Friday, 30 May 2014

The Tao of Keano

* There are, as the man said, known unknowns. And I've always thought my fellow Corkman, Roy Maurice Keane, falls into that category. Endless think-pieces have been devoted to fathoming the depths of the man from Mayfield, so familiar and yet so hard to know. Is he a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma? Or just a contrary bollix? 

I don't know Roy, I have been in his company, so to speak, a few times but I've never had a conversation with him. But I am roughly the same age, from the same city, and generally speaking, the same background. My father used to pal around (as we say in Cork) with his father, the very colourful and entertaining Mossy (or Sterling Moss, as he used to be known in Cork, thanks to the money Roy was making across the water) and I think I know a bit about where Roy is coming from..... 

"What do mean; 'I'm a little freaked out right now?'" 

* So Roy Keane is back in the news....he's hardly ever out of it, to be fair. The man has that strange quality of kicking up a whirlwind all around him, while remaining detached and cool in the eye of it.

Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he fascinates, provokes, angers, enthralls. You may be rolling your eyes at this stage, you're fully entitled to. But don't deny that there's a charisma in there, an attitude, something of the spirit of the song written by Welsh band Super Furry Animals about another footballer, The Man Don't Give a F**k.

Except, of course, he does. And that's part of the attraction and part of Roy's problem, the intensity. Other footballers would have gone to a pre-World Cup training camp, organised in a traditionally shambollocky fashion by the Football Association of Ireland and said "sure we'll be fine, now where's the bar?" Roy took one look at the facilities, the slack attitude, the failing to prepare and blew a gasket, blowing up his best chance to shine on the world stage as part of a fairly decent Irish World Cup squad.

Back in 2002, with Saipan and all that (don't worry, I won't be mentioning Second Civil Wars) I found myself in the weird position, as a Corkman living in Dublin and working in the media, of having to defend Roy in various settings, radio studios and pubs mostly.

All it took was one sentence in a mellifluous Cork accent and irate taxi drivers would be screaming about "THAT BOLLIX KEANE!". People would shout at me in pubs. It was weird. And fun. I'm from Cork, we like that sort of thing.

Then I went to Japan and Korea and spent three weeks being shouted at by guys in green jerseys. And the odd travel agent. Good times!

And now Roy is agitating the nation once again, with strong rumours that he is about to "walk out" of the Irish set up and take over at Celtic.

Well, for the record, I've always liked and admired Roy - except when I haven't - and I think I know a bit about where he's coming from...which is...of course... Cork.

To understand Roy, you have to understand that he is from a city that's always been semi-detached from the rest of the Republic. A port-city all alone on the south coast that has always looked outwards, always gone it's own way and always felt that we don't really have a lot in common with the Dubs. Or anywhere else, to be fair. Cork City people don't even feel a hell of a lot of affinity with North or West Cork. They're nice people, like, quaint country folk with weird accents.

Seriously, like. 

Cork has always liked a charismatic man. It is, perhaps, the only city in the world where a Male Model (Perkin Warbeck) could start a rebellion (true story, I'll write about it some other time). We're prone to being taken in by flash, by arrogance, by a bit of the devil. You can be a ferocious langer but if you've got a lovely singing voice, or a way with a story, we'll love you for it. We are fools, sometimes.

And Cork has specialised in producing chippy, I'll-Do-It-My-Way types. You say black, we say white. Tell Michael Collins you can't fight an empire with four guys behind a ditch, and he'll do it just to spite you. (look, there was no way I was going to get through this NOT mentioning Michael Collins. If it wasn't for him, you'd all be speaking English).

And Roy is from the outside part of the Outside City. He's a northsider, which in Cork is (or maybe was) a bit like being Children of a Lesser God, still angels, because you are from Cork, like. Just not as angelic as they more refined folk on the southside.

He's also very working class (we don't like to talk about class in Ireland, but it's there) which means he would not have that bred-to-success quality imbued at birth and through expensive education in some of our Rugby stars. That natural ease.

And he was a classic late developer, told, from a very young age, that he was too small, too slight, too Cork to make it. He got an early knock-back from the Republic of Ireland youth set up (the Dubs, natch. the feckers, never forgotten) and only made it over to England in his late teens after he sat down and wrote to practically every club in the four leagues begging them for a trial. It took a maverick in Brian Clough to take a punt on the maverick kid from Mayfield.

