Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Brunch to Lunch Food Tour in Armagh

Armagh continues to surprise and delight me with its vast range of culture and food experiences, and simply put - fun things to do. There's something really pleasurable about being a tourist in my own hometown. I'm incredibly proud of our wee city and never more so than when I'm learning about its history. Armagh really is a fascinating place and for a spot that is not on the coast, has no major port (the Callan being a little on the small side) it always amazes me how many people of note have hung their hats here, however temporarily, in days gone by. For example, Saint Patrick, Jonathon Swift (author of Gulliver's travels) to mention a couple at this point.

St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh
Nowadays, Armagh is an up and coming culinary player in the Food Heartland scene. So when I heard of the Brunch to Lunch Tour, I bought tickets straight away! The idea is you begin with Brunch then do a walking tour that ends with Lunch. Here's the menu:-

The tour, led by the lovely Donna Fox, began in Market Street - a place close to my own heart since I lived here as a child. What was particularly cool was that Donna was able to tell us about modern art installations as well as telling stories from way back when, weaving a delicious tapestry from the past to the present.

The tour was full but capped at 16 people- a nice size of group.  I asked if anyone was from further afield than County Armagh and was surprised to see that only two were. I loved that we natives are getting into being tourists at home. What was particularly fun with this group was the sharing of anecdotes usually stories handed down through families. Donna expertly managed these exchanges and contributed, filling in the gaps in our collective local knowledge. It was fantastic, not to mention the lovely new friends we met along the way.

Brunch was at 4 Vicars, restaurant, set up as a taster menu. It did not disappoint. Mind you, this place is consistently superb and is a place we Armachians should be incredibly proud of. The chef, Gareth Reid and all the chefs to date are from a "cluster of chefs" from the Food Heartland Group founded by Sean Farnan, the chef at the Moody Boar - the restaurant that will be on the next  tour.

Kilkeel Crab - yummy!

After brunch the tour continued.... Too many fun facts to list here. I'd rather let folk have the chance to hear Donna actually deliver the info herself but here's my 6 of the best:
1) Outside the Market Place Theatre is the Star Stone.


It was sculpted by Richard Perry and "The inspiration for Star Stone came from Armagh’s long association with the night sky and the way the Cathedrals seemingly reach for the sky from the hills on which the City was built. " It also ties in with the Observatory and Planetarium. With its shadow on the wall you can see the idea of the twin spires. It's made from Armagh marble - see - I didn't even know we had a marble!
2) In the Church of Ireland Cathedral Garden there is sculpture of Brian Boru's head by Rory Breslin.


In 1006 Brian Boru visited Armagh and was so taken with the place that he left 20 ounces of gold to be buried here. He was slain in 1014 after the battle of Clontarf...the funeral cortege to Armagh took 3 days!

3) The street alongside the cathedral is called Castle Street. Of course, I already knew that, but what I didn't know was that the rebuilding of Castle Street actually won prizes. And rightly so - it looks fabulous and is just as I remember it from my childhood (minus the big scary dog that lived there! That's another story!)

In Donna' words, "the houses were built from the stones of the demolished dwellings that had previously been here. They were restored by Hearth Housing set up by the National Trust and the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society to restore historic buildings. This row won a Europa Nostra Diploma of merit in 1995 and dozens of international housing experts came to Armagh with Professor Paddy Gray (native of Armagh) to see it."

4)  The original building of the Church of Ireland's St Patrick's Cathedral was St Patrick's first stone church (pictured at the top of the post). During Ireland's golden age in the 6th and 7th century, 7000 students were educated here. In fact, St Patrick said only someone educated in Armagh could spread the gospel! Wait a minute - I was educated in Armagh ... does that mean...?

5) I'm gonna cheat by rolling two factoids into one section - James II stayed in the building at the top of Abbey Street on his way down to the Battle of the Boyne. His adversary, William III (of Orange), introduced gin to these parts from 1688 onwards and brought his chief cider maker Paul le Harper here to make cider for the troops before going into battle. Cider might have been already produced here but this certainly would have promoted the manufacture of cider locally, something William would have been pleased about since drinking wine reeked too much of papist practises! Apparently it's where the saying to have "Dutch courage" comes from.
6)  These mural/sculptures by Eleanor Wheeler on the steps of Market Street tell the story of the produce from farm to the market.

This was a snippet of what we discovered on our tour.

Donna had us spell-bound as she told us stories of the past, such that we hardly noticed the walk as we wound down from the top of the hill to the Mall then back up to finish at Uluru originally opened by an Australian Chef Dean Coppard who married a local girl. When the restaurant changed hands they kept the name. The head chef is now Mark Mc Gonigle who is also a Food Heartland Chef.

We'd been incredibly lucky with the weather but were still happy to get sitting down to a warm cuppa, some cider (Cheers King Billy!) and more lovely grub.

Pulled beef slider

The next Walking Food Tour is happening on Sunday, 3 December 2017.

Beginning at the award-winning Moody Boar and finishing up at the Friary Restaurant in the Armagh City Hotel, it promises to be full of fun and yummy food. Both chefs, John Whyte (Friary Restaurant)  and Sean Farnan (Moody Boar) are Food Heartland chefs.

Hopefully these tours will become a regular feature in Armagh. Donna tells me that each tour will take different routes with Market Street being the only overlap. It will be a slightly longer walk - giving us more time to drum up an appetite!

For more information see Donna's Facebook Page - Donna Fox Tours - and for tickets for Sunday you can book here. Donna can also can be contacted for Bespoke Tours for groups, not necessarily with food included but walking tours of the history of Armagh which includes the Public Art Trail and contemporary facts along the way. Donna has a  qualified with a Blue Badge level 4 on the Tour Guiding course which covers a large amount of Irish history. She very humbly admits that she is not a historian, having not studied history formally but her enthusiasm and gift for story telling brings the past alive and I can vouch for the fact that this gal knows her stuff. She is both informative and incredibly interesting, not to mention a stickler for getting the facts right (as I discovered when I asked her help in fact checking this post!)

We had a great time and will definitely do another tour with Donna. In the meantime, my mouth is watering remembering how these naughty but nice little apple pies tasted... Apple pies, cider, stories galore... don't I just love living in the Orchard County again...

Byddi Lee

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

No Borders, No Boundaries - John O'Connor Writing School and Literary Festival, Armagh 2017

I sat stock-still in the darkness of the Abbey Lane Theatre, my skin prickling with goosebumps, my heart bursting with sympathy for Bellina Prior (21) the woman otherwise known in Armagh as the Green Lady who had killed little Anne Slavin (4). It was a surprising reaction, but such was the impact of Armagh writer and actor Karl O Neill's play, Bellina and the Softening of The Stones, magically brought to life by wonderful actors Maggie Cronin and  Brenda Winter-Palmer.

This was the first of many moments where my emotions were pummeled during the course of the John O'Connor Writing School and Literary Arts Festival 2017.

The programme was ingenious - 5 concurring schools would run in the mornings (Friday through to Sunday) covering poetry, playwriting, songwriting, fiction and screenwriting. In the afternoon and evening, students, artists, tutors and members of the public could mingle as they attend the panel talks and live performances. The intimate settings such as the gracious Charlemont Arms Hotel, the Amma Centre, the Robinson Library, the Planetarium, Abbey Lane theatre (to mention but a few) brought me shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers and artists. Some were musicians I had only ever dreamed of seeing play live, never mind actually conversing with!

After Bellina and the Softening of the Stones that first evening, everyone gathered at the Charlemont. I had to pinch myself to check I wasn't dreaming as I sat around a table with Maggie Cronin, Karl O Neil, Barry Devlin and Jim Lockhart from Horslips (The actual Horslips - OMG!)

Karl and I discovered a connection through family and friendship - my father and his sister had taught together. Karl patiently answered my questions about the play and how he'd come to research and write it - questions I'm sure he has answered a thousand times. Maggie had enjoyed the craic, I think, as we'd walked from the theatre to the Charlemont (I was volunteering at the event and had been 'on the door.') I had dared her to walk down Vicars Hill in her costume that night. Barry and Jim, I'm sure, were just being polite - probably wondering who the hell I was!

We chatted about writing, story, good things to watch on the telly... all an addition for my memory folder of golden moments.

The next morning, (Friday) I attended the registration in the Robinson Library. I sat feet from the original copy of  Gulliver's Travels with Jonathan Swift's notes handwritten in the margins. Karl O Neill arrived in and chose to sit beside me. Behind me sat the talented author Jo Baker, next to her husband Daragh Carville, a very successful screenwriter from Armagh. They greeted me warmly, epitomizing the ethos of this festival, inclusion, no borders, no boundaries - we were fellow Armachians, in this together.

After the Lord Mayor's opening address, Lemn Sissey read a beautiful poem that brought tears to my eyes. I especially loved the following lines, that spoke to me of My Husband's support of and faith in my writing.
If there was ever one
Who when you achieve
Was there before the dream
And even then believed;

And then it was to school. I chose screenwriting, something I've always had an interest in but just didn't know where to begin. Deirdre Cartmill, my teacher, showed me. Her enthusiasm for the art-form is boundless and she had our class enthralled and hanging on her every word. Yes, she told us it was a hard business. Yes, we needed a thick skin to survived the editing and rewriting process, yet nothing about her warnings put me off. She had the rare talent of making you feel everything was possible and that you deserved that everything too.

For the second time that morning, I choked back emotion as I listen to her tell us that writing was not a selfish pursuit  - she read a quote which basically said that if you were born to write you could either write or not write. If you didn't write you hurt yourself, others, and the planet! It finished by telling us that our unique gifts nudged us closer to God and commanded us to "Give us what you've got."

Those are words I'll draw upon in the solitary place at my computer when I wonder what the hell I am doing here. Thank you, Deirdre.

That afternoon I attended a panel discussion on "What makes good theatre?" These people have spent a lifetime on their craft: Jo Egan, Jane Coyle, Rosemary Jenkinson and more Armachians, Conall Morrison and Paul Bosco McEneany. At the end, I had the chance to chat to Conall and Paul. I'd known both of their sisters at school - it's a small city, Armagh, but with a far-reaching web of connections. Both men seemed genuinely pleased that I'd apprehended them, God Bless them. I'm sure they get a lot of this. 

I said to Conall that I felt overwhelmed being such a newcomer to the scene, having had a life in science and teaching before writing. He told me that didn't matter, that new people like me were most likely less jaded and brought our own freshness to the scene. Kind words, that I certainly soaked up. 

Paul was heading my way and we walked from the Local and Irish Studies Library to Market Street together. As we passed the Cathedral, I told Paul about how it featured in my current project, in-between our exchanging the do-you-remember-such-and-such-person? and other reminiscences of Armagh.

Friday evening events were sold out. I was too tired and filled to the brim with inspiration to be too disappointed. I needed some quietude to mull over what Deidre had taught me that day.

Saturday morning dawned with bluebird skies and breath-clouds that hung before your face.

Market Street, where I lived when I was in single digits, looked splendid. I sat in class in the Amma Centre looking out over my old playground - now minus the bollards and black fire-pocked tarmac.

Our teacher was joined by Barry Devlin for the industry talk about the nitty-gritty of life as a screenwriter. Barry was as entertaining as he was informative, his self-depreciating humour unveiling a gentleman and a scholar. 

When I was thirteen I discovered the Horslips. The first time I heard Dearg Doom my imagination burst into visions of stallions galloping through surf, of rebel warriors charging, of thunderclaps over mountain peaks, of hot blood pumping through hearts and of feet unable to stop dancing. I was bereft then when I discovered that the band had 'retired' in 1980, three years before I'd first heard of them (I was always a bit slow on the old music scene - where my friends had posters of Duran Duran, I had posters of elephants and tigers from David Attenborough documentaries!)

Horslips reformed in 2009 but by then I was living in America, though I did have their CD with me. So I, for one, was thrilled to hear that Horslips would be playing in The Charlemont Hotel that evening.

After class, there was another panel discussion "Lights, Camera, Action." with Barry Devlin, Daragh Carville, Ronan Blaney, Jude Sharvin and the adorable Ursula Devine from Screen NI. In short, the message was thrilling - it's a great time to be getting into screenwriting in this part of the world. I left feeling excited about the possibilities opening up in this region in film and drama production. Ursula couldn't have been more encouraging when I had a chance to talk to her later in the Charlemont at the Celebration Night.

After that I needed to eat - I'd been too busy, too excited, too inspired to stop for lunch... 

I found Brenda Winter-Palmer, her husband Richard and Libby Smyth in the Charlemont Hotel lounge. They invited me (wee me!) to join them and we spent the next two hours in animated discussion in what turned into a workshop on screenwriting ideas. Both actors made me promise to write a screenplay for them - a promise I fully intend to keep.

Later, I watched, enthralled, as Libby Smyth transformed on stage at the Abbey Lane Theatre to perform Both Sides an interlocking monologue along with Hannah Coyle, set in Paris and Nice, written by Jane Coyle.

The ultimate highlight of the festival for me was the John O'Connor Celebration Evening, because My Husband, My Sister, My Bro-In-Law and friends joined in the festivities. 

We were treated to a plethora of amazing talent. Glenn Patterson read a piece about the Titanic sinking, using maritime distress signals that literally left My Husband speechless with emotion.

Gareth Dunlop's music inspired me so much, I had to actually whip out my phone and jot down some notes and ideas as I sat and listened to him. Lisa Lambe and Fiachna Ó Braonáin from Hothouse Flowers joined Horslips on stage and soon had the hall rocking. But it was when Horslips played the opening bars of their best-known song, Dearg Doom, the place went ape-shit and we all lost our heads (and hearts) to the music in a freestyle ceili that had the stage lights bouncing. We danced, stamped, punched the air, clapped and were transported to another time, another world. Barry Devlin ceased to be my screenwriting tutor, Jim Lockheart, no longer that guy beside me in the coffee line (earlier that morning.) They and the rest of Horslips had become Time Lords and Dearg Doom their Tardis.

Later in the bar of the Charlemont, someone produced a guitar and a sing-song erupted. I could hardly breathe with excitement when Gareth Dunlop appeared and joined in. Then Lisa and Fiachna had us all singing with them. 

It was spine-tingling good and for me soul-filling. I'd missed an ould sing-along session in the pub during all those years I'd lived abroad. No-one does this like the Irish, and here we were soaking up the talent of these amazing artists as if we were all on the same level - No borders, no boundaries.

As a venue the Charlemont Hotel was outstanding. The staff could not do enough for us. We'd kept them up half the night but still, they looked after us with good humour and a cheerful smile. I'll be back to do a separate blog on this amazing place...

I made it on time (9.30am) to class the next day - an accomplishment in itself! And the literary lunch was a final treat in what had been an excellent long weekend. Author Orla McAlinden and I swapped signed copies of our books. I can't wait to read the Accidental Wife.

We were served local cheese, cider and can-you-believe-it - locally grown Armagh grapes!

I'm truly amazed at the vision, passion and sheer dedication that festival director Cathy McCullough poured into this event. It showcased the great talent that Armagh has to offer and that Armagh wants to welcome. It was a weekend that celebrated words, that celebrated the people who are guardians of those words and celebrated the connections between people across borders and across boundaries -  connections interweaving like gossamer silk cocoons glistening soft and supple in the warmth of friendship and camaraderie, and which even in the cold frost of the solitariness of writing, allures us with their brittle sparkle.

Thank you, Cathy, for this amazing experience.

Byddi Lee