In Search of My Father 2017 Writing Project

In Search of My Father 2017 Writing Project
In Search of My Father, 2017 writing project supported by The National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

Thursday, 21 September 2017


Brigid O’Neill

Produced by Gareth Dunlop and Brigid O’Neill

Track Listing:

Little Birds
Turn and Face the Sun
Iron in Your Fire
Breathe Slow
Running Back to You
They All Said

Even before playing a note of this CD, you know, just by holding it, you are in the land of quality. It is packaged beautifully and includes a lyrics booklet. The cover design and photography are both stunning.

The opening track, Little Birds, is a beautiful, mellifluous showcase for Brigid O’Neill’s crystal clear voice, a song celebrating spiritual freedom and the sheer joy and wonder of life, ingredients that we need restored now more than ever in this crazy world. A song like this grabs our attention and, in its own hypnotic way, steers us clear of the negative into a positive frame of mind. Just lovely.

Turn And Face The Sun is a continuation of positive thinking, encouraging us to enjoy each day, to “take what’s out there and live it, feel the love and give it”. The song is catchy and if we still had milkmen delivering to doorsteps, this would be a whistling favourite in the early hours of the morning. And that is testimony to how good it is, lest you think lowly of the milk people!

Refugees reminds us that the world is in turmoil with millions of people displaced through no fault of their own – “lives in tow, places come and go, we left upon a midnight warning”. The song is blessed with an urgent rhythm and underlines reality but does it in a way that even when things seem desperate and inexplicable, a hopeful, understanding tone can force us to at least try to understand what is going on with refugees. It is not a song with politics at its heart, it is a song with humanity at its core.

Iron In Your Fire features a character, worldly-wise and not about to fall into mantraps and repeat any mistakes from the past. “I got you pegged, you can leave those pick up lines unsaid………. You’re the sweetest mistake I ain’t gonna make tonight”. It is a country radio song that should be played often. Brigid can hold her own with any singer I can think of and obviously has first dibs on the record but this is also begging for a cover from Nashville’s finest. I love the sassy line: “I got the fuel to make your flame burn brighter”. Yeah!

Rumour is a great song about bitchiness and lies and how to deal with them. It chugs along brightly but don’t let that fool you. This is about fighting back when rumours get out of hand – “Starts out with a tiny lie, then gets a life of its own” – and doing your utmost to quash the mischief. This is a fine example of taking a serious subject but not allowing sombre notions to get in the way of a brilliant track.

Breathe Slow is an interlude in the slow-down-you-move-too-fast mood. It kinda hits the pause button but works beautifully as a gentle, calm meditation. “Breathe slow, letting go of all the things you know”.

Running Back To You is a love song that will resonate with many a listener. Love, damn it, is a complicated thing and it takes a lot of curves, u-turns and cul-de-sacs to sort it out sometimes. We fall in love, we fall out of love and fall back in love with the same person. “Strange how a moment of distance means I’ll be damned to surrender to your charms”.

Misunderstanding is an amazing piece of work, an analysis of how a relationship can disintegrate and what can be done to make the best of things. “So we both continue on to live independently, each one down a friend and up one enemy”.

They All Said finds positive thoughts when witnessing the world’s natural and celestial beauty. It is one thing to drown ourselves in all the bad news and personal problems we encounter every day. It is quite another to reflect that, whatever else is going on, the good will always outweigh the bad. Sometimes we just have to marvel at a shooting star. It can be that simple.

Touchstone is a reminder of the importance of having an anchor in life, and that can be a relationship or the comfort and safety of home. Whatever it is individually, at times we all need to “reach out for a steady hand”. It is a fine way to end this great collection of songs.

This is a magnificent album of moods, emotional twists and turns expressed in confident lyrics delivered by an absolutely captivating voice. Brigid O’Neill, as I intimated earlier, can hold her own with any singer/songwriter I can think of, and I go back a long way! The excellent supporting cast of musicians and singers is super-impressive, and the whole feel of the production just oozes class. This album deserves to be heard and enjoyed widely.

And now, I'm off to pretend I'm a milkman for the rest of the day. Whistling Joe!!

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Tuesday, 19 September 2017


Scottish-born actor David McCallum seems to have been on the big and small screens forever.  His career spans over 60 years and he is still going strong as the popular medical examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard in the hit US crime series NCIS.  Along the way, he has appeared in The Great Escape, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Colditz and Sapphire & Steel, amongst many other films and TV shows. This year he celebrates his 84th birthday, a prompt to look back at his amazing career.

