From The Archives

0 1964

Miss Flanagan was really enjoying helping out with the ‘Locals Come Dancing’ competition that was in full swing in the parish of Benford.

Ten local people had been attending dance classes and fundraising for months with a view to competing first in a special Benford gala dance night and then in a bigger competition against other parishes. Already there was a huge buzz in the locality about these great events coming up.

Now the local final was only a week away and tension was mounting.

Miss Flanagan was in charge of keeping all the contestants’ costume changes name-tagged and in order and helping the women change as they needed to.

What a selection there was, she thought, as she put them in order on a clothes rail. The colourful dresses in particular would add a huge amount to the glamour and glitz of the event.

It brought back memories of the old days when people really made an effort to look well when they were going out dancing – and put effort into learning how to do steps properly beforehand as well!

She would have to make sure that everything was on the rail for quick changes, that there were no ladders in tights and that shoes were well shone. The dress rehearsal had gone well but ‘spot polishing’ as Clara, the dance teacher, called it, would take place for all couples, one at a time, after the well-deserved tea-break.

Miss Flanagan was delighted that everything was going so well. Dave, the sound guy had his work perfected as had Roy on lighting and the MC, Ben, in tuxedo, would certainly add gravitas to the proceedings next week.

As she poured tea and coffee for the participants, Miss Flanagan couldn’t help noting how the atmosphere in the place had changed since the classes began, however. Now they were all watching one another because they were in competition with one another and she had heard at least two catty remarks passed by one contestant about another.

Gabby Faulkner, wife of Roy, the lighting man, was dance partnering with Frank Doyle, a local insurance salesman, and she was the most accomplished dancer, having lived in London and taken classes before.

Lena Stewart, a local mother-of-two, who worked in the community centre, was the next best and desperately wanted to win and could be seen frequently looking daggers at Gabby.

“But that’s competition for you,” Miss Flanagan said to herself. “It’ll all add grist to the mill.” Tea-break over, everyone returned to the hall where the light was muted and the spotlight ready to follow Gabby and Frank who were first on the list to do their tango again.

Yes, they certainly looked wonderful, movements measured, precise, graceful, legs turning, smooth swivelling, eyes locked as if in romantic mode… Then there was a shock, a scream – Gabby had fallen! The music stopped, lights and OMGs went up and everyone gathered round. “Be careful! The floor is treacherous! That’s why she fell,” Frank was shouting. Gabby was on the floor. “My ankle!” Another competitor with medical training went to assist. “It’s probably broken,” she said. “You’d best call an ambulance.”

Roy, Gabby’s husband, was beside her, looking pale and trying to comfort her. “It’s okay, it’s not the end of the world…” “But the competition – I won’t be able to dance..” “Ssh.. We’ll get you to hospital and get you sorted out. Try not to worry.” Miss Flanagan was thinking about what Frank had said about the floor being treacherous. Lena Stewart, Gabby’s rival and the person who put dance wax on the floor each night before the classes, was already defending herself. “I did it the same way as I usually do – sparingly and brushing it in well. I know how dangerous it is if you don’t use the right stuff and put it on right.” As Gabby was put on the stretcher she shouted at Lena. “You did this to get me out of the competition, I know you did!” “I didn’t – honest! I’m being blamed in the wrong here!”

Oh dear… Miss Flanagan asked everyone to stay in the community hall until she tried to establish what had happened. She made everyone move off the dance floor and talked firstly to Frank Doyle. “The floor was fine until we turned on that corner. I nearly fell myself. It wasn’t like that before the tea break.”

Everyone agreed that the floor had been fine earlier. Miss Flanagan suggested everyone have another cup of something in the tearoom while she examined and photographed the floor with the chairperson, John Duggan. “It does look like too much polish was put on here – you can see that it wasn’t distributed evenly,” he said. “This is all we need – crime in the parish hall!” “That’s life,” said Miss Flanagan, “and we have to deal with it, but I’ll do my best to find out what happened.”

She was already scribbling in her notebook, desperately trying to remember who had left the tearoom during the break – yes, Lena had gone to make a phone call, Davy Miller for a cigarette, Roy Faulkner, who had gone to the hospital with his wife, was late coming in because he was adjusting one of the lights. Who else had been absent? She couldn’t think of anyone.

The people involved didn’t take kindly to being asked exactly how long they’d been gone, however. “I didn’t do it,” they all said. “I was gone for five minutes,” Lena said, “you can see on my phone how long I was outside and Dave can testify to that – he was standing there having a smoke so he saw me!” “The tin of dance wax for the floor – where is it kept?” Miss Flanagan asked. “In its usual place – and I put it back after using it!” Miss Flanagan asked to be shown where it was – in an unlocked cupboard in the kitchen. Anyone could have had access to it, she thought…

Miss Flanagan had a sterile plastic bag out now and she was putting the partly-used tin into it. It was evidence, after all. “Did anyone notice anyone other than Lena near that cupboard tonight?” Everyone shook their heads. So, no one had seen anything – or no one was prepared to say…

This could get very nasty if she didn’t find out quickly what had happened. Next day, the news wasn’t good about Gabby. She had broken her ankle, Roy told Miss Flanagan. “She’ll be hard to live with, not being able to dance, but what can you do?” Had Roy noticed anyone with the tin of dance floor wax, other than Lena, she asked? “No, definitely not. She just mustn’t have spread it right before they started. It’s an important job, putting that on.” Miss Flanagan knew he was right. A person who enjoyed ballroom dancing once herself, in her ‘palmy’ days, as her father used to call youth, she always ‘tested’ the floor on the first time round it, being cautious.

