Great memories of talking history…

Robert Boyle; memories of a bygone era

Oral history is a sector all its own, the opportunity to hear directly from people who have witnessed events, been part of history and who have something important to say.

I was privileged in the past to have a unique opportunity to gather the memories of others through my work as a local journalist with the Larne Times newspaper. Recently I was engaged by Larne Museum to deliver a presentation recounting the stories of some of those I interviewed.

It was a wonderful experience revisiting the interview notes or reports, a reminder of those who have now since passed on…

Among them was Robert Boyle, born at his uncle and aunt’s farm at Beltoy outside Carrickfergus in 1917. His family operated a ‘country store’ at Ballypollard, Magheramorne, previously operated by the Long family. He started ploughing in 1938 or 1939 – his father bought a horse for £2 10s in the Brickfields at Carrickfergus and they had the horse for 9 years. He said he remembered ploughing without the aid of tractors “too well”

He continued to competition plough with horses, winning many trophies over a lifetime and was very proud of his achievements; “I ploughed at Islandmagee 51 years ago [interview 1999] with a pair of borrowed horses and won it. For many years the brother and I went in more for Style and Appearance, plus the ploughing and did powerful well”

In the era of the tractor he and his brother started off with a Fordson tractor, undertaking work throughout the countryside – he was proud to have once ploughed eight acres in one day.

Going on the roads with heavy tractor wheels was the worst part of it. Road bands had to be put on the wheels and the Boyle brothers used to drive along the verges to make life easier – until the council men came and told them off for ‘churning up’ the sides of the road.

His memories included those of wartime; one that remained with me in particular was his story of how he had taken flax to Mossley Mill in Newtownabbey during the Black Out era. By the time he was ready to come home on the tractor it was dark and the journey had to be completed slowly through the use of a torch.

One can only imagine how much time the journey took along those long country miles…

When the Boyles were living at Ballyloran outside Larne, they were one of the few families to have a television. Over 40 friends and neighbours came round to see one particular broadcast, featuring a farming family from Ballynure.

Mostly though people called not to see television but to have a yarn and socialise, he recalled.

Social events he mentioned included the Magheramorne Brass Band fete, which started at 2pm and finished at 12 midnight. “They came from near and far, some people came on bicycles and everybody came from Glynn on the train and walked up the road,” Rab told me.

“There was a timber floor put down on the field to dance on, and they danced the Lancers”

The Farmer’s Socials were said to be the only occasion in the year when the farmer’s daughters got a new dress The social would start at 9pm and it might be 6am before some of the participants would be homeward bound

His family had been connected with the townland of Lockstown outside Ballycarry for generations and he was able to recall the names of a lot of the families along that long and winding lane which was very familiar to me as a youth, when our family would go for a walk on a Sunday evening to “the Moss”.

“There were the McCauslands, and they were a very old-aged people. Up that lane at one time an aunt of mine was 85, Mr and Mrs. Gardiner were 73 or 74, the McCauslands were between 70 and 100, Jim Hall was over 70, Joe McMurran and his wife were up in their 80s. That was all at the one time. It must have been good air…” he had joked.

I interviewed Robert Boyle at his home in Ballycarry in 1999, when he was 82 years old. He said that he had “seen a lot, heard a lot, and laughed a lot”

Which is, in the final analysis, not a bad thing to be able to say about your life…

A newspaper clipping from 1981 of Robert Boyle at Ballyclare horse fair. Photo: East Antrim Times

Shipwrecked and stranded a long way from Islandmagee…

ISLANDMAGEE, COUNTY ANTRIM: Seafaring is in the blood in this part of Northern Ireland.

The rugged coastline of Islandmagee and the ferry to Cairnryan in Scotland

So much so that it was proudly claimed that the peninsula (well, an island by virtue of a few feet of water in a culverted stream at the nearby town of Whitehead) had more master mariners and ship’s captains per head of population than anywhere else in the British Isles.

The claims may well be true, for seafaring became a generational way of life and rite of passage for many young men from Islandmagee.

The author Jack London took opporunity to reflect on one such ‘sea salt’ in his short-story The Sea Farmer. This 1914 story surrounds Captain MacElrath, who is from a place in the North of Ireland called Island McGill (no prizes for guessing where it is really set). But unlike the ficticious MacElrath, there are quite a few real-life stories surrounding actual seafarers that eminate from “the island”.

One such person was Captain William McMurtry of Islandmagee, a member of a well-known seafaring family.

Captain William McMurtry of Islandmagee

Captain McMurtry was the centre of a real life drama in 1896 in the Pacific, as he was homeward bound from Canada on the vessel Kinkora.

The Kinkora was bound from Victoria, British Columbia, to London with a cargo of logs, which were 110 feet long. The passage to Britain would take her round the treacherous Cape Horn, but the Kinkora did not get to that stage of her voyage.  Just over 40 days into the journey she sprang a leak and the pumps were proving ineffectual so McMurtry decided to head for the nearest land, which was Clipperton Island in the North Pacific. 

By the time they reached sight of the island the vessel was waterlogged and very difficult to manage. The ship’s boat was launched and landed on Clipperton, were they found only three inhabitants, whose role was to harvest the guano which the island had an abundance of. The men all helped to bring the crew of the Kinkora safely ashore but the vessel had rolled with the swell onto a coral reef and started to break up.

The crew had been unable to salvage many provisions before the loss of the Kinkora and there was insufficient on the island. With no prospect of help arriving in the near future, after 18 days it was decided to send the ship’s boat in search of rescue. 

The mate, J. McMurtry, brother of the captain, and seven seamen, volunteered to sail to the nearest port, and their boat was loaded with provisions for the voyage.

They sailed to Acapulco and suffered hardships which included 100 miles through a hurricane, exposure and continual bad weather. They were successful despite the odds and 700 miles later arrived in Acapulco, surviving on bully beef and biscuits, fresh water and the odd tot of rum. The British Consul commissioned HMS Comus to rescue those left on Clipperton Island and it took 14 days for her to reach the castaways.

Clipperton Island

On Clipperton Island a few weeks after his brother had left in the ship’s boat, Captain McMurtry and his remaining crew had contemplated taking over an American schooner which had anchored en route to the Galapagos Islands.

The Islandmagee man had offered financial inducements to the captain, but he was on his way to the Galapagos Islands to catch turtles and was not swayed by the plight of the Kinkora crew. McMurtry had planned for several of his crew to take charge of the schooner while he diverted the captain, but at a crucial point where the plan was about to be enacted, a vessel was sighted on the horizon, which was HMS Comus. What might have easily become an international incidence was averted.

Clipperton Island is a coral island which is just three miles long and from five to 14 feet high and is completely devoid of vegetation, but with thousands of sea birds.

It would have been a far cry from Islandmagee for the McMurtry brothers.

Captain McMurtry’s subsequent career at sea included on board the Fingal, which was the largest sailing ship built in Belfast when she was launched in 1883.

Some years later, in 1903, McMurtry was on a passage from Liverpool to New South Wales when the vessel got into difficulties during the start of the voyage when Fingal was hit by a hurricane squall and she was badly damaged and filled with water, being run aground to save her.

McMurtry sailed her to New South Wales after she was repaired and reloaded, but the exposure which he suffered during the drama resulted in his suffering from congestion of the lungs and he contacted pneumonia during the passage to Australia, passing away there on June 4, 1904, at the age of just 45 years. He is buried at Waverly Cemetery in Sydney and also commemorated on a family gravestone in McGarel Cemetery, Larne.

The story of Captain McMurtry reminds us of a time now past when Windjammers conveyed goods across the world, and among the sailors who manned them were many from Islandmagee.

A map showing the location of Clipperton Island, where an Islandmagee crew were shipwrecked in 1896

Materials provided by Edith Chambers, 2000, including ‘Saga of Co. Antrim Sea Captain’, Larne Times, July 8, 1948

This extract is from Tides of Time. A Coastal History of East Antrim, which is published at £20 and available from the author. For more details please contact

Blackhead Lighthouse from the Islandmagee shore

Its a world away along the coast…

Today I was filming for a tourist app about Ulster Scots walks in Northern Ireland and we were stood on the pier at Glenarm Harbour, blithely ignoring the wind whipping across the bay.

Suddenly a head and then a full body emerged from the choppy waves of the sea below us as a seal struggled to swim out into the bay. Seals are always impressive creatures to see, and this one came to a halt momentarily and raised its head up to get a better look at us. Then, it was gone.

A seal on the Maidens off Larne; they appear naturally inquisitive when humans are around

Such experiences are quite fantastic and I always feel privileged when they occur. I have enjoyed quite a few over the years, particularly when leading tours at the Gobbins Cliff Path in Islandmagee. There, on a good many occasions, I have had opportunity to see seals. On one occasion, I was acting as safety officer and coming off the path behind the last tour in the evening when I spotted a seal watching the group from just off the rocks.

The amazing thing for me was that the seal swam along close by, following the group all along the cliff path, every now and again popping up from the sea to keep an eye. I was able to tell where they were exactly at any point thanks to this clearly very curious creature. As they left the path and made their way inland, the seal had a final look and then disappeared again.

Seals in Irish mythology were supposed to be the descendants of the people who had failed to follow Noah into the Ark at the time of the Biblical flood. It was believed they had the unique ability to turn into humans, but they would always revert to being seals. Sometimes they almost appear to have human quality when incidents like the one at the Gobbins occur.

Over the years I have been privileged to see not only seals off the Antrim Coast but also harbour porpoise and dolphins, on one occasion the latter caused quite a stir for a tour party when they came close to the rocks, chasing mackerel which were making their way down the North Channel.

The coast is a wonderful place for wildlife. The Gobbins has lots of birds, the rare ones being the Puffins, which live there from April to the beginning of August, providing visitors with a chance to view the only Puffin colony on the mainland of Northern Ireland.

The Puffins can be shy and elusive because their nest sites are difficult to see, but when they are feeding their young they can put on quite a display, flying literally over the heads of visitors and circling round in the sea before returning to the grassy headland which houses their burrows. Their distinctive coloured bills make them easily spotted in the sunlight, even when a distance out to sea.

Puffins in the water off Islandmagee

Elsewhere along the coastline there is a rich variety of wild birds. Guillemots, Razor Bills, Oyster Catchers (or, more accurately in Scots, Mussel Pickers), Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Rock Pippets and Gannets can all be seen along the coast. The Gannets are tourists, only flying across from their colony on the Ailsa Craig near Scotland to seek out fish in the waters off the Antrim coast. Their characteristic sweeps over the water and then torpedo like dives from a great height – when they enter the sea at about 50 mph – are impressive to see, especially when a couple of dozen of them have arrived to fish.

Cormorants and Shags are other birds, very similar in looks, which inhabit our coastal waters, the former being called “Fishermen’s Curse” in some areas because in a competition they are more likely to end up with a fish. In Japan, from medieval times, fishermen acknowledged their prowess in this regard by hatching them and training them to fish, tying their necks so they could not swallow the fish they caught and instead brought them back to the fishing boat.

An impressive bird to view in flight, they have their own unique routines and can be seen making their way each morning towards Belfast Lough before returning at the same time each evening on their flight home.

Each of these birds have their own particular selling points, of course. I enjoy watching the Fulmar characteristically gliding above the water, using the air currents to great effect. Fulmer can travel a few thousand miles in a couple of days, as has been proven by several which were tagged on the Orkneys, and they do so with as little effort as possible: what clever birds.

Kittiwake and chick; the small gull builds its nest on the rock faces, utilising niches in the rocks to add security to the fragile construction. Research suggests the birds return to the exact next location each year.

The Fulmar was named by the Vikings, which is also something to contemplate when watching them glide above you. The name means “foul bird” or “foul gull” and stems from the fact that if you get too close to a Fulmar and they feel threatened they will utilise the unique nostrils on their bills to empty their stomach contents in your direction! One can almost imagine the first Norseman experiencing this almost life-changing event and according the bird its name thereafter…

Rock pippets flit around the rocks and grassy areas of the cliffs, as inquisitive and unphased by human activity as the more domestic Robin, Kittiwakes are said to have been given their name because their cry sounds exactly like the word, and guillemottes are sometimes called ‘Irish penguins’ because they love to stand upright on ledges and look very much like a penguin when they do.

