Helen's Bay, County Down, Northern Ireland
Poem of the Month, Poetry

Poem of the Month -Neither an Elegy Nor a Manifesto, by John Hewitt

I’ve just discovered the poetry of Belfast-born writer John Hewitt, which is a shocking oversight for someone writing a novel based in Belfast during the Troubles.  But then his name is somewhat overshadowed by those other dazzling Northern Irish luminaries:  Seamus Heaney, Louis MacNeice, CS Lewis and Frank Ormsby. I read the poem below and immediately ordered a copy of his Selected Poems, which I’ve been devouring ever since.

If I could put into so few words my sense of conflicted pride, identity, loyalty, pain and longing for Northern Ireland, they would read like this poem, which was chosen to be read out at the site of the Omagh car bombing on the tenth anniversary of the atrocity in 1998, where thirty-one people were murdered by the Real IRA splinter group, who opposed the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement. This poem also came to mind when I read of the decision to prosecute “Soldier F” for the murder of civilians during 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry/Londonderry

Very unusually for the period, my Northern Irish parents were “mixed”, that is, one was Protestant, the other Catholic. My relationship with my Northern Irish heritage and identity, my fellow countrymen and women and how they have affected my family, and the families of most people I know from the region can be read in Hewitt’s appeal to “bear in mind” the dead.

Remembrance, loyalty and justice are words that have been worn out on all sides by the spilling of so much blood, and by a willingness to turn away from deeds committed in a country of incredible natural beauty and otherwise welcoming inhabitants; a time, place and people that are still overlooked and misunderstood by many.

John Hewitt: Selected Poems

NEITHER AN ELEGY NOR A MANIFESTO

BY JOHN HEWITT (1972)

For the people of my province
and the rest of Ireland

Bear in mind these dead:
I can find no plainer words.
I dare not risk using
that loaded word, Remember,
for your memory is a cruel web
threaded from thorn to thorn across
a hedge of dead bramble, heavy
with pathetic atomies.

I cannot urge or beg you
to pray for anyone or anything,
for prayer in this green island
is tarnished with stale breath,
worn smooth and characterless
as an old flagstone, trafficked
with journeys no longer credible
to lost destinations.

The careful words of my injunction
are unrhetorical, as neutral
and unaligned as any I know:
they propose no more than thoughtful response;
they do not pound with drum-beats
of patriotism, loyalty, martyrdom.

So I say only: bear in mind
those men and lads killed in the streets;
but do not differentiate between
those deliberately gunned down
and those caught by unaddressed bullets:
such distinctions are not relevant.

Bear in mind the skipping child hit
by the anonymous ricochet;
the man shot at his own fireside
with his staring family round him;
the elderly woman
making tea for the firemen
when the wall collapsed;
and the garrulous neighbours at the bar
when the bomb exploded near them;
the gesticulating deaf-mute stilled
by the soldier’s rifle in the town square;
and the policeman dismembered
by the booby-trap in the car.
I might have recited a pitiful litany
of the names of all the dead:
but these could effectively be presented
only in small batches,
like a lettered tablet in a village church,
valid while everyone knew everyone,
or longer, where a family name persists.

Accident, misfortune, disease, coincidence
of genetic factors or social circumstance,
may summon courage, resolution, sympathy,
to whatever level one is engaged.
Natural disasters of lava and hurricane,
famine or flood in far countries, will evoke
compassion for the thin-shanked 
survivors.

Patriotism has to do with keeping
the country in good heart, the community
ordered with justice and mercy;
these will enlist loyalty and courage often,
and sacrifice, sometimes even martyrdom.
Bear these eventualities in mind also;
they will concern you forever:
but, at this moment, bear in mind these dead.

 

And The Buntings Flew, My writing, Reading and Books, Writing

Begin at The Beginning -Does My Novel Need a Prologue?

I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot, since, well, the beginning of this new year.  I’m currently reviewing my manuscript for And The Buntings Flew, having put it away for a few months; that distance allowed me to clean up what I’ve written to date, and forge on with the story. I’ve now got 35,000 words that have been through a couple of rigorous self-edits, and a further 15,000 words of raw dialogue and plot points to revise; that’s more than half of the planned novel length!

