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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

So, who the heck was Gordon?

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Tourists at Gordon’s Leap, sometime after 1902

The Gobbins Cliff Path is open again for the 2019 season and hoping to build on last year’s visitor numbers of 30,000.

The guided tours take visitors along an amazing route beside the North Channel, sometimes a metre from the sea, other times much higher.

And one of the locations they pass, at the very end of the path, is Gordon’s Leap. The question is, however, who was Gordon?

Local wisdom has it that the area – which became home a suspension bridge linking one part of the path to another – was named after a local councillor who signed off on the proposal for the path.

Another is that during the massacre of Roman Catholic families in 1642, brought about as a consequence of a massacre of Protestants further north in the county a short time before, a man named Gordon was dragged off the cliff there by one of the victims. This story seems to have little foundation. The massacre, which was a nasty, horrible event in itself, did not occur at the Gobbins but at Carnspindal, now known as Millbay, further to the north west on the island.

There is a councillor named Gordon, however. John F. Gordon was a prominent labour representative within the Unionist Party in the 1920s. And he clearly had connection with Islandmagee: an old poster of a swimming gala at the Cove near the Gobbins in August 1920 has him listed as handicapper at the event.

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The name of Cllr. John F. Gordon appears on this 1920 poster for the Cove Regetta near the Gobbins

There are Gordon families in north Islandmagee and the name appears in 1669 as Goardon on the island, when the family paid a hearth tax to the government. In the 1830s 25 year-old David Gordon was listed in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs – a sort of Irish Doomsday book – as migrating annually to Glasgow for work. We know that he was a labourer and a member of the Established Church.

And among the schoolteachers in Islandmagee in the past were James Trail Gordon, who lived at Bernabeg.

In 1911 there is a Gordon family at Temple Effin, which is close to the town of Whitehead, the head of the family being a Robert, who is 46. There are nine family members, one of them John, who is 6 years old and seems a little young to be the Cllr. J. F. Gordon mentioned in 1920. These Gordons were Presbyterians.

However there is clearly a Gordon connection with Islandmagee and John F. Gordon may well be part of it.

He is well documented in Northern Ireland history. He was son of William James Gordon and Margaret Fawcett and was sent to live with relatives in the United States after his father died. He returned from Falls River, Massachusetts and was a member of Belfast Corporation from 1920 to 1923. He represented Antrim and then Carrickfergus in the Northern Ireland Parliament from the formation of the state in 1921 until 1943.  Partner in the firm of Fryar and Gordon Solicitors of Bridge Street in Belfast, John F Gordon served as Minister of Labour in Northern Ireland from 1938 to 1943. He resigned as MP for Carrick to take up a post as chairman of the National Assistance Board of Northern Ireland.

Gordon was a strong support of more left-wing politics, and was a strong supporter of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association, formed within the Unionist Party at the insistence of Sir Edward Carson to ensure that the voice of the working class was heard – and did not drift off to Independents or the Northern Ireland Labour Party at elections. In 1950 he was one of the Vice Presidents of the UULA.

John F. Gordon died at the age of 87 in June 1965 at his home, Innisfoyle Park, Belfast.

So was he the man after whom Gordon’s Leap was named. It is tempting to think so, not least on account of his high profile in the area as a politician.

But there are problems too.

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Gordon’s Leap clearly marked in the early years of the Gobbins Path

The Gobbins Path was opened by the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway Company in 1902.  John F. Gordon was 24 years old. Had the council on which Gordon sat any say on the path at that time? It was a private enterprise by the railway company and it is unlikely that councils had grant powers to assist.

The area across is too wide for anyone – not even a high ranking Belfast politician – to leap across, so was the ‘leap’ more symbolic: a leap of faith in some way, perhaps? Prior to the suspension bridge across Gordon’s Leap, the path stopped on the south side of the cave that dominates the landscape at that point. Berkeley Dean Wise, the genius who proposed the further extension was intent on going much further along the face of the cliffs, so was there a ‘leap of faith’ in some manner by someone called Gordon.

Or was John F. Gordon, who was clearly a familiar visitor to regettas on the island, the type of person to take a leap into the waters at the mouth of the first of the Seven Sisters caves?

To add to matters, the name Gordon may not even be a surname. Maybe someone working for the railway company has the given name Gordon and maybe he had something to say or do about the location of the suspension bridge.

One thing is clear. No one seems to know the full story, so a little bit of mystery remains, adding to the drama that is the Gobbins Cliff Walk.

