Blue Plaque for James Viscount Bryce

Blue Plaque for James Viscount Bryce
Unveiling the plaque to James Viscount Bryce at 13 Chichester Street, Belfast on Friday 10 May 2013

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The plain people of Ireland celebrate Myles na gCopaleen

It was raining when I left Downpatrick and it was raining when I got back from Strabane where our blue plaque was unveiled to commemorate the life and works of Brian O'Nolan, Flann O'Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, on the centenary (almost) of his birth. Fortunately the rain stopped near Omagh and stayed dry for my time in Strabane.

Two of Myles' characters in Cruiskeen Lawn (his column in the Irish Times), Keats and Chapman, were discussing dreams. Keats said 'Last night I dreamed that I died and went to Heaven.' 'Were there many there?' inquired Chapman. "There wasn't a sinner in the place.'

The plain people of Ireland (some of them) assembled
That couldn't be said about  the gathering of his relatives, local historians, local political and literary figures who had assembled for the event. The blue plaque ceremony was one of a programmed events extending over several days to mark the centenary. 

The Plaque
That O'Nolan is held in high regard and affection in the town of his birth was plain to see and was  reflected in the Mayor McMahon's welcome and address. There were readings from his works by his great nephew Kevin O'Nolan before he performed the unveiling ceremony. 

Unfortunately I had to leave right after the unveiling and so missed an interesting session including the showing of a film produced by the Strabane History Society. This can be viewed on the Society's website at 

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Flann O'Brien - a centerary celebration

Brian O'Nolan
On Saturday 1 October next the Circle will unveil a blue plaque in honour of a great writer - novelist, satirist and humourist at the house where he was born. The plaque is but one event organised by Strabane District Council to commemorate the centenary of his birth. The Council, Gaelphobal, Strabane Gaelscoil, Strabane History Society and Libraries NI have compiled a programme of talks, discussions and performances designed to explore his life and work.

Brian O'Nolan (Brian Ó Nualláin), was born into an Irish speaking family and spoke no English before he was seven years old. While at University College Dublin he started his writing career in the college magazine Comhthrom Féinne. He joined the Irish Civil Service and because of this had to use pseudonyms in his writing. His novels were written under the name Flann O'Brien and later his regular satirical column in the Irish Times (Cruiskeen Lawn), which ran from 1940 until his death in 1966, he used the name Myles na gCopaleen. After his death a compilation of these articles was published under the title The Best of Myles a truly marvelous anthology. His novels included At Swin Two Birds, The Third Policeman, The Hard Life, The Dalkey Archive and An Bheal Bocht (The Poor Mouth).

His work has international acclaim and he is regarded as a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The 'Mayfly' returns - honouring a pioneer aviator

By invitation from Newtownabbey Borough Council I attended the official opening of the newly named Lilian Bland Community Park in Glengormley. 

There was a good turnout with both the Mayor and Deputy Mayor, representatives of local historical and aviation societies and two of Lillian's descendants, Rev. Edward Pratt, great-grandnephew, and Mrs Imogen Holmes, great-grandneice.  

A major feature of the new park was a sculpture of Lilian's bi-plane, the Mayfly.

Lilian Bland
 Lilian Bland was born in Kent, and at the age of twenty-eight came to live at Tobercoran House, the family home in Carnmoney, near Belfast. By this stage she had earned a reputation as a press photographer and sports writer. Her aspirations were fired by Louis Bleriot's cross-Channel flight in 1909 and she began to construct a bi-plane glider, becoming the first woman in the British Isles, possibly in the world, to design, build and fly her own plane.

Blue Plaque
She named the plane 'Mayfly' with deliberate irony. The 'Mayfly' did fly, and she fitted an engine by A. V. Roe & Co. This modified craft flew successfully in 1910. It is said that her father's offer of a car diverted her attention to running a motor agency, and she then married and left for Vancouver where she married a cousin and carved out a farm on virgin land. In 1935 she retired to Cornwall, 'gambling, painting and gardening' - to quote her own words.  

At the age of ninety-three the Belfast Telegraph quoted her as saying that the only excitement left to her was gambling. 