So - add the early discouragement, the rejection, the feeling of not getting a fair chance to the already nuclear levels of chippiness in the Cork mentality - plus Roy's intense nature - and you get some idea of why Roy is as he is today.

Ah Roy, How Can We Stay Mad With You?

Which is not to say that everything the man does is right, or smart, or brilliant. What fascinates me is the single-minded, intense need to go his own way, to constantly push himself and those around him, never to settle or take the easy option. He took what could have been a very destructive force within him (and as he has said himself, he had his issues with alcohol in his younger days) and turned it outwards, made it work for him in a way that many Irishmen, famous or not, have not managed to do.

Many of us (Irishmen, that is) internalise anger, disappointment, frustration. Some self-medicate, others spend much of their lives suppressing the urge to shout in the faces of the feckers who are making this life way, way to hard. But outwardly, we do the cool as a breeze, lads! thing. Roy gives vent to the anger. Which must make sharing a dressing room with him a laugh and a half.

Ah would ya look! 

And one more thing that tends to get overlooked with Roy. He's got a great, sly sense of humour, a sense of the absurd (very Cork) and a self-deprecating (and self-knowing) approach to dealing with the business and the media.

He's well aware of the Mad Roy With The Crazy Staring Eyes perception of him and if you look closely at press conferences etc, he has a lot of fun with it.

We're a bit weird about our Sporting Heroes, we want them to excite but conform at the same time. We love it when they transgress and do the things we mere mortals can't do - such as tell the boss/world to F**k Off - but pull them up for doing so.

But ask yourself this. Do you want a window on Roy's World or, say, the World of Alan Shearer?

Shine on, you crazy diamond, Roy. And always remember to keep it Cork.


Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Hottest Classic Cars Around? Your Dad Drove One In The '70s.

* I've always loved classic, cars, owned quite a few, spent hours on the side of the road with a couple. I keep a very close eye on the Classic Car world and there's been a very interesting phenomenon recently - the boring old family saloons and early hatchbacks of the '70s and '80s have suddenly become very cool and very in demand........

This piece is about how the car your dad drove to work in the '70s is now incredibly cool. It may be the first car you remember him bringing home...with a smile on his face and the genial announcement; "why don't you all go to the front door and see what's parked outside....?" .

It's a nostalgia thing for a generation. There are few childhood memories as powerful as that first car, the smell of the vinyl (or if you were posh, leather). Proust went mad for biscuits, with me (and I suspect a lot of people my age) it's the smell of hot Son of a Gun sprayed on the vinyl roof of a Ford Capri Mk1......

Hello You! - A Very Special Escort Mk1 Mexico 
* You may have thought.... the Classic Car market was all about exotic Italian two-seaters, hand-built British grand-tourers or imposing German luxo-barges such as the magisterial Mercedes Benz 600, favoured transport for what we used to call 3rd World Dictators.

But for most retro-motoring fans, the most desirable cars right now are the often workaday family runabouts of the '70s and '80s, the cars they remember dad parking outside the front door when they were at an impressionable age.

They want that special car, the first family motor they can remember from trips to the beach or football matches in those golden days of youth.

They are willing to spend considerable amounts of money on the Fords, Fiats, Renaults and Triumphs that were once seen as boring or even, once they had been through several owners, old bangers.

And if you are lucky enough to have, say, a two-door Ford Escort or Fiat Bambino slumbering in a garage, barn or outhouse, you could easily convert it into thousands of pounds.

Recent trends in the Classic world have seen the kids who grew up in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s go in search of the motors that bring back fond memories. Now in middle age and with a bit of time and some spare cash on their hands, classic fans are going after the Ford Escorts and Capris, the Morris Minors, Minis, Triumphs, Citroens, Fiats and even Toyotas and Datsuns that were once seen on every suburban street in Ireland.

Each generation has its own triggers when it comes to nostalgia. And there are many forty or fifty-something Irish men (and women) who might go weak at the knees at the sight of a Ford Escort Mexico, a Triumph Toledo or even humbler fare such as the Morris Minor Traveller, all transports of delight for those of a certain age.

Nice Little Woodie - Morris Minor Traveller 

They remember TV shows such as The Professionals, with Bodie and Doyle charging around ‘70s London streets in a gold Ford Capri 3.0s. Or the metallic copper and silver Ford Granadas from The Sweeney.  

