Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Old New Year

Looking back I see just how far I've come over the past year. In short, I've fully recovered from a life-threatening illness and now I'm thriving. Here's wishing you all, near and far, a Happy New Year.

A year ago I was still very much under the bleak cloud of the illness, very afraid I'd have to go back into hospital for more surgery. In January I was told this wouldnt be necessary and I walked forward with a spring in my step for the first time for a year and a half.

Sadly, Jean, a very close friend for 30 years, had the opposite news. Her cancer came back aggresively and she died in April. At that time I was also helping a group of cancer survivors from the Sing for Life Choir prepare for the Belfast Marathon Walk. All completed the 9 mile walk successfully and we raised £2500 for Cancer Focus. I continued singing with the choir (the earliest of my new activities) and have learned to sing better, or at least to make fewer mistakes.

During the Spring I began to write poetry again, for the first time since my illness. I challenged myself to write new poems around words chosen at random from the OED. This was stimulating and very productive. I also noticed that I seemed to be writing in a different style.

Indeed, this was true of many of the activities I picked up again. The illness had been a watershed and I wasnt (indeed couldnt be) the same afterwards. Like Humpty Dumpty I'd had a great fall, and painfully and painstakingly I'd been put back together. But the pieces didnt quite fit like they had before: some parts of me (and my life) were now more important and others had diminished in significance.

For the two year anniversary of my 'big op' I rented a motorbike and went on a tour of the northern half of this island. The weather was great and the touring was good, once I got used to the motorbike: my old skills, unused for 30 years, came back. But I couldnt help envying the cyclists I passed as I sweltered under the sun in my all black bike kit.

The longest day found me on holiday in Shetland, my first real trip away since my illness. A great place for wildlife and costal walks. The evening light was fantastic, indeed it hardly gets dark - its called the Simmer Dim.

On my return I decided to try cycling again. At first I was tentative and managed small trips along the towpath at Scarva, then I got bolder. Before long I was doing the whole trip, some 40 miles. It was great to feel the wind on my face and through my receding hair. During my illness and recovery I thought I'd never be able to cycle again.

In the Autumn I joined a birdwatching group and went on field trips around NI and to Donegal learning much from the very knowledgeable Ivor. With Ray Givans from the Writer's Group, I began another new venture - a poetry night with a difference called The Squat Pen.

Lately, I extended my regular walking through Tolleymore and Castlewellan Forest Parks to actual hillwalks in the Mournes. Like cycling, this was another old activity I feared I would not be able to do again. But over the Xmas holidays I've climbed four mountains and managed each well.

Finally and most importantly of all, I've begun a new relationship. I met T during the Summer and we quickly became close. Since then its got better and better. We are undoubtedly an item. We begin the New Year together with a trip to a hotel in the far West of Ireland.


Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Tying the Knot

Only relatively recently has the Church and the State become involved in marriage: the Council of Trent (1564) decreeing that a marriage was only valid if it was conducted by a priest, and the State registration of such marriages commencing in the 19th Century.

But people have lived on these islands for the best part of 30,000 years, forming couples and raising children. The folk tradition of marriage here is called handfasting. For thousands of years, a couple would come to a special ceremonial place where their hands would be joined through a portal and then bound together with rope. This is the origin of the expression 'tying the knot'.

At the handfasting ceremony the couple vowed to stay together for a year and a day. At the end of that year they had a choice: to renew their vows permanently, to renew their vows for another year or to part. Under the latter option, the responsibilities of each as regards any children and the property they had held in common would be specified.

The word handfasting derives from Old Norse and refers to the making of a contract by joining hands. It is believed that handfasting was used to formalise the exchange of all manner of goods and property.

Handfasting ceremonies took place at special sites with a portal through which the hands of the couple were joined and bound. Some of these sites had special standing stones with a natural hole, or a hole bored through - such as the Holestone (see below) near Doagh, Co Antrim. Many portals were made of wood, perhaps the trunk of an old tree, and thus have not survived to the present.

At Lughnasa there were special fairs where young men and women from different tribal groups would meet and could become handfasted. One of the main sites in Ireland for this was at Teltown in Co Meath.

Handfasting remained a legal basis for marriage in Scotland until 1939. To this day, couples who have been married in church also come to the Holestone for a handfasting ceremony.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Christmas Concert

The Sing for Life Choir Christmas Concert took place at Fisherwick Church, Belfast last night, compered by our patron Noel Thompson of the BBC. Over 300 people filled the church to hear an almost flawless performance of carols, traditional songs and classic ballads.

The choir began with Gaudete and Lean on Me by Bill Withers, followed by a mix of The First Noel and Pachabel's Canon and then John Rutter's arrangement of All Things Bright and Beautiful.

In the first interlude, The Elderflowers Dance Theatre Company performed to Ave Maria sung by the excellent Roisin Gallagher.

Taking the stage again, the choir sang I'll Tell Me Ma and a rousing version of Unchained Melody, made famous by the Righteous Brothers, followed by Howard Goodall's arrangement of Love Divine and Fields of Gold by Sting.

The second interlude saw solo performances from Keith Acheson (flute) of Gabriel's Oboe and Maria Redondo (violin) of Faure's Pavane, both accompanied by Megan Boyd on piano.

The final section saw the choir and Roisin Gallagher sing The Lamb by John Tavener, followed by John Rutter's arrangement of For the Beauty of the Earth and then Irish Blessing, the choir concluded with our signature tune Something Inside So Strong by Labi Siffre.

We were in very good voice throughout and gained our first standing ovation. Thanks in particular go to our conductor Keith Acheson and to our accompanist Megan Boyd, both of the Crescent Arts Centre.

It was a show with real heart by a community choir each of whom has been in some way affected by cancer. Well done to Cancer Focus NI and The Crescent Arts Centre who have supported the choir from the outset. A great night indeed.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Just back from a great long weekend in Inishowen. Went birdwatching and beachwalking, revisiting some of the places that I took my late parents to in 1999. Stayed in Ballyliffin, a small village on the North West coast with four hotels: hardly credible even in the boom years, two are now closed down. It's at one end of Pollan Strand, a two mile stretch of sand with foaming Atlantic breakers that leads to a ruined castle. The weather was typical of Donegal, moody and misty.

The birdwatching was very successful, we saw several Great Northern Divers and Red-breasted Mergansers (in Pollan Bay and Tullagh Bay) and a flock of Barnacle Geese at Malin Head. In olden days these large black and white birds were thought to hatch from the Barnacles that washed ashore in November. Now we know that they migrate here from Iceland. We didnt see any Choughs but did go to the nature reserve at Inch Island and saw many swans, including several Black Swans (natives of Australasia) that escaped from a collection and have now made it their home.

After catching up with friends that live near Buncrana, we went to Derry to see the Lumiere light sculptures. A great show with some very imaginative pieces, I particularly enjoyed the vivid light projection onto Austins that was inspired by Jules Verne; also notable was Grove of Oaks and Conned Fused. A fine evening completed by a lovely meal at Ballyliffin Lodge.

The next day was brighter but colder, after more birdwatching and beachwalking I went in to the Verbal Arts Centre to make a recording of some of my poems for their website. Then it was a quick drive to Moneymore for a performance of the Sing for Life Choir, a fundraiser for Cancer Focus. I got back home about eleven, pretty tired.