Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Death of Helena Blunden: Short Story

By Martha Ashwell

In my previous post for this blog, I wrote about the life of Helena Blunden. Helena was a Belfast mill girl (Millie) who was a talented singer but who sadly met an untimely death at a young age. You can find that post here. This post is my fictional account of Helena's tragic demise.


Flickr/The British Library (No known copyright restrictions)

Almost six in the morning and, as yet, there was no light.  The grey mist enfolded Helena Blunden and the cold dampness seeped through to her bones.  She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders guarding against the chill. Hurrying along the dew-stained cobbled street, a sharp twinge of excitement plucked at her heart. She was on the last minute and she daren’t be late. Several dark shapes dashed along a few yards in front of her, heads bowed, resigned though reluctant to start their day’s work. Helena was eager to begin her day, for she hoped it would be her last. The poplars stood like giant sculptures brushing the pale silvery clouds, obscuring the soft light of the breaking dawn. She shivered as she approached the vast building set against the darkness of the rain-washed sky.  Nothing could disguise the austere presence of Newbrook Mill standing four storeys high plus chimney, a gargantuan cathedral and spire dedicated to the production of Irish linen.

Flickr/The British Library (No known copyright restrictions)

Helena entered the mill for what she hoped would be her final shift. Climbing the stone steps worn away by years of workers’ feet, she removed her shawl and was aware that her curly hair was springing back into shape. Today was Friday and she would finish in twelve hours’ time.  She had played her part in producing double damask tablecloths for the great ship ‘Titanic’ and she would be working hard to finish a special order today.  Helena needed to be away home as quickly as possible for she had tickets for a concert at the Grand Opera House that evening.   Fly home, she would, as fast as her legs could carry her. There were other opportunities opening up for her now and she couldn’t wait to seize them.  Tomorrow, she would visit Belfast for an audition. A musical impresario had heard a recording of her voice and if he liked her she would sing in the newly opened Dunmurry Theatre.

Thoughts of family conversations flooded Helena’s head.
   ‘Ach, you’ll ne’er make it as a singer, girl.  You’re livin’ in a dream world.  Sure to God, ye’ll only get anywhere by a hard day’s graft.’
   ‘Oh, Mammy!  You know what this means to me.  Why can’t y’ be happy for me like Dada is?’
   ‘Cos I’ve got me head screwed on, that’s why!’
   ‘Leave the girl alone, Mary,’ came her father’s reply.  ‘Sure she’s as much chance as the next to make it.  She’s a lovely voice and people are touched by her singing’.
‘Old Mrs McLoughlin was weepin’ into her hanky the other day.  Wept buckets she did and told everyone how much she’d enjoyed it.’   ‘You can’t invent that and it’s something Helena has without the asking.’

Helena held on to her dream and now something was about to happen that could change her life for ever.  Now, as never before, she felt encouraged to live her dream and escape her life in the drudgery of the spinning room.
She knew she was a diligent, popular worker and had worked in the mill for over a year.  Every day she’d battled against the thundering noise of the machines and the heat and the smell.  She often worked up to her ankles in water but as she would say,
   ‘Sure to God, and you can get used to anything if you have to.’

Despite its chilly beginnings, this mid-May day turned out to be very hot.  The air in the spinning room smelt dank and stale as the temperature sweltered to its highest point. Two children and the woman working next to Helena had fainted and had to be carried out into the relative cool of the open air.  Condensation dripped down the walls and onto the floors.  Sweat glistened on Helena’s forehead as she tried to work dexterously at her machine.  The heat hung heavily on all the workers, soaking their clothes and the hair on the back of their heads.

