on “the lovely uselessness of poetry”


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For World Poetry Day 2017.

The freedom and the lovely uselessness of poetry is its whole point.

~ Leontia Flynn

My parents were raised in rural County Derry, Seamus Heaney country, where they learned to be thrifty and resourceful, and when all else failed, to believe in the mystical powers of “folk healers,” those individuals uniquely gifted with “the cure” or “the charm” for all ailments. Consulted only after patients had flummoxed the medical doctor, the folk healer meted out charms in all forms – plasters, poultices, and potions in brown bottles. It was to such a man my father once turned after the local doctor told my mother there was nothing he could prescribe for her bout with jaundice.  Dissatisfied with this from someone with formal medical training and a string of letters after his name, my father went deep into the Derry countryside to visit the man with “the charm.”

Observant and curious, my father accompanied him into the fields but was of no help in discerning those wild herbs that held curative powers. Thus, he watched and then he waited in a tiny kitchen as the healer wordlessly concocted the charm. With a stone, he beat juices from unidentified herbs, added two bottles of Guinness stout, poured the mixture into a Cantrell and Cochrane lemonade bottle and sent da on his way with instructions for my mother to drink every last drop. No payment. Just faith that it would work a healing magic.

As an adolescent, I was skeptical of the faith healer but not of the faith at work in the transaction. In crisis, when all else fails, we might try anything. When conventional wisdom seems foolish, and the right words are in hiding, where can we go?

Not Google, I wish I could say, but after being diagnosed with cancer, I spent as much time on the Internet tracking down all the worst case scenarios as I did staring down a cursor that blinked on a blank Word document.  A conspiracy began. Between us, the winking cursor and me, we would maybe find some words to help me adjust to this altered life. Everywhere else I found only no sense – nonsense. The words that fell from the lips of physicians and friends and people who love me, sent me scrambling into a frightening encounter with my mortality which began with a fast and furious flurry of euphemisms about my inner fortitude. At the same time, there was a silence from those who were frustrated by not having the “right” words and crippled by fear of saying the wrong thing. There were friends and family who, unafraid and angry on my behalf, jumped in, took charge, and said the “wrong” thing anyway, made all the worse because I lacked the right words to explain why. Around this time Van Morrison’s “Inarticulate Speech of the Heart” made most sense.

Clumsily, in the wee hours, I struggled to catch the best words to present my changed life, hoping to save them in a jam-jar with holes poked in the lid, knowing I would need them down the road. Cancer invaded my lexicon, and previously dependable words failed me. “Staging” would never again conjure only the theater and the cheap seats in the ‘gods’ at the Grand Opera House in Belfast; “fog” I would now attach to a state of cognitive loss rather than a misty morning in a Van Morrison song or the cloud that often obscures parts of Pacific Coast Highway on a trip north in the summertime; “cure” no more the idiomatic “hair of the dog that bit you” but a confounding and elusive thing all wrapped up in a pink ribbon; “Mets” was not just the other New York baseball team but a tragic abbreviation for metastatic breast cancer from which no one survives yet of all the millions of dollars raised for breast cancer research in this country, only a small percentage is directed to metastatic breast cancer. Even “sentinel,” which had been reserved, until cancer came calling, for a lonely cormorant perched on a post in the sleepy edges of Morro Bay – transformed, becoming instead the first node to which cancer cells are most likely to spread from a primary tumor.  “Infusion” had been something done to olive oil to transform it into a gourmet gift, but because I had turned left instead of right upon leaving my oncologist’s office one day, I found myself on the threshold of the infusion suite, a room I didn’t know was there. Feeling as though I had intruded, I fled. But not before I had registered a row of faces of people who were sicker than me. In one microscopic moment, I made eye contact with a woman and wondered if perhaps she was cold because, as I turned away, I noted a quilt on her lap. I turned away. 

Enter fleeing.

Inarticulate, stunned by what the cancer was doing to the efficacy of words, and in need of a charm, I rediscovered County Down poet Damian Gorman. Trapped in cancer land, I also found myself remembering the bombs, bullets, the “suspect incendiary devices” that were part of 1980s Northern Ireland as far less deadly than the devices of detachment” my people used to distance ourselves from it –

“I’ve come to point the finger

I’m rounding on my own

The decent cagey people

I count myself among …

We are like rows of idle hands

We are like lost or mislaid plans

We’re working under cover

We’re making in our homes

Devices of detachment

As dangerous as bombs.”

On a day like today, when the news back home is all about the death of Martin McGuinness, people will ask me what it was like growing up in  that place at that time – hoping to understand “The Troubles” and indeed McGuinness – I will direct them not to some digital archive that chronicles what has happened in Northern Ireland since August 1969, but to “Devices of Detachment.” And in October, when I am pummeled by pink, it will be to this charm I turn. And when people die, and I don’t know what to say to bring any comfort to their loved ones, my condolences will come wrapped up in a Seamus Heaney poem – the right words at the right time.

When Heaney died, I remember wondering if the living poets would have the right words. I imagine most of them thought that only Heaney himself would be capable of composing the condolences that would assuage Ireland’s collective sorrow over his passing.  I could not imagine the landscape of my my lovely, tragic homeland without him. Heaney had scored my life with poems about hanging clothes on the line and ironing, about biycyle riding or blackberry picking  and of potato-peeling at the kitchen sink with his mother when “all the others were away at Mass.” Sitting at my kitchen table, in Phoenix, Arizona, a lifetime away from Anahorish, my mother once recalled him as a young man with sandy hair, riding his bicycle around Castledawson. He would probably be pleased that her recollection of him is less as renowned Nobel Laureate and more “a son of Paddy Heaney’s.” 

In an unguarded moment, when I turn to a page in a picture book to see the complete and smiling family of which I once was a part, I turn again to Heaney until the remembered trauma subsides. I don’t know when my husband died, the moment my daughter lost her daddy. I know only that he was pronounced dead at 1:10PM on November 15th. Posing for a photograph with Barry Devlin at the forge on the other side of The Door into The Dark, on the other side of the world, holding in my hands the anvil that made the sweeter sound, then striking it, I imagine a shower of sparks and wonder if it was at that very moment that Ken died, alone in our Phoenix home. There is something soothing – and right-seeming – in believing I was maybe within Heaney’s spiritual field for just a moment and in knowing I would return to the desert with my daughter to do what we were fit for – to “take up the strain of the long tailed pull of grief” – to move forward.

A reporter once asked me if I thought you had to be Irish to appreciate Seamus Heaney’s poetry. The way she asked it suggested she was unfamiliar with his work, and I responded inadequately. I meant to tell her that in the crucible of Heaney’s poetry, she would no doubt find herself represented along with everyone else; she would find “the music of what happens” then and now; she would find not what it means to be Irish, but all that it means to be human and searching, always searching – digging – for the goodness that’s in us and still for us.  She would find the charm; she would understand why we turn to it, as  Carol Ann Duffy explains in her response to the devastation of the Haiti earthquake as it unfolded on television:

We turn to poetry at intense moments in our lives . . . when we lose people, or are bereaved, we look for a piece of music or poem to read at the funeral, or when we fall in love we turn to poetry, or when children are born. And I think that can happen at moments of public grief too, as well as personal. It is so close to prayer, it is the most intense use of language that there is. It is the perfect art form for public or private grief.


When we fall in love we turn to poetry . . . and on this World Poetry Day, I am in love, remembering a wintry day on The Flaggy Shore. Thank you.

Post Script by Seamus Heaney

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown, headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And find the heart unlatched and blow it open.





By the Wayside on St. Patrick’s Day


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“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
― Elie Wiesel, Night

I am ambivalent about St. Patrick’s Day, still not sure what it is about March 17th that renders so many people Irish or some version of it that I do not recall from living the first twenty-seven years of my life in Northern Ireland. Everywhere I turn on Friday, there will be Americans proclaiming their Irishness, some in T-shirts emblazoned with a command to kiss them, others bearing warnings that they are falling-down drunk. Because they are Irish. Even elected officials whose nationality we never knew or cared about will become bona fide Irish. I wonder just how many frazzled interns there must be in these United States, tasked by politicians keen on maintaining a hold on “the Irish vote,” with finding some verifiable, however microscopic, proof of their Irish heritage.

Identity matters. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who am I? Am I Irish? Northern Irish? British? Ulster Irish? Well, it depends, and I know I’m entering dangerous territory here, especially this year as we grapple with Brexit and the outcome of the recent Assembly election in Northern Ireland. My brother, more eloquent than I, and still living and working in Ireland, broke it down for me one day, commenting on the “fractured and dissensual nature of our cultural background, where declarations of nationhood are open to contention (Northern Ireland versus the North of Ireland; Derry versus Londonderry) and can be dangerous, and potentially fatal.” Maybe this is why I traded in my homeland for America, falling in love with the very idea of it, an idea that I watched unravel at break-neck speed in the 2016 race for President of the United States.

I consider myself Irish – or as my favorite professor used to say of me, I “aspire to a united Ireland” – but my “documentation” suggests something of an identity crisis. I was born in Northern Ireland and own a British passport (just to be on the safe side) and I need to renew my Irish passport before we are booted out of the EU. My American permanent residency card states Ireland as my country of birth, but my birth certificate states my birthplace as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am one of her Royal Majesty’s subjects –  except when I’m not – like the time a waiter at Heathrow Airport refused to accept my money because, although Sterling, it was printed on a Bank of Ulster note. My money had identified me as something other than acceptable.

A more subtle subtext persists in America. Even in Arizona, a flashpoint for immigration issues, it seems everyone is at least fractionally Irish on March 17th. With green beer flowing and all those ringlets bouncing heavily on the heads of Irish dancers, and people pinching me if I’m not wearing green, I sometimes wonder if maybe I was always absent on St. Patrick’s Day. How could I have missed all these shenanigans even though I grew up down the road from Mount Slemish, where the Patron Saint tended his sheep?

Contemplating all of this, and for the record, I feel compelled to tell you that along with a bunch of girls from school, I attended Irish Dancing every week at the Protestant Hall on Railway Street in Antrim. Also for the record, none of us had either the ringlets or the straight backs and long legs of Flatley’s Riverdancers. Still, I loved it, and while I have long since forgotten the name of our lovely teacher, I remember that she was kind and made me feel like I was a dancer. Today, I couldn’t do a slip-jig to save my life, but I can prove that I once could – I could show you inside the red box that held my first Timex watch, where wrapped in tissue paper are all my medals.

And I suppose because I appreciated the craft that went into it, and I wanted to hold on to it when I came to America, I even brought with me – in my rucksack– the dancing costume that last fit me when I was 12. It hangs in the back of a closet, reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. I don’t think I could part with it.

Then there’s the corned beef and cabbage.  I have never had corned beef and cabbage. Not even once. We always had the best of sirloin from Stewart’s Butchers – a place with saffron colored sawdust on the floor in which I traced figures of eight with the toes of my brogues. An imaginative child, I pretended I was cutting through ice on the blades of Harriet’s skates as she spun around a frozen pond in Tom’s Midnight Garden.  I remember being a bit afraid of the young butchers. Even though they weren’t that much older than me, they were mildly menacing in their blue and white striped aprons all smeared with blood and bits of raw beef, sharpening their knives while I stood on the other side of the counter ordering a pound of minced beef for mammy.

As for cabbage, I still associate it with the overcooked vegetables, lumpy custard, and tapioca served for lunch at Antrim Primary School. Mind you, as my mother will no doubt remind me, when fried up with a bit of good bacon from Golden’s – the wee shop – cabbage is hard to beat, although not as good as turnip. But it had nothing to do with St. Patrick. Corned beef and cabbage would have been no more than a n unfortunate coincidence on St. Patrick’s Day four decades ago.

Then there are the shamrocks and the snakes. I don’t remember Pat the barman in The Crown Bar in Belfast ever taking the time to trace a shamrock on the head of a pint of Guinness for my friend Ruth or me, and as much time as we spent in there – and as much as we flirted with him – it was the least he could have done. Nor do I remember shamrocks or Celtic knots tattooed on young shoulders; rather, they were carved into headstones in old graveyards or embellished around stained glass windows at church. I never paid much attention to that bit of the story when St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland, although it has come back to me when I have sidestepped the odd snake slithering across my path on a hike through the Phoenix mountains. Real talk – they have been much less poisonous than the human variety.

Now wasn’t St. Patrick very clever to have found in nature a perfect symbol for Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to help him spread The Word? This was how I learned about the Holy Trinity in Sunday School, and I always think about it when I recall those delicate shamrocks wilting in the buttonholes of suits worn by Catholic neighbors who went to mass on St. Patrick’s Day. Back then, it seemed that most Protestants either “took no notice” of the holiday or characterized it as something reserved for those “on the other side.” There’s a bit of irony there, given the young saint’s passion for spreading Christianity.

All that being said, by the time I was living and studying in Belfast, St. Patrick’s Day had evolved into a good excuse for an extended pub crawl with a motley crew of art students, engineers, and teachers.  My last St. Patrick’s Day back home was in 1987. It was a cold Tuesday night, and we were on the hunt for craic and pints, so we piled in a taxi and headed for The Wayside Halt, a nondescript country pub on the edge of the dual carriageway between Antrim and Ballymena. It’s the kind of place that wouldn’t merit a second look. Walking into it, I sobered, the events of May 24, 1974, rushing at me like scenes from a black and white documentary. My father had told me about how on that May evening, one of his friends had suggested stopping at the pub for a quick pint on the way home. Back home, the “quick pint” is something of a paradox, and because da was in a rush to complete his bread deliveries before dark that Friday night, he declined. As he tells it, before he reached Randalstown, the harrowing word had arrived that within the previous hour, Loyalist paramilitaries had barged into the Wayside Halt, and shot at point-blank range, the Catholic publican, Shaun Byrne, and his brother, Brendan. Other pub owners in the Ballymena area had been attacked as well, their places of business vandalized because they had decided to remain open during the United Workers Council Strike of 1974.

Shaun and Brendan Byrne were murdered, while the children were in the sitting room upstairs. And in the picture sent to me by one of the Byrne family, the only child not home that evening is the little girl standing at her father’s right shoulder.

Somehow – I know not how – Mrs. Byrne kept going, and on that St. Patrick’s Day in 1987, she outdid herself, with a giant pot of Irish stew, the likes of which I defy you to find in America. Bland to the American taste-buds, I’m sure, but when combined with an aromatic turf fire, a half-un of Jamesons or a hot Powers whiskey, and someone like Big Mickey playing “The Lonesome Boatman” on a tin whistle in the back bar, it was big and bold in flavor. It was unforgettable. On such a night, we basked in our Irish identity.

We knew who we were.

And every St. Patrick’s Day since, I am drawn back to The Wayside Halt. For the craic. For a pint with good friends. For Mrs. Byrne. And to bear witness.



where is it likely to go better?


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Photo: Barry’s, Portrush by Six Mile Images

roll·er coast·er

noun ˈrō-lər-ˌkō-stər, ˈrō-lē-ˌkō-

Definition of ROLLER COASTER

1. A steep, sharply curving elevated railway with small open passenger cars that is operated at high speeds as a ride, especially in an amusement park.

2. An action, event, or experience marked by abrupt, extreme change in circumstance, quality, or behavior.

You. Have. Cancer.

