Round in Circles

An article on my book “In Complete Circles” has appeared in the local magazine Omagh Today. Thanks to Claire Martin for the publicity.

“…In Complete Circles – an irreverent, laugh-out-loud, nostalgia-laden memoir/travelogue that takes a hilarious journey down memory lane…”

Please note: This is a quote from the article and not my own words!


In Complete Circles
is available from Amazon at a very reasonable price.


A Limerick Limerick

To celebrate Limerick being named as 2014 City of Culture (@Limerick2014), I’ve penned a limerick about Limerick:

The Limerick Limerick

A city on the banks of the Shannon

Renowned for its rugby and gammon

Though it’s not quite Paris

It spawned Richard Harris

A man who could drink like a salmon

The Irish Post on “In Complete Circles”

IRISH POST SEPT 2013 ii 001The Irish Post newspaper has published an interview with me about my book “In Complete Circles” which it describes as “an entertaining and esoteric memoir“. I found the following two quotes particularly gratifying:

In Complete Circles does display a stream of consciousness which at times could be Joycean, combining the mundane with the exotic”


“With In Complete Circles Ciaran Ward has devised an excellent vehicle to carry his insight, not just into life in Tyrone, but in fact into the whole human condition.”

Thanks to Mal Rogers for the kind words.

In Complete Circles is available from Amazon at the very reasonable price of £5.47 (paperback) of £4.62 (Kindle).

Another shameless plug…

ICC Press Release 002

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

Available now from Amazon for £4.95 or $10.50 or €8.24 (in Italy), €8.12 (in France), €8.56 in Germany, €7.90 (in Spain).

Previews available.

“In Complete Circles” book published

I’m relieved to finally announce at long last that my book In Complete Circles:  The Memoirs & Travels of an Ageing Schoolboy has finally been published after almost two years of graft.  Copies can be ordered from Amazon – which also lets you have  a look inside.  More extracts can be found on this blog.

ICC cover 001ICC cover 002
“A comic and at times irreverent memoir of school life and adolescence in a Northern Irish town during the 1980s and early 1990s with accompanying rants on the absurdities of modern life, nostalgic reminiscences on the news events and popular culture of the era and the subsequent fulfillment of youthful ambitions through travelling, sometimes verging on the surreal. This book is part memoir, part travelogue. The chapters alternate between episodes from the author’s school days and subsequent travel writings (incorporating the Baltic states, Australia, New Zealand, Romania, Spain and Morocco) from several years later – but always with a connecting theme linking the two eras. Examples include a schoolboy fascination with horror films linking a visit to Transylvania, daily reports of the Balkan war during the author’s schooldays in the early ’90s linking a tour of the region 15 years later –and a childhood addiction to tangerines with dreams of trekking through the Sahara on camelback leading to a trip to Morocco.”

Thanks to all who provided me with the valuable support and encouragement during the writing of the book!

Caption Competition: When Marty met Betty

To commemorate the historic meeting between Queen Elizabeth II and Martin McGuinness I’m running a caption competition with a special prize for the winner.

I’ll kick things off with my own contribution – and before you ask – I’m not eligible to win – but even if I was it’s unlikely I would win it!

QUEEN:  I remember you when you used to sing with that nice Paul Simon.

MMcG:  I’ve built a few bridges over troubled waters since then.  Just ask Mrs Robinson!

QUEEN:  Yes I’m sure one’s day will come. (Moves swiftly on to have a more in-depth conversation with Michael D.)


In the last few weeks three great names in the field of Irish comic entertainment exited the earthly stage for the very last time to ascend to the great theatre in the sky.  The first to go was veteran actor David Kelly, probably best known for his role as cowboy builder O’Reilly in Fawlty Towers.  Hal “He told me that I have a cult following, at least I think that’s what he said” Roach passed away last week, but the most famous of three was no doubt Frank Carson.  Phil “Wear they dope cap” Larkin pays tribute to the wise-cracking Belfastman.

Before reading it check out this classic clip from the Clive Anderson show circa 1990.

It is with bittersweet feelings that I sit down to write this piece about Frank Carson, the recently deceased Belfast comedian. He leaves many of us, whatever our creed or background, feeling a real sense of loss, even though, by any standards, he enjoyed a long and fulfilled life. I, and probably CW also, grew up with him: he was part of the cult ITV Saturday morning “childrens'” show TISWAS, a role which he could have been born to play. His anarchic and nonstop humour meant that he stole the show in any TISWAS scenes in which he appeared. In my memory he appears almost as an animated cartoon character, with his laughing, chubby features, thick horn-rimmed glasses, and cheeky grin radiating good humour and mischief. There is one word which I think best sums him up: he was a real “character.” In a period when Northern Ireland was characterised on the media by dour faced politicians and bombings, he showed a side of local people which was rarely seen, namely our love of fun and “good crack.”  He was blessed with a great gift: he knew how to make people laugh, often at themselves, in a way which rarely offended. Although from Belfast, the industrial nature of the city and the gritty humour of its inhabitants meant that he slotted well into the Northern English Variety show circuit, where he indeed learned much of his trade. His personality and style of humour fitted alongside people like Les Dawson and Cannon and Ball, all of whom he was great friends with. Unsurprisingly, both Roy Walker and Jimmy Cricket were also friends.

Over the past few days I have been looking at old video footage of him on the BBC news website obituaries, telling jokes which would probably have been regarded as old by the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Without fail, I found myself laughing along with them, quite simply, because of “the way he told them.” He could enliven the most stale punchline with an infectious laugh and often a funny face which I defy anyone to resist reciprocating with a laugh of their own, and by the peak of his career had perfected the machine gun Ulster patter which became his trademark. Frank never hesitated to laugh at himself, and seemed to acknowledge that much of material was a bit on the dated side, to say the least and, (I know that CW will appreciate this!) when he appeared on the Paddy Kielty show he said loudly (as he said everything) that he had come on the show to get some of his old material back! Kielty just looked embarrassed!  [Yes, I most certainly do appreciate this!  CW]

I suppose he came from that generation of northern (Northern England and Northern Ireland) club comedians who really had “come up the hard way.” As Les Dawson said about the northern club circuit: “If they liked you they didn’t applaud – they let you live!” As a Belfast Catholic, he once explained in an interview, without bitterness or rancour, how difficult it was in his youth to find good employment, and after unsuccessful stints as an electrician and a plasterer, he, like many of his contemporaries, joined the British Army. Although too young to see service in World War II, he served as an acting corporal in Palestine in 1945 – 1948 in the Parachute Regiment, fighting against both Arab and Jew. One of his obituaries stated that he personally shot dead a terrorist suspect attempting to escape from captivity. Perhaps people like Frank had to develop a keen sense of humour to protect themselves from the horror and hurt of their circumstances. After his military service, he entered showbiz, and began building a career on Ulster Television, winning the talent show “Opportunity Knocks” twice. However, his real big break came with the ITV 1970s show “The Comedians”, which made people like him, Jim Bowen, and Charlie Williams household names throughout the UK and Ireland. I fully acknowledge how talented a writer Ben Elton is, and I also take on board Alexei Sayle’s criticisms of comedians like Carson and Bernard Manning, but perhaps Alexei does not make enough allowances for the background and era which such comedians came from. Frank Carson did make me laugh, while Elton mouthing off about the iniquities of Thatcherism in a faux cockney voice just does not do it for me. 

[On a point of information, Phil, Stephen Fry states in his autobiography that Ben Elton actually does speak with this accent in real life, as do his brother and sister apparently.  And while we’re on the subject of Alexei Sayle slagging off other comics, he also apparently also had a go at Ben Elton for selling out his former principles as an anti-establishment enfant terrible by writing smash hit West End musicals with Andrew Lloyd-Webber.  CW].

Carson did, however, have a serious side, just like all comedians. I remember once he was interviewed after a bombing incident during one of his visits to Belfast, and he said, forthrightly, that this was the reason why he could never live in the City again. He was clearly both upset and angry. His humour also belied a deep knowledge of political, Parliamentary, and electoral history, and a genuine interest in the arena of politics. One matter of special interest to him was the ending of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, which gave rise to intense activism on his part for the cause of integrated education. He was also mayor of Balbriggan twice, a town just north of Dublin.

Given some of the reports of journalists who travelled with him on his tours and campaigns, I get the impression that he could be exhausting company at times: he simply could not stop! As Spike Milligan quipped, the difference between Frank Carson and the M1 was that you could actually turn off the M1! Chat show hosts and producers took him on to their shows at their own risk: he would simply dominate the show and interrupt other guests, insisting on being at the centre of attention at all times.  [As the above clip from Clive Anderson wil testify} CW

I would have liked to have met him in person, but will just have to make do with having seen him as “Buttons” in Cinderella at the Grand Opera House, where our first year class at grammar school went on an outing to the pantomime in early 1986. He was brilliant in the role. After his passing much was made of the fact that his fact that his family was of Italian descent, but little was said about his mother, who actually hailed from Dublin. During 1982-1983 my two tradesmen brothers worked on the sheltered housing project where she lived, and still remember her as a lovely, gentle old lady who would make tea and buy in cream buns especially for the workmen on the project. Frank came himself to open the project when it was finished, and when he had ended his brief speech, he said “I’d better go off and be funny now!” The rather curmudgeonly site foreman, a bloke from Newry called Billy Dinsmore, who was clearly no fan of Frank, remarked audibly and caustically: “Humpf, that’ll be the day!!” To his eternal credit, Carson saw the funny side to the remark and took it in good grace.