Flickr/The British Library (No known copyright restrictions)

Helena worked on for the rest of the day.  Suddenly, she became aware of the cleaning woman who was mopping her way around the spinning room.  Kitty Malone was the opposite in character to Helena.  Unkempt Kitty, as she was nicknamed by the mill workers, was always scruffy and untidy.  She was deeply disaffected and envious of the fortunes of others and was certainly not known for her fine ways having been a drinker and a brawler in her youth.  Helena knew only too well that she’d said many unkind things about her.  She knew that she was jealous of her, mocking her talent and ambition whenever she had the chance.   No-one took much notice of Kitty which fuelled her frustration.  She’d listened often to Helena’s stories and was sick of hearing about her.  She’d laughed at Helena, teasing her for the slight English accent she’d picked up which made her voice distinctive.
Kitty had been moved around the mill many times as she’d caused disruption wherever she worked; her confrontational attitude had got her nowhere, yet she never learned from her mistakes.  Her duties included mopping and cleaning the condensation from the floors and the stairs of the great mill.  She needed the job but didn’t do it willingly, often quarrelling with fellow workers and complaining at the slightest opportunity.

Internet Archive Book Images via Visual hunt /  No known copyright restrictions

One of Kitty’s comments broke the flow of Helena’s thoughts as she neared the end of her shift.
‘Why audiences should be captivated by her?’ Kitty would never know.   ‘Sure, I could do just the same myself.  She’s nothing special, that’s for sure.’
Within seconds, Helena was preoccupied with thoughts of the audition once again. She confidently hummed tunes in her head while she worked.  She longed for the whistle to blow.  To save a few minutes, she’d kept her shoes on, ready to leave the minute the whistle blew.  Today, she was living every second ahead of itself; she just couldn’t wait for the day to end.

Helena watched absentmindedly as Kitty moved in her usual fashion from the spinning room floor onto the stairs and beyond.  She knew that Kitty wasn’t proud of what she did but that she was compelled to do it for the bits of a wage it offered at the end of each week.   She also knew about Kitty’s habit of complaining constantly and rebuking anyone who happened to walk on the stairs while she mopped.    What Helena didn’t know was that, tonight, Kitty was particularly tired and bad-tempered.  Having worked her way up from the ground floor of the mill she was now mopping all the stairs down to the bottom.   She stooped over her mop and, not bothering to squeeze it properly, dragged it lazily across the top steps.  Just a couple more flights to go and she’d be finished for the day.

Internet Archive Book Images via VisualHunt /  No known copyright restrictions

As she was extra weary and ill-tempered, any slight disruption would cause her to react.   At that moment, a young half-timer, Sean, who’d only just started a couple of days before, passed her by on the stairs.  He walked over the spot she had just cleaned and she shrieked at him.
   ‘Move!’ she yelled.
At the second landing, Kitty stood several feet from her mop and bucket which lay abandoned where she’d worked.  Taking him aside, she gripped his arm and warned him about the wet slippery stairs.  Kitty wagged her finger at him, then shook him by the shoulders.
 The young lad pulled himself back against the wall and lowered his head in shame.
   ‘I didn’t mean no harm,’ he stuttered nervously.
   ‘No, you lot never do.  But it’s me who has to go over it again - as if I haven’t got enough to do.’

Just then, the whistle blew and Helena finished her shift.  She grabbed her shawl and fled, avoiding other workers in her path.  She had eaten very little and felt sick with nervous excitement and the heat and noise of the day.  Hurrying down the first flight of stairs, she willed herself forward, her feet barely touching the steps.  Her wet shoes clung loosely to her feet but she raced on.  Soon she’d be home to her mother to tell her how excited she felt about going to the concert.  She thought again about her trip to Belfast.
   ‘I’ll do my very best and become famous and then I’ll buy them a house with a garden and everything and we’ll never want for anything ever again.’

In the rush and excitement, Helena didn’t see the discarded mop.  She tripped heavily and shot head first over the bucket, over the banister, crashing down the narrow stairwell to the ground floor far below.  Her body clipped the second banister snapping her arm in two.  This changed the direction of her fall by a few centimetres.