But one major issue remained unresolved –  how the novel would open. I’ve written three blocks of text that I couldn’t choose between, and they sat untethered to the main story at the start of the manuscript:

  1. A prologue
  2. Some historical background to the story, and
  3. The start of the action.

It seems obvious now that the story should start at the latest point in the action where the story proper begins, but I had such a lot of good historical background info that pertained to the current story; I had to get it in somewhere, and I also wanted to set the scene with a tableau from the story; where to start?

The Prologue

There’s lots of advice out there about prologues, but the only consensus is “proceed with caution”. When deciding whether to start with my prologue, I considered the following:

  • My prologue wasn’t overly long (about 500 words)
  • The prologue was from the POV of the main character and narrator
  • The prologue featured a vignette from the story, but wasn’t something that I couldn’t include in the main story; it did however set the scene.
  • The prologue wasn’t the scene of a violent or tumultuous event
  • I wasn’t using it as an information dump
  • I wasn’t trying to cram in relevant historical information.  I resisted the temptation to drop a lot of context in the prologue; it was simply the main character and a vignette from her day.

So was the prologue necessary? Was it boring? It was quite short (about three paragraphs and not much happens in it, although it gives a few clues to some other main character motivations and points of view.) Would this turn off readers before they even got to Chapter One, or would they just skip the prologue altogether?

The prologue was pertinent to the story that followed;  it was the perspective of the main character, but was it setting the scene for the main character’s arc? I wasn’t sure about that.  It wasn’t throwing the reader into the middle of any battles, betrayals, plot twists etc, which would be confusing. But, could I incorporate the details contained in the prologue into the main story?

Another point I considered was a quote from The Writer’s Digest’s Brian Klems:  When To Use a Prologue

“A prologue is used when material that you want to include in the opening is out of time sequence with the rest of the story.

On reflection I decided that the scene and its implications in the prologue could be revealed organically through the action; the events were close to the start of the novels’ opening, they weren’t out of time sequence, and would naturally fit after the first main action scene.  So I deleted the prologue from the main manuscript (although I saved it in another file, just in case!), and turned my attention to the next chunk of text that was jostling for pole position in my novel:

(Historical) Background Information

If I’m not including a prologue, how will I share key historical background information with the reader fairly soon into the main story? And The Buntings Flew is set in Belfast during the mid-1970s when The Troubles were in full, devastating swing.

After living here for forty years, I’m still astonished at how few people on the British mainland understand the intricacies of The Troubles; many people assumed my father, with his broad “Norn Iron” accent, was from the Republic of Ireland, or was automatically a Nationalist supporter;  he was frequently asked if he supported the IRA.

With this in mind, I want to include a potted history of the Troubles and the sociopolitical history behind them fairly early on, as an understanding of the Troubles will help the reader follow the story and its themes. To do so, however, you could end up summarising events back to the 1600s!

The Northern Irish are a people with a long memory, and events such as the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, the 1912 Ulster Covenant, the Home Rule Movement and Act of 1914, the 1921 Partition of Ireland and the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960’s are part of the political landscape still, with events such as the annual 12th July parades celebrating the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II.

Obviously, I don’t need to cover all of these events in detail, but it’s important to have a passing understanding of the historical events that led to the Troubles,  which are the background to my story. Although some events are fictionalized, my story is based on real events, so I want the novel to reflect as accurately as possible the landscape of 1970s’ Belfast.

But I also don’t want to scare off readers with huge chunks of historical text; originally, my plan was to incorporate some history via the narrator, as part of the first chapter, but that slowed the action down. If I just had a footnote to add, it might be fine, but as noted above, there’s quite a lot of historical context to understand the situation in 1970s (and current) Northern Ireland, and some readers may have little knowledge of the history behind the events that are central to my story.

The background history I wanted to include was a good two to three pages, a mix of family history intertwined with the history of NI. I thought of having a prologue dealing with the history, via family members, but  when I dropped the prologue,  I toyed with starting chapter one with a rundown on key events; I decided this was too much of an ask for the reader, who at that point would have no idea how long the history lesson would be, with no framework of the main story  visible yet.

