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.

Portrush c 1960
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.

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.

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.

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…  🙂








It was after I finished the Belfast marathon in May 1986, that I learned of the McArthur Dervock marathon, to be held two months later.  I had never heard of McArthur and I had never been to Dervock, despite having grown up within 15 km.  As my recently widowed father still lived on the family farm outside Portrush, returning in July would give me another opportunity to visit him.

Since early 1985, I was based in England, with a job involving an increasing amount of travel, and the job had to take precedence over my running.  But I still loved participating in races, and ‘collecting’ them became an absorbing hobby; Dervock would be a new addition to my ‘collection’.

Dervock is a small village in North Antrim.  In the 2011 census it had 302 households, with a population of 714.  In that census, 99% of the inhabitants were recorded as being protestants, with only 1% catholic.  In a province with a significant catholic population, the Dervock census underlines the fact that there still exists a marked divide between the two cultures.

There used to be a railway station in Dervock, on the narrow-gauge branch line connecting Ballymoney to Ballycastle, 25 km to the north-east.  The line was opened in 1880 and eventually closed in 1950.

Dervock is the ancestral home of the US president, William McKinley. assassinated in 1901.  His ancestry can be traced back to David McKinley, born in Dervock and who migrated to western Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century.  It was also the home of Kenneth Kane McArthur.

William McKinley (1843-1901)

Ken McArthur was born in 1881 and at the age of 20, migrated to South Africa, where he joined the Johannesburg police force.  In Dervock he had worked as the local postman and was known to often race against the train, when on his rounds.  But it was not until he was in South Africa that he started to run competitively.  He was an unlikely talent as a runner, for he was a tall man at 1.88 m and weighing over 77 k.

Ken McArthur (photo from internet)

He ran his first marathon in 1908, beating the existing Olympic silver medallist, Charles Hefferon.  In 1912 he was selected by South Africa, his adopted country, to compete in the Stockholm Olympic marathon.  The race took place in sweltering heat and McArthur won the gold medal in the time of 2 hours 36 minutes and 54 seconds.  During the race, one athlete died of heat exhaustion.


The Stockholm Olympic Marathon (photos from internet)

McArthur returned to South Africa, but never competed again, having injured a foot in an accident.  He settled in Potchefstroom, just outside Johannesburg and died there in 1960.  McArthur ran in six marathons and was never beaten.  The Potchefstroom stadium is named after him.

The Kenneth McArthur Athletics Stadium in Potchefstroom (photo from internet)

I ran the Dervock marathon twice, in 1986 and the following year, with times of 2:54:06 and 2:5142.  It was not until I was researching this article that I realized that McArthur’s best time, that of Stockholm, was 2:36:54, only 33 seconds better than my own best time of 2:37:27, run in Miami in 1981.

So, not only were our best marathon times almost equal, we were both raised on a North Antrim farms and we both migrated at an early age, in my case at 18 to Canada. And whereas McArthur often used to race a train leaving Dervock station, I often used to race a bus when I was dropped off at the stop near our farm.

And here I am today, after more than six months, still patiently waiting for my South African residency visa.

I feel quite sure that McArthur did not have to wait so long for his.





Bertie Law

Since my mother died in 1985 and my father in 1995, my visits to my homeland have been few and far between; Portrush is about as far from NW Europe as one can go.

In the spring of 2005, I drove over to Ulster, via Stranraer and the ferry to Larne, to spend some time in the archives in Belfast; I wanted to research part of my Irish family history.  And afterwards, for two glorious days I went walking in the Mourne mountains.

An abandoned ice-house on the lower slopes of Sleive Donard, in the Mourne mountains

Instead of returning directly to Larne and Stranraer, as I had intended, I decided to take a detour north to Portrush and around the stunning coastal road.  Almost without exception, when I have returned to Portrush, my first stop has been the graveyard of the ruined church at Ballywillan.  For in that graveyard are buried my Douglas ancestors, as far back as the early 1700s.  My parents and paternal grandparents are also buried there and for a while I wander from one known grave to another, lost in memories of when many of them were alive, especially in the case of my first schoolmaster (see Jimmy) and Derek Aiken, a school friend, who died at age 44.