But there would be no mercy in this trajectory; nothing could save Helena from the fate awaiting her.  Kitty was still speaking to Sean when she heard the terrible scream as Helena fell.  She raced down the stairs and knelt by Helena’s limp body sprawled in a heap like a bundle of rags that had been left out for the tinkers.   Shocked and stunned, she felt a terrible lump in her throat as she stooped closer to examine the rumpled body lying contorted on the stone floor.  Helena’s bloodied skull had smashed into pieces; her voice silenced forever.

Flickr/The British Library (No known copyright restrictions)

Text © Martha Ashwell
Image use as per attribution

Martha Ashwell lives in Stockport and is a member of the Manchester Irish Writers.  She loved writing as a child but only started writing seriously about four years ago.  She has written poetry and prose which has been performed at The Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester.  Her main achievement to date is the publication of her personal memoir ‘Celia’s Secret: A Journey towards Reconciliation’. Find out more by visiting her website at

Friday, 3 February 2017

Working in the Linen Mills of Belfast: the life of Helena Blunden

By Martha Ashwell

The old Gilford Linen Mill: P Flannagan/
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid 19th and early 20th centuries, linen was the staple industry in the north of Ireland.  Production of linen yarn and cloth took place in many parts of the country but mechanized industrialisation progressed most rapidly in Belfast where the industry was concentrated.  The city had many linen mills and employed mostly women, with men taking the roles of supervisors and managers. A typical working week in a mill could be up to sixty hours, with the working day starting at 6.00 am and finishing at 6.00 pm, with one hour for lunch. Children as young as eight were employed, most of whom worked under the ‘half-time’ system; a half day in the mill and a half day at school.  In 1901, the legal starting age was raised to thirteen and by 1907 there were over three thousand half-timers in Belfast, earning about 3s 6d a week.

Most mills were four or five storeys high. Working conditions were harsh and the noise from machinery was deafening.  Heat, steam and oil fumes, combined with the fine dust from the linen fibres, made it a dangerous place to work.  The Millies, the young girls and women employed in the mill, became skilled lip readers in order to communicate over the noise.

Stockport Image Archive,
Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The linen industry went into decline after the Second World War and by the mid-1960s one third of Northern Ireland’s mills had closed.  Today, a number of Belfast’s towering mill buildings have been converted to serve the local community and small businesses. Despite the hard lives of the mill workers, there remains a certain nostalgia and many people remember the Belfast Millies walking arm in arm singing their mill songs.

In 1912, numerous operatives worked in these conditions and extra hours if an important order needed to be completed.  At the close of each shift, the workers would pour out of the mill, their damp clothes sticking to them, weighing heavily on their weary bodies. Despite the conditions, there was great camaraderie and many had a spring in their step and were happy to be outside breathing fresh cool air once more.  Now they could begin to live their other life outside the drudgery of the mill.

Helena Blunden was one such Millie and loved to talk with the other women.  Every day they would sing at their machines and mouth across making funny comments to one another.  Somehow, they kept each other going through the hard work and the long, tedious days.  The work was exhausting and relentless but, at sixteen, youth was on Helena’s side and she knew that this was not her destiny. She had told her fellow millworkers that she was born in Ireland but brought up in England since the age of five.  When her family returned to Ireland in 1911 to seek work they lived in a small terraced house close to the mill.  Her father would have preferred to live in Dublin, him being a Home Rule man, but they had relatives in Belfast who had found work for them in the mill so that’s where they settled.

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Visual hunt /
No known copyright restrictions

Helena was a dreamy idealist; an outgoing young woman, with a pretty face and a friendly smile who loved the romanticism of poetry and the clever wit of the Irish playwrights.  She’d told her mill friends of the raucous songs of the London music hall, which her mother had played for them on the old piano, but her real love was for classical composition like ‘Pie Jesu’ and her beloved Irish ballads. Helena loved to tell the story of her great uncle who had been a wandering minstrel in Kilkenny and fond of the dance; a talent that she had inherited herself.   But her passion was singing; it seemed like it was in her blood.  She was highly praised by those who heard her and that gave her the confidence to believe that one day she would earn her living by singing.

