Tag Archives: family history

The inside story…


Crumlin Road Prison by Stephen Shaw. He's a super observant watercolourist in Belfast. Click on the pic for his online galleries. The old prison was said to be the most secure in the British Isles. It hosted many escapes and executions. A tunnel led from the jail to the courthouse opposite, which features in Blackwatertown.

Here comes the inside story of my book. It’s the brief synopsis I’m sending to agents. (Some agents prefer a different approach – longer blow by blow, chapter by chapter efforts.)

The next post will cover my recent calamities and a particularly juicy piece of gossip. But for now, have a peek inside.

Synopsis of Blackwatertown:

Blackwatertown by Paul Waters is a thriller set on the Irish border in the 1950s. The intertwining of fact and fiction is based partly on a murky episode of Ireland’s past, and partly on things discovered about my family’s own secret history.

It is the story of a reluctant and conflicted policeman called John “Jolly” Macken, who is drawn into a conspiracy, accidentally starts a war (the 1950s IRA border campaign) and inadvertently becomes a hero.

It is also the story of how complacency in a time of peace can quickly be shattered, if the underlying tensions in society are not addressed.

Jolly Macken begins with a personal crisis because of his leading role in a police action he knows is legally correct, but feels is morally wrong.

As a police officer, an RUC man, he is isolated from his fellow Irish Catholics because he serves the Crown. As a Catholic (in name anyway), he is by definition distrusted by his Protestant fellow officers and the State.

There are three main strands:

1. Macken is punished after a farcical episode of violence at the beginning, by being exiled to Blackwatertown village, a sleepy Co. Armagh backwater. He is sent there to replace the previous token Catholic officer in the district who died mysteriously. Was it an accident or murder? Were the killers fellow police officers? Will Macken be next?

2. Macken meets an unusually bewitching local girl whose bravado masks a certain innocence. However, is her innocence feigned? Will their romance endure? Is she an IRA spy or is she hiding a much darker secret?

3. Macken is caught up in a police conspiracy and cover-up that has unexpected consequences. Their fakery is so convincing that the conspirators are lauded as heroes and accidentally start a war. Macken becomes part of a web of political and personal intrigue, watching his back as genuine and imaginary sides go to war for real.

An ambiguous fourth strand weaves in and out of the action. It retains its mystery until near the end, when its true purpose and horrible identity is revealed.

As the tension and stakes mount higher, Macken is forced to choose sides when it comes to war and to his personal life. He embarks on a journey through a broken and twisted world to see if it is possible to salvage anything that is good, worthwhile and beautiful.

Blackwatertown conveys a sense of place in the tradition of Ulster writer Maurice Leitch, and is threaded through with flashes of humour reminiscent of Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian Inspector Montalbano mysteries.

The story transcends time and place, but also parallels the current dangerous political situation in Northern Ireland today, and shows how a seemingly secure peace can be squandered.

18 Comments

Filed under art, My Writing

What I’ve learned

Its been tumultuous in Blackwatertown Towers lately. Normal service will soon be resumed. Once we establish just what the new normality will look like. But in the meantime, I’ll share with you some of what I’ve learned lately.

Yes, it looks like a roof slate because that's what it is. (You get a shiny medal for Sport Relief.) The glamorous person holding the slate/trophy is presenter Rachael Hodges, flanked by "the prestigious" Richard Bacon, and me. I didn't think the beer bottle would be in the picture. Missing from the line-up are top guru Louise Birt, indefatigable Garth Brameld, podcaster Harri Ritchie and inspirational listeners Jon Hillier and the Digger. The award was for the Special Half Hour - SHH.

  1. I haven’t completely lost it, thank God. I’ve just left the BBC after many years, but can proudly brandish two new awards. The first one is the highly prestigious Most Innovative Programme Award from the admittedly slightly obscure annual Audio and Music Awards. I shared it for a radio show I produced up until Christmas. The award-winning bit was the Special Half Hour – SHH – of which it was an honour and a privilege to be part. (Rule No. 1 You don’t talk about the Special Half Hour. But it’s been axed, so I dare to speak of it.)  The second is the also prestigious and much better known Sport Relief Mile. My running partner and I distinguished ourselves by completing the three mile (Count ’em! 3!) circuit before any of the six milers crossed the finish line. (Question: For which award did I contribute more to the sum of goodness in the world?)
  2. Whenever someone claims to be the first to ever do something, they’re wrong. Continue reading

9 Comments

Filed under family history, history, life

Oi! No smirking at the back there.

