The Great Storm of 1865

I well remember Saturday 16 September 1961, when hurricane Debbie hit the north coast of Ireland.  I was 14 at the time.  The previous day there were warnings on the radio of a major storm approaching, and as a precaution my father and Bertie Law filled bags with sand, placing them of the roof of our house, and roping them together.  The next afternoon the storm struck.

A peak gust of 183 km/h was recorded at nearby Malin Head.  Seven boats were sunk in local harbours, several caravans were blown over the coastal cliffs, and I saw two of my father’s hen houses rolling down the hill from the top field, complete with their occupants.  No storm in living memory came close in ferocity.

And then the torrential rain started to fall; and it fell for hours on end.  The road from Portrush to Coleraine was cut in several places with knee-deep flooding and the main drain under the railway embankment to the sea in Portrush was blocked with debris, causing deep flooding in the adjacent low-lying area.

It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience for those of us who witnessed it.

The storm that hit Cape Town on Wednesday 07 June 2017 was also well anticipated.  The previous day I had an appointment with my immigration consultant, and she told me that the office would close the next day, in advance of the storm.  And what a storm it was, as witnessed in the accompanying two videos,  recorded nearby at Three Anchors Bay.

 

 

The next day I walked along the promenade and there was grey sand, broken kelp and small rocks and shells everywhere.  The concrete coping on much of the newly built promenade wall was either loosened or was completely torn off and tossed into the park, as witness to the power of the waves that had struck it.

But the Great Storm that hit Cape Town on May 16 1865 was in another category.  For eighteen hours the storm raged and 17 ocean-going vessels, 30 cutters and uncounted small boats were either wrecked or stranded, with the loss of 60 lives.

The last to go was the Royal Mail Ship, Athens, which was swept onto the rocks near the lighthouse.  Although those on shore could hear the cries of the men, there was nothing that they could do to help them.  The crew of 29 perished.

HMS Athens

Today all that of the Athens that survives is the engine block.  From the shore it is not clear what one is looking at, but with a better camera all is revealed.

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Capture

Despite the US government being in denial and withdrawing from the Paris climate change agreement, most scientists agree that our planet is going through a period of rapid warming, and that storms, such as those I mentioned above, will become much more common in future years.

I find that a sobering thought…

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Walter Scott

When I was young, Ramore House was the oldest dwelling in Portrush.  It was at the lower end of Main Street, on the corner of Ramore Street, overlooking the harbour.  I remember it as a building having external wooden stairs and a shop selling second-hand books.  After I left for Canada, in 1965, the building was demolished, together with the local fishermen’s cottages on Ramore Street, and all were replaced with a ‘modern’ block of flats.

I remember my primary school headmaster, James Bankhead (see Jimmy), telling us that a famous writer once visited Portrush and stayed at that house.  I remember the writer he spoke of as being Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) who wrote Gulliver’s Travels and many others.  But search as I have several times, I have never found any evidence that Swift had ever visited the area.  So, when I wrote my article, Early Memories of Portrush, I omitted mentioning Swift and my memory of the oldest house.

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Jonathan Swift 1667-1745 (photo from internet)

But I was not happy with that omission, for I was convinced that I could not have imagined the visit of such a famous writer.  I contacted a friend who had attended the same primary school as I, to see if she had a similar recollection.  She referred my query to her husband, Hugh McGrattan – journalist, retired editor of the local newspaper and author of three books about local history.  Hugh was able to correct my confused childhood memory.

According to Hugh, there was indeed a shop at Ramore House, an antique shop, full of old books.  It was owned by a Mr Cochrane and outside there was an imposing coat of arms.  The distinguished visitor whom I recalled as being Jonathan Swift, was actually Sir Walter Scott, many of whose works remain classics of English-language and Scottish literature.  And at that time the house was occupied by a Dr. Hamilton.  Hugh mentioned that Thomas Carlyle, the writer, historian and mathematician, was another distinguished visitor to Portrush during that era.

