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Ulster log: How Tele's Spitfire will finally touch Down again

By Eddie McIlwaine

Published 25/04/2015

The clock is being turned back at Long Kesh today as a full-scale replica Spitfire bearing the name Down is unveiled in a poignant ceremony by the Ulster Aviation Society
The clock is being turned back at Long Kesh today as a full-scale replica Spitfire bearing the name Down is unveiled in a poignant ceremony by the Ulster Aviation Society

The clock is being turned back at Long Kesh today as a full-scale replica Spitfire bearing the name Down (after Co Down) is unveiled in a poignant ceremony by the Ulster Aviation Society.

The model will also carry the letter code TM-F and serial number P7823 on its side but, more significantly, the slogan Belfast Telegraph Spitfire Fund will be there, too. And thereby hangs a tale dating back to wartime 1941 at RAF Ballyhalbert in Co Down where the real Spitfires carrying those markings served until January 1942 with No 504 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force.

That plane was indeed called Down and was one of 17 Spitfires built for the RAF by donations from the people of Northern Ireland under the auspices of this newspaper.

So when the aviation society was able to buy this replica from its English owner, it was only natural, explains founder member Ernie Cromie, to give it the name and lettering of the real Spitfires that meant so much to Ulster folk.

"We made sure no one was going to be offended or upset by us removing the markings from the replica of a real plane that had been flown by a squadron based in Yorkshire during the Second World War," says Ernie.

The Spitfires known as Down was the only one of the Belfast Telegraph's 17 that was ever actually based in the province. The other 16 flew out of airfields in Britain.

During its time at Ballyhalbert, one of the pilots who flew Down was a young pilot, Officer Cecil William Stead Austin from Londonderry, who years later became the father of Radio Ulster broadcaster Wendy Austin. Wendy, a good friend of mine, has presented her dad's log book to the aviation society.

But there is another tragic reason why the memory of Down had to be recalled in the lines and beauty of this handsome replica.

On January 7, 1942, in circumstances that are not entirely clear, Down was being flown back to Ballyhalbert from the fighter airfield at St Angelo in Co Fermanagh when it crashed about three miles north-west of Lurgan, killing its Canadian pilot, 27-year-old Walter McManus, from Ontario.

Reportedly, it was seen flying very low just before hitting the ground and bursting into flames. Officer McManus's remains were buried in Mount St Joseph Roman Catholic Churchyard at Ballycranbeg, near Ballyhalbert.

Tomorrow is another Day for Brigid

What a difference a day makes, declares singer Brigid O’Neill.

She’s talking about Doris Day, the lady who had a hit once upon a time with Secret Love, a song that earned her an Oscar.

In the Grand Opera House in Belfast next month, Brigid will be paying tribute to Doris, who was equally at home in 39 feature films and in middle-of-the-road charts with her recordings.

Secret Love is in the musical Calamity Jane, in which Doris appeared in 1953 with the late Howard Keel, who was a regular visitor to Belfast.

But my favourite Day number is Que Sera Sera, which she sang in the Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew Too Much.

So I hope Brigid includes this song — “Whatever will be will be” — at the Opera House on Friday and Saturday, May 8 and 9.

Doris, at 91, is now an animal rights campaigner. I loved her in Young At Heart with Frank Sinatra  and in Pillow Talk with James Garner.

 Day went on to star in several other romantic comedies, including That Touch of Mink with Cary Grant, The Thrill of It All, and Move Over, Darling, both with Garner. 

However, after the failure of Do Not Disturb in 1965 and being referred to as  “The World’s Oldest Virgin”, her film career began to decline.

She last ranked as a Top 10 box office star in 1966 with the hit film The Glass Bottom Boat. Her song hits included I’ll Never Stop Loving You and By the Light of the Silvery Moon.

How Tony really found his heart in Belfast

Renowned pianist Ralph Sharon, who has died at 91, introduced superstar Tony Bennett to the song that made him a star.

Crooner Bennett, of the velvet voice, had Sharon as his accompanist at the height of his celebrity and they travelled the world together including trips to Belfast.

And one day in the early Sixties when he was packing for yet another visit here to play the Ulster Hall with Bennett, Sharon found the music and lyrics that were to confirm Tony’s undisputed talent.

“I had been given the sheet music years before and had put the envelope away in a drawer and forgotten all about it,” he explained later.

And as Sharon pulled a shirt out of the same drawer, that sheet music and words fluttered to the floor.

The song that came out with that shirt? I Left My Heart In San Francisco, of course.

The pair tried it out in concerts everywhere, including a bar in Belfast soon after that crucial find, and one barman here told them: “If you record that song I’ll buy the first copy.” The recording was an instant success in 1962.

Still searching for Paddy Reilly...

It's Percy French's birthday on Friday, May 1, so the society that bears his name will be honouring the occasion at a gala dinner in the Clandeboye Lodge Hotel, Bangor.

Soprano Liz Ross will perform, along with husband Colin Boyd, a member of the Belfast Operatic Company, and musician Loretta McAuley.

French was born in 1854 in Co Roscommon and was an old boy of Foyle College before going to Trinity College, Dublin, from which he emerged as a civil engineer, artist, and a writer of songs that have stood the test of time, like The Mountains of Mourne and Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff. I believed as a child that French's Ballyduff was Ballyduff at Carnmoney, and Paddy was my long-lost uncle.

Weeding out the right answer

A farmer friend of mine has had to go back to school. Not to brush up on maths, English or the alphabet - but to be educated in the gentle art of spraying weeds.

He's part of a class at Greenmount Agriculture College, where 30 people who work on the land, are being given lessons in how to spray.

My friend has been using his spray for 30 years and thought he was an expert as the weeds shrivelled and died. The first lesson was answering questions and being lectured by experts on the theory of spraying.

The second class will be a practical session at which he and his classmates will be shown where they are going wrong with their spray guns.

Then he has to rush up the meadow to suckle a couple of motherless lambs.

Real McCoy to call it a day, finally

The Tony McCoy saga goes on and on. One day the champion jockey is riding in his last race and retiring and then next day he's astride the favourite in the 3 o'clock  at another meeting. The truth as I see it is that Tony doesn't want to retire, but feels he has to go.

I've a friend just like McCoy who can't make up his mind about putting his feet up either. Like Tony, he loves his job one day and wants to keep on doing it, only to decide to quit the next. There's a song called Making Your Mind Up that suits him and McCoy perfectly.

By the time you read this, McCoy may have ridden his final winner. Personally I'll be glad to see him go - he has relegated many of my chosen horses into second place down the years.

Belfast Telegraph

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