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Modern visitors at Gordon’s Leap, part of the Gobbins Cliff Walk

The day an American actress dropped by an Ulster town to see her ancestral home

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AN AMERICAN actress and her famous husband played a visit to Northern Ireland in the winter of 1943 to entertain US troops in the province.

Ella Baxter McKenzie arrived at an air force base with her husband, comedy star Bill Gilbert on a tour of GI camps, which included Londonderry.

American troops arrived in Ulster in January 1942, within a short time of US entry into the Second World War following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 by the Japanese.

Some 3,600 men of the Vth Army arrived to be welcomed by the band of the Royal Ulster Rifles playing the Star Spangled Banner on the quayside in Belfast.

At the end of February another large contingent of troops arrived, this time to less fanfare and publicity.

The troops were spread in camps across Northern Ireland, with a major air force base developed at Langford Lodge near Crumlin and a major naval base at Londonderry on the Foyle.

Carrickfergus, another home to General Infantry troops, was also the location where the US Rangers regiment was formed, the only American regiment which was formed outside the United States.

It is estimated that the US population of Northern Ireland reached 10% of the overall total at its height before the Normandy Landings in June 1944.

By the time Billy Gilbert, a famous star of screen and stage arrived in winter 1943, the numbers would have been impressive.

Known as the “sneezing” comedian, Gilbert was the son of singers with the Metropolitan Opera and had been born in a dressing room at the Hopkins Opera House in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1894. His real name was William Gilbert Barron.

He began working in vaudeville at the age of 12 and in 1929 was talent spotted by Stan Laurel, who had been in the audience of Gilbert’s show Sensations of 1929 and introduced him to comedy producer Hal Roach. The up and coming star was employed as a gag writer, actor and director and appeared in his first film that same year, at the age of 35.

Gilbert appeared with other comedians including Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, the Three Stooges and Our Gang.

Billy_Gilbert_1954. WikipediaBy 1934 Big Billy Gilbert had become one of the most familiar faces on screen, and he developed his own routine of getting progressively excited or nervous and breaking down into speech spasms culminating in a loud sneeze.

This attracted attention from Walt Disney who immediately cast him as the voice of Sneezy in the 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

A few years before arriving in Northern Ireland, he had featured prominently in the 1940 film Seven Sinners with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. He also appeared during his career with stars such as W. C. Fields, Ben Turpin, Susan Fleming, and Betty Grable.

Not surprisingly he was the subject of media attention when he and his wife Ella Gilbert arrived in County Antrim in 1943.

The couple stayed at the Grand Central Hotel, where they were interviewed by the Weekly Telegraph, and described Northern Ireland as “the most beautiful place they had ever seen.”

During their stay they not only entertained the troops but were also able to sightsee and there is a newspaper report of them attending the Ulster Stadium Boxing Tournament on Saturday evening, December 18.

The Belfast Telegraph reported that the pair had been cordially welcomed to the event and had ringside seats.

But the first stop after their arrival in Ulster had been to Ballymena, where Ella Gilbert was on the trail of her ancestors.

DSCN0046 The pair were accompanied by Mr. A. Dalzell, chairman of ENSA in Northern Ireland, who acted as their guide.

Ballymena had been the birthplace of Robert Baxter McKenzie around 50 years before, the son of a leading Ballymena Orangeman of his day, John McKenzie.

The family had left their home at 12 King Street when Robert was nine years old, and there was much excitement when Bill Gilbert and his wife arrived there in 1943.

The couple were able to identity the house where Ella’s father had grew up, and they had photographs taken, a large placard recording the connection was placed above the front door as they had cinematographic film taken.

“The pictures will go to the states to gladden the heart of Mr. McKenzie and other ‘exiles’ from the north,” the Larne Times and Weekly Telegraph informed readers.

A large crowd, particularly of children gathered to see the special visitors, it was also reported.

Mrs. Gilbert’s grandmother was Mary Baxter from Ballymena and she believed that Baxter relations were also living in Ballymena, but the actress was unable to learn any more on her visit.

In relation to the Orange connection, it was reported that “The Ulster tradition has been kept up in Oregon, where they settled, and over the fire of nights the talk was often of Ballymena and the “Twelfth” and when the old man passed the son carried on the customs and on the “Twelfth” wore an Orange marigold and defied anyone to remove it,” the newspaper said.

