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Aleppo- a broken city preserved in memory

AleppoMy memories of Aleppo are beginning to fade. It is now eleven years since I was there. I have kept many notes of my travels but somehow those on Aleppo are either lost or perhaps they never existed. It is almost irrelevant now as the city I saw no longer exists save for in old photographs and the fading memories of its former residents scattered across the world. Every time I see an image of this once magnificent City’s crumbling Dresdenesque cityscape I weep. I can remember enjoying Syria; savouring the warmth and hospitality of its people, its magnificent historical sites, its layers upon layers of history from Greeks to Crusaders, Assyrians to the Mamluks. Who could not swoon at the impressive ruins of Palmyra, the awe inspiring Krak-des-Chevaliers, the Orontes Valley or wandering around Bar Touma Neighbourhood in Damascus (birthplace of half a dozen Popes). I cannot forget the hum of Homs, the noisy water wheels (or Noria) of Hama, and the majestic Ummayad Mosque. The Souks of Damascus and Aleppo were places of wonder for me, the trade carried on in their arched cubicles seemed to provide a snapshot of an ancient and unbroken tradition. Throughout all this I can also remember being aware of the regime and it’s all seeing eyes and ears but otherwise (bar this obvious erosion of what we in the West call civil liberties) I remember a place that was hustle,  bustle and full of life.

After I made it to the cradle of the North I came to the realisation that if Damascus was where Mandarins reigned then Aleppo was where the merchant was king. The first place I stayed in Aleppo was in an area called Al-Jdeida which I soon found out was a neighbourhood dominated by various groups of Christians. I hadn’t planned to stay  here  but an Australian couple I had met had chosen a hotel there and I just followed their recommendation. There was a Mosque up the street but there were also at least four or five churches within a stones throw, all were very charming with opulent, beguiling interiors. I visited churches belonging to the Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox, the Maronites and Armenians. Aleppo is home to a large Armenian population many of whom fled the massacre of 1915 and found sanctuary in Aleppo. I also met some Chaldeans who had fled Iraq a few years earlier. At night time the area came alive as people came out to eat in its smart restaurants. The area was atmospheric and aromatic in equal measure. Walking along the high walls of the narrow side streets you couldn’t but admire the ornate Alleppin doorways. If lucky you might catch a glimpse through an open doorway of a beautiful ottoman courtyard, the centrepiece of an old merchant residence. Sadly I didn’t get the chance to explore one of these fabulous residences and perhaps now I never will.

After a few days in Aleppo I moved about half a mile away from Jdeida to a busier and less glamorous part of the New City. I took a room at a small Hotel just off Yarmouk Street. It was a grimy street where almost every second vendor sold car- tyres and fixed punctures or fixed exhausts. The room was upstairs just off a common area where the friendly owner tried to make up for shortcomings in décor and hygiene with a large smile. It was a winning strategy. No problem was too big for Samir as I later found out.

I spent the days just wandering the streets of Aleppo’s old and new city. Once when I got lost I just hailed a taxi driver and found I had only strayed five minutes drive from the Hotel. The Citadel dominates the old city as do the various minarets of the mosques. Yet there are so many church steeples that you realise that Aleppo was a collage of creeds. At night the noise of the traffic was incessant as were the car fumes. Eating out was relatively cheap and I grew to love the mezzes, shwarma, tahini, tabbouleh and eventually the thick coffee laced with cardamom.

I also remember the cinemas near the iconic Baron Hotel with the hand painted advertisements of the latest Bollywood fare. I hadn’t known that the Hindi movies were such a hit with the Aleppo menfolk. 

On the night of the 25th May, 2005 I headed back to the Hotel. Earlier in the day I had asked Samir to make sure I could watch the match on Telly. I am a Liverpool FC Supporter all my life and it was over twenty years since they were champions of Europe. I was tired and slept for an hour and when I got up it was close to match time. I had originally planned to make it to Istanbul for the final )ticket or no ticket) but I had spent a month making my way from Cairo through the Sinai and up through Jordan and by the time I got to Damascus I knew the Champions League Final was not to be.

That evening Samir was not in the reception area but a young man was in his stead sitting behind the desk. I asked him if I could watch the football, he nodded and turned on the telly. He switched the various knobs and I guessed he was looking for the right channel. A few minutes passed but still all that was on the telly was snow. The young man was now getting agitated. I asked was there another telly but he shook his head. He telephoned Samir and they talked in that Arabic way that sounds like they are having a serious disagreement. Within minutes Samir was back in the hotel and he began trying to get the TV tuned into a channel. He managed to get some channel but it was an old black and white film not the scenes from the Ataturk Stadium I was hoping for. Samir sensed my anxiety; it was just 15 minutes to kick-off. I asked if there was somewhere nearby where I could watch the game, my question went unanswered.

Eventually Samir just said “Come, this way” and he left by the stairs. I followed him and moments later we were driving headlong and crazy through the busy Aleppin streets in a battered Mercedes to some destination unknown. It looked like Samir was intent on driving me all the way to Istanbul. Soon we pulled up outside a nondescript three storey apartment building, what direction or where we were I didn’t know, the maze of streets and alleys we had just been through were completely dis-orientating. Up the stairs we went and into a room furnished with ornate carpets, soft cushions and sofas. On a table at the far end of the room was a small table and atop it sat an old Grundig Television .

Samir turned on the telly and navigated rapidly through the channels, alas still there was no football. He started tuning the set and eventually the screen lit up with the familiar red shirts of Liverpool. I hadn’t noticed that a number of men had come into the room by then. One was missing a hand and I just presumed he had lost it whilst fighting Jihad. It seemed entirely plausible; I suppose now all these years later I am inclined to think it may have been something more mundane like an industrial accident. My joy at finally getting to see the game was short-lived, already Liverpool were a goal down. It would get worse, by halftime they were losing 3-0. I was dejected and disconsolate.