In the end, I decided to jump straight into the action with the catalyst event at the start of chapter one,  and introduce most of the main characters and their situations.  Having given the reader a glimpse of the characters, I felt more comfortable dropping some history in chapter two, before resuming the main plot.

I now feel that the manuscript flows; it gets to the story immediately and introduces key characters, leaving a detailed look at the family (and province’s) history to the next chapter. As chapter one has some fairly high stakes events, a page or two of history gives the reader time to absorb what’s just happened before continuing with the story. It feels like a more cohesive read; the vignette from the prologue will be worked into the main story, so nothing is left, and much gained, by streamlining the start of the story.

I’d be interested to hear your views on using prologues and whether your story was well served by including one?

Postscript: A couple of people have asked me about the building in the header image above; it’s the Garrick Bar in Chichester Street, Belfast.

Folklore and History, Food, Travel

Happy Nollaig na mBan, 12th Night, Epiphany 2019!

We took down the last of our Christmas decorations today, as we always do on the 6th January, or the Epiphany; it’s a tradition carried on from my own mother, who insisted almost fearfully that every last scrap of tinsel and turkey must begone by this date, or a calamitous year of bad luck would lie ahead.

I recall as a very young child the decorations coming down and then a visit to one of my mother’s friends for a cup of tea and maybe something light to eat; a cake maybe, or biscuits.

It wasn’t until much later that I recognized this as a hangover from the old Irish tradition of Nollaig na mBan, or  Little Christmas/Women’s Christmas, which is seeing something of a resurgence in the Republic of Ireland, and which my mother’s family may have observed as Catholics.

Nollaig na mBan (pronounced something like “Null-ag na Mon”) marks not only the end of the 12 days of Christmas, the Epiphany, and the deadline for many for the removal of Christmas frippery, but also the day when hard-working Irish wives and mothers would be granted a much-needed break after feeding their large families throughout the Christmas period. Menfolk and children would pick up the reins for this day, while their women met for a break, a breather, a natter and maybe something to eat.

I’d like to state that this was an outdated notion by the time of my childhood (1970s), but alas the tradition, if not the name of the day, was still in full force in most of the families we knew.

Coincidentally my husband prepared Sunday lunch today as I untangled the garden lights and nodding reindeers, once more retired to the garage for eleven months or so, but I’m glad to say that this was a coincidence; I no longer have to slave until the first week in January to get parity of workload around the house for a single day.

So as I boil the kettle for a refreshing cup of Punjana, I wish mammies around the world, Irish or otherwise, a happy Nollaig na mBan, while simultaneously hoping devoutly that it’s just a symbolic break for them, and that the division of labour is more enlightened in their families. img_2246

The Codsway Chip Shop, Bushmills, Northern Ireland
And The Buntings Flew, Food, Travel

For Cod, and Ulster – Northern Ireland’s Enduring Love of Chip Shops

This is a post I wrote on my family history blog in July that I meant to crosspost sooner;  it’s a short musing on food and language in Northern Ireland, both important themes in much of my writing!

via For Cod, and Ulster – Northern Ireland’s Enduring Love of Chip Shops

And The Buntings Flew, My writing, Travel, Writing

June ’18 Update – More Flash Fiction, and Seeking Inspiration for My Writing

Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else. – Tennessee Williams

Sometimes, rather than peace coming to me “dropping slow“, it’s inspiration. The inspiration to realise my writing dreams waxes and wanes, given the daily grind of job, commute, and paying the bills. Waiting for inspiration doesn’t get things done, and it can be interminably slow in showing up. So slow that it starts to rival the Tar pitch experiment.  

But some things do inspire me and give that drip of pitch a helpful jiggle; for example when another piece of my flash fiction is published Enchanted  is a 100-word mini-fantasy tale of a modern fairy with very traditional views of mankind.  The story has been published at 101 Fiction;  please take a moment or ten to have a read of some of the flash fiction that John Xero is publishing; I especially loved a couple of this month’s stories.

As I’ve written on here previously, flash and short fiction for me is fun, but ultimately a distraction. It’s working without getting the real job done. It’s cleaning the oven when I should be writing my thesis, spring cleaning when I should be researching 1970s Irish fashion and politics.