Ella McKenzie was born in Oregon in April 1911 and was married firstly to Edward C. Sweeney and then to Bill Gilbert.

Her best-known films were, as a child actor, in Jane Goes A Wooin (1919), The Last Warning in 1928, and Riders of the Dawn in 1937.

Riders of the Dawn 1937 As a child actress she appeared in over 100 films, appearing with stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin and Will Rogers.

Acting was in the family, clearly, for Ella was the niece of actors Eva McKenzie and Robert McKenzie and her cousins Fay and Ida Mae McKenzie were also actresses.

Ella passed away in 1987 in Los Angeles, surviving her husband by some years; he retired from the screen in 1962 and died in North Holywood in September 1971 and is buried in the Oddfellows Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Bill Gilbert is also recognised with a star on Holywood Boulevard. His acting career spanned the decades from the 1920s to the 1960s and he appeared in an exhausting list of films, four of them in the same year as he visited Ulster; Shantytown as Papa Ferrili, Spotlight Scandals as himself, Always a Bridesmaid as Nicholas ‘Nick’ Neopolitan and Crazy House as Sid Drake.

Sadly King Street in Ballymena, where the Gilberts visited in 1943, is no longer standing and the site of the houses there is a car park.

Unionism loses a towering intellect with the passing of Dr. Ian Adamson OBE

book identity of ulsterI first picked up Ian Adamson’s book ‘The Identity of Ulster’ (1982) when I was a student at university. There were not too many books on the shelves which dealt with Ulster history from a unionist perspective, and this one was refreshing.  It explained in layman’s terms the course of history as the author saw it and it provided a perspective which was new and made sense.

Adamson outlined a Protestant history which included the Battle of the Boyne, but in the context of a wider progression. For many his espousal of the Cruthin people, the ancient settlers of Ulster, as a community which, essentially, had migrated to Scotland under pressure from Gaelic incursion in the north, was new.

The Adamson thesis was that when the Plantation of Ulster took place in the 17th century, the new ‘Planters’ were actually the descendants of the old Cruthin returning to their ancestral heartland.

His thesis was challenging to nationalists, who argued that the Protestant settlement was a land grab with religous connotations. It was equally challenging for unionists whose history often started at the Plantation and the Battle of the Boyne.

The County Down born medical doctor quickly found that his thesis was not being accepted with open arms by academics, some of whom railed against it vociferously. But while there may have been disagreements over his presentation and conclusions, Adamson’s essential arguments remained intact and were actually much older; cross-channel heritage was espoused by others in the 19th century and in the early 20th James B. Woodburn’s The Ulster Scot was a seminal work in this regard.

For me, Ian Adamson’s work on the Cruthin and the identity of Ulster gave a new sense of identity, a wider sense of belonging. Suddenly my history did not start with the arrival of Planters who took the lands of the native Irish and continued to thrawt the destiny of the Irish nation by being thrang Scots and unionists.

This viewpoint that here was a new interpretation of history came to be shared with others too. When I was a student undertaking research for a dissertation on the loyalist Ulster Defence Association, it was clear from observation that Adamson’s work was well-read and was being absorbed at the Gawn Street headquarters of the organisation. The New Ulster Political Research Group (the political wing of the UDA) eventually came to a place where it sought ‘Common Sense’ – the name of its policy document of 1987 – and a common sense of identity too: one which sought to include Ulster’s Catholics in future political arrangements, and as such ground-breaking for its time.

The trend within loyalism of a desire for an independent Ulster was not something which Adamson overtly suggested, but the thought-process of some easily went onto that path whether he intended it or not. His work, in fact, provided a basis for that sense of national identity which would have been required if an independent state had ever come about.

As it was, however, Adamson saw the need for a unity which was never politically defined in a structural sense. Writing in The Identity of Ulster in 1982, he said “Today we must evolve in Ulster a cultural consensus, irrespective of political conviction, religion or ethnic origin, using a broader perspective of our past to create a deeper sense of belonging to the country of our ancestors.”

“Let us therefore develop the vision of a new and united Ulster to which all can give their allegiance,” he added in the conclusion of the book.

Within a few years, however, the Anglo-Irish Agreement had come about and division was again the order of the day, unionism circled wagons once again as it viewed the Agreement as putting them on the edge of the union politically.

Much political water has flowed under the bridge since then, but Ian Adamson never changed his thesis. Over the years in politics and public life, he was in a position to espouse it with sincerity and also to build relationships with others. The fact that tributes would come after his death from all political shades, including another former Lord Mayor of Belfast and senior Sinn Fein politican, Mairtin O’ Muilleoir says a lot about him.

obit ian adamson pic
Dr. Ian Adamson when he was Lord Mayor of Belfast

Anyone who had the good fortune to meet Ian Adamson found him a learned and soft spoken soul. He also had a fantastic humour and a wicked wit. I remember once while attending an international conference in Boston at which he was a delegate, we went out for an evening meal and were regaled our table with his version of Address to the Haggis, on that occasion modified to praise the lobster which he had ordered and which duly arrived in time for his oration.

On another occasion, while giving a speech and outlining how when he first published his work on the Cruthin, some people said that he had made it up. Without any hint of a smile he surveyed everyone in front of him and declared, “They were right, I made it up…” For a brief second or two a few jaws dropped before everyone saw the slight smile and realised the dry wit at play.

Last year I had the pleasure of being with him at a Burns Night dinner during which he talked of his own personal family background. One of his ancestors had taken part in the United Irish Rebellion and been hanged in County Down. Adamson said as a young boy he talked to his granny about the incident and asked her what she thought about it: “Served him right for getting involved in politics,” he recalled her saying. He often brought the house down with these and other examples of his fun and wit.

Behind the wit, was a fantastic intellect, of course. Dr. Ian Adamson OBE was, as I said in the obituary for the News Letter on Thursday, a towering unionist intellectual who helped build bridges that crossed the traditional divides while remaining true to his cultural roots and his political principles.

He described himself as “a British Unionist, an Irish Royalist and an Ulster Loyalist”.

The County Down man was behind the restoration of the Ulster Tower in France, which commemorates the province’s First World War fallen, and his efforts in bringing the remembrance of the sacrifice of the war to mind also helped build bridges in the modern community which he loved.

The 74 year was born at Conlig in County Down and educated at Queen’s University, graduating to a career as a highly respected paediatrician.

Dr. Adamson was a Specialist in Community Child Health (Community Paediatrics) and was awarded the fellowship of the Royal Institute of Public Health for his services to the health of young people in 1998. He was awarded a special commendation by His Royal Highness Prince Charles Prince of Wales.

He was also an Executive Board Member of the London-based Association of Port Health Authorities, 2005–11 (Chairman of the Border Inspection Post Committee, 2005–06 and Imported Food Committee, 2006–11).

But it was his contribution to culture and historical debate for which he will long be remembered.

His historical thesis expounded in his early publication The Cruthin was not readily accepted by academics, but it found a ready home in working-class Protestant communities in Belfast and undoubtedly influenced thinking within those communities, which ultimately assisted on the road to a more peaceful future.

Aware of the complexities of history, he could rest secure on his own unionist credentials while also recounting past generations of the family who had been involved in the 1798 Rebellion.

It is a measure of his ability to reach beyond divides and social strata that he could count international figures such as Van Morrison and Eddie Irvine among his friends as well as working-class men from Monkstown or the Newtownards Road.

The attendance at his funeral at Conlig Presbyterian Church last week was a similar testimony to the respect in which he was held.

His book The Cruthin sought to explore a common heritage shared by people in Northern Ireland beyond the traditional divide and led to initiatives such as the foundation of the Farset Youth Project and other community organisations.

Farset was the catalyst for the establishment of the Somme Association and Ian Adamson was a driving force in proposing the purchase of areas close to the Ulster Tower and Thiepval Wood in France so they could be developed as a memorial site.

He had found that the Tower was in a dilapidated condition and gathered support for the initiative to re-open it, including from the-then Belfast Mayoress, Rhonda Paisley. This was duly announced in June 1988, with assistance from Dr. Ian Paisley, the European Parliament, the French Embassy and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Commenting on his death on social media, unionist academic Dr. Andrew Charles said that “If Ian had stuck to medicine, the Ulster Tower may never have been preserved and instead have been covered in weeds and by trees”.

In 1989 he had become the founder Chairman of the Somme Association, out of which came the Somme Heritage Centre at Conlig in 1994.

Dr. Adamson was a Vice President of the Somme Association.

His many other initiatives included obtaining the co-operation of Cardinal Tomas O’ Fiaich to organise a group visit by teenagers from the Shankill, Falls, Tallaght and Inchicore to follow the footsteps to Europe of St. Columbanus of Bangor.