Samir sensed this and said ‘Have faith my friend, in challah’. I put on a rueful smile; it would be extremely rude to this sociable man to ask to go back to my lodgings. I didn’t want to witness my team annihilated on this big stage but then a tray of warm sugary tea came out and I had to endure the well intentioned hospitality. More men had come in to the room as the first half went on and everyone was chain-smoking a toxic brand of cigarettes. There were at least twelve of us present for the start of the second half. None of the men could speak English but if I made eye contact they gave me a sympathetic nod and cupped their hands in a gesture of hope and solidarity. Samir was a source of endless optimism, ‘There is time, God willing’. I had long given up hope of any comeback. How wrong I was! In just six glorious minutes Liverpool had levelled the game through Smicer, Gerrard and Alonso. But Liverpool having drawn level seemed reluctant to go and try and win the game. Milan came back into it and the finale was simply a dual between goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek and the entire Milan team. They did not score though and Liverpool beat them on penalties, a famous night, a glorious night, more sweet tea, more cigarettes passed around and we twelve men in Aleppo all celebrated as much as if we were from the banks  of the Mersey.

A few days later I shared a taxi from the Karnak Bus Station to Gaziantep in Turkey. As I crossed the border I promised myself I would visit this fascinating country soon again. Nobody knows when this war in Syria will end or what the final casualty count will be. What will be left when the guns do fall silent? Who is to know what will be rebuilt and what will be lost forever? Memory will preserve some of it but it is hard to share memories and we cannot live someone else’s life or experiences. Robert Fisk visited Aleppo in the summer of 2016 and recorded the complete and utter destruction of the city. Even he who had witnessed the demolition of Beirut in the Lebanese Civil war was shocked by what he saw. Despite all this Fisk still concluded that this ancient City will arise again from the rubble and ash, for as broken as Aleppo may currently be, the current butchers are not in the same league as the city’s worst ever marauder, a man by the name of Genghis Khan. All that is left is hope and as Samir, the man who kept my flagging hopes alive on that pleasant May evening in 2005 said; ‘You see my friend you must have faith’.

Swanning around Swanwick

 I have just been to my first writer’s week – well not quite – I had work commitments and so couldn’t make the first few days. I did still manage to squeeze in a hectic few days of classes, courses, conversations and coffee with people of a similar bent to myself.

I attended Swanwick Writers Week, one of the longest established writer retreats in the UK. Swanwick has been on the go for over sixty years and like many things British it has developed its own little customs and idiosyncrasies. As a first time attendee I wore a white badge. Everybody is extremely nice to white badgers and go out of their way to make you feel welcome and a part of the institution. I was lucky and had a friend who was able to brief me and do some introductions. It certainly broke the ice and quelled any nerves. Swanwick is also notorious for serial attenders; some people have attended for over fifty years.  Don’t fret it’s not in the ‘Hotel California’ mould where you can check-in but cannot leave, Swanwick is simply a nice space with an infectious vibe. One attendee told me that Swanwick was ‘my annual holiday and treat to myself’.

Back to the customs of which there are many; in the dining hall the main course is brought to the long tables in large serving dishes. The person sitting at the outside of the table serves the others. The ‘Page to Stage’ is good fun and involves people coming together and creating a performance piece from scratch. The results are mixed but the endeavour is genuine. During the week between courses the ‘Page to Stagers’ can be seen anxiously rehearsing in the hallways and bar area. Did I mention the ‘Bar’? Yes there is a full licensed Bar and I confess to spending quite a bit of time there, all in the name of networking of course. The Fancy Dress is on Monday night, there is always a Quiz (an institution in itself and cut above your average local pub variety – personally speaking), the Dregs party is on Thursday night and allows one to shed any leftover alcohol so the car doesn’t reek of clanging bottles and booze on the way home. The whole event is run by a hardworking and dedicated Committee on a voluntary basis. There are speakers every night whom I understand receive some expenses but almost everything else is voluntary and free.

There is undoubtedly some fantastic talent amongst the attendees at Swanwick. The atmosphere is creative and vibrant, friendly and collegiate. Swanwickers come from all different facets and genres of writing, fiction, non-fiction, poets, children’s authors, storytellers, screenwriters, short film makers. From Memoirs to Crime novelists, Urban poets to Gothic Film aficionados I met a lot of very interesting people here. There were people whose ambition was to have a few stories printed by ‘Woman’s Weekly’ to aspiring first novelists and despite varying aspirations everyone mixed easily. It was as if all egos were left at the gatehouse at the entrance to Swanwick. It’s not all idyllic, there is a compliment of poseurs, but they only add to tapestry and make the genuine souls shine brighter.

Many published authors spoke of Swanwick as been an annual marker for them, a place where they recharge the batteries and keep going until the next Swanwick. It reminded me of the Celtic festival of ‘Lunasa’ which is also associated with the month of August. Of course the Gaelic word for August is also Lunasa (a derivative of Luna) and this might explain the large number of lunatics in Swanwick.

The life of a writer is not an easy one. There are harsh commercial realities. In the UK it is estimated that the top 10% of writers take 50% of the cream. It’s a Winner takes all game.  Sometimes the cream rises to the top but often it doesn’t. There is a bit of luck involved and commercial realities. You might be a beautiful writer but if people don’t want to buy your work then you are a commercial failure, no ifs buts or maybe’s. There are many people attending for many years who have not enjoyed success. At the end of the day success as measured by others is number of units sold but if one truly loves to write then success is continuing to write even though you suffer the slings and arrows of rejection. Most writers earn less than the minimum wage. In this regard I was glad to see some courses focussed around getting published and increasing the percentages. There was no course on how to make your own luck though which is more the pity. And that is Swanwick a little cocooned oasis of writers in the heart of Derbyshire. I’m hooked and can’t wait to go again (this time with the yellow badge). Guess what? There is only three hundred and fifty eight days to the next Swanwick.