My dream voyage is to write novels, good novels; with gripping stories, something to say about the nature of humanity and something that I can look back on as jobs well done. As my legacy in fact. Fine, lofty goals, but they require hard work and persistence, planning and delivery, in the face of the daily grind, the daily annoyances and disappointments, or just the daily can’t-be-bothered. If I wait for inspiration, they will languish in the electronic drawer of my Dropbox, forever.

Yesterday was a nice day; cloudy, with bursts of sunshine.  I wanted to go out with my husband, but we had to wait at home until 1pm. Then the question was; what do we do now? I couldn’t think of what to do, a destination that wouldn’t involve long drives in a hot car. But I wanted an experience to round out the day. In the end, we “just” went for a walk, along a river, with no destination in mind. That’s not something I’m often comfortable with; I have a project and programme management background in my day job, and I need to have a plan (and a budget) or it’s not happening! But yesterday, I went along with it as I had nothing better to offer.

And we had a lovely time. We found a different route that almost no one else was taking, we strode alongside bushes that trembled with beautiful black and blue butterflies, and we finally reached (on foot) a pub that was on our wishlist, which was as cosy as we’d hoped. We rewarded ourselves for our long walk with a drink or two.

The quote above from Tennessee Williams reminds me; I have to make more voyages, or at least attempt them, because what’s the alternative?

With this in mind, I’ve opened up both my draft novel documents and have renewed my commitment to them both, to complete them! Short fiction might sneak in here and there, but not at the expense of my longer fiction. I might not know how the novels will turn out, but the voyage is not only a worthy quest, it’s an essential part of reaching the goal!

I’ve also booked another week in Northern Ireland in July, to refresh my memory, and to bring new inspiration for And The Buntings Flew. I may discover new butterflies, write about them, and I may have a drink or two. On that note, we discovered the best Guinness in the world (so far) in a pub in beautiful, sleepy Cushendall, on just such another impromptu voyage of discovery; let’s make more voyages, or at the very least, attempt them.

My writing, Writing

The Hand of Kane (revisited)

20160503_062126 (2).jpg
Port of Belfast with Cave Hill in the distance

I re-read my 2017 posts last night and really enjoyed this short mystery story that I wrote for Goodread’s #MysteryWeek in May; the idea is to write a short mystery story in no more than five sentences.

Okay, so I pushed the five-sentence rule to the absolute limits of credulity-twelve hundred words! – so I’ve edited the story to more reasonable sentence lengths while minimising any changes to the structure or flow of the story.

It’s a short revenge story set in the land of my childhood; our last home in Northern Ireland overlooked the outer dock and the shores of Belfast Lough.

***

THE HAND OF KANE

Barbs of rain flayed the granite skin from Napoleon’s Nose and ran down Cave Hill towards the steel-grey lough and the harbour ring road. The forensic team was clearing out, and the peelers were ducking beneath the tape that surrounded the burnt-out Vauxhall Vectra.

“Here’s what we have so far, from the VRN and ID in the vehicle…”

The young RUC officer’s eyes were pasted to his notebook, not wanting to see again the pathetic contents being zipped into the body bag. One glimpse of the dead man’s right hand had been enough, sloughed off skin, the muscle roasted and shrunk to reveal bones. The rest of his body was cherry red, untouched by fire and intact, apart from a crushing bruise over the right temple.

“James Kane, 54 years old, North Belfast, a cashier at the petrol station convenience store up the street, going by the lanyard around his neck.” He waved his hand along the road that loped around this outcrop from the shore, this dreary hinterland of distribution centres and the outer harbour ferry terminal.

“Thon’s Jimmy Kane – your man did a twenty stretch for shooting those wee Quinn lads, Catholic brothers they were, in the 70s, yonder down the road on the Jennymount estate,” his older companion and superior, Swanson, replied.

“Surprised he’s lasted this long outside – could be a Republican revenge hit. Come on Corr, we’ve had another call, possible suicide down at the city port – still feel like a bite to eat?”

The port of Belfast authority staff had taped a cordon on the dockside, where the body lay close to the ferry that was looming, waiting to return across the North channel to Cairnryan.