Even suede soles wouldn’t give the right slip and grip on a floor that had been treated incorrectly. She’d heard all sorts of horror stories about totally inappropriate substances like baby powder and soap flakes being sprinkled on dance floors – accidents waiting to happen! The professional product had several different kinds of waxes in it along with rice flour, she knew – especially tailored for the purpose. Lena Stewart was overwrought when she rang her a few minutes later. “I’m going to pull out of the competition!

Two people have already accused me of trying to put Gabby out by messing up the floor. It’s all around the town. I’m like a leper and I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m good at putting on the polish – I’ve looked after that floor for years so why would I mess up it up now? I could have hurt myself by not doing it right, for God’s sake!” “Try not to worry. I’ll get back to you if I have any news,” she said. After taking fingerprints from the tin, Miss Flanagan now examined a teaspoonful of the contents of the polish tin under her microscope. She would send it to a lab immediately for examination but she wanted to have a look herself. It was fine-ish powder.

Bowing her head to look through the eyepiece she noticed a familiar, slightly antiseptic smell. Did dance floor wax smell like that normally, she wondered or had the polish been interfered with? Deciding that she would need a baseline sample for the lab to compare the used tin sample with, she went back to the community centre and took a sealed tin of the polish with her to courier to the lab also. All she could do on that front now was wait, after the courier left with the package. The fingerprint exercise didn’t lead to much. Lena’s prints were on it, of course, but everything else was smudged and useless. What could she do now but think about motivation… Lena certainly had motive – there was jealousy there, she knew. Lena’s nose was out of joint with Gabby stealing her thunder on the dance floor. And there were prizes at stake for the couples too.

Maybe it was someone else, though, who had a grudge against Frank Doyle, Gabby’s dance partner. Maybe they wanted him out of the competition. It would be impossible to tell unless she could come up with some hard evidence. In the meantime she would have another chat with everyone who had left the tea-room during the break.

Davy Miller was a bit cross about being asked. “I’ve never hurt anyone ever in my life and you know it, so I’d appreciate it if you’d direct your questions somewhere else.” Ouch… Miss Flanagan had to continue with her questioning however – how else was she to get a breakthrough? She decided not to annoy Roy Faulkner, questioning him again about noticing anyone in the hall when he was fixing the lights. He had enough to be doing to look after his wife at the moment. He’d had to take today off from the pharmacy in Kilmullen where he worked, she knew, all because of the accident.

At least he was a helpful husband. She seldom saw Gabby out without him, in general. Pity he wasn’t a good dancer, though, or he could have partnered his wife in the competition but sure, not everyone has that talent, she thought.

Miss Flanagan got the lab report by email the following morning. Yes, the dance floor wax contained all the ingredients that were in the sealed tin but ‘boric acid was also present in considerable quantity’, the report said, in sample a, from the opened tin. Boric acid! That’s why she’d got that familiar smell!

She’d often used it as a homemade pesticide, mixed with sugar and flour to kill ants in outhouses. She knew it had many other uses, too, sometimes as a mild antiseptic or anti-fungal treatment. On dance floors it would be dangerous, though, leading to slips and falls. Boric acid, she thought – it wasn’t the sort of thing generally available in shops. You’d have to go to the chemist’s to get it, she knew. Chemist’s… pharmacy… What if…? Grabbing her bag and her bike, she set off immediately for Kilmullen. Dillon’s Pharmacy was busy enough for a Thursday. Roy Faulkner was behind the counter, she saw. Gabby must be feeling a bit better…

Getting ready to choose her words very carefully, Miss Flanagan approached him. After asking how Gabby was and making general conversation, she told him what she wanted to buy. “Boric acid, yes,” she repeated.

Roy Faulkner had looked shocked for a second. “Not many people look for that nowadays,” he was saying. Had he smiled a little too quickly? “I know, but it’s useful for many things and I want it to get rid of some insects. It does get rid of pests very successfully, doesn’t it?” Roy Faulkner had turned pale. “Is something wrong?” “No, no…” “Good. Funny thing is that I’ve had the dance floor polish analysed and it contained a lot of boric acid – not something you’d want on a dance floor now, is it?” Roy Faulkner had turned even paler. “No.” Leaving the pharmacy Miss Flanagan was 99% sure she had her culprit. Jealousy was a terrible thing and seeing your spouse dancing the tango very romantically, even in performance, could lead an over-active imagination to suspect deeper bonds…

Time to get Sergeant Reilly to have a word with Roy Faulkner. “It was the green-eyed monster all right, Brigid,” the Sergeant told her. “He was afraid of losing his wife to Frank Doyle, who he considered ‘a bit of a lad’. He had access to the boric acid easy enough, working in a chemist’s, and had the opportunity to mix some into the tin and sprinkle it on one corner of the hall, knowing that his wife and dance partner would be doing their ‘polishing’ first after the break.