And if we are honest, a lot of the appeal of hit retro TV dramas such as Heartbeat or Life On Mars is in the classic motors seen once again on the small screen, Ford Anglias (once the best-selling car in Ireland) or the ubiquitous Granadas, for so long the mark of a successful company man.

Life On Mars - A Cortina GXL 

In Ireland (and the UK) Classic Cars are relatively cheap to buy, cheap to run, with car tax on vehicles over 30 years of age at an annual €56, plus special classic car insurance rates.

A thriving club and show scene, extensive parts availability and specialist mechanics and restorers make running what are very uncomplicated machines (at least when compared to today’s computers-on-wheels) a relatively easy job.

The family runabouts of yesteryear and more desirable editions (such as the Golf GTi, Peugeot 205 GTi or Ford Fiesta XR2) are now commanding big prices and supply is not able to keep up with demand.

And after having a look at the classic market, I've worked out that the Star Cars of the '70s & '80s most in demand are....

·        Ford Escort – The small family car that launched in 1968 quickly became a hit in Ireland. Special editions and rare rally versions now command huge money. The bare, rusty shell of a rare, Escort Mk1 Lotus sold recently in the UK for €79,000, or more than 22 times its original sticker price of €3,600 (a lot of money in 1968, even for only one of 855 hand-built Escorts with the famous Lotus twin-cam engine). A two-door shell, without engine or any other major parts, can be worth around €3,000.

And even relatively bog-standard Escort Mk1s are going for prices in the range of €5,000 to €10,000 at the moment.

·       *  Morris Minor

The once-humble Minor now has a huge following. There is currently a full restored, two-door mid-60’s Minor for sale in Dublin for €7,500 and the Traveller Estate versions, with the wood-frame rear cabins, can fetch around €10,000 in first class condition. Minors are not fast but some can do up to 50mpg.

·        *  Citroen DS

Want One

The curving, futuristic lines of this French beauty caused a sensation when it was first launched in 1955 and it was manufactured up to ‘75. And while they never sold big in Ireland (thanks partly to their very complicated, hydraulic suspension systems) they now have a very strong following here and in the UK. Fully restored examples can be had now in Ireland for between €8,000-€11,000.

·        * Fiat 126, 125, 131 etc 

Fiat 126 Bis - Every Family Had One

The cute little Bambino (the baby Fiat 500) has always had a strong following but examples of ‘70s saloons are now very much in demand, with the likes of the 125, 127 and 131, once seen on every street in Ireland, fetching prices from €4,000 upwards.

Yes, when your dad drove one, it broke down every five minute and your uncle used to always said the FIAT stood for "Fix It Again Tomorrow!" 

And the bodies tended to dissolve in the rain like Alka Seltza - but they were great cars, when they ran, and if one has made it to 2014, it's bound to be a survivor, well cared for.

·        * BMW 2002

My own personal favourite, always loved them, drove one for years. It never let me down. 

Always a driver’s car, this light, 2-litre powered ‘70s classic represents the really smart move for any Irish retro-car fans looking to get a practical, every-day classic that will keep up with modern traffic and put a smile on your face. Built with Bavarian care, the fuel-injected models are surprisingly rapid. Good examples fetch around €7,000. And as with most other classics, they don’t depreciate. In fact, a good 2002 bought today and looked after could bring a healthy profit if sold on in a few years time.
With classic cars holding or strongly increasing their value, there has rarely been a better time to get the bug. And as any retro-nut will tell you, there are few cheaper ways in life to go around with a big grin on your face.

************** Thanks for reading. 

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Irish Rebels Against The USA - El Batallón de Los San Patricios

Mexican Memorial to Their Irish Soldiers

* This is a story that might be familiar to those with a strong interest in Irish History - and it is one that is a bit more well known that the kind of stories I usually write about. The long history of Irishmen fighting in the ranks of the US army has been well-documented, and remembered on the Memorial Weekend just past. 

But what is not often told is the fascinating story of how religious bigotry led a group of Irish soldiers to renounce their allegiance to the Anglo Saxon Protestant powers of the United States of America, and fight on the side of Latino Catholics. The only group of deserters ever to form an organised unit to fight against the United States. It's the story of the St Patrick's Battalion of The Republic of Mexico. 

"The banner is of green silk, and on one side is a harp, surmounted by the Mexican coat of arms, with a scroll on which is painted Libertad por la Republica Mexicana!. Under the harp is the motto of Erin go Bragh! On the other side is a painting... made to represent St. Patrick, in his left hand a key and in his right a crook or staff resting upon a serpent. Underneath is painted San Patricio"..... contemporary description of the Banner of The San Patricios..... 