Some years ago the Circle unveiled a blue plaque on the site of Tobercoran House. Mayfly was presented to the Dublin Flying Club.
 Alderman William Webb, Mayor of Newtownabbey, addressing the guests

The Mayfly, created by Skelton Rainey, who was at the opening

Monday, 15 August 2011

That which was lost is found!

On 23 July I wrote about the blue plaque to Kennedy Kane McArthur unveiled in Dervock. After the event Chris Spurr and I went down to Portglenone to locate one of the Circle’s earlier plaques; to Timothy Eaton.

Clogher, Ballymena - photo Ballymena Guardian
Eaton was born on a farm in Clogher near Ballymena in March 1934. He served his apprenticeship in the general store owned by a relative by marriage at 48 Main Street Portglenone before he emigrated to Canada in 1854. With his two brothers he opened a general shop in St Mary's, Ontario. Then, in 1868, he moved to Toronto where he set up a store based on the principal of cash sales at fixed prices. Eaton became a highly successful businessman in Canada, establishing the T. Eaton Limited chain of department stores throughout the country and employing over 7,000 staff by the time he died on 31 January 1907. He also pioneered the use of the Mail Order Catalogue. Eaton was an enlightened employer, concerned about the welfare of his staff. For example, he was the first employer to introduce early closing.

James and Helen King at their home in Clogher, Ballymena with the plaque
on the gable.
Unfortunately the Circle had no record of exactly where the plaque had been erected and those involved in the Circle at the time are no longer with us. We had assumed that the plaque was on the premises in Main Street, which is still a General Merchants. However, when Chris and I visited the shop the current owner, who had bought the place in the late 1970s, assured us that there never had been a blue plaque there. There was a rectangular metal one erected in 1969, well before the Circle was formed.

We knew that there was a plaque somewhere so I wrote to Jim Flanagan, the Editor of the Ballymena Guardian asking its readers if they could help. Instead of publishing the letter, Jim decided to do his own investigation and established that the plaque was on Eaton’s original home in Clogher. The story, which occupied almost a full page, ran in the 11 August edition.

The plaque is one of 20 plaques in Co. Antrim. The Circle is grateful to the Ballymena Guardian for its help in tracing the plaque and we can now provide its exact location on our website.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Warning - a Blue Plaque can change your life

Can a blue plaque change your life? Well, according to Jean McGuinness, a retired University lecturer, it certainly can.

I met Jean at the rededication of a blue plaque to Margaret Noble (or Sister Nivedita as she is known throughout the Indian sub-continent) in Dungannon on 27 May. The Circle had erected the plaque on 7 December 2007 at a ceremony attended by many Indian people including Shri Karamesh Sharma, the High Commissioner of India to the UK.

Jean with Maurice Hayes, who had suggested the plaque to the Circle
Margaret Noble was born and spent her first years in Scotch Street, Dungannon, County Tyrone, and was educated in Halifax. She trained as a teacher and was co-founder of a school in Wimbledon. In 1897 she went as a missionary nun to India, where she was given the name Sister Nivedita. She founded a school in Calcutta, the Sister Nivedita Girls' School. She wrote many articles and books, one of which, The Web Of Indian Life, is regarded in India as one of the few fair accounts of Hindu society written in English. She designed the first national flag of India and helped to revolutionise the Indian Art movement. She was in favour of Indian nationalism and lobbied British members of parliament to this end. In India today she is still revered and on the centenary of her birth a stamp was issued in India in her honour. In India there are many Sister Nivedita schools, colleges and academies. When she died her body was cremated in Darjeeling, and a memorial to her is inscribed: 'Here reposes Sister Nivedita, who gave her all to India'. Her school has published an official biography, Sister Nivedita of Ramakrishna-Vivikananda.

The May 2011 celebrations were the culmination of Jean’s remarkable personal journey of discovery and personal development that began on that cold December day more than four years earlier. As she recalls it, she asked her husband, a local councillor, when he returned in the evening whether anything interesting had occurred that day. When he mentioned the blue plaque to someone called Margaret Noble her curiousity led her to view it. She was struck by the description ‘Writer and Indian Nationalist’ and since she was completely unknown to her she began an Internet search. The volume of references available amazed her and the more she read the more interested she became and set out to find more about her, her origins in Dungannon and her life’s journey. The quest included extensive research of the Noble family and the discovery of living relatives in England and the USA.