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Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832 (Portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn)

 

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Thomas Carlyle 1795-1881 (photo by Elliott & Fry c1860)

Once knowing that the visitor to Ramore House was Sir Walter Scott, I searched and found a book called Sir Walter Scott’s Tour in Ireland by D. J. O’Donoghue.  In it there is a brief reference to his visit to Portrush, but there are several references to Jonathan Swift and Sir Walter Scott’s reverence for the man and his writings and his desire to visit any place in Ireland associated with him.

As a child, I had read Scott’s Rob Roy and Ivanhoe and part of Swift’s Gulliver’s travels.  When James Bankhead was telling us of the oldest house and the famous visitor, and perhaps the visitor’s great respect for Jonathan Swift, I must have confused the two writers.

So after more than 60 years and thanks to Hugh McGrattan, the fog has now cleared.

Now if only I could find a photograph of the old house before it was demolished….

 

 

 

 

The Wall of Death

In my previous blog, I wrote of some of my earliest memories of Glenmanus and nearby Portrush.  I wrote of a couple of stunt motorcyclists and their act, ‘The Wall of Death’, and how they boarded with my grand-parents at Seaview Farm.  My memory of their act is so vivid, but I could not recall their names, despite my mother often speaking of those years when they returned for the summer season.

I posted the article and next day I received a comment from Australia, from Iris, who like me, also grew up in Glenmanus.  She recalled the couple and said that she remembered their surname as being Goosen or similar.  The name sounded Dutch or perhaps German but rang no bells for me.

The Northern Irish marriage records over 75 years old are accessible for a fee, so on the off-chance that they married in Ulster, I went to https://geni.nidirect.gov.uk/.  And in 1938, I found a Theunis Christophel Goosen who married an Ena Birmingham in Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland, in Ballymena.  And both had their profession as ‘Amusement Caterer’.  It looked as though I might have found them, but I wanted more evidence.

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When I searched on the internet, I found a site focused on the Goosen genealogy (http://www.goosen.nu/index.php/documents/192-wall-of-death) and in it was an article about Chris and Ena Goosen.

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Chris and Ena Goosen (from the Goosen genealogy site)

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I am almost certain that I have found the couple and how thrilled my mother would have been to read my little account.

Perhaps the warm and contented feeling I am experiencing tonight is a reflection of her approval, and maybe also that of Chris and Ena Goosen.

 

 

Early Memories of Portrush

What is your earliest memory?

Are you certain that your earliest memories are genuinely your own memories, or are you remembering and imagining what your parents or others have told you?  I confess that I am never quite certain of the authenticity of mine.

My early years were spent in Glenmanus, a small village now totally enclosed and obliterated by the relentless expansion of Portrush.  Until I was five years old, my parents lived in a small wooden hut, at least I recall it as being small and wooden.  It was just up the road from the farm of my great-uncle Bill Douglas, and great-aunt, Letitia.  I can clearly remember going down the steps to the stream that flowed in front of Bill’s farmhouse and falling in the water.  And in an out-building, Titia making butter in a large churn, paddling up and down. And offering me a ‘piece’, a thick slice of bread, coated in butter and jam.  Delicious it was.  The stream has long since been piped and covered over, and the farmhouse demolished and replaced with modern houses, owned by two of my cousins, Hughie and Brian Douglas.

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A butter churn, similar to that of Titia

And one freezing morning in winter, when the older boys came flying down Loquestown Hill on a sled, and one of them crashing into a hedge, and injuring his cheek.  I remember it as being Maurice Elliott who crashed, but he has no recall of it. One of us is correct…

My mother contracted TB when I was very young, and for some six months she was interned in a sanatorium in Derry.  It was Louise Wilson who looked after me, while my father worked on the farm during the day and played piano with his dance-band at Barry’s Ballroom at night. My only clear memory of that era was sitting at the table, having breakfast and my father telling me that a fox or a badger had broken into one of the hen-houses and killed all the hens.  He could probably have ill-afforded the loss, as he was just starting out on his new farming venture.

