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NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 25: Alfred M. Butts, inventor of the board game 'Scrabble' is photographed August 25, 1981 in New York City. (Photo by Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images)

By Seán Hall

A knowledge simulation built around the concept of creating words on a board competitively, but only utilising words accepted in a reputable dictionary of the English language, sounds like a complex proposal does it not? Well, it is in actual fact the popular game of Scrabble known across the globe, with over 150 million sets estimated to have been sold.

Many readers of this piece have probably known Scrabble most of their lives, considering it is the seventieth anniversary of its creation in New York next year. Lesser known are its humble origins, stemming from the mind of an out of work architect during the Great Depression.

On April 13th, 1899, a small boy entered the world to lawyer Allison Butts and his wife, Arrie Elizabeth Mosher, a high school teacher. The child was named Alfred Mosher Butts, the youngest of five. Education was revered in their family with Alfred’s elder brother, Allison Jr., going on to be an accomplished academic of metallurgy, while Alfred trained in architecture.

The parents’ surnames were both French in origin, however, his maternal grandmother Maria Mosher’s maiden name was Carroll, suggesting an Irish connection with the inventor of the board game.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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C.A. Sarsfield tells the story of Frank Freshwaters, whose real-life jailbreak echoes the plot of the film The Shawshank Redemption.


Found guilty and given a sentence of up to twenty years at the Ohio State Reformatory (the prison where some scenes in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption were shot, which told the story of Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, a man wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, and sentenced to two life sentences) for a parole violation after he had pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter charges from a car accident in 1957, Frank Freshwaters, smiled at the court official as he was led away. The reason for this smile, was simple, Freshwaters had no intention of spending twenty years in prison, and was already making mental plans on how to escape.

The difference between Dufresne and Freshwaters was that according to the script in the film Dufresne was wrongfully convicted, whereas there can be no doubt that Freshwaters was guilty. In 1957, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter for killing a pedestrian with a vehicle, and received a suspended sentence, but two years later a prison term of twenty years was imposed after he violated his probation by driving and obtaining a driver’s licence.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own (issue 5619)

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3rd May 1966: British film director Alfred Hitchcock (1899 - 1980) in Cambridge. (Photo by Peter Dunne/Express/Getty Images)

Everyone loves a good thriller. But Tom McParland hasn’t always been thrilled by them, unless of course they are by the master of thrillers himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

In Belfast schoolyards a show-off was derided as somebody who thought himself the fella (hero) in the big picture. We called Westerns cowboys, gangster films cops and crooks, and religious orientated dramas holy films. Our mothers or teenage sisters appropriated the weepie as a woman’s picture.

Because in those self-satisfied, two-gender days only females were understood to interpret convulsions.
What confused pre-adolescent me was, if there were women’s pictures why not men’s? So firmly had my chauvinist cement set that I regarded Batman, Hopalong Cassidy, Kit Carson, Jungle Jim, Superman and Tarzan as non gender. Even if I’d tried, I’d never dream up Hopalong Hetty, Kitty Carson, or Jungle Gemma.

But our genre oblivion occasionally showed cracks. For example, celibacy precluded our regarding of The Bells of St Mary’s as a weepie, a holy, or religious movie. Yet we wept buckets, were up to our wimples in habits and canonised Ingrid. We were too busy living the cinema to be genre conversant and overall our homespun terminology was generally adequate.

A great movie defies categorisation and proclaims its own greatness. As 1972’s The Godfather and the brutal dishonesty of Marlon Brando. Or the unflinching honesty of 9 year-old Tatum O’Neill’s duplicity in Paper Moon (1973). Both Paramount pictures. Both different as pasta and pumpkin. Both set in gangster America and both thrilled. Yet both made innocuous the term thriller.

Anecdotal history about movies can also be confusing. Silents weren’t called silents when they were silent, but moving picture shows until talkies arrived. Talkies lost that moniker after radio’s advent. Then with TV’s dominance the old silent name was resurrected – this time abbreviated to movies.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own (issue 5616)

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My father was a civil servant in Dublin and on summer holidays he wanted to get as far away as possible from his boss who lived on our estate, in case he was called back to work over the break. We loaded everything into the car and drove the mammoth day-long journey to the other end of the country, arriving exhausted in the dead of night, waking to the mystery of new surroundings in the morning.

In the cottage in Skibbereen, my father slept in on Sunday mornings while we children got up and ran about by ourselves. He sent us into the village to buy the paper. When we came back, he grabbed us and rubbed his itchy-scratchy face against ours. It was great, we loved it. Ugh! Then we had a cooked breakfast.