Jean, who had taken early retirement some years before, had set out to improve her knowledge of the Irish language and was studying for a degree at University of Ulster. By 2008 she was two years into the degree course and had to pick a subject for her dissertation. She decided to concentrate on Margaret Noble and was awarded her degree in 2010.

Realising that Margaret’s story was virtually unknown in the place of her birth, Jean set out to put this right and approached Ian Frazer, Chief Executive of the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council in April 2010 for Council support for a civic event in her honour. Council approval was received in August 2010. The event was organised through the Local History Forum, facilitated by the Killeeshil and Clonaneese Historical Society and expanded to a three-day event. Jean contacted representatives of the Indian communities here and in England, including the London based Hindu Academy, which was planning a celebration at the same time and they agreed to co-operate.

Jean, no doubt influenced by her former role as lecturer, was not keen to take the conventional route of talking about Margaret, or to use the usual presentational packages. Instead she turned her dissertation into a docu-drama that used Margaret’s own works and words to illustrate her life and achievements covering the aspects of spirituality, literature, arts and politics. As part of the three-day event the ninety-minute play, called Awakening a Nation, was performed in the Craic Theatre in Coalisland on 28 May, by The Noble Thespians. Arrangements are being made for the play to be performed in Birmingham in August, Belfast in October/November and in the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Dublin in November.

The Celebration Event included contributions from Malachy O’Doherty, journalist and Writer in Resdence at QUB who had first learned about Margaret Noble while in India as a disciple of a Hindu Guru; Professor Murdo MacDonald, Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee who linked Margaret Noble to Patrick Geddes, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Dr Malcolm Sen, Lecturer in English and Irish at UC Dublin and NUI Galway who spoke on India-Ireland connections.

The plaque rededication event was a great success, with many Indian people there from far afield. I spoke to several of them and was struck by the affection all of them had for their Sister Nivedita and how pleased they were that she was being honoured in the place of her birth.

The event was widely reported in the local papers, including a full-page article, in Irish, in the Irish News. It was also widely reported throughout India, including a report of the play.

Given the success of her crusade to make Margaret Noble known in Dungannon, I asked Jean what else she would like to do. First, she is set on getting a statue of Margaret erected in the town and she would like to retrace Margaret’s steps to Calcutta and Darjeeling.

Seeing what she has achieved so far, I’m sure Jean will realise both ambitions.

Jean’s journey, inspired by another Dungannon girl, is remarkable and I wish her well in everything she undertakes. Thanks Jean for sharing your journey with me. I can only hope that others of our blue plaques will lead people to stop, look and question who these people are and encourage them to find out a little more about the rich heritage we have all around us.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

A Great Day in Dervock

Saturday, 23 July - a memorable day for the people of the small, neat County Antrim village of Dervock. Large numbers of them gathered to see Dame Mary Peters, the 1972 Olympic Gold Medallist in the Womens Pentathlon, unveil a blue plaque in memory of the local hero, Kennedy Kane McArthur who had clinched the Gold Medal for the Marathon in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

It was also a good day for the members of the local community association who have been working hard to involve local people and groups to improve the local environment.  The results of their efforts were plain to see as the village sparkled in the bright summer sunshine.

The event co-incided with the annual McArthur Half Marathon, which was also started by Dame Mary.

It was great to see so many people there, including the local MLA, Mervyn Storey. Chris Spurr, introducing the Mayor, spoke of the Circle's dependence on local involvement and its thanks for the generous support it received from the Borough Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Mayor of Ballymoney Borough Council welcomed Dame Mary and the assembled throng and said how pleased the Council was that McArthur was being honoured in his home place. Ronnie Spence, who chairs the Heritage Lottery Fund NI Committee, mentioned the the Fund had spent £140 million on a wide range of heritage projects. This included not only big projects like the Ballymena Mueum and the Giant's Causeway Visitors Centre but also small local projects like this one which was about local people and stories that meant so much to the people who live here.