Adamson was deeply impressed by the history of the abbey at Bangor, founded by another Ulster saint, St. Comgall of Magheramorne, and the influence it had on western Europe. His book ‘Bangor. Light of the World’, was first printed in 1979, the second edition in 1987 having a foreword from Cardinal O’Fiaich.

A passionate supporter of the Ulster Scots linguistic tradition, he was also conversant in 14 other languages, including Lakota Sioux, Dutch, Turkish, Welsh, Irish, French and German.

A regular guest at the annual Aisling Irish Language awards in Belfast, he was a past recipient of the top Roll of Honour Award at the event.

In 1992 he helped found the Ullans Academy, an eclectic mix of unionists and nationalists whom their founder said were seeking to identify what united as opposed to divided them.

Among the group were former UDA leader Andy Tyrie, and in his later years Ian Adamson was patron of the Dalaradia Group, comprising working-class loyalists in County Antrim working to assist transformation of their communities after the Troubles.

An advocate of shared understanding, he said that while not encouraging bi-lingualism or even tri-lingualism, he thought Ulster-Scots should be part of the curriculum for young people to understand their backgrounds and what language in general was all about.

Ian Adamson’s political career started in 1989 when he sat as an Ulster Unionist member of Belfast City Council. He served as the Deputy Lord Mayor in 1994-95 and then Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1996-97. He was an MLA for East Belfast from 1998 until 2003 and became the UUP’s first Honorary Historian from 1989 until his retirement in 2011. He served as High Sheriff of Belfast in 2011.

He was personal physician and advisor on history and culture to Ian Paisley, DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, until Dr. Paisley’s death in 2014.

In 1998 Dr. Ian Adamson received an OBE from Her Majesty the Queen in the New Year Honours for his services to local government.

At an earlier garden party at Buckingham Palace, he proposed to his future wife, Kerry Carson, and the couple were married in April 1998.

His work as a medical practitioner on the Falls Road was recognised in July 1978 when he was appointed as a Member of the International Medical Association of Lourdes for his services to disabled children and young people of the Falls Parish.

At one time he lived on the Falls Road for a short period, and his interest in the long-term unemployed drove his work with the Farset Youth and Community initiative and other groups over the years.

His many other involvements included founding the Ullans Academy, the Ulster Scots Language Society in 1992 and the Ulster Scots Academy in 1994.

He was also a founder member of the Cultural Traditions Group, the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council and the Ultach Trust. He served as a member of the Board of the Ulster-Scots Agency, 2003-12, and was President of the Belfast Civic Trust at the time of his death.

His published books include The Cruthin (1974), Bangor, Light of the World (1979), The Battle of Moira (1980), The Ulster People: Ancient, Medieval and Modern, (1991), William and the Boyne, (1995),  Dalaradia, Kingdom of the Cruthin, (1998), Bombs on Belfast. The Blitz 1941 (1984), and The Bangor Book (2016), for which he provided translations from Medieval Latin.

The funeral at Conlig saw figures including the Irish President Michael D. Higgins in attendance. He said of Dr. Adamson that he “never ceased to remind us that we are all but migrants in time and his scholarship highlighted our shared history, shared identities, shared vulnerabilities and migratory roots.”

Also there was former Formula One racing driver Eddie Irvine, who also grew up in Conlig and who was sponsored by Dr. Adamson at the start of his career. His sister Sonia was a close friend of Ian Adamson and has recounted how he gave her his university medical books when money was tight. She described him as “an inspirational man”.

Among the mourners at the funeral was music legend and personal friend Van Morrison, who sang Ian Adamson’s favourite song Into the Mystic at the service.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann led his party’s tributes to Dr. Adamson, saying he had made a huge contribution to cultural and political life in Northern Ireland and would be greatly missed.

Lord Alderdice, former Speaker of the Assembly, said his death was “a genuine intellectual, healthcare and political loss.”

Among those who also paid tribute to him was former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor MLA Mairtin O’ Muilleoir, who described Dr. Adamson as an “exceptional ambassador for a shared society and a united community here”.

He added that “Ian went places that other people would never go. I saw him like a traditional Irish matchmaker who brought people together who thought they would never be united.”

“He worked through some of the worst times of the Troubles. And he was also Lord Mayor during difficult days in the City Hall but I always found him to be a very genuine and a very kind man.”

His lasting legacy may yet be that sense of unity which he outlined historically and which his work, particularly among working-class communities, may help bring about. Although he is gone, it is important that legacy is built on if the type of future he strived to encourage is to become our reality…