But such golden promise was to be cruelly cut short, for Helena died in tragic circumstances at a young age. I have written a fictional short story about it as another post on this blog and you can find it here. Great sadness followed Helena’s death.  The tragic loss of potential for what she could have become was felt deeply by her friends in the mill and by her devoted family.  They grieved for the beautiful girl and for the great talent that had died with her.

 Many years have passed and the linen industry has all but died too in Northern Ireland.  A visit to the mill shows that little has changed since Helena’s day.  The glass still rattles eerily in the window frames when the wind blows. The lift gate howls like a banshee when it opens onto a floor. The reminders of the past are everywhere.  The lift, staircases and windows which were installed in 1900 have never been altered.

The Old Gilford Mill Gone but not forgotten:
HENRY CLARK [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, the workers now based at the old mill where Helena worked are haunted by unexplained encounters. Strange eerie sightings – voices, lights and sounds. All have been reported and continue to be monitored. Does Helena’s spirit still haunt the mill where she died? Many say her ghost still walks the mill. Doors have reportedly opened and closed without reason. Lights have been seen flickering and unexplained noises and movements noted.
It had been Helena’s intention to leave the linen mill forever and establish herself as a singer. We’ll never know whether she would have succeeded or whether she was destined to remain in the mill for many years to come. The vast spinning room where Helena worked is now a book warehouse but it’s rarely used as staff are reluctant to spend too much time there.

Text © Martha Ashwell
Image use as per attribution
Martha Ashwell lives in Stockport and is a member of the Manchester Irish Writers.  She loved writing as a child but only started writing seriously about four years ago.  She has written poetry and prose which has been performed at The Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester.  Her main achievement to date is the publication of her personal memoir ‘Celia’s Secret: A Journey towards Reconciliation’. Find out more by visiting her website at

Monday, 23 January 2017

Constance Markievicz: The Revolutionary Countess

By Marion Riley

Countess Markievicz by John Butler Yeats
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Countess Markievicz was born Constance Gore-Booth in 1868 in London to Sir Henry Gore-Booth, the famous arctic explorer. As an Anglo-Irish landlord, her father was not typical of his type and administered his lands with a degree of compassion for the peasantry who farmed it. He is reported to have provided famine relief in 1879 at his estate in Sligo, This act of compassion undoubtedly inspired humanity and concern for the poor in his daughter. Living in Sligo, the family were friends with the family of W.B. Yeats, the poet.

Lissadell House, Ballinful, Co. Sligo- Constance's childhood home.
Photo: Kay Atherton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Constance studied painting in London in 1893 where she became involved in the issue of suffrage for women, joining the 'National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies'. She continued her artistic studies in Paris in 1898 where she met Count Markievicz, who was a Ukrainian aristocrat of Polish origin. They wed in 1901 and returned to Sligo where their daughter Maeve was born. They settled in Dublin in 1903 where the Countess co-founded the 'United Artists Club' which was a cultural and artistic organisation. In 1908 she joined Sinn Fein. She continued to participate in the Suffragette movement in England and by standing for election she helped to defeat Winston Churchill in a 1908 Manchester by-election.

Open Christmas letter from the Suffragettes of Manchester.
Eva Gore-Booth, Constance's sister, is listed on there.
Image: Manchester Archives+ from Manchester, United Kingdom
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1909 she established the radical 'Fianna Eireann' which was aimed at instructing a youth army in the use of firearms. She was jailed by the British authorities in 1913 after speaking at an IRB rally to protest the visit of George V to Dublin. She also joined the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) established by James Connolly.

As a Lieutenant in the ICA the Countess participated in the Easter Rising of 1916 where she was second-in-command at the fight on St. Stephens Green. Initially the rebels dug trenches in the green but soon retreated from this position once they became vulnerable to snipers positioned on the high buildings around the enclosed green. Under the command of Michael Mallin they occupied the Royal College of Surgeons, rebelling for a total of 6 days.