Chris Spurr, Ronnie Spence, Dame Mary Peters, Mayor Ian Stevenson
Dame Mary spoke of the importance of commemorating people like McArthur who from humble beginnings had achieved the pinnacle in sport. She was particularly interested in involving young people as they were the future and needed every encouragement. In unveiling the plaque itself she was joined by two young people from the village.

After the unveiling Keith Beattie, Manager of the Ballymoney Museum gave a talk about McArthur and his achievements.

Welcome refreshments were provided by Jennifer and Noel Laverty, proprietors of The Mill Tea Room.

It was all over by 2.30 pm and Chris Spurr and I made our way the Portglenone in search on another elusive blue plaque from the early days of the Circle. Of which more anon.

There is a report of the event, with photographs, on the Circle's website at

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Blue Plaque for Dervock Olympian Gold Medallist

July 23 is the date of the traditional Kennedy Kane McArthur annual half-marathon in the County Antrim village of Dervock. On that day this year Dame Mary Peters, Gold Medallist at the 1972 Munich Olympics in the womens penthalon, will unveil a blue plaque the McArthur, the winner of the marathon at the Stockholm 1912 Olympics.

Kennedy Kane McArthur 
Kennedy Kane McArthur was born on 10 February 1881 in Dervock. He was the local postman and was often to seen running along the country roads with his post-bag. He emigrated to Johannesburg, in South Africa, where he joined the police force and took up running again, this time seriously. Following success in a number of territorial and national track and cross-country championships he was selected for the South African athletics team that travelled to the London Olympics in 1908.
McArthur ran his first marathon late in the 1908 season beating the South African Olympic silver medallist, Charles Hefron. After a period of competing at an international level he was selected for the 1912 Olympic team.
The Stockholm Olympic marathon took place on 14 July 1912 in sweltering heat. McArthur almost collapsed as he neared the finishing line. However, he rallied and finished in the new Olympic record time of 2 hours, 36 minutes and 54.8 seconds  - 58 seconds ahead of his team-mate Gitsam.
After his victory McArthur visited Dervock where he was given a civic reception in the Town Hall and a bronze plaque was unveiled in his honour. Within a year of his triumph McArthur's sporting career was cut short by an accident and he retired from athletics. Between 1931-36 he lived on the family farm in Dervock after which he returned to South Africa where he died in 1960. His trophies and other memorabilia are on display at the Potschefstroom Museum in Johannesburg.

Ballymoney Borough Council is supporting the plaque and the Mayor will speak at the event.

McArthur will join other sportsmen, golfer Fred Daly, footballer Joe Bambrick, GAA founder John McKay and boxer Rinty Monaghan who have been commemorated with a blue plaque.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Derry/Londonderry launch of the Guide to Blue Plaques in Ulster

Wednesday 22 June saw the launch of the Guide in the Maiden City. The event was staged in the Verbal Arts Centre which itself hosts the blue plaque to playwright George Farquhar. The Centre had kindly given us the use of their premises free of charge and the Circle acknowledges this act of generosity.

Prof. Patrick Murphy, speaking on behalf of the Heritage Lottery Fund, defined the difference between history and heritage by suggesting that history is the past that we read in a book, whereas heritage is about the past that you could see, feel, taste and touch.

Chris Spurr, Aideen McGinley, Wesley McCann and
Prof. Patrick Murphy
Some say its about landscape that was here from the beginning, some that it was about buildings – museums, castles and the like, others that it is about the arts/music/culture. It was all about that but he defined it as two themes - one, it was about people, shaping the landscape and being shaped by it; and - two, it was about a sense of place, and if heritage is people and place then the modern day people who spotted this and combined the two is the Ulster History Circle.

Because what the Circle does is to give us a sense of people, not in the abstract sense of characters from the past but to commemorate people from the past and give them relevance by pointing out where they lived or worked, about where they were when they invented, or composed or created, how they interacted with those around them in terms of thoughts and inspirations and hopes and dreams. These are living people that the Circle has brought to us: not just in the abstract sense of books on dusty shelves but in the sense of bringing them into our streets, our country roads, our villages and towns and our industrial heartlands. They are no longer located in those dusty books.

He said that the Circle actually cheats, very slightly but very cleverly, because it’s not just about history, it’s also about geography, a sense of place; it’s about linking place and people, it marries history and geography in a wonderful way, which gives us the heritage that we are celebrating here today. These people are not ‘the great and the good’ or those with a high historical profile, they are ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

Prof. Murphy said that to bring real people to life you need real people and that the people of the Ulster History Circle to us are absolutely real. He said that the heritage movement in Northern Ireland owes a great debt of gratitude to the Ulster History Circle for what is a major contribution to heritage here. On behalf of the Heritage Lottery Fund he thanked the Circle and wished them well in the future.
Dr. Aideen McGinley, Chief Executive of Ilex, the company involved in the regeneration of Londonderry, said that she was honoured to be asked to launch the Guide. She recalled being visited some ten years ago while in DCAL by Jimmy Hawthorne, who was looking for money to develop the Ulster History Circle. Heritage was a subject that fell between stools in government; it wasn’t DCAL, or DOE or DRD’. So who ‘owned’ heritage? Was it tourism, was it social development? She had been impressed by the spirit of people like him trying in a voluntary capacity to encourage a pride in people and place, to ensure that we did not lose something that was important. She said that the gap had been filled by the Heritage Lottery Fund by funding a five-year package to enable a sustainable approach. It built on and underpinned the voluntary principle and was and is recognition of the importance of the work.

She said that while it was great to have information on websites it was nice to have this Guide that you could put in your pocket and take around with you. Coming from Enniskillen it was great to see mention of Oscar Wilde. However, there also was Kathleen Bridle, an inspirational teacher and artist. So it was not just internationally known people that were being honoured but ordinary people as well, who had made a difference. It’s about poets and philosophers, geographers and geologists. It’s the whole raft of human endeavour and it is important that it continues.

The Circle worked closely with local authorities and from personal experience she knew that it is highly respected and regarded by those it works with. Government does respect what the Circle is doing but there remains the need to tackle the ‘between stools’ issue the issue needs to be picked up by the authorities such as the Tourist Board, Culture NI and others and turned into a trail that becomes part of the tourism product. The City of Culture will take cognisance of this resource.

Dr. McGinley said, "John Donahue has a lovely phrase ‘We all leave an imprint of ourselves on the ether of place’ and I think that what you are doing is making this tangible by these blue plaques."

Formally launching the Guide she congratulated the Circle and wished it continuing success.

The Guide is available in Libraries, Tourist Centres and Museums. View a copy at

Saturday, 18 June 2011

A Day in the Life

On Thursday went with Circle Chairman, Chris Spurr to Ballyclare to meet representatives of the local Historical Society about a planned plaque to the author and storyteller Archibald McIlroy who wrote in the Ulster-Scots idiom and had perished in the RMS Lusitania in 1915 when it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. Lindy Reid and Jeannette McKendrey, well versed in local history and folklore, showed us round the Presbyterian Church on Main Street whose 'green' was the the inspiration for McIlroy's first novel 'The Auld Meetin'- Hoose Green'. 

Then on to Mossley Mill to meet Etta Mann, former Newtownabbey Councillor who had contacted the Circle about McIlroy, Derek Rawlinson of the Ulster-Scots Language Society, who was republishing the 'Auld Meetin'-Hoose Green' and Samantha Curry, the Council's Museums Officer. The meeting was to plan the arrangements for a joint event - plaque and book launch- for later in the Autumn.

The meeting successfully concluded we went our separate ways, Chris to Dervock to discuss the planning of a plaque to Kennedy Kane McArthur, the Marathon Gold Medallist at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, who had been born in the village; me to Broughshane to track down the blue plaque to Sir George White VC, 'The hero of Ladysmith'. I had not been on the road between Ballyclare and Broughshane before and was stunned, on rounding a corner to see a sweeping panorama of countryside dotted with trees and farmhouses and dominated by the volcanic plug of Slemish. I’d never see it from this angle and it looked completely different. I took some photographs.

Sir George White VC
George Stuart White was born in Portstewart but the family lived in Broughshane for many years. He first achieved distinction in the Afghan War of 1878-80. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroism in the Battle of Charasia in India in 1879 and was knighted in 1886 for his military service in Burma. His greatest fame came in the South African War when he defended Ladysmith against a 118-day siege by the Boers (1899-1900). He became governor of Gibraltar (1900-1904) and was made field marshal in 1903. I found the plaque at the entrance to a domain. The plaque was on one pier and on the other was the command ‘No Visitors’.   The plaque, about 12 inches in diameter (much smaller then normal though clearly designed for the narrow pier), was grubby and unfortunately had a small degree of damage. I cleaned it up as best I could, took some photos and left for my next assignment.

Sir Samuel McCaughey
From Broughshane I headed for the Cloughwater Road, Tullynewey, to track down another early plaque, this one to Sir Samuel McCaughey.  McCaughey emigrated to Australia in 1856. He became manager of a sheep station in Victoria after a two-year appenticeship. By 1860, with two partners, he had built up a famous marino stud farm in New South Wales. After this he bought other stations and introduced methods to improve the yield and quality of wool. He was the first to adopt irrigation and to improve the breed of sheep. At one point he had one million sheep to shear. He became the wealthiest man in the state and was known as the 'Sheep King'. He served as a member of the Legislative Assembly for twenty years until 1919 and was knighted in 1905. He gave twenty war planes to the government in the First World War, and £2,000,000 for charitable and educational purposes.

Anyway, I couldn't seen a plaque on any of the houses on the several miles long road. Fortunately I chanced on an elderly lady who told me that 'the McCaughey place' was up the road, over the wee bridge and on the left'.  I crossed the bridge and on the left was long lane leading to a distant modern house. The lady of the house directed me to the end of the lane, narrow with sharp corners. On the way I met a large tractor driven by the current owner of the McCaughey house, Sam McNabney, a friendly and helpful man who gave me directions and explained that the place was hard to find because two directional signs that had been on the main road were no longer there, one being completely lost and the other ripped from its fastenings by a recent flood. He had rescued this and offered to let me have it when I had finished at the house. The McCaghey 'homestead' is currently unoccupied, though in good repair with a couple of satellite dishes on the roof.

I took some photos and went to Sam's modern farmhouse just off the Cloughwater Road, where after rummaging in several crowded garages the sign was found. Sam suggested I might want to have the sign reerected - he wasn't sure who it belonged to. I took the sign and cleaned it up as best I could seeing as how it was scuffed and a bit damaged after it's adventures in the flood. I plan to discuss restoration with Ballymena Borough Council in due course.

After that I went straight home. Total journey 127 miles, 6 hours.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

New Guide to Blue Plaques in Ulster

Last night in the Crescent Arts Centre on Belast's University Street the Circle launched it's first comprehensive Guide to the blue plaques erected since its origin in the early 1980's.

Wesley McCann
It was a well tended event with some 30 people in addition to the speakers. Wesley McCann, our past Chairman who with Linda Greenwood had compiled the material, and Mark Thompson, the designer, were on hand to answer questions and describe the process and problems of design and production. Chris Spurr acted as MC, a role he has become very practiced in over the past couple of years. In his opening remarks he thanked all of those involved, paying a particular tribute to Jimmy Hawthorne, the Circle's founder, without whose dedication over the years it would not have survived. He also thanked the Heritage Lottery fund for its financial assistance in producing the guide. Also the AE Harvey Trust.

Wesley provided an interesting insight to the editorial and design processes, not the least of which was to reduce the lives of those honoured to a limit of 60 words. The result was a pocket-size overview of the wide range of people who had plaques dedicated to them. The guide woukld be a valuable aid to historians, local people, tourist, schools etc.

Rita Harkin
Rita Harkin, a member of the Heritage Lottery Fund NI Committee, spoke of the wide range of people honoured; from politics, the arts and academia over a period of six centuries. She also noted a sub-mariner, a President of Israel, a sheep-king from Australia and  the father of the Suez Canal, to mention only a few. For those whose appetite was whetted, there were more riches to be found in the Circle's Dictionary of Ulster Biography . All are united by a common theme 'public mindedness'. She thanked the Circle for highlighting these personalities to public attention where they act as an inspiration to others as they go about their daily lives.

Copies of the Guide is available, free, in libraries, museums and tourist centres.  View the Guide at

There will be a second launch of the Guide in the Verbal Arts Centre, Stable Lane, Bishop Street Within in Derry City at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday 22 June.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

James Hawthorne CBE (1930-2006)

In September next it will be five years since Jimmy Hawthorne, our founder and long term Secretary/Treasurer, passed away after a mercifully short illness. In the week that the Circle publishes its first Guide to Blue Plaques in Ulster, listing the 115 plaques erected to the end of 2009, I want to pay tribute to his vision and drive in keeping the Circle going through some very lean times, and to remember him for fun and laughter he brought to the lives of those fortunate enough to have known him.  It is fair to say that, until he died, Jimmy was the main ‘mover an shaker’ of the Circle. I can recall one of his financial reports announcing, to general hilarity, that there was 79p in the bank account. It was in no small part due to his drive that the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed to fund our 5-year ‘Celebrating Achievers’ project. Sadly, he was not to see the project launched but I know he would have been delighted with its achievements to date. 

Sean Nolan, Jimmy and Chris Ryder at a planning meeting
Jimmy was a man of many parts, teacher, mathematician, specialist schools producer for the BBC in NI – and ultimately its NI Controller (10 years to 1987); Controller of Television and Director of Broadcasting for the Hong Kong Government (7 years to 1977); Chairman, Cultural Traditions Group, the Community Relations Council, the Health Promotion Agency, the Prison Arts Foundation; and Commissioner for Racial Equality.  His early work in developing BBC NI’s education service for school broke new ground and his record of this time is well worth reading. This is still available on his blog at 'Beyond Suspicion or Controversy' on Favourites aside.

Doreen Corcoran, Methody Headmaster
Wilfred Mulryne, Marion Walton and
Jimmy - 6 October 2003 
Jimmy’s sojourn as Controller BBCNI coincided with the most intense period of the civil unrest and in trying to maintain the balance and integrity of the NI output he found himself under siege from all sides, not least from the establishment. His record of some of these battles is on his blog  -

The battle with Government and the BBC Governors during the 'Real Lives' controversy of 1985 when the BBC Board of Governors, under pressure from the Home Secretary, banned a television programme dealing with aspects of politics and terrorism in Ireland, is fully documented in another of his blogs -

Jimmy with Alex Maskey, Lord
Mayor of Belfast at the unveiling
of the William Drennan plaque
Jimmy for many years contributed a weekly column to the Down Democrat, a local paper published in Downpatrick. These are gems of topical and comical interest, commenting on personal, local, national and international issues, often tongue-in-cheek, always readable. I asked him how he managed to turn out new material every week and his reply was that he could find a topic from anything, a newspaper article, a news story, a personal happening, an overheard remark, a chance sighting of a person or event, the weather. He never repeated himself. The complete archive of these gems are on his other Blog -

He was a kindly man, compassionate, empathetic and caring. In 2005 when I was seriously ill, he visited me in hospital several times, and later arranged to pick me up for our meetings and return me home afterwards. He was an excellent raconteur with a store of interesting and comical anecdotes drawn from his life and experience. Our journeys to and from the meetings, and the meetings themselves, were filled with craic and laughter. 

His Guardian Obituary is at

Thank you Jimmy, for the gift of your friendship.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Dictionary of Ulster Biography

As well as erecting blue plaques to commemmorate individuals from or associated with the Province who have made a significant contribution to human progress, the Circle has developed an on-line edition of the Dictionary of Ulster Biography.  This is the successor to the 1993 printed edition, compiled by Kate Newmann and published in 1993 by the Institute of Irish Studies of the Queens University of Belfast. 

The Dictionary is about people associated with the historic nine counties of Ulster and includes those who were born here, or lived or worked here and who have distinguished themselves in some way. Many of them will be included in other biographical dictionaries. The aim where possible is to describe their lives and achievements from a local perspective.

With support from the Heritage Lottery Fund the Circle has produced this revised and updated edition of the Dictionary. Since going on-line in November 2009 almost 100 additional biographical details of people who died between 1993 and 2000 have been added. The names of another 400+ people who died between 2000 and 2010 are being researched and will be added gradually as our limited voluntary capacity permits. 