And there was the day when my mother took me down to Portrush, through the archway under the railway embankment, and we sat up on a sandhill, waiting for the ‘mock invasion’ to start.  In those days there was no seawall, only sand dunes leading down to the west strand.  Out in the bay there was a battleship and it began to fire its guns and then several landing craft were launched.  The troops were disgorged just offshore and there was lot of firing of machine gun blanks, as they charged up the beach.  Predictably the ‘enemy’ soon surrendered.  For many years after, until I was about 16, I dreamed of joining the military, despite my father’s lack of enthusiasm.  He had had enough of war after six years of fighting in WW2 and wanted me to join him on his farm.  I ended up doing neither farming nor military.

In those days there was a tram that ran from Portrush to the Giant’s Causeway and I remember seeing it setting out past the gasworks, down Causeway Street.  It was probably one of the last trips, as it stopped functioning at the end of the 1949 season.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, my father’s dance band played every night in Barry’s Ballroom.  My mother took me to see him play one evening, and afterwards, we went outside, to an exhibit called ‘The Wall of Death’.  It consisted of a circular wooden tower, inside which a couple rode motorbikes.  We stood at the top of the tower and looked at the bikes going around and around, horizontal to the ground at dizzying speed.  I later learned that my mother knew the couple.  During the war, in the summer season, they used to board at my grandparent’s farm in Glenmanus.  I wish I could remember their names.

So few memories, but so vivid are the few.  I sometimes wonder which vivid memories of their early years my four sons will recall, when they are older.

 

 

Hopefield

Hopefield Cottage Hospital was situated on the edge of Portrush.  It was one of the many rural hospitals that performed minor operations and provided for the chronically sick.  It enabled local patients to remain close to their families and the latter to avoid having to travel to a distant county facility.  In the years before and after the 1939-45 war, few local people had a car.  It was to Hopefield that I was taken when I was six years old, in 1953.

In my early years, I was a sickly child, repeatedly suffering from sore throats and fevers.  The medical verdict was that I had to have my tonsils removed.  I have only two vivid memories of Hopefield.  The first was of my lying on a bed beside a window, looking out across fields.  The other was that of a man in white, picking me up and carrying me to another room, laying me down on a table, and a black hissing thing that smelled strange, being placed over my face.  I have no recall of my mother or father being there at any time; I just remember feeling alone and scared.

Of course, I soon recovered, put on missing weight, and health-wise, I have never looked back.

It was in Hopefield that my grandmother, my father’s mother, died in 1958.  She already had had two strokes and had been bed-bound for several years.  She did not survive the third stroke.  I remember my father putting down the phone and saying, ‘She has gone’.  Before that I had never seen him cry.

Beside the hospital lay the fields of Caldwell’s farm, the fields that I looked out at from the hospital.  When I was young, during the summer season a small plane used to land on those fields, and for a fee the pilot used to fly tourists over Portrush, the Skerries and along the north coast.

Every Easter Tuesday, always a public holiday in Ulster, those fields were the scene of the Glenvale point-to-point horse races.  It was a grand occasion and people drove, cycled or walked from a long way to be there.  The venue was only a mile from our farm, so I often went too.  It was exhilarating to be close to the horses as they galloped by, jumping the hurdles and hedges.

Access to the Glenvale races was along a lane beside John Rainey’s house and past Caldwell´s farm.  The entrance to the lane was off the Coleraine Road, opposite to the road that led into Glenmanus.  In those days Glenmanus village was on the edge of Portrush and on the road to Coleraine were just fields and the occasional house and farm buildings.

It was at the entrance of that lane that I had arranged to meet my first love.  We were too young to be seen alone together, so she brought along her best friend, as did I.  We slowly walked the length of that secluded lane to the far end and back.  We held hands and said little.  We were eleven years old.