Sometimes in the modern world it is possible to overlook the simple pleasures in life. For me the wildlife and birdlife of the coastal area is an amazing world away from the rat race. It’s nice to take time to relax and watch the other busy world’s around us.

Dolphins of Islandmagee in the summer of 2019

Intelligence gathering and the Larne Gunrunning of 1914

In April 1914 the Ulster Volunteer Force, which had been formally established in 1913 by the Provisional Government of Ulster, successfully landed almost 30,000 rifles with ammunition in what was an illegal and audacious act of defiance against the Liberal Government of the day in the UK and also Irish nationalists, who were campaigning for a Home Rule Ireland, governed from Dublin.

Motor vehicles in the grounds of Drumalis, home of Lady Smiley, during the gunrunning of April 24, 1914

In the run up to the gunrunning, which involved thousands of members of the Ulster Volunteers as well as half the motor cars owned in the province at that time, William Chaine undertook an extensive intelligence survey around Larne.

Chaine was the son of the late James Chaine MP, who had developed the port of Larne from the 1860s and established links with not only Scotland but also New York.

In 1914 Chaine, a prominent local unionist, was also a leading figure at Larne Harbour. As well as a businessman, a unique document gives us another insight to Chaine as an intelligence gathered for the Ulster Military Committee, which organised the gunrunning. The Committee had intelligence officers and had managed to breach the security of the government intelligence services; intercepting police messages was a regular routine of the small corps.

In December 1913 Chaine, who was chairman of the Larne Harbour Board, sent an intelligence report to J. T. Reade, owner of J. T. Reade and Son flax and yarn merchants and a member of the Ulster Military Committee.

The report is extensive and detailed, listing numbers of employees in the Post Offices in Larne area, the railway stations and police and coastguards.

The report provides detail on the numbers by denomination (although they are not individually named), their politics and any other information.

“It may be taken that Protestants are all Unionists except where so marked,” Chaine outlined.

Those who were marked included not only the two assistants and two postmen at Larne Post Office, but also the postmaster at Kilwaughter who was listed as “Unitarian Politics?” and also the station master at Larne Railway station “Pres – Politics very doubtful”.

The Chief Clerk at Larne Harbour station was mentioned in the context of being President of the local Ancient Order of Hibernians Division, and at Glynn station the station master was described as “R.C. bad”.

Several of those detailed were members of the Ulster Volunteers, including the signalmen at Larne Harbour railway station and some of the clerks at the Larne Town railway station.

In terms of the Royal Irish Constabulary, Chaine believed that five of the 18 constables were unionist, with the District Inspector, Head Constable, and sergeants all being Roman Catholic. Glenarm and Carnlough police appeared evenly divided from the survey, while Glenarm coastguards had a Chief Officer who was unionist and four men, half of them unionist.

The survey was undoubtedly keenly read at the time. A few months later, Larne was the centre of the famous gunrunning, and the Military Committee would have been focused on those whose loyalty might be to the unionist cause rather than the government. If Chaine’s list is correct, and there is no reason to suspect otherwise, then Larne was a relatively good place to have the main operation of the gunrunning take place.

In its aftermath another intelligence gathering took place, but this time with a rather different emphasis.

Two documents from the Royal Irish Constabulary have also survived and are located in the Public Record Office in Belfast.

William Sneyd Moore, District Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary stationed at Larne, provided one of the reports.

He recounted that about 8pm on Friday, April 24, he was informed by Sergeant Gordon that “a big movement of Volunteers was in progress”. Moore went to Drumalis, the home of Lady Smiley, where he noted a number of motor vehicles in the grounds, and also signals from at least two vessels off Barr’s Point near the harbour mouth.

Receiving a complaint that someone had been prevented going up to the harbour, Moore and several constables encountered a group of Volunteers; “I found a number of Volunteers armed with truncheons with white armlets on their arms. The truncheons are rather larger than our own truncheons. I walked towards them and a man named Thomas Robinson of Larne stepped out. I said to him ‘Is it a fact that people are being prevented from going to the harbour?’ He replied ‘Yes, those are my orders’. He was then directed to Colonel McCalmont, the local MP, who informed him that Sir William Adair, a senior UVF commander in County Antrim, had ordered the roads to be blocked “against every one and particularly police and customs officers”.

Moore asked if he was prepared to do this by force and McCalmont replied “Yes, I have 700 men here”.

The report also mentions Frank E. Craddock, a local motor garage owner, who had several cars there. Moore witnessed cars moving to the harbour through the UVF cordon and returning with parcels inside which were long and “done up in sacking”.

“Each ordinary car had about five or six of these packages in it. There were some motor lorries and large cars which had much more than five packages in them…the numbers of 229 cars were taken, some of which proved afterwards to be false,” Moore reported.

“The procession of motor cars was pretty well continuous between 10pm and 3am, he says in his report.

James McHugh, Head Constable in Larne, also filed a report in the aftermath of the historic event.

In it he named several of the men whom he had identified as having been involved.

Thomas Robinson, also named by Moore, had stood in front of McHugh, “swinging a baton bigger than our truncheons” and informed he that his orders were to allow no one through the cordon.

Among those McHugh listed as having participated in the event were several names which would be well-known in Larne: among them local solicitor James M. O’Brien and Dr. Samuel Hill of Larne, who was a despatch rider. Robert Hanson, a vicar’s son (actually the son of the Presbyterian clergyman Rev. D. H. Hanson) was also listed.

So too were Charles Taggart, James McNinch, Allen Dorman (a well-known businessman), Thomas Johnston, Hugh McKennell, who was acting as a despatch rider, Samuel Fullerton, a leading member of the Ulster Volunteers and later the Royal British Legion in Larne, Dr. Shaw, Goodwin Carleton, William Kirkpatrick, Alfred Bustard and Robert Buston (perhaps Buyton as there is a mark on the report).

“I observed Major McCalmont driving about in a small grey car and he appeared to be superintending the arrangements; he had an armlet on,” McHugh reported.

The Larne Gunrunning was a seminal moment in the modern history of Ireland. The Ulster Volunteers and the Ulster Provisional Government had ensured that the government in London had a major political headache: granting Home Rule to the nationalists would inevitably bring about a conflict of some sort with the Ulster Unionists. The Liberals had realised in March 1914 at the time of the Curragh Mutiny – when officers refused orders to move north to guard military installations and also, it was believed, confront the Ulster Volunteers – that the government might not be able to count on the army or the navy in any enforcement of Home Rule.

The road to partition, already arguably in the minds of Ulster Unionists, was about to be travelled…

With thanks to Wesley Wright for information on the RIC intelligence reports

Memorials, irony and legacy…

MONUMENTS and memorials form an important part of the fabric of any society, and have an important part to play in telling the story of the nations or the communities concerned.

The current debate about some memorials has brought strong emotions to the fore.

An Illustration of the Boyne Obelisk from the Belfast Weekly News, 1895

History is never simple, and to treat it as such is to promote a naïve and immature view which often speaks more about those demanding removal of monuments than it does anything else.

Deciding to assemble a mob and bring down a statue (while the forces of law and order watch on, which is another matter), is not about democratic debate. It is about determining that no other opinions count.  This is a fascist approach to history and if it is allowed, then no doubt the list of offending monuments will extend much beyond any connections to the slave trade.

Slavery was – of course – wrong. It was of its time and its time has thankfully passed in the western world.

 Dismantling the history of the nation and seeking to demonize is, one suspects, part of a much bigger picture fed by shadowy groups which could never achieve their aims democratically and now seek other means. Slavery is just one convenient peg to try and hang their activities on.

But even if it were not so, the logic of the situation is beyond belief. The logical extension of criticism of empire is to ask Italy to remove the colosseum in Rome because of its connections to slavery and indeed the killing of Christians and slaves there.

We might as well demand the demolition of the pyramids in Egypt in order to expunge the reminders of slave labour there. And our present focus on slavery in Europe and America neglects the historical plight of slaves in the middle east.

The monuments which we see in our everyday lives or holiday visits are something we view subjectively. We may not like all of them or what they represent in our view, but clearly others do like them and what they represent.

The threat to the statue of Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement, on the spurious basis that he was a Nazi sympathiser, resulted in an uproar in Poole, where thousands of people signed a petition to retain the statue.

The local council, however, said that it would be removed “so that we can properly involve all relevant communities and groups in discussions about its future, including whether a more educational presentation of his life in a different setting might be more appropriate”.

The question as to how relevant some groups might be in the context of a local statue does arise, since as we know in Northern Ireland, some people can travel considerable distances to be offended.

Despite the claim by some Labour activists that the Scout founder was a Nazi sympathiser, historian Dr. Andrew Norman told the BBC that he had wanted to introduce the Scout movement to Germany but ended up being put on a Nazi death list pending the invasion of Britain because “the Germans suspected he was using scouts as spies.”

MP Tobias Ellwood, hit the nail on the head when he tweeted: ““Few historical figures comply with 21st C values. Simply expunging past connections from sight won’t correct wrongs or help us better learn from our past.”

It is fair to say that without progression of history, we would not be the democratic, multi-cultural society which we are today.

The issue of contention over memorials is not new in Irish history, of course.

One of the most famous memorials to be ‘removed’ in that history was probably the Boyne Obelisk, which was erected in 1736 to commemorate the famous battle of 1690. The memorial was located close to where William III crossed the river and had four panels commemorating the victory and also the Duke of Schomberg, who had been killed on the other side of the river.

In the 1890s the memorial was in some disrepair and a fund was established by Colonel Codlington of Oldbridge and Mr. Balfour of Townley Hall, who were seeking subscriptions to raise £100 towards repairs.

However, as the Home Rule debate intensified in Ireland, the Boyne Obelisk became a subject of some debate, with some wanting it removed.

The Irish nationalist antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger, a driving force in the Gaelic League and Irish language revival in Belfast and County Antrim, responded to this debate in 1919 with a measured and well-argued article in the Irish Independent.

He accepted that there was an undesirable feature to the memorial, which was the wording on the plaque referring to James II at the head of “a popish army” – which was not the language Bigger would have preferred.

But overall, Francis Joseph Bigger believed that the monument had a place on the landscape just as the battle it commemorated had a place in Irish history.

Antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger

“To take down the Boyne obelisk and remove it to a more northern county would not only be a bad policy at the present juncture of our national life, but it would denude the monument of its associations and value, varied as those qualifications are. Standing where it does it tells of a momentous battle lost and won, and, what is even more, it speaks forth in its inscription the spirit of those who raised at well-nigh fifty years after the memorable event,” Bigger said.

He made clear he believed it belonged to a bygone era when it was raised ‘in pride and arrogance’ but said “Let it remain as a monument of such an age.”

 “Of course it is another question whether the obelisk could be removed or not as suggested. It was raised and paid for by public subscription in the year 1736, and is, therefore, a public monument,” he added.

This comment underlies the fact that in 1919 the obelisk was offered by the landowner for sale to the Tyrone War Memorial Committee, the suggestion being that it would be used as a County memorial to those soldiers from Tyrone lost in the First World War. This was not taken up at the time.

Within a few years the prospect of the monument being moved was taken off the agenda.

The practicalities ceased to have relevance after it was blown up in 1923 by around forty armed men. Rumours suggested the IRA were responsible, which was denied, and other suggestions remain that the Irish Army may have practised their demolition skills and resolved the ongoing debate.

 It is not clear what Bigger thought of this, but he could hardly have approved.

 The Larne Times in June 1923 remarked in relation to the explosion; “We can only guess at the motives which prompted the destruction of this landmark on the Boyne. It was in all probability hatred, not so much of King William—for all the “hate” the world to-day could not harm him—as it was hatred of all that he stood for and all that his memory still means to hundreds of thousands of Northern Irishmen. Some Southern people are very anxious to get the North into the Free State. Do they for a moment suppose that insult and outrage to the memory of a man who is specially venerated in Ulster will hasten that day? It is not much the destruction of the material substance that is significant in this case—it is the spirit that lay behind it,” the paper said.

The irony of trying to encourage Ulster Protestants into a state where one of their most cherished landmarks was wiped away could not have been starker.

