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Why Stormont Senate is once again scene of heated debate

By Eddie McIlwaine

I'm delighted to note that the Upper Chamber at Stormont hasn't been relegated to the past tense. The Senate (Northern Ireland's equivalent of Westminster's Lords) used to sit here. And it was my privilege to report the debates up in the Press gallery.

But I feared for the future of this elegant place, with red benches seating its 26 members, when steps were taken to abolish the Senate in 1973.

The final decision was that the senators, who included the Lord Mayors of Belfast and Londonderry, had no power, were a mere revising body for the Northern Ireland Commons and had to go.

So, elegant debaters, like Senator Jack Barnhill (later brutally murdered by the IRA), disappeared from the Stormont scene. There is a plaque at Stormont in his memory.

The last Speaker, from 1964 to 1973, was the second Baron, Lord Glentoran (ex-soldier Daniel B Dixon) and the final Leader of the House was Sir Jack Andrews.

I was disappointed at the disappearance of the Senate. Even if the debates had little or no influence on the political scene here, they were interesting and I always found something to write about.

Here's the good news, though: that Upper Chamber is now back on the front line of news, as Judge Sir Patrick Coghlin selects it as the centre of his Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry.

I'm so glad that the old Senate, where I practised my shorthand two afternoons a week when the senators were in session, hasn't been forgotten. It will become a bustling chamber again as evidence is heard.

I just hope His Lordship doesn't have to eavesdrop now and again on the ghosts of the talkative senators who used to fill those plush red seats.

One mystery surrounds the Chamber, though, which in its heyday was weighed heavily in favour of unionism. Once upon a time, the senators - against the odds - elected a nationalist as deputy Speaker.

Who was he?

Kerry makes her fairytale Belfast debut

Be prepared to shed a tear of joy when Kerry Ellis arrives at the Opera House in Belfast to play the lead role of Alice in Wonderland.

This is the stage version of well-loved fairytales Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) by Lewis Carroll.

Kerry says she grew up reading the original versions.

"The musical will move you greatly," she promises. "This is a touching story of love in all its forms and an illustration of the everyday magic in our lives.

"You will be mesmerised by the music and the songs by Frank Wildhorn, who wrote Where Do Broken Hearts Go for Whitney Houston."

In the cast, too, are Wendi Peters (Coronation Street) as Queen of Hearts and West End regular Dave Willetts as White Rabbit.

But the fairytale belongs to Kerry, who has been Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, Grizabella in Cats and Ellen in Miss Saigon.

Alice in Wonderland starts at the Grand Opera House on Monday, March 27 and runs for a week

Pilot Lilian lived in the fast lane

There's another side to aviation pioneer Lilian Bland (1878-1971) that not many people are aware of. In the years she lived on the family estate at Burnt Hill, two miles down the road from Carnmoney Hill in east Antrim, where she became the first woman pilot (with the help of a couple of burly policemen, who pushed her glider Mayfly into lift-off), Lilian also loved fast cars and motorbikes.

She also enjoyed rides on a horse-drawn four-wheeler that called at her Tobercorran House home, according to a story an old-timer called Bob McKeown told me years ago.

After the early success with Mayfly on the slopes of Carnmoney Hill, Lilian had an engine and propeller fitted to the glider, transforming it into an aeroplane.

She married her cousin, Charles Loftus Bland, and the couple lived for years in Vancouver Island, Canada. After he died, Lilian - who was born in Kent- came back to England and settled in the village of Sennen, near Land's End.

She died in 1971, at the age of 92, and was buried in the cemetery at the parish church there.

Now the search is on for someone to play Lilian on the big screen.

My heart pines for missing wren

Log readers who have been agog at my affair with a wren should brace  themselves. I have some bad news. My wren has vanished - and I fear she was a victim of Storm Doris that swept over us a couple of weeks ago. A huge crow perished in the wind and I'm certain the wren suffered a similar fate.

Let me hasten to add for the unaware: this was a wren of the feathered kind; there was no scandal involving me with a pretty girl sailor.

I explained here to regulars how the little bird befriended me in my back yard, greeting me every morning with a chirp and occasionally picking seed from my outstretched palm. She was always alone and I assumed she had lost her partner.

Now I'm saddened the wren is no longer out there. I keep hoping she has just been away somewhere and will return soon to chirp another hello.

If you ask me concrete is not an appropriate setting for a hymn

Is there a hymn called The God of Concrete? I've just been asked - and the answer is in the affirmative.

It's in the Salvation Songbook and was written by a Richard Granville Jones, who was educated at Cambridge and, after serving in the Royal Navy, became a Methodist minister in 1950, my research confirms. He wrote the lyrics after attending a Methodist youth conference, at which the boys and girls complained they had no modern hymn to sing. It was set to music by his friend Frederick Clarke.

I'll tell you this: it has never been sung in my church.

Will Donald call into President Jackson's homestead on his visit?

There will be something topical about November, the closing play tonight in the Newtownabbey Drama Festival at the Theatre at the Mill, Mossley, presented by Estuary Players.

It is, indeed, November in a Presidential election year and the incumbent, Charles Smith's, chances of re-election are looking grim. Approval ratings are down, his money is running out and nuclear war might be imminent.

November is a scathing, hilarious take on the state of American politics today, but there's a wee bit of bad language, so be prepared.

Even though Donald Trump is headed for these parts, there's nary a mention of him. I wonder if he will find time to call at President Andrew Jackson's homestead in Carrickfergus?

Cicely Mathews, host who had Children's Hour down to a 't'

Sure enough, a lot of folk out there remember Children's Hour, the programme that used to grace the old BBC Home Service every weekday evening from 5pm until the weather forecast and the news took over at six.

"The host of the Northern Ireland edition was Cicely Mathews, with one 't'," recalls Matt Wilson of Fivemiletown. "I never missed Children's Hour plays and concerts." Personally, I can remember Children's Hour outside broadcasts from my old school, Ballyclare High, on which pianist Ivan Black made his radio debut.

Cicely was in charge from the days after the war when the wireless was at its peak until the programme was withdrawn because of the impact of television.

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