* Remember the Alamo!...... The battle fought in 1836 is, to many North Americans at least, a pivotal moment in the history of the United States of America, when proud, free men, sons of liberty, fought for freedom against the tyrannical General De Santa Anna. Viewed from a Mexican perspective, it was the beginning of the end of Mexican Texas, the battles that followed saw the Anglo Saxon northern armies push ever further West, the new, strong north pushing the Latino south out of vast territories that had been in their possession for hundreds of years.
That process would continue over the next decade. In 1846, the latest in a series of confrontations between north and south was about to explode as the USA moved on Mexico's lightly populated western holdings, such as California, New Mexico and Utah. The US was rapidly growing and expanding, millions of new citizens were pouring in from Europe, the race West was on and the Mexicans were in the way.  
A series of skirmishes on the interface between the Mexican lands and the Yankee territories soon erupted into all out war. 
The US went on the offensive, invading Mexico, capturing the port of Veracruz and in September 1847, seizing Mexico City, forcing Mexico to surrender.  
1847 was also "Black '47" - the worst year of the Famine in Ireland. Millions of Irish people would die or flee their country during the Great Hunger. Hundreds of thousands of them poured into North America every year, many ended up in the US army, joining up on the docks of Boston and New York, hoping for pay, food and US citizenship. 
The Catholic Irish were on the very bottom rung (if we do not count the even more abject African slaves or the Native Americans facing genocide). They faced bigotry, injustice, ridicule. In the army, they were cannon fodder, led mostly by Protestant "nativist" officers who saw them as little better than scum. 
At the start of the war against Mexico, the many thousands of Catholic Irish soldiers serving in the US army (who had virtually no chance of promotion) were even denied the right to hold religious services. Instead, they were forced to attend protestant services. Conditions were incredibly harsh, desertion rates were high. 
Mexican generals, hearing tales of the Catholic Irish who were treated little better than pack animals in the US army, realised they could be receptive to enticements to cross over the lines. 
In handbills and through agents, often deserters sent back into the US lines, the Mexicans offered land and money for anyone who deserted and joined them. 
In the Mexican camps, Irish defectors could be assured of a warm welcome, the opportunity of promotion and the chance of dignity and freedom to practice their religion. 
The sound of church bells ringing out in Mexican villages must have been a strong pull for men who had already been forced across the sea by a protestant ascendency. 

* St. Patrick's Battalion 
Several hundred Irishmen crossed the lines. And they were joined by other Catholics and malcontents, mostly Germans but also Poles, Canadians, Scots French and Italians. There were also escaped African slaves from the southern states. 

They were formed into what became an elite artillery battalion, under the leadership of a man called John Patrick O'Riley, who was born in Clifden, Galway and had served in the British army before emigrating to the US and joining the army there as a private. 

Some, including O'Riley, are believed to have defected before the official declaration of war.

After fighting as a legion of foreigners at the Battle of Resaca de La Palma, they became St Patrick's Battalion, marching under green flags bearing the emblems of Ireland.  

They made a banner for themselves: a bright green standard with an Irish harp, under which was "Erin go Bragh" and the Mexican coat of arms with the words "Libertad por la Republica Mexicana." On the flip side of the banner was an image of St. Patrick and the words "San Patricio."
The St. Patricks first saw action as a unit at the Siege of Monterrey, where they were stationed in the the Citadel, a massive fort blocking the entrance to the city. American General Zachary Taylor wisely avoided a frontal attack on the citadel to capture the city from the flanks. 
On February 23, 1847, Mexican General Santa Anna, hoping to wipe out Taylor's Army of Occupation, attacked the entrenched Americans at the Battle of Buena Vista south of Saltillo. 

The San Patricios, In Green - Face The Yanks At Buena Vista 

The San Patricios fought hard and well, pouring cannon fire into the American ranks. They were instrumental in capturing some American cannon, but the Mexicans lost the battle.

Irish Soldiers of Mexico, Hung Before the Fortress of Chapultepec

The San Patricios fought on as Mexico tried to evict the Yanqui invaders, most notably at their final battle at Churubusco. They were divided and sent to defend the approaches to Mexico City. When the Americans attacked a convent the Irish had been sent to fortify, on August 20th, 1847, the San Patricios were said to have "fought like demons".