Existimos mientras alguien nos recuerde

(We exist while someone remembers us)


Further down the hill, was the grave of Molly, the wife of my first cousin, Bertie Law.  After leaving the graveyard, I intended on passing by his house in the hope of spending some time with him.  I had just found new data on ancestors in which I knew he would be most interested, for like me, he was an enthusiastic amateur genealogist.

But when I arrived at Molly’s grave I was momentarily confused; she had been dead for thirteen years, yet the soil had still not settled.  And then of course it dawned on me that Bertie was dead, and only very recently buried.


Bertie’s mother, Annie, was my grandfather’s sister.  She died three days after giving birth to Bertie’s younger brother, John, commonly known as Jackie.  Twenty years later, Sergeant John Douglas Law of the R.A.F. died over Germany and is buried at Rheinburg War Cemetery. I believe Jackie to have been the only WW2 casualty of the village.


Bertie was my mother’s first cousin and the most complete example of a handyman that I have ever known.  He was an accomplished carpenter, bricklayer, plasterer, roofer and decorator.  He built his own house in Glenmanus and most of the buildings on my father’s farm: the housing for the incubators, chicks, poultry, turkeys, the pig pens, and all of the storehouses.  And when my mother was on one of her ‘I’d like to change this room’ moods, Bertie would construct cupboards and partitions.  It was through observing Bertie at work, that when the need arose, I knew instinctively how to lay bricks, plaster, rebuild a shower, decorate etc.

Bertie was something of a workaholic.  During the day he worked as a conductor for the local bus company and later he would work on the farm buildings.  And when he returned home, he would spend time in the evening in his extensive vegetable and flower garden.

It was after the death of my father that I discovered Bertie’s interest in family history.  He showed me the charts that he had drawn and we ended up by combining our research.  And we supplemented it by mail, by telephone and occasional visits by me.  Bertie’s charts are the backbone of what I know today of the history of the Douglas family of Glenmanus.

I felt very sad that day in May when I eventually left the graveyard.  It felt like the end of an era, for Bertie was my last close contact with my parents.  I still have two cousins living in the village, Hughie and Brian Douglas. I have recently renewed contact with them and long may that contact last.

Sometimes I feel most fortunate, for I am rich in memories.

The Palladium


circa June 1965

If you are ever in Portrush, on the north Irish coast, and you head down Causeway Street from the town centre, just before the Catholic church you will see St. Patrick’s Hall.  Now the building was not always connected with the church.  In my day, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was called The Palladium and it was a theatre, putting on variety shows during the brief holiday seasons of Easter and summer, when the resort used to be a tourist destination, before the tour companies started offering cheap holiday flights and hotels in the more reliable southern European sunshine.  For most of the year The Palladium was shuttered.

Before its transformation to a variety theatre, the Palladium was a ballroom, with a resident orchestra.  There was also Barry’s Ballroom.  With thousands of soldiers stationed in north Ulster, training for the eventual invasion of mainland Europe, there must have been plenty of trade for the ballrooms and the local girls were very much in demand.  That was how my mother met my father in 1942.

I never heard my father speaking of playing at the Palladium.  He ended his military service in January of 1946 in Lübeck on the Baltic, having been involved in the fighting from the invasion of Normandy through Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany.   When he returned to Portrush, he got his professional opportunity as pianist with Ernie Mann’s band, then resident in Barry’s Ballroom.  When Ernie was forced to retire, due to ill- health, my father took over leadership of the band.

Ernie Mann band 1949
My father on the left, with the Ernie Mann Band in 1949
BBC broadcast July 1951
And at the piano with his own band during a BBC Radio broadcast in 1951

But by the early 1950’s, musical tastes were changing, with Bill Haley and His Comets and the jive displacing the formal quickstep and waltz and orchestras.  And then came Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the Beatles and the avalanche of groups with singer, lead, rhythm and bass guitars and drums.  In Portrush, the Arcadia Ballroom opened in 1953 and Barry’s Ballroom closed around that time.  I don’t know what happened to the Palladium Ballroom, but I suspect that it had already ceased to operate.  My father moved his band to the Northern Counties hotel, and for many years they continued there.  He became very well-known and many times over the years, when they have heard my name, strangers have said to me, ‘you wouldn’t be Harry Blackwood’s son, would you now?’