He was happy she was out of the contest even though it wasn’t her that he wanted to get hurt, of course – it was Frank Doyle. “He’s a bit of a control freak in that marriage, I think. Very insecure in himself really, though you wouldn’t think it. He’s admitted to it all so Lena is off the hook and the competition can go on with the rest of the contestants, so it looks like you’ve tripped the light fantastic again, Brigid, in the investigating sense!” 

Read Miss Flanagan every week in Ireland’s Own

0 2396

Dan Conway’s Corner

In the entertainment industry, including Hollywood stars, when they draw up a contract, specify what is known as a ‘Rider’, or ‘Riders’, to their work upon a film set, theatre, or whatever medium they are about to work in.

These reflect the personal and technical needs and requirements of the artist. Some of the ‘riders’ are surprising: in 1982, the rock group Van Halen insisted on a bowl of M & M sweets with all the brown ones taken out. I guess they were doing it for the publicity (it’s better that trashing hotel rooms); some primadonnas asked for bottled water flown in specially from the spa regions in France.

But the worst one of all, to my mind, was the ‘rider’ of an environmentalist who insisted on being provided with his own private jet for the duration of his contract.

Now that, by any standard, is the pits in hypocracy, and makes one wonder about the bonafides of a number of those folk who come onscreen regularly to lecture us on what we’re doing wrong and what we’re not doing right. And they keep referring to the world as “the planet” or “our planet”, in a very possessive and personalised way, which isn’t quite the same as saying “we’re going to see the planetarium”, but isn’t a million miles away from it.

They give the impression that they see the world as ‘their’ planet, as something maleable and controllable as a planetarium; they seem to want to apply their own ‘house rules’ for all of us to live by, on ‘the planet’. Imagine, all that heavy duty pollution of the atmosphere just so that an “environmentalist” can let a plethora of hot air out over the airwaves! I can hear Mr Spocks saying, “Illogical, Captain!” But, I digress.

Unlike that environmentalist chappie, though, the singer Aretha Franklin would never have insisted on a private jet, for she was terrified of flying.

And artistes afraid of flying in the United States, given the size of the country, have a lot of road to travel between venues.

When you consider that many stars are on the road a lot and live out of suitcases, as the saying goes, it’s not surprising that they insist on fresh socks and underwear as a basic ‘rider’. And so, not having proper facilities, it makes sense to dispense with laundry and simply insert a ‘rider’ for the supply of new items of aparrel as and when required.

But there are those who take it a step further and insist on things such as silk Calvin Klein boxer shorts, and presumably these folk would want bling with everything. Bling it on, Mr. Haberdasher!might be the catch-cry.

The late Robin Williams always insisted on including a very special ‘rider’. His contract had a requirement that, for each and every film he made, and event or performance given by him, the company that engaged him also had to hire a minimum number of homeless people and give them work on the that self-same project.

As far as I’m aware, the late great Robin Williams was a very charitable man and was very generous with his time and money in support to needy organisations.

But it was typical of the man that he also anted to use his clout, his influence as a performing star, to make sure that less-well-off people got an opportunity to see their own worth in a new light, and also to open the eyes and the hearts of production companies and planners of such events, so that they learned the value of giving others a chance to work their way back to self-esteem and a better place in society. It’d be interesting to know if any of these production companies are still giving the Robin Williams treatment to those less fortunate than themselves. 

Read Dan Conway every week in Ireland’s Own

0 2193

By Sean Creedon

The Republic of Ireland played their first-ever World Cup game against Belgium at Dalymount Park in February 1934 when Paddy Moore scored all four Irish goals in a 4-4 draw. But we had to wait 55 years and nine months before we would qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time.

There were a lot of disappointments along the way; losing out in the 1965 play-off against Spain in Paris; we also lost out to France on goal difference in 1982 and there were also a few dodgy refereeing decisions along the way. But the ‘Boys in Green’ finally reached the ‘holy grail’ 25 years ago this month when beating Malta 2-0 in Valetta on November 15, 1989, to secure second place in our group and qualify along with Spain for Italia ’90.

Jack Charlton, a former World Cup medal winner with England in 1966, inherited a decent squad of players when he was appointed Irish manager in February 1986. Jack’s motto was to “put ‘em under pressure”. It worked; we qualified for our first-ever major tournament within two years of Big Jack’s arrival.

Charlton got most of the credit, but a Scot named Gary Mackay also helped with that famous goal against Bulgaria in Sofia.

Three months after our exploits at Euro ’88, The Republic began their 1990 World Cup qualification campaign with a trip to Windsor Park, Belfast to play Northern Ireland. The North, who had qualified for the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals, didn’t exactly “roll over”, but The Republic gained a valuable away point in a scoreless draw.

David O’Leary, who fell out with Charlton over his holiday plans in the spring of 1986, returned for the game against Spain in Seville in November 1988. However, the Spaniards kept up their excellent record of never losing in Seville and won 2-0 with goals from Manolo and Butragueno.

Another important away point was gained against Hungary in Budapest in March 1989 in what was another scoreless draw. But nobody was complaining about a point gained in Budapest.

Next up was Spain before a full house at Lansdowne Road at the end of April. Roared on by a vociferous crowd, the Boys in Green applied early pressure and the only goal of the game came after 15 minutes. Cascarino got his head to Bonner’s kick out and the ball broke to Ray Houghton. He beat Sanchis and crossed low into the box. Ronnie Whelan got a touch and Frank Stapleton was ready to pounce, only for Michel to turn the ball into his own net.