For my part, my attraction to her remained intact.  We had little opportunity to meet.  She went to the grammar school in Bushmills and I went in the opposite direction, to that of the C.A.I. in Coleraine.  She lived in the town and I in the country.  Our paths sometimes crossed in church, but she was always with her parents.  It was only at the rare church or school social event that the flame was temporarily relit, only to be once more extinguished.  In 1965 I migrated to Canada and she finished school and moved away from the area.  We had no further contact.

Today, the Hospital at Hopefield no longer exists, and the Glenvale races ceased to be held around 1977.  For many years they continued at Myroe, near Limavady, before recently returning to the fields of the old Adams farm at Loquestown, just across from our farm at Islandflackey.

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Action from the 1977 Loquestown races (photo from internet)

The former Caldwell fields are now under a maze of new houses and Portrush no longer ends at Glenmanus Road, but advances relentlessly towards Coleraine.  Soon there will be no fields left between the two towns.

The romantic lane of my youth still exists, albeit sandwiched on both sides between the rears of houses.

But my memory of how it used to be is indelible.

 

 

 

 

Omelettes

I grew up on a poultry farm.  My father was a specialist breeder of Light Sussex and Brown Leghorn stock.  I was raised on eggs, but I never ate chicken, at least not if I could avoid it.  I clearly remember when I was small and poked my head around my mother at the kitchen sink, just as she was up to her elbow in a chicken, removing its entrails, before she burned them on the kitchen fire, always causing quite a stink; that was the first of my many vegetarian moments on the farm.

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Light Sussex hens (photo from internet)
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A Brown Leghorn rooster (photo from internet)

I never had an omelette when I lived at home.  They were not a part of my mother´s  standard cuisine; she was a traditional Irish woman who deferred to the narrow culinary demands of my very traditional English father.  Omelette would have been a bit too French for my father.  Six years of WW2 left him with some indelible prejudices.

I had my first omelette in Paris in 1969.  I was working with Singer Sewing Machines, installing a new computer system in their French head office.  My good friend and Australian colleague, Geoff Rich met me for breakfast.  He ordered an omelette with bread and coffee and so did I, not knowing what it was.  Delicious it turned out to be.  And he played ‘Lay, lady lay’ by Bob Dylan on the jukebox.  The haunting lyrics and melody still recall Paris to me. To others, it may seem rather corny today, but those were magic moments for me.

Some years later, in 1978, omelettes came back into my life in Nigeria. It was on my first day of a short-term contract in Lagos.  I went to the canteen, presented my plate and received what appeared to be the greater part of a goat, with a few steamed vegetables on the side.  The meat was not for me and for the rest of my stay in Nigeria, I lived on beer, cashew nuts, bought by the bottle from street vendors, and omelettes in a French restaurant near to the office, or in the Ikoyi club.

When I was later based in Paris in 1998-2007, I frequented a nearby bistro, La Frégate. The Maitre d´, Patrick, would always read out the short list of specials, ending with resignation, ‘omelette au fromage o salade mixte?‘.  I really liked Patrick and I miss his conversation .  A very good man and an enthusiastic rugby fan.  He always said that if he could not be French, he would elect to be Irish.

In recent years, I have spent a lot of time in Spain and South America.  There, the traditional omelette is called tortilla francesa to distinguish it from the Spanish version, tortilla española.  The latter is in a cake-form and includes potatoes, onions, garlic in the basic version and other ingredients in regional variations.  It can be served hot or cold and on cocktail sticks as tapas or in slices, usually accompanied with fresh bread.  With a glass of red wine, the latter usually serves as a meal for me.

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A typical porción or trozo of tortilla (photo from internet)

And here in Cape Town I have my local bistrôt, Cafe Extrablatt, that serves a generous omelette, french fries, toast and wine at any time of the day.  And super-friendly staff that never fail to feel one at totally home.

