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28th Jun 2009

A Belfast boy in Africa

My wee brother Simon is a logistician with Médecins Sans Frontières, currently working in the Central African Republic. The Irish Independent have done an interview with him about his work, and they’ve thoughtfully cropped his photo so as to be kind to his hairline.

The story about my mum trying to send him a loaf of Veda bread in the post is completely true.  I suggested ice lollies next time – after all, it’s pretty hot out there.

Despite my flippancy, though, I’m awfully proud of him and what he’s doing.  Go read the interview.

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13th Sep 2008

The week and a bit in webcomics (4-13 September 2008) and AOB

Couldn’t do one of these last weekend because I was in Scotland, specifically the western highlands, even more specifically Oban.  Nice place.  All the good weather in the entire British Isles seemed to go there for a holiday the same time as we did.  FlyBe forgot my bag on the flight back (there was a last minute change of plane, which probably had something to do with it) but they got it to me by courier the following afternoon, so overall I’d have to say that was some pretty good customer service.  If you’re interested, my photos from the weekend are here.  Steeve, who’s a proper photographer with a camera that cost about as much as my car, also took some pictures, which can be seen here.  Here’s one of Oban at sunset which I’m quite proud of:

Now.  Webcomics.

Wonderella is running for Vice President…

The FreakAngels, or two of them, anyway, drink foul alcoholic beverages and make plans. Then there’s the morning after

Our heroes (and our heroine’s depraved brother) come under attack, in Lilly MacKenzie and the Mines of Charybdis

Two takes on the CERN particle collider black hole contraption from Jesus and Mo, and Welcome to the Future

And finally, not a webcomic, but an old-fashioned printed one.  The DFC, the subscription-only kids’ weekly from Random House, has a new strip called Mezolith by Ben Haggarty and Adam Brockbank.  It’s a stone age adventure about a young boy who wants to be a hunter, and it’s gorgeous – look!

Definitely the highlight of the current lineup, which also incudes Philip Pullman’s John Blake, Emma Vieceli’s Violet, Peadar Ó Guilín and Laura Howell’s Sneaky, the Cleverest Elephant in the World, the Ethrington Brothers’ Monkey Nuts, and loads more.

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07th Jul 2007

Thomas Magill (1880-1930) – a sketch

Note: I now have evidence he did indeed serve two years, first in the 99th Company before transferring to the 74th, so that bit’s been updated further. PB 16/10/13

Note: Now have his medal records, so that part has been updated. PB 13/9/11

Note: I’ve come across some evidence that the account of Tommy’s military career given here is inaccurate – he may have served only one year in the Imperial Yeomanry, so Col. Begbie’s identification of his medals could be wrong. I hope to be able to get his military record from the National Archive at some point, and will update the article then. PB 23/3/10

Thomas Magill restored

This is my great grandfather, Thomas Aaron Magill. I don’t have any living relatives old enough to remember him, but recently, as I’ve been doing some digital repairs to his photograph, something about his eyes has made me want to find out who he was, conjure a human being out of ancient history. I’m indebted to my mum’s cousin Tom Magill, son of Thomas’s son Joe, for his genealogical research and for recording his late father’s memories. I’ve tried to create a reasonably chronological life story out of Tom’s notes and family charts, supplemented by a little internet research to expand on a few points.

Thomas – Tommy – was born on 31 March 1880 to William Magill, a bricklayer, and Rebecca Jane Magill, née Vallely, in 35 Blenheim Street, Belfast – Rebecca’s father’s house. William was 24, Rebecca 22. They already had a son, James, born two years earlier. The Magills came from east Antrim, possibly Carrickfergus or Larne. Thomas’s son Joe would later recall that some of his forebears came from the village of Bonnybefore, east of Eden, in the parish of Carrickfergus. Apparently the road from the village to the main road is called Magill Avenue.

Rebecca died in 1883 at 112 Crimea Street, Belfast. The listing for Crimea Street in the 1880 Belfast Street Directory is “a number of small houses”, no numbers given, so I suspect it was a bit of a slum. William married again – his second wife’s name was Elizabeth West – but died in 1886 at 7 Townsend Street. James, eight, and Tommy, six, were raised by their grandparents. This would be either William’s father James William Magill and stepmother Mary, née Bodell, or Rebecca’s father, Thomas Vallely, and mother, who’s name I don’t know.

Tommy was apparently difficult. At about 16 he struck his grandfather during an argument, “perhaps over the issue of frequently being given ‘Elder’ sandwiches in his ‘piece box'”, writes Tom. I don’t know how serious that’s meant to be. Anyway, while Tommy was out at work his grandparents moved house. The family fallout was profound and long-lasting. His aunt Margaret Magill, who founded Christian Endeavour Ireland, would have nothing to do with him. His son Joe would grow up barely knowing his cousins.

Tommy moved to the Shankill Road area where he took lodgings at 7 Crimea Street. There he met Jane English, who was living nearby at 3 Morpeth Street. Jane came from a Carrickfergus family that may have been distantly related to the Magills, and they had apparently known each other in childhood. On 27 December 1899 they were married in the Mariner’s Church on Corporation Street, Belfast. Tommy was 19, Jane 18. Their first child, Agnes, was born on 17 October 1900, but only lived six weeks.

Tommy fought in the Second Boer War, originally as a private in the 99th Company (Irish), 8th Battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry, later as a trooper in the 74th (Dublin) Company. The Imperial Yeomanry was a volunteer mounted infantry regiment raised in 1900 by Royal Warrant for service in that war. The 99th was in the first contingent, which arrived in South Africa in the first half of 1900. He would have had to supply his own horse and convince the colonel he could ride and shoot, but recruiting was a bit of a rush job and many of the Yeomanry sailed not being able to do either. The 1901 census, presumably completed by Jane, shows their address as Springfield Village, Dundee Street in north Belfast.

He was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal with three clasps: Cape Colony (a “state” clasp awarded to those who served in a particular state but did not take part in a particular battle which had its own clasp), Queen’s South Africa 1901 (for service between 1 January and 31 December 1901) and Queen’s South Africa 1902 (for service between 1 January and 31 May 1902). In his photo he’s shown wearing two medals. The second was identified by Col. Begbie as the King’s South Africa Medal, for service before December 1900. I had previously believed he only served with the 74th, which was in the second contingent and didn’t arrive in South Africa until May 1901, and speculated that this might have been a borrowed medal. Since then my distant cousin Bobby Magill has provided evidence he was originally in the 99th, so he almost certainly was in South Africa long enough to earn this medal.

He returned to Belfast in 1902, receiving an honourable discharge on 7 September. His discharge papers describe him as being 22 years and 7 months old, 5ft 4in tall, with brown hair and eyes, a “fresh complexion” and a tattoo on his left arm. His conduct was classed as “very good”.

He took a job at Harland & Wolff shipyard. A Thomas Magill, driller, is listed at 17 Dundee Street in the 1902 Belfast Street Directory. His and Jane’s second child, Tommy junior, was born on 5 December. They were now living in Railway Street, off Sandy Row in south Belfast. Another son, Joe, was born in 1906, and another, John, in 1909. By 1910, when Joe started school, they had moved to 26 Lisavon Street in east Belfast, but they must have been living there as lodgers, as the householder was a blacksmith called Alexander Boyd. Two more sons, James and Andrew, were born in 1911 and 1912.

Tommy’s life seems to have gone off the rails. One one occasion seventy years later his son Joe would “burst into tears at the memory of his father’s self-centredness, gambling, drinking, etc.” On one occasion he was sacked from the shipyard for physically threatening a foreman over a demand for “blood money”, and was lucky that his big brother James was a foreman stager in the Queen’s Yard and rehired him, despite the apparent antipathy between them. James died of tuberculosis in 1911, aged 33, and Joe recalls his father taking him on a rare visit to the extended family in Eighth Street around this time. They missed the last tram home and caught a ‘Jaunting Car’, and Joe remembers falling asleep on his father’s shoulder.

Both Tommy and James are believed to have worked on the Titanic. Tommy actually sailed on the Titanic on her maiden voyage in 1912, but got off at Southampton. One version of the story is that he tried to get a job in the engine room, but failed, disembarked and went home. Another version is that he did have a job as a stoker, but he and six other stokers, known as the “Black Gang”, slipped off the ship in Southampton for a drink in a harbour bar, heard the siren and got back just as the ship was about to sail, but weren`t allowed back on board because the officer on the gangway door thought they were last-minute stowaways. There`s a Thomas McGill listed as a trimmer in the crew for the delivery trip from Belfast to Southampton, who was previously on the engine crew of the Olympic, on Encyclopedia Titanica, although he seems a couple of years too young. One of the men who stayed on board and went down with the ship was greaser Joseph Beattie, a friend after whom Tommy named his second son.

He was back in Belfast by September, when he signed the Ulster Covenant against Home Rule, giving his address as 26 Lisavon Street. Jane signed the accompanying Declaration for women, but was living with her mother in 32 Lindsay Street off the Ormeau Road. In the Belfast Street Directories from then on Mrs Jane Magill is the named householder, in 67 Skipton Street in 1914 and 1915, 69 Skipton Street from 1916-1932, and in 276 Albertbridge Road from 1934 until her death in 1966.

Three of their sons – Andrew in 1913, James in 1914, and John of typhoid fever in 1917 – died over the next five years. Joe also contracted typhoid, but survived. On 1 July 1916 Jane’s brother Alexander (Sandy) was killed in the Battle of the Somme. On 29 March 1917, as near as dammit exactly nine months later, Tommy and Jane’s youngest son, my grandfather Alec, was born, and Tommy is listed as living with Jane in 69 Skipton Street on his birth certificate. A momentary reconciliation borne of military tragedy, perhaps. Perhaps there was still something between them. It wouldn’t last. My mum remembers Alec, her dad, telling her of the rare occasions his big brothers took him to see his dad. Joe told Tom how Tommy was often keen to see his sons and would bring them bags of apples, but would often meet them drunk.

In 1930 Tommy was living at a hostel at Carrick House, Lower Regent Street. On 26 August, at the age of 50, he was killed in an industrial accident at the shipyard. He was drilling funnel plates, while a colleague was operating the crane, lifting plates into position. The plates should have been shored up with planks until they could be bolted together, but on this occasion they hadn’t been, and a loose plate, weighing about 1000 lb (450 kg) fell on him from behind. The noise of the drill drowned out the warning shouted by another worker. He died from fractured ribs, a ruptured kidney and internal bleeding. The inquest heard that platers on this job were working on “the ‘piece’ system… [which] tended them to take risks they would not have otherwise taken.” The coroner returned a verdict of accidental death.

For the rest of her life Jane would never refer to him by name, only as “the oul’ fella”. She had worked night and day as a dressmaker to feed her children, and in those days there was no compensation for industrial accidents. It was a long time since he’d given her anything but grief. The photo top left is, as far as anyone in my family is aware, the only one of him in existence, and it had been torn in half.

We can easily empathise with Jane for having to bury four of her seven children, and look on Tommy as a poor husband. But it’s easy to forget that they were his children too. We can look at his life and see all his failures, but I believe we can detect mitigating circumstances. He was a difficult teenager, but many of us are, and losing his parents so young, and being kicked out by his grandparents in his teens, must have damaged him. The Boer War was a nasty conflict with a high mortality rate, both from combat and disease, and he must have lost friends and had to do terrible things. I wonder how much of his adult bad behaviour stemmed from his war experience. Since Vietnam we’ve all become aware how difficult combat veterans are to live with, and back then who would have thought of offering Tommy any help to readjust? Even now soldiers don’t get much help or understanding, and a frightening number of them end up homeless, alcoholic, drug-addicted or suicidal. Shipbuilding was a dangerous industry, as evidenced by Tommy’s eventual fate, and he must have lost friends in similar accidents. He certainly lost one friend, maybe more, when the Titanic went down. Working class men had it tough in the old days. We often hear that women had it tough, and it’s true, and it can be tempting to think men must have had it easy. But it’s instructive to reflect on the hardships men had. War and heavy industry put your life, and those of your friends, at constant risk: in both arenas you were expendable. The high level of infant mortality must have been heartbreaking for fathers just as it was for mothers.

Tommy and Jane’s lives were both characterised by loss. Jane evidently handled it better than Tommy did, but by all accounts it made her hard. She adored her grandchildren, but hated her daughters-in-law, and she was bitter about her husband until the day she died, so we can’t say her life left her unscathed. We also only really have her side of the story, via her children and grandchildren, who were far closer to her than they were to Tommy. I now know much more about the circumstances and events of Tommy’s life, but I can’t really say I’m that much closer to understanding Tommy the man.