Maximum points were gained in the end of season home games against Malta and Hungary. We won both games 2-0 and Liam Brady made what would be his last World Cup appearance as a late sub against Hungary. Later Charlton would effectively end Brady’s international career in September by taking him off after only 35 minutes in the friendly against West Germany.

Lansdowne Road didn’t have floodlights in 1989 and for security reasons the game against Northern Ireland in October had a 1pm kick-off. The game passed without any major incident and goals from Whelan, Cascarino and Houghton in a 3-0 win meant that with one game to play we were only a point behind Spain who drew 2-2 away to Hungary the same day. A point against Malta in Valetta on November 15 would now be enough to guarantee World Cup qualification.

Heavy fog at Dublin Airport on Monday and Tuesday delayed many outbound flights and some supporters seemed to be crying on cue for the RTE cameras. However, by kick-off on Wednesday night it was estimated that 7,000 Irish supporters had swelled the official attendance in the Ta’Qali Stadium to 25,000.

The breakthrough came on the half-hour mark. Houghton’s corner was headed on at the near post by O’Leary and there was John Aldridge at the back post to head past Cini. Aldridge got his second from the penalty spot on 67 minutes after Townsend was fouled.

Afterwards Charlton was thrilled. He said: ‘‘It was a bit of an anxious game for us, but we won it fairly comfortably in the end. I am delighted, not just for myself, but also for the players and for all the fans who travelled out here.’’ And so after 55 years and 13 qualifying campaigns we were on our way to the World Cup finals. All together now…”Olé, Olé, Olé. We’re all part of Jackie’s Army, We’re all off to Italy”. 

0 2739

By Patrick O’Sullivan

Marbh le tae agus marbh gan e. Dead from the tea and dead without it. This was a proverb that was more than familiar to my grandmother and her generation.

It also illustrates how popular tea drinking had become among the ordinary people, though as late as the 1880s tea was still virtually unknown in many parts.

At first tea was scarce and expensive as it was again during the war years.

My grandmother clearly had memories of this, which was why she received a gift of a packet of tea with such great delight.

She drank the tea from a favourite cup, her wafer thin china cups, reserved for special occasions.

Some of the oldest jugs an old country dressers had Chinese motifs of tea and tea making, pagodas and plantations filling in the background.

Our neighbour, Mary, lived in a little thatched cottage nearby, her garden famous for its lilacs and old roses in the summer time.

Mary was another great lover of tea, though it was something of a ritual with her never to accept a cup of tea at the first offering. She had to be pressed more than once before she finally gave way.

Those who knew her well, however, knew that this was par for the course: it was just her way, they said. There was nothing as homely, reassuring though, as the singing of the kettle on the hearth on long winter nights. Then the flames were orange and bright, the kettle suspended over them.

Our kettle was something of a family heirloom that had come down the generations, the heavy weight of it counter-balanced by the elegance of the spout and the fluted cover. The hanger for it had a series of holes which meant that the height of the kettle over the fire might be readily adjusted. Looking back it seems as if tea and the making of it was as much talked of as the weather.

My aunt Rita liked weak tea for instance and I think this was why she thought everyone else must surely like it too. She added the tea leaves sparingly, giving the tea barely time to draw before pouring it into the cups, a slice of jam sandwich or Victoria sponge, a favourite choice as a treat. We children loved her tea and cake. It made no difference to us whether the tea was weak or strong, but such things, it seemed, mattered a great deal to the grown ups at a time when strong tea was generally the norm.

This, of course, was long before the arrival of the tea bag, a development that was greeted with some suspicion by the connoisseurs of old. Tea was made from loose leaf tea which came in packets, the latter weighed from tea in tea chests by the shopkeepers of the day.

The tea chest was a familiar sight in those days. Lined with foil as it was, to preserve and protect the fragrance of the tea, thus preventing contamination with other scents such as that of oranges for instance. It was a familiar thing for the woman of the house to ask the shopkeeper to keep the tea chest for her when it was empty for it could of course be put to a myriad of uses.

It might serve for storing clothes, or unwanted clutter, sometimes adapted too to serve the needs of a hatching hen. It even served as a playpen when called upon to do so, the accusation that ‘all of their crowd were reared in the tay chest’ a jibe still heard in places even today.

There were many who bemoaned the demise of the loose tea. I heard a woman on local radio say that when she asked for loose tea in a supermarket, the assistant looked at her as if she had two heads.

The champions of loose leaf tea claim that while the tea bag may be more convenient, it has none of the flavour of its loose counterpart. I still remember tea served in fine, old willow ware, the morning of the stations, the lovely gold rims of the cups and saucers catching the glow of the firelight still.

The wonderful blue of the cups was the blue of bluebells in springtime so that they looked like pictures in storybooks, each with a charm of its own. The fine art of tea was, of course, the fine art of conversation too, for wherever there was tea there was sure to be banter and chat, or the sharing of burdens again. It was almost as if tea and the making of it was at the very heart of the human experience as if it were part and parcel of life and living then.