One morning we got up early and left the cottage. My mother came out shortly afterwards searching for us up and down the lane but we were gone. The next thing was, she looked out at the lake and saw the three of us out on the fishing boat in the middle of the lake with Bob, the farmer who rented us the cottage!

She must have had a heart attack seeing us on the lake with no life jackets or anything. We were very young at the time; my youngest sister must have been about two or three. Bob might have had a drink problem because the next year he wasn’t around. Maybe that was why we were so bold when we returned the following year because we missed him.

We sat in the dirt for hours gorging on the strawberries in the fields then we couldn’t eat our tea. We threw stones in the barrel for the potato spray by a wall at the back of the farm. The new farmer complained to our mother who gave out to us for throwing stones in the spray.

I enjoyed throwing the rocks in the barrel competing with my middle sister, to see who could make the biggest splash.

I used to wonder why the farmer complained to my mother or ‘ratted’ on us, as I would call it later, but we were wasting the spray – it was no big mystery.

We didn’t bother coming back the next year.

The place wasn’t as well kept and my mother didn’t want us around the ‘bad influence’ of a drinker.

Dad must have liked West Cork. He probably visited when he moved to Cobh with Una after they got married. The MOD transferred him from Dublin to the naval base on Haulbowline Island, which was how I ended up being born in Cobh general hospital and baptised in Saint Colman’s cathedral, although we returned to settle in Dublin six months later.

On hot days, we drove to the seaside in Dad’s powder blue Vauxhall Viva, the hot leatherette of the car seats uncomfortably sticky on our bare legs, hurtling past the blooming hedgerows of ivy, fuchsia and lilies, bustling with vibrant avian life.
The grassed-over potato beds and hard-working gorse on the hillsides, testified to our troubled past.

Swallows swooped and darted as we followed the track to the beach, deserted except for German tourists horse-racing in the surf.

There we set up camp for the day, swimming in the sea or hunting in the rock pools for fish abandoned by the departing tide and other marvels wonders of that underwater world.

Read memories of Ireland like these every week in Ireland’s Own

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John Gallagher recalls the mysterious disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974

The title Earl of Lucan was first held by Patrick Sarsfield, the acclaimed Irish military leader. However, it is the more controversial story of the 7th Earl of Lucan, John Bingham, that continues to weave a web of intrigue.

In November, 1974, John Bingham, the aforementioned 7th Earl of Lucan, left a friend’s house in Uckfield, Sussex, England, and was never seen again.

The police, along with the coastal authorities organised a series of intensive searches throughout the land including the sea channel routes to France, all without success. His whereabouts to this day remains an intriguing mystery.

The fact that the Earl was present when his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivitt, was bludgeoned to death on the night of 7th November, 1974, in the basement of his London’s Belgravia home, made him a prime suspect. Scotland Yard speedily issued a warrant for his arrest. But where was the Earl?

At the inquest held shortly after Sandra Rivitt’s death, the coroner named Lord Lucan as her murderer. It was the last occasion in Britain that a coroner’s court was permitted to make such a decision.  

John Bingham was born in London in 1934 and following his education at Eton College, he joined a leading London bank as a trainee banker. His extraordinary skill as a card player saw his spending a great deal of his time at gambling clubs and casinos. Such was his talent and ability that he resigned from his banking career and became a professional gambler.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own (issue 5611)

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Michael Tanner recalls how a far-removed Irish village on Ireland’s west coast prospered when Hollywood director David Lean chose Dingle to be the backdrop to the famous story of love, lust and betrayal that became Ryan’s Daughter.

Ryan’s Daughter first brought me to Dingle.

More importantly, the Oscar-winning film of 1970 brought prosperity to the people of Dingle and its eponymous peninsula. By the time location shooting ended on 24th February, 1970, a year to the day after commencing, £1m to £3m had been spent in this isolated region of Ireland. New cars, kitchens and bathrooms sprouted like mushrooms among a populace suddenly and rapidly introduced to 20th century consumerism.

David Lean was to thank for this unexpected largesse. He may have started his directing career with smaller intimate films such as Brief Encounter and Dickens adaptations like Great Expectations but when his cameras began rolling on Ryan’s Daughter in 1969 his name was synonymous with sprawling multi Oscar-winning epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

Making films on this gigantic scale in the days before CGI meant spending money like there was no tomorrow. Lean demanded locations that illuminated his stories; genuine deserts and true wastelands.