The Arcadia, on what looks like a bleak stormy day (photo from internet)

I only ever once went to a show at the Palladium.  I think it was in the early summer of 1965, but I am not sure.  Neither can I remember clearly who I went with.  It may have been Trevor Gaston and Martin Williamson, but again it is all a blur.  You see, we went to a performance of Edwin Heath. the well-renowned hypnotist, and I fell asleep in the first few minutes of the show, when he was introducing his act and the entrancing music was playing in the background.  I was not the only one; those of us who succumbed were led up to the stage and we were the show for the next hour or so.

Edwin Heath
Edwin Heath, the hypnotist

I recall nothing.  Afterwards I learned that the ‘victims’ were commanded to react to many different out-of-character situations: acting as we were different animals, believing that a glass of water tasted foul or another strongly alcoholic etc., and in my case to imitate a well-known singer, singing a hit song.

Now singing in front of an audience, hypnotised or not, for me was nothing unusual; I was the drummer in Bill McKeown’s Group, appearing at various local hotels in the area and further afield in Belfast, Red Bay and the Giant’s Causeway.  We even had a six-week, Monday through Saturday, summer booking in a local hotel.  In addition to a full-time day job, it was hard work, playing from 20:00 to midnight and often much later. We were ‘cheap and cheerful’ and there was little competition in those days.  Bill was a talented pianist and saxophonist, his wife had a beautiful voice, his son was competent on the guitar.  In addition to drumming, I sang ballads.  When the client had sufficient budget, we included a bass guitar and trumpet, the latter being Tommy Tinkler, who was formerly in my father’s band and is in both photos above.

And in the Edwin Heath show, I sang the Jim Reeves hit song, ‘I love you because’, as I had many times before.

Today Portrush is but a shadow of what it was in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when the holiday crowds filled the hotels and boarding houses, staying for a week or more, when the beaches were crowded in the rare good weather, the amusement arcades were full and in the evening the centre of the tiny town was one big traffic jam and the pavements crowded.  These days, many of the former boarding houses have shut or have been converted into flats for the students from the nearby university.  And the steam trains that used to shuttle back and forth from Belfast, have long been retired and replaced by a tiny local commuter train, carrying students to their classes at the university in Coleraine.

One of the steam trains leaving Portrush, just as I remember them (photo from internet)

And all the former ballrooms have disappeared; Barry’s Ballroom was demolished and the area converted to more amusement machines; the Northern Counties Hotel was burned down in an arson attack and eventually replaced by a Ramada Inn; the Arcadia was largely demolished and only a part of the original building remains.

The Palladium
The former Palladium, as it is today


Of the four, only the Palladium still functions, albeit in its new role as a church hall.

Bertie Peacock

When I was a teenager, Bertie Peacock was a hero and idol in my part of Ireland.  He was born in Killowen, in Coleraine, played a few games for the local football club in 1947, before being transferred to Glentoran, in Belfast, and on to Glasgow Celtic in 1949.  There he made 450 appearances, together with 31 caps for Northern Ireland during 1952-62.  He played in the 1958 World Finals in Sweden, when Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals, a feat not since repeated.

Bertie Peacock in his Glasgow Celtic days

In 1961, he returned to Coleraine as player/manager, culminating with winning the Irish Cup in 1965, at which I was present.  Soon after, I migrated to Canada and lost touch with the exploits of the team, which had several more cup and league successes.  Bertie retired in 1970, continued for a few years as manager, and eventually bought a local pub, which he named  as ‘Bertie’s Bar’.  He died in 2004.

When I recently visited the Coleraine graveyard, my brother showed me Bertie’s grave.  He told me that there was now a statue of Bertie in the Diamond in the town.

It was my great-uncle Bill and Ronnie Wilson who first took me to see a Coleraine football match.  Apart from the once-a-year North-west 200 motor cycle race and the horse racing in the fields beside Hopefield hospital, there was only local football to watch.  Television was in its infancy and, apart from the FA Cup final, no football was broadcast live.

Ronnie used to work with my father.  He was a few years older than me, and Uncle Bill used to drive us the four miles to Coleraine in his little Morris Minor 1000.  Uncle Bill used to set off more than an hour before the kick-off, despite that there was never a crowd capacity of much more than 2000.  We used to race along at about 30 mph, only slightly faster that uncle Bill would have driven his horse and cart; there was always a long line of reluctant followers behind us.  He always parked in the same spot on Union Street.  And the ground was practically empty when we took the same seats on the back row at the corner of the stand.  Sometimes we had to wait outside until the man who operated the turnstile arrived.  We never missed a kick-off.

