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An Ulster Log: Titanic fitting backdrop as Eleanor marks her 100 years

By Eddie McIlwaine

Published 23/04/2016

Eleanor with her great-grandchild Ben Butterwick
Eleanor with her great-grandchild Ben Butterwick
Roma Downey
Eamonn Holmes

There couldn't be a more appropriate place for widow Eleanor Thompson to celebrate her 100th birthday next Saturday than the Titanic Centre in Belfast. Her father, Ambrose Willis, a chief draughtsman at Harland & Wolff shipyard, actually worked on the tragic White Star liner as she was being built.

In fact, the late Mr Willis, who was in charge of interior design, sailed aboard the Titanic on her trials and was with her when she finally left Belfast on her way to Southampton to prepare for that doomed maiden voyage to New York. Only he was recalled to Harland & Wolff at the last minute instead of being with her on her way to the Big Apple.

"Mum might never have been born if my grandfather's original plans hadn't been changed," says Eleanor's son John. "He could have gone down with the ship to which he had devoted so much time and energy. Indeed, many of his colleagues and workers, including carpenters and others from the shipyard, did die and he grieved their loss. He was needed back at Harland & Wolff to work on the Olympic, the Titanic's sister ship."

So Eleanor's thoughts when she blows out the candles on her cake at The Bridge in the Titanic Centre on the Queen's Road will be fixed on what might have been. She will be shown her father's salary book in the Titanic museum along with other relics of the liner.

The widow of my first editor, Emil Thompson of the Larne Times, Eleanor is celebrating at the Titanic Centre, courtesy of sons Peter and John.

Eleanor was born at Knock to draughtsman Ambrose and his wife Mabel, and she and Emil, who died in 1984, were married in 1940 and were together for many happy years. She has three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

I'll be at the party with other former Times staff including Roy Lilley, Wendy Austin, Gordon Burns and Robin Walsh.

In her heyday, Eleanor wrote a column in the Times as Eve Wisdom and women in east Antrim enjoyed her witty style.

On occasions when my night markings clashed with important dates with a certain young female in Belfast, Eleanor deputised for me and editor Emil never found out. It was the only time she ever kind of deceived him; they had a special kind of union. I still remember him pounding up the stairs in the Times at Dunluce Street singing Love And Marriage.

Roma's hoping Ben-Hur will run and run

A dream will come true in August for movie celeb Roma Downey, now back in Hollywood after a visit home to her native Londonderry, when the new version of the movie Ben-Hur, which she and her husband Mark Burnett are producing, is released.

The original back in 1959 had the late Stephen Boyd (real name Billy Millar from Glengormley) as one of its stars opposite Charlton Heston.

An elementary mistake Mr Holmes in writing off United's season

Football wise guy Eamonn Holmes must be feeling a little bit silly as his favourite team Man United play Everton in the semi-final of the FA Cup today, in spite of all that harsh criticism heaped on manager Louis Van Gaal by the broadcaster (and others) who actually called on Louis to be sacked.

I know that my old mate is a man of many talents, but I never recognised him as an authority on football. Is he letting his friendship with United legend Alex Ferguson go to his head?

Louis van Gaal has been undeservedly under fire this season from all quarters. No matter what his critics say, he is emerging as one of the most successful managers in the Premier League with his club doing so well in the Cup and up there in the top five in the League. I know he will ignore Eamonn's unkind words. He might even forgive Holmes who is recovering from a double hip op and invite him to the Wembley final if United get there.

I didn't pay too much attention to a friend of mine who says that Eamonn should accompany Michael O'Neill and the Northern Ireland team into the Euro finals - as a mascot.

Still with football, let me reveal that Harryville Homers from the Saturday Morning League are set to break records in the next few weeks as they play in the finals of both the Junior Cup and the Junior Shield on dates yet to be arranged. Only five teams have done the double by winning both finals, but Harryville will become the sixth if they are victorious in the Cup and Shield this season.

The five teams who have done so are: Muckamore Presbyterian (1950); Lower Shankill (1965); Cromac Albion (1972); Maghera (Newcastle) 1987 and Immaculata (2009).

In the Junior Shield, Harryville play Rosemount in a repeat of last year's final. Victory will mean they've won the trophy three years in a row, a feat only accomplished previously by Immaculata. Harryville will end the season by meeting Ballyvea of the Newcastle League in the Junior Cup final, says football historian John Robinson.

Me, Harold Pinter, and that bestseller that I never wrote

I'll never know if famed playwright Harold Pinter was serious when he told me to send him my novel for an opinion about its chances of being a bestseller.

In the event the great man died on this date in 2008 before I got round to writing it.

I'm reminded of our conversation one time in Belfast when he was in town for a lecture as I pick up a copy of a eulogy to him by his widow Antonia Fraser called Must You Go? (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

During our chat in the Europa, Harold told me how he used to tour here when he was an unknown young actor in the 50s. I was foolish enough to confide to him that I was going to write a blockbuster.

He didn't laugh and said if I ever finished it to get in touch. I'm sorry that he went to his grave without seeing the great work. Meantime, I'm still on chapter one.

Northern voices echoing down the years from the 1916 Rising

It was the year of the Somme and the Battle of Jutland, but an event that also touched the lives of everyone in Ireland was the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

So tomorrow night at 8pm on BBC NI, a documentary called Voices 16 Rising will set out to tell the story of the Rebellion through the testimony of the people who lived through the drama of 100 years ago.

In particular Rising will examine that eventful time from a northern perspective and how the people up here were affected by the momentous happenings in Dublin at a time when Ireland as a whole was still part of the British Empire.

Voices 16 Rising uses eyewitness testimony, letters, memoirs and diaries to provide a fascinating picture from men and women who were there.

This little ol’ Belfast bar ain’t big enough for two cowboys

The lounge of the old and lamented Grand Central Hotel in downtown Belfast was crowded when Hopalong Cassidy in his black stetson and western gear strode in and ordered a sarsaparilla on the rocks.

But the barman made a terrible mistake as he served up the drink. "I've seen all your films Mr Autry," was how he addressed this cowboy star.

No wonder Hopalong was miffed. Imagine being mistaken for one of your great screen rivals the Singing Cowboy Gene Autry.

The story was related to me years ago by the late social photographer Leslie Stuart who was present that evening in 1949. It could have been worse - he could have been mistaken for the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers.

Belfast Telegraph

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