Sunday, December 21, 2014

And There Shall Be No Night - Christmas Eve 1914

It was the Ulsterman Brian Desmond Hurst - born in Ribble Street in East Belfast - who directed the classic 1951 Scrooge adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim. Hurst's other famous credits would include Dangerous Moonlight (1941), Theirs Is The Glory (1946)  and Simba (1955) which starred Dirk Bogarde and was set in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurrection against the British.

During World War Two he directed a propaganda feature called A Letter From Ulster in 1943 wherein a Protestant and a Catholic American soldier write home and give their impressions of the province and the people. An attempt to build upon a sense of community between the Northern Ireland population and the huge numbers of stationed US troops it included footage of soldiers' visits to Carrickfergus Castle, the town of Strabane and Derry's Walls. There is also film of a Catholic service held for the American military at St Mary's Church in central Belfast's Chapel Lane - this was the first Catholic church in the city and opened in 1784 with the aid of significant subscriptions from the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland communities. The local Belfast company of the (Protestant) Irish Volunteer movement of the period paraded to the opening and provided a guard of honour for the priest. Many of the soldiers captured on Hurst's film would later fight in Italy at Monte Cassino and Anzio - their fate can only be guessed at. A memorial to the US Expeditionary Force can be seen today in the grounds of Belfast City Hall.

Film was also shot at their army base at Tynan Abbey in County Armagh - built in 1750 and burnt to the ground in a terrorist attack in 1981 with the owners Sir Norman Stronge and his son James being shot dead.  Both the murdered men were Stormont MPs - the former being the Speaker of the House between 1945 and 1969. Sir Norman was the eight Baronet of Tynan while the fifth was Sir James Henry Stronge who held the title between 1849 and 1928 - his only son James Matthew Stronge was killed at the age of 26 while serving with the Royal Irish Fusiliers in August 1917 in France. In 2011 a relative of Hurst's made a brief documentary where he returned to the Northern Irish locations in the original work including the ruins at Tynan.

Hurst served in the Great War in the Royal Irish Rifles and fought at Gallipoli and in the Balkans and Middle East. In a 1969 Punch magazine interview he noted how "I would fight for England against anybody except Ireland" since in his opinion an Englishman is worth twenty foreigners and an Irishman is worth fifty Englishmen. He also recalled Gallipoli and the mixed religious composition of the regiment - which recruited in both Belfast and Dublin - and where "Catholic-Protestant antagonism vanished in this holocaust". Christopher Robbins' extraordinary The Empress of Ireland from 2004 relates the author's own relationship with the flamboyant director over many years and is highly recommended.

The two definitive pieces of literature relating to this haunted Christmas season in my personal opinion are Dickens' story and Stanley Weintraub's Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914 which was published in 2001 by Simon and Schuster. For the columnist Peter Hitchens "the Christmas truce between British and German soldiers in 1914 is, literally, sacred. It was the last hour of Christian Europe, a tragic failure."

Page after page of Weintraub's work relates to a now lost sense of human worth, decency and warmth - and indeed overlaps politically and emotionally with many themes considered in this blog over the years from Scottish independence to British class division to the failed choreography of European union to the long sad outplay of a British Ireland:

A German sergeant with an Iron Cross suspended from a black and white ribbon and earned, he boasted, for skill in sniping, led his men in a marching tune, and when they had finished, Hulse ordered "The Boys of Bonnie Scotland, where the heather and the bluebells grow". They followed with ballads which both sides knew, singing everything from "Good King Wenceslaus" down to the ordinary Tommies' songs, and ended up with "Auld Lang Syne", which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wuerttemburgers etc joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film, I should have sworn it was faked!

In earlier posts regarding the the Ulster Home Rule crisis and the Battle of the Somme I noted how Carson's volunteers infused into the 36th Ulster Division were  to be found within the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers regiments. Weintraub in turn comments upon the 13th Battalion London Regiment position of that night in that:

The regimental history of the Kensingtons conceded, "We were a little embarrassed by this sudden comradeship, and, as a lasting joke against us, let it be said that the order was given to stand to arms. But we did not fire, for the battalion on our right, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, with their national sense of humour, answered the enemy's salutations with songs and jokes and made appointments in No Man's Land for Christmas Day. We felt small and subdued and spent the remainder of Christmas Eve in watching the lights flicker and fade on the Christmas trees in their trenches and in hearing their voices grow fainter and eventually cease."

The component of the Ulster Volunteer Force in the Ulster Division who fought with the Royal Irish Fusiliers were the Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan volunteers. Fatalities at the later Battle of the Somme were heavy - 64 men returned to the trenches from 600 who had left. Many of the dead were members of the Orange Order. Cavan and Monaghan became part of the Irish Free state with the partition of the island in 1921 as did a third Ulster county - Donegal. One particular photograh of soldiers from this regiment leaving a trench defence remains for me the single most emotionally charged image I have yet seen in my life on so many national, cultural, communal and familial respects.

Cinematically the truce has been portrayed in both Oh What A Lovely War in 1969 and 2005's Joyeux Noel - capturing British and German fraternisation in the former and Scottish, French and German in the latter. Weintraub's book alone however underscores the staggering human scale and historic scope of the Christmas events between the British, German, French, Belgian and respective colonial forces - including Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus from India in the British Army and the Magrebois Muslims in the French from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Weintraub also notes interesting intra-German divisions regarding the respecting the truce between the Saxon regiments as opposed to the Prussian military contingent - and indeed an individual and very bitter Corporal Hitler from Austria.

From the North Sea to the Swiss border that potentially history-changing moment of rapprochement and brotherhood - that the Germans in the main elicited whatever the qualifications concerning their faith in sure military victory - casts a long shadow on our vile godless world of greed, envy, smugness, ignorance and blandness today.

The men on the frozen fields of Flanders surely looked on the face of God that night every bit as much as the living and the dead did six months hence on the morning of 1st July 1916 at the Somme. So much in our lives of routine, stasis and disappointment will pass but this will not. Those fleeting hours in Western Europe by contrast were the everlasting fingerprint of humanity on this cold, unforgiving, timeless, savage and unrelenting rock. There is very little else in the human condition and the human experience nowadays to hold onto.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Pogues and London - Like Atlantis You Disappeared From View

The Pogues @ Saturday Buddha

Two further milestones of closure then in the past ten days upon an older and better London life. There has been news of the imminent end of Soho's legendary gay club Madame Jojos on Brewer Street and the death of The Small Faces' Hounslow-born keyboardist Ian McLagan from the greatest rock group to have come from the capital in the Sixties.

Was thinking about the band only last Sunday night when I was at a pub in Pimlico in South London where the group lived for a year at 22 Westmoreland Terrace from late 1965. In turn was walking around Soho yesterday and noted some seriously bland boutique developments around Great Windmill Street, Denman Street, Glasshouse Street and Ham Yard that made the head spin.

What would appear to have been the area's last working peep show also may well have shut up shop and I sense it will not be turned into a heritage museum for the industry. However one can still see a faux-peep show sign at the junction of Old Compton Street and Charing Cross Road as an entrance to a Mexican basement restaurant. How post-post-modern is that?

The broader satanification of London life into a city fundamentally distanced from a generic working population - by way of the blistering pus-filled macro-economics of financial plague death and as joyously sold to the world's investors by the Olympiad - has certainly altered life here to literal biochemical degrees now by way of the daily atmosphere of hopelessness and stasis. This fundamentally originating in both the Ponzi property greed and the amount of immoral spiv profit made out of thin air by so many smug wankers in the past ten years of national suicide. This twin phenomena mirroring how the job market has been defaced by industrial internship abuse in both the offering and the uptake alike. Remember that kids.

In such strained times it is interesting to recall how Britain's most famous festive pop song of the Seventies which will be heard in extremis over the next few weeks - Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody - was actually a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the sheer fucking misery of that strike, inflation, boot boy and terrorism-wracked UK decade. Conversely the best of all Christmas songs in popular culture remains of course The Pogue's Fairytale of New York with its unequivocally bleak, openly broken and mournfully Dickensian opening.

A significant percentage of The Pogues' original material over their five studio albums with Shane McGowan reference a lost or now utterly transfigured London - a London of dreams, struggle, light, shadows, nightmares and epiphany. The city is thus mentioned in the tracks Transmetropolitan, Dark Streets of London, Sea Shanty, Lullaby of London, The Old Main Drag, Misty Morning Albert Bridge, White City, London Girl, Rainy Night In Soho and London You're A Lady.

