‘Ireland’s Call’ and the reactions to the ‘hi-jacked’ photographer

The victorious Portadown Male Voice Choir.
The victorious Portadown Male Voice Choir.

Ireland, Ireland; Together standing tall’, we sang lustily. ‘Shoulder to shoulder; We’ll answer Ireland’s call! Come the day and come the hour…’ And so on and so forth.

It was 20 years ago, and I was chanting among the members of Portadown Male Voice Choir in a TV studio in Dublin. Andrew Strong (famous for ‘The Commitments’ film) was the soloist, composer Phil Coulter was tinkling the ivories, another guy was battering a Lambeg-cum-Bohdan, and the studio audience was rocking and rolling to the pulsating beat. (Gordon Speers was in charge of our ensemble).

Aficionados of the oval ball will recognise the ditty as the modern-day ‘Ireland’s Call’, the unofficial anthem performed before each and every international match by the rugger Men in Green and fans. It was written as an Irish compromise, lest sensitivities be dented with ‘The Soldier’s Song’, the Republic’s anthem, or ‘God Save the Queen’ which pertains in the north.

The venue for our rousing rendition was the RTE Studios in Dublