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It is a long way from Clare to Bellaghy for my old friend Ralph

By Eddie McIlwaine

I used to think folksy Ralph McTell was an Irishman. It was all his own fault. You see, McTell once wrote a song called From Clare To Here about Irish emigration. It was a success and, naturally, I assumed the writer was from here.

Actually, the man who will be gracing the Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy, Co Londonderry, on Sunday, November 5 was born in Kent 72 years ago.

McTell - he also wrote Streets of London - will be accompanied to Northern Ireland by his wife, Nanna, mother of his four grown-up children, with whom he will be celebrating their 51st wedding anniversary on November 30.

Ralph's original version of the Clare ballad appears on his 1976 album Right Side Up.

Way back in the 1960s, McTell went busking all over Europe and earned his bread in France, Belgium and Germany.

I first encountered him in the 1980s, when he was on television children's shows Alphabet Zoo and Tickle on the Tum.

We met up on his occasional visits to Belfast.

Indeed, we share a bond through our mutual late, great pal, the promoter Jim Aiken.

It turns out that Ralph grew so fond of Northern Ireland that he encouraged his daughter Leah to accept a place at Queen's University.

He revealed: "She was offered places at a university in Scotland and at Queen's. I said, 'I know where I would go,' and she said, 'But there's a lot of trouble ...' And I said, 'Leah, that's what everybody says, but it's not like that. Belfast is a vibrant and exciting place'.

"So, she went, and she had a wonderful time. She even got a great Belfast accent! The late Jim Aiken was a personal friend of mine, and I said to Leah, 'If you get any problems, you just go see Jim and he'll look after you!'."

I plan to catch up with Ralph when he visits Heaney's HomePlace centre next month.

And I'm going to ask Ralph if a little Irish blood does flow in his veins. Surely, he couldn't have written a song like From Clare To Here without a touch of the green? I surmise that one of his ancestors was from Co Clare.

Or is it that this veteran entertainer, who first appeared on stage here in 1969 when the Troubles were just erupting, really does love and enjoy the Irish so much?

Why Natalie is always worth the weight

Actress Natalie Anderson, who will be 36 on Tuesday, is about to play a role in the musical Fat Friends - but you won't see the former Emmerdale favourite in Belfast until next spring.

The charming Natalie, who was also in the West End production of Wicked, will be in town with a talented cast at the Grand Opera House for a week from Tuesday, May 8.

"Well worth waiting for," promises the musical's creator Kay Mellor as Fat Friends is launched on a UK tour, featuring a score by Nicholas Lloyd Webber (son of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sarah Hugill). Also in Fat Friends will be X Factor winner Sam Bailey, Elaine C Smith (Two Doors Down) and Jodie Prenger (Oliver!, Tell Me On A Sunday).

Fat Friends follows the lives of a group of overweight friends as they struggle with the absurdities of modern dieting.

Running for five years on ITV, the show helped to launch the careers of James Corden and Ruth Jones.

Natalie, from Bradford, played Alicia Metcalfe in Emmerdale for five years until she left the soap in 2015.

She also appeared occasionally in The Royal and I enjoyed seeing her in Holby City too.

Yule be amazed at things I know

What is a 'Christingle' church service? That was part of a table quiz the other evening. Wish I'd been there, because I know the answer.

Christingle was originally an old German custom and has its origins in the Moravian Church.

At Christmas 1747, Bishop Johannes de Watteville, in the German town of Marienborn, created a symbol to express the message of Advent.

His Christingle consists of an orange representing the world, tied around with a red ribbon to represent the blood of Christ. Dried fruit and sweets are skewered on four cocktail sticks squeezed into the orange in the directions north, south, east and west to show the Christian message goes all around the world.

On top of the orange is a lighted candle to illustrate the light of the world from heaven.

Apart from the Moravian faith, where the bishop's idea became popular, the custom spread to other denominations in the UK.

In Northern Ireland, it has been used as a way to get the different denominations together.

Heavens preserve us from Old Nick

I hope you've picked all the blackberries you need for the Christmas jam. You see, it's supposed to be unlucky to gather the berries after Old Michaelmas Day, which fell on October 11.

Every year at this time, I take it upon myself to warn jam-makers to shun the blackberry after this date.

You see, there is a folksy yarn that claims Satan cursed the fruit because when he was cast out of Heaven on the first Michaelmas Day he fell into a blackberry bush.

Since then, he has spoilt the berry on every anniversary by scorching it with his breath. Whoever gathers blackberries after that date will have bad luck.

So, whether you take the old yarn seriously or not, it would be wise to stay away from blackberry picking just in case.

Anyway, good jam-makers don't usually pick blackberries in late October.

Not because they are afraid of the Devil, but because that late in the season the berries have lost their goodness.

Once upon a time, when the berries were in season, I spent a whole afternoon picking them in a quiet meadow and filling two buckets with the fruit.

My footnote on the heroic police officers of the Troubles

The trouble with books like A Force Like No Other (Blackstaff £9.99) by ex-cop Colin Breen, about the RUC personnel who policed the Troubles, has to be the officers who are inadvertently left out of the pages.

Breen couldn't be expected to list every story of heroism by his colleagues. I have one to add.

I was attacked by a mob during a riot in the centre of Belfast, knocked down and kicked. Then suddenly a senior officer waded into the crowd, not caring about his own safety, and somehow dragged me away.

I was taken to hospital by photographer Stanley Matchett with minor injuries including a badly bruised ankle, but not before two men in clerical collars admonished me for being there at all, even though I was a journalist.

Joke song about a rock 'n' roll waltz turned Kay into a big star

Was there ever a hit song telling the story of a married couple trying to waltz in rock 'n' roll time, somebody was asking on a BBC Radio 2 programme?

The answer is yes. The Rock And Roll Waltz was a No 1 for American singer Kay Starr way back in 1956.

She was from Oklahoma and the first anniversary of her death at 94 will be commemorated on November 3.

The ballad, which topped the UK charts 60-plus years ago, tells the tale of a teenager coming home early from a date to catch her mum and dad dancing in the kitchen to the strains of her record player.

The lyrics tell of the parents trying to step out a waltz to the beat of a rock 'n' roll tune.

I met Kay, who had another big hit with The Wheel of Fortune, 25 years ago in Chicago.

Something smells fishy about wonders and woes of parsley

There's an old tradition that parsley was once an antidote to poison and to this day the presence of parsley on a dinner plate is apparently a sign of good faith.

But there is another curious property associated with this plant.

According to a tale dating back many years, if a drinking glass is rinsed in water that has been used to wash parsley it will break into pieces the moment that pressure is applied to it.

I need hardly add that if you want to test the truth of this be sure to use a cheap glass.

I've heard too that if the fish in your pond are sick toss a sprig of parsley in and they will be restored to good health.

But some believe the herb, brought to England by the Romans, has less worthy properties.

One superstition has it that bad luck will follow you if it is transplanted from your old home to your new abode.

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