(Updated with new information 22 July 2007, 26 July 2007, 23 March 2010, 13 September 2011, 13 December 2011, 16 October 2013)

References/Links

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16th May 2007

Belated RIP, Andy Roberts

Back in the mid-late 90s, I used to draw and publish photocopied small press comics, and there was a thriving little community of people doing the same thing. We’d meet at UKCAC and Caption, send each other our comics and write each other letters. One guy who popped up everywhere was Andy Roberts, who drew “Frieda’s Friends” for Deadline, amongst other things, and whose work had a nice balance of cartoony and realistic and a keen formal sensibility. I debated comics theory with him and Andy Konky Krew in the pages of various fanzines, he sent letters of comment to some of my comics. I only met him in person a couple of times, but he was engaging, funny, friendly, intelligent, enthusiastic and talented.

Life got in the way, and I lost touch with most of the people I knew from those days. To get the word out about The Ulster Cycle, I’ve been looking up everyone I can remember from back then. Andy’s was one of the first names I thought of, but the first email address I found for him was returned undeliverable. Then I found the site of his former girlfriend Jenni Scott, grand poobah of Caption, and discovered that Andy died in a traffic accident on 18 June 2005.

Here’s to you, Andy. In the words of the song, “glad that I ran into you. Tell the people that you saw me passing through.”

I dug the May 1997 issue of the Caption zine out of the pile of paper I still have from those days, and scanned a sample of his comics.

And here’s a link to a photo of him at Flickr.

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17th Feb 2007

Fun in Belgium

Not long back from a long weekend in Brussels to visit my friend Stephen who’s working there. It’s an odd city. With its reputation for being boring and bureaucratic I expected it to be clean and tidy and orderly. It’s not. It’s quite charmingly messy. As anyone who’s seen my house will testify, I like clutter. Brussels works for me.
Visited the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée (Belgian Comic Strip Museum), which is a bit crap, and spent about two hours browsing in its bookshop, which is fabulous. Picked up a couple of albums by Frereric Boilet and Miguelanxo Prado. Resisted the Milo Manara – once of you’ve got one Giuseppe Bergman adventure, you’ve seen ’em all, but boy are they pretty. Also visited the Palais de Justice, which is an outrageous building, all marble and columns and classical proportions, built to an absurd scale. The actual courtrooms are tiny, but the building itself is like God’s waiting room. Discovered a very nice Belgian trappist beer called Chimay, and a strawberry beer called Framboise that tastes exactly like Creamola Foam, and visited a microbrewery just off Grande Place which appeared to be entirely run by lesbians.
Best night was the Sunday. Three of us sitting in an Irish bar (yes, I know), trying to get over the rugby team getting beaten at the last minute by the French, when in come a couple of girls from East Anglia, alone in a foreign country, knowing no French and desperate for someone who speaks English to talk to. And when I say “girls”, Rachel’s 17 and Kat’s 18, far too young really to have such womanly figures. We were perfect gentlemen, at least outside our heads. We got on famously. Later we’re joined by Rene, the German barman who can’t speak French either, when he gets off duty, and he drags us next door to the Karaoke night. We all do a turn. Rene and Rachel do Summer Nights from Grease. Various Belgians do Metallica and Evanescence songs. I do Try a Little Tenderness, and not only get away with it, but completely own it. Not quite in the Otis league, but maybe Andrew Strong. We finally leave about 4am, because Steve has to get up for work in the morning.
I did my best to speak French whenever possible, although when served by an impossibly beautiful girl in a sandwich shop I’m not sure I even remembered any English. Point and grunt. The only coherent bit of French I managed all weekend was when they turned the TV in the pub over to the football when the rugby was over, we got into a stilted conversation with a fellow called Ahmed, and I managed to say that Thierry Henry, quand le match est important, ne joue pas bien. Steve takes the Claudio Ranieri approach – have a go, who cares if it’s all wrong – and it seems to work.
Now I’m back in sunny Belfast, and trying to remember not to say “merci beaucoup” all the time.

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