – you know like booze, fags, diesel an’ all that. I’m Sammy, son of Maggie by the way. Dunno who my da was though. So what is it that you do?”

“I have just awoken from my eternal slumbers after having slept for aeons in the guarded citadel of the Black Pool. I have fought against the men of Connacht, against Norseman and Norman-”

“What, Norman Jeffries? That boy’s a psycho – I wouldn’t go near him. To tell you the truth, mate I owe him a bit of money, so I’m avoiding him like the plague at the moment.”

Sammy couldn’t quite place the lad’s accent, but he certainly wasn’t a local.

“So you’re not from round here then?”

“I am an Ulsterman, born and bred. The place has changed since my last battle, but still I must take arms against the enemies of Ulster…”

“So you’re one of us then?”

Despite his declaration of kindred spirit there was still something odd about him. Maybe he was a foreign sailor from the docks who’d had one drink too many and lost his way en route to a fancy dress party. Or could he be high on dope? If this was the case Sammy could do with some weed to lift his spirits even further.

“You seem like a decent lad – you like a bit of fisticuffs, eh? I could with your help if big Norm ever came knocking on my door. So who else have you had run-ins with?”

“I have slain the mighty hound of Culann with my bare hands, as it is written in the Tain.”

“Good on you, mate. We’re better off without dogs. Public health hazard if you ask me. Big Norm’s got a Rottweiller, mind. It nearly went for me once. I’d love to fill it full of lead, but I can’t afford to break the ceasefire if you know what I mean. So where are you from anyway? That’s definitely not a Belfast accent. Somewhere in the country? Tyrone is it?”

“I am of the Red Branch Knights…”

Sammy cut him off in mid flow. “Is that one of these new paramilitary groups who’s against the peace process mate? You’d better watch yourself – I went down for three years because of boys like that and between me and you, there’s a few people ’round here who like to bear grudges if you know what I mean, like.”

Suddenly Sammy felt a hand on his shoulder. He whirled around and was suddenly paralysed with fear.

“Nice to see you Sammy” said the smiling face.

It was Norman Jeffries and he was holding a baseball bat.

Cúchulainn was nowhere to be seen. Sammy made a run for it only to find his path blocked by Billy “Flick-knife” Mc Alistair, also clutching a baseball bat. The legendary warrior had mysteriously disappeared.

“Going somewhere, Sammy? What’s the hurry? Why not stick around and chill with your mates?”

It was now Norm’s turn.

“I don’t want to hassle you Sam”, he said calmly, “but didn’t we have a wee arrangement going? It was a simple matter of fifty quid plus two month’s interest. Now what about honouring your side of the bargain?”

Sammy had broken into a cold sweat and was quite visibly shaking. His voice had suddenly gone all high pitched and shaky. “I swear to you Norm, I’ll have it by next week. Just gimme a chance to get it all together.” He was trying to bluff his way out of it and suddenly came up with an idea.

“I’ve got this tip on a horse – it’s running on Wednesday. It’s a dead cert. All I have to do is get down to the bookies and I’ll have the money for you. Come on lads, you know me. Would I ever pull a fast one on yez?”

Norman and Billy were having none of it. It was now Billy’s turn.

“By the way, Sam, Wee Bobby doesn’t like being cheated at snooker and what’s this I hear about you and my Debbie?”

Sammy turned white. “I don’t know what you’re on about!”

“Well this might help jog your memory” said Norm as he landed a powerful blow to Sammy’s face, felling him instantly.

“Come on lads, Jesus!” Sammy protested, rubbing his swelling cheek.

Billy laughed as the baseball bats got to work. He continued his taunts. “By the way I like the tattoo, Sam. Must have set you back a few bob. Put it like this. The money’s not for us. It all goes into the organisation, so in a way you’re taking a beating for God and Ulster!”

Sammy called out in vain. “Cúchulainn! Come on, I need your help, mate! Please!”

But the ancient defender of Ulster had disappeared.

Sammy’s screams were drowned out by the beat of the Lambeg drum and the shouts of drunken revellers. A large crowd had assembled around the bonfire which was now blazing away. A cheer arose as Karol Woytyla, the former Bishop of Krakow went up in flames.

The crowd was oblivious to the radio news bulletin coming from a nearby house.

“You’re tuned to Radio Ulster and here is the news read by Wendy McNesbitt. The General Post Office in Dublin has tonight reported the theft of a valuable statue. The marble figure of Cúchulainn, mythological warrior hero of ancient Ulster went missing from the premises. There were no signs of forced entry and Garda forensic experts are baffled as to the statue’s mysterious disappearance. Both Loyalist and Republican sources have denied any involvement in the crime.” Meanwhile Sammy’s screams continued on into the night. Cúchulainn may well have returned home, but where was he when you needed him?