“We didn’t see him here for a wee while down there, at the bottom of the rock wall”, explained a harassed port authority supervisor, wiping his forehead, sweaty despite the biting breeze scuttering over the water. The body lay, half in the grey water, snagged on the gabion walls that augmented the natural quayside – male, medium height, rail thin, age maybe mid-sixties.

The trajectory was clear to all who saw his broken body; he’d leaped from the ferry, but not the one currently docked; had they really not noticed him here for four hours, Swanson wondered, dragging his fat, inexorable finger down the printed ferry timetable he was handed by the port supervisor. The previous ferry had docked just before seven this morning.

There was some connection between these two deaths, he mulled, and when Corr called Swanson’s attention to the pair of well-worn leather gloves that lay on the ground just above the body, he knew there was more to this than the suicide of two auld fellas; he had a hunch that probed his hardened but not sclerotic sensibilities, and chilled him more than the wet salt wind that dove deep into the fissures of his craggy features.

Pathology was pending, but the reports would confirm what Swanson knew; Jimmy Kane was knocked out by a mighty blow to the head and left in his still-running car with a hose from the exhaust. He suffered third-degree burns to his right hand, probably inflicted from the half-full canister of petrol by the car.

But it was the body by the ferry that held the key to the double deaths, and it told a tale as old as mankind; 64-year-old Harry Doran, born Harold Kane, elder brother to the deceased in the car, was an exile from Norn Iron for forty years.

The appointment card in his pocket for colorectal cancer treatment suggested he would soon be a permanent exile if he hadn’t taken his own way out, and the door to door plods working the neighbourhood of Jimmy’s home had convinced Swanson there was no need to pull in anyone else, Catholic or otherwise.

Jimmy Kane never moved from his birthplace, reveling in his notoriety, even taking a job close to the home of his victim’s long-suffering parents, but Harry left the province after his brother’s conviction, returning only now when he had his own death sentence –

“But Sarge”, blurted Corr, following this line of reasoning only so far, “I can see he might have wanted to off his brother, family disgrace and all that, although that doesn’t happen too often around here, but this hand and glove business; is it something to do with the flegs?”*

“You’re on the right road”, interrupted Swanson. “My theory is that Harry burned his brother’s hand to show it was a revenge killing, the Red Hand of Ulster and all that; but as to the gloves, take a gander at the items found on Doran’s body.”

He handed a printed sheet to Corr, who scanned the list, none the wiser:

  • Appointment card for Oncology Department, Royal Marsden Hospital
  • Order of service card for funeral of Mrs. Roberta Doran, dated one week previously
  • Leather wallet, same brand as the gloves found on deceased, containing cash and a one-way ferry ticket to Belfast
  • A pocket bible, Old and New Testament
  • Three news articles cut from the Belfast Telegraph, various dates; the oldest one covering the 1974 retaliation murder of brothers Matthew and Mark Quinn, a later story about tension in the community after Jimmy Kane was employed close to his victim’s family, and an article on the history and myths surrounding the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster.

Shakily underlined in felt tip pen on the third sheet of paper, worn smooth from being handled and folded many times, was the following passage:

Some myths tell of a time when Ulster was without a king so a boat race was held; the one whose hand first touched the shore of Ulster would win the crown. One contestant, seeing that he was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus winning the race.


* Author’s note – “flegs” is how the people of Belfast pronounce the word ‘flag’, but is also used in discussions to encapsulate the opposing loyalist and republican viewpoints of the topic of flags, and when and where they are erected in Northern Ireland, a hotly debated topic that has erupted into violence in the past.

Link to the story on Goodreads

And The Buntings Flew, My writing, Writing

#MysteryWeek on Goodreads – My Five Sentence Original Mystery

20160503_062126 (2).jpg
Port of Belfast with Cave Hill in the distance

It’s nearly May, and as well as hopes for warmer (or at least consistent) weather, my thoughts have turned to murder mysteries and crime; May 1st – 7th is Mystery Week on Goodreads, and I’m taking part this year!

Goodreads have organised a raft of activities for mystery writers and readers between the 1st and 7th of May; use hashtag #MysteryWeek to search for new stories on social media, including the five sentence mystery feature;  below is my offering, which you can also find listed on my Goodreads writing page; I’ve also answered an Ask the Author question on Goodreads that specifically relates to #Mystery week; links to all of these below the story!