A Morris Minor 1000 – Uncle Bill’s was black

My brother dropped me off near the town centre and I strolled the rest of the way along the pedestrian mall.  The town centre that I remembered had much changed; it had been extensively rebuilt after the IRA bombings in the 1970’s.  I stopped opposite the building where I used to work and took a photo of it.  The quantity surveyors that I worked for – Dalzell & Campbell, probably no longer exists.

My desk was at the window on the first floor, above the entrance


Close by, was the statue of Bertie Peacock, and reading the attached plaque was an older man.  We started to talk, as do most Irish.  I asked him what all the flags around the town were in mourning for.  He told me that they had been put up to celebrate Coleraine being in the Cup Final on the coming Saturday.  When I remarked that they all seemed to be in mourning at half-mast, he laughed and said that that the men who put up the flags only had a short ladder.


It turned out that the man I was talking to used to play football and he had known Bertie Peacock.  Not only that, he used to play for Coleraine.  And to cap it all, he played in the Cup Final of 1965, which was the last game I saw, before I migrated to Canada.  I was talking to Johnny McCurdy, the famed defender of the sixties and seventies, who still holds the club record for appearances at 634.  After he retired from playing, he managed the club for a time.

Johnny McCurdy as the victorious captain, with club chairman, Jack Doherty (photo from internet)

We chatted for a long time about this, that and the other, and when we went on our separate ways, I felt as if I had never been away, and that all my wandering for the past fifty-two years had been but a dream.  It was the same strong feeling of nostalgia that I always experience when I revisit my home country; of memories of happy and perhaps simpler times, tinged with a sadness that those days are gone forever, together with most of the people that I once knew.

I crossed the bridge and walked slowly back to my hotel, along the beautiful riverside walk.

Part of the riverside walk (photo from internet



Since my father died in 1995, I have not often been back to Ireland, in fact only in 2004, and again about eighteen months ago.  The north Antrim coast, from whence I come, is not on the way to anywhere; it is about as far as one can get from civilisation, unless one is sailing north to remote Scotland, the Faroe Islands or Iceland.  And once landed at Belfast airport, there awaits an hourly bus service to Antrim and an hourly train to Coleraine, both of which I always seem to manage to miss by no more than five minutes.

But when I step foot back on Irish soil, all the frustrations and aggravations of modern travel and living seem to evaporate, and I completely relax; I am once more 18 and on my way home again.

I met my brother the next morning at my hotel, and we headed off to the graveyard; I was anxious to visit the grave of an old friend, George.  We worked together in Coleraine in the mid-1960s.  He migrated to Toronto in 1965, together with his fiancée, Eileen.  They wanted to marry, but being of mixed religions, migration was their perceived solution.  George had a cousin in Toronto, and soon after they arrived, George and Eileen were married.  As crazy as it may seem today, that was the experience of many young Irish couples in that era.

George & Eileen

I followed soon after George and Eileen, and spent a few weeks sleeping on their living room floor.  None of us had much money and my contribution to the household was much welcomed. Eventually I moved in with five other guys, at 345 Eglinton Ave West –  Howard Abrahams, Michael Goldberg, Robin Jackson, Bill Stott and a Canadian, Gordie.  I am still in touch with Howard and Michael; Robin died a long time ago in South Africa; with the other two I have had no further contact, although I was once told that Bill did end up as the global boss of Hallmark Cards,

George worked as an estimator for a construction company – Pigott Construction, and later, he introduced me to his boss, who offered me a job, which I accepted.  Outside of work, I saw little of George socially; he was a settled suburban husband and I was a lad-about-town, playing rugby, football and partying.

Before I left for Australia in 1971, I last saw George and Eileen.  At that time, they had a little girl.  They seemed to be very happy and very much in love.  That was our last contact.

After I had a stroke in late-2005, it took some time, perhaps 2-3 years, for me to realize that my memory had not completely recovered.  I stumbled upon my own method of revitalising it – one day I may write of that difficult period of my life, and in so doing, I tried to find George.  Telephone directories, linkedin.com, facebook.com, internet etc. – there was no footprint.  I eventually dismissed him as being as a ‘Luddite’, resistant to new technology.