Irony often keeps company with history, and there is a final twist in this case.

Francis Joseph Bigger, an outstanding figure in Ulster cultural life, died in 1926 and was buried at Mallusk cemetery in County Antrim, where his gravestone contained an inscription in Irish.

Ironically, in 1971 loyalist paramilitaries took exception to the use of Irish and the stone was, like the Boyne Obelisk, blown up and toppled.

It is a salutatory reminder that you cannot change history and in seeking to deny it we engage in a collective self-harming which helps impoverish society as a whole.

Bigger’s grave at Mallusk with its ‘offensive’ lettering

Olympic swimmer who survived against the odds in Fascist Europe

Eva Szekely, an Olympic champion swimmer and an athletic hero in her native Hungary, narrowly escaped being murdered as a teenager because she was Jewish.

The swimmer, who has died at the age of 92 in Budapest, was forced off her swim team in Budapest in 1941 and was ordered on a march to the Danube River.

Her father told the 17 year-old to feign illness while he pleaded for her exemption. Andor Szekely told a fascist Arrow Cross Party official that Eva was the swimming champion of Hungary and he would one day be happy that he saved her life.

Ironically, in 1950, when she won an international swimming medal in Hungary she was told she would also receive a special prize from an important officer of the Communist political police.

As she was on the dais the officer who handed her the trophy made eye contact with her and she was taken aback to recognise the former fascist from years before because she recognised his different coloured eyes.

Szekely won a gold medal in the 200 metre breaststoke in Helsinki in 1952 and a silver in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.

She entered international competition soon after the war ended in 1945, and won dozens of swimming titles. Her Olympics career began at the 1948 Games in London, where she finished fourth in the 200-metre breaststroke.

During the war years she had continued to train, and in a Swiss-run safe house in Budapest she ran up and down five flights of stairs 100 times each morning to retain her fitness levels.

Born in Budapest on April 3, 1927, Eva’s fascination with swimming began when she was young and her love of competitive swimming grew after fellow-Hungarian Ferenc Csik won a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

She studied pharmacology at Semmelweis University and at what is now the University of Physical Education in Budapest.

In 1950 Eva married Dezso Gyarmati, a water polo player who helped Hungary win five Olympic medals, including gold, at the 1952, ’56 and ’64 Games.

They had a daughter, Andrea Gyarmati, in 1954. She and her husband were inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1976 and Andrea, who also enjoyed an Olympic swimming career, was inducted in 1995.

Szekely retired from competition not long after the 1956 Olympics and became a pharmacist and swimming coach.

Her marriage to Gyarmati ended in divorce. She is survived by her daughter; a grandson, Mate Hesz, a talented water polo player; and a great-granddaughter.

This article originally appeared in my obituary column in the Belfast News Letter.

Why Ballycarry has a place in history – and hopefully on the bookshelf…

me with bookBallycarry fostered a strong, deep and abiding sense of history from an early part of my life. I grew up on a farm overlooking the village as well as Islandmagee, County Down and the Scottish coastline, which makes a comment made by native son General Sir James Steele about Ballycarry people looking beyond their own horizons very relevant to me.

From an early age I had an interest in the local history of the area developed in no small way by a local woman named Susie Hay. She lived on the edge of the village and had known our family for decades. She was friendly with my grandfather, whom I never knew, helping him to compose music for numerous songs which he wrote during his lifetime, including the Muttonburn Stream, a famous Ulster folksong in the 1930s and 1940s. Susie Hay had an exceptional and unrivalled knowledge of the local area and it was she who introduced me to the sense that there was an intriguing history about Ballycarry: the story of William Nelson, the Ballycarry United Irish martyr of 1798, was kept alive by her and, enthralled, I went in search of his grave in Templecorran cemetery when I was older. It was difficult to find and somewhat neglected; this fiercely unionist community had changed its political outlook from the period when the inscription “The Ballycarry Martyr” was added to the stone in block letters.

The story of William Nelson spoke to me of a many layered past in the community. It is a place where history merges well with the present; the ruins of Templecorran Church are a constant reminder of early Presbyterian, medieval and early Christianity in this village overlooking the North Channel and the Scottish coast. It is a past which is sometimes complicated, often nuanced and always interesting.

In 1963 a book with a compilation of material on the history of the village was edited by Avy Dowlin, daughter of the village poet William Calwell, who was a major figure in the 20th century history of the village. That book, Ballycarry in Olden Days has always been an inspiration to me and I have often returned to it for further insights into the past.

The book was printed before I was born, but over at least 30 years I have been gathering and compiling my own historical materials on the area. After over two years work writing it up and gathering photographs, putting together a business plan for its publication (as it was always going to be self-published), and reviewing and rewriting, the book finally got published in November.

With local authors Angeline Kelly and Davy Moore at the launch night in Ballycarry Community Centre

I had an anxious wait to see how it had turned out. At the launch my friend and local poet and writer Davy Moore spoke of how a book being published is like a baby being born and he was quite right: the attention lavished on the book, the fascination with it when it arrives, all make it a very similar situation from an author’s point of view.

A full community centre for the launch night and a great celebration for the ‘new arrival’

Travelling through history from ancient times to the more recent past (probably the most difficult period to write about since it requires a judgement on what history is in a modern context), the book has a hopefully good balance of narrative and photographs. It has been selling well, with almost half of the print-run gone within two weeks. Feedback has been extremely positive. One woman read it through the night, another man’s daughter told me he had hardly put it down since it arrived with him. Others added their own memories of their young days in the area, prompted by what they read.

Seeing a book you have written on the shelves is always a thrill and author’s pride comes into play as ‘the child’ makes its presence felt. Although this is not my first book, the feeling remains the same, and I am sure all authors share this sense for their own work.

For me this history book was a deeply personal one. Ballycarry is my birthplace and the people I have written about were often from families which I know, and sometimes they were people I know or knew as well. I felt a strong sense of responsibility – more so than with, I think, any other book – to tell the story well, to include as much as possible and never to forget those who might be judged to be just ‘footnotes’. So many photographs had to be left out, but some fantastic ones just had to be included, such as what was probably the first motor car in Ballycarry and others that were snapshots rather than formal photographs.