I remember Mary sitting by the fire drinking her tea with relish and when pressed to have another cup then saying with a smile at last, ‘Ah, sure, another small drop if you please.’ Tea, in its way, was the tangible expression of all that was homely and warm, the singing of the kettle again like a promise of things to come.

0 2717

By Eileen Murphy

We met at the revolving door on the way out of the theatre. “I didn’t laugh once” she said. “What do you mean you didn’t laugh. It was La Boheme for God’s sake – a very tragic opera, full of starving students shivering in attics, and a beautiful young heroine dying of consumption. What is there to laugh about?” I replied. “But I wasn’t entertained,” she wailed.

This was a highly educated and cultured woman of a certain age, attending her first opera, and by the sound of it probably her last. She is not alone.

The trouble with opera is that you need to prepare for it. Otherwise, it’s like trying to run a marathon, having spent the previous six weeks in bed. Torture! Put in the work and a whole new exciting and wonderful world awaits you.

Now opera is a story set to music. Nothing too strenuous in that you might think. The trouble is that the language is usually foreign and the story is told in song, not speech. In many performances, the English subtitles usually appear on the curtain over the head of the performer.

A great idea maybe, but considering that reading it involves a certain amount of neck strain, not to mention rooting around in the dark for your glasses, it’s not surprising that most people give up after the first five minutes and sit there cursing the person whose idea it was to come to the opera in the first place.

But to get back to the night in question and my friend who was not entertained. I suggested that to enjoy opera, it would be a help if she listened to a few of the arias (in opera the songs are called arias) before she embarked on the next experience.

It would also be a good idea to buy a book which tells the story of the most well-known operas, as then, the foreign language would be less of a problem to her. Also I told her that opera arias can be simple, but sometimes three or four people might be singing together, but singing totally different words and when that happens, it might be best for her to just sit back and enjoy the music.

The amazing thing I said is that this everybody talking at the same time works in song, even though in speech it certainly would not. The other thing she needs to know is that in nineteenth century grand opera, the heroine usually dies at the end. Her face took on a foggy glazed look. Once more she was definitely not amused. The opera La Boheme, by Puccini, is set in France, in a garret in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Four students – a writer, a painter, a poet and a musician are trying to eke out a living in the freezing attic and seem to spend a good deal of their time dodging the landlord, who understandably is looking for his rent. Mimi, the main female character is dying of consumption. The writer Rodolfo is in love with her, and after several scenes of jealousy, anguish, and the odd happy moment, she dies.

There’s no surprise there, because as I already pointed out, this is nineteenth century grand opera, and a death in the final scene is a must.

Of course the death scene usually takes ages, which reminds me of a quotation by a fellow called Ed Gardner. “Opera is when a guy gets stabbed and instead of bleeding he sings.”

“Do you think you might chance another night at the opera?” I tentatively enquired of the lady who was not entertained. “Well, you know,” she said, “I might give it another go, after a bit of homework like you suggested. Although then again, maybe not. “I already did some reading and I think I agree with the Austrian conductor Franz Schalk.” She told me gleefully that he said that, “Every theatre is an insane asylum, but an opera theatre is the ward F or ‘the incurables’.”

And he should know, she said as she walked away from me with a toss of her head. 

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By Adrian Mullan

How things have changed. Today many people worship footballers, pop stars, actors, even the occasional real life hero; however, in 19th century Britain and Ireland, there was a ghoulish interest and fame attached to public executioners.

A sort of death cult of the fascinated grew up around many executioners and, whereas it was largely a nineteenth century phenomenon, the fashion continued in some form the UK right up until the 1960s. In Omagh gaol, in Co. Tyrone, there were numerous executions, though there were no local executioners; in fact, for many years, there were none on the island of Ireland and they had to be drafted in from England to do their grisly work here.

One such ghoulish visitor was William Marwood, who was brought to Omagh in 1873, to attend to the hanging of a Thomas Montgomery in the “County Gaol”. Montgomery had been an inspector in the Royal Irish Constabulary, (the forerunner of the RUC).

He befriended the bank manager, a Mr Glass, in the village of Newtownstewart, and, then one evening as the manager was counting and writing up the accounts, Montgomery called at the bank and his friend opened the door and let him in. A short-time thereafter, he killed the bank official and made a substantial unauthorised withdrawal. Ironically, Montgomery initially investigated the murder, and hammed up a scenario before he was rumbled.

The murder shocked and fascinated people all over Ireland and his trial was eagerly awaited. In the event he was found guilty and sentenced to death, at the County Gaol, Omagh.

Though Ireland was never short of people willing to kill other people, there were no hangmen who measured up to the standards demanded by the British Home Office.

However, the Home Office helpfully supplied a list of appropriately qualified individuals who could be trusted to kill. On that list was Mr Marwood, from Lincolnshire, a shoe-maker turned official person killer, considered by the authorities as not very bright but hard working. Though it now seems absurd, Marwood studied the technology of hanging. In scenes that might have been akin to a Blackadder sketch, he boasted of the quality of his “hangmanship”.

It is understood that he was instrumental in determining the length of a “drop” it would take and the size of a knot required to help break a victim’s neck so that death might be more or less instantaneous. He became a celebrated executioner, enjoying something like the 19th century’s equivalency of David Beckham’s popularity, much to the chagrin of writers, philosophers, revolutionaries, poets, and actors. He made a few trips to Omagh, including in 1880, where he executed the last man to be hanged in Omagh Gaol, Peter Conway.