Ryan’s Daughter had begun life as the ‘love child’ of screenwriter Robert Bolt for his actress wife Sarah Miles, but Lean was determined to stage this tale of love and betrayal against a backdrop of wild grandeur. Cue Corca Dhuibhne.
Lean’s two right-hand men, Peter Dukelow (construction) and Eddie Fowlie (location), ran their rule over Sicily, Sardinia and the Shetland Isles before settling on the Dingle peninsula.

Continue reading in this year’s June Summer Special (issue 5607)

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Head of Forecasting at Met Éireann, Gerald Fleming, tells Brian Farrington about the different trends of Irish summers, and shares some summer memories of his own.

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; swallows flying high, sunshine nearby, but swallows flying low, rain down below, and as for falling soot and frogs changing colour…well now!!

Irish people have long fancied themselves as amateur weather forecasters, and being able to predict the weather simply by looking at changes to the environment around them is a part of their ‘climatic’ skillsets. But is there any truth to these old tell-tale weather signs? There is and there isn’t, says Head of Forecasting at Met Éireann and popular TV weather forecaster, Gerald Fleming.  

“There is often a truth contained within these old sayings,” explains Gerald, “in terms of the short-term weather forecast (next day or so) when changes can be inferred from cloud patterns or the behaviour of animals, birds or marine creatures. They are just reacting to changes which they can sense – and which we can now measure with instrumentation.

“What I do not have any belief in is the old lore that tries to connect nature with longer term predictions, such as that a lot of red berries in the autumn means a harsh winter etc etc. I don’t know of any mechanism whereby nature can ‘anticipate’ the longer changes in the weather; the weather patterns are much more complex than that!”
Gerald has been analysing and reporting on the Irish weather long enough to have seen many different types of Irish summers. And while he agrees global climate change is a reality which has been well written about, he says that the change to Irish weather trends will be very gradual.

Continue reading in this year’s June Summer Special (issue 5607)

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Dominic Behan singing at a folk session, Enterprise Public House, Long Acre, London, c1959. Folk club session during the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the background are folk musicians Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl and AL Lloyd. (Photo by EFD SS/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Dominic Behan, brother of hell-raising author, Brendan, was the writer of many great songs. Here we explore the story of the younger Behan, and his song, McAlpine’s Fusiliers.

Ask anyone about Dominic Behan and probably the best answer that you would receive would be that he was Brendan Behan’s brother.

dominicbehanOf course, Brendan Behan was a genius of a playwright and author. He was also a brawling, boozing broth of a bhoy and stage Irishman. He was lionised by the Establishment despite claiming to detest them. His mythic legacy was enhanced by his tragic and untimely death at the age of 41, in 1964.

What of Dominic Behan?

Dominic was born into the multi – talented Behan family in Dublin in 1928. Like his brothers and father, he worked as a house painter before moving to London where he wrote radio scripts for the BBC as well as writing some of the songs for which he is remembered, including McAlpine’s Fusiliers.

Later, Christy Moore and The Dubliners, among many other illustrious names, would count him as one of their strongest influences.

On her wonderful collaboration album with Ronnie Drew (A Couple More Years, 2000) Eleanor Shanley says, somewhat kindly, that Bob Dylan was greatly influenced by Irish music. Dominic Behan was less kind, publicly accusing Dylan of plagiarism.

Continue reading in this year’s June Summer Special (issue 5607)

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CANADA - MAY 31: British author Tim Severin with a model of a leather boat; named for Brendan the Bold; he sailed 4;000 miles across the Atlantic. (Photo by Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Could St. Brendan have beaten Columbus to America? Forty years ago, Tim Severin found out if it was possible, writes Jim Rees.

Tim Severin has been an ‘epic’ historian or archaeologist for over forty years. He takes historical stories, often little more than vague folklore, and recreates the equipment needed to put the truth of these tales to the test. Could they have really happened, using only the skills, knowledge and materials available to the mythical protagonists?

Since the 1960s, Severin has relived the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, Jason of the Argo, Ulysses and Marco Polo, turning established theory on its head. But the adventure which concerns us here is his ‘Brendan Voyage’.

Discussions over who was the first European to set foot on the American continent invariably brings forth the names of Christopher Columbus and the Viking Leif Ericson. While written records show that Columbus did arrive in South America in 1492, it is now generally agreed that Eric beat him to it by 500 years, as evidenced by Viking remains in Newfoundland and even further west.

But even if Eric got there before Columbus, he was still quite a way behind the 6th century Irish monk St. Brendan – at least according to Irish folklore and an account of his voyages, Navigatio Brendanii, written a couple of centuries later.
 When Severin learned of the Brendan story, he was determined to see if a boat made from cowhide lashed to a wooden frame – in fact, a large currach – really could have crossed the Atlantic a thousand years before Columbus.

Continue reading in this year’s June Summer Special (issue 5607)

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Johnny has difficulty getting over losing the love of his life, when a stranger arrives at his front door…

By Sean Cottrell

I grew up with Johnny Cross and believe me no more honest man walked the face of the earth. So, the story I am going to tell you is true because Johnny told me himself.
There wasn’t enough living on the family farm to give two men a livelihood so, he took himself over to England. He was handy with tools and had no difficulty getting work on the buildings there and when his parents died he came home and took over the farm and he had his work cut out there for him I can tell you, his poor father, God rest him, had let it go somewhat.

Then he set his cap at Margaret Dempsey who was a distant cousin of my own. In fact I had my eye on her myself but while I was pondering the pros and cons of such a thing he stole her from under my nose. In any case it wasn’t too long before we were sitting down to the wedding breakfast and there was a look of love, peace and contentment about the pair of them that would gladden your heart.

the-grief-angelThey’d been married about five years and everything in the garden was rosy when one Saturday morning Margaret sent him off to town with a shopping list a mile long. He was loading the car with the essentials when he was persuaded by some lads to go for a quick drink. One drink led to another and it was hours before Johnny set out for home. On the road home he smiled, thinking of how Margaret would tease him for his stay in the pub. He arrived to find his beautiful wife stretched out an the floor, icy cold. The doctor said she’d had a massive heart attack.

Now, there is such a thing as the grieving process but Johnny took this to extremes. He moped around the house. He milked the cows, went to the creamery and did the bare essentials to keep the animals alive and well. The same could not be said for himself or the house. Several of the neighbouring women came and tried to feed him and maybe do a bit of straightening up here and there to help him out but, they soon gave up due to his rudeness. By now he was a ragged individual, isolated and lonely. He’d lost so much weight the clothes hung on him and he never smiled. It was as if the old Johnny had retired and was not interested in making a comeback.

As his friend I thought I should be able to help or at least be a sympathetic listener, but I was quickly made aware that, not only was I out of my depth, I was no longer welcome in a house where once I was always sure of a cup of tea and a friendly chat.
Johnny swore the house was haunted. He claimed to hear thunder most nights, even on nights when there was frost being laid on the ground. He claimed to hear lots of people talking at night but he couldn’t see any of them.

Betwixt and between, the poor man was getting no sleep at all.

He went to see the priest who assured him there was no such thing as ghosts and it was all imagination, but he was persuaded to visit. He said a few prayers, scattered some Holy Water here and there to no avail.

It was about a year later that Johnny answered a knock on the door. There was a beautiful young lady there, tall, slim, blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. She was wearing a spotlessly clean white dress with a narrow belt and gold coloured sandals which matched the belt.

“God bless all here,” she said. “Is the woman of the house available for a minute.”
“There’s no woman here,” Johnny told her and he set about closing the door in her face.

    “Then I’ve come to the right house,” she said. “Could I trouble you for a drink of water. I have travelled a fair distance and I’m parched.”

The right house? What did she mean by that? But, he’d refuse nobody a drink and he headed for the kitchen. She followed and as his search for a clean glass proved fruitless she took over and rinsed out a cup and filled it with water.

She raised her eyebrows at him, silently asking if he wanted a drink, but, on getting no response she drank about half, then sat down.

That left Johnny standing in front of her and if he thought that was a superior situation he had another think coming.

She was cool out altogether, you’d think she owned the place. Johnny, being a naturally quiet man, and respectful of women, wondered how he was ever going to get her out of the house.

“I have been told you needed help in letting go of your grief,” she told him.
Johnny reared up at that. “In God’s name woman, who are you?” he wanted to know, “and what brings you to my house with your offers of help. I don’t need any help. And I’ll grieve in my own way if you don’t mind. Now get out.”

She made no move but cast her eyes around the kitchen. Johnny’s eyes seemed to travel the same route hers were taking. He noticed, almost for the first time, the chaotic state of the place and he suddenly felt ashamed to be caught amid such dirt and grime before a stranger. For the first time since he buried Margaret he felt self conscious about himself and mortified by the way he treated people who tried to help him.

“Of course. No help required,” she said, the words dripping sarcasm.

She stood up and turned to go, gave him a lingering look over her shoulder and began to walk slowly to the door. When she got there she turned and said, “Johnny, if you do not accept help you will join your Margaret much sooner than you should.”

“Hold steady a minute,” Johnny called. “Come back here and explain yourself. How do you know so much about me and Margaret and what kind of help are we talking about here?”

