When I joined the Creative writing class at Queen’s University Belfast for the first ten week course in winter of 2015, I was immediately taken back by the calibre of people that were there, not least our teacher, Brenda Liddy who is a particularly, bright, giving, intelligent and warm human being and I immediately took to her and her smiley eyes.
The first ten weeks there were lots of talks and discussions. We learned the basics of writing, the nuts and bolts and creative writing skills that were necessary for our craft. Brenda said that these were needed, but rules could be broken but that you need to learn the rules first; and of course there were the stories and being no stranger to stories myself, I would tell the odd yarn about things that had happened in my local area, that is near the Washing Bay on the Western shores of Lough Neagh, County Tyrone. In fact, Washing Bay is at the bottom left hand corner of Lough Neagh, which dominates the map in the Northern half of Ireland. Then Brenda suggested one night that we should organise a trip to my part of the world. I was delighted as taking tours was no bother or strange task for me, so I immediately agreed, but with one thing or another it didn’t happen; for a start it was coming up to Christmas time and we the Walshe family were all heading to Australia to my son Sean’s wedding; the pressure was on, and so our tour just didn’t come about.
I joined the class again after Christmas was over and we, the Walsh’s had returned from our holiday and wedding in Melbourne.
There were a couple of new faces in the class and a couple of old faces lost.
First new face, was Bob, the great actor, writer and storyteller. Bob was a retired lecturer from the University of Ulster, Jordanstown. He just doesn’t tell a story, he acted them out and you could see in your mind’s eye everything Bob was telling us.
The second new face was Laura the medical student or Laura the Doctor. This was the pet name we put on her to distinguish between the other Laura, who had been in the original class and her pet name was Laura Number 1. Laura the Doctor had a story about dissecting a dead body; so horrifying her story was to me, my head was spinning and I began to sweat. Laura wrote her story from the point of view of the dead person; now, as I am a squeamish fellow, I had to ask her not to tell any more stories like that. She was so at good at telling her tales that I had to tell her, I would faint at the drop of a hat, listening to such stories, (it had happened before). Laura once asked if any doctors had become writers and Brenda said that she was not the first medic to pick up the pen; for example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), W. Somerset Maugham, William Carlos Williams, Robin Cook, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Michael Crichton, Anton Chekhov and Zane Grey were all doctors who became great writers.
Then we had the old hands back again and I was very glad to see them, there was, Kieron, Andy, the other Laura and Lorraine.
Kieron has an unassuming nature, but has travelled widely and has written journals about his travels. Some of them I felt was scary enough, like the day he was tracking through mountains in Canada when he came across bear tracks; Kieron was able to bring the fear into the room, talking of his footsteps in the crunching snow, being alone in this vastness and what his game plan would be if he was confronted by a bear. This hardy explorer had smiling eyes full of life and said that he lived for his next adventure. Kieron’s story reminded me of Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, where he describes a close shave with a bear! In a tongue-in-cheek vein he describes that a bear only has to get lucky once and you could end up dead:
“Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.”
Lorraine was a very special person. Lorraine was a champion on many occasions at Irish dancing. She knew all there is to know about Irish dancing; she was at the writers’ class in Queens, so that she could learn how to write and record the history of Irish dancing; the whole class was behind her, encouraging her to keep going and that she was on the right track. Lorraine was so passionate about her culture and dance; she brought her passion and enthusiasm with her wherever she went. She realises the enormity of the task she has taken on, but I know she is well able for it.
Andy is a quiet, competent and confident man. He has written at least one major piece of work and has mined his imagination to write his book (yet to be published), I hope soon it will be and I am looking forward to the publication of Andy’s book; his chosen genre is science fiction and I know this is a deep and creative piece of work will do well this is my judgement as I now know the man. Andy also became a runner-up in his first entry to a writing competition (we were all very proud of him).
Paul was a very quiet man. I know by Brenda our teacher that Paul was very gifted and I wish him all the best.
Laura was similar to Andy and explained that she had written at least 2 books of about 50,000 words, and again I would have to say a deep and creative writer, with a brilliant mind and a personality to match. Laura’s books are about time travel, time slip and ideas that are from deep inside her; I also look forward to reading her work when published.
Brenda, what can I say about Brenda, Brenda is such a special, gifted person and an author; she has published a number of books; she was telling our class, mostly very academic at the moment, she is writing a book on the peace process and has employed an excellent editor; again I look forward to her book launch and have this unique book on the shelves in my living room. I have never met the likes of Brenda before, so giving, so enthusiastic that she is a very hard working and conscientious teacher. Brenda has two writing classes, one on the Shore Road, Belfast. The guy who owns Belfast’s Books has this class up and running, and he is also a friend of Brenda’s and of course she has our class at Queen’s University as well as her other teaching commitments at the Northern Regional College. I have to say that this lady works extremely hard with much enthusiasm and wants to give off her talents; sometimes I see her tired; I wouldn’t like to tell her to slow down but I think she should. Brenda is also a Zen Buddhist and is deeply committed to this way of life. It was not at all surprising to me when she told me this, for I could see peace and life in her eyes and face. I have to say that I give Brenda great credit in pursuing the idea of hiring a minibus and travelling to the Western shores of Lough Neagh and I know it was a great way for us all to bond and keep in touch and stay friends.
The day came at last. I started on Saturday morning by collecting the minibus from Corrigan’s van hire, Dungannon and drove to Belfast as arranged- there I was to collect my payload of scribblers, thinkers and twisters. Lorraine had rang and said that she couldn’t make it, as a friend of hers had died and she was helping out at the wake and funeral. I was saddened that Lorraine wouldn’t be there because she was very excited and so looking forward to our day out.
Driving into Belfast, I headed for the rendezvous. It was behind the Seamus Heaney library at Queen’s University (very apt, I thought). I could see as I made my way up the little backstreets watching the other traffic, the happy band of writers, keen as beavers, ready to board the magic bus and head off on the magical, mystical tour to Washing Bay.
They were all grinning from ear to ear, when they saw me coming and the fact that Kieron had decided to dress up for the occasion only added to the atmosphere of curiosity and anticipation. and had donned hat and costume and he looked every inch of D’Artagnan, and was channeling a certain Gascon charm. I was half expecting Cardinal Richelieu or Lady de Winter to show up as well.
The payload was loaded on to the bus and off we went up the M1 west out of Belfast; the only stop was to put some fuel in the minibus at the new Apple Green Service Station, Lisburn.
We exited the M1 at the Birches roundabout and headed for Lough Neagh’s shores. There are some wonderful views of Coney Island there, as the island seems to grow out of the waters (by the way, this is the original Coney Island). The wind was biting cold and we didn’t stay out too long, but long enough for a photograph opportunity and it was a great chance to orientate the bunch. I gave a talk about the Blackwater River—the Vikings, the Normans, and the treasures that we found after dredging the river.
Back in the bus there were shouts of ‘get the heat going’; we headed From Lough Neagh’s shores in land because we needed to cross the Blackwater River in order to enter County Tyrone (God’s own country). We travelled on along the east side that is the Armagh side of the Blackwater River. The bridge at Verner’s was closed for repair. So we kept going through the townland of Clonmore, and this was a good opportunity to show where the Clonmore Shrine, was found by us in 1990; it is now in pride of place in the museum in Belfast. (It is indeed a very important find but unfortunately the subject is so complex I won’t be able to go into to it right now.) The group were also fascinated as we drove by a healing centre, (a place I know well and have had to on a number of occasions to bring people to be healed of their infections and sickness, and many I know of have done well after their visit to Pastor John Greenaway and his family and friends.) Next, we travelled over the Blackwater River into County Tyrone at the ancient crossing now known as Bond’s Bridge.
From here, we made our way to my house, which is near the Washing Bay on the bottom left hand corner of Lough Neagh, for a much-needed comfort break and cup of tea; we were welcomed by my wife Eilish; there was a lot of chitchat about me, (well I had to put up with it). Of course Eilish gave the group a useful tip about my stories and that sometimes that I took poetic licence, but only fifty per cent of the time. But then as good storytellers will say, ‘don’t let truth get in the way of a good story.’ I had placed a few props strategically in the house; one was a book of Gulliver’s Travels written by Dean Swift on the dining room table and in my new office in the shed, I placed a copy of The Crucible by Arthur Miller; Brenda was pleased! (But when she reads this she may not think so highly of me).
We got pictures taken with Kitty, my microlight plane that I had been telling stories about; in fact, I wrote a story for my granddaughter about a man called ‘Mister Top-pocket’ flying Kitty all around the countryside, so the group or the bunch as I call them were pleased to meet Kitty.
From our house, we travelled, not too far up the road and took a side road and showed the class where a woman had been buried in the middle of the road and she was called Peggy Bunt. It was said that she was a witch and that is why they buried her at the crossroads. This may or not be true but when she died, the church would not let her be buried in consecrated ground. Next it was off to the Washing Bay to see the Holy River, an ancient healing site; it was on St John’s Eve, that is Midsummer’s day that the waters are supposed to be at their most potent and It is then that the largest crowds gather in their thousands to be healed by bathing in its waters, (it is marked on the old Taylor and Skinner maps as the Holy River spa). This is an ancient gathering place and thus we believe in our area that is why the Bay here is called the Washing Bay. The Lough Neagh flies might have been a wee bit too much for the group as they are out in their millions at this time of the year, and indeed the bushes and trees look like they are on fire with the black smoke coming from them; the flies are so numerous and are bit of a nuisance, but they don’t bite but are so numerous that they get in the eyes and up the nose, nevertheless, our curious group made their way along Lough Neagh’s shores to the place where the holy River enters Lough Neagh’s waters. (The rags are still hanging on the trees— proof that people are still using the site for healing.)
Then we made our way to Mountjoy Castle, where I explained the importance of this site, as it was the first place and time that the Elizabethan armies had gotten into this part of Ireland; they brought their beliefs and customs; for example a ducking stool. It was a cruel instrument of judgement whereby poor souls deemed as evil people who were working with the devil were ‘ducked’ into the water, three times, (for how long each time lasted no one knows) but the judgement was if they survived, they were definitely working with the Devil or doing the Devil’s work and were then burnt at the stake and if they died well then they were innocent. (It is said that as a precaution no remains were to be buried in consecrated ground.)
The site at Mountjoy was used between the years 1598 to 1605, there was to be a large town there, but after the flight of the earls which took place in 1607, when the heads of the ruling families O’Neill and O’Donnell, fled for their lives to Europe and were know one as the honourable 100, the town of Dungannon became available, and so the town of Mountjoy was abandoned. Seamus Heaney alludes to this on-going struggle between the Irish and the English and in his poem ‘Terminus’, he wrote:
I was the last earl on horseback in midstream
still parleying in earshot of his peers
We also examined the stonework round the door of the castle and I showed the group the curvatures in the stone, which was where the soldiers sharpened their swords.
Next stop was at Ardboe Chapel, which has fascinating sculptures made by a local man by the name of Bell. These are simple in the form, abstract and on the day this day we were there, this sun was shining perfectly at the right angle, leaving their reflections on the white wall of the Chapel. It was stunning and Brenda and I took lots of photographs, as the opportunity may not be there for a long time to come when the sun would be in the same place in the sky. Brenda also went inside and was taken back by the beauty and the artistic work in both the building of the Chapel and the layout of the altar and again lots of photographs were taken.
From the Chapel, we went to the Old Cross of Ardboe; this is an ancient site, one of the first sites of Christianity in that area, established by a Saint: it has a tall cross, one of the Irish Celtic crosses, unique in Ireland, so once again plenty of photographs taken and I explained that anyone that had the right to be buried their would be walked around the old church three times before the burial. This is a lovely the tradition. The old cross of Ardboe is a beautiful place with a fine elevated view over Lough Neagh. (Well worth a visit by the reader.)
The phone was ringing and the women at Coyle’s college were asking when we were going to be there, so we made haste to Coyle’s College I could see in the eyes of my friends something of wonderment as we arrived; had they had stepped into another time, maybe even another dimension? Coyle’s College is an old Lough Neagh fisherman’s cottage, small with whitewashed walls and thatched roof; this beautiful little house has been looked after by a group from the area and I give them a great deal of credit for preserving such an artefact. As we disembarked and I approached the cottage door, which has one of those old front half doors; the idea was you could get fresh air in by opening the top half and the bottom half kept the children in and also the hens out. Well, now the top half of the door opened as we approached and standing there behind the door was Rose, Winnie, Bridget, Mary and Joe, the welcoming committee. One of the women (I am not saying who) was waving a finger at me in a direct warning saying “you were to pay no money here today because you would not take money off us for the talks you did here.” Well that was me well warned!
The bottom half of the door was now opened and we all were invited in and everyone had big smiles. What I did notice at this moment in time was that the eyes of my group of scribblers, danced around the inside of the house looking from one artefact to the other; there were so many artefacts and so much to see. Then one of Coyle’s College group shouted out Céad Míle Fáilte” which is Irish for ‘One Hundred Thousand Welcomes’ and indeed it was. There couldn’t have been any doubt about that. The time now was two o’clock and everyone was starving with hunger and so never mind the awesome sight that filled their eyes inside this unique house with all its artefacts; it was the banquet on the table that pulled their attention like a strong magnet for there was home-made bread, home-made pancakes, home-made jams and so much more that lay in front of them; it would have made a strong man weak at the knees.
“Sit down, you are all bound to be hungry by now,” said Winnie. “You can talk and eat as well you know” chipped in Mary, and added, “we have the tea ready and waiting,” but it wasn’t to be, because Joe, who was sitting in the corner by the fire and looked very much at home there, said “hold your horses, there’s something I want to show you all.” Joe proceeded to open the front door and took was around the back, then opened the tin shed and brought out an artefact I wasn’t expecting to see; it was part of a tree that was used as a wishing tree from the Old Cross of Ardboe. The Tree had died because the practice was to hammer coins into its bark and thus the coins poisoned the tree eventually; this was an unbelievable artefact from the past and the amount of coins hammered into it was breath taking; this was only a small segment of a very large tree. Everybody was so happy to see this artefact and Joe told the stories about how the wishes all came true, for a short while at least. But he explained with mischief in his eye that when he was a boy he used to pull the coins out again and buy sweets. Our writers had forgotten their hunger but not for a long and we marched back into the house every step of the way thanking Joe, while getting nearer to the food. Everything as before was ready and laid out with a few finishing touches by the ladies.
We ate well and for a change there wasn’t much talk!
There is a saying in our part of the world. “The likes of them will never be seen again”, and I think, as their hospitality on folded in front of us that this saying was made for just this time. Our hosts told stories and kept us entertained while we ate.
The artefacts and photographs that were hanging around the walls were all explained in great detail what things were used for in the past, the superstitions, the Saint Bridget’s crosses and so on.
Then it was Brenda’s turn; she made a speech and thanked her hosts and praised her students. She said that trips like these were essential in order to inform and nourish the writer’s muse and hat to experience another world was very enriching. She wore the Musketeer’s hat while she made her speech.
After our much needed meal we took a walk outside and took some photographs, when along came a big white van; I was standing in his way right enough but the driver had no patience and pushed the nose of the big white van up against me. I could see the smiling face inside; sure wasn’t it Patsy Hagan, the storyteller. Patsy has been a friend of mine for a long, long time.
I opened the door of the van and shouted “get out, get out” and he shouts back, “don’t touch me, don’t touch me”. Well the rest of the group wondered what was going on but I soon explained that was Patsy Hagan was the storyteller and we were only joking around. I have admired Patsy’s work for a long time; in fact, Patsy and I used to do a lot of charity work storytelling throughout the country. Patsy had no hesitation in parking up the Van; he came into the cottage and give us a talk on the way he wrote his stories, (by the way, Patsy Hagan is a five times winner of the Bard of Armagh competition and so if you the reader ever get the opportunity to go and hear Patsy Hagan, you would definitely understand why he is so highly rated as a storyteller).
Patsy gave us one hour of his time with a smile, (I think there are storyteller Angels in heaven because Patsy is a fine example of giving soul.) For It is on a Saturday that Patsy does is vegetable run and he tries to get finished up early because he’s usually always going somewhere or do some occasion to tell stories on a Saturday night; but that didn’t deter Patsy from giving us an hour and again I have to say, I was humbled by the welcome and hospitality given to us by both the Coyle’s College group and Patsy Hagan, the storyteller.
After a lot of hugs and kisses we said our goodbyes to everyone at Coyle’s College and waved back through the minibus windows until the bend in the road left us with just the wonderful memory.
We travelled from Coyle’s College up through Cookstown to the ancient stone circles at Beaghmore. which were located on the bleak and desolate moorland in the Sperrin mountains. The word ‘Beaghmore’ is from the Irish ‘an Bheitheach Mhór’ which means ‘big place of the birch trees’. The stones may have been ancient observatories for stellar or lunar events of perhaps ancient burial sites. The site may have initially been cleared for farming use in the Neolithic period and the circles were built in the Bronze period.
The wind was blowing pretty strong but nevertheless this ancient wonder was enjoyed by the whole group. None of them had ever been there before, I explained some of the local folklore about the circles; we took some photographs and then we were off back on the bus with shouts again ‘turn the heat up, turn the heat up.’
To Belfast we all returned safely, and I took my cargo of scribes back to base camp; the last one on the bus was Laura (the first);I left Laura home to County Down, which was no problem. Her mother needn’t wait I said.
After dropping Laura of in County Down, I travelled home through the countryside getting lost now and then which is something I like to do. I was on a high, I was buzzing, what a great day!
I thought to myself what great people I have as friends.
So good was the feeling that I am thinking seriously now of starting my own Tour Company.
Visit our website for further information about Lough Neagh & Its Waterways: discoverloughneagh.com