However, his work in Ireland went far beyond Omagh and he hanged five of the gang responsible for the Phoenix Park Murders. A gang of men calling themselves ‘The Invincibles’ and pursuing a republican ideology, attacked and killed Thomas Henry Burke, Under-Secretary for Ireland, and Lord Fredrick Cavendish, Chief Secretary of State for Ireland, in Phoenix Park.

The gang numbered over twenty, but three members turned state’s evidence and were spared, and five were sent to face the hangman. In his twelve years as executioner, he had accounted for some two hundred condemned people, and at the time of his death, in 1883, he had an assistant whom he was ‘training-up’ to take over from him. That assistant was Bartholemew Binns who, in his turn, became a ‘beloved’ public executioner (who also paid a visit to Omagh.) The last of the semi-official hangman in the UK was Albert Pierrpoint, who was still killing for the state until 1956, when he resigned in a row over his fee.

Amongst his victims were a number of Nazi war criminals, including the propagandist William Joyce, (known as Lord Haw Haw), who spent his childhood summer holidays in Gortnagarn (outside Omagh). He also executed Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, in July 1955, for killing her lover.

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Words, Colm Lambert; picture by Royston Palmer

It was on a stormy winter’s night in the early 1770s that The Legend of Loftus Hall, on the south-western tip of County Wexford, begins.

At that time, the sprawling mansion had three residents; Charles Tottenham, his second wife Jane Cliffe, and a daughter from his first marriage, Anne.

The loneliness of life for the landed gentry on a remote peninsula can but be imagined, and so it was quite the event when a loud rapping on the main door sounded through the squalls of the storms outside, and a handsome albeit weather-beaten young gentleman presented himself to the family.

The legend says that he explained he had been sailing towards Waterford but his boat had to seek shelter in the nearby Slade Harbour.

His crew remained there, attending to their duties, but he had managed to hire a horse and rode towards the nearest big house to seek board and lodgings.

As was the custom at the time, he was gladly taken in, and he proved himself to be quite the charming guest over the days that followed. Charles Tottenham and his wife were hugely taken with their visitor, and daughter Anne even more so, particularly as she was a young lady of marrying age.

She is said to have spent a great deal of time in the mysterious stranger’s company, both sitting and talking in the house itself as well as strolling along the cliffside walks outside.

The two also became a formidable pairing for the nightly games of cards that were played in the house, as they won most if not all of the contests against Anne’s father and stepmother.

After several nights of cards though, Anne dropped one on the floor, and as she bent underneath the table to pick it up, she saw that the young gentleman had a hoof where his foot should be.

She screamed with the realisation that he was in fact the devil, and the man then transformed before their very eyes into a vision of Satan himself, before disappearing in a fireball through the ceiling overhead, leaving only a puff of black smoke and a vile stench of sulphur behind. Anne subsequently lost her mind as a result of the discovery of the true identity of the man she had pictured as her future husband, and becoming what was then seen as an embarrassment to the family, was hidden away for the rest of her days in the house’s Tapestry Room. But the family could not rid themselves that easily of the spectre of what had occurred, as a raft of poltergeist-like activity began to manifest itself around the house.

There would be strange knocking and banging at night; paintings and furniture were strewn about; and sometimes the main door, which the stranger himself had walked through on the night he arrived, would be swinging open in the mornings, having been securely bolted the night before…

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After 50 years on the road The Wolfe Tones remain one of Ireland’s pre-eminent ballad groups. Éanna O Murchú meets Brian Warfield to reflect on their golden years of musical success

In the mid-1960s, minutes after the fresh-faced ‘Wolfe Tones’ had completed a week of sell-out shows in the Paris Olympia, the promoter responsible for bringing the young Irish musicians to the banks of the Seine took to the stage to utter a few words.

“A few years ago I made a prediction that a band that played here would go on to great things,” he said. “That band was The Beatles. Tonight I make a similar prediction about these guys you see in front of you…The Wolfe Tones!”

It was a bold statement to make on a Parisienne walkway all those moons ago; in hindsight, his words had touches of clairvoyance.

What he could not have predicted, however, was that almost half a century later The Wolfe Tones would still be packing out venues the length and breadth of Ireland, and far further afield.

When I set out to meet Brian, Tommy and Noel, it is a humid Friday night in early autumn in Wexford town, where the summer has stayed late and there is an energy pulsating from the streets.

That might be down to the fact that The Wolfe Tones are in town to play the Dun Mhuire Theatre.

We have arranged to meet in The Bugler Doyle’s, a pub that rests at the heartbeat of the maritime settlement. You can tell from the queues of people at the bar clutching vinyl records and t-shirts that they want signed – and cameras poised for precious souvenir shots – just where the three musicians are sitting.

“Where would you like to begin,” says the congenial Brian Warfield, extending a warm handshake and the remaining band members as well as tour manager, Dwyer, from Lurgan in County Armagh, are equally as warm in their welcomes. “Where else but at the beginning,” I tell him, and Brian tells me to pull up a stool. With a simple nod of his head, you can tell he has a very interesting story to share.

In 1963 in Bluebell in the Inchicore area of Dublin, two brothers, Brian and Derek Warfield, got together with their friend, Noel Nagle, and decided to form a band.

The music they played was deeply embedded in the Irish tradition and the following year on the recommendation of a fourth band member, Philip Woodnut, they entered a ballad competition which was being run in conjunction with The Rose of Tralee.

The four musicians were triumphant and very quickly had acquired a manager, a Norwegian by the name of Kaaare Jonson, who ran an Aeroviews company in Ireland. Jonson had come to see the lads play, liked what he saw, and offered to manage them. Woodnut, a cooper by trade, felt he was earning enough at the day job and decided being a full-time musician was not for him.

“Later that year we went to the Fleadh Cheoil in Elphin in County Roscommon where we met Tommy Byrne,” says Brian. “We knew straight away he was a talented musician but he needed to be converted to Irish traditional music. “He was more into Joan Baez and Bob Dylan but we got round him pretty quickly. We settled on the name ‘The Wolfe Tones’ because of what the man himself stood for. He is an iconic figure of Irish unity and encompasses all religions and peoples.”

Things happened very rapidly for the young band. Later in 1964, they signed a five-year deal with Fontana and were in huge demand for radio and TV work including a ‘Hootenanny’ slot on the newly established Radio Teilifis Eireann.

Their first album ‘The Foggy Dew’ was released in 1965 and within days it was wearing needles off records all over the country, and at radio stations too.

They were the new kids on the block, in high demand everywhere, and when they first got the call to pack their bags and cross the Atlantic to come Stateside, it was a further step up the ladder in a career that would continue in the ascendancy.

“I was only a lad, 16 or 17, when we arrived in America,” recalls Brian. “I was awestruck. Here was a land that we had only seen in the movies and now all of a sudden we were smack bang in the middle of it. I remember being intimidated and fascinated. There were huge skyscrapers, massive cars and while we loved it, being there also brought a bag of mixed emotions.

“It was a long journey from the moment we boarded the plane, and our mother had said a good few ‘Hail Marys’ that everything would turn out ok for us. “We were put up in a hotel called the Woodworth Hotel in New York and we all shared the one room – you could say we had no real choice but to get on.

“Bill Fuller was the promoter who brought us out there and he owned a City Centre Ballroom in New York where he had us play on a Friday and Saturday night. The rest of the week we played in The Ambassador in Queens. “We didn’t get paid very well at the start but we complained, and we got paid better.

“It was a great experience and you never knew who might pop in from one night to the next.

“Our audiences included everyone from coppers to astronauts, and Liam or Tommy Clancy to Tommy Makem, who might pop in to see what was going on.” The Irish scene was a vibrant one in America in the mid-’60s, and The Wolfe Tones flew over and back from Ireland to play a series of concerts three or four times a year over the subsequent years.

Dorothy Hayden Cudahy was partly responsible for boosting their profile Stateside by frequently playing them on her Irish Memories radio show in New York.

However, it was while playing support to the great singer Carmel Quinn – a famed Irish entertainer that had come to America in 1954 – that the band got their big break, playing Carnegie Hall. They would play the first half of the show, and Quinn the second, until eventually they became the headline act themselves. And they have been touring America every year since.

The Wolfe Tones have many achievements from down through the years of which they are very proud, including receiving the Freedom of the cities of New York and Los Angeles and being presented with Philadelphia’s greatest honour – The Liberty Bell.

“We have been given the keys to almost all the Irish-American states,’ says Brian. “There has been a multitude of citations from a variety of statesmen acknowledging us for bringing the Irish story across the water and telling it to the people of America, and the diaspora.

“One event that we are particularly proud of was when a flag was flown representing each member of the band, for a day, over Capitol Building in Washington. It is a great honour to have a lifetime of work endorsed by great people.”

As one might imagine, while fifty years in the music industry will bring with it plenty of highs, there have been a few lows too. And Brian remembers one low in particular.

“We had just finished a run of gigs in Los Angeles and had been invited back to perform in New York,” he recalls. “We finished up on a Sunday and decided to take the train across the country to New York to start the gig the following weekend. When we arrived we were told that the promoter hadn’t sealed the deal and that the gig wasn’t happening. There had been some kind of mix-up and we hadn’t the cash to pay for the flights home.

“We ended up gigging around a few pubs and got a load from a few friends and we got home in the end. We caught up with the promoter too and eventually he paid us what had been promised.”

The life of a musician means long periods of time away from home but Brian points out that they have been particularly lucky to have such understanding wives, and that they often have gone on tour together, with children in tow!

He also recalls a very proud moment when his son called him from Celtic Park (Brian is a massive Celtic fan) and asked him, “Dad, how does it feel to have 65,000 people singing your song?” His son held up his phone and the words of the Brian Warfield-penned ‘Celtic Symphony’ came blasting back to him; it made the hair stand on the back of his neck.

“I write most of the songs,’ he says, “and there are a few in particular that mean a lot to me. ‘My Heart is in Ireland’ was inspired by a meeting I had a with a few young people in Birmingham in England. “They told me that they were second generation Irish but were viewed as ‘Paddies’ in England and as ‘English’ in Ireland, but that their hearts were Irish and would I ever think of writing a song about them. The result was ‘My Heart is in Ireland’.