Mexican officers tried to raise the white flag of surrender three times - and three times the Irishmen ripped it down, only surrendering after they had run out of ammunition. 

Most were captured, some escaped and tried to regroup, but there were not enough Irish and Germans to reform a cohesive unit. Less than a month later, Mexico City fell and the resistance was over. 

John O'Riley was amongst the 85 San Patricios taken prisoner. Seventy-two of them were tried for desertion (some had defected before war was declared, others had never been in the US army at all and therefore could not be shot for desertion.) 

All of the men were convicted. Several of the men were pardoned by General Scott for a variety of reasons, including age (one was 15) and for refusing to fight for the Mexicans. Fifty were hanged and one was shot (he had convinced the officers that he had not actually fought for the Mexican army).
O'Riley, because he had crossed the lines before the declaration of war, was amongst those convicted of lesser offences. These men received lashes and were branded with a D (for deserter) on their faces or hips. Becoming "marked men". Riley was branded twice on the face after the first brand was "accidentally" applied upside-down.
Sixteen were hanged at San Angel on September 10, 1847. Four more were hanged the following day at Mixcoac. Thirty were hanged on September 13 in Mixcoac, within sight of the fortress of Chapultepec, where the Americans and Mexicans still fighting for control of the castle
Around 9:30 a.m., as the American flag was raised over the fortress, the prisoners were hanged. It would be the last sight they would see. One of the men hung that day, was a Munster man called Francis O'Connor, who had both his legs amputated the day before due to his battle wounds. When the US army surgeon told commanding officer Colonel William Harney, that O'Connor was already close to death, Harney was said to have declared: "Bring the damned son of a bitch out! My order was to hang 30 and by God I'll do it!".
Some of the surviving San Patricios opted to stay on in Mexico after the cessation of hostilities, they settled down and raised families, their descendents are there to this day. 
O'Riley was thought, for many years to have died shortly after the last battle, but there is now some evidence that he survived and merely faded into obscurity. 
Today, the San Patricios are regarded as heroes in Mexico. They were men who fought for a Catholic country being bullied by the much more powerful Anglo Saxons from the North, they fought for justice and the freedom to practice their religion. To this day, every September 12th, Mexicans and Irish meet at the San Jacinto plaza, in San Angel, Mexico, to honour Los San Patricios. Bands play the anthems of both nations and the students of the nearby 'St. Patrick's Battalion School' place flowers on a memorial, while the audience responds to each of the names read from a list engraved in marble, with the phrase 'He died for the Fatherland!'.
And there is also a Mexican-Irish San Patricio pipe band which regularly performs at the commemorations - which is some pretty crazy cross-cultural stuff when you think about it... 

In the US, if they are remembered at all, as traitors. 
Conditions for Catholics in the US army did change in the following years and around 175,000 Irish born soldiers fought on both sides of the Civil War, a decade or so after the war in Mexico. 
Those San Patricios who had not been hanged were thrown in dark dungeons for the duration of the war, after which they were freed. They re-formed and existed as a unit of the Mexican army for about a year. Many of them remained in Mexico and started families: a handful of Mexicans today can trace their lineage to one of the San Patricios. Those who remained were rewarded by the Mexican government with pensions and the land that had been offered to entice them to defect. Some returned to Ireland. Most, including Riley, vanished into Mexican obscurity.
What can be said for definite is that the San Patricios were the only renegade American soldiers ever to form a unit to fight against the United States. A strange chapter in an otherwise proud history of Irishmen fighting for the United States of America. 
* In 1999, a Hollywood movie called "One Man's Hero" was made about the St. Patrick's Battalion. Sadly, I haven't been able to see it. But there are plenty of clips on YouTube. 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Percy French & Abdul, Abulbul Amir - A Memorable Song For A Forgotten War

The Singing Drains Inspector - Percy French

* In Ireland, everyone is expected to have a party piece - a song, poem, joke or story that you wheel out when called upon. In my own home-town of Cork, there was a long tradition of singing in pubs, and seeing as we spent quite a lot of time in pubs as kids (it was kinda the done thing), we would hear our dads and our uncles sing all kind of tunes, from sporting songs to rebel songs and occasionally, the odd bit of light opera. Cork people always had a love for music, my grandparent's generation would have been mad about light opera and Victorian music hall.