In my five (very long) sentence story, my mind took fancy with the revenge motif, but some of the incidents in this story are based on a real life tragedy and also figure in my upcoming novel And the Buntings Flew, which constant readers will know is set in 1970’s Troubles-torn Northern Ireland.

***

THE HAND OF KANE

Barbs of rain flayed the skin from Napoleon’s Nose and lashed down Cave Hill towards the steel-grey lough and the harbour ring road, where the forensic team had finished off and the peelers were ducking beneath the tape that surrounded the burnt-out Vauxhall Vectra:

“Here’s what we have so far, from the VRN and ID in the vehicle” – the young RUC officer’s eyes were pasted to his notebook, not wanting to see again the pathetic contents being zipped into the body bag; one glimpse of the dead man’s right hand was enough, sloughed of skin, the muscle roasted and shrunk to reveal bones, while the rest of his body was cherry red, untouched by fire and intact, apart from a crushing bruise over the right temple;

“James Kane, 54 years old, North Belfast, cashier at the petrol station convenience store up the street, going by the lanyard round his neck”; he waved his arm along the road that loped around this outcrop from the shore, this dreary hinterland of distribution centres and the outer harbour ferry terminal.

“Thon’s Jimmy Kane – your man did a twenty stretch for shooting those wee Quinn lads, Catholic brothers they were, in the 70s, yonder on the Jennymount estate,” his older companion and superior, Swanson, replied; “surprised he’s lasted this long outside – could be a Republican revenge hit – come on Corr, we’ve had another call, possible suicide down at the city port – still feel like a bite to eat?”

The port authority staff had taped a cordon on the dockside, where the body lay close to the ferry that was waiting to return across the North channel to Cairnryan:

“We didn’t see him here for a wee while down there, at the bottom of the rock wall”, explained a harassed port authority supervisor, wiping his forehead, sweaty despite the biting breeze scuttering over the water – the body lay, half in the grey water, snagged on the gabion walls that augmented the natural quayside – male, medium height, rail thin, age maybe mid-sixties, the trajectory was clear to all who saw his body; he’d leapt from the ferry, but not the one currently in dock; had they really not noticed him here for four hours, since the last ferry had docked – there was some connection between these two deaths, and when Corr called Swanson’s attention to the pair of well-worn leather gloves that lay on the ground just above the body, he knew there was more to this than the suicide of two auld fellas; he had a hunch that probed his hardened but not sclerotic sensibilities, and chilled him more than the wet salt wind that dove deep into the fissures of his craggy features.

Pathology was pending, but the reports would confirm what Swanson knew; Jimmy Kane was knocked out by a mighty blow to the head and left in his still-running car with a hose from the exhaust; he had suffered third-degree burns to his right hand, probably inflicted from the half-full canister of petrol by the car, but it was the body by the ferry that told a tale as old as mankind; 64-year-old Harry Doran, born Harold Kane, elder brother to the deceased in the car, and an exile from Norn Iron for forty years; the appointment card in his pocket for colorectal cancer treatment suggested he would soon be a permanent exile if he hadn’t taken his own way out; door to door in the neighbourhood of Jimmy’s home had convinced Swanson there was no need to pull in anyone else, Catholic or otherwise; Jimmy never moved from his birthplace, revelling in his notoriety, even taking a job close to the home of his victim’s long-suffering parents, but Harry left the province after his brother’s conviction, returning only now, when he had his own death sentence –

“But Sarge”, interrupted Corr, following this line of reasoning only so far, “I can see he might have wanted to off his brother, family disgrace and all that, although that doesn’t happen too often around here, but this hand and glove business; is it something to do with the flegs…” –

“You’re on the right road”, interrupted Swanson, “my theory is that Harry burned his brother’s hand to show it was a revenge killing, the Red Hand of Ulster and all that; but as to the gloves, take a gander at the items found on Doran’s body.”

