The Irish tenor and the potato peeler

After several days of incessant rain, I am enjoying the relative novelty of the warm November sun on my face. Patches of blue have finally broken through in the sky and the day is crisp and clear.

However, in the distance I can see thick grey cloud obscuring the domed tip of Knocklayde, like a thick sauce poured over a steamed pudding. I know it will not be long until the next storm arrives.

I am in Armoy. It is a place which is at once familiar, yet alien to me. I grew up just a few miles from here. I travelled through the village every day on the school bus as a child. I still come this way when I am visiting home. I must have passed through here hundreds of times, but as I walk along the streets there is not much I recognise. It occurs that however many times I have been through Armoy, I never had much reason to visit Armoy.

I pass two men talking outside a shop. The familiar sing-song lilt of the north Antrim rural accent. I like to think I have maintained my brogue, but when I come anywhere near home and hear it expressed properly, the full majesty of the elongated vowels, the glorious twang of the couldnaes, didnaes and shouldnaes, I feel like an amateur.

I am with my son. We step off the street and down a set of steps which takes us to a damp path which is out of the direct sunlight. I hear the squelch of the wet autumn leaves under my feet and can feel some moisture coming through the soles of my shoes and into my socks.

The path takes us along the route of the river Bush. At one point the water seems to be barely moving at all, so leisurely is its journey. Then there is a change in its level and the river becomes a furious foam which gives way to an urgent rushing of water as the stream narrows. I stop to watch and listen for a few minutes.

We come to a small circular garden. There are signs and sculptures dedicated to motorbike riders, signifying the deep links between the small village and road racing. But this is not what I am looking for.

My son runs ahead, eager to solve a conundrum and gain my approval. He comes to a black bench and excitedly waves me over. There is a small silver plaque attached to the bench. It is in a state of neglect and the lettering is beginning to fade. I am just about able to make it out.

It reads: ‘LOVELY ARMOY. CELEBRATING THE LIFE OF UEL DEANE. WORLD FAMOUS IRISH TENOR. BORN IN ARMOY 1935.’

I do not know much of the story of Uel Deane. I do know that after his family left Armoy, they moved into a house in east Belfast next door to my grandparents, close to where George Best grew up.

There is little that can be found online about the career of Uel Deane. A few scant biographical details about his acting and singing career, a couple of old album covers and photographs, a small number of newspaper articles. He was successful in the 1970s, made numerous TV appearances and later settled in France. He died there in 2006.

In the early 1990s I was a broke student in Belfast. So severe was my poverty that I would regularly visit my granda’s house to scrounge a dinner. My granny had died some years earlier and my granda, who was blind, lived alone. I would help him to prepare the meal.

Despite his solitary state, my granda often had visitors. Once, when I arrived, there was a well-dressed man sitting in the front room. My granda introduced him as the ‘world famous singer Uel Deane’. I was initially sceptical as I had not heard of him and was unaccustomed to encountering world famous singers in the front room of my grandfather’s east Belfast terrace.

However, it soon became clear that this man had an imposing presence. We quickly bonded over our shared experiences growing up in north Antrim. When I told him that I was studying the poetry of Yeats at university he began to speak with authority on the work of the author. He was unfailingly gracious when it quickly became clear that he knew much more about the subject than I did. He told me, without any sense of self-importance, a little about his life in France and his career travelling the world as a singer. I regret that I cannot remember more about the encounter.

What I can remember clearly is getting instruction from my granda when it was time to go to the kitchen to start dinner. He had recently been given a new gadget which was aimed at making the process of peeling spuds easier for a man with no vision. It was essentially a basin with a hose attached. The end of the hose fitted onto the tap and water made the basin spin around. The potatoes were placed inside where a sand-paper-like surface removed the skins.

My granda was very proud of his potato peeler and, living an insular existence, believed it to be the pinnacle of engineering achievement. While I was in the tiny kitchen, Uel Deane entered and stood beside me. In good humour he explained that he had been ‘ordered to come and see this marvel of technology’. Thus, it came to pass that in the little kitchen of my granda’s Cregagh Road terrace I showed an internationally renowned Irish tenor how to peel potatoes as he wonderfully gave his full attention.

A few months ago, this dusty old memory resurfaced in my mind. There was no particular context or event which triggered it, just a recollection of something I had not thought about in years. I suppose the story represents someone who was very successful but had not forgotten where he had come from.

As I said, it proved to be infuriatingly difficult to find out more details about Uel. If he had been born 50 years later, I suppose there would be countless clips of him on YouTube. Instead, I found an old newspaper article which said there was a commemorative bench in Armoy. So, I decided to find it.

And here I am. I wipe some leaves off the seat and make a clumsy attempt to clean mud from it. I wonder how many people know the bench is here, how many come to visit and link it with a memory of the man described on the little plaque and by my granda as world famous. Beside me, I can sense my son is getting impatient. He wants to move on in search of new adventure. I take one last long look at the bench before we leave.

This article first appeared in the News Letter

 

 

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