The lyrics of these songs incorporate references to areas as diverse as Kings Cross, Brixton, Leicester Square, Hammersmith, Camden, Somerstown, Soho, Euston, Pentonville, Tottenham Court Road and Surrey Docks. The track by The Pogues which I find the most moving and affectionate regarding times gone forever - not dissimilar indeed to The Jam's Boy About Town excursion around a now run-down second world Oxford Street - is White City.

This song - alike The Who's great lost 1968 single Dogs - is based around the world of greyhound racing at the White City Stadium which was built for the 1908 London Olympics. It  was also used as a speedway track and for one 1966 World Cup Finals fixture between Uruguay and France. A famous Kinks concert took place here in 1973 where an extremely overemotional Ray Davies announced his retirement and also a 1974 David Cassidy concert where a girl was crushed to death in a crowd surge.

The West London location is close to Steptoe and Son's Oil Drum Lane and Wormwood Scrubs prison while the haunting Victorian Kensal Rise Cemetery lies further to the north east. White City Stadium closed in 1984 and was demolished the following year. Haringey Stadium also closed in 1987 though greyhound racing has continued in the capital at Crayford, Romford and Wimbledon.

The lyrics touch upon the glory years of the stadium's life as a centre for working class entertainment and it's fateful demise:

Here a tower of shining bright once stood gleaming in the night,
Where now there's just the rubble in the hole.
Where the Paddies and the Frogs came to gamble on the dogs,
Came to gamble on the dogs not long ago.
The torn up ticket stubs from 100,000 mugs,
Now washed away like dead dreams in the rain.
And the car parks going up and they're pulling down the pubs,
And it's just another bloody rainy day.

The song then notes how the stadium's 77-year presence upon the face of London has left no archeological trace like the legendary lost continent in the Atlantic depths around about the Azores. The greyhounds and the hare on the wire both now turned to ashes while bland BBC buildings full of overpaid and underworked lifers now stand on the site.

Indeed when one looks at vintage pictures from the British Fifties today there is indeed a pervading sense for so many of us that the streetscapes, the life dynamics, the folk culture and the very working people are all gone and gone for good. The world's once greatest city itself turned into a low-rent, phoney, sterile and fucking godless misery pit as another grey year fades out into shadowlands of stagnation, decay and lies.

The next 77 years of London life are certainly looking very very bright tonight.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Saturday Buddha at Christmas - This Holy Tide of Christmas All Other Doth Deface

Over the past three weeks I have been wracking my brains for the origin of a particularly wonderful Belfast children's song which I originally heard on a youtube link though in turn never particularly recall hearing myself as a genuine "branded" Belfast child of the scary Seventies.

I looked carefully through the BBC Northern Ireland Dusty Bluebells compendium of children's street games as directed by the late David Hammond and could not locate it there. This programme was recorded in 1971 and filmed in the literal West Belfast locations where the recent British movie 71 was set.

I also looked through the CBS television movie A War of Children which was produced in 1972 and starred beautiful Jenny Agutter as a young Catholic girl who falls in love with a British soldier as played by Anthony Andrews. This is mostly interesting - beyond the Dublin accents of local Belfast residents - for some staggeringly racist portrayals of the nationalist community throughout as worthy of the London Evening Standard's infamous JAK cartoons against the twin evil others of the period - the English, Scottish and Welsh miners and "the Irish".

The song could not be located either in the BBC documentary Children of the Crossfire which was transmitted in 1974 and contrasted the lives of working class teenagers, minors and infants in Derry's Creggan and in East Belfast - the physical infrastructural collapse captured in this feature alone is truly astounding. There are several renditions of partisan songs in this programme from the local children as relating to Irish republicanism and Ulster loyalism alike and even a clip from a disco with kids dancing along to a version of Jeff Beck's Hi Ho Silver Lining with them interjecting lyrics in support of the violent teenage Tartan gangs of the period.

Either way, and pending corroboration of the source, the song takes the form of a call and respond format:

Everywhere we go
Everywhere we go
People always ask us
People always ask us
Who we are
Who we are
And where do we come from
And where do we come from
And we always tell them
And we always tell them
We're from Belfast
We're from Belfast
Mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty Belfast
Mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty Belfast
And if they can't hear us
And if they can't hear us
We shout a little louder
We should a little louder

The song is meant to be repeated again and again in louder voice and ends with the admonition "If they can't hear us they must be deaf".