I do not believe that we will see his like again. The generation of comedians which he represented are now passing from the stage gradually and steadily, although their descendants are still discernible, in the form of people like Peter Kay.

When he met Pope John Paul II, he was asked by the Pontiff whether he had ever met Elvis. Frank replied: “No, but it won’t be long now!” I hope that he is now together with his close friends and family, making them all laugh up there. 

[Apparently his family issued a statement saying something to the effect of “Now that Frank’s gone it will be a lot quieter here.  But God help the ones up there!]  CW

Rest in Peace, Frank.

Memoirs Part V: A Bird in the Hand

Peri - the joys of being a young Dr Who fan in the mid-80s

[“Bushmen of the Kalahari”][/caption]

It wasn't just Zammo...

“Places to avoid include almost all of Co Tyrone, which has so many non-descript, grim one-horse towns you can hear the collective hooves clop from across the border in Donegal. I have found next to nothing to see or visit in that county”

Henry McDonald, the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent

Henry McDonald, Tyrone’s version of Salman Rushdie will probably have no interest in the fact that I grew up in the largest of these grim one-horse towns.

It was the early autumn of 1986. For the first time in their history Tyrone were in the All Ireland final against the mighty Kerry. There was much excitement, and the school could claim a few past pupils among the Tyrone players. That summer I’d spent three weeks in Donegal at an Irish language college, supposedly learning the niceties of the Irish language. I shared a room with three chancers from Greencastle and Carrickmore called Bradley, Teague and Hughes. It was a rite of passage for many Irish schoolchildren. The place was called Machaire Rabartaigh (or Magheroarty) on the rugged north-west coast of the county with a view of Tory Island – the island whose name bizarrely became the alternative moniker for the British Conservative party – in the distance.
How ironic that the political party of the British establishment, a club of Old Etonians and aristocrats should be named after a windswept treeless island off Ireland’s rugged Atlantic north coast.

One of the big chart hits that year was the anti-drugs song “Just Say No” by the cast of the then popular TV series set in a London secondary school Grange Hill. You can see the video here.

I watched it for the first time in over 20 years and found it to be so embarrassingly cringeworthy – the hairstyles, the clothes, the music – it was almost painful to look at. At least it was all for a good cause.

One of the leading characters Zammo had become a heroin addict, a storyline devised to discourage young people from going down that route.
I even got to meet the boy who played Zammo and his screen girlfriend Jackie when they visited the local leisure centre as part of the town’s annual arts festival. I was the proud owner of another celebrity autograph to add the collection alongside that of former Dr Whos Peter Davison and the late Jon Pertwee as well as that of international footballer Pat Jennings.
There was even a boy at school nicknamed Zammo in honour of the character. I don’t know what became of him, but I’m sure he didn’t follow in the footsteps of his Grange Hill namesake.

The Dr Who Years
A small group of us ran a Doctor Who fan club – or appreciation society as we preferred to call it – chiefly organised by an older boy called Mark Doherty, a martial arts enthusiast, and an amateur photographer/film-maker, who in a few years time would go on to forge a successful reputation as “DJ Marco” on the local disco and hospital radio circuit . His highly original nickname was “Doc” – as was the case with virtually every other boy at the school called Doherty – and there were quite a few. Nicknames, not surprisingly followed a general pattern you see. If your name was Murphy, you’d be known as Smurf. If your name was Brian O’Donnell you’d be called Bod. If your name was Seamus O’Connor you’d be referred to as Soc and so on. But most nicknames simply just involved adding a Y or an O to the individuals’ surname . Another club member was a more anarchic lad in the same year as Doc called Brendan Bankfield, whose highly imaginative nickname was Fieldy. He had an explosion of upstanding hair and was studying art, drawing inspiration from the morbid, gothic imagery of heavy metal album covers. He showed us one of his masterpieces. As homework the art teacher had set the class an assignment entitled “Back to school – an environmental study”. Fieldy’s interpretation of the theme was a boy in school uniform hanging by the neck from a tree, with his tie as the noose.

Our club meetings were held Friday afternoons after classes had ended in the school lecture theatre. We would watch old Doctor Who episodes of very dodgy quality. These generally came from friend of a friend of a friend an uncle of a colleague of a friend of a “contact” who knew someone who worked in the BBC archives department and had smuggled out illegally copied videotapes of old episodes . So what we were watching was effectively a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy (etc) on videotape. These were the days before digital recording technology, DVDs and downloads. Or alternatively if you had penfriends in Australia which was several years behind in the episode schedules they could send you tapes.
We would have debates on who the best Doctor was, quizzes where we would impress each other with knowing who the second boom microphone operator on Terror of the Zogdats broadcast on the 12th of March 1967 was. We were basically a bunch of nerdy 13-year olds who attracted much derision from our classmates.

