We’ve just finished the 35th Tyneside Irish Festival; in that time we’ve seen most things that the Emerald Isle’s cultural, artistic, musical, dramatic and political performers can produce. We’ve drunk at the cup, as they say. However, we’ve never seen the Irish Navy; until last Monday afternoon when the L.E. (Long Eireannach or “Irish Ship” in English) William Butler Yeats backed into its berth at Spillers Wharf, Newcastle upon Tyne, which is about as near as a 100 yard long, ocean-going, gunboat, containing her Captain Paul Hegarty and 45 sailors can get to the Tyne Bridge.
The vessel was welcomed with great emotion by a small presence of the Tyneside Irish community who are long accustomed to a tradition of Ireland being a poor rural country divided and impoverished by history. A nation which for centuries exported emigrants, but now finds itself, (the Republic anyway), with a higher average income than their post-Brexit British cousins. Therefore the sight of a large modern naval vessel flying the tricolour, coming to Tyneside as an honoured guest and looming up over the quay at high tide definitely stirred the blood. The fellers from the harbourmasters assured us that there had never been a modern Irish naval vessel in the Tyne. The sailing vessels of the Tall Ships didn’t count, this was new.
St James Park, by popular request
Sarah Mangham, the Irish Consul General for the North of England brought her colleague Corina Smith and arrived in time for the ships company’s first trip ashore which by popular request was a trip to St. James Park (SJP). Thanks to Sarah Medcalf, the Fans Liaison officer at NUFC, Dominica O’Neil and Steve the security feller, the visit wasn’t just a five-minute photo-op, but went through the Players’ Entrance down the tunnel and out into the amazing vastness and incredible peace of SJP. In the evening gloom, illuminated by the grow lights keeping the grass growing in a Tyneside winter, from the dug-out to the Directors Box, it’s an unforgettably dramatic place, even more, when it’s empty than when it’s full and raucous.
After the obligatory photo with the black’n’white flag flying and the crest showing we headed off to a couple of pints at the Tyneside Irish Centre and a few sandwiches. Then, when the officers and diplomats went off to dinner at Blackfriars, the lads and lasses (there were female sailors on board too) stayed for a bit of our hospitality and conviviality. All who were present, and the author, will attest to their excellent behaviour which was a credit to their service and upheld the finest traditions of the friendly traditions of Newcastle and Ireland. Anyway, they all got back to the ship reasonably upright and none had been daft enough to wear a sailor’s hat, having been warned that they were unlikely to retain them from Newcastle bar staff, who as is well known, are militarily invincible.
Music on the ship
The next night, we had a new gig. We’ve put bands and PA systems onto ships before, but not ones designed for battle, where the plug for the amplifier is only accessible down a two-foot-long scaffolding tube, and there’s a gangplank and four flights of stairs to lump speakers up, but it got done. Alex, the Tyneside Irish Piper, played the Uilleann Pipes from the superstructure to welcome the lucky attendees onboard and the ship’s company lit up their ship, dressed in their best uniforms and provided tables full of drink and some food.
TC played the fiddle, Cork’s Pat Speight played the bodhran, Sheena played the accordion, and Maureen O’ Donnell, who is one of our stalwart senior members, who sings at the Raised on Songs and Stories events, goes to the Sunday céilís, is a season ticket holder and always helps NUFC Fans Foodbank, stopped the whole ship and all onboard with a song. She sang the classic lament of Irish emigration and a longing for a home and family left forever far away with The Home I left behind.
Tough young sailors in full military uniform gulped and thought of their mothers, people onboard looked at the shore, and everyone empathised with those who had to leave everything they loved in search of security and dignity, but who, in the words of Jack Charlton, whose statue was unveiled in Ashington on Saturday, would “never lose their identity”.
I know that those young men, with accents from Dublin or Cork would remember Newcastle for a few reasons, the welcome, St. James Park, the dramatic trip upriver to get close to the city centre, the nights out and the people visiting. We’ll never forget the gracious speech of Captain Hegarty, who referenced the great poet W.B. Yeats words, after whom his ship was named, saying that “a stranger was just a friend you hadn’t met yet” and thanking our community, some civic dignitaries (alas none from Newcastle Council) and members of the Royal Navy, the RAF and British Army for their attendance. We’ll never forget Sarah Mangham praising the Tyneside Irish community over the generations, mentioning the response and gallantry of the Tyneside Irish Brigade of the Northumberland Fusiliers, and the longest-established Irish Festival in Britain. We’ll hope to forget the hangover that you get with boozing with 45 sailors in Geordieland but we’ll never, ever forget Maureen O’Donnell singing that song on the first Irish ship to get here.
Another home from home
The L.E. William Butler Yeats left the quay with a blast of its horn that echoed all around Tyneside. They gave us a wooden plaque for the Irish Centre, Donna the barmaid, to no one’s surprise got her cap, and they left Maureen with a unique ship’s medallion. She left a piece of her heart and soul with that crew when she sang that song. May they sail in peace and security and may they come back one day to Newcastle, another home from home that they left behind. May all who have to leave their families and homes find friendship, community and dignity somewhere and may they never lose their identity.