The Dictionary website is

Monday, 6 June 2011

New - A Guide to Blue Plaques in Ulster

On Wednesday next the Circle will launch its first printed guide to it's Blue Plaques. The event will be held, as part of the Belfast Book Festival, on Wednesday 15 June starting at 6.00pm  - see, page 43. Light refreshments will be available.  There will be another launch in the Verbal Arts Centre, in Derry City, on the following Wednesday, starting at 12 noon.

The Guide is free of charge and, as well as being available to those at the launches, will be in local libraries, museums and Tourist Centres.

The Guide is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Guest Speaker, in Belfast, will be Rita Harkin for the Fund.

The Guide has details of the 115 plaques unveiled by the Circle in the three decades to 2009, since it was founded in the early 1980s, and commemorates lives over the last 700 years.

Friday, 3 June 2011

The Circle's funding

The Circle has no independent source of revenue so we have to depend on the generocity of City and District Councils, businesses, organisations and individuals. We have been lucky in that we have always managed to fund our plaques in this way and we know from our discussions with them that these groups and individuals see the merit in commemorating the people who have made a difference through their lives and work.

In 2007 the Heritage Lottery Fund provided a grant for a five-year project the erect 50 plaques, publish an on-line Dictionary of Ulster Biography, provide a Guide to the Plaques, develop the Circle's website, work with the Tourist Board and others to promote the plaques as a cultural tourism asset and develop an outreach programme to involve schools, local history societies etc so as to stimulate wider involvement and participation in our work. The Circle is grateful for this support and is well on the way to achieving all the agreed objectives. We have always found the Fund to be cooperative and helpful and we keep them fully involved in our undertakings.

As a result of this funding, the Circle's public profile has been raised and we get a lot of press, radio and television coverage for our plaque unveiling events. The inevitable result of this heightened awareness is an increase in the number of nominations we get from people both as individuals and as representing Councils, businesses and other organisations. This is great and demonstrates that the Circle's work is valued. However, in the longer term, it means that, unless we can continue to attract resources when the Lottery grant expires, our output will fall from the middle of 2012 onwards.

So we are looking for ideas as to how we might increase our revenues.  Suggestions welcome. I will return to this issue again.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Adding photos to the Blog

I wanted to add photos of all the plaques, tagged with information with their location. Also to identify the occupation or calling of the those named on the plaques. After a lot of hacking about I found that Flickr was ideal for the job. It makes uploading files easy and had all the tools for the job. A nice touch is that the size of the tag names is dictated by the number of files with that tag - the more files, the larger the type size. Its great for the multiple grouping of files.

Another feature is the ability to pin the plaques to a their specific locations on a map. This will take some time to complete.

As well as photos of the plaques, I uploaded a number of photographs of the unveiling events. So far I haven't tagged these but I will when I get a chance.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Starting off

The Ulster History Circle is a group of volunteers drawn together by a passion to bring to public attention the achievements of often forgotten men and women.

Despite its small population and limited geographical area, Ulster has produced an astonishing number of world renowned figures who have distinguished themselves in the arts, literature, academia, medicine, science, industry, the military and other callings.

Poets, writers and broadcasters; artists, engineers and shipbuilders; sportsmen, playwrights, musicians and singers; teachers, soldiers; philanthropists; politicians and patriots; architects, academics and scientists; physicians; inventors; historians - and more. Some were born here, some lived or worked here for a short or a long time. All made a significant contribution and all deserve recognition. Over the last thirty years, to honour their memory and achievements, the Ulster History Circle has erected over 130 Blue Plaques at locations all over the Province where they were born, lived or worked. Lives celebrated span the 16th to 21st Centuries.

Blue Plaques are a universally recognised symbol celebrating men and women who have enriched the life of their communities and they are erected on buildings, many of which are a significant part of our architectural heritage.  Plaques help people to discover them and learn more about the people who have shaped both Ulster’s past and her future, and in many cases, that of the world. This Blog will augment the Circle's main website by bringing early notice of plaques and hopefully encouraging participation