A cliché comes next – the roller-coaster ride. You know its refrain. First, the arduous climb towards an intense blue sky. Gradually, the anxious giggling and chatter subsides. At the top, breath suspended, you wait for the world to fall out beneath you. Not yet.  Then a sudden plunge at shocking speed. Might you plummet to your death? Not yet. Still more unpredictable twists and turns await, above and below. White-knuckled, you cling to the bar, only half-believing there is enough life in the clicking-clacking, old machinery to set you back on solid ground. Suddenly it is over. You are free to return to the midway, albeit a little green around the gills and unsteady on your feet. And as he helps you out of the car, you hope no one but the carnie can tell you are not as confident as you were.

In an unguarded moment, decades later, you will recollect The Big Dipper at Barry’s, closing your eyes to better see yourself, a child again hurtling through the North Atlantic air. Curls wild in the wind, mouth agape, eyes squeezed to block out light and noise and fear, and you half-hoping to stay aloft forever, because ‘coming down is the hardest thing.’

But you will land safely, startled to find yourself somewhere between Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers “Learning to Fly” and Robert Frost’s lovely “Birches

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I don’t know either.

After Cancer, Ambushed by Depression

September 29, 2009, NEW YORK TIMES

I’m depressed.

I’m recovering well from an aggressive case of prostate cancer, I haven’t had any treatment in months, and all of my physical signposts of health are pointing in the right direction.

Still, I’m depressed.

And I’ve been ambushed by it. After more than a year of diagnosis, treatment and waiting, it’s almost as if, finally and unexpectedly, my psyche heaved a sigh and gave itself permission to implode.

I’m not alone in this cancer-caused depression. As many as 25 percent of cancer patients develop depression, according to the American Cancer Society. That’s contrasted with about 7 percent of the general population.

This isn’t about sadness or melancholy. It’s more profound than that. Broadly, I have a keen sense of being oppressed, as if I were trapped, wrapped up in some thick fog coming in off the North Atlantic.

To be more specific, I’m exhausted, unfocused and tap my left foot a lot in agitation. I don’t much want to go anywhere – especially anyplace that’s crowded – and some days I can’t even bear the thought of picking up the phone or changing a light bulb. All of this is often topped off by an aspirin-proof headache.

The fatigue frustrates me most. When I envision myself it’s as a body in motion, walking or running, not foundering in bed. On one recent day, I slept till 10 in the morning – getting 11 hours of sleep – then took a nap from noon to 2. And I was still tired.

I’ve had occasional depression over the years, but nothing as dogged as this. When I first learned that I had prostate cancer, I wondered about depression. But after the shock of the diagnosis wore off, I was sharp and clear-headed. I wasn’t depressed as I went through treatment — surgery, radiation and hormone therapy. I was buoyed by a kind of illness-induced adrenaline.

The bone-smoldering fatigue arrived in late spring/early summer, and intensified as summer deepened. I thought that I might be depressed, but resisted the diagnosis, didn’t want to countenance the idea that I could be depressed after all of my treatment.

I stubbornly chalked the fatigue up to the lingering aftereffects of radiation and my fluctuating levels of testosterone. But I was wrong.

I am seeing a psychiatrist who specializes in cancer patients, and have started a course of medication. My doctor assures me that depression isn’t unusual among those who are on the far side of treatment.

Partly, I think, I’m grieving for the person I was before I learned I had cancer. Mortality is no longer abstract, and a certain innocence has been lost.

And while the physical trauma is past, the stress lingers and brings with it days washed in fine shades of gray. In the same way that radiation has a half-life, stress does, too. We all ache to be the heroes of our own tales, right? Well, I’m not feeling too heroic these days.

Cancer pushes lots of difficult buttons. It lays bare our basic vulnerability and underlines the uncertainty of this life. And prostate cancer attacks our culture’s ideal of manhood. The steely-eyed Marlboro Man isn’t expected to worry about incontinence and erectile dysfunction.