David Keith McCallum was born in Glasgow on 19 September 1933.  His parents were Dorothy Dorman, a cellist and David McCallum Sr, a violinist, eventual leader of the Scottish Orchestra and later the London Philharmonic.  The McCallums lived by the Botanic Gardens, close to David’s grandfather’s house in nearby Clouston Street.  In 1936, the family moved to Hampstead as a result of David’s father’s work.  But almost a year into the Second World War, young David was evacuated back to Scotland to stay with his Aunt Margaret.  He lived for a time at Gartocharn, West Dunbartonshire, near Loch Lomond. 

As he grew older, David was encouraged to take up music and became an oboe player, but he did not have any serious ambitions to follow his parents into a professional music career.  However, after significant acting success in the 1960s, David McCallum did record several instrumental albums, as arranger and conductor, including A Part Of Me, A Bit More Of Me and Music – It’s Happening Now.  Some of the material on these albums was collected onto a cash-in album called Open Channel D, referring to the The Man From U.N.C.L.E. radio intro.  His father was a featured player on several tracks.

After a couple of performances on stage as a child, David liked the sound of audience applause and appreciation and began considering acting as an enjoyable way to earn a living.  He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and learned about stage management and production as well as acting.  Like many young actors at the time, he served his apprenticeship in repertory companies across the UK, doing bit parts on radio and not earning much money.  But, the handsome McCallum was soon spotted and, in 1957, he joined the Rank Organisation and immediately found himself in minor roles on the big screen.  In those early years, he appeared in Ill Met By Moonlight, Hell Drivers, Robbery Under Arms and A Night To Remember.

Around this time, he met and married Jill Ireland, herself a young actor in the early stages of a film career.  They worked together occasionally but divorced ten years later.  They had three sons.  Ireland later married Charles Bronson but died, sadly, of breast cancer at 54 in 1990.  Not long after the divorce, McCallum married his current wife, Katherine.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, David McCallum worked in television dramas and feature films, gaining experience and becoming reasonably well known in the process.  He played Private Whittaker in The Long And The Short And The Tall, Steven Wyatt in Billy Budd and, a role fondly remembered by his fans forever, Ashley-Pitt (in charge of dispersal) in The Great Escape.  The latter film, oft-repeated on television, is a prime example of the starry era that David McCallum lived through.  The cast list is extraordinary – Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Gordon Jackson, John Leyton and so many more great supporting names.  McCallum (as Ashley-Pitt) had a dramatic death scene filmed at Fussen railway station in Ostallgau, Bavaria.  The Germans shot his character as he diverted attention away from some of his fellow escapees.  The Great Escape was an important career film to most of the aforementioned names and a key point in David McCallum’s professional life.

He was cast as Judas Iscariot in The Greatest Story Ever Told during Hollywood’s fixation period with epic movies as all of the studios tried desperately and expensively to find that successful Ben Hur ingredient from some years earlier.   In the Last Supper scene, Max Von Sydow as Christ is powerful but McCallum, sitting with the other eleven Apostles, at the end of the table hesitates when handed the chalice, not speaking but looking intense and remorseful as the betrayer.  If anyone assumes that David McCallum is an actor only in light roles, I urge them to watch this film.

But, it was a jokey, fun, almost cartoonish TV show that launched David McCallum into orbit as a major screen star.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ran for 105 episodes from 1964 to 1968.  Robert Vaughn was the handsome American hero Napoleon Solo and McCallum was his heartthrob Russian sidekick Illya Kuryakin.  Both characters worked for the United Network Command For Law Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.) battling the evil enemy THRUSH (later defined clumsily in books as Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity).

The show was a global hit and both Vaughn and McCallum featured prominently in all the showbusiness magazines of the day.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. run included several feature films that were basically TV episodes stitched together for cinema release.  The two stars enjoyed their moments in those crazy years of fan adoration that almost equalled the squeals and screams of Beatlemania wherever they went.  Some of the ensuing years must have felt like a return to Earth as Robert Vaughn and David McCallum took on a variety of roles and guest starring parts in television and film.

David McCallum returned to a hit TV series when he starred alongside Robert Wagner and Jack Hedley in Colditz in he early 1970s, followed by The Invisible Man and then Kidnapped, playing Alan Breck Stewart.  He appeared alongside Joanna Lumley in the quirky Sapphire & Steel before embarking on more guest starring roles in Hart To Hart, The A-Team, Matlock and Murder, She Wrote.