The grave of Chang Tso Sheng

 

 I visited the Chinese Cemetery in Noyelles Sur Mer a few weeks ago. I really came across the place by accident. I had just visited the scene of the Battle of Crecy (1346) where King Edward III’s English army annihilated the French force under King Philip VI. I was returning to our lodging in St. Valery Sure-Mer when I saw a sign for the ‘Cimetière Chinois’. Even with my limited French I knew that this must be a war cemetery but presumed it was a cemetery for French Colonials from Indochina. Curiosity got the better of me and so I took a turn off in Noyelles. I soon found the cemetery down a quiet back lane surrounded by wheat fields. We were the only ones visiting. The first thing you notice is the beautiful Chinese archway which guards the entrance. The cemetery like all war cemeteries in France is well-kept, neat and tidy. The information plaque advises that there are 849 graves here and that they all belong to members of the Chinese Labour Corps. Most of the deaths seemed to have occurred in 1918 and 1919 and the majority of these after the Armistice. I immediately wondered had most succumbed to the Flu Epidemic or some other calamity.? Only some of the graves have the names of the deceased. Most just have numbers. Also each grave stone contains an epitaph and after some observation I worked out that there were only four options, “Faithful unto death (至死忠誠)”, “A good reputation endures forever (流芳百世)”, “A noble duty bravely done (勇往直前)” and “Though dead he still liveth (雖死猶生)”. The remains also seem to have been buried two per grave.

I decided to do a bit more research and discovered that the men came mostly from Shandong Province.  They were recruited and processed by both the French and English through the Treaty ports Tianjin and Weihaiwei. They were poor and from the countryside. The wages offered were very high by Chinese standards but low by European rates (about 1/3 of a French privates salary). The selection process weeded out those with disease and so only the strongest labourers were selected. The journey was arduous, almost three months by ship until they docked at Marseilles. When a German U-boat sank a ship drowning 540 Chinese labourers the route was changed. Now the labourers crossed the Pacific, were shipped in cattle trucks across Canada and then sailed the Atlantic. It must have been a terrifying experience for what were simple, rural peasants with little knowledge of the wider world.

In France they worked 10 hours a day and 7 days a week for 20 yuan. They worked building trenches, repairing railways, unloading and transporting supplies to the troops. The strange food caused many to suffer stomach problems. Camp conditions were hard and work conditions uncomfortable. When the war was over the men were not repatriated immediately but were used in mine clearance and recovering bodies from the battlefields. This was dangerous and foul work. It is estimated that up to 10,000 died during the War from shelling, landmines, poor treatment, cholera or the worldwide flu epidemic. It was estimated that at the end of the war over 300,000 workers from the Colonies, 100,000 Egyptians, 21,000 Indians and 20,000 native South Africans were working throughout France and the Middle East by 1918. After the war, the British government sent a War Medal to every member of the Chinese Labour Corps. The medal was exactly like the British War Medal that had issued to every member of the British armed forces, except that it was of bronze, not silver, a fact that illustrates the lesser value placed on these men upon whose backs and hands the war was won.

 ‘By the terms of this contract…I, the undersigned coolie recruited by the Weihaiwei Labour Bureau, declare myself to be a willing labourer’

 

The grave of Chang Tso Sheng

This is not your fatherland, where they make you toil, 

Digging trenches for the damned, pulling bodies from the soil.

This is not your motherland, where you clear mines all day, 

Did they tell you about the shells, the fever and decay.

You left your family in Shandong, you were shipped across the sea

Loaded on a cattle truck, and then dumped in Picardy.

Why did you join this fight Sheng? What brought you to this place?

What is the cause you died for? Was it two yuan per day?

Now you lie in Noyelles –sur- Mer, amongst the fields of wheat, 

‘Faithful unto death’, it says, not the fate you’d planned to meet.

A medal then was cast, to remember this campaign,

They said it didn’t matter, the colour of your skin, 

So your noble sacrifice was honoured,

your number was engraved, 

But theirs was cast in silver

and yours in simple bronze.

 Chinese Labour Corps Cemetery

Noyelles-sur-Mer, 2016

 

 

The Hind Cut

the-new-country-doctor-406

Gannon lay face down and spread-eagled on the bed, exhausted from a long day in the surgery. Just as he was settling the phone rang in the Hall, its piercing sound stabbing his brain. At least Dot will know how to field the call, divert it to another GP. ‘Hello’ that’s not Dot’s voice, its little Liam. ‘Yes he’s here ….. okay I’ll just get him for you’. Can he not just say that I’m gone out or something? Bloody hell. The six year old boy came bounding down the hallway and burst into his parent’s bedroom. ‘Dad there is some man on the phone and he wants to talk to you, said it’s very important’. Important? ‘How important son? Have the Martians landed in Longford again? He rose gingerly, muttering ‘bloody hell’ as he marched down the long hall towards the telephone, grabbing the receiver ‘Who is this?’ His curt request was met by a quietly spoken ‘Hello Doctor Gannon, it’s Michael Fanning here, I’m in the Dew Drop Inn. You better come quick as there has been an accident’ ‘What sort of an accident?’ ‘It’s Mary Kate Joyce, she sat on a pint glass and is all cut in her hinds. She’s in a bad way Doctor’. Gannon sighed, it was all he needed now, an evening call to a bloody pub. ‘When did it happen?’ ‘only ‘bout five minutes ago, she’s in the Bar wailing in pain and bleeding bad’ ‘Okay I’m on my way’. Gannon looked around but Liam was nowhere to be seen. He knew he had been short with the boy who was sensitive. ‘Liam? Liam where are you?’ No answer. Damn it he thought, he hated going out without apologising to Liam for his sarcasm but it would have to wait.

Gannon carried the tools of his trade in old black satchel which he always threw in the back seat of the SAAB. ‘The Dew Drop Inn’ was set in the heart of the rolling drumlin country, close to the border and at a remote crossroads. When he first came to the area over a decade ago it was described as being close to the borderline, just like its people. In those first few years Gannon took his time to settle. The move was intended to be only a stop gap measure in his medical career, but as the years past and the children settled into the quiet hamlet, so did he. As he became more settled he also began to gain the trust of the locals. It didn’t happen overnight and deep down he felt that it really didn’t matter how long he lived here, he would always be an outsider. He imagined himself as l’etranger. He didn’t let his different perspective on life interfere with his devotion to his profession or to his patients. There were times when he missed his previous postings in Africa and Oman but this was balanced with the knowledge that he had found a safe and secure place to bring up his children, notwithstanding the troubles just ten miles up the road.

‘The Dew Drop Inn’ was an imposing two story building with annexes at both ends and fuel pumps out front. It was set at a crossroads with neither road really leading anywhere interesting. There was no town or village in the parish of Ballybrown and so as such ‘The Dew Drop’ was the focal point of the community. Births, deaths and every significant life event in between was celebrated here. The shop sold all the necessary provisions for rural life. The post office was also part of the shop and it and the telephone Box were the links to the rest of the world and the hundreds of parishioners who now lived far away in places like Manchester, Birmingham, Coventry, New York, Boston and Philadelphia. The walls were adorned with pictures of past parish football teams who had enjoyed success on the battlefield. It was considered a social embarrassment not to be included in one of these line-ups. These were the thoughts that filled the head of Dr. Michael Gannon as he sped the five miles from his home to the infamous ‘Dew Drop Inn’, the social hub of Ballybrown by night, but by day it was inhabited by men for whom drink, and the companionship of those who drink, was their only solace in life. Most of these creatures would be there now awaiting his arrival, and there was poor Mary Kate Joyce in the middle of them, her arse torn to shreds by a pint glass.

            ‘Ah its Doctor Gannon, well this a turnaround, usually its us that travels to him but tonight he’s come to our principal POB’ It was Jack Burgess. Gannon knew him well and his incredibly large ego. Burgess held court here daily in the public bar and while he was not well-liked and considered an annoyance, to the people of Ballybrown he was there annoyance and so occupied an important part of the parish ecosystem.

‘What’s a POB?’ asked Benny Maguire the little hunched up man sat on the stool beside Burgess.

‘Benny my good friend, a POB is our principal place of business, the place where we transact ourselves, the place where, were we a body capable of registration that is, that such registered office would be located, the place where, were a stranger to seek us out and ask such directions of a person of the locality, that person would be directed to this very place, right here Benny, this is our POB’

‘Well seeing as it is such an augmentious occasion the Doctor might buy us a drink’

 ‘Christ man, don’t be talking like that in front of the Doctor, have you no fucking manners at all ………….. the Doctor will buy us a drink in his own good time’

A group were huddled in the corner beneath the television. One woman, the only other female on the premises was holding the hand of Mary Kate Joyce and appeared to be just finishing the Rosary, ‘Hail holy Queen, mother of Mercy, send in most .. Dr Gannon, come in doctor, come in quick, thank God you’re here’. Mary Kate was moaning and when she saw Gannon she started shrieking, ‘ah Doctor, Doctor, am I going to die, I’m near bled out, ah God’. Mary Kate was lying on several towels which were all now crimson. The place looked like a casualty clearing station. ‘You’re okay Mary Kate, you are going to be just fine, try not to worry, we’ll see to you now and get you cleaned up’

Tom Penrose, the proprietor came in from the side door. His complexion was the white of a ghost. No doubt despite the drama around him he would have taken time to check that his public liability insurance was up to date. Gannon grabbed his arm ‘Look I can’t operate on a woman in a public bar’. Penrose nodded, ‘I know Doctor, will we help you load her up and so you can bring her to Mullingar?’ Gannon frowned ‘No Tommy I mean bring her into the lounge!’

The wails of Mary Kate could be heard in several parishes, ‘I’m finished Doctor’. Gannon gently rolled the victim over on her side. She was very much on the plump side. As he rolled up her blood sodden skirt he revealed her ripped nylon stockings and several lacerations to both buttocks. One was quite deep but there didn’t appear to be too much damage to any underlying blood vessels or nerves. Mary must for once be grateful for the bountiful and generous extent of her posterior. Gannon was confident he could suture the main wound but first he’d give her a jab of local anaesthetic. The patient didn’t even feel the needle enter her buttocks and Gannon took this for a good sign. The amount of blood was making things look a lot worse than they were and the assembled audience were only exacerbating tension. ‘Can you stand up Mary Kate please?’ Oh Jesus no I can’t move Doctor, Oh I’m in an awful way’ ‘You will be if you don’t move now my dear’ knowing full well that neither himself nor the half dozen well inebriated men in the bar were be equipped to lift Mary Kates twenty stone frame out of the bar and into the lounge. Gradually with gentle persuasion Mary Kate stood up and with some more coaxing was persuaded to put one foot in front of the other until they slowly made their way into the dimly lit lounge. ‘This won’t do’ thought Gannon but then he eyed the pool table which had a spotlight overhead.

‘Bring her over here and place her on the table, take it gently boys’. Penrose jumped in front of them, arms outstretched ‘Not the new pool table’ he cried. ‘It’ll be destroyed, I only bought it two year ago’. ‘Well go and get some bed linen Tommy and be quick’. As Penrose ran behind the bar and into the house quarters Gannon got a glass. He pushed up the optic and filled himself a brandy. He took a swig and then threw it on his head. He pushed the glass up again for a refill before returning to where the newly commissioned medical orderlies Jack Dexter, Michael Fanning and Pipsey Rooney were having an impromptu cigarette break. Dexter was holding his cigarette to Mary Kate’s mouth and she was dragging on it as if it were her last great of nicotine.

‘Ah Jaysus lads’ cried Tommy returning with a big cardboard box and a well-worn white sheet. ‘Ye can’t smoke in the lounge, ye know that well ye bloody fools. What an evening I’m putting in’.

Dexter went over to the emergency exit and pushing down the bars opened the door letting a whoosh of cool October air in. Sucking strongly on the last remnants of the cigarette he threw the butt on the path. Rooney followed suit and they closed the door. Penrose was tearing up the cardboard box by now and spreading it flat across the pool table. Suddenly the double doors from the hall opened and in came a visibly inebriated Pat Joyce, ‘How are you now darling, you are in good hands, God bless you Doctor Gannon’ ‘How am I he says, How do I look to you with me arse shredded in bits and bared to half the men of the parish’ The wounded looking Pat slid up along the side of the pool table and held his wife’s hand ‘Ah darling don’t be like that in front of the men, the doctor will surely do his best to save you, isn’t that right Doctor, god bless ya and save ya’