He handed a printed sheet to Corr, who scanned the list, still none the wiser:

Appointment card for Oncology Department, Royal Marsden Hospital
Order of service card for funeral of Mrs. Roberta Doran, dated one week previously
Leather wallet, same brand as the gloves, containing cash and a one-way ferry ticket to Belfast
A pocket bible
Three news articles cut from the Belfast Telegraph; the 1974 retaliation murder of brothers Matthew and Mark Quinn, a later story about tension in the community after Jimmy Kane was employed close to his victim’s family, and a historical article on the myths surrounding the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster; shakily underlined in red felt tip was the following passage – “Some myths tell of a time when Ulster was without a king so a boat race was held; the one whose hand first touched the shore of Ulster would win the crown – one contestant, seeing that he was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus winning the race.”

Twitter #MysteryWeek

Goodreads Ask The Author Mystery Week Question – Margaret McGoverne

Link to the story on Goodreads

And The Buntings Flew, My writing, Writing

My Research Trip to Belfast for “And The Buntings Flew”

I’ve just returned from a  three-day break to Northern Ireland; the trip was definitely a mix of pleasure and writing research – the first thing I did after checking in at the wonderful Europa Hotel (the most bombed hotel in Europe) was to head for the Belfast Central Library Newspaper archive.

And The Buntings Flew, the novel I’m half way through writing, is based in 1970s Northern Ireland, specifically, Belfast and those of you who have read my blog posts will know that it’s at least partly autobiographical, with a  generous pinch of artistic licence.

My research at the newspaper archive bore some fruit, but this success was tinged with sadness and uncertainty; the Troubles left very few families untouched, and I now have to contemplate and investigate the new information I uncovered.

Despite any unease I felt while reading through the microfiches from 1975 and 76, they did offer, for a writer, a wonderful window on the past. I was particularly interested in the world news, and closer to home, the adverts; in 1975 the Northern Ireland government had members warning that if the UK voted to join the EEC (Common Market, and we did), that it would grow from a trade agreement to a federation of European states with a  loss of UK sovereignty, which was a very topical read!

Some of the job adverts would be illegal today; some jobs called for “men”, “Christians”, and the jobs that females could apply for often called for “girls!” Such was life in the 1970s.On the plus side, a three-course meal with entertainment could be had from as little as £1.20 per head at a selection of Belfast hotels and restaurants!

I’ll be posting some more about some of the information I found in the archive library, but for now, I just wanted to post some pictures from our trip of the wonderful places to visit in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland (we confined ourselves to County Antrim on this trip.)

I’m also pleased to relate that I brought back lots of Thompsons Tea and vegetable roll, both Northern Irish treasures that I wrote about in my article lauding the Foods of Ulster!

And The Buntings Flew, My writing, Writing

Flash Fiction March 2016 Part II- “The Poke”

This is just a quick night post to proudly announce that one of my flash fiction stories has been published by Richard Hearn at Paragraph Planet, a brilliant creative writing site that has published one 75-word story every day since 2008. I’m very pleased to have my story featured as the  27th March entry!

Please check the site out, it has an archive of all 1,600 plus stories published, as well as author interviews and bios.

My story’s title is “The Poke”. and it was inspired by my childhood in Belfast, which was vividly brought back to me by the above picture, which I found when adding pins to my Pinterest board And the Buntings Flew.

Margaret

Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira
And The Buntings Flew, Food, Reading and Books, Writing

8 Foods of Ulster featured in “And The Buntings Flew”

I recently read a great article in the Guardian Food in Books series by blogger Kate at The Little Library Cafe; – you can read the latest article here.

Kate writes about the food that features in some of her favourite books, and she often recreates recipes for foods as described in such classics as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Fellowship of The Ring, and Vanity Fair.

I love this idea, and it got me thinking about the food that’s featured in the novel I am  writing, And The Buntings Flew, which is set in 1970s Belfast.The food of Northern Ireland was and still is very traditional, and may seem limited (not much pasta or rice was in evidence, and salads were sorry affairs), but Irish meat, dairy produce and vegetables are of world class quality, and food was often bought fresh from the butchers and grocers, when shopping was a little-and-often affair before the widescale introduction of supermarkets.

Below I’ve listed eight of the Northern Irish food and drinks you can read about in And The Buntings Flew, and if you find yourself in Ulster, please do try as many as you can!