In 2003, he joined the cast of a new US crime show called NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) alongside Mark Harmon as boss Leroy Jethro Gibbs and a terrific core cast.  He played the Edinburgh-born and educated Donald “Ducky” Mallard, a medical examiner, slightly oddball and eccentric but also sympathetic and sincere.  In over 200 episodes, he became a huge star all over again.  It has been quite a remarkable career in such a fickle industry.

Monday, 18 September 2017


Me with my mother, Hemel Hempstead, c. 1985

Recently in London, I attended the wonderful wedding of one of my two sons, David, and his lovely wife Stevi-Ann. It was a great day, emotional, full of joy and laughter, helped not insignificantly by a lively Belfast family contingent, full of beans and up for a good time. Inevitably in the course of such a celebration, we remember absent friends and, of course, family, and it got me thinking of my mother because we are close to an anniversary. I’m thinking now of 70 years ago. 1947 was a key year in her history.

Every year can claim its own identity with specific events, political ballyhoo, war versus peace, celebrity births and deaths and the odd scandal here and there. There’s always something to remember, or someone, sometimes fond nostalgia, other times moments of sadness and regret. And round numbers are often the triggers in recalling those moments from the past.

First, here’s some wider background to that time in and around Belfast, my home city. In the early months of the year, there was a bout of severe weather, some called it the ‘big snow’.  It was brutally cold with high temperatures reported between one and three degrees and lows of minus seven. It was followed later on by a hot summer, the sixth hottest since records began according to the seaweed annals. Harland and Wolff launched HMS Centaur and the Enterprise train service commenced between Belfast and Dublin. Belfast Celtic won the Irish League and Cavan defeated Antrim to win the Ulster Senior Football Championship. Singers Clodagh Rodgers and Paul Brady were born as were activist-politician Bernadette Devlin and future Ulster Unionist leader, Reg Empey. Basil Brooke was Prime Minister, four years into a twenty-year term.

Elsewhere, George VI was on the throne, Clement Attlee was in Downing Street, Princess Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten, Harry Truman was U.S. President, Fred Daly won the Open Championship at Hoylake, Charlton Athletic won the FA Cup, and celebrities Elton John, Gerry Rafferty, Marc Bolan and David Essex were born. Typhoon Kathleen hit Saitama, Tokyo killing nearly two thousand people. The UK coal industry was nationalised and Thor Heyerdahl led the Kon-Tiki expedition, an attempt to sail by raft across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian Islands.

It was two years after the end of the Second World War and nations were in recovery. Across the United Kingdom, there was a climate of austerity and ration books limited the purchases of meat, butter, sugar, lard, cheese and sweets. Bread supplies were strictly controlled too. Larders might have been stocked with long-life tinned vegetables and fruit and the main ‘gadgets’ in many homes were restricted to a sewing machine, a mangle and, if slightly better off than average, a vacuum cleaner, although linoleum and bare floors were more common than carpets. Some council houses and flats had paraffin heaters as an extra boost to heating but the main source of warmth for a house was a coal fire, supplemented by whatever heat drifted from kitchens.

The average annual salary was a tad short of £300, the price of an average house was under £2,000 and a modest car cost £600 running on fuel at just 2 bob a gallon. A loaf of bread was 2 pence, a packet of sugar 3, a pint of milk 8 and small blocks of butter and cheese weighed in at 4 pence each. Five pounds of potatoes would have set you back 3 pence and you could buy a quarter pound of bacon for half a crown. A pint of beer was priced at just over a shilling and in the sweetie shop, a penny chew actually cost a penny.

At the pictures the choice included Esther Williams in Fiesta, Cornel Wilde in Forever Amber, Betty Grable in Mother Wore Tights, Bing Crosby in Welcome Stranger and Hope, Crosby and Lamour playing it for laughs in Road to Rio. The popular music of the day included hitmakers the Andrews Sisters, Frankie Laine, Perry Como, Dick Haymes, Dinah Shore and the Mills Brothers. Indeed, every year has its own news and historical shape. And the reason it is an important year in my family’s history is that it was the year John Cushnan married Rita Millar, my father and mother.

Honing in on that specific day, Tuesday 16 September 1947, the weather in Belfast included moderate to fresh winds between west and south, fair periods and scattered showers, some heavy. It was rather cool according to one local newspaper. Seventy years on and much has happened in our family. I have written quite a bit about my father’s decision to abandon us in 1960 but I wanted here to concentrate on the kind of woman my mother was and the influence she had on me.

She was born Margaret Mary Millar in October 1925, but was known throughout her life as Rita. Her parents, Rachel and Tommy lived on the New Lodge Road and number 46 was where my mother, her brother and sister grew up. Tommy has an interesting story, one for another day. Briefly, he was Protestant and Granny Rachel was Catholic. Tommy made the decision to change religion so that he could marry the girl he loved. Some hallions on his side of the religious divide, including his own brothers, weren’t too chuffed about this move and ordered a hit. For whatever reason, the threat faded after a while and my grandparents had a very settled fifty-year marriage.

My mother and father were 22-years old when they married. They grew up a few streets from each other, my father in Annadale Street and my mother on the New Lodge Road. It is not clear where or when they first met but I know my mother was a frequent cinema-goer to the Capital, the Lyceum and the Duncairn, all within walking distance of home. My father probably went to the same neighbourhood cinemas. She loved dances, especially ceilidhs. From my Aunt Sheila’s memory (my mother’s sister) it is likely they met in a dance hall, probably at the Ard Scoil on the Falls Road, and the courting began.

At nine-o’clock on 16 September 1947, their wedding took place in St Patrick’s Church in Donegall Street. The best man was my father’s mate Gerry Savage who later in life emigrated with his family to Canada. My mother’s sister Sheila and cousin Marie were in attendance. After the service, there was a wedding breakfast and the honeymoon was one night in Dublin.

Before they married, both of my parents were in textile jobs, he working as a tailor’s cloth cutter and she sewing and stitching in several factories, jobs they continued doing until the children came along. There were seven of us born between 1949 and 1958 and, as I write this, six of us have survived. The eldest, Paul, was killed in a road accident in 1974. It devastated his wife and three young children as well as my mother and the rest of us. The accident happened on 6 December, so that was one tough Christmas for all concerned.

After thirteen years, my father walked out and left my mother with a huge responsibility, on reflection an impossible task to raise seven young children, age range eleven to two, on very little money. I still cannot fully fathom how she did it but somehow she managed through a combination of love, faith and not much choice. She had to carry on. In that era, she was the consummate housewife and mother. She could cook delicious stews, soups and pork fillet, roast chicken and beef dinners. She baked amazing apple and rhubarb tarts and currant (curn) squares, all of which were demolished by hungry kids, sometimes within half an hour from a hot oven. She stitched and repaired our ripped clothes, and knitted in what seemed like every spare moment, Aran jumpers a speciality. I think at one time all of us had jumpers that made us look like The Clancy Brothers and Sisters. On one occasion, as a special request, her knitting needles sprang into action and she produced an exact replica of Monkee Mike Nesmith’s green bobble hat. I wore it with pride, even outside in the street! She would get up early on school mornings to rouse us and get us ready with a good breakfast. We hadn’t a clue but we were spoiled with her kindness. I cannot recall a single Christmas or birthday without presents or great food. As I said, I don’t know how she did it.

Me, as a Clancy Brother!

She was a loving, caring mother, keeping much of her worry and pressure to herself and not burdening her children with open reflections of the marriage breakdown. She was supportive of my interests, hobbies and ambitions, no matter how daft they may have seemed. She was patient and with seven kids, that is a triumph in itself. She was generous with whatever little money she had. We had next to nothing at times but we always seemed to have treats. She was friendly, approachable and helpful to her neighbours and friends. She was a devout Catholic, relying on her faith and prayers to shed light on some dark days. She congratulated and celebrated exam results with encouraging words and hugs. In short, she was always there for us and in her list of priorities, we came first, even before her own needs.

My father died at 57 in 1982. My mother outlived him by nearly thirty years. She suffered from senile dementia, cared for full-time to the end by my three wonderful sisters, Mary, Geraldine and Sheila, and their very supportive husbands. The last time I saw her was in the City Hospital. I’d come over from England and went straight to visit from the airport. When I entered the room, I kissed her forehead and held her hand. As I stepped back, I could see a puzzled look on her face. She pointed at me and said: “I know your mother.” I wasn’t upset because, you know, she was absolutely right. She passed away at 86 on 29 December, 2011.

A 70th wedding anniversary is designated platinum, precious. Now there’s a word to finish off thinking about my mother’s memory, all she endured and what she achieved since that wedding day in 1947. Precious.