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Downpatrick battle set in motion a tale of intrigue

By Eddie McIlwaine

Did you ever hear of the Battle of Downpatrick? That's where a knight called John de Courcy and his small army of 300 defeated Rory MacDunlevy in 1177 to claim Ulster as his own.

He had asked King Henry II to give him the province and the royal one agreed. What de Courcy of noble birth didn't know was that Henry regarded the request as a joke and told this knight he could become Lord over Ulster if he conquered it by force.

No one in royal circles expected this knight to go in pursuit of the province with his band of mercenaries.

But de Courcy wasn't laughing and he made Ulster his own in two fierce battles.

He then set up a new regime with Carrick Castle as his headquarters. In fairness to this Sir Knight he worked wonders at giving the province a good name and its people a better standard of living, but inevitably he fell out with the establishment when King John succeeded to the throne.

You can read all about de Courcy's adventures and exploits in a new book called John de Courcy Prince of Ulster (Colourpoint, £4.99) by Steve Flanders.

After upsetting the royal household who thought de Courcy was getting too big for his boots, the new king ordered his friend, a knight called Sir Hugh de Lacy, to track de Courcy down and capture him.

De Lacy discovered from a traitor in his regime that the only time de Courcy was out of his armour in public was when he was in church, unarmed and on his knees praying. De Lacy timed a perfect bid to snare his foe who was taken.

De Courcy was expelled and spent months in the Isle of Man, but was never a fighting force to be reckoned with again, ending up in prison and dying in poverty in what is now Craigavon in 1219.

Opera star to brighten up the stage

Diva Ana Maria Labin will be making her debut with Opera North at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, in The Marriage Of Figaro on Thurday, March 19 and Saturday, March 21.

She has the role of  Countess Almaviva, a wronged wife, who sings two very memorable arias. Born in Bucharest in 1981, Ana grew up in Zurich and is now based in London. She speaks fluent English, French, German, Italian and Romanian.

Figaro is set in a stately home where Ana’s husband, the Count Almaviva, is a bit of a sleaze and neglects his wife, who is heartbroken by her husband’s faithlessness — but is herself the object of the adolescent desires of the page, Cherubino.

The opera was composed in 1786 by Mozart.

If We Try we could find somewhere for McLean 

Everybody pauses when Don McLean sings Vincent, he will be performing that sensitive tribute to van Gogh again in Dublin (Vicar Street, May 31) and at the Cork Opera House (June 1) along with many other hits written by this poet with a voice. 

But here’s the thing: Don won’t be making an appearance in Belfast. My information is that there isn’t a suitable venue available  where his management could put him on. Which I find astonishing and a shame.

Doesn’t say much for our so-called new-look city. At his core Don is an American individualist — he does things his own way.

Don, who will 70 this year, is a poet like a Byron or a Keats in that regard for having a pop sensibility mixed with folk music and rock ‘n’ roll. I think for centuries to come you’ll hear people doing cover versions of his songs versions of his songs like If We Try. Is it too late to find a hall for this special performer some Starry Starry Night in May, never mind the cost?

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