Monday, February 26, 2018

The Charlemont Arms Hotel, Armagh - there's always a warm welcome and a log on the fire.

My Granny loved a wee meal in the Charlemont Hotel. We celebrated her 80th birthday there and a few years later celebrated her life with a meal there after her funeral. It was also where we celebrated my nephews' christening. I have fond memories of dancing with My Dad at credit Union AGMs. He was great at the jiving and taught My Sister and me how to dance in our kitchen. Nearly 10 years after his passing, I was back dancing in that same room, this time to the Celtic Rock Legends, Horslips at the John O Connor Writing Festival.

The Charlemont Hotel has been the venue for many of the beats of my life, and it's a great wee spot for a cosy meal and a drink with friends between those times.

Last August, I was sitting in the queue one day in Argos in Armagh when a woman sat down beside me.
"I know you don't I?" we said to each other at the same time. It took us a few moments to place each other's face.

"I was talking to you the other night," I said. "I was in the Charlemont. You work there don't you?"

I'd had my hair cut that morning, and she said that was why it had taken her a moment to recognise me again. Turns out, Helen doesn't just work there, she and her sister, Judith, own the hotel. It didn't surprise me one bit to learn that The Charlemont was a family run business. It had always had a warmth to it, a sense of comfort and home that comes from family. Helen's friendliness was typical of what I've come to associate with the Charlemont Hotel. She was happy to sit down with me recently and tell me about her family's history at the hotel.

Helen's grandparents, Robert and Elizabeth Forster, bought the hotel in 1934. Her mum came to work in the office at the age of 14. As we chatted, I mentioned how romantic it must have been for this young woman going to work and meeting the hotel owner's son, catching his eye and falling in love. Helen gave me a look that told me I might be over romanticising things (as I am prone to doing) and said with a laugh, " Let's just say, love blossomed."

When I pressed it by saying that they probably went to the City Hall dances together Helen nodded and told me that the Charlemont had done the catering for those dances. My own parents had gone to those dances too.

Helen's parents took over running the hotel. In those days a lot of travelling salesmen and company reps stayed in the hotel. Her mother tells of how they used to leave their shoes out by their doors and the staff would take them away, polish them and return them before morning. There is still a room at the hotel called the "boot hall" where the shoes where polished. Often the reps would get up to high jinx, doing things like swapping around the shoes. I can imagine the temptation that would be after a few pints of Guinness in the bar!

That was all before Helen's time but she remembered the tea - loose tea, no tea bags - for the hotel arriving in big tea chests. I knew the type of thing she meant. We'd had one that we had stored old toys in. She also remembers coin operated heaters in the rooms.

There had been 18 rooms but some shared bathrooms. After renovations to give each room an ensuite there were 12 rooms. In 2000, the Charlemont bought Turners, the builders merchants next door and extended to 30 rooms, all with ensuite.

The hotel weathered the good times and the bad and throughout the years both sides of the community were welcomed and supported the hotel. Helen says she really appreciates that. I liked to hear it too. It gave me hope for a future where we can all live and work together here.

I asked Helen had she ever considered not going into the family business. She shrugged and said she'd spent a year in Boston, but even that was hotel related. She'd had worked in the 1000 room Boston Park Plaza which was, as Helen put it, "a bit different."

And indeed it is because the Charlemont Hotel has a good, comfortable vibe. It's an institution of old Armagh and has an atmosphere of home. People make friends here. There's always a log on the fire and the kettles always on the boil. Even when working during quiet times, when the place is empty, Helen says she never feels lonely or afraid in the hotel.

Helen did her degree in hotel tourism but says she learned more in the day-to-day running of the Charlemont when she and her sister took over the running of the hotel. She has certainly endeavoured to provide a cosy home-from-home experience for the people who frequent this much-loved establishment at the heart of the city.

The Charlemont Hotel is the pivotal venue of the John O Connor Writing School and Literary Festival held every year in November.  Robert McCrum, Associate Editor, The Observer and author summed it up nicely when he urged the festival organizers,

"Don't get bigger, get better! The Charlemont is key to your success - such a great vibe..."

Come see for yourselves. Grab a good book and have a drink by the fire - I can suggest a few good ones - both in books and drinks!