“Celtic Symphony is another song I am very proud of and it became an anthem in Celtic Park. I have been a Celtic fan since my uncle, who lived in Glasgow, bounced me on his knee and sang ‘Hail, Hail the Celts are Here’ many years ago.”

In 2002, The Wolfe Tones made global headlines after their song ‘A Nation Once Again’ topped a BBC poll to find the best song in the world. The song, originally recorded by the group in 1964, was written in the 1840s by Thomas Osbourne Davis to support the fight for an end to British rule.

Brian remembers the excitement that they felt when they first caught wind of what was unfolding. “The people at the BBC rang us first to tell us that we were in the Top Ten,” he says, beaming broadly. “Then it was announced that we were number one. I was delighted as if something is Irish, and successful, I will cheer it all day, like when U2 had a number one in America with ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’.

“The guy who broke the news to us told us that they had received votes from little known Pacific Islands, Asia, Africa and couldn’t believe that the Irish and their friends had voted in such droves. It was amazing.”

The Wolfe Tones have always done things proudly, and in their own inimitable way. They made a conscious decision from the start to steer clear of the ‘drunken Irish Paddy’ perception that Brian feels is unfairly given to the Irish abroad at times.

They have concentrated on telling their version of the Irish story, and this is a story that has crossed many historical, political and religious boundaries in their fifty years on the road.

Their support of the Six Counties, and in particular those that have suffered as a result of The Troubles, has seen them attract a strong nationalist following down the years. And so to the future. What do the coming years hold for such an accomplished act as The Wolfe Tones?

“Well we’re not the new kids on the block anymore,” Brian concedes with a chuckle. “So we will gradually reel back the amount of gigs we do. “I still love performing and get as much enjoyment out of playing to a room of 20 people as I do a room of 2,000 people.

“But the days of six-week tours of America or the UK need to be cut back.

“I suppose you could say we are semi-retired but we still love what we do.

“And that is a great thing to be able to say after 50 years on the road together.” 

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By Margaret O’Neill

“There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”; Shakespeare’s immortal words made sense to me one Halloween night over 40 years ago.

I was studying in London and had rented a small flat on the top floor of a large Edwardian house on the north side of the city.

The owners, Shirley and Paul, had moved to England from New Zealand 25 years earlier and had raised their family in the house. With the children grown-up and gone, they rented the top floor to University students.

I had been living there for nearly three years and got on very well with the owners, who were in their late 40s.

Taking pity on a “poor student”, they regularly invited me down to dinner.

On the evening of the 31st October, I had been studying late and fell into bed exhausted around midnight.

I had heard the local children “trick or treating” earlier but silence had once more descended on our leafy suburban road. In the middle of the night, I was woken up out of a deep sleep by somebody trying to get into bed beside me.

At first I thought I was dreaming but the force of the hands that pushed me across the double-bed were very real. I froze; the room was pitch-dark so I couldn’t see a thing.

My first thought was how was this possible? I clearly remembered locking the door before retiring for the night.

I felt secure in the knowledge that nobody could get through the locked windows as they were on the third floor and much too high to access. As I felt the mattress sink from the weight of whoever it was, I began to panic. With one final push, I felt a large body settle down beside me. I was terrified! This can’t be happening!

Desperation pushed into my chest making it hard to breathe but I knew I had to remain calm.

If I could only reach the bedside-lamp just over my head to the right, I would be able to see who was there. I kept two small hand-weights from the gym on a shelf underneath the lamp so I had at least a chance of being able to defend myself against the intruder. With a pounding heart, I reached out and switched on the lamp.

To my utter astonishment there was nobody in the bed beside me. The alarm clock said 3.02 am. I jumped out of bed and checked the door; it was still locked. I checked the kitchen and the bathroom; looked under the bed and in the wardrobe.

In fact, I looked everywhere I could think of, but found nobody. I sat in an armchair for the rest of the night too frightened to even make a cup of tea. As dawn broke the reality of the situation dawned on me. Reluctantly, I got back into bed and fell into a fitful sleep. I slept with the light on every night for the next two weeks, as I was too scared to turn it off. I was coming upstairs to my flat one evening when I ran into Shirley.

After exchanging the usual greetings, she hesitated before saying, “Paul’s mother died recently in New Zealand. He’s very upset as he hadn’t seen her for five years. She was only 70 and hadn’t been ill. She died suddenly. It came as an awful shock to all the family.” “I’m very sorry to hear that,” I replied, “When did it happen?” “Hallowe’en,” she replied. “The call came in the middle of the night. She died at two minutes past three our time.”

Suddenly I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, as I remembered my experience on that night. “That’s very strange,” I replied. “I had a very peculiar experience that night at exactly that time.”

She listened attentively as I told her what had happened. “Really?” she replied. “Paul’s mother lived in that flat for years. In fact, we built it for her but she was homesick and returned to New Zealand a few years later. Since then, she has lived with Paul’s sister in Wellington.

“She always told Paul that she would never leave without saying goodbye to him. He was her only son and she doted on him. Her spirit must have returned to the house looking for him that night. I think in some small way what you have just told me will help him.”

Strange as it may seem, this made perfect sense to me. A mother reaching out to her only son from the other side of the world as she was dying was a perfectly acceptable explanation to me for the events of that night and explained my “intruder”.

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