She took a couple of steps forward and put a hand on Johnny’s arm. “If I told you everything I know and how I know it, you wouldn’t believe me. So, let us take a little time and work together to brighten up this lovely house. There will be time enough for explanations later.”

She ordered Johnny out of the house. “You have chores to do out there,” she told him. When he returned the place was gleaming like never before and there was a wonderful aroma of cooking. The table was set with the good china, and a smell of meat cooking. On the table were all kinds of fancy cakes and buns. It was like a child’s birthday party. The place was filled with the smell of fresh bread and spices. Johnny was ordered to clean himself up and when he returned to the kitchen, his face was shaved and shining and his wedding suit on him.

The dinner was the best he’d had since Margaret departed. She poured the tea, took a freshly baked scone, added a layer of butter and a good dollop of jam and placed it on his side plate.

Whatever else he could say about her he had to admit she could cook.
When the meal was finished, -mind you she didn’t eat too much herself – she settled back in the chair.

“Now Johnny,” she said. “The first thing we have to do is go to the graveyard and lay flowers on the grave and you can talk to Margaret and tell her how you’re are doing and wish her well too.” They did that and Johnny did indeed feel a bit better on the way home and there was more of a spring to his step than usual. Back at the house, the visitor lit the fire and settled into a chair by the warmth. Johnny sat in the opposite side.

“Now Johnny, I think we’ve done enough for today and it is time I was going, but I’ll leave you with a thought. Do you believe in angels?”
“I suppose,” Johnny said, wondering where all this was going. “Sure we’re all supposed to have a guardian angel.”
“Indeed. Goodnight Johnny. Sleep well.” Before the poor man could say another word she was out the door.

Next morning when he got up there was no trace of herself. He began to wonder if it was all a dream or a delusion. He did the necessary chores and went indoors and there she was. He had no sooner taken his cap off when she slapped the full breakfast in front of him.

“Now then,” he said, when he could eat no more, “Last night you said something about angels. What was that about?”
“We have to be accurate. I asked if you believed in Angels.”
“And I said I did.”
“Johnny, I am an angel. At least I was an angel.”

This had to be blasphemy. Johnny stood up, ready to throw her out of the house if necessary. She just sat there and smiled at him.

“Before you decide, let me tell you my story. There are many angels and some are envious of those souls who can go to earth and live a life where they have free will. Only a very few are allowed to do this. I am one who wanted to come here. I’m afraid I made such a nuisance of myself that they agreed to let me come here provided I could find a soul who had passed over and was unable to get on with the process because they were hindered by somebody on this plain holding them back.

“I don’t believe a word of it,” Johnny told her. “I’ve never heard such rubbish in my life. You’re some kind of trickster.”
It was at this point I arrived on the scene. I needed to borrow his tractor as mine was out of commission.

“The very man,” Johnny said. “Come and listen to this yarn. She says she’s an angel,” nodding his head in her direction. “Can you imagine?”
She told us how she came to this earth and how she met Margaret and then came to see Johnny.
“You see,” she said. “I have one year to make an impression here and one year to decide if I want to stay. Johnny is grieving and although it is severe he is also beset with guilt for being in the pub while she was breathing her last.”
“Can you believe that?” Johnny asked me.
“I can. She must be an angel to have got this place back to what it was the last time I saw it. But where she comes from I don’t know.”

 At that she listed a whole load of things that were known only to himself and Margaret, and then followed it up with a list of escapades Johnny and I had almost forgotten. She made believers of us.

Of course, even in an out-of-the-way place like Johnny’s farm it was impossible for a young woman to arrive, cook and clean without being spotted and questions being asked and of course it reached the ear of the parish priest who took a dim view of what was occurring.

I happened to be there when he came to read the riot act to Johnny. Now I have seen strong men brought to their knees when Fr. Dunne got on his high horse but Johnny stood his ground and even went as far as telling him to mind his own business until he was certain of his facts.

While the priest was in the house there was no trace of herself, more’s the pity. I’d have liked to see the two of them argue it out.

After that Johnny moved her in as a housekeeper. Tongues wagged in the parish but most people got on well with her and she was a friend to anybody needing a helping hand and it was no surprise when it was announced that Johnny and herself were to be married.

One day when I called in, Johnny asked if I would be his best man. Of course I agreed. The upshot of it was they were married and in due course had a little girl and what else could they call her but Angela.

Johnny no longer had a need for the Grief Angel but she was invaluable to some folk in the vicinity who had difficulty in letting go of loved ones. Many people referred to her as an angel, not realising how close they were to the truth.