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

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.