Studio portrait c.1915 of Countess Constance Markievicz (née Gore-Booth)
in uniform with a gun.
Photo: National Library of Ireland on The Commons (Flickr: Countess Markievicz)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

They surrendered only when they received a copy of Padraig Pearse's surrender order. The Countess was jailed in Kilmainham and sentenced to death but her sentence was commuted on grounds of her gender. She was released from prison in 1917 by which time the tide of support had turned in favour of the rebels and the path to independence was set.

In 1918 she was again jailed for her anti-conscription campaigning but upon release was elected to the English parliament, refusing to take her seat. She was the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. She was a member of the first 'Dáil' (Irish Parliament) in 1919 and became the first Irish (and indeed European) Cabinet Minister, serving as Minister for Labour from 1919 to 1922.

Clare elections, victory procession led by pipers, with Countess Markievicz in white coat.
Photo: National Library of Ireland on The Commons [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

She joined DeValera in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 which partitioned the country and fought in Dublin in the ensuing civil war. She was again imprisoned but this time by her former comrades-in-arms. Upon her release, she became a founder member of Fianna Fail and was elected to the fifth Dáil in 1927. DeValera had by this time changed tactics and intended to participate in the parliament. The Countess however, never got her chance when, at the age of 59, she died of tuberculosis (or possibly appendicitis) in July of 1927. She likely caught the disease while working in the Dublin slums. Her husband and family were by her side.

Glasnevin Cemetery
Photo: William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

She was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, the final resting place of so many Irish patriots with a farewell crowd of 300,000 in attendance.
Text: © Marion Riley

Marion Riley was born in Limerick city and emigrated as a teenager to Manchester. She has worked in Sardinia, Spain, Switzerland and France. A winner and runner up of Irelands Own writing competitions, the magazine has published many of her stories and articles. Her monologues have been performed at the Library Theatre and the Royal Exchange and her poems and memoirs have been published in various anthologies such as Write North West. 
Two of her short story Films 'Curls of the Past' and 'Letting Go' are on the BBC website Telling Lives. She has also edited and published her late mother's memoirs' From Kerry Child to Limerick Lady.' Marion now lives in Sussex, close to daughter where there is space and peace for quiet reflection on life's transience.

Marion wrote a monologue 'I Did What Was Right & I Stand By It' based on Countess Markievicz's life for MIW's commemorative event, '1916: The Risen Word'. 1916TRW was performed at the Irish World Heritage Centre, Manchester on March 10 2016. MIW received the generous support of the Embassy of Ireland for this event.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The History Man: Short Story

By E.M. Powell

It's lovely to be able to publish our first post of 2017 with some great news. Manchester Irish Writers member Annette Sills was one of the Books Ireland Magazine's 2016 Short Story Competition Winners. She took joint third place with her story 'The History Man.'

Annette says:
I wrote the story as part of a project with Manchester Irish Writers about the Irish who fought in the battle of the Somme. I did actually have an Irish uncle who used us in Wigan to visit when I was a child. He had fought in World War II and was always very dapper but the story is essentially a work of fiction. I was delighted to be one of the prize winners and hope to attend the Books Ireland prize winning ceremony in Dublin in April.

Photo via Luis Llerena via

Here's the link to Books Ireland Magazine's website so you can read 'The History Man' for yourself. Congratulations, Annette!