Dexter and Rooney lifted Mary Kate up on to the Pool Table and Gannon rolled her gently over. The men averted their gaze but there really was no way of letting modesty take any foothold in this situation. Penrose came back with a basin of warm water and a clean tea towel. The bright light over the pool table was turned on and Gannon began by cleaning the wounds. As the blood was cleaned off he could see that many of the cuts were superficial and he picked out several small pieces of glass. ‘Do your best Doctor I’ve 9 kids at home and they wouldn’t survive without their mammy’ ‘Well they must be surviving alright tonight’  thought Gannon to himself. The blood still flowed from one of the deeper wounds and so Gannon got Pat Joyce to squeeze the two sides of the open cut together to stem the flow. He then took out his suture kit and threaded the nylon monofilament through the eye of the needle. He began to put Mary Kate Joyce’s bum back together stitch by stitch in a standard single interrupted closure of the wound. The smaller wounds were easily dealt with and bandaged. All in all the procedure took less than half an hour and at this stage Penrose was getting agitated and looking at his watch

Gannon was guiding the patient out to the car. ‘I’m just afraid Doctor you know. It won’t affect me if I was you to have another baby?’. ‘Oh no, not at all Mary. Are you pregnant?’ ‘Not that I know of Doctor’. Mary paused for a little break, ‘How many have you now?’ asked Gannon. ‘Well we had ten but nine living’. ‘Nine!’ repeated Gannon, he had thought they had six or seven at most. ‘You know there are procedures available Mrs Joyce. You can get a procedure or Pat either and then you wouldn’t have to worry about getting pregnant’. Mary Kate thought for a few moments before walking again, ‘God I think I’ve had enough procedures for one night Doctor but thanks very much’. Her husband was now out opening the passenger side door and linking her in. ‘Maybe we can talk about again when you get over this. You’ll come into me Tuesday or Wednesday so I can check how you are healing. I’ve given Pat something to help with pain and sleep’.

‘Thanks for everything Doctor …. and the other advice too but I think I will take what God gives me’. Gannon smiled but inside he was sighing ‘Has God not given her enough?’

The Doctor returned to the Lounge to gather up his satchel. Penrose had already cleared the make-shift operating table and was wiping the edges of the pool table with a damp cloth. ‘You timed that well Doctor. We’ve an ould pool competition tonight with the Courtmacsweeney lads. You are welcome to sponsor a spot prize if you like.’ Gannon shook his head ‘I’ll have another Brandy though’. Penrose finished wiping and shuffled behind the counter to get Gannon a drink. ‘Oh and send a drink up to Professor Burgess and his able assistant there’.

Gannon gathered up his instruments and put them in his satchel. He looked around the empty lounge. The Bar was filling up though. He was tired and needed sleep. He held the squat glass in his hand and savoured the aroma of the Cognac just under his nostrils before finishing it. He walked purposefully through the hallway and out to the fresh air. As he put the car in gear and turned it towards home he thought of what Mary Kate had said. He wondered had God given him too much also.

 

‘Nipper’ Geelan and the ‘Yankee’ invasion

01c42ca9c458cf9c228d6e8222633a676511f84816On Sunday the 8th of August 1948 it was standing room only at St. Manachans Park, Mohill, County Leitrim. The grounds were by now the premier football ground in the County since their opening in 1939. They hosted many inter-county games and County Finals but this day saw an unusual pairing. It was a game that captured the imagination of all Leitrim Gaels, home and abroad.  The crowd was estimated at in excess of 8,000. The reason, the visit of the Leitrim Club from New York, led by their mercurial Manager and Mohill native, Michael ‘Nipper’ Geelan.

Geelan had been a star player with his native Mohill and lined out for the County at Junior and Senior level whilst still in his teens. His nickname apparently arose when a Galway mentor enquired from a local who was the ‘Nipper’ playing havoc in the full forward line. Geelan was born in Laheenamona in 1901 where his father, a native of Cashel in Bornacoola had settled. Whilst the Nipper is probably better known for his on field exploits he was also a member of Fianna Eireann and later of  ‘A’ Company, 3rd Battalion, Leitrim Brigade of the Old IRA. He debuted for Mohill at the age of 15 and played for Leitrim from 1921. He was a regular until in the spring of 1926 he decided to emigrate to New York. He teamed up with many Leitrim emigrants and helped get the club competing for the New York Championship then dominated by the famous Tipperary Club. One of the great GAA organisers at the time was another Mohill native, John McGuinness of Tulrusk/Drumhanny. McGuinness was formerly Leitrim County Board Chairman who was elected to the same position in New York in 1932, a rare achievement. Had Nipper Geelan not emigrated when he did it is certain that he would have been part of the Connacht Championship winning team of 1927.

In 1932 the Leitrim Club won the New York Championship with a talented team that included Eddie Maguire, uncle of Packy McGarty. Commentators thought that this was a team that would go on and dominate the club scene in the Big Apple. Sadly the effects of the Great Depression and tighter immigration laws saw the club began to flounder. Starved of fresh blood off the boat the club folded.  It was not until after the end of the Second World War that a group of Leitrim exiles got together and started to put in action a plan to reform the club. The GAA was beginning a revival and the next few years were a golden period in North America. In 1947 the All-Ireland was played in the Polo Grounds, the only time it was every played outside of these shore.

‘Nipper’ Geelan also coached a successful minor team called Incarnation. At the time the underage structure in New York saw many teams associated with their local church. Incarnation was a team attached to the Church of the Incarnation on 175th St which drew its players from the Irish communities of Inwood and Washington Heights. The star of this minor team and future star with Leitrim and New York was a young Jimmy Geelan, the Nippers own Nipper so to speak. 1947 saw the Leitrim play for the first time in fourteen years. The Nipper even managed to get some game time at 46 years of age when he lined out against Down alongside his son Jimmy, the match report said that “the younger Geelan is certainly following in his after his father’s footsteps and in a few short years will be competent enough to compete with the best in the division.”

The Leitrim Club were also active off the field; the Irish Echo reported that a Dance would be held in Croke Park Pavilion (Gaelic Park) on the 2nd August 1947, where the musical entertainment was provided by “May Rowley of West 161st St, a recent arrival from Mohill, Leitrim, an accomplished pianist and soprano as well as being very easy on the eyes”. 

It is not known when the trip back to Ireland was first planned but the plan was widely known by December 1947 when the Club held its annual dinner dance in the Dauphin Hotel. All through winter and spring the fundraising continued. Geelan was in bullish form ahead of the Tour, telling one reporter ‘We’ll lick any team in the old sod’.