RUC Hastings Street garrison, Brickfields district, Belfast. 1923/24.

What a difference 30 years makes. In this police photograph from the 1920s almost no-one is smiling. I have another of new recruits to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) taken in the 1950s where nearly everyone is beaming. Two photos, two different sets of people, two different times, two different generations.

This one includes the father – my grandfather. When this post was originally published I included his name, rank and where he is in the picture. But I’ve been asked to remove the name – so I have done so.

But he’s easy to spot. The handsome one with the patrician air. (God no, not yon dopey-looking one.)

You’ll notice they’re a serious bunch. I suppose given that they’re in a tough area – the Belfast’s Brickfields police district – and that some of them will have survived World War one, the Irish War of Independence, civil war, pogroms and general rioting – it’s understandable. Or perhaps it was the rule back then. No smiling while on duty. Perhaps Smiler in the back row, left hand side, is actually squinting, not grinning.

I was struck by the contrast between this photo, and another from the mid 1950s. In the later one they’re all smiling. Including the son of the handsome one above. (I hope to put it on display shortly.) Maybe it’s because peace has broken out and war in Ireland is a sufficiently distant memory. They weren’t to know that the next round of hostilities was heading their way in a couple of years time – the IRA’s 1950s border campaign (which is the setting of my book, Blackwatertown).

So the men in this photo are the fathers or uncles of the police officers who fought in the ’50s campaign. They were a formidable bunch.

But back to 1923/24. Does anyone else remember those snake-clasp belt buckles? I remember coveting one when I was small. (Which was only the other day. Or perhaps the day before.)

Perhaps some faces in the picture are familiar. Drop me a line if you recognise anyone. (I’ve posted pictures of some other branches of the family policing tree: Dan Waters & Michael Murphy.)

10 Comments

Filed under family history, history

Murphy and the Princess

Murphy & the Princess

DI Murphy accompanies Princess Elizabeth, Belfast, June 1949

There was no difficulty finding gunmen in those days. Swordsmen were rarer. But blades are the style when you’re escorting a princess. There she is, the future Queen Elizabeth, looking very nicely turned out.

It’s understandable that you didn’t notice her at first glance, given the distinguished handsome bloke beside her. He’s District Inspector Murphy – aka Great Uncle Mike – of B District.

He tended to be called in to lead RUC parades on royal visits, partly because he was one of the few officers versed in sword drill. That came from his Irish Guard days.

On this occasion Princess Elizabeth is inspecting an RUC Guard of Honour at Belfast City Hall in June 1949. The following month Michael Murphy was promoted from DI 2nd class to DI 1st class.

Another family policing link is here – Dan Waters of the RIC.

15 Comments

Filed under family history

Dan Waters RIC man

Dan Waters, RIC

Dan Waters, RIC

 That’s my great grandfather, Dan Waters. I suppose he’s part of the story, or the backstory at least. In my story, Blackwatertown, some of the main protagonists are RUC men – that is, members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police. It was a very controversial organisation over the years, but more on that another time.

My great grandfather Dan joined the predecessor of the RUC, which was the RIC, the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Irish Constabulary was set up in 1835, and was granted the prefix Royal by Queen Victoria in 1867 after suppressing a nationalist rebellion.  Dan himself joined later, according to his card, on May 11th, 1875.

Dan Waters RIC card
The RIC disappeared in 1922 with the partitioning of Ireland into the six counties of Northern Ireland in the north east, and the twenty six counties of what is now the Republic of Ireland. Tough times for many members. In the south the RIC was replaced by the unarmed Civic Guards, who were renamed the Garda Siochana. They’re still there. In the north, the I became a U, and the RIC became the Royal Ulster Constabulary. (Northern Ireland comprises six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster.) It’s the RUC who feature in my book Blackwatertown.
The RUC name has itself since given way to a new title. As part of radical reforms, in 2001 the force became the Police Service of Northern Ireland, or PSNI.
So – does this personal link make me any better or worse qualifed to write a story about policemen in Ireland?
PS: There’s another family link to policing here – Mike Murphy, RUC District Inspector accompanying Princess Elizabeth.

7 Comments

Filed under family history, history