Anne Hailes: Belfast man's guitar a poignant record of young men heading off to war

John C Hewitt, writer and aviation historian, with the guitar that was by signed by RAF personnel before they left for the Second World War. Picture by Mal McCann

THERE will be an especially poignant feature at a memorial service in St Anne's Cathedral on Sunday when a guitar and a boy scout penknife will have pride of place at the top of the aisle.

The service is to unveil a Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve Roll of Honour, a plaque inscribed with 142 names of men from all over Ireland. One hundred were killed, only 42 returned. Family, friends and colleagues will gather to remember them with full honours and representatives from the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities will take part.

Their's is a story of bravery and of comradeship which began in 1939 at the Sydenham aerodrome at a time when planes were basic – some even had table tennis balls stuffed into the wings to give buoyancy if they ditched – and many did, with fatal consequences.

John C Hewitt, writer and aviation historian, who has arranged this memorial service, has put together the history of the RAFVR and it makes difficult reading: the average age mid-20s, sinking U-Boats in the Bay of Biscay, the Battle of Britain, from Tiger Moth biplanes to Hurricanes, Heinkel He 111s to Spitfires.

There are so many personal stories. One volunteer asked his pilot if he would circle his home in the Ardoyne as they left for war – family and friends came out to wave, little knowing it would be the last time they would see him alive. John takes up the story of the guitar.

“In November 1939 Sidney Ireland met up with the 30 other RAFVR boys at York Street Railway Station. His best friend, Noel Corry, asked him, "Where's your guitar? The reply, ‘I left it at home'.

“There was no way that they were going without a guitar for Sidney and a farewell singsong. So Noel went up to the engine driver and told him they were off to war and asked if he could wait about 30 minutes until they went to purchase a guitar. The engine driver was happy to oblige.

“Noel and two compatriots rushed out of the station, hailed a taxi. ‘Quick as you can – drive to Matchett's in Wellington Place and don't spare the horses'.

"They duly bought the instrument, rushed back to the LMS, thanked the engine driver for waiting and presented Sidney with the guitar. They had a great old sing on the way to Larne and then by boat to Stranraer.”

As they were approaching Stranraer, Sydney asked his friends to sign the back of the guitar because goodness knows when they would see each other again.

“Noel tried with his fountain pen but it rubbed off. What were they going to do? Cecil Smylie had an idea. He pulled out his boy scout knife and opened the spike and they all engraved the back of the guitar.

At 22 years of age, Sidney Ireland was one of the first to be killed but his guitar survived. Many of the men ended up holding a senior rank and decorations but so many died.

Sidney Ireland's best friend, Squadron Leader Noel Corry DFC, AE, wrote a poem in memory of all his RAFVR friends who were killed during the war. This is the first verse:

Young men, little more than school boys,

Jousting with the Luftwaffe in the sky

To determine whose turn it is to die today.

The service will be held at St Anne's Cathedral on Sunday at 3.30pm.

The Change Of Life

THE menopause is a mystery to many. There seem to be no rules of engagement, no timetable, no warning of severity and no full proof way to cope. However, help is at hand.

Anne McGale is a practice nurse in Belfast, a holistic therapist and a health educator.

“I had a bad start to my menopause so I decided that if I could help it, no other woman would get to that point without information. After two years research I've started a business called Positive Wellbeing."

Anne has also included the Equality Commission in her research.

“By 2020 one in three women over 50 will be in the workplace but there's no policy or legislation available to support them through the transition. We have no government at present however two cases in England have been taken regarding how women were treated during the menopause.

"These are the same women who have been supported through pregnancy and maternity leave as there is policy in these areas so there's hope for the future. I am passionate about giving women the knowledge and information to empower them to make educated choices in their health.”

Anne is organising an event, The Big Pause, focusing on the menopause on Thursday May 30 from 9am until 1pm in Ormeau Business Park in Belfast.

There will be a doctor, a lawyer and a psychologist speaking during the morning as well as Anne's own presentation. She plans to take The Big Pause to venues around the north.

And The Men Are Not Forgotten.

“I hope to follow this with something concerning the Andropause, the midlife symptoms men experience during their transition into the second half of their life.”

Here's a related conundrum – in the television show, Mrs Brown's neighbour, the somewhat dowdy Winnie McGoogan, is also his sister, if you know what I mean.

In ‘real' life, Brendan O'Carroll's sister is Eilish O'Carroll and she has a brilliant one-woman show during which she discusses the menopause. She certainly doesn't play it down but she is funny about it too.

Her advice is, think of it – Men O Pause – in other words, take a break and concentrate on yourself.

More information about The Big Pause will be available at later this month.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access


Today's horoscope


See a different horoscope: