Saturday, December 30, 2017

Writing - A Labour of Love

It's that time of year again when we tend to assess where we are in our lives and how we plan to move forward. 2017 saw nearly as many changes as 2016. I woke up on New Years Day 2016 living in San Jose, then on New Years Day 2017 a resident of Paris. January 1st, 2018 will see me back living in my native Armagh.  How did that happen? Never mind how I'm just happy that it did.

The one constant thing through all of this is the writing - that interminable itch that begs to be scratched, the voices that nag my brain for their very existence, and that sense of joy when someone tells me they've enjoyed my writing - the balm that soothes the immense insecurities that haunt every writer.

I keep wondering if I need to rethink my blog now that I've moved home. But there is as much to write about here as there is anywhere else in the world. Additionally, this place is marinated in history, as well as my own memories and, hey presto - lots to write.

Even nettles carry happy memories of my Granny's nettle champ!
I've also discovered that the photography here is a good as anywhere else I've lived, there's that box ticked too, and thus on goes the writing of the blog!

I'm always amazed and humbled, not to mention surprised, by the response I get to the more "personal" posts I write. The practical side of me reckons that people want to know the best tips for sightseeing, or gardening (way back when I had a garden) but when I bare my soul the ratings go off the chart. It's great and it's scary because like most writers I crave feedback, especially positive feedback - it's like writer crack-cocaine! But where does one draw the line? Having an introvert husband helps keep me in line to some extent, I reckon. I respect his need for privacy, I mean the guy doesn't even have a facebook page - in this day and age of "I post, therefore, I am" does that mean he doesn't exist. Is this the digital age equivalent of having an imaginary husband? But when all is said and done, his support of my writing career is one hundred percent. If it wasn't for his insistence that I keep plugging away at it, that he'll support us, that we'll be okay (as in won't starve, go naked and be homeless) when I get that panicky feeling of, "What is this all for?" I might have given up years ago.

It's a strange situation - to work all day (and contrary to popular belief - I do work hard at the ole writing lark!) and not have a set wage. To say writing is a labour of love is an understatement - it's a labour of love for both of us because I'm sure My Husband would have plenty of things to spend his hard earned cash on if only I still had my teaching wage coming in (for example.) But for him, it's not even up for debate - I'm a writer and he's a techie. For some strange reason, he's more confident than I am that my payday will come. When it does, he has his list - a list I'd be only too willing to buy for him (we're talking private planes, so he'll better not hold his breath!)

And then there's the amazing support I have always received from family and friends. I was prepared for a lot of slagging when my book first came out - it's a slagging culture here - but I was surprised to find that people were encouraging and kind. It might be what friends are for, but I'm blessed to have them tell me not to lose heart, that I can do this crazy near impossible thing - like write a trilogy, that they believe in me. I enter 2018 with a heart full of gratitude.

I still have my wonderful critiquing group in California and we conference call every two weeks to critique each others writing. My story would be so unstructured and bland without their input. Likewise, I have a monthly skype appointment with my Paris critiquing group whose input is invaluable. I learn so much from these writers.

The writing scene here is amazing and I've met a bunch of proactive writers through a variety of events. Its exciting, and it's fun.

Going into 2018, I plan to start a critiquing group in Armagh. If anyone reading this is interested in joining in, you can personal message me on Facebook for more details.

I'm halfway through writing a trilogy -  in the middle of book two. It's a long project and one that I wonder if I was wise to even start, but if I'm honest, I'm still enjoying it. There's the usual rollercoaster. One minute the ideas are flowing, I'm writing like a demon, and the next I'm plunged into despair - the rewrites are too hard, the subject matter too complicated. Really, you should see my google search history. Gruesome and gory isn't in it.  Things like "hammer blow to the head" and "how much voltage will kill a person" (apparently the current is the key!) I must be on every security agency list across the globe. I'd just been writing a very violent fighting scene one day when my 9-year-old nephew arrived at my door - talk about a swift change of hats!

Writing is a funny old world to live in but one I don't plan on changing for a while. It is is a labour of love, an addiction, and I'm lucky to have a husband to support my "habit".

So now, I continue forth with this blog - The grass is greener here than anywhere else I've ever been thanks to the rain... but then again - even with that - we didn't come here for the grass...

The stories also keep on growing, and that's the heart and soul of the writing, I suppose.

As we move into 2018, I wish you all a wonderful New Year, may we all realise more of our dreams and never be afraid to reach for the stars as we encourage those we love to do the same.

Happy New Year!

Byddi Lee

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Little Flash Fiction Trilogy for Christmas

The Spirit of Christmas Past

There's a vicious want in the child's eyes. She's standing there in a fever of longing, and you know, you just know, that if she and her brothers don't get every damn item on their letter to Santa there'll be a meltdown. But there'll be a meltdown regardless because no amount of money or begging is going to fill that last request. Maybe you shouldn't get anything from their list at all. Blame that fecker Santa. Tell the kids Santa must have mixed up the letters. But what would be the point in that? They'd be worse off thinking that Santa gave some other kids what they wanted most. And your heart breaks because you want it too and you can't have it either.

Your weird chat about trade unions last week makes so much sense now. Your daughter, two years senior to the five-year-old twin boys, has decided there is more power in solidarity. She's convinced that this joint letter will bring them their heart's desire.

Your eyes fill at the wobbly words. The three bikes are easy, pricey but hell, after the year they've had, sure feckit. The Paw Patrol Sea Patrol was an obvious concession to the boys. She only puts down two of those and one LOL Surprise Big Surprise for her. That had you in a sweat. You knew it would be tough to source my sister in London came up trumps on that one.

But that final line broke you.

In her best writing, with a fair bit of rubbing out and redoing, she'd written and underlined, "Please please Santa could you call for Mummy in heaven and bring her home to us on your sleigh."


The Spirit of Christmas Present

Joan walks slowly, trying to avoid the puddles. Her shoes let in and even though she thinks her nyloned feet can't get any colder, slowing down might help decrease the throb in her joints. If she could just get someone in the housing executive to listen, to fix that broken heater in her bedroom, maybe she'd get a good night's sleep. The sofa wrecks her back, but at least she doesn't cough as much in the living room as she does in the chilled air of the bedroom.

Three young ones barrel by. They don't touch her but she wobbles. Amid a fizz of panic, she stops to steady herself. If she goes down, who would pick her up? Maybe she'd get a few days in a warm hospital. Maybe her son would take time from his fancy life in London to visit her.

She only came out today because she wanted to see the Christmas lights in town and it's mild. Milder than last week, when the snow sent slivers of ice into her very marrow. Thank heavens for the thaw and the wee bit of winter sun, gaudy and ineffective it may be, but it still gives her a lift.

The chemist shop is warm. She hopes there a long queue but not too long that she can't get a seat. Long enough to warm up though. Thank God, her prescriptions are free. But the pain of her arthritis doesn't bite nearly as deep as loneliness. Was there a prescription for that?


The Spirit of Christmas Future

So many on the streets. Cold, continuous, freezing hard all day. God, what must it be like at night?

I want to help. But I'm scared. I'm speaking a different language, in my North Face down-jacket and my Calvin Klein handbag. Different worlds, close proximity. Are they judging me as I try not to stare, try to avoid eye contact? Why do I care as I traipse up the stairs - I'm to fat to allow myself to use the lift - to my cosy apartment on the fourth floor?

It's ridiculous that I care what these strangers think of me. But the truth is, I care about what I think of me, and as I put myself in their positions, however inaccurately, I then become my own judge and jury. I have to get out of London, be somewhere where I don't feel so guilty. Charity begins at home, doesn't it? I want to be with my brother, back home, comforting him in his grief, but I have to be here, where I'm making the best money, living the best life. But is it the best life?

I'm mad now at myself. The apartment is too warm, too clean and too empty. The dining table stretches out from our "spots" at the corner. Too big, much too big for just the two of us.

I'll tell my husband tonight about the tickets.

I need to go home. I need to see my brother, my niece and nephews more this Christmas than ever. An aunt is no substitute for a mother, a sister not the same companion as a wife, but we'll all benefit from a hug and time together, this first year without my sister-in-law.

I also suspect, my mother-in-law isn't doing as well as she claims in her cool weekly Sunday morning calls. 
"Don't let me keep you back from Mass," she says every week. 
"Don't worry," we answer too quickly. "And how are you?" 
"Fine, fine," she says, also too quickly.

The apartment door opens. A cheery "Hola." 
I roll my eyes. It's all the Spanish he knows, but he's trying out that Duo lingo app. Last week it was Russian, God help us

I open my laptop and say, "Honey, please don't get angry but these came up and they were such a great deal and we both have a few days to take and I just thought..."

His face drops. He purses his lips, scans my screen, scratches his head.

I hate arguments but I need this."Say something."

"Just a minute."

I can barely breathe as he places his laptop in his "spot" and waits as centuries pass for it boot up.
"It's okay." He smiles. "Mine are refundable."

Joy swells to bursting. The orange Easy Jet logo lends a glow to his smile, or perhaps the glow is the intense love I have for this man in this moment. 

Home... We're going home for Christmas. 

While the above stories are all complete works of fiction, I hope it serves to illustrate that we all have a different version of Christmas. For many, it's a hard time in ways we can't imagine. Let's at least acknowledge this for the broken heartened, the lonely, the victims of violence, those who suffer at the hands of addiction and for those who, for whatever reason, find it hard to celebrate Christmas.

There are ways to help. How each of us does so is up to ourselves. But a smile, a kind word, a visit can be worth pure gold when we don't even realize it.

However, I also want to say that human kindness should be for life - not just for Christmas.

To donate to the Samaritans please click here. 

I hope you have a peaceful and love-filled Christmas, and dreams fulfilled in the New Year. 

Christmas Reflections on a snowy afternoon in Gosford Forest Park, Armagh

Byddi Lee

Friday, December 15, 2017

Crisps and Chips and Snacks Galore!

Many years ago when on a ski trip in Andorra, myself and a couple of friends came off the slopes feeling a bit peckish. We went to a local cafe and I asked the waiter for, "a big plate of chips," using my hands to show how big (very big) I wanted the plate to be (imagine a platter size).

He looked a bit confused but repeated my request back to me, "A beeg plate of  cheeps?" - to be sure he'd a handle on the language, I assumed.

"Yes, please, a big plate of chips."

We sipped at our drinks, waiting for the chips which took forever to come. Eventually, he arrived with a massive silver platter and six bags of crisps laid out on it. I think he thought us a bit crazy when we burst out laughing...

What I should have ordered was a big plate of fries. "Crisps" are called "chips" as in potato chips in Andorra, the USA and probably everywhere other than Ireland and Britain. And while I love crisps, they didn't cut the mustard while I was craving "fries!"

For the purposes of today's blog, I'm going to call the snack food of potato chips, "crisps" and the more substantial meal/side-dish of chips, "fries". Thus not using the term "chips" at all.

The North of Ireland wins the prize for having the biggest range of flavours of crisps that I've seen anywhere in the world. In recent years, the US has improved, but when I first landed in California there was only salted or plain (a waste of a good potato in my opinion!), salt & vinegar, sour cream, and BBQ flavours. Then Lays brought in a few more flavours - my favourite being lime flavoured. In Canada, Lays had a few more varieties and I loved the dill pickle, but still, there was no sign of the delicious range available north of the border in Ireland (or east of that border if you're situated in Donegal!)

Tayto Castle, nestled in the heart of the Armagh countryside, do a gorgeous cheese and onion flavour, even better, in my opinion, than those created by their forefathers (by 2 years) Tayto Crisps in the Republic.  Click here to read an interesting blog post  on the origins of both companies.

As the post says, flavoured crisps originated in Ireland - But the range of flavours here goes even further...

In addition to the US flavours of plain (or ready salted), salt & vinegar, BBQ, cheese and onion, and spring onion, (similar in taste to America's cream cheese and chives) we have here in the North of Ireland :- smokey bacon, wuster sauce, prawn cocktail, honey roast ham, beef & onion, roast chicken, sticky bbq ribs, Mexican chilli, Thai sweet chilli and, my all-time mouth-watering, zingy favourite, pickled onion

That's not even including the kettle chips which I'm not that partial too - the slices of potatoes are too thick and brittle,  hurting my mouth with their extreme crunchiness. But with this range of available flavours - not to mention shapes and varieties of corn and rice snacks (I've only tackled potato crips here) - you can be sure that there's something for everyone. Party time, people!

Visibly loaded with flavour - Tayto Sticky BBQ Beef Flavour

What's your favourite flavour?

Byddi Lee

Photo's by Robbie McKee

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Snow-Day Poem for One of Heaven's Newest Angels

Snow with its wafting and its drifting
And how it makes the world so beautiful
Blanketing all with its little white lies
Muffled serenity beneath cruel softness
Lining freshly dug graves 
Tissue wrapping the chrysalis of newborn angels

In loving memory of Tonya O Hagan R.I.P.


By Byddi Lee

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Brunch to Lunch Food Tour in Armagh

Armagh continues to surprise and delight me with its vast range of culture and food experiences, and simply put - fun things to do. There's something really pleasurable about being a tourist in my own hometown. I'm incredibly proud of our wee city and never more so than when I'm learning about its history. Armagh really is a fascinating place and for a spot that is not on the coast, has no major port (the Callan being a little on the small side) it always amazes me how many people of note have hung their hats here, however temporarily, in days gone by. For example, Saint Patrick, Jonathon Swift (author of Gulliver's travels) to mention a couple at this point.

St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh
Nowadays, Armagh is an up and coming culinary player in the Food Heartland scene. So when I heard of the Brunch to Lunch Tour, I bought tickets straight away! The idea is you begin with Brunch then do a walking tour that ends with Lunch. Here's the menu:-

The tour, led by the lovely Donna Fox, began in Market Street - a place close to my own heart since I lived here as a child. What was particularly cool was that Donna was able to tell us about modern art installations as well as telling stories from way back when, weaving a delicious tapestry from the past to the present.

The tour was full but capped at 16 people- a nice size of group.  I asked if anyone was from further afield than County Armagh and was surprised to see that only two were. I loved that we natives are getting into being tourists at home. What was particularly fun with this group was the sharing of anecdotes usually stories handed down through families. Donna expertly managed these exchanges and contributed, filling in the gaps in our collective local knowledge. It was fantastic, not to mention the lovely new friends we met along the way.

Brunch was at 4 Vicars, restaurant, set up as a taster menu. It did not disappoint. Mind you, this place is consistently superb and is a place we Armachians should be incredibly proud of. The chef, Gareth Reid and all the chefs to date are from a "cluster of chefs" from the Food Heartland Group founded by Sean Farnan, the chef at the Moody Boar - the restaurant that will be on the next  tour.

Kilkeel Crab - yummy!

After brunch the tour continued.... Too many fun facts to list here. I'd rather let folk have the chance to hear Donna actually deliver the info herself but here's my 6 of the best:
1) Outside the Market Place Theatre is the Star Stone.


It was sculpted by Richard Perry and "The inspiration for Star Stone came from Armagh’s long association with the night sky and the way the Cathedrals seemingly reach for the sky from the hills on which the City was built. " It also ties in with the Observatory and Planetarium. With its shadow on the wall you can see the idea of the twin spires. It's made from Armagh marble - see - I didn't even know we had a marble!
2) In the Church of Ireland Cathedral Garden there is sculpture of Brian Boru's head by Rory Breslin.


In 1006 Brian Boru visited Armagh and was so taken with the place that he left 20 ounces of gold to be buried here. He was slain in 1014 after the battle of Clontarf...the funeral cortege to Armagh took 3 days!

3) The street alongside the cathedral is called Castle Street. Of course, I already knew that, but what I didn't know was that the rebuilding of Castle Street actually won prizes. And rightly so - it looks fabulous and is just as I remember it from my childhood (minus the big scary dog that lived there! That's another story!)

In Donna' words, "the houses were built from the stones of the demolished dwellings that had previously been here. They were restored by Hearth Housing set up by the National Trust and the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society to restore historic buildings. This row won a Europa Nostra Diploma of merit in 1995 and dozens of international housing experts came to Armagh with Professor Paddy Gray (native of Armagh) to see it."

4)  The original building of the Church of Ireland's St Patrick's Cathedral was St Patrick's first stone church (pictured at the top of the post). During Ireland's golden age in the 6th and 7th century, 7000 students were educated here. In fact, St Patrick said only someone educated in Armagh could spread the gospel! Wait a minute - I was educated in Armagh ... does that mean...?

5) I'm gonna cheat by rolling two factoids into one section - James II stayed in the building at the top of Abbey Street on his way down to the Battle of the Boyne. His adversary, William III (of Orange), introduced gin to these parts from 1688 onwards and brought his chief cider maker Paul le Harper here to make cider for the troops before going into battle. Cider might have been already produced here but this certainly would have promoted the manufacture of cider locally, something William would have been pleased about since drinking wine reeked too much of papist practises! Apparently it's where the saying to have "Dutch courage" comes from.
6)  These mural/sculptures by Eleanor Wheeler on the steps of Market Street tell the story of the produce from farm to the market.

This was a snippet of what we discovered on our tour.

Donna had us spell-bound as she told us stories of the past, such that we hardly noticed the walk as we wound down from the top of the hill to the Mall then back up to finish at Uluru originally opened by an Australian Chef Dean Coppard who married a local girl. When the restaurant changed hands they kept the name. The head chef is now Mark Mc Gonigle who is also a Food Heartland Chef.

We'd been incredibly lucky with the weather but were still happy to get sitting down to a warm cuppa, some cider (Cheers King Billy!) and more lovely grub.

Pulled beef slider

The next Walking Food Tour is happening on Sunday, 3 December 2017.

Beginning at the award-winning Moody Boar and finishing up at the Friary Restaurant in the Armagh City Hotel, it promises to be full of fun and yummy food. Both chefs, John Whyte (Friary Restaurant)  and Sean Farnan (Moody Boar) are Food Heartland chefs.

Hopefully these tours will become a regular feature in Armagh. Donna tells me that each tour will take different routes with Market Street being the only overlap. It will be a slightly longer walk - giving us more time to drum up an appetite!

For more information see Donna's Facebook Page - Donna Fox Tours - and for tickets for Sunday you can book here. Donna can also can be contacted for Bespoke Tours for groups, not necessarily with food included but walking tours of the history of Armagh which includes the Public Art Trail and contemporary facts along the way. Donna has a  qualified with a Blue Badge level 4 on the Tour Guiding course which covers a large amount of Irish history. She very humbly admits that she is not a historian, having not studied history formally but her enthusiasm and gift for story telling brings the past alive and I can vouch for the fact that this gal knows her stuff. She is both informative and incredibly interesting, not to mention a stickler for getting the facts right (as I discovered when I asked her help in fact checking this post!)

We had a great time and will definitely do another tour with Donna. In the meantime, my mouth is watering remembering how these naughty but nice little apple pies tasted... Apple pies, cider, stories galore... don't I just love living in the Orchard County again...

Byddi Lee

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

No Borders, No Boundaries - John O'Connor Writing School and Literary Festival, Armagh 2017

I sat stock-still in the darkness of the Abbey Lane Theatre, my skin prickling with goosebumps, my heart bursting with sympathy for Bellina Prior (21) the woman otherwise known in Armagh as the Green Lady who had killed little Anne Slavin (4). It was a surprising reaction, but such was the impact of Armagh writer and actor Karl O Neill's play, Bellina and the Softening of The Stones, magically brought to life by wonderful actors Maggie Cronin and  Brenda Winter-Palmer.

This was the first of many moments where my emotions were pummeled during the course of the John O'Connor Writing School and Literary Arts Festival 2017.

The programme was ingenious - 5 concurring schools would run in the mornings (Friday through to Sunday) covering poetry, playwriting, songwriting, fiction and screenwriting. In the afternoon and evening, students, artists, tutors and members of the public could mingle as they attend the panel talks and live performances. The intimate settings such as the gracious Charlemont Arms Hotel, the Amma Centre, the Robinson Library, the Planetarium, Abbey Lane theatre (to mention but a few) brought me shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers and artists. Some were musicians I had only ever dreamed of seeing play live, never mind actually conversing with!

After Bellina and the Softening of the Stones that first evening, everyone gathered at the Charlemont. I had to pinch myself to check I wasn't dreaming as I sat around a table with Maggie Cronin, Karl O Neil, Barry Devlin and Jim Lockhart from Horslips (The actual Horslips - OMG!)

Karl and I discovered a connection through family and friendship - my father and his sister had taught together. Karl patiently answered my questions about the play and how he'd come to research and write it - questions I'm sure he has answered a thousand times. Maggie had enjoyed the craic, I think, as we'd walked from the theatre to the Charlemont (I was volunteering at the event and had been 'on the door.') I had dared her to walk down Vicars Hill in her costume that night. Barry and Jim, I'm sure, were just being polite - probably wondering who the hell I was!

We chatted about writing, story, good things to watch on the telly... all an addition for my memory folder of golden moments.

The next morning, (Friday) I attended the registration in the Robinson Library. I sat feet from the original copy of  Gulliver's Travels with Jonathan Swift's notes handwritten in the margins. Karl O Neill arrived in and chose to sit beside me. Behind me sat the talented author Jo Baker, next to her husband Daragh Carville, a very successful screenwriter from Armagh. They greeted me warmly, epitomizing the ethos of this festival, inclusion, no borders, no boundaries - we were fellow Armachians, in this together.

After the Lord Mayor's opening address, Lemn Sissey read a beautiful poem that brought tears to my eyes. I especially loved the following lines, that spoke to me of My Husband's support of and faith in my writing.
If there was ever one
Who when you achieve
Was there before the dream
And even then believed;

And then it was to school. I chose screenwriting, something I've always had an interest in but just didn't know where to begin. Deirdre Cartmill, my teacher, showed me. Her enthusiasm for the art-form is boundless and she had our class enthralled and hanging on her every word. Yes, she told us it was a hard business. Yes, we needed a thick skin to survived the editing and rewriting process, yet nothing about her warnings put me off. She had the rare talent of making you feel everything was possible and that you deserved that everything too.

For the second time that morning, I choked back emotion as I listen to her tell us that writing was not a selfish pursuit  - she read a quote which basically said that if you were born to write you could either write or not write. If you didn't write you hurt yourself, others, and the planet! It finished by telling us that our unique gifts nudged us closer to God and commanded us to "Give us what you've got."

Those are words I'll draw upon in the solitary place at my computer when I wonder what the hell I am doing here. Thank you, Deirdre.

That afternoon I attended a panel discussion on "What makes good theatre?" These people have spent a lifetime on their craft: Jo Egan, Jane Coyle, Rosemary Jenkinson and more Armachians, Conall Morrison and Paul Bosco McEneany. At the end, I had the chance to chat to Conall and Paul. I'd known both of their sisters at school - it's a small city, Armagh, but with a far-reaching web of connections. Both men seemed genuinely pleased that I'd apprehended them, God Bless them. I'm sure they get a lot of this. 

I said to Conall that I felt overwhelmed being such a newcomer to the scene, having had a life in science and teaching before writing. He told me that didn't matter, that new people like me were most likely less jaded and brought our own freshness to the scene. Kind words, that I certainly soaked up. 

Paul was heading my way and we walked from the Local and Irish Studies Library to Market Street together. As we passed the Cathedral, I told Paul about how it featured in my current project, in-between our exchanging the do-you-remember-such-and-such-person? and other reminiscences of Armagh.

Friday evening events were sold out. I was too tired and filled to the brim with inspiration to be too disappointed. I needed some quietude to mull over what Deidre had taught me that day.

Saturday morning dawned with bluebird skies and breath-clouds that hung before your face.

Market Street, where I lived when I was in single digits, looked splendid. I sat in class in the Amma Centre looking out over my old playground - now minus the bollards and black fire-pocked tarmac.

Our teacher was joined by Barry Devlin for the industry talk about the nitty-gritty of life as a screenwriter. Barry was as entertaining as he was informative, his self-depreciating humour unveiling a gentleman and a scholar. 

When I was thirteen I discovered the Horslips. The first time I heard Dearg Doom my imagination burst into visions of stallions galloping through surf, of rebel warriors charging, of thunderclaps over mountain peaks, of hot blood pumping through hearts and of feet unable to stop dancing. I was bereft then when I discovered that the band had 'retired' in 1980, three years before I'd first heard of them (I was always a bit slow on the old music scene - where my friends had posters of Duran Duran, I had posters of elephants and tigers from David Attenborough documentaries!)

Horslips reformed in 2009 but by then I was living in America, though I did have their CD with me. So I, for one, was thrilled to hear that Horslips would be playing in The Charlemont Hotel that evening.

After class, there was another panel discussion "Lights, Camera, Action." with Barry Devlin, Daragh Carville, Ronan Blaney, Jude Sharvin and the adorable Ursula Devine from Screen NI. In short, the message was thrilling - it's a great time to be getting into screenwriting in this part of the world. I left feeling excited about the possibilities opening up in this region in film and drama production. Ursula couldn't have been more encouraging when I had a chance to talk to her later in the Charlemont at the Celebration Night.

After that I needed to eat - I'd been too busy, too excited, too inspired to stop for lunch... 

I found Brenda Winter-Palmer, her husband Richard and Libby Smyth in the Charlemont Hotel lounge. They invited me (wee me!) to join them and we spent the next two hours in animated discussion in what turned into a workshop on screenwriting ideas. Both actors made me promise to write a screenplay for them - a promise I fully intend to keep.

Later, I watched, enthralled, as Libby Smyth transformed on stage at the Abbey Lane Theatre to perform Both Sides an interlocking monologue along with Hannah Coyle, set in Paris and Nice, written by Jane Coyle.

The ultimate highlight of the festival for me was the John O'Connor Celebration Evening, because My Husband, My Sister, My Bro-In-Law and friends joined in the festivities. 

We were treated to a plethora of amazing talent. Glenn Patterson read a piece about the Titanic sinking, using maritime distress signals that literally left My Husband speechless with emotion.

Gareth Dunlop's music inspired me so much, I had to actually whip out my phone and jot down some notes and ideas as I sat and listened to him. Lisa Lambe and Fiachna Ó Braonáin from Hothouse Flowers joined Horslips on stage and soon had the hall rocking. But it was when Horslips played the opening bars of their best-known song, Dearg Doom, the place went ape-shit and we all lost our heads (and hearts) to the music in a freestyle ceili that had the stage lights bouncing. We danced, stamped, punched the air, clapped and were transported to another time, another world. Barry Devlin ceased to be my screenwriting tutor, Jim Lockheart, no longer that guy beside me in the coffee line (earlier that morning.) They and the rest of Horslips had become Time Lords and Dearg Doom their Tardis.

Later in the bar of the Charlemont, someone produced a guitar and a sing-song erupted. I could hardly breathe with excitement when Gareth Dunlop appeared and joined in. Then Lisa and Fiachna had us all singing with them. 

It was spine-tingling good and for me soul-filling. I'd missed an ould sing-along session in the pub during all those years I'd lived abroad. No-one does this like the Irish, and here we were soaking up the talent of these amazing artists as if we were all on the same level - No borders, no boundaries.

As a venue the Charlemont Hotel was outstanding. The staff could not do enough for us. We'd kept them up half the night but still, they looked after us with good humour and a cheerful smile. I'll be back to do a separate blog on this amazing place...

I made it on time (9.30am) to class the next day - an accomplishment in itself! And the literary lunch was a final treat in what had been an excellent long weekend. Author Orla McAlinden and I swapped signed copies of our books. I can't wait to read the Accidental Wife.

We were served local cheese, cider and can-you-believe-it - locally grown Armagh grapes!

I'm truly amazed at the vision, passion and sheer dedication that festival director Cathy McCullough poured into this event. It showcased the great talent that Armagh has to offer and that Armagh wants to welcome. It was a weekend that celebrated words, that celebrated the people who are guardians of those words and celebrated the connections between people across borders and across boundaries -  connections interweaving like gossamer silk cocoons glistening soft and supple in the warmth of friendship and camaraderie, and which even in the cold frost of the solitariness of writing, allures us with their brittle sparkle.

Thank you, Cathy, for this amazing experience.

Byddi Lee

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween from Hangman's Hill

Mist sifts through the trees, hanging there as if caught on the leafless branches like cold deathly fingers. Hairs rise on the back of my neck. The young trees are now too flimsy to support more than a birds nest, but I shudder at the thought of what might have been hanging in the same spot four hundred years ago.

Every night it's the same routine as I pull my bedroom curtains; A look that doesn't want to see, a held breath released in a relieved sigh and an imagination far too vivid for this view because, you see, we look out over the prime real estate of what was once Gallow's Hill.

I'd grown up knowing about this site in Armagh, but a part of me thought that it was just a spooky old wive's tale. It wasn't until the first night we'd moved in and the thought hit me as I looked out the bedroom window - What if I looked up and saw a ghost swinging by the neck from the tree.

"Catch yourself on," I told myself. I never saw any ghosts in Paris and those streets were bathed in the blood of past revolutions. Even where I lived in San Jose could well have seen the untold slaughter of the indigenous people. We live in a world bathed in echoes of the past and I, fortunately, do not have the finely tuned sixth sense to expose me to it.  However, an imagination like mine is a two-edged sword - great for building a world to set a trilogy in, but I'm also liable to scare the bejayus out of myself!

I was curious to see if I could, in fact, find out more about Hangman's or Gallow's Hill, (I've heard it called both) so myself and my Trusty Research Assistant (one rather cute 9-year-old nephew)  set off on a quest to see if we could find the exact spot on a map. The main library sent us to the Irish and Local studies Library - a history lesson in itself for the Trusty Research Assistant, as I told him it used to be the Armagh City Hospital and that I remembered having to go sometimes after school and wait for My Mum (his granny) who was a nurse there. The hallways still smelt of the old wards, I thought, but the library section had that comforting book smell. The Librarian was so helpful when we explained our quest and before too long a curly blond (mine) and a curly red (TRA's) head were bend over a huge table covered in piles of ancient maps of Old Armagh.

It was actually exciting to find the first (of several) maps with a road labelled "Gallows Hill."

"That's it!"
"Oh my God, it actually existed."
We grinned at each other, delighted with ourselves.

Because of copyright issues, we couldn't copy the old maps but we transcribed the position of not one, but two labels onto a google map. The blue line is where the Robert Livingstone map of 1766 (redrawn in 1835) shows Gallows Hill, and the purple line is how it is written on a later map, possibly a more generic area after the site was abandoned as an execution spot.

In the Archbishop's Palace Grounds (now a public park) there is a sign that tells us a little bit more about Gallows Hill.

This is the view from that spot - directly towards the ground at the back of our house. In the background you can see the bell of St Malachy's Church - that is definitely more than 150m north of the sign, so let your gaze rest just beyond the red foliage...and that's where it is...

The research was fascinating - I found the following anecdote  - Apparently, hangings were a big day out for the townspeople. Gruesome, I know, but when you consider the TV viewing we have nowadays, are we really all that different? Murders and mayhem right in the corner of our living room. However, on one occasion in 1721 the hanging spectacle was trumped by another event:-

1721. Primate Lindsey presented to the Vicars Choral a second organ for divine service, and a peal of six fine-toned bells for the Cathedral. On the day of their arrival it is said that an execution took place on Gallows-hill. The appointed hour arrived, and the crowd was in eager expectation for the appearance of the unfortunate victim, when intelligence came that the bells were on the Dublin road within a short distance of the city. In a moment the vast multitude dispersed,leaving the sheriff, posse comitatus and finisher of the law alone to discharge their painful duty. The horses were unyoked from the waggons and Primate Lindscy's merry bells were towed in triumph to their final resting place.

When researching this, I came across a lot of gruesome stories especially of murderers being hanged, but most records were post 1780 when the executions took place outside the Goal on the Mall.

Now thankfully all I have to look out at in the branches of the trees is a murder of crows! Hope it stays that way.

Happy Halloween!

Byddi Lee

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Craic'd Pot - Coffee Culture in Armagh

I had noticed the sign for the Craic'd Pot on my visit home back in March. It brought to my mind the coffee shops I'd seen in California - not the plague of Starbucks or Peets you see on every street corner, but more the "Mom & Pop" type coffee shops nestled into the likes of Palo Alto and Los Gatos - nice places, up-market places, places that made you feel you were on vacation.

As soon as I could after I moved home, I made a beeline for the Craic'd Pot to see what the craic actually was. I was not disappointed.

It had the ambience to match any upmarket Californian or Seattle coffee house, with that added Irish vibe - good craic (obviously) and great scones...


... not to mention the best-tasting coffee in town! Thank God they sell the beans so we can make the brew at home too - you know, for hurricane days, when you can't leave the house!


I loved the thought that had been applied to the decor. Every last detail attended to in such a way as to make me feel that I, their customer, was valued and worth the effort.


I was complimenting the staff on the cups and asking if they had been specially made for the business when a person bringing an armful of empty dishes appeared and confirmed that, yes, they had been specially made. This was my introduction to Scott King the owner.

Amazing staff - Sharon Donnelly and Ryan Little along with owner Scott King

Like myself, Scott, a county Armagh native, had travelled and lived abroad, though I considered his list of places that bit more exotic than mine - places like Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Vienna, Austria and Istanbul, Turkey. He spent 4 years at University in Scotland studying Management with Business Law and then went on to do a PGCE in Liverpool teaching Business Economics and eventually returning home to Armagh. By then he'd taught business for a while so decided it was time to stop teaching it and actually do it.

You could certainly see his expertise in marketing - Branding at its most functional level.

Not only is he a coffee connoisseur, he knows how to spread the love of the bean juice too - he gave us tasters of different varieties of beans made with various filtering techniques. Just fab!

But how did the grub match up?

Remember, this is a coffee shop. It doesn't claim to be a restaurant or a bistro, like other excellent places in Armagh such as 4 Vicars, The Moody Boar, Mulberry or the nearby Rumours. The Craic'd Pot has created its own perfect niche - light bites - both savoury and sweet.

The beverage menu is extensive, but they've kept the food really simple and it works! You can put together your own sandwich from a choice of ingredients - not overly extensive but absolutely in the Goldilocks range of "just right." There’s soup and all kinds of sumptuous tray bakes, cakes and buns to try too. One look at their Facebook page will have your mouth watering.

I had a panini with bacon, cheese and tapenade, with a side of salad ingredients of my choice.

Along with her salad choices, My Sister had the sausage roll - no ordinary sausage roll - this one had apple and herbs in it. And oh my, look at that pastry!

We had a delicious lunch, and a relaxing chat, enjoying the lovely surroundings and the friendly staff. It makes me so proud of Armagh to have such high-quality places for us to enjoy and to which we can welcome visitors to our lovely little city.

Come in and try a warm beverage here. I can guarantee you too will leave your cup like this!

 Byddi Lee