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Teaching the younger generation about the Great War

Young and old alike are joining forces in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter for a special dance tribute to the fallen of World War One

By Una Brankin

Georgie Hoy believes this year will be her last to dance. With that knowing look so evident in certain wise, older people, the 90-year-old widow is quite sure she won't be performing in any event next year. But she's making a special effort for Fallen, a contemporary dance performance piece marking the centenary of the First World War to honour her father, Richard McCappin, who served with the Royal Horse Guards.

"His ship was torpedoed off the north-western front and he was in the cold water for hours," says Georgie, showing me a photograph of her handsome square-jawed father, wearing his medals. "He went to France towards the end of the war and worked when he came home until he was 65.

"He never did talk to us about the war, but I've read letters that were sent back and they're very sad. It's heartbreaking to think of it. Two of my uncles had five sons in the war, too. Three came back and two were killed at the Battle of Passchendaele (West Flanders)."

Georgie stands out in the silent, seated chorus in the rehearsals for Fallen, at Dee Street Community Centre in east Belfast, not far from her home in Greenville sheltered housing.

She is the smallest of the line, but the most striking, in a red skirt revealing her neat dancer's legs, and a trendy pair of black-rimmed glasses to match her polo-neck.

And when she smiles - which is often - you would swear she still has her own teeth: "I had false ones made specially, with the natural gaps I always had in my real ones," she explains with a grin.

An active member of the community centre, Georgie dances regularly and has performed at Saint Anne's Cathedral and St George's Market.

"For this new show we do all these different moves to do with the war, different motions. It's not too energetic - it wouldn't need to be, for me! I can hear my bones cracking at times, but it's good exercise. I do quite a lot of dancing - keeping up with the young ones helps keep me young."

Through her community activities, Georgie met fellow Fallen performers Margaret Elmore (70) and Catherine McClory (75). Margaret's Belfast-born father, Michael O'Hare, lied about his age to enlist in the war. She looks lovingly at a formal old black and white photograph of him, fresh-faced in a tweed suit, shirt and tie.

"Wee pet, he was only 15 in 1917, and so small and slight - when I look at my 14-year-old grandson, Keelin, I can't believe how young my dad was heading off to fight," says Margaret, from Lisburn.

"His father had been a sergeant in the Army and he was determined to enlist, so he took his friend's ID, and then got into trouble when his friend decided to sign up the year after. But he had done all the training and - apparently - because he had a 36-inch chest, they let him stay on."

Michael was badly wounded in the Gallipoli campaign at the Dardanelles, part of the-then Turkish Ottoman Empire. The 100,000 Gallipoli casualties included huge numbers of Irish soldiers who had volunteered to fight in the British Army. Margaret's father spent weeks in a field hospital before being discharged.

"He tried to go back and then tried to enlist in the Second World War, but they laughed at him - he had a bullet lodged in his spine and this big scar down his back," Margaret recalls.

"But he never complained about the pain and never spoke a word about the war. The only thing I heard about it, which was from my sister, was that when he went over on the hessian boat to England to train, he was so small and skinny, a man lifted him up on his shoulders so he wouldn't be crushed in the crowd.

"When he came home he was officially disabled and couldn't work, but he had a job as a gamekeeper when the family moved to Co Londonderry. I'll always remember him sitting at the table writing letters to relatives all over the world and singing constantly. He was a lovely light tenor like Count John McCormack.

"He also collected stamps and made beautiful rugs from those weaving kits and did work for the St Vincent de Paul charity. He was never the same physically, though - the doctor told us when he died that his war injuries had weakened him. He was only 59 when he died of a heart attack.

"He was a great man and it's amazing for me to be able to take part in this tribute to him and his comrades. It means so much to me. I used to find the concept of celebrating November 11 strange, like it was glorifying war, but it is all about remembering the fallen and the families and the wives and children they left behind."

Slight and fine-featured like her father, Margaret is a graceful presence in rehearsals. When the haunting score swells for the soldiers' departure scene and the chorus slowly wave them off, it's hard to suppress a lump in the throat. The soldiers are played by an impressive group of teenage amateurs, who have all the strenuous movements to do in this very contemporary piece.