PH001Boys of the Aul Waa's
Locals gathered at the ‘Aul Waa’s’ at the Burnside many years ago; the ‘Waa’s’ were the place to meet up in the evenings for a yarn once the work was done on the farms

Growing up I heard stories of the families from the village, not least the rural community at the Burnside, where the evenings were spent discussing not only local gossip and news but also the happenings in the world around. This almost idyllic image of a few neighbours gathering after their work was done in the evening and having a yarn belongs to a bygone era now; the modern younger generation are much more likely to chat with each other online these days. There are also stories of how local women in the village itself would inform others in the house that they were “going to the front door”, which was a place to watch the goings on in the street and get into conversations. It may have only been a few steps away but it was an important part of the social life of the village in past generations. This is a tradition which is now mostly if not entirely gone.

Similarly, as the village grows and new residents have arrived, the ‘old village’ has faded into the background, the modern Ballycarry physically very different from the small collection of houses which used to exist there and are recorded in the 19th century Ordnance Survey Memoir for the area. Even as a child growing up, we used to play in fields which are now the location of one of the older housing developments in Ballycarry, the Woodlands estate. This growth in the village has added new layers to the history and development of the area over the years.

Over the years I became more and more aware that the history of the community in Ballycarry was an example of wider experiences, and broader history was reflected in this small village and rural community which can proudly boast of an exceptional past. The big historical players included Rev. Edward Brice, the first Presbyterian minister in Ireland, James Orr, the foremost of the Ulster Weaver Poets, and General Sir James Stuart Steele, the officer who signed the UK mobilisation order in 1939. But there were lots of others who coloured this history. Some of them belong to my own growing-up, and have passed on; older neighbours like Willie Burns and Davy Craig, village characters like John Clugston, people like Susie Hay. These and so many others have all been part of a rich fabric of history which form a very unique ‘memory quilt’ of our community.

Davy Craig in the hayfield
A photograph of Ballycarry farmer the late Davy Craig in the hayfield, which I am delighted he agreed to have taken some years ago.

In my youth we would be visited by some of the older Hume family members every other Sunday, returning to the farm which they grew up on. They would have a summer afternoon or evening walk along the Burnside to Lockstown, and sometimes down the braes towards the Shore Road at Magheramorne, often reminiscing about the area and its people in bygone times. Those walks have faded into history; all of the children of my grandparents William and Agnes Hume born at Monterloney Farm have passed away, and with them a multitude of their memories. Now that those children and most of the other children who grew up with them are gone as well, it seemed an appropriate time to go back in history and explore the community, events and history that shaped them.

PH057 cut down tractor
My late father Tommy Hume (seated at the wheel) and his brother Hubert (right) with visitors to Monterloney Farm. The cut down lorry was the first vehicle used on the farm as a tractor.

A family remembers: an everyday story of wartime service

Bill McMullanIn November 1939, a few short months after the outbreak of the Second World War, William Ewart (Bill) McMullan joined the Royal Navy, serving during wartime in the North Atlantic, and the Mediterranean, as well as in British coastal waters.

He was involved in the hunt for the Bismarck in the North Atlantic, as well as the Italian campaign which was part of Operation Torch, and the American led Operation Dragon, which opened a second landing in France after the D Day Landings.

Bill, however, like many men of his generation, spoke little of his wartime experiences. For the McMullan family it made it difficult to piece together what his story was during those turbulent and anxious times.

A wealth of information has, however, now been compiled by his son Tom based on official navy records and other sources.

Tom’s efforts on behalf of the wider McMullan family, show just what can be achieved for posterity even when oral history and personal accounts have not been forthcoming.

Many stories from the period have emerged through the records such as the fact that a few months after Bill McMullan left HMS Repulse for another posting, the ship was lost with most of her crew.

HMS Repulse was a veteran of the First World War and when she had been built the emphasis on speed had been at the expense of armour protection, which meant that in the Second World War she was vulnerable to modern naval guns.

McMullan HMS RepulseWhen Bill McMullan joined her on October 8, 1940, she was under repair at Rosyth dockyard in Scotland.

On October 20 the ship sailed to Scapa Flow, off Orkney, famous as the location at which the German fleet was scuttled at the end of the First World War.

It was a quiet posting but one which the sailors found incredibly boring; one crew member on Repulse described Scapa Flow as a “godforsaken hole.”

Bill McMullan’s first active engagement appears to have been when HMS Repulse provided support for Operation DNU, a raid on Norwegian coastal shipping.

The vessel later patrolled on the North Atlantic, part of an effort to restrict German warship access to the sea region. Bill would have been one of those who witnessed and took part in the Battle of the Atlantic, during which the navy sought to protect merchant shipping making its way back and forth to North America.

During the Battle of the Atlantic 36,000 merchant seamen lost their lives and 36,200 sailors too. The toll was a stark one with 3,500 merchant ships being sunk by U-boats and 30,000 U boat sailors and 783 submarines and 47 warships being lost on the German side.

The Allies lost 175 warships and 740 RAF aircraft.

HMS Repulse was involved in the hunt for the most famous of the German battleships, KMS Bismarck, after she slipped into the North Atlantic from the Norwegian coast. The Bismarck was sighted by an RAF aircraft from Northern Ireland and there was a tense and anxious time as the Allies tried to neutralise the Bismarck and accompanying vessel the Prinz Eugen.

Bismarck was engaged by HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales, sinking the former, and at one point HMS Repulse, low on fuel, crossed the path of both the German destroyers as she tried to make for Newfoundland in the midst of the engagement. Had she been the target for either, it is unlikely she would have fared well and Bill McMullan’s story could have been a very different one.

The Repulse survived the North Atlantic, but only to be subsequently sunk along with HMS Prince of Wales in December 1941 near Kautan on the east coast of Malaya by Japanese torpedoes and bombs.

One of the crew members on the ship gave a personal account of what happened to her: “On the morning of the 9th, we were spotted by a high flying enemy aircraft off Khota Bahru. By mid-morning waves of Jap planes were coming over, some bombers, some torpedo carriers. The enemy had a very early success, when a bomb hit our port side propellers, distorted them and so, as the shafts continued to spin, the distortion caused them to open up gaps in the hull so there was considerable flooding especially in the engine rooms. These were evacuated. Now both ships were taking water and the tragedy was that because of the grounding of the carrier Indomitable off the US earlier on, we had no defence against air attack,” the account, which appears on the BBC ww2peopleswar site, details.