Cancer feels bleaker than other diseases. Even though my health keeps improving, and there’s a good chance that I’m cancer free, I still feel stalked, as if the cancer were perched on my shoulder like some unrepentant imp.

It’s harder to write about the weight of depression than it is to write about prostate cancer and its physical indignities. Cancer is clear biological bad luck. But depression, no matter how much we know about it, makes part of me feel as if it’s somehow my fault, that I’m guilty of something that I can’t quite articulate.

This has also been a difficult post to write because during my dark waltz with cancer I’ve depended on my natural optimism and my sense of humor to help see me through. But depression blunts those traits.

In the end, though, I believe in and trust in the healing power of the stories that we tell each other. And I wouldn’t be truthful to you or myself if I ignored the fact that I’m depressed even as I wait for a brisk wind billowing out of the north that’ll blow this fog of mine away.



Punk Matters – But Not Enough. Thank you, Stiff Little Fingers


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When punk rock ruled over Ulster, nobody ever had more excitement and fun. Between the bombings and shootings, the religious hatred and the settling of old scores, punk gave everybody a chance to live for one glorious burning moment.

Joe Strummer, The Clash

Stiff Little Fingers celebrates its forty years in the music business with a homecoming concert in Belfast in the summer of 2017. The band burst on the scene when I was a teenager, writing about a life I could relate to in songs with titles like “Suspect Device” or “Wasted Life.”  Brave, bold, pissed off, they were relentless, taking to the stage and the airwaves on behalf of what could be in Northern Ireland, rejecting the paramilitaries and the politicians who were hell-bent on preserving a deadly status quo.

1b9e9601132555183d41a946c35b5d16At the time, most musicians were afraid to perform in Northern Ireland, in large part because of what had happened in the early hours of July 31, 1975, when five members of The Miami Showband were heading home from a gig at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge. Their drummer, Ray Millar, had gone home to Antrim instead to stay with family members. On a narrow country road outside Newry, the band was flagged down by a group of uniformed men at what appeared to be a routine UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) checkpoint. Because such an incident was “normal” in the seventies in Northern Ireland, they wouldn’t have been overly alarmed.  But then the men in uniform ordered them to get out of their vehicle and stand by the roadside while the soldiers conducted a check of the back of the van.


Now, I don’t know if standing there on the side of the road, The Miami Showband realized this was not a routine army checkpoint. They were the victims of a vicious and premeditated ambush carried out by members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). As they waited, two of the UVF men – later revealed as members of the Ulster Defense Regiment – planted a bomb in the back of the van. It exploded prematurely, killing both, and in the chaos that followed, the remaining UVF members opened fire, killing three band members.

There were reports that the handsome young lead singer, Fran O’Toole, was shot 22 times in the face. Vulnerable and on the ground, he begged for mercy from men who kept shooting.  Brian McCoy, shot nine times, was the first to die at the scene. Tony Geraghty was shot in the back – four times. Des McAlea and Stephen Travers survived the blast from the explosion that flung both of them into the air. McAlea suffered only minor injuries and somehow escaped into the night; Travers was seriously wounded and survived only by pretending to be dead. Later, he recalled the gunman kicking the four bodies to ensure they were all dead.


It was unimaginable – young men, Catholics and Protestants, darlings of the show band scene, in their prime and adored by thousands of fans north and south of the border, slaughtered in the muck on a country road.

Naively, we had believed musicians were immune. Too, we saw in the Miami Showband what could be, its members and its audiences crossing all social, religious, and political boundaries. In fact, in his address to The Hague some years later, Stephen Travers would recollect his band as “a blueprint for social, religious, and political harmony.” But on that night in 1975, what happened to The Miami Showband left no doubt that musicians were just as much of a target as anyone else.  It became known as “The Day The Music Died,” but this is a hollow tagline that does not convey the monstrosity of it, the chilling choreography behind it, the harrowing legacy of it.