Annette Sills was born in Wigan, Lancashire to parents from Co. Mayo, Ireland. Her short stories have been longlisted and shortlisted in a number of competitions including the Fish Short Story Prize and the Telegraph Short Story Club and her first novel, The Relative Harmony of Julie O'Hagan was awarded a publishing contract with Rethink Press after it was shortlisted in their New Novels Competition 2014. She lives in Chorlton, Manchester with her family.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Allies After All: Guest Post by Dianne Ascroft

MIW are pleased to welcome a guest to our blog today. Dianne Ascroft is a member of Fermanagh Writers in Northern Ireland and writes WWII historical fiction. Her latest publication is as part of a short story collection, Pearl Harbor and More, which has been released by an international group of writers to mark the 75th anniversary of the battle of Pearl Harbour. Dianne’s story, Allies After All, is set in County Fermanagh during December 1941. In this post, she gives us an insight into the history of NI during the war and shares an excerpt from her story. 

By Dianne Ascroft

Fermanagah Fields

As part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland had already been at war for more than two years when my story opens. But, it was the same, yet a different, war than the rest of the United Kingdom was waging. Due to the political and religious tensions in the province, some aspects of the province’s experience of the war differed greatly from the rest of the United Kingdom. They faced rationing, the fear of invasion by Axis troops and many saw their loved ones go off to fight.

But conscription was never introduced so those who joined the armed forces did so voluntarily. This meant that more men of military service age remained at home than in other parts of the UK. But what the province didn’t supply in manpower, they made up for with industrial output. Northern Ireland’s industries supplied ships, aircraft, munitions and cloth for the armed forces.

Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh.
Flying-boat bases were located near here.

County Fermanagh, in the west of the province, did its part for the war effort with increased crop yields and milk production for consumption locally and across the Irish Sea in England. Bordering neutral Ireland, the county was in a unique position. The hardships of rationing were offset by a thriving cross border smuggling trade between the two countries. Yet, at the same time, the Unionists in Fermanagh constantly worried about the proximity of the border, fearing that the IRA would sneak across it to attack the local targets, sabotage military operations in the county and aide Axis forces to infiltrate the province.

Local defence throughout Northern Ireland was overseen by the police rather than the military, in order to employ their local knowledge to prevent anyone with suspected terrorist connections from being accepted into the organisation. Thus, the Local Defence Force, which later became the Ulster Home Guard, was a branch of the police force.

Fermanagh Farmland

Northern Ireland was also a staging platform for the Allied troops that arrived in the United Kingdom to prepare for the invasion of occupied Europe. This included the Americans. Although America was neutral until the attack on Pearl Harbor pushed them into the war, they had already been in Northern Ireland for months, secretly preparing for their entry into the war. The construction of military installations by American civilian contractors, in various places in the United Kingdom, including
County Fermanagh, was already well underway by December 1941.

* * *

When my story opens, an American mechanic, Art Miller, working for a civilian company on the construction of ammunition storage dump facilities, meets Robbie Hetherington, a member of the Local Defence Force in County Fermanagh with interesting results. Here’s the excerpt from my story:

     Art yanked the van’s door open. Despite the crazy angle the vehicle was sitting at, in one quick movement he swung himself out of the driver’s seat onto the bumpy, badly surfaced road. Huh, you’d hardly call it a road; it wasn’t much wider than a sidewalk back home. Nothing like the smooth, straight Route 62 that passed through his hometown in New York State. The highway’s surface might crack in the summer heat, but there sure weren’t any craters in it. This was only fit for donkeys and carts. Guess that was about right around here.

     Art ran his hand across the back of his neck and up into his sandy crew cut as he stared at the vehicle. His old man had never let them grow their hair when they were kids, and he still had the same haircut he’d had in grade school. Not that he had a beef with that. He had the hair; now he just needed the uniform. He was ready to answer Uncle Sam’s call. 

     Well, if he ever got this truck outta the hole he would be. What he could sure use right now would be Popeye to come along and lift that tin can outta there. He wasn’t far outside Ardess village but he hadn’t seen anyone around when he drove through it. The place looked like a ghost town. It was more than a mile back to Kiltierney camp. If he started walking, with any luck, a truck headed for the camp would pass him and he could hitch a ride. He’d get someone to come back and tow him out.