Byddi Lee

Friday, February 16, 2018

Full House at the Open Mic in the Abby Lane Theatre

The Open Mic Night at the Abbey Lane Theatre is a gleaming treasure hidden in a backstreet of Armagh City. Tucked behind a wall in a carpark where Linehall Street meets Abbey Lane, the door to the theatre bears little adornment. Once through that door, the stage is to the left and a large room stretches back to stairs beside an area with a sink and a structure that reminded me of our school tuckshop. Bare concrete walls play host to photos of happy groups of people in various costumes. I pick out some familiar faces.

Image courtesy of The Armagh Theatre group website.

Tonight is the last Friday of January and the first Open Mic Night of 2018. The stage has been set up with clusters of chairs and some little tables upon which sit little bowls of crisps, as if to say, “make yourself at home.” The rest of the room centres on a lonely blue chair and the Mic midway down the hall. I like the inclusive and intimate set up.

We pay our cover charge. Malachi Kelly welcomes us in. He has an easy way of managing to chat with everyone, giving each a fair amount of his banter without looking hassled or making you feel you’re in the way.

The burble of voices in the room rises as the seats fill in. Friends acknowledge each other, women embrace, men shake hands and clap backs. The audience is diverse – male, female, young, middle-aged, and older. There are people here from Lurgan, Belfast, and possibly further afield judging by the accents I hear.

The room is full, every seat taken, and a couple of young girls sit on the stairs having given up their seats to a more mature couple of late-comers.

Malachi takes the Mic, taps it a few times, then sets it aside. He starts, “In the name…” Those magic words, many of the audience know from school days as the way to quiet a crowd. Apart from the swell of gentle laughter, it works. Everyone settles in to listen and from what I can see are captured in the magic that the performers spin over the next couple of hours.

First up is Poet Mel Mc Mahon, originally from Lurgan reading poetry from his book  Out of Breath. I can tell from the pin-drop silence that he has connected with the audience and he carries us along with his mastery of words.

Next up is Thomas Healy on the harp and we let our minds melt with the resonance of the strings. Later in the evening, his soulful yet gritty poetry leaves a lasting impression.

Then Dymphna Ferran gets to her feet, looking like butter wouldn’t melt but brings the house down with her stand-up comedy act.  

When John Goodman starts to sing, a respectful silence settles over the listeners. It seems his reputation precedes him, and rightly so. Sung in an old tradition of reciting story, his voice is clear and melodic and the narrative easy to follow.

Colin Dardis, all the way from Belfast, reads poems so good that I get prickles on my scalp as his words wriggle under my skin.

We roll into the intermission with a beautiful song from Daniel Corrigan.

Even the break is a bit of craic as people move about, chatting with friends, congratulating performers. It’s nice to be able to approach people unselfconsciously and strike up a conversation. The atmosphere is simply that convivial.

Malachi launches the second half with what can only be described as a controlled riot. It’s time for the Limerick competition, too many contestants to name but all raising a laugh. There’s prizes – a meal for two, a bottle of wine, chocolates. I’m impressed at the list. To determine who wins, Malachi produces a Clapometer on his iPad. The audience decides it has one mission, and one mission only – to get that needle to the max, regardless of who said which limerick. It’s daft craic in its best Armagh fashion.

Finally, somehow, Malachi declares a winner and presents the meal for two…a couple of packets of Tayto crisps, delivered by air mail as he flings them over the heads of the audience. Local produce all the way!

Peter Carragher from Cullyhanna via Gilford enthrals the house with his aural storytelling, word perfect, without prompting from page or phone, an impressive feat which I think the younger generations would find hard to match.

Geraldine Daris O Kane reads a powerful poem that explores what it means to be human in our connections and our projections of who we think we are.

Young Louis O Donnell entertains us on his banjo. It is great to see the youth joining in and sharing their talents too.

Kevin Trainer has the whole place singing with him as he sings a song about Armagh characters from days gone by.

A somewhat experimental piece, the Mc Cools pull off a delightful narrated tin whistle instrumental. Musical talent is obviously a thing here in Armagh as singers Theresa, Michael Callaghan and Pat Prunty illustrate.

Thomas Healy played the harp, recieted poetry and played guitar and sang.
Tomas Healy

As the night comes to a close, again, we mingle. The Abbey Lane Theatre is a place with heart, a place to reconnect with old acquaintances and make new ones, a place to share stories and enjoy talent. It’s a place to enjoy a lovely night out on our doorstep, and I for one, am glad I discovered this place.

Open Mic at the Abbey Lane Theatre takes place on the last Friday of every month at 8pm and costs £5.

For more information check out their website –

Next Friday, the talented poet, David Braziel leads the charge. It promises to be a great nights craic so get down there early and grab the best seats!