It is indeed a hard life that I lead… 🙂

 

 

Swimming

If foreigners were to be shown an aerial view of Portrush with calm ocean and relatively blue sky, peaceful harbour, small western and extensive eastern beaches, they would reasonably conclude that it was an idyllic location.  And on a rare perfect summer day, they would be partially correct.  But the water in the North Atlantic is never less than quite cold, there is a steep shelving beach and strong rip tides.  On a rare warm day, swimming in the harbour can be pleasant, albeit bracing.

I never learned to swim when I lived there.  My parents could not swim, few of their generation could, and of my age group only a handful, mostly those who had relatively prosperous parents, who took them away to more temperate climates on holidays.

When I was growing up, there was only one small indoor swimming pool in the area, that of the Northern Counties Hotel in Portrush.  I recall that a small group from my school used to go there for lessons on a Friday evening, mainly those who were from the rowing club; to participate in rowing, the oarsmen had to be capable of swimming a length of the pool, a not very challenging task.  The group was led by Dan Cunningham, our physics teacher, who, when a younger man, was reputed to once having swum from Portrush to the Skerries, a chain of islands off the coast.

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Portrush, circa 1960, with the Skerries to the north

When I first migrated to Canada, I stayed for a few days with my grandparents in Brampton, outside Toronto.  The first weekend, they arranged for some older university students, grandchildren of their friends, to take me out for the day.  Unfortunately, nobody told me that their idea of a day out meant a beach and swimming.  We went to a nearby lake, where they immediately plunged into the water, leaving me ‘on the beach’.  The students were quite incredulous that I could not swim and that I was not going to attend a university.

My day brightened up momentarily, when they offered me what I understood to be a beer.  It turned out to be a can of something called Root Beer, a disgusting soft drink.  When they told me that I had to be 21 before I could legally have a beer – I was 18 at the time, I felt quite discouraged.

It was when we were in Hawaii, on our way to Australia, that I decided that I had to learn to swim, at least well enough to survive.  I swore that I would not leave Hawaii until I could swim out to a raft anchored a short distance offshore from Waikiki Beach.

But for day after day, I struggled.  I had no problem with being under water, but I could not take my feet off the bottom.  Sandra, who swam like a fish, tried her very best to encourage me, but to no avail. Both the problem and the solution were in my head.

Finally, I set off for the raft, swimming backstroke, and with no problem, I made it.  And once there, I discovered that I could dive.  It was a new element for me.  Later, in Tahiti, I had the incredible experience of diving in the lagoon, and swimming among the multi-coloured fish.  An unforgettable experience.

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Waikiki Beach, Honolulu (photo from internet)

In Australia, I frequently went to the beaches – Bondi, Coogee, Manly etc.  I even spent one Christmas Day on a beach.  And when the waves were relatively friendly, I often managed to bodysurf.  On one occasion I found myself caught in a riptide, and although I had no problem getting back to shore, it was a sobering experience.

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Bondi Beach, Sydney (photo from internet)

When we lived in Kirribilli, across from the Opera House, we used to go to the nearby Olympic pool, just by the harbour.  In those days, there was a 10-metre high diving board, and from it I used to throw a coin in the water, dive in and retrieve in from the more than five-metre-deep pool.  I found that much more exhilarating than swimming length after boring length.

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North Sydney swimming pool in recent years (photo from internet)

We only once owned a house with a pool, in Miami.  After the initial surge of  enthusiasm, the pool sat empty for month after month.  Sometimes I would jump in after a run or while working in the garden on a hot day; there is not much else an adult can do with a small pool.  I was left with the weekly chore of cleaning it and replenishing the copious expensive chemicals required to keep it relatively pristine.

I did once swim in the harbour at Portrush, during one of my fleeting visits.  I tried to go into the water at the Western Strand, but the water was so cold that my feet pained me within a short time, before it was up to my knees.  I went to the harbour and the water seemed to be more inviting, at least to tips of my fingers.  In those days there was still a diving board near the harbour mouth and from it I dived in.  I will never forget the shock of the cold water.  I got out as soon as I could, and I have never been back.

As with the weather, I don’t do cold.

That’s why I follow the sun…  🙂