Raising a glass to Lurgan Champagne

Even if you’ve never been to Lurgan, you’ll know us by our legendary drouth for the mighty Buckfast Tonic Wine!

The Breakfast of Champions has been fuelling Spade Town for generations. Sure didn’t we even train Master McGrath – history’s most famous greyhound – wi’ a drap o’ Buckfast in his bowl!

Mere mention of my beloved hometown might make some think of tiresome social-media polls soliciting views on Northern Ireland’s “worst town”.

Alas, Lurgan is often lumped in with Ballymena and Larne as a potential contender for this undesirable crown.

Well, slap it up ye’s, for Lurgan is already a winner – and we toast our victory with a bumper of the celebrated Buckfast Tonic Wine. Aye, we can drink the rest of them under the table with a wee swally o’ Buckie…

Dungannon? Done down! Omagh? Ólta amach! There’s none can take our baubles, not even Portydown!

Lurgan’s fascination with Buckfast is longstanding, to the extent that it’s known far and wide as “Lurgan Champagne”. In the 1980s a local poetry collective brought together an assemblage of verse with that very title.

It’s not unpopular in other parts but Buckie is a touchstone for the town. People reference three things when Lurgan is mentioned: Master McGrath, Lurgan Park and Buckfast.

Margorie McCall, the woman prematurely entombed in Shankill Graveyard before thieves awoke her from her slumber by trying to cut the valuable ring from her finger, is another important part of the Lurgan canon.

But we’ll take the Buckfast plaudits. And by Dad we will! A local supermarket reports that its second best seller is Buckie: no 1 is milk.

Has to be coul’, though. The manager of an off-licence in Lurgan said that only around two percent of her customers wanted room-temperature Buckie.

Buckfast is part of growing up in Lurgan. It’s like a rite of passage and those who can’t say they snagged a bottle or two among the rhododendron bushes of Lurgan Park may not be true Spade Towners.

I can’t say that I found the taste of neat Buckfast appealing when I was young. But then I hadn’t discovered the wonderful range of mixers that turn it into a pleasure for any palate.

Brown Lemonade sustains the colour, while Wild Berry WKD makes it look and taste the part! The current trend is for West Coast Cooler, a decidedly retro drink, as a mixer.

GET IT INTA YE: Buckie, Buckie and more Buckie

But how did Buckfast become a byword for Lurgan? The gentle monks at Buckfastleigh Abbey in Devon could not have predicted the effect their saintly brew would have on a faraway town in Co Armagh.

Nor did they imagine that their caffeine-reinforced tonic wine would garner a reputation as “wreck the hoose juice” in Scottish suburbs where its popularity almost rivals its Lurgan prevalence.

It’s reported that the monks are horrified at the reputation their drink has earned in the lesser-blessed nooks of Glasgow and the finer parts of Lurgan!

The great thing about Buckfast is that it brings people together. In Lurgan, a town divided by religion and culture, folk on both sides sup from Buckfastleigh’s ever-giving well.

There is a serious aspect, though. Many Lurgan folk signed up for the 1914-1918 Great War and paid the ultimate price. This was true, of course, of other towns.

As the war ended, however, another threat emerged – Spanish Flu, the Coronavirus of its time.

Health authorities suggested several ways to combat or counter the risk: one was cycling and another was the consumption of “healthy” tonic wines. The benefits of these beverages were widely trumpeted.

Lurgan took this advice to heart: I’m not sure about the cycling, given that no-one from my town has ever won the Tour de France, but at least the tonic wine bit rings true!

Other pretenders have come and gone, among them Sanatogen Tonic Wine, Wincarnis (blended with malt and beef extract!) and the “cheering and comforting” Phosferine.

The latter sounds like a character from a Shakespeare play, but as the years wore on all of these “tonics” were increasingly marketed as a way to help women get through the drab weekdays while they waited for their husbands to come home.

Domestic misery was a recurring theme in the ads. These “restoratives” helped ladies “cope with life’s little ups and downs”, banish “nerves” and defeat the “drudgery”. A 1960s Sanatogen ad said:

“It’s all right for him. He goes off in the morning… But all you have is an empty house. And the same dull round of household tasks. There are times when the thought of it takes the heart out of you.

“It’s on days when you feel like this that Sanatogen Tonic Wine is so helpful. And so enjoyable.”

BUCKFAST: overcome depression. sleeplessness and lassitude

Life was on hold until the man of the house made his triumphant and bread-winning return. Why not make it easier with a glass or three.

By the 60s and 70s tonic wines weren’t marketed for men, as the manufacturers knew that men would drink them anyway. Women were targeted to bring in a new and lucrative demographic.