 Byddi Lee

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Cúchulainn, Ulster’s Greatest Hero By Réamonn Ó Ciaráin: A Vibrant Legacy

Ó Ciaráin’s Cúchulainn, Ulster’s Greatest Hero conveys the dazzling stories of a splendid hero from ancient Irish lore with vigour and elegance. Réamonn Ó Ciaráin is a writer rigorous in his attention to detail, balanced with compassion for his subject. He moves the reader effortlessly along on a journey, spinning stories rich in mythology and weaves them through the account of Cúchulainn’s life in seamless accord. 

Illustrated with paintings from Dara Vallely, the physical book is magnificent to behold. The robust imagery engages our innermost tribal essence, freeing our minds-eye and transporting us to an ethereal plane. Fantasy melds with lucid narrative as together Ó Ciaráin and Vallely depict the mystical conception, life and death of our hero in this vivid meeting of worlds. 

Based on the modern Ulster Irish language version, Laoch na Laochra also by Ó Ciaráin, the writing in this text retains the authentic flavour of locale by using the Irish place names. An effective appendix helps the reader keep track of people and places in the story. A resource that is particularly useful and engaging due to the pronunciation guidelines, and not being proficient in the Irish language, I welcome its gentle nudge towards my education in my native tongue.

The translation doesn’t feel forced. The words flow with ease and grace retaining the essence of storytelling from a bygone era in stunning and dramatic expression that refuses to skirt around the violence of battle.

Even with the ethereal quality brought in by the otherworldly characters, there is a sense of historical accuracy. We can appreciate how Iron Age people must have relied on their belief in the supernatural in the absence of scientific fact to explain the wonders of their world. The embellishments and exaggerations over time and numerous recounting of the tales, add to the wonder and mystique of the legends they have become. 

This account begins with Cúchulainn’s conception. The Celtic god of harvest claims his paternity in a dream to Cúchulainn’s mother.

When the child, originally named Séadanda, is born, he is deemed special, as prophesied by the chief Druid. Séadanda receives special education and training as he grows up in Dundalk. He grows up listening to tales to the great warriors of Ulster and yearns to be one so much so that he takes off on foot by himself and heads to Eamhain Mhacha  (Navan Fort) in Armagh to join his heroes, the Craobh Rua warriors, based there.

The young warrior, Séadanda earns a new name when he, in self-defence kills the hound belonging to Culann, the master smith and weapons maker for the Craobh Rua. Séadanda promises to act as Culann’s hound until a replacement can be found and thus becomes Cúchulainn – the Hound of Culann – often referred to as the Hound of Ulster.

Ó Ciaráin spends a lot of time chronicling the feats and achievements of the young warrior. Once Cúchulainn is gripped by an ‘anger-frenzy’ no man is safe, sometimes not even Cúchulainn himself such is the energy of the great powers he unleashes during these frenzies. On many occasions, Cúchulainn has encounters with spirits from the ‘other world’ who serve to both guide him and torment him depending on if they are friend or foe.

We meet the beautiful Eimhear, the great love of Cúchulainn’s life. Her father convinces The King of Ulster to send Cúchulainn to Scotland for battle training, hoping the young man never returns to claim his daughter’s hand.

While in Scotland, Cúchulainn meets Aoife in single combat. He gets the upper hand and she pleads for her life whereupon Cúchulainn makes three demands upon her, one of which is that she bear him a son to be schooled at Eamhain Mhacha like his father. Later in the text, our hearts break for Cúchulainn as he is forced to face his own son in combat.

Having survived his rigorous training in Scotland, Cúchulainn returns for his beloved Eimhear’s hand in marriage. Their marriage has its trials, as one might imagine in Iron Age times with its battles not to mention the spirits meddling from the underworld, but Eimhear and Cúchulainn’s love lasts to the grave.

We are immersed in the stories of Cúchulainn as he interacts with the many characters in Eamhain Mhacha. There’s Bricre whose aim in life appears to be stirring up discord and mayhem; a dangerous game with these Ulster warriors who are prone to descend into anger frenzies. There are entertaining descriptions of not just the warrior’s competition for prime position among themselves but also the rivalry between their wives for prestige.

A large portion of the book details The Cattle Raid of Cooley. When Méabh, the Queen of Connaught craves more power, she decides to invade Ulster and take possession of the prize bull of Cooley. Cúchulainn must defend Ulster on his own due to his fellow warriors being laid low by a curse. 
 Attack after attack, Cúchulainn prevails but each time at great emotional and physical cost to him. Eventually, he must fight his best friend, Firdia. Réamonn Ó Ciaráin remains true to his narrative style while evoking a strong emotional response in the reader as he depicts Cúchulainn carrying Firdia’s body, dead by Cúchulainn’s own hand.

By the time we get to the final part of the book, entitled The Death of Cúchulainn, we know we must prepare ourselves to say goodbye to our hero. It is an emotive section, even with Ó Ciaráin’s consistent use of a narrative style that serves to document story more than manipulate sentiment. Suffice it to say, I had to blink back tears as I read the Hound’s last words, “…Tell Eimhear that it was her who was in my thoughts at the end.”

We grieve with Eimhear as she laments over the grave of her beloved Cúchulainn.

No review of this book would be complete without mentioning the role women play in this chronicle. Ó Ciaráin gives equal weight with consideration and sensitivity to the prominence of powerful and influential women such as Eimhear, Queen Méabh, Aoife and her nemesis Scáthach who trained Cúchulainn in his battle skills in Scotland – yes, that was a woman.

In sections of the book, indented passages indicate poetry which I suspect Ó Ciaráin has preserved in its original or as near to original form as possible. Being no expert in poetry, ancient or otherwise, I feel unqualified commenting other than to say that I feel it lends the narrative a definitive heft of authenticity, which, even though the words are English, whispers with the music of the Irish Language.

Reading this type of literature was a new experience for me. Its novelty served to enlighten and excite my imagination. I wholeheartedly value its vibrant legacy. I picture these characters existing here, in this place I call home. It reinforces my sense of living in a historically important place. No drive to Dublin will ever be the same again. As I view the stretch of road between Armagh and Dundalk or Muirtheimhne with eyes educated by this text, I think of the battles that took place here and the bloodshed sparked by a bull that symbolized more than a just a bull. And above all, I tunnel back through time to imagine Séadanda as a young boy striking out across these fields and mountains towards his epic destiny at Eamhain Mhacha (Navan Fort, Armagh). 

Artwork by Dara Vallely
Pictures supplied by Réamonn Ó Ciaráin - thank you.

Review by Byddi Lee
Copies can be purchased online from the Gael Linn shop

Friday, February 2, 2018

Tales of Giants and Thrones - North Coast Trip

We've had visitors from Australia for a ten-day visit to Armagh. It was amazing how much there was to show them - even with the snow closing things down during their stay.

When they told us that they'd been up to parts of the North Coast before but hadn't managed to visit The Giants Causeway because of the queues of people, we decided we had to take them. It was January - sure we'd have the place to our selves (Ha - ya think?)

We left Armagh at 11am - we're into leisurely Saturday mornings - and arrived in Portstewart at 1.30pm, just in time for lunch.

The sun was at it's highest but at this time of the year, at this latitude that's not saying much. Huge white clouds chugged across the sky accentuating the gorgeous landscape and providing a feature all of their own. Precious chunks of blue sky peeked from between them and brightened patches of a pewter ocean to Azure.

Our first stop along the road was Dunluce Castle. The first time I saw this place, thirty odd years ago, (some years odder than others, believe me) I was driving the coast road from Portstewart to Bushmills and didn't know it was there. I turned the corner and BAM - this amazing castle on a cliff edge just sitting in a field. There was no wall or fence around it, no visitor centre, no cover charge - just this mad castle that you could walk freely around. Today the castle is still as splendid. So much so that it has been used, with the help of CGI technology, as a set for Game of Thrones - representing House of Greyjoy.

Further along the coast, we didn't exactly have the Giants Causeway to ourselves but compared to the crowds you get here in the summer, it was fairly empty.

The clouds competed with the rock formations for our attention...

And stole the show, hands down, when the sun painted them in golds and bronze.

The highlight of the trip was the gorgeous Ballintoy Harbour, also seen multiple times on Game of Thrones. In that world, it's part of the Iron Islands where Theon Greyjoy's family hails from. In real life, it's actually far prettier.

But it's easy to see why someone would base a fantasy story here.

As a whistle-stop tour of the North Coast goes, we did fairly well to see so much before it got dark. I would recommend spending a few more days here and take some of the rambles along the coast... we've marked it on our to-do list for this summer.

Driving home, we came across this ethereal scene and had to stop the car to take photos of the theatre of cloud, fog and snow - fairyland indeed.

Is it any wonder Irish culture is so heavily sprinkled with fairies and magic when this is on our doorstep?

Byddi Lee