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Monday, 22 April 2019


Available for freelance writing commissions on a variety of subjects including family history, nostalgic Belfast and its famous people, shops, shoppers & shopping, the golden age of Hollywood (esp westerns) and humorous pieces of life's weird and wonderful. Op-eds, columns, non-fiction book reviews too. & @JoeCushnan

Balmoral Cemetery
by Tom Hartley
The Blackstaff Press

I like cemeteries. I am not always comfortable in them, but I find them fascinating places. When not attending a funeral service and enduring the grief and sadness of losing a loved one, I enjoy spending time as a kind of a graveyard tourist, browsing headstones and trying to form some kind of a picture of other people’s lives, especially those poor souls who died at very young ages. My local graveyard when I was growing up in Belfast was Milltown Cemetery, a place that houses, if that’s the word, some of my family and friends. I tend to associate it with strong winds and heavy rain, but that might just be the (un)luck of the draw when I have been at funeral and burial services. Bad weather is a reminder, perhaps, that whatever else they are, cemeteries have a right to appear and feel miserable. It’s their job, in a way. But there is so much more to tell beyond the gravestones.

Tom Hartley wrote about Milltown Cemetery and Belfast City Cemetery in his first two books in this trilogy on the history of Belfast ‘written in stone’. I have not read either book but I may well do on the strength of this latest volume on Balmoral (Malone) Cemetery in Stockman’s Lane. This is history thoroughly researched and explored in great detail. It is not only a book about the cemetery. It covers much wider territory beyond the walls and railings and takes us through Belfast Presbyterianism’s past. This is a story of power and strong influence from religious and political figures played out in meeting houses and schools, in missionary and temperance halls. 

Tom Hartley writes: ‘In setting out to write this book I had sought to tell the story of a burial ground, but history, and my own curiosity, intervened to widen my area of research. The lives of Presbyterians buried in Balmoral Cemetery are intertwined with the bigger, dynamic history of nineteenth-century Belfast Presbyterianism, and that of Belfast itself.’

The book covers the opening, development and eventual closure of the cemetery, some of the extraordinary people buried there, the origins, historical roots and troubled times of Presbyterianism and the fate of church and school buildings, all enhanced by informative appendices and an impressive array of illustrations. The writing is neither stuffy nor off-putting, as some history books are. As I read through, I wanted to ‘do a Portillo’ and visit Balmoral Cemetery with tome in hand to get closer to the details. But, not having the time or the opportunity to do so just now, I might well pack the book when I have more time to explore on a future back home visit.

Tom Hartley has achieved something remarkable here. I told some friends that I was reading a book about a cemetery and their eyes rolled as they scoffed that a book about such a place would be so depressing. Not so, and far from it. Balmoral Cemetery: The History of Belfast, Written in Stone reinvents what the story of a graveyard should be. Of course, the core focus is the ground within the walls and the inscriptions, but it’s the stories of individuals and congregations, of flesh and blood, of people that, if you’ll allow me, breathe life into the stones and the historical relevance of those beneath.


I hear said: no words.
Here's five to start us talking:
shock, grief, pain, sorrow, anger.
Words matter, adding
text to aching emotions.

Words matter,
even when it seems they don't.

Sunday, 21 April 2019


The oft-recited prayer deliver us from evil,
Desiderata's go placidly,
even Kristofferson's help me make it through the night,
we clutch at phrases like these for comfort,
hoping all bad things will just go away,
knowing that evil, like rust, never sleeps,
eating away at hearts and souls.

We whisper mantras and light candles,
wade upstream in a never-ending tidal-rush
of 24/7 demons doing what they do,
making every effort to drown good spirits,
spirits that might be wounded or suffocated,
but never extinguished. Never extinguished.

Spirits that respond to sweet kisses of life,
always ready for triumph, revival, for a rising.

Saturday, 20 April 2019


They say deal with loss.
They say time will heal.
They say things happen for a reason.
They say forgive and forget
They say there, there, sorry for your loss.
They say what's done is done.
They say draw a line.
They say move on.

Words, like plasters on wounds,
blood seeping through the fabric,
eventually the weeping stops
but not the remembering.

Friday, 19 April 2019


I have an appetite for politeness,
Old school, I know, out of fashion, lost cause.
And what brought on this hunger pang? A bow,
Effortless, graceful, a moment, a pause
To widen the eyes and drop the jaw.

A uniformed attendant on a train
Walked the carriage to a connecting door.
She turned to face us, warm smile on her lips,
Bowed her head, more than a nod, but no more,
Turned again and carried on her duties.

It was as brief and effective as that,
An indicator that complicating
Humanity and human goodness
Is what we’ve become, subordinating
The purity of natural kindness.


I am happy to receive commissions from editors 
on any aspect of this trip.

When I was a boy of six, our teacher, Mr Sadler, told the class at St. Teresa's Primary School, Glen Road, Belfast, that we were going to work on a project. We were going to find out as much as we could about Japan from books, holiday brochures and whatever else we came up with. I remember it was an exciting project because there seemed to be nothing more distant or exotic as Japan.

In a matter of weeks, the classroom walls were covered with photographs, paintings, newspaper and magazine cuttings, and all manner of things. I have never forgotten that project.

Fast forward almost 60 years and there I was recently walking the streets of Tokyo and visiting places like Yokohama, Toba, Himeji, Kochi, Yokkaichi, with a wee detour on one day to Busan, South Korea. It was all fascinating and mind-blowing.

I am now writing up the trip for a short memoir - working title, 'Postcards from the East'. I might pitch it or parts of it to editors, but as a last resort I'll blog a few pieces or even self-publish just for the family record.

So many moments, especially one that blew me away, and so many stories.

Thursday, 18 April 2019


Following on from the previous post...........

It is local election time and political campaigning leaflets are outnumbering takeaway menus at the moment. The blurb on them is, by and large, airy-fairy claptrap, of course. I often say that on the morning after ballot boxes have closed, that mighty din of whirring is the sound of manifestos, promises and pledges being shredded en masse.

Here's another leaflet that was posted through my door. I will not identify the contender.

'Dear Residents, We are not going to make you any false promises in a bid to secure your vote in these local elections.......'

And then, a list of pledges:

'We will freeze your council tax for two years.

We will protect our rural communities from over development.

We will scrap town centre Saturday parking charges.

We will invest in our town centres.

We will be tough on fly-tipping.

We will protect fortnightly bin collections.

We will build council houses.

We will re-open public toilets.

We will have a zero tolerance to all types of anti-social behaviour.

We will always put the needs of local residents before party politics.

We will make our district cleaner, safer and better place in which to work and live.'

All very noble stuff. And based on just about every past local election, the realist in me screams that there is not a cat in hell's chance of much of this list actually being delivered.

For example, town centres have been dying for years and reports and recommendations have blethered on and on about what should be done. And what happens? NOTHING.

Vote wisely but vote on the basis that your only choice is picking the least worst candidates. 

Tuesday, 16 April 2019


It is local election time and political campaigning leaflets are outnumbering takeaway menus at the moment. The blurb on them is, by and large, airy-fairy claptrap, of course. I often say that on the morning after ballot boxes have closed, that mighty din of whirring is the sound of manifestos, promises and pledges being shredded en masse.

Here's a leaflet that was posted through my door. I will not identify the contender but I was intrigued by something - the use of exclamation marks and other emphases. I have edited out a few bits.

"Do we want more of the same, are we all fed up of all the broken promises, the ineptitude or do we want CHALLENGE and CHANGE??"

I will deliver CHALLENGE and CHANGE: using my core values of Openness, Transparency, Fairness, Integrity, Passion, Innovation and Accountability!!

I will drive change via those core values, my track record over the past 16 years is a successful one! 

I will make a difference for my ward, for local people, for the sake of our children, grand-children and their children!!!"

This is non-specific nonsense and it seems to me the writer knows this because of the need to use capital letters, 2 question marks at the beginning and 6 exclamation marks throughout. Emphasising nothing of substance is emphasising nothing.

Brainstorming a lot of words and calling them "core values" is a typical political tactic. They all sound fine and noble but nothing else. There is no commitment here. Nothing.

So, always be wary, folks, of lazy words, meaningless sentences and over-exuberant use of punctuation from political contenders.

Now, I will DELIVER this waste of paper to the bin forthwith!!!!!!

Monday, 15 April 2019


I am happy to receive commissions to write about any of the events below or Direct Message on Twitter @JoeCushnan


1 Batman first appeared in comic form 80 years ago

1 Formula One’s Ayrton Senna died at 34 at San Marino 25 years ago

2 Leonardo Da Vinci died at 67 500 years ago

2 The Folies Bergere cabaret opened in Paris 150 years ago

2 The QE2 passenger liner set off on her maiden voyage 50 years ago

2 Oliver Reed died at 61 20 years ago

3 Folk singer Pete Seeger was born 100 years ago. Died at 94 in 2014

3 Margaret Thatcher became the UK’s first female Prime Minister 40 years ago

4 Audrey Hepburn was born 90 years ago. Died at 63 in 1993

6 Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes 65 years ago

6 Channel Tunnel crossing between England and France was officially opened 25 years ago

6 The final episode of TV’s Friends was broadcast 15 years ago

8 Dirk Bogarde died at 78 20 years ago

10 Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president 25 years ago

10 Fred Astaire was born 120 years ago. Died at 888 in 1987

11 The Monty Python team formed 50 years ago

14 Henry J. Heinz, founder of Heinz food company, died at 74 100 years ago

16 Liberace was born 100 years ago. Died at 67 in 1987

16 The first Academy Awards were presented 90 years ago19 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died 25 years ago

20 Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets was released 65 years ago

22 Arthur Conan Doyle was born 160 years ago. Died at 71 in 1930

24 Queen Victoria was born 200 years ago. Died at 81 in 1901

26 Michael Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley 25 years ago

Friday, 29 March 2019


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