     As he turned and started walking away from the vehicle, a young man around his own age wearing a heavy khaki overcoat and field service cap cycled toward him on a sturdy black bicycle.
     “Hiya, buddy,” Art said to the cyclist when he stopped beside him. 
     “Are you abandoning that vehicle in the middle of the road?” the khaki-uniformed man sputtered.
     “Well, it ain’t goin’ nowhere. It’s stuck in a hole.”
     “You can’t leave it there. It might fall into the wrong hands.”
      “Is that so? I don’t see anyone around here. Do you?” Art ran his hand through his hair as he stared at the man. Who is this smart aleck? he thought. 
     “See here, you certainly can’t leave it there. Spies or terrorists could sneak across the border from Ireland and have it quicker than a fox slips into a henhouse.”
     Art raised one eyebrow and snorted. “Yeah? And how do I know you ain’t a Jerry soldier? Who are you, anyway, pal?”
     “I’m a Local Defence Volunteer. Let’s see your ID.”  
     Could this day get any worse? Art really didn’t feel like dealing with this smart aleck right now. He had had it with being pushed around. “Is that a wing of the Boy Scouts?”
     Art thought his interrogator looked sore about the wisecrack, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get that truck out of the hole and get back to camp to finish the repair he’d been working on. If he couldn’t convince the boss to send him home, then he would do his darndest to get this construction project finished lickity-split so he could get outta here.   
     The uniformed man regarded him stiffly. “It’s the Ulster Special Constabulary.” 
     “You’re a copper, then?” 
     “No, Local Defence. Like the Home Guard in England.”
     “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of them – aren’t they old guys, soldiers that are over the hill? Marching around with broomsticks.”
     “Not in Northern Ireland. We’re part of the police force. And we’re issued Lee–Enfield rifles.”
     Art shook his head. The guy looked pretty young to be in some broomstick brigade instead of the army, but what did he care? It was none of his beeswax. Getting this truck out of the hole was. Say, maybe this smart aleck could help him.

All Text and Images © Dianne Ascroft 
Dianne Ascroft is a Canadian writer living in Northern Ireland. She writes historical and contemporary fiction, often with an Irish connection. Her series The Yankee Years is a collection of Short Reads and novels set in World War II–era Northern Ireland. Her other writing includes a ghost tale inspired by the famous Coonian ghost, An Unbidden Visitor; a short story collection, Dancing Shadows, Tramping Hooves, and an historical novel, Hitler and Mars Bars. She is lives on a farm near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh and is a member of Fermanagh Writers, Writers Abroad, the Historical Novel Society and the Alliance of Independent Authors

To purchase Pearl Harbor and More, click here.  

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Independence Indifference: Thoughts on the Easter Rising

By Des Farry

© Des Farry

On looking back at my school days, if I was asked the question ‘What did the Easter Rising mean to you?' the answer has to be not a lot or complete indifference as something which happened in Dublin and had nothing to do with us.

Outside of school the only influences and tenuous links with the Rising were an old man who tried unsuccessfully to sell copies of The United Irishman or Inniu (‘Today’, an Irish language paper) outside Church after Sunday Mass, a background low level IRA Border campaign conducted  by outsiders  with little local input which had largely petered out and occasional home visits from people selling leather goods and Celtic Crosses made by internees at Crumlin Road Prison to raise funds.

Our only contact with the actual events of the Easter Rising was when the film Mise Eire with music composed by Seán Ó Riada was released. We were all marched down to the County Cinema en masse to see it. It was followed by a couple of Gael Linn shorts.

The first was called Peil starring Christy Ring the Cork hurler demonstrating Hurling skills with commentary in Irish and greeted in silence. Nobody had any interest at all in Hurling and not a great deal in Irish either.

The second was Gaelic Greats which finally produced emotion, when Sean Purcell, the Galway footballer appeared on screen to be greeted with a loud chorus of boos. He was infamous in Tyrone for a very heavy unpunished tackle on County goalkeeper and local man Thaddy Turbitt. Gaelic Greats??? With no mention of Tyrone maestro Iggy Jones?? Ridiculous!!