Adds Margaret: "The music really touches your heart. We've cried buckets of tears throughout, especially the farewell part. I can't keep my lips from trembling - I don't know how we're going to get through it live!"

Margaret and Catherine are members of the Crescent Elderflowers Dance Theatre for women over 55. Their weekly workshops include dance, creative movement, theatre and storytelling/reminiscence.

Catherine's daughter Eileen is a choreographer with the Crescent Arts Centre, on Belfast's University Road. "I've two left feet - I just went along to make the tea but ended up joining in," says Catherine. "Margaret and I are considered relatively good now so we were put forward for Fallen, and we're going to be the best we can be for it."

Catherine's maternal uncle, Charles Mullan, from Caledon died, with many of his Irish Guards comrades at the Somme in 1916, and is buried at Bruges cemetery.

Another uncle, on her father's side, Joseph Hughes, died at 29 on the HM Cressy, a Royal Navy armoured cruiser which was torpedoed and sunk on September 22, 1914, with the loss of 560 of her crew. "He was a stoker in the engine room so he wouldn't have known what happened," says Catherine, from Belfast. "The ship was supposed to zig zag but it was too heavy and couldn't avoid torpedoes.

"It's hard to hold back the tears in this performance, especially in the farewell scene when we're slowly waving the soldiers goodbye. We've cried buckets."

At 10, Logan McCurdy is one of the youngest performing in Fallen - and one of the cutest. The Elm Primary School pupil is taking part with his grandfather Brian (70), the only male in the seated chorus.

Logan says: "My teacher Mrs Brown came round and asked who wants to be in this special production and I said 'Yes'. Then she asked did we have any grandparents who'd like to be in it and I said 'Yes'. Poppy takes me to school every day."

Logan and his 'poppy' Brian are in different scenes in the production, but are thoroughly enjoying themselves at the rehearsals.

"We have a very good relationship and this has cemented it," says Brian, smiling down at his grandson. "I was keen to do it when Logan asked me. We didn't have any relatives lost in WW1, but I think it's very important to remember anyone who lost their lives in war, any war.

"Thankfully it's all interpretative dance movement, not the quick step! The dress rehearsals are bringing deeper meaning to it for us. We're getting to know the story, learning more. These boys were very brave, they didn't go and hide away from war.

"And I'm a former draftsman so doing this at the Titanic Drawing Office has special significance for me, and it will be a good experience for Logan."

Bringing generations together...

  • Fallen is a unique new performance piece by a cast aged from nine to 92 marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War by exploring life in Northern Ireland and on the battlefields of Europe at that time
  • It involves dance, poetry, movement, music, song and an exhibition - all held in the atmospheric Titanic Drawing Offices from November 9-11
  • DU Dance NI's Alternative Energies Project aims to unite an inter-generational cross-community cast to remember the war. It involves schoolchildren, young adults and a large group of elders from both Belfast and Ballymoney
  • The performance does not take a stance on the war - it is not political or historical and doesn't take a side. The thought behind it is to reflect the emotions at the time and explore the human story
  • It begins in one of the Drawing Offices - called the tea room for the show - and it has a pre-war theme.
  • It depicts the light before the storm. The excitement and bravado because everyone thought this would be a short war. We show the moments before leaving, the children playing at war, the women holding themselves together, the train station, where it was almost a carnival atmosphere with bands playing," explains Mags Byrne, artistic director for DU Dance, a professional dance development company established in 2007. This is a promenade piece which means that as the boys go off to war and the women are left behind, the audience and cast move into the second main Drawing Offices - a place of darkness to contrast the difference between home and the hell that greeted the forces when they arrived in Europe to fight.
  • "Many of these were young working class boys who'd never left their family home before and the shock of arriving at the front line was immense," she added
  • The name of the piece, Fallen, comes from a poem by Wilfred Owen - the English poet who wrote some of the best First World War poetry and tragically died in action one week before the armistice
  • Fallen is part of a three-year project for Du Dance and it was the participants from previous years who suggested the idea of marking the 100th anniversary of the war
  • For the older performers, many of their fathers served in the war and were directly affected by it. While the youngest performers - at just nine years old - have no tangible concept of the war
  • Fallen performances are free, but tickets must be booked in advance from DU Dance on tel: 028 9033 0956, or by emailing info@dudanceni.com

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