It should be noted that Doctor Who was not the big budget, highly popular and successful phenomena it is now. Back then the original series was dying a slow painful death and was considered very uncool. But part of me enjoyed being on the receiving end of the derision. Part of me revelled in the nerd tag. I felt I was part of an elite minority. It would take a few more years to realise how deluded I’d been.

It wasn’t the sort of hobby you would hope to meet girls through.

However, one of the main attractions of Doctor Who from an adolescent male point of view is the high quality of the lead character’s young female assistants. The girl in the role back then was certainly no exception. She was a whiney American called Peri who often wore low cut tops exposing ample amounts of cleavage. A cynical ploy on the part of the production team to boost the already flagging ratings of washed-up TV show in terminal decline no doubt – but we weren’t complaining.

One particular teacher, TJ O’Loughlin took an interest in our club. He would occasionally pop his head around the door to lend us some moral support, impressed that we were doing this through our own intiative and without any outside interference. But he would deliberately keep his distance so as not to be seen to be interfering.
He was one of the last of a dying breed, the genuinely eccentric teacher. I suppose every grammar school must have had one or two of them back in the day. Something of a renaissance man, he ran the school chess club, worked as a part time attendant at the local swimming pool and was an occasional actor with the town’s drama society.

He once challenged the whole class to a bet about cannibal chickens – which he won and pocketed his winnings.
He was a regular visitor to Eastern Europe in the days of the Iron Curtain and one of his claims to fame was that he was one of only two men in the town who could speak Polish. Since the expansion of the European Union and the movement of labour from east to west I’m sure the town has at least a few dozen Polish speakers these days.

Since retiring from teaching he’s become a prominent spokesman for minority rights. An interesting career move to say the least.

Such was his influence on a generation of pupils that the former head boy Sean Daly at the 1993 prize-giving night paid tribute to “our swimming French teacher who has since followed in a different dimension”.

At this time one of the popular playground games was the rather sadistic and violent “killerball”, a variation on the less harmful game of handball. About 20 boys would stand beside the wall of the school. A small rubber ball would be thrown against the wall with great force. If it hit you on the rebound you would get a kicking. It was the element of living dangerously that appealed, something that many of us would get addicted to over the coming years. But that’s another story altogether…

Memoirs of an Ageing Schoolboy (Nostalgic reminiscences on schooldays in a Co. Tyrone town during the 1980s and ’90s – coming out soon in paperback) Episode 2

John "Crokey" Smith

    Episode 2: (Christian) Brothers in Arms

My secondary education during the mid-1980s to the early 1990s from the age of 11 to 18 was formed at a Christian Brothers grammar school. The order has come in for much criticism of late in the wake of the major abuse scandals which rocked Irish society. But like any other sub-group in any society it was swings and roundabouts. There were good brothers and bad brothers. And mad brothers. By the time I had left the school there were very few of them left, but the “brotherly” principal was a despotic Kerryman called McC____ [Details suppressed for legal reasons] – known (not exactly affectionately) to the pupils as “Crokey” – and to most of the teachers as something unprintable. He resembled a taller leaner version of the former British Labour Party leader John Smith. In response to his supposedly dictatorial regime, a self-styled schoolboy “terrorist” group called the Pupils Liberation Organisation (PLO) was active at the time – but more on them later.

Retreat from Reality
Being a religious school, retreats were compulsory. They served little practical purpose though. Sending a bunch of unruly, frustrated adolescent boys oozing with hormones on a residential course of supposed spiritual renewal was a recipe for disaster. Although their purpose was supposedly to provide sacred reflection in the tradition of the school’s ethos, they were in reality, a complete waste of time – a view that I’m sure many of the teachers would even share. These retreats were usually chaired by an earnest young priest who liked to think he was in touch with the angst and frustrated minds of the modern youth. On one such event in the spring of 1991 was held at an old priory in the historic village of Benburb – a place famous for the 1646 Battle of Benburb.
The unfortunate youngish priest presiding over this supposed course of spiritual renewal happened to be German. For convenience purposes let’s just call him “Father Von Schumacher”. Unusually for priests of the day he had a moustache, and so as to appear more down-to-earth and informal he chose to dress in civilian clothes rather than the normal black garb and clerical collar. The cringe-worthy events which ensued were like that famous episode of Fawlty Towers about the German guests. Cue goose-stepping around the grounds, Nazi salutes, felt-tip pen Hitler moustaches drawn on upper lips, etc. Needless to say the war was mentioned once or twice.
The next day the entire class was hauled before the teacher in charge, a well-known county GAA official, who had a few stern words to say. Given the troubled political situation of the time he said he could understand why we were “angry young men”, but why did we have to take it out on this harmless man simply because of his nationality?

The following year – my last year at the school the retreat was residential. The high jinks on this excursion were even worse…