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An Ulster Log: Nellie, the Belfast Blitz elephant to star on screen

By Eddie McIlwaine

Celebrated actress Penelope Wilton, who lit up the TV screen in Downton Abbey, is looking forward to her next role - co-starring with an elephant called Nellie. They will appear together in a film still to be named, based on real life happenings at Bellevue Zoo during the 1941 Easter Blitz by the Luftwaffe on Belfast during the Second World War.

The production by Wee Buns Films will tell the story of how Sheila the elephant was saved from a death sentence by a female animal lover who, every evening of the Blitz, walked her to her home a mile away at Whitewell to shield her from the air raids.

Wee Buns producer John Leslie explains: "The lady was Denise Austin, a part-time worker at the zoo, who led Sheila back to her elephant house every morning the alert lasted. She kept her safe for many nights in the back yard of her terraced home."

The story of how animal lover Denise and her friends took Sheila home to Whitewell to save her after the Stormont government of the day ordered certain animals at Bellevue to be shot in case they escaped if bombs fell on the zoo, captured the imagination of film-maker Leslie. He and co-producer Katy Jackson have been putting this production together for the past six years.

Two military marksmen shot dead 33 animals, including one hyena, six wolves, one puma, one tiger, one black bear, one Barbary lion, two polar bears, one lynx and a giant rat called Hugo.

Apart from the possible threat to people at large, keepers felt there wasn't enough food to feed the animals during that time of rationing and sentenced them to death. Sheila was on the list to be shot until Mrs Austin informed the Zoo that she had an uncle farming at Cavehill who could provide care for the elephant.

Writer Colin McIvor, who will also direct, tells the story through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy called Tom who takes up the fight to save the elephant, named in the movie for some reason as Buster.

Amy Huberman, wife of rugby legend Brian O'Driscoll, may have a major part, too.

Sheila, who arrived at the zoo in 1935 and lived to a grand old age before dying from natural causes, will be played by female Indian elephant Nellie.

This Dana will bring all kinds of jazz to Mac

Jazz singer Dana Masters, a native of South Carolina, but now settled here with Irish husband Andrew, will be launching her debut album in the Mac, in Belfast, on Thursday, April 14 after becoming a favourite in McHugh's Bar where her new work found inspiration.

Dana, after regular appearances on BBC Radio 4 and guesting with Van Morrison, is emerging as a major vocalist who calls the province home sweet home. She and Andrew, who have three children, live in Lisburn.

Dana will introduce her CD of purist soul at the Mac where her performance will be backed by players Linley Hamilton on trumpet, David Howell on sax, Johnny Taylor on piano, Gareth Hughes on bass, James Nash on guitar, and Paul Hamilton on drums

Tickets for the gig can be bought on tel: 028 9023 5350 or online at

After hearing her in McHugh's, there's a song I'd love to hear her record - an old Acker Bilk hit called That's My Home.

It would be an appropriate recording for a lady who is far away from her home in the Deep South of the USA.

Did Portrush pilgrims sail safely to the New World?

Here's an intriguing question thrown up by a book entitled Echoes of Open Glory (Colourpoint, £9.99): can you name the mystery passenger ship that sailed from Portrush to America in 1726?

That was 100 years before the Port of Rush, as the resort used to be called, had a proper harbour. Boston-bound passengers had to be rowed out to the ship which was anchored in the bay.

You'll have gathered that this absorbing tome, devoted to the 1951 Open staged at Royal Portrush, isn't just about golf. It is laced too with tales and yarns about the North Coast. Among the passengers on the mystery ship were John and James Harvey from Coleraine, but historians in Boston have failed to turn up the name of the liner.

The chapter about the mystery ship is also exercising the minds of folk of Portrush.

There is a set of steps known as The Pilgrim Steps still on the rocks to this day, down which the passengers and crew had to clamber to board the boat taking them to the liner.

But did they arrive in Boston safely that year of 1726?

Carnmoney Hill is loftier peak

Scientists have just discovered that Ben Nevis in the Scottish Grampians has grown eight feet in the last 50 years. Sure that's nothing - Carnmoney Hill is at least 10 feet higher than it was when I was climbing up it as a boy. 

How do I know? Well, the last time I struggled up to the summit, creaking bones and all, it took me an extra 45 minutes to reach the top. And I reckon those 45 minutes are equivalent to 10 feet.

I would say I won't be up there again to gaze out over Belfast Lough, which means my search down many years for the treasure trove buried on the Hill by a pirate king in the 17th century will never prove successful. And I could be doing with some of that pirate bullion.

Faith in God is a sure foundation

I was writing here recently about a poem called God of Concrete by a chap called Frederick Clarke, but somebody managed to leave the words out of the piece which annoyed a fair few of my readers.

So here is a snippet from the lyrics today - better late than never - just to prove that there is such a song out there which gets performed at Salvation Army occasions and by Methodists.

God of Concrete

by Frederick Clarke

God of concrete, God of steel,

God of piston and of wheel,

God of pylon, God of steam,

God of girder and of beam,

God of atom, God of mine:

all the world of power is thine.

Lord of cable, Lord of rail,

Lord of freeway and of mail,

Lord of rocket and of flight,

Lord of soaring satellite,

Lord of lightning's flashing line:

all the world of speed is thine.

Saint answers drivers' prayers

The Patron Saint of Parking is St Gladys - but who was this Gladys? "Dunno," admits driver Ann Grant, a friend of mine over there in Forfar, "but she always manages to find a parking spot for me when I'm in a hurry and offer up a prayer."

Gladys was a housekeeper in a Scottish manor who was a devout Christian.

When the gentry for whom she worked in the early 19th century were leaving in their horse-drawn carriage to visit friends she offered up a prayer that their coach would be conveniently parked right at the front door of the folk they were going to see.

They must have been a lazy lot, is all I can say, but according to legend, the prayers of Gladys were always answered.

Belfast Telegraph


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