Isn’t the same thing happening today with the ads aimed at bringing women into the gambling arena? At the start of this century few women would have darkened the doors of a bookie’s.

The gambling industry opened its welcoming but greedy online doors to women by targeting them with ads encouraging them to play fluffy “female-friendly” games with cute names.

Even before Coronavirus lockdowns there was no need to go within a hound’s goul’ of a bookie’s shop. Online gaming has now got both genders in its grasp.

This blog started as a fun piece about Buckie, yet there are serious parallels with our own time which cannot be ignored.

But I’ll finish on a lighter note. I guess that what happened is that Lurgan took the post-war tonic wine health message to heart and stuck with it, while other places moved on to different pleasures and intoxicants.

BUCKIN’ BRILLIANT: let’s hear it for Buckie

Lurgan’s enduring love affair with Buckfast surely demands a song. So here’s one…

This blog originally appeared on Slugger O’Toole

Ar an teitheadh leis an Róbat Rapála

Tinte na Farraige Duibhe

Léirmheas: Ian Malcolm

Agus mé i mo dhéagóir, ba mhór an dúil a bhí agam i bhficsean eolaíochta. Ní hé go raibh post le NASA nó a leithéid de chuspóir agam, ach bhí mé gafa ag na scéaltaí faoi phláinéid i bhfad uainn agus na sibhialtachtaí orthu.

B’é Isaac Asimov rí na ceirde, dar liom, agus mé i ngreim faiscthe ag “dlíthe na róbataice” a chum sé in am nuair a bhí an coincheap féin ait agus teibí.

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Tell me, do you bury Catholics?

A Matter of Life and Death

Review: Ian Malcolm

Writing a review on a biography about a funeral director is inevitably a grave undertaking as there’s the temptation to leave no headstone unturned in the search for deadpan puns.

But I shall resist, as A Matter of Life and Death, written by journalist Ivan Little, is fascinating enough without any resort to one-liners. Ian Milne certainly has a story worth sharing and his biographer does it justice.

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Be gentle: it’s only my second Six-on-Saturday

TEQUILA SUNRISE: gorgeous, fragrant and the best-ever Rose

I do have a bit of craic when Twitter folk talk about “my little garden”. Many seem to be hitting the oul acre and trying to make out that it’s tiny. Catch yerselves on. Welcome to “my genuinely wee garden”.

My garden’s really a bit of a yard, which is where I grow my legendary little tomatoes, and a 4m x 4m square, with a raised bed for fruit and veg.

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Our plastic politicians are an environmental disaster…

As we grind our way towards a pre-Christmas ballot-box outing I’m afraid that the environment is going to take another big hit. And not just from the hot air sure to emanate from the candidates.

The old adage is that ‘less is more’. Sadly, it’s one that has escaped our politicians, who cleave firmly to the belief that when it comes to election posters in Northern Ireland, it’s a case of the bigger the better. Continue reading

Get into the ‘Gaelic groove’ with my new Irish courses at Stranmillis

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IRISH ALFRESCO: pleasant weather mean a ‘rang’ in the sunshine for the Irish Conversation class

I’m not a frequent blogger, but it’s time for a wee geek at my new Lifelong Learning Irish classes starting at Stranmillis in Autumn 2019.

I’d like to thank those who attended my courses over the past 12 months and I’m delighted, as always, that they included people of all ages and all backgrounds. That’s important to me, as Irish belongs to everyone.

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Spicing up The Sash on banjo

This is a playful little banjo medley I put together to celebrate the Twelfth of July, the highlight of the Orange marching season in Northern Ireland. The video was taken at the parade in Belfast city centre.

Riocard Ó Tiarnaigh, my friend from Germany (a Dub through and through), asked me if I could explain the Twelfth, so I took him to the parade and showed him what it’s all about. We’d a grand day altogether and I even got him to wave an Ulster flag! Continue reading

Mind your ‘P’s and ‘Q’s – ore you’ll get into trouble!

I try my best to not mix language and politics. It can be a toxic combination for sure, particularly in Northern Ireland, where folk are not always amenable to reasoned argument.

Anyhow, the other week I did use my good offices as a linguist to try and resolve a heated debate in my local SuperValu! Continue reading

Why less is more when it comes to learning Irish

I guess I don’t really blog too much. My last post was in December 2017 by the look of it. But sure, as we say in Irish, ‘Tá blas ar an bheagán‘!

That’s one of those lovely little seanfhocal, or proverbs, that say so much in a few words. We might translate this one as ‘Less is More’… the literal translation is ‘A little is very tasty’! Continue reading