Sunday, March 17, 2013

Saint Patrick Returns


Many posts ago I made reference to legendary Ulster comedian James Young and how the last years of his professional career in the early Seventies were spent performing in small audience venues across Northern Ireland - ranging from the loyalist Shankill Road to Derry's republican Bogside and with the exact same repertoire in tow. This was due to the May 1971 closure of his Group Theatre in light of the scale of the Troubles and the then fatal dangers of Belfast after dark. Indeed many television documentaries and news analysis of the early Troubles use one particular piece of colour footage of a car bomb explosion in Ormeau Avenue on Bloody Friday - close to the theatre in Bedford Street - in a generic fashion.

The ninth and last James Young album to be released in his lifetime was 1973's The Young Ulsterman - recorded at the Group on one solitary night alone when it was briefly reopened for this purpose. Young's repertoire was the usual mix of fast paced comedy, political satire and thought-provoking pathos. The standard introduction touched base with the realities of a Belfast at war and how his wee street, home city and broader society had changed beyond recognition for both him and his mammy.

It ended with a moving call for reflection and friendliness after five years of political turmoil and terrorism which had defiled the physical beauty of the North of Ireland - and its shared folk culture - and threw the Ulster working classes at each other's throats. Indeed Young's final single release in July 1971 on Emerald Records - the month preceding the introduction of internment which pushed Ulster over from barely contained civil disorder into qualified civil war - had been God Bless The Working Man backed with I Believe In Ulster.

Saint Patrick Returns on The Young Ulsterman album was also portrayed dramatically during his Saturday Night BBC television series of October 1972 to March 1974. The patron saint's return trip to his beloved Ireland turns out to be not a happy one despite his anticipation at seeing all his favorite people again like Danny Boy and Kitty of Kilarney. After being hassled by the security forces at every turn in the hunt for guns and explosives - and ending up in the middle of a Protestant counter-demonstration against a Catholic civil rights march which he had intitally assumed was nothing more than a Welcome Home celebration - Patrick decides that his legacy stands for naught and that it was obviously time to recommence his Christian mission on the island.

So in honour of today's Christian feast day - and in memory too of a lone figure who in the midst of Ulster's darkest days at least tried to replicate the Christian message of consideration for one's fellow man through the voice of comedy and satire - here is The History Lesson from that last ever night of tears and laughter at the Group Theatre Belfast. The author is unknown.

The following year - on Tuesday 9th July 1974 - the hearse carrying the body of James Young would pause outside the theatre on Bedford Street on the journey from his home in Ballyhalbert on County Down's Ards peninsula to the crematorium at Roselawn where George Best's grave lies today.

The plaque outside the Group Theatre as unveiled in 1999 notes: The citizens of Belfast gratefully acknowlege the contribution made by Ulster comedian James Young (1918-1974) to the life and humour of the city. He regarded the Group Theatre as his home throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

God bless Our Jimmy and God bless the Working Man - may both parties rest in peace.

A Dutchman called Prince William, and an Englishman King James, fell out and started feuding and calling other names.

It was for the throne of England but, for reasons not quite clear, they came across to Ireland to do their fighting here.

They had Sarsfield, they had Schomberg, there was horse and foot and guns and they landed up in Carrick with 1000 Lambeg drums.

They had lots of Dutch and Frenchmen and battlions and platoons of Russians and of Prussians and Bulgarian Dragoons.

And they politely asked the Irish if they'd like to come and join and the whole affair was settled at the Battle of the Boyne.

Then William went to London and James went off to France and the whole kaboosh left Ireland without a backward glance.

And the poor abandoned Irish said goodbye to King and Prince...and went on with the fighting and they've been at it ever since!

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