Omagh was football country, soccer on Saturday night at The Showgrounds, Gaelic on Sunday at St. Enda’s.

So what did I take from the film session? It has to be the magnificent music from Mise Eire which has never been bettered.

Sculpture of the composer Seán Ó Riada in Cúil Aodha
Photo: Dlindod (Own work); licensed under CCA.

And about the content of the film?  Nothing at all, it was never mentioned again.

So why the indifference?  Looking back it was partly down to the History syllabus of the time. Although we followed both British and Irish history as separate subjects which frequently came together albeit from different viewpoints, the time period only extended from about 1485 to the early 19th century.

Also, the local economy in early 1960s Northern Ireland was booming with the production of man made fibres and goods being major new employers alongside existing large scale traditional shirt and clothing factories. Similarly, in services new opportunities were coming through its  own TV networks and music prowess.

High levels of emigration from the Republic underlined its failure and lack of attractiveness as a dull, backward place. The aspirations expressed in the Proclamation and the film Mise Eire did not match up with the reality on the ground.
Text © Des Farry

Des Farry comes originally from near Omagh in Northern Ireland and has lived in Greater Manchester for over 40 years. He has been writing since about age 15 (local notes for Ulster Herald). He has written or contributed to various published and internal non-fiction organisational professional guides and books on corporate finance plus a number of short stories for various competitions and the former Dublin Writers Site (Electric Acorn).

Friday, 21 October 2016

First Television: A Poem to Remember Aberfan

By Kevin McMahon

50 years ago today, on 21 October 1966, a mountain of coal waste collapsed in a lethal avalanche into a school and houses in the village of Aberfan in Wales. 144 people, including 116 children, were killed. I wrote this poem in remembrance of those who died, and those who bore and still bear the grief of the Aberfan disaster.  

A poem

Photo: Danielclauzier (licensed under CCA). 
21 October 1966

Excitement welled like an unseen spring,
That last day before the half-term break.
With skies dark and thick as coal sludge, 
The rain – for the second day that week – 
Had left us trapped in classrooms
Behind high, steamed and streaming windows.
I ached for the release of the evening bell.
Lessons ambled past my reverie,
Anticipating Bilko’s antics,
Concocting Oxo-family tableaux, 
A cocoon of laughter, where Michael Miles 
Presided over “Yes-No interludes”.

Unleashed by school’s end we ran,
A yelping avalanche splitting the gloom.
A knot of women huddled sombre at the gate,
Heads scarfed against the rain, in quiet talk.
Blushing at my mother’s long embrace,
And pulling at the hand that gripped my own –
With more than usual tightness – 
I rattled out my plans, my hopes,
As she palmed the raindrops from her face.

It sat, intruding on the normal,
On splayed and spindly legs,
Chairs, newly shifted to strange places,
Shrank the little parlour.
Its unfamiliar light transformed
Our faces, pallid as we watched 
A silent throng of mothers 
Where the gates had been,
Heads scarfed against the rain. 
They stood and stared at rooftops
Protruding from the spoil,
And waited for their children.

Photo 'Condensation on a Window in Wexford, Ireland', by Danielclauzier (licensed under CCA). 
Text: © Kevin McMahon
Kevin has been a member of Manchester Irish Writers since 1998 – with a few years’ absence due to work commitments prior to his retirement!  He has contributed to the group’s publications “The Retting Dam”, “Stones of the Heart” and “Changing Skies”, and regularly performs at the group’s events.  He is a former winner of the “New Writing” award at Listowel Writers’ Week in Country Kerry, and has been shortlisted for a number of other awards for memoirs and short stories.  With Alrene Hughes, Kevin co-edited the publication of monologues arising from the “Changing Skies” project.  His scripts have been professionally performed in various venues, and he has had poetry broadcast on the BBC.