Tea (Lots Of It!)

I may have mentioned this before on here: the Irish are some of the most prolific tea drinkers in the world! Wikipedia lists the Republic of Ireland at number 3, and the UK at number 5 of the highest consumers of tea per capita

Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have their own popular tea brands, one of which is Thompson’s “Punjana”. In the 1970s, the period in Which And The Buntings Flew is set, loose leaf tea was the norm; I still think it’s more flavourful, although spitting out errant tea leaves is one of its drawbacks. One of my memories of my late father is of his never being more than a few feet from either a mug, cup, teapot, flask or bottle of strong white tea.

Punjana teapot, courtesy of punjana.com
Punjana loose leaf teapot, courtesy of Punjana.com

Ulster Fry

The BBC asked if the Ulster Fry was the best-cooked breakfast in the UK, and the answer to that is surely a resounding yes! What’s so special about a wee fry you ask? For me it’s the addition of the Potato and Soda breads, adding a range of glorious flavours and textures that toast simply can’t match. Vegetable roll is also a winning addition to the cooked breakfast, as are the wonderful Irish sausages, which usually have a higher meat content than their mainland counterparts; put them all together and you have a taste extravaganza and a meal that sets you up for the rest of the day!

Ulster Fry by The Hairy Bikers, courtesy of the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgk7mp3
Ulster Fry by The Hairy Bikers, courtesy of the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgk7mp3

Champ

A cheap, simple but wonderful dish celebrating the potato and made even better with flavourful Irish butter; potatoes mashed with butter and milk, with the addition of chopped spring onions, or scallions as they’re known in Northern Ireland. The scallions give the mash a real tangy kick.

Scallion and brown onion champ, courtesy of Voodoo and Sauce.com
Scallion & brown onion champ, courtesy of Voodoo and Sauce.com

 

Dulse

Dulse (Palmaria Palmata) is a strongly flavoured, salty seaweed that grows on the northern coasts of the Atlantic, including Northern Ireland. Dulse is harvested at low tide by hand during the summertime and then dried.Dulse can be found for sale in little plastic bags at markets, fairs and bars; we always bought a few bags on day trips to Ballycastle, where it is also sold at the Ould Lammas Fair in August. It is something of an acquired taste!

By Cwmhiraeth - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16824956
Dulse, by Cwmhiraeth Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16824956

Potato Bread/Farl

Another potato dish, this reminds me of Sunday evening teatimes and was often in evidence if there wasn’t much in for dinner. The main ingredient is leftover mashed potatoes mixed with plain flour, a pinch of salt and a knob of butter or a drop of buttermilk if available. Potato bread is dry fried in a pan or griddle, is quick and easy to make and is absolutely delicious. A true Ulster Fry must include both Potato bread and soda bread, at least in my family!

Soda Bread

Soda bread was created in the 19th century when locals used baking soda and buttermilk for raising agents as a substitute for yeast. Soda bread is divinely soft and fluffy, and is served either fried or sliced with butter (my preference) on its own or as part of an Ulster Fry.

Irish Soda bread, courtesy of blissfuldomesticity.com
Irish Soda bread, courtesy of blissfuldomesticity.com

Yellowman

I have happy memories of munching bagfuls of crunchy bright Yellowman on days out to the seaside, but I haven’t seen it outside Northern Ireland; it is similar in texture to the bags of honeycomb you can still buy at fairs and markets, but chewier, with a hard, rock-like “rind”.

By Wild quinine - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yellowman_honeycomb_comparison.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36019713
Yellowman, by Wild quininehttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yellowman_honeycomb_comparison.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36019713

 

Vegetable Roll

The name “vegetable roll” is a total misnomer for this sausage-like roll of fatty meat (often beef brisket and rib trimmings) seasoned with onion, carrot and celery. Vegetable roll can be served in an Ulster Fry or on its own with potatoes or champ, or with mashed carrot and swede. My wonderful late aunt always brought home a batch whenever she returned to East Belfast.

Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira
Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried any or all of the above Northern Irish food favourites, or if you feature any of them in your writing?

Margaret

(With grateful thanks to the following websites and blogs)