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Forget the 'F' word... the day Kennedy came to visit

An Ulster Log

By Eddie McIlwaine

Published 01/08/2015

John F Kennedy
John F Kennedy
Jersey girl: Sofia Black D’Lia is all set for the Ben-Hur remake
Daring raid: James Magennis

A contestant in a quiz on afternoon television was asked the other day what the middle "F" in John F Kennedy's name stood for. He hadn't a clue, but then claimed that Kennedy was a character in fiction anyway.

I've just about recovered from the shock to remind readers that the very real President, who was assassinated in November 1963, once visited Portstewart and Portrush, in the summer of 1940 to be exact, when he was a law student at Harvard. He travelled to these shores with his father, Joe, then the American Ambassador in London.

They were entertained by Dr Sloan Bunting, a friend of the American Consul in Belfast, at his Strand House overlooking the Atlantic.

And one man who actually came face to face with the future President was the late Leslie Mann, who was leaving the Sloan surgery after a consultation. I remember Leslie telling me how he spoke to the young JFK and told him it was a brave day. "I wondered for ages if he knew what I meant," said Leslie.

According to Leslie, Dr Bunting took the Kennedys golfing at Royal Portrush and they visited the Giant's Causeway.

In fact, years later, JFK was invited to open a facility at the Causeway, but he was assassinated in Dallas before he could accept.

Soon after leaving Northern Ireland, JFK, then 23, joined up and served as commander of Motor Torpedo Boats PT-109 and PT-59 in the South Pacific during the Second World War. Kennedy went into politics after the war and represented a Massachusetts district in the House of Representatives. Thereafter, he served in the US Senate until 1960, when he defeated Richard Nixon in the presidential election. At the age of 43, he was the youngest man to have been elected to the White House.

By the way that "F" stands for Fitzgerald. I bring up the subject of Kennedy today in case there is anyone else out there who thinks he only existed in fiction.

Sofia's choice for Roma's remake of classic flick

Actress Sofia Black D'Lia (23), from New Jersey, had just finished reading the 1880 novel Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace when she got a call offering her the role of Tirzah, the sister of the Jewish prince in the remake of the 1959 film of the book.

The call came from Londonderry's Roma Downey, who is producing this Biblical epic. So it was a timely coincidence that led to Sofia being offered her first major role in a blockbuster.

And it's a film that will have particular interest among Ulster cinemagoers because it was in the original 1959 Ben-Hur movie that Stephen Boyd from Glengormley had the part of Messala, son of a Roman tax collector.

Sofia, who also starred in the sci-fi movie Project Almanac, was first choice for a role that Bates Motel star Olivia Cooke seemed certain to win.

There is speculation Roma Downey will be making a token appearance in Ben-Hur 2015, which she has dreamed of producing for several years.

Still time to honour underwater hero James

On this very date 70 years ago, in 1945, seaman James Magennis was recovering aboard the submarine Stygian after one of the most daring raids of the Second World War, which earned him Ulster's only Victoria Cross of that conflict.

His task as a 25-year-old diver from the midget sub HMS XE3, towed to the Straits of Johor by the Stygian, was to swim through dangerous waters to the Japanese cruiser Takoa and sink her by attaching mines to her hull.

Magennis, from the Donegall Road in Belfast, accomplished the mission against all the odds and knocked the 10,000-ton Takoa, a threat to Allied shipping, out of action.

James had to spend 30 minutes chipping away barnacles on the ship's bottom before being able to attach the mines.

There is now a memorial plaque to Magennis at Belfast City Hall and he is remembered as a hero by sailors everywhere. A book about him, written by another submariner, George Fleming, was a bestseller. But he was never granted the Freedom of his native city.

He died in 1986 at 66, but is it too late to honour him?

Iconic Robin's nod to Ulster bard

My mention of the quirky poem The Ballad Of William Bloat reminded reader Lorraine McCutcheon of east Belfast, that it got a mention in the 1989 film Dead Poets' Society, starring the late Robin Williams.

As lecturer John Keating, he sets out to get his pupils interested in good verses. At one session deep in a cave (for some odd reason) one of the boys in the class recites the first line of Bloat.

'In a mean abode on the Shankill Road lived a man called William Bloat ...'

But for some curious reason that's as far as the reading goes, says Lorraine.

Bloat author Raymond Colville Calvert was born in Banchory House, Helen's Bay in Co Down, on October 30, 1906.

Taxing times for Inland Revenue

An Inland Revenue official was a wee bit puzzled when this message arrived in the mail: "My code will have to be altered. My mother-in-law is now living with us which makes me 104."

Apparently daft appeals for help arrive daily from people filling in their tax forms. A husband wrote that he had taken out an "endearment policy" in respect of his wife and an anxious mother asked: "What has happened to the newborn baby I sent in three weeks ago?"

I particularly loved this piece of information from an old lady of 87: "I'm not liable for Inland Revenue as I live on the coast."

Farewell to a Nashville hit-maker

If Always On My Mind isn't one of your favourite songs it should be. Wayne Carson, who wrote the love ballad, died in July at 72. He came to Belfast once with Willie Nelson, who had a hit with the song, and told me how he was inspired to write it by his wife.

She was annoyed with Wayne because he had been too long away from their Nashville home on personal appearances and on the phone from Memphis he reassured her with the words of his song. Elvis Presley recorded Carson's song, but the real hit belonged to Willie Nelson in 1982, when it won him and Carson Grammy Awards. A version by The Pet Shop Boys was the Christmas No 1 in 1987. Wayne also wrote another major song, The Letter which was a hit for Joe Cocker.

Belfast Telegraph

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