Until my good friend and genealogist, Norman Calvin, found him for me, or rather, found his sister.  And there I was, with my brother, looking for George’s grave.  It was no wonder that I had not been able to find him.  He came upon hard times in Toronto.  He lost his job, divorced and lost his family.  He eventually returned to Coleraine, but his situation did not improve.  On 25 November 2005 he died, a broken man.  On that day, I was fighting for my life in an intensive care ward of a hospital in Stockholm.

But where was his grave?  I had a rough idea where it was, but there were so many.  We split up, one each side of a path.  We walked up and down the rows, until I was on the point of giving up and getting more precise directions.  I distinctly remember saying out loud, ‘George, where are you’, when, in that instant, my brother shouted, ‘Over here’.


It was another of the many co-incidences in my life.

Enchanted evenings

‘Greenacres’ farm



Some of my happiest memories date from when I was a young boy growing up on a small farm in Ireland.  Despite the fact that we did not have much, certainly little that would today be considered necessities, my childhood was a happy one.  We had no indoor toilet or bathroom, and no heating, apart from a fire in the kitchen and on special occasions, one in the living room.  During most of the year, the bedrooms were ice-cold and we took a rubber hot-water bottle to bed to fight off the chill.  We had no car and no television.  Our situation in that era was like that of most country people in Ireland.

‘Dinner’ was the main meal of the day, and we sat down to eat at one o’clock precisely, to the chimes of Big Ben and the one o’clock news.  The light meal in the evening was known as ‘tea’, and in our house, that was at 18:00 precisely, to chimes of Big Ben and the six o’clock news. Six years of military precision left their mark on my father.

By 19:30 my mother ordered me off to bed, but I could read until she came back to switch off the light.  As I got older, the lights-out time was slowly extended.

From the time when I could read, books were my passion; those who know me today would say that I have not much changed, at least in so far as books are concerned.  And when the lights went out, I fantasied about being a great explorer, a brave knight, a detective or whatever the hero of my current book did.  I was a dreamer.  I was able to borrow books from the library in Coleraine, and I read all the books on the little library shelf of my primary school.  I would have been a rare month when I did not read at least one book.

In the summer time, on a tranquil evening after ‘tea’, I used to love to go down to the piggeries and the fields behind the house.  I was alone there; the workers had gone home, my father usually to his bowling club, and my mother pottering around in her garden.  Sometimes I would climb up onto the roofs of the piggeries, armed with a rock, and try to hit one of the multitude of rats that were scampering around; the farm was always infested with rats; it was impossible to eradicate them.  It also proved impossible for me to hit them.  By the time I stood up to throw, they had disappeared like a flash.

DYZ 638
‘Greenacres farm in the mid 1950s
Farm Map
A schematic drawing of the farm near Portrush

At other times, I would go down to the stream that flowed past the old flax dam, at the end of the pig run, and race two or three empty shoe polish cans and see which would be first to the tunnel under Carnalridge Primary school, where I would retrieve them.  The flax dam was silted up and filled with reeds and some stunted willow trees grew on the banks.  In springtime, frogs laid their spawn in the pools of water, and one year I put some spawn in a large jar and watched them hatch and grow into little frogs.

In the pig run, I once found a beautiful orchid.  I took the flower and pressed it for my collection.  My grandmother taught me how to do it, by pressing it between some heavy books that she had.  I never did again see an orchid in the pig run, or anywhere else on the farm.  Perhaps one of my father’s pigs ate it.  The pig run was always pitted, like a WWI battle field.  The pigs loved to tear up the soil looking for roots and would wallow in the hollows.

My father in the pig run with the boar

On the south side of the piggeries, there was the midden heap and the area around it was quite marshy and the grass was left to grow long.  Every year a corn crake nested in that grass and every early morning and evening one could hear its ‘craeking’ call.  They were a migratory bird, but I had never seen one.  One evening I went into the long grass to find the corn crake and see what it looked like.  I must have almost stepped on it, for it burst out of the grass just in front of me and flapped away.  I felt very guilty after that, and hoped that it would come back, for I loved its call.  I never did see a cuckoo either, although at times I could hear them all around us.

A corncrake (picture from internet)

Today, the farm has long gone, hedgerows have been torn up, the farm buildings have been demolished; all that is left are my vivid childhood memories.

The overgrown ruins of part of the piggeries