Northern Ireland’s musical life ground to a standstill. Performers from the UK mainland were too scared to risk their safety, and with this increased risk, performing in Northern Ireland became wildly expensive, the cost of insurance premiums soaring given the real threat of hi-jackings and bombings.

Our wee country had become a “no go” area, with fans of live music growing accustomed to canceled gigs, to more bombings and more shootings – all part and parcel of Northern Ireland living.  Performers were warned to stay away, and most took heed. A few – too few – kept going. In fact, only The Horslips and the late Rory Gallagher continued to include Belfast in their annual tours of Ireland, with Rory playing Belfast’s Ulster Hall more than any other performer. How we loved him. He played on, even as our country was in the grip of “The Troubles,” even as the bombs exploded in the city around him.

Rory Gallagher has once again returned to Belfast, at least he came, and for that we must thank him. Belfast has now become a graveyard for music. Concerts and big groups are a thing of the past…We want action now, for too long the groups in England haven’t given music where it can give the most help. Lennon tells us to give peace a chance, but has he visited us? All we want John ,baby, is the truth. Perhaps he is furthering the peace movements somewhere in Hyde Park. Perhaps the groups don’t want to make any sacrifices, maybe they are afraid, maybe they cannot stir themselves to help the people who need it most, who have no power to speak of.

excerpt from early 70’s Belfast underground paper,’Take One’.


A plaque bearing Rory Gallagher’s name was installed in the Ulster Hall in 2006, and we will honor his memory – and the gift of his music – with a statue at the Ulster Hall lest we forget that music was the alternative and that in time, there would be  punk rock and an anthem proclaiming as such and a renewed sense that music might just save us all. That anthem for an Alternative Ulster came from Stiff Little Fingers in 1978:

Nothin’ for us in Belfast
The Pound’s so old it’s a pity
OK, there’s the Trident in Bangor
Then walk back to the city
We ain’t got nothin’ but they don’t really care

Lest we forget.

I was reminded of this again in 2015 when gunmen stormed into The Bataclan Theater in Paris and slaughtered scores of fans at an Eagles of Death Metal concert.  Sickened, but not surprised, because I know better than most that a popular concert venue in Paris on a Friday night is not an unexpected place. For some it is “a legitimate target.”

Stiff Little

And, I should also have expected the statement from Stiff Little Fingers who were due to play in Paris on the heels of their gigs in Dublin and Belfast.

Of course they would play in Paris just four days later. Of course they would. And they did – with authority and heart.

It was the right thing to do – for Paris, for all of us.

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And now we have an opportunity to do something for Stiff Little Fingers.  Dee Wilson, author of The Punk Trilogy, has approached the Ulster Historical Circle with a proposal that a blue plaque should be erected at the old Trident Bar in Bangor,where the band performed in its early days. This is a reasonable request given that it is the mission of the Ulster Historical Circle to  “place commemorative plaques in public places, in towns and villages all over Ulster, in honor of men and women who have contributed to the Province’s history.” There’s a blue plaque for Van Morrison at 125 Hyndford Street, Belfast, United Kingdom, and there’s one for the old Maritime Hotel, proclaiming it the birthplace of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues in Belfast. There’s one for journalist and footballer, Danny Blanchflower and one for comedian James Young, who helped us laugh at ourselves during Northern Ireland’s darkest days.

But the Ulster Historical Circle has said no to Dee Wilson, no to a blue plaque at the old Trident (now Wolsey’s) Bar in Bangor. The Ulster Historical Circle has in effect said no to commemorating a movement which gave so many of us hope when the odds were stacked squarely against us, a representative explaining that “The Circle has streamlined our criteria since then and we now erect plaques exclusively to individuals who have connections of birth, death, sojourn, education etc with particular buildings.”

Really. Time for an alternative plaque, I think.

What we need is an Alternative Ulster
Grab it and change it, it’s yours


Sign the petition here