By that point Bill McMullan had been posted elsewhere.

One of his postings which the family found in their research was to HMS Evolution, which proved something of a mystery ship.

HMS Evolution does not appear in the navy list in 1943, effectively meaning that the ship Bill McMullan was posted to between March and November 1943 did not really exist as such!

There are two top secret memos which relate to the ship, the issue being that as a French vessel it was thought some legal difficulties might arise about the use of HMS Evolution (in reality ‘Directeur General Ame’) as a British ‘man of war’.

During his naval career Engine Room Artificer McMullan served on at least 21 vessels, retiring from the navy in March 1951.

history Bill McMullan and Mary McCafferty weddingJust after the end of the war he was posted to Northern Ireland where he met and married Mary McCafferty.

Following his naval career he worked for aircraft manufacturer Handley Page north west of London, then Short Brothers and Harland in Belfast, and RAF Maintenance Unit 23 at RAF Aldergrove. In the early 1970s he left 23 MU and opened up an electrical store in Larne which is still operated by his son Paul.

Bill died in February 1989, his wife Mary passed away in 1992.

The history which the family has compiled is a lasting tribute to their memory and to  their generation. Bill McMullan was one of the quiet heroes of the Battle of the Atlantic and the convoy routes which helped maintain an essential lifeline for the United Kingdom and the Allied cause during the Second World War. Without him and other quiet heroes like him, the war would not have been won.

Death of highly respected military figure who served in Korean War

Colonel Charley croppedColonel William Robert Hunter (Robin) Charley OBE, JP, DL, who died at the age of 95 at the Somme Nursing Home, Belfast, was a well-known and highly respected career army officer with the Royal Ulster Rifles.

 The son of Colonel Harold Richard Charley CBE DL and his wife Phyllis Hunter, he was born in 1924.

His father was a career soldier commissioned into the Royal Irish Rifles in 1895, who saw service in Nepal and India prior to the First World War and was seriously wounded in France during the Great War. He held numerous distinguished positions including being manager of the British Red Cross in Berlin in 1919 and City Commandant of the Ulster Special Constabulary in Belfast, 1924-1952.

The Charley, or Chorley, family were originally from the north of England and came across to Ulster in the 17th century, initially to Belfast. Branches of the family would later be found at Finaghy and Dunmurray.

The Charleys were synonymous with the linen industry in the province and pioneers who were accredited with discovering the process for bleaching linen cloth with chlorine.

One of the branches of the family lived at Finaghy House and granted use of one of their fields in perpetuity on the Twelfth for use of the Belfast Orangemen, the ‘rent’ being that the lesson during the religious service should always be read from the “Charley Bible”.

Finaghy House is now known as Faith House and is a home for senior citizens.

The family of Robin Charley lived at Warren House, Dunmurray, originally known as Warren View, which had been given to his father by his uncle Edward Charley in 1923.

His parents added to the house and enlarged it over the years and their children Robin and June had an idyllic childhood which included frequent raft trips along the river which passed their house, under the railway bridge and to the lake at Seymour Hill.

Robin Charley was educated at Elm Park Prep School in Killylea, County Armagh, Cheltenham College and Queen’s University, Belfast.

After enlisting in the Royal Ulster Rifles in 1943 he served in Europe and later in Palestine, Egypt and Hong Kong.

In the following decade he saw service in the Korean War, between 1950 and 1953. He had heard that the Royal Ulster Rifles were to be sent there in response to the communist threat, but by that time there were no vacancies for his rank of captain so he accepted the lower rank of lieutenant and took a pay cut in order to serve.

During the war he took part in the battle of Happy Valley, which saw 150 RUR soldiers killed or taken prisoner.

At one point during the conflict he found himself surrounded by Chinese insurgents, leading to a sharp engagement.

Colonel Charley later reflected that there had been a contrast between the rather poor calibre of the North Korean soldiers which the Ulster soldiers first had to confront and then the thousands of Chinese volunteers by which they were assailed.

During the war his sense of humour was displayed when he signed off on a trailer with supplies for 100 men from a US supply depot as “Mickey Mouse”.

In 2011 Colonel Charley returned to Korea with 268 Commonwealth veterans of the 1950-53 conflict, and he attended a dinner held by the South Korean government in their honour.

In the 1960s Colonel Charley was commanding officer of the Queen’s University Officers Training Corps and Colonel of the Army Cadet Corps.

After retiring from the army he continued to maintain an active life supportive of a number of charities, including St. John Ambulance, where he was a Knight of St. John, and Clifton House in Belfast.

He was a board member of the Northern Ireland War Memorial and the Royal Ulster Rifles Museum.

At the time of his death he was also Senior Vice President of the Not Forgotten Association.

He was secretary of the Royal Ulster Rifles Association between 1972 and 1989.

General Steele launch Col Charley
Colonel Robin Charley with the late Rev. W. G. McConkey at the launch of the General Steele Trust Fund in Ballycarry; General Steele was also a Royal Ulster Rifleman


He launched an appeal for a memorial and bursary in memory of another Royal Ulster Rifleman, General Sir James Steele, in Ballycarry, County Antrim in the 1990s and also in the early 1990s became a trustee of the newly-constituted Somme Association, established to commemorate the sacrifice of Irish soldiers in the First World War.

His involvement was no surprise, given that his father and uncle had both served on the Somme, and he was an influential figure in the establishment of the Somme Heritage Centre at Conlig outside Newtownards in 1994, a lasting legacy to those who served.

Carol Walker MBE, Director of the Somme Association, said he had played a significant role; “As chair, Colonel Charley was responsible for overseeing the centre into the fully accredited independent museum that it is today. In 2012 he encouraged the Somme Association to start work on a project to see that soldiers who had served with the Royal Ulster Rifles could return to Korea for the 60th anniversary, and to see a memorial established in 2013.”

Paying tribute, Carol Walker said: “Colonel Charley will be remembered by all in the Somme Association and the Somme Museum as a truly remarkable gentleman who was full of life, and a man of integrity. He was inspirational, and his enthusiasm was infectious. He had a fun-loving nature and could captivate people with his stories. He will always be remembered as always having the loudest-expressed ‘Yo’ when the regimental march Killaloe was being played.”

A member of the Select Vestry at Christ Church, Carrowdore, his funeral service took place at the Parish Church of Saint Patrick, Drumbeg. Donations in lieu of flowers were encouraged to the Royal Ulster Rifles museum.

A memorial service is to be held in the autumn.

Colonel Charley was predeceased by his beloved wife Janet, and is survived by his daughters Catherine, Elizabeth and Jane and their families, including grandchildren Charley, Rebecca, Dominic and Isabella.

This article originally appeared in the Belfast News Letter, August 1, 2019

Death of Belfast veteran who was shot down over France in 1944

Flight Lieutenant Tom Maxwell, who served on a Lancaster bomber during the Second World War and evaded capture after being shot down in 1944, was born in Belfast in June 1924. My obituary piece on him appears in the Belfast News Letter, May 2, 2019.Flight Lt Tom Maxwell

After being shot down he managed to evade enemy troops and was assisted to make his way from occupied France to Spain

 He was the only child of John Maxwell, who died in 1937 from the after-effects of having been gassed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His mother was Mary, nee Woodburn, and the family were Presbyterian.

Thomas John Maxwell was educated at Mountpottinger School in East Belfast and left school at age 16 to become a railway clerk.

In 1941 at the age of 17, he and a couple of his friends enlisted in the Royal Air Force Reserve, lying about their ages and smoking pipes to give the impression they were older.

Tom Maxwell wanted to be a pilot but he was trained by the RAF as an air navigator and became an air gunner.

He was posted to 622 Squadron at RAF Mildenhall in Sussex and promoted to an Acting Flight Sergeant.

Maxwell was involved in attacks on Berlin and the Frisian Islands and was with a crew attacking Stuttgart on March 15, 1944.

The Belfast airman was on his sixth operation and was rear gunner in the turret of the Lancaster when the plane was hit by flak on the way home. The damage led to a fire breaking out and when the Lancaster was east of Rouen in Normandy, the crew were forced to bail out.

Training for the type of scenario had been carried out a year before at a swimming pool in Brighton, where he had to leap from the highest diving board in his flying suit, holding a flotation device.

However, as is often the case, the theory and practice did not work together when the real emergency arose.

There was no space in his confined rear turret to connect his harness fully to the parachute, so he had to prise the door open and secure the second hook while leaning into the howling wind as streaks of fuel whistled past him; as he was about to clip the hook on, he tumbled from the plane, with the parachute in his left arm.

When he pulled the rip cord and the canopy opened, he had to frantically connect the other hook to his backpack as he was spun around and suffered injury from the harness which was jerking out of control. He later said that his mind was full of fears of being impaled on a church spire, wrapped around pylons or landing in the middle of a lake and drowning.

Luckily he had a soft landing in a field among piles of manure, and was fortunate not to be captured as a German garrison was only 500 metres away.

The remainder of the crew had jumped after him and had a slower descent, but some were captured.

After Maxwell had disengaged from the parachute he navigated into the early hours of the morning using the Pole Star until he found a road sign which informed him that he was near the commune of Bazancourt, 100 miles northeast of Paris.

He was almost captured but had turned his flying jacket inside out as a precaution and was able to walk past a German soldier, exchanging a polite nod.

He arrived at a farmhouse and asked in broken French for shelter. For ten days he was hidden by the farmer and his wife, before being taken to Paris, where a gendarme and a priest looked after him.

It was during his stay in the farmhouse that he was responsible for a curious culinary footnote; he introduced the farmer’s wife to what she considered the bizarre idea of fried egg on toast, which he requested one morning. After the Allies landed on D Day, however, Maxwell discovered that she made it for troops and it became so popular in the area that ouef sur pain grille was added to the menu at local cafes in the area.

All Bomber Command crews had sets of ‘passport’ photographs and one of these was used to provide him with a forged identity card in Paris.

Maxwell was next moved to a desolate farm where he joined two US airmen, and the three were escorted by a young girl to the nearby railway station, where three more Americans and a courier travelled with them to Toulouse and then to Pau, from where they were taken by bus and taxi to the foothills of the Pyrenees. The group merged with a larger group of British and Americans and were taken over the snow-capped mountains into Spain by guides.

The Spanish police arrested them once they had crossed the border and they were under house arrest for a week. It was a relaxed atmosphere, however, allowing some of the men opportunity to attend, ironically, a performance in Pamplona by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Maxwell had been reunited with two other members of his crew at this point and they were all collected by the British Consul and were taken to Gibraltar, flying back to the United Kingdom on May 22, 1944 and, in Maxwell’s case, re-joining 622 Squadron.

He flew 26 further operations over the next few months out of a sense of duty to lost comrades and in December 1944 was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “skill, courage and fortitude”. He was presented with the Legion d’Honneur in 2016 in recognition of services to assist with French liberation.

In May 1945 he was involved in Operation Manna, which was the airdrop of food to the starving Dutch population, and at the end of the war he was serving in India.

After the war, he became a teacher for a period but in 1952 re-joined the RAF as an air traffic controller, serving in Northern Ireland, Germany and Libya.

He retired from the RAF in 1978 and served for ten years with the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force.

During his retirement, he researched the life and work of Pat Rooney, a cartoonist renowned for his caricatures of RAF personnel, including Maxwell in 1945.

He was also a strong supporter of the Bomber Command Association and the Mildenhall Register and was proud to attend the dedication of the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park which commemorates the 55,573 who died while serving in Bomber Command during the Second World War.

In 1948 he was married to Katherine, nee Tennant, whom he had first met at a bus stop in Belfast two years before. She was a Catholic whose family were from Dublin and Maxwell’s relatives were committed Presbyterians, both families opposing the marriage and none of them attending the ceremony.

Kathleen predeceased him in 2007 and he is survived by his sons Adrian, who is a barrister and Tim, a doctor of Psychology.


This article has appeared in the Belfast News Letter, May 2, 2019