During December many of us are drawn back to the past and to people, times and places long gone. I have so many fond memories of Seventies Christmases in Belfast despite the Troubles. In fact when one looks at the day-to-day details of the political unrest and terrorist violence between 1969 and 1976 alone - by way of David McKittrick's 1999 Lost Lives or the much earlier Northern Ireland: A Chronology of Events 1968-74 by Richard Deutsch and Vivien Magowan (published by Blackstaff Press between 1973 and 1976) it is almost inconceivable that such a scale of violence could warrant even qualified normality as a backdrop.

What happened during those years in Northern Ireland - beyond the dead and the physically and emotionally wounded - still defies belief in terms of grotesque societal and cultural damage. Thinking back to those specific childhood Christmases during the conflict - when I would have been between the ages of four and eleven - 21 people would have been killed by the end of 1969, 49 by 1970, 229 by 1971, 725 by 1972, 988 by 1973, 1,291 by 1974, 1,558 by 1975 and 1,866 by 1976. These figures incorporate fatalities on mainland Britain and in the Irish Republic.

Yet Belfast and Northern Ireland - for all the recent battles over flags and emblems and memory and guilt - still retains a fundamental warmth located in the people and the soil. In a recent post on a Belfast forum one first-time visitor recalled a particularly unexpected piece of social interaction:

Recently spent 2 days in Belfast and want to say what a great and friendly city. We were in a pub and asked if they had crisps and the bartender said no. Next thing I know the bartender left the bar and came back with 2 bags of crisps and would not take any money. I am still blown away. Hope to return real soon.

Earlier blog posts on the status quo in London - and indeed one on Mr Tayto the Ulster manufacturing hero who was a literal potato - have already articulated my feelings on the above field report to a point perhaps too obvious to elaborate upon.

However, nearing the end of another working year in a London fraught with daily street aggression, enshrouded in a fog of human misery, drunk on short-term spiv greed and now gradually physically dissippating - as epitomised by the gathering death of Old Soho - this yet again underscores that certain core positivities of the human condition and the human experience remain beyond purchase power. A sense of home and a connection with a shared past being the most fundamental one may arguably surmise.

Somehow I can hardly imagine many children from post-working class London today are likely to be proudly boasting in the years ahead of their city's mighty folk community status against the satanic troika of financial criminality, record-breaking overpopulation and negative social mobility.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

1971 - The Days Of The Last Ditch

Though normally very reticent about cinematic depictions of the Ulster Troubles, I found the recent 71 to be a superb recreation of the times as well as being a very well-paced thriller in its own right. Released last month, it is written by Gregory Burke who was mentioned some posts ago in light of his earlier Black Watch play performed by the National Theatre of Scotland across the UK.

There were a handful of historical inaccuracies such a "pig"-style Royal Ulster Constabulary vehicle which never existed and reference to an Ulster army regiment that was defunct by the year that the drama was set. I would perhaps also question the scale of bricked-up and abandoned buildings that would have been in existence at such an early stage of the conflict though the threatening chill of the silent Seventies Belfast night was captured to perfection. Likewise for the muddied morality of political violence and the labyrinthine security stratagems surrounding the Troubles. 

October also saw the end of the re-run of the late Stewart Parker's acclaimed Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast - arguably one of the greatest works in Irish theatre and set forty years ago exactly during the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974. It focuses on the interplay of five lost souls - four metaphorical and one literal - in the last remaining house in a terraced street long given up to urban decay, interface violence and population flight. Incidentally Parker's collection of rock album reviews for The Irish Times between 1970 and 1976 as compiled as High Pop are certainly worth investigation as well.

I have also recently finally got around to reading The Last Ditch - an entertaining 1982 thriller written by former Ulster Unionist politician Roy Bradford. It looks at the political fallout surrounding the Westminster withdrawal of security powers from a Northern Ireland government with some barely disguised portraits of Vanguard leader William Craig, the Reverend Ian Paisley and the last Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner. Bradford was a Stormont MP himself in an East Belfast constituency, served as Minister of Commerce and Minister of Development  and also was a member of the 1973 Northern Ireland Assembly - he was a member of the power-sharing Executive itself in charge of the Department of the Environment. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin he worked in Army Intelligence in France and Germany during the Second World War. At one point he co-owned a Covent Garden restaurant in London with film director John Schlesinger and co-wrote a biography of SAS legend Blair Mayne with the writer Martin Dillon. He died in 1998 some months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. 

The most famous literary portrayal of the Troubles still remains Gerald Seymour's Harry's Game which was published in 1975 and made into a highly successful ITV television drama in the early Eighties starring Ray Lonnen who died during the summer. This story was about an undercover British army officer sent into Belfast to find information on a leading IRA gunman. Of the vast sweep of other fiction on the conflict four particularly stand out in my opinion - Maurice Leitch's Whitbread Prize winning Silver's City from 1981 about a veteran loyalist paramilitary commander sprung from imprisonment, Brian Moore's 1990 Lies of Silence about an IRA assassination attempt on leading Protestant militants, Eoin McNamee's 1994 Resurrection Man which was based on the Shankill Butcher killings of the mid-Seventies and Glenn Patterson's incredibly moving The International from 1999 on the daily life of a central Belfast hotel soon to be touched personally by the mounting waves of civil disorder and terrorist violence. 

All reflections of desperate times, grotesque political miscalculation, undiluted hatred, wasted years and a wrong war.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Restless Natives - Independence for Scotland

Oor Wullie @ Saturday Buddha

The Scottish referendum result of last week has unequivocally exposed fractures within the British body politic that have not been witnessed since the commencement of the Ulster Troubles in October 1968. Similarly these in turn evolved a full half century after the Irish Free State's own secession from the United Kingdom. The crossroads our country thus stands at today is surely of similar consequence to events of this very month 65 years ago no less in September 1939  - 1.6 million British people having now proclaimed to the free world that the greed-obsessed, democratically-deficient, profiteering and deeply degenerate status quo of modern Britain and the Union itself is not fit for purpose any longer.

Having unfortunately been resident in a London-now-morphing-into-Dubai mixed with a Hammer Horror film set since 1987 I completely understand the core dynamics behind Scotland's irrevocable distancing from the social changes operating within the South East of England in particular. However I would have been literally heartbroken had the deep cultural blood ties and shared history between Ulster and Scotland been constitutionally severed off the back of the above for good. Ties that stretch back long before the Ulster Plantation and the Hamilton and Montgomery settlements in County Down to the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada, the Scotti or indeed to the clear geological (let alone Pictish) confluence of Eastern Ulster with Western Scotland.

Life has gone on as normal of course for millions of people in England since Friday 19th September  2014 with the Ponzi housing market, demographic megasurges, rotting social infrastructure, junk television, Facebook updates, aggressive urban culture, cheap supermarket lager and banking mischief but it is clear that a gigantic political timebomb has now been laid that has changed everything from this point on in time in the UK.

If there was a way to salvage societal unity from such political and ethno-religious divisions north of the border (not a mention of the latter on mainstream media of course) I yet feel it is still theoretically possible despite the eleventh hour afoot. However our current Westminster political class are surely the last people on Planet Earth or possibly even the universe itself that could manage it. The internal Scottish parameters they allowed to be set for the referendum alone being surely the gravest political misjudgment in living folk memory from Skye to the Scilly Isles and all points inbetween.

Either way....Welcome to History.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Aye Ready - Independence for Scotland

Billy Bremer Slim Jim Baxter @ Saturday Buddha

I have had a sneaking suspicion for some time now that not that many working people in the likes of Copenhagen or Dusseldorf or Warsaw are waking up in the middle of the night and worrying with quite the degree of death-rattle horror about the future ahead as compared to the citizens of a recession-hit and literally directionless Britain.

Tonight our country finds itself emershed in a sense of rank social stasis that outstrips even that as portrayed in James Joyce's Dubliners in 1914 - minus the cheap black porter then available in British Dublin of course. We have a public awareness of unparalleled cultural change and political inertia afoot that transcends individual left-right boundaries. And we also have ludicrously transparent censorship by the mass media of the true scale of danger affecting the economy by way of real unemployment figures or the gargantuan cowboy mischief-making of the UK property market.

If British life wasn't so serious and sobering then all this Kafkaesque entertainment accompanying the Euro collapse would be terribly wry and amusing.

Back to another time and place I recently watched the third of Peter McDougall's Play For Today dramas set in Glasgow - 1979's Just A Boy's Game which followed Just Another Saturday and Elephant's Graveyard. The performances by both blues singer Frankie Miller as Jake McQuillen and Ken Hutchinson as Dancer were truly exceptional when viewing this for the first time in 30 years. At one point Dancer visits McQuillen while the latter was working on a crane at the Glasgow docks at Greenock. They talk about the imminent death of McQuillen's grandfather - "What is he dieing of?" "Everything". The fading grandfather's metal remains unvanquished right through to the play's conclusion however where he tries to even pick a fight with hard man Jake while on his own deathbed. The kind of steely people that empires were once forged upon no less.

That same spirit of Caledonian grit being seen the decade previously with Scotland's 3-2 victory over World Champions England at Wembley in 1967 when Dennis Law of Manchester United noted to Glasgow Rangers' Slim Jim Baxter that the English team were there for the taking and for the Scots to seize the opportunity. The legendary reply being, according to football lore, "Naw let's just take the pish oot o'them". He certainly procceded to do so alongside reminding England's Alan Ball of his uncanny resemblence to 4 foot 3 inch comedian Jimmy Clitheroe.

Two decades later The Proclaimers Letter From America gave us one of the most moving political songs of our times as comparing historic emigrations of old from Lewis and Skye to a now industrially bereft Scottish landscape stretching from Irvine to Bathgate.

In the thriving cosmopolitan, stylish and pulsating financial hub of modern London - the fifth country in the United Kingdom and Margaret Thatcher's disfunctional and very naughty bastard grandchild - there is no doubt very little thought at all anymore about other British regions and their historical connectivity to the capital through war and peace. This very metropolis currently luxuriating in the same waves and pathways of globalisation that guarantee there probably won't be much nuturing ahead in the UK for more Slim Jims, cutting edge television dramas about the working class or industrial endeavour of  extraordinary vintage and achievement.

Thankfully there is no price on heritage, culture, wit, character and pride for the time being. So whatever the constitutional future should hold over the next few hours, Scotland remains both a big country and a mighty nation. Great Britain will never see its like again.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

North - Sport in Ulster II

Some time ago I discussed the historic football match played at Windsor Park Belfast on 16th April 1975 between Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian Football Association had agreed to take part in the first international match to be played in Northern Ireland after four years of sustained terrorist violence and civil disorder had transported the entirity of  such fixtures to England.

The result was a 1-0 victory for the home team who had provided a guard of honour for the visitors at the start and as against a deafening welcome to both sides from the Belfast supporters. Needless to say that in a period of sustained racist abuse of the Eastern European population of Northern Ireland at present it is well to recall this brave 1975 gesture alongside the Polish contribution to the RAF defence of Ulster itself during the Second World War. Seven Polish Air Force graves lie tonight in Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast and three at Ballcranbeg Cemetery in County Down.

The importance of Ulster sport to both a sense of societal normality and providing an albeit qualified framework for communal bonding has been discussed in earlier posts on George Best and Mary Peters. The entire subject was reviewed in depth in Teddie Jamieson's superb Whose Side Are You On? Sport, The Troubles and Me which was published in 2011.

However the apogee of this social phenomena may well have been reached last weekend with the success of the Giro d'Italia races across Greater Belfast, along the Antrim Coast and through County Armagh into the Irish Republic. This was without doubt the biggest sporting event to be held in Northern Ireland since the termination of the RAC Tourist Trophy competitions in 1955 at the Dundrod Circuit.

One especially memorable piece of television footage captured from a helicopter during the Saturday event was that of twenty or so horses galloping along Carnlough beach in tandem with the cyclists - Carnlough being the home village of current Liverpool Football Club manager Brendan Rodgers. The riders accompanied the peloton at various points on the route including at Dunluce Castle - captured within the centrefold of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy album - and the equally beautiful ruins of Kenbane Castle on the Causeway coast. The events were held in honour of the McDonnell clan of Antrim who controlled the area in the 16th Century. It represented "safe passage" to the cyclists through Sonny Boy McDonnell's territory of old. It was a marvellously conceived and executed complement to the atmosphere surrounding the entire proceedings.

The endgame battle of history in Ulster looks set to run a complex course for many more years to come. However the success of the Giro d'Italia - and similar moving events in Northern Ireland last weekend marking the sad passing of the extraordinarily brave young cancer victim Oscar Knox - truly suggests that the majority of the people are now fundamentally running ahead of both Ulster politicians and Northern Irish regional politics alike towards an pragmatically inclusive tomorrow. That race has clearly been won.