The Leitrim team sailed for Ireland in July 1948 aboard the SS Washington and docked at Cobh on the 1st August where they were met by Secretary of the County Board, Michael Reynolds NT and other officials. After settling into their lodgings in the County Hotel, Carrick-on-Shannon the team headed to Manorhamilton where they drew 2-5 each with a North Leitrim selection. Sean McGowan from Cloonturk scored 2-1 for the visitors in an exciting game. The team also paid a visit to Kiltyclogher where a crowd of 1,000 people saw Geelan lay a wreath at the Sean MacDiarmada memorial.

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The following night the County Board met to finalise arrangements for the big game in Mohill. The following stewards were requested to report at Mohill Park at 1.00pm ‘L. Moran, Robert Moran, Billy McGowan, J. Flynn, J. Gordon, James Canning , Charles Kilkenny, Charles Keegan, Sean Reynolds and Patrick McCrann’ and from Gortltlettragh ‘P. Reynolds, C. Reynolds, J. Milton, J. Booth and P. Gannon;  Bornacoola – T. Aherne, Michael McGowan, H. O’Brien, P. Greene, Bert Faughnan and J. Notley; Shannon Gaels – McNally, McGuinness, Newton and two from Carrick-on-Shannon; Aughavas – Carroll and Reynolds’.

Meanwhile Geelan took time out to write a telegram to John ‘Lefty’ Devine the GAA correspondent with the ‘Irish Advocate’ in New York. It read-

County Hotel
Carrick-on-Shannon
Co. Leitrim                                                                                          August 4th 1948

 Dear Lefty,

 A short line to let you know we are having a wonderful time here. Also to apologise for not getting a wire to you in time for Croke (Gaelic) Park. Communications are not the best in Leitrim. Of course you have already heard we tied our first game against a good selction from North Leitrim.

 On behalf of the team I again want to thank you and also please convey again my thanks to John (Kerry) O’Donnell for the inspiring support he gave us. Its men like O’Donnell that make it easier for us all to keep the Gaelic games alive. I did not forget the ball for Jacky. I may not be able to get the shoes as they seem to be very scarce in Ireland. I am enclosing a few cuttings and will forward more as time goes on. Incidentally the score was 2 gl. 5 pt to 2 gl. 5 pt, McGowan 2 gl. 1 pt, Brennan 4 pt. Regards to Mrs. Devine.

Sincerely yours,

 “Nipper” Geelan

Manager of the touring Leitrim Club.

A few days later the scene was set for a grand homecoming for Nipper in his home town where his exiles would face the full Leitrim team. The town was buzzing from early in the day. Two fife and drum bands led the teams out to a wall of applause and excitement. Dan O’Rourke, the President of the GAA was even in attendance. The game was refereed by Peter O’Rourke, Tully (Carrigallen) who was also the Chairman of the Leitrim County Board. Canon Masterson threw the ball in and a rip-roaring game ensued. Jimmy Geelan, still a minor was amongst the scorers. Leo McAlinden was the star of the home team. The final score was a draw, 2-3 each and everyone thought it a fair result. It can be well imagined that the celebrations went on well into the night around the town.

The tour continued the following week and entered its most controversial phase. The team was scheduled to play Armagh in Davitt Park, Lurgan on the 15th August. The team cars proceeded to Lurgan on the Saturday night festooned with Tricolours and Stars and Stripes. Some of the cars and players were attacked and attempts made to grab the ‘Free State’ flags but the game proceeded before a crowd of 4,000. The exiles lost 1-6 to 0-5 but gave a good account of themselves against an Armagh team who were preparing for the All-Ireland Junior final. In press reports mention was made of the American’s ‘forceful’ and ‘unorthodox tackling style’. On the way back to Leitrim the team played an exhibition game in Garrison against a Fermanagh select. Thus the touring party achieved one of Geelan’s aims by playing in the ‘occupied part of the country’.

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Armagh v Leitrim New York Team at Lurgan

Geelan wasn’t prepared to let the roughing up of his team of US Citizens in Lurgan go and wrote to the American Consulate in Belfast. He received a polite and courteous reply which reminded him that –

‘the United States government does not wish its nationals to take part in political affairs or events in foreign countries. When American Citizens acquire allegiance to the United States it is intended that they shall give up all allegiance to any other country. Failure to do so certainly impairs the right of this individuals to claim the protection of the United States Government while abroad’.

In other words one cannot claim the benefits or protections of US Citizenship when attacked whilst flying the flag of another nation. Geelans reaction is not recorded but can be surmised.

The final game of the tour was against the Dublin club St. Caillins, recently formed in the Capital and made up primarily of Leitrim players. The game was played in Fenagh but the result is unknown. There then followed a reception and dinner held at the Vocational School in Mohill (then ‘the Castle’ former residence of the Crofton family). Peter O’Rourke, Chairman of the County Board proposed a toast to the exiles saying that ‘they gave a very fine display’ and he hoped that their visit would be ‘an encouragement to the younger generation of Leitrim to go ahead and win an All-Ireland’.

The Exiles were then presented with miniature shields sponsored by the Connacht Council, silver medals from the County Board and cigarette cases from the Armagh County Board. Nipper Geelan presented the County Board with a special gold cup, the McTague-Galligan Cup which was played for in the drawn game earlier. The Cup was subsequently presented to the winner of the Leitrim Senior Championship until the onset of the current Fenagh Cup. Finally a farewell dance for the travelling party was held in the ballroom at Fenaghville.

The tour was undoubtedly a success on the field. The Leitrim Club were subsequently unlucky to lose two New York Finals in 1948 and ’49. The ‘Irish Advocate’ concluded ‘perhaps the greatest feat in the history of the local Leitrim Combination was made when they decided to sponsor a tour to Ireland, where they made a meritable showing against men of experience and full training. They were happy to record the fact that seven native born American boys were included in their line-up of players which gives them the right to say that Leitrim was the first to ever send back to the old sod the lads who learned the fine points of the game on the sidewalks of New York’.