And one of my uncles, when called upon to give us a song, would always sing a strange, exotic music hall song about a Turk and a Russian who fought a duel. It was only years later that I found out that the song, Abdul, Abulbul Amir, was actually written by a chap from Co Roscommon and former Inspector Of Drains for County Cavan.....who was inspired by a now long-forgotten war... 

"The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far! In the ranks of the Shah!
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir!" 

How's Yer Drains, Missus? Percy French 

* In Trinity College, Dublin, in the spring of 1877, a young student from County Roscommon, son of an Anglo-Irish landlord, was called upon to compose a ditty for a "smoking concert".

Percy French was studying civil engineering. He would go on to land a glamourous job as Inspector of Drains for County Cavan. But his passions were music and painting. And he was brilliantly gifted at both. He would go on to paint beautiful landscapes and write evergreen songs such as The Mountains of Mourne, Phil The Fluther's Ball and Are You Right There Michael. 

They were sentimental, comic, slightly silly. But the fact that many of us can hum the tune to them over a century after they were written proves that Percy had a certain kind of genius. 

Are You Right There Michael is a comic opera in three acts, all in the one song, telling the tale of the notoriously unreliable West Clare Railway line. 

As the opening line goes..... 

"You may talk of Columbus's sailing
Across the Atlantical Sea
But he never tried to go railing
From Ennis as far as Kilkee..." 

Such was the embarrassment caused by the popularity of the song, the railway company actually launched a libel action against French.

They didn't win, the story being that when French arrived late for the libel hearing at the court, and was pulled up by the judge on his tardiness, he responded: "Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway!" resulting in the case being thrown out amid much hilarity. 

Listen to Are You Right There Michael, here..... 

French's first successful foray into song was actually a poem that he wrote which was put to music, while he was a student in Trinity College Dublin.

French took for his inspiration, the ongoing and bloody Russo-Turkish War of 1877, a follow-on from the Crimean War, in which Russia and seven allied Balkan nations fought the Ottoman Turks for control of the Crimean region (yes, even back then).

French set out to satirise the quarrelsome Russians and Turks, painting them as ridiculous, strutting children who would take offence at any slight and go to war. 

The song, detailing the meeting and falling out of two fierce soldiers - Ivan Skavinsky Skavar, champion of the Tsar and Abdul Abulbul Amir (sometimes The Bulbul Ameer) of the Ottoman army - is a put to a slow polka, and it's instantly memorable. 

It's also a bit un-PC - not many modern lyricists would write a jolly ditty about a Turk attacking a Russian with a large knife, while crying (and this is in the lyrics) "Allah Akbar!".   

It became quite the hit in Dublin's student circles, young Percy was tricked into selling his song to an unscrupulous music publisher for just £5. It went on to sell vast numbers music sheets and be performed on stages all over the world. The publisher first claimed he had actually wrote it, as did several other music publishers in Britain, France and the US. Poor Percy never got more than the price of a summer suit. 

Here's Percy French aficionado Brendan O'Dowda singing the song in the 1970s... 


The song became a music hall staple and echoed in popular culture for decades, inspiring a VERY Un-PC MGM Cartoon in the 1930s... which you can watch below

And there was a series of popular beer ads on British TV in the 1980s based on the song - which starred - bizarrely - Stephen Fry as the Russian Soldier Ivan Skavintski Skavar .... 

The popular singer Frank Crumit performed perhaps the most famous version of the song in the 1920s, selling so many gramophone records, he was inspired to come up with three sequels: "The Return of Abdul Abulbul Amir", "The Grandson Of Abdul Abulbul Amir", and "Minnie Skavinsky Skavar".

My own personal favourite is probably the Country version recorded by The Sons of The Pioneers - Percy's song became weirdly popular with Yodelling Cowboys in the US in the 1920s and '30s - possibly because of it's slow Polka metre... and The Yodelling Cowboy Himself - Frank Ifield recorded a lovely version...

How strange that a song written in Trinity College Dublin in 1877, about a far off war, would end up being recorded by a bunch of cow-punchers in Hollywood in the 1930s...

* Thanks for Reading - Joe O'Shea 

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

In Case of Emergency - The Irishman Who Beat the Nazis To The Ejector Seat

                     * The Martin-Baker Ejector Seat - Born Out Of Friendship & Tragedy

Valentine Baker, James Martin and early Backer, Francis Francis  

* On September 12th, 1942, at the height of the Second World War, an experimental fighter aircraft piloted by WWI Ace and test pilot Valentine Baker crashed in a field in England.

Baker's best friend, an Irishman called James Martin was watching as the pilot attempted to make an emergency landing after cataclysmic engine failure.

The dashing fighter ace who had survived the air war over Flanders almost made it. But at the very last moment, a wing tip clipped a tree in the field, the plane flipped and Baker was killed instantly.

Martin, a brilliant engineer and aeronautical designer had worked with Baker to develop the plane together for the RAF. It was at the height of the Second World War. At Stalingrad, the German army was engaged in a titanic battle with the Russians. Men were dying in the air, at sea and on land all over the globe. But for James Martin, the loss of his friend in such a senseless accident, was a dramatic turning point, both in his personal and professional life.

The engineer from Crossgar, Co Down knew that if his friend had been able to exit the stricken aircraft quickly and safely, he would in all probability have survived.

From that moment on, James Martin vowed to devote his life to pilot safety. His invention ,the Martin-Baker ejector seat, would go on to save (to date) 7,441 lives. It is still saving lives all over the world today.

Captain Valentine Baker

Captain Valentine Baker was a hero of WWI. He served in all three branches of the British Military and was seriously wounded in Gallipoli before going on to become a Fighter Ace with the Royal Flying Corps in France. He was awarded the Military Cross. 

At Gallipoli, Baker was wounded by a bullet in his neck which lodged near his spinal column. Doctors informed him that any operation to remove it might be fatal, so Baker told them to "leave it alone then", and he lived the remainder of his life with it in his neck.

In the inter-war years, he was a test-pilot, instructor for the RAF and become involved in aircraft 

development after a meeting with James Martin that developed into a very close friendship (and 
business partnership, founding the Martin-Baker aircraft company)

Together, they began to work on experimental fighters for the RAF, working on the designs that would help to beat the Nazis.

Baker was killed while testing the Martin-Baker MB3 prototype in September 1942. It was the death of his best friend and business partner that lead James Martin to devote the rest of his life to pilot safety. 

And from 1942 on, the Ulsterman was in a top-secret race against a rival team in Nazi-Germany to develop the first working ejector seat

The Germans, facing bombing day and night from the RAF and the Americans, were running out of experienced pilots to fight the allied air-armadas.

A workable ejector seat would have greatly aided their efforts to stop Allied bombers pounding their industrial heartlands. Their engineers came up with a range of proposals and some working prototypes - but they were mostly based around compressed air systems (the German word for ejector seat - 
schleudersitzaparat  - translates roughly as "seat catapult") and were nowhere near as advanced as Martin's concepts. As a historical footnote, it has recently emerged that US engineers working on ejector seats in the early cold war period used drugged bears as live crash-test dummies, a rather bizarre concept.

James Martin was asked by the British Ministry of Aircraft Production to investigate the practicability of providing fighter aircraft with a means of assisted escape for the pilot. He soon decided that best means would be by forced ejection of the seat with the occupant sitting in it, and that the most effective means of doing this would be by an explosive charge.

There was only one problem. How do you persuade somebody to be the first person ever to try an ejection seat?

Martin found a willing guinea-pig in an Irish fitter working in his factory called Bernard Lynch. It was a brave move with highly uncertain and dangerous new technology.

The first static ejection test took place on 24th January 1945 with Bernard Lynch (literally) in the hot seat.

Bernard Lynch & Moustache - The Original Crash Test Dummy

The first mid-flight test ejection was then made on 24th July 1946, also by the Bould Bernard.

 He ejected himself from the rear cockpit of a specially modified Meteor 3 fighter jet at 320 mph and 8000 ft. The whole system worked successfully. Which must have been a relief for Bernard. 

Lynch made a perfect landing and subsequently made a further 30 ejections, often at airshows. It was some party trick. 

Bernard Lynch Prepares To Eject 

The first "live" ejection was made by a pilot called Jo Lancaster in the skies over England in 1948. Lancaster survived. 

Martin Baker are still in the ejector seat business and still leading the field. To date, over 7,400 lives have been saved by MB ejector seats. 

When a pilot has a brush with near death and survives, they may want to remember the First World War Hero and his Irish friend, who did so much to further the cause of pilot safety.

* You can see some British Pathé footage of the original tests here - Press To Eject 

Thanks for reading - Joe O'Shea