However the tour did leave considerable debt and ultimately nearly sank the club. By the end of 1950 the club had lost over 22 players and had to rebuild again. One of the casualties was ‘Nipper’ Geelan himself who was uncompromising in defending the Tour against detractors. The Nipper left and was soon involved in coaching teams such as Kildare and Tyrone. The Leitrim club did recover though and one of its proudest days came when they won the 1958 New York Championship. One of the stars of the team was the now veteran Jimmy Geelan. The younger Geelan had already represented the New York Senior team that won the National League in 1950, defeating Cavan. “Nipper” Geelan had plenty more good days in football. He trained the New York Senior Teams from 1955 to 1963 in what was a hugely successful period for the exiles. He even trained a New York team that played In Wembley. In 1968 he was honoured by the New York Association for a lifetime of service. He passed away suddenly in December 1974.

Whatever about the financial success of the 1948 Tour it had a hugely positive effect on people throughout Leitrim. Emigration had tended to be one way traffic but this team in their bright suits and New York tans must have seemed a little exotic in a place where war rationing was still the norm. The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the game in Mohill and its record attendance. It must surely have been one of the proudest moments of Michael ‘Nipper’ Geelan’s career.

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When Good Friday fell on Easter Monday

It is a question that is sure to get all trivia lovers animated; ‘When did Good Friday fall on Easter Monday?’ The answer, or one of the many answers, is of course that ‘Good Friday’ was a horse and his fall was at one of the many daunting ditches at the Irish Grand National. The famous race which celebrates its 156th anniversary this year is ran annually on Easter Monday at the Fairyhouse Racecourse in County Meath.

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The proximity of the racecourse to the City of Dublin and its fall on the public holiday meant it has always been a popular race with the citizens of the Capital.  This was of course no different a century ago when thousands of people abandoned the City for the lush rolling green fields of Meath and the highlight of the Irish racing calendar. The meeting was a break for the working classes and the higher echelons of Anglo-Irish society alike. In attendance would have been many British Army Officers and Tommies either form the Dublin or the Curragh garrisons or on furlough from the War. In fact for those on such leave the pageantry and gaiety of Fairyhouse must have been a welcome relief and escape from the horrors of modern trench warfare. The Racecourse was also a mere twenty miles from the some of the finest Georgian squares and also the worst tenements in Europe. Fairyhouse was the ‘Dubs day out’ and the roads leading to the course would have been clogged with every mode of transport available motor car, omnibus, tram, bicycle, trap, carriage and sidecar not discounting those who would have made it there on foot.

Fairyhouse-Ratoath

No one present that day could have predicted that events unfolding back in the City would change the course of history for their country and define the relationship between these neighbouring Islands for the next century and beyond. One man with more pressing things on his mind was a young jockey from Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford called Jackie Lynn. That day Jackie would be riding ‘All Sorts’ a horse owned by James Kiernan of Dysart Co. Westmeath and trained by Richard ‘Dick’ Cleary of Bishopstown House, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath. The betting had the midland horse at 5/1.

The Irish Field in its 22nd April edition carried a preview of the Grand National;

“The Irish Grand National should provide a most interesting race, for, even in the absence ‘Templedowney’ the competitors will be up the usual standard. The field may include two previous winners in ‘Civil War’ and ‘Punch’ but in the interval, the latter of these, who generally runs well on this course, has maintained his form the better”

The favourites for the race were ‘Ballyneety’ and  ‘Ruddygore’ but the preview did mention that “the better of the pair trained by Mr. R G Cleary, ‘All Sorts’ and ‘Turkish Maiden’, both of whom appear nicely handicapped, must have a big chance”. Because of the Rebellion the ‘Irish Field’ did not publish for several weeks but in its May 13th edition it does give an account of the race saying that the favourites floundered and the race was “reduced to a duel between ‘Punch’ and ‘All Sorts’ as they entered the straight. Over the last fence the favourite flattered, but when called upon ‘All Sorts’ quickly shook him off and in the end scored easily enough”.

The winner was described as follows:

“’All Sorts’ is not very much the matter in make or shape, but Mr. R G Cleary had him very workmanlike and well, and it is evident the improvement son of ‘Avidity’ was making last back end has been maintained (*he had won in Limerick in November 1915)

Whatever about his appearance ‘All Sorts’ had clearly ran the race of his life an cantered home winning by several lengths. Incidentally the 1914 winner with the apocryphal name ‘Civil War’ came in third.

By the time the meeting was coming to a close, word was spreading from the City that there were something serious afoot, graduating to confirmation that ‘Sinn Feiners’ had commandeered a number of prominent buildings and gunshots were heard. The atmosphere must have been tense and rife with rumour. The military personnel present commandeered all available modes of transport and hurried back to their posts unsure of what was going on. The rest of the race goers, equally confused, had to make their way home on foot. Soon the railways were closed, a military measure to prevent more ‘rebels’ making their way to the city. The majority of racegoers were stranded in the Meath countryside and began to slowly drift away on foot. The winner ‘All Sorts’ and his stable mate ‘Turkish Maiden’ who also ran in the main race, had to be walked home over 100km to the Bishopstown Stud.

Cleary was an interesting character. He had been a well-known jockey in his younger days and became a famous trainer and breeder in his own right. Shaun Spada and Serent Murphy who both won the Aintree Grand National came from the Bishopstown Stud. In 1895 he had bought Bishopstown House and developed into a successful stud. His granddaughter Connie Cleary who will be attending at Fairyhouse tomorrow said her grandfather would later incur the wrath of the IRA, who attempted to assassinate him on two occasions. A story is also told that two armed men also made an attempt to shoot the national winning horse also. When asked where the horse was a quick thinking groom pointed the men to an old stallion and the men shot him instead.

Cleary would run for the National Party in the General Election in 1927 for the National League, a short lived party founded by Willie Redmond in 1926. The party supported Anglo-Irish Treaty, and advocated a close relationship with the UK and a conservative fiscal policy. There was a bit of the old Irish Party about the short lived group who nevertheless won 8 seats in the June 1927 election. Richard Cleary was not successful however in Longford-Westmeath but it does illustrate his Anglophile leanings and explain why he might clash with the local IRA members. Richard Cleary died on the 1st February 1937 and is buried in Walshetown Cemetery. He was 67 and left 10 children surviving.

http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Westmeath/Killare/Ballinaspick_or_Bishopstown/883544/

We shouldn’t forget the jockey, Jackie Lynn. He was born in Edgeworthstown in 1876 and sadly died of cancer in 1938 at the age of 52. The family had its share of tragedy over the years and sets out starkly the dangers in horse racing particularly National Hunt. Jackie Lynn’s son Mickey was killed in a fall at Sandown Park on the 5th April 1955. He was a great horseman and predicted to be a champion jockey. Micky Lynn worked at Weyhill for Gerald Balding’s stable.

 “He had the perfect build for a jump jockey, he was intelligent and brave, and a brilliant all-round horseman who especially enjoyed riding all the difficult horses that no one else wanted to ride” (jockepedia)

It appears that in order to make the weight some jockeys forego the standard skull cap as their weight was included in the overall weight. Instead jockeys used headgear that looked like a skull-cap but might only have been made of cardboard or similar and offered no protection.

“In such headgear, Micky, then 23, took a dreadful fall at Sandown on April 5, 1955 in The Spring Handicap Chase. He landed headfirst, fracturing his skull. He never regained consciousness and died from his injuries two days later. A brilliant young talent and the life of a wonderful Christian young man had been snuffed out in an instant. The boy who would undoubtedly have become champion jockey was gone forever”

https://sites.google.com/site/jockeypedia/lynn-micky

Incidentally the Gerald Balding referred to above was the Grandfather of the Sport Presenter Clare Balding. Young Lynn was in good company at the Balding stables as he roomed with one Dick Francis, later to be the famous novelist.

Sadly another member of the family, Willy Lynn was also killed at Gowran Park in Kilkenny. Willys son also John Lynn was killed in a fall at Southwell on the 8th December, 1945.John Lynn junior emigrated to the UK and promised his mother he would never become a jockey.  He went on to captain the London Gaelic Football team when they won a Junior All-Ireland title in 1956

Tomorrow the Ward Union Hunt will re-enact that famous 1916 Irish Grand National after this year’s race. John Lynn and Connie Cleary will both be present at the famous old racecourse where there Grandparents proudest day occurred 100 years ago, on the same day a certain Padraig Pearse cleared his throat and began to read the Proclamation from the steps of the GPO. Let us hope they won’t have to walk home this time.

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A Sport in denial craving redemption – FIFA 2015

FIFA 2015

Joseph S. “Sepp” Blatter probably surprised a few people today by resigning from his position as President of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). The surprise comes from how bullish the man has been over the years. His resignation speech outlined the reason for going as being the fact that despite having the mandate of FIFA he feels he doesn’t have the support of everyone in Football. But if FIFA is the representative of World Football then surely this means that FIFA has little or no mandate at all. Yet in the rush to condemn FIFA we must be careful not to allow a vacuum be created that will be quickly filled by the rich and powerful in the game of which UEFA is in the vanguard.

Blatter has spent the last thirty-four years working at FIFA, initially as general secretary but since 1998 as president. He has been re-elected by the delegates from all over the world in 2002, 2007, 2011 and last week. What is unusual about his resignation is that it does not have immediate effect, but rather will only take effect when an extraordinary FIFA Congress is convened. This may take some time to convene. I sincerely hope there is no shredder in the office.

Sepp Blatter

For a man who specialised in Public Relations for companies such as Longines, at times he has been a PR disaster. Blatter hasn’t been popular in Ireland, particularly since he made fun of Thierry Henry’s handball which enabled France score the crucial goal, ensuring that they, and not us, would be travelling to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The incident generated quite a bit of debate, mostly in European football, about fair play, introducing goal line technology and video refereeing but it all came to nought. It was well-known that Blatter was not a huge fan of such technology and in any event the World Cup might do without Ireland but it could not do without a potential 60 million TV viewers in France.

Thierry Henry

Henry admitted after the game that he had cheated. The incident was referred to the FIFA Disciplinary Committee for a ruling, but they held they had no power to sanction a player even though he had just admitted cheating in such an important game. FIFA reputation in Ireland fell even further when Blatter’s ‘off the cuff’ remarks about Ireland asking to be included as 33rd team for the tournament. Blatter laughed and joked about Ireland’s request which apparently had been alluded to in private discussions with the FAI and details of which should never have been aired in such a public manner. The FAI were scathing, their fans furious, at what was quite rightfully perceived as adding injury to insult.

But these are minor matters compared to what Blatter has presided over in FIFA with allegations of corruption ranging from whispers to outspoken claims of bribery involved in tournament selection. The award of the World Cup tournament to a country with no footballing tradition and  in the middle of an Arabian Summer was absurd and ludicrous. There will be a lot of eggs fried, for those lucky enough to have an egg, in Quatar in the summer of  2022.

Yet no one expected the end was so nigh for Herr Blatter. As Wodehouse wrote in Jeeves, “Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove” It took the Americans to grab the bull by the horns and act once again as Global Policeman.  The arrest of seven FIFA officials was part hollywood, part judicial ambush but for all the showmanship there appears to be considerable substance behind the investigation conducted thusfar. 

In so many ways the Yanks have shown up Europe again as having no teeth or at the very least an unwillingness to force change no matter how compelling the allegations of wrongdoing. This is definitely one American led Regime Change which I will be wholeheartedly supporting.

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*It’s hard to believe it is 29 years ago this month that Diego Maradona broke English hearts with his famous ‘Hand of God’ goal at the Aztec Stadium. For whatever reason, I remember feeling okay about that particular goal. Yes it was cheating but it was Maradona and more importantly it was England. 

The little genius beat almost the entire English team a few minutes later to score one of the greatest World Cup goals ever and Argentina went on to win the Cup. The game had to be seen in the historical context of the Falklands War just four years previous and the Troubles on our own Island. Yet this was sport and this was cheating.

 I often wonder how I would have felt if it was Robbie Keane who had handled the ball at the other end in Paris in 2009, knocking it across to Doyler or Duffer to scramble it over the line. I’m quite sure if it had happened, I would  have come to terms with it, eventually, and by the time I was buying my vuvuzela outside the Soccer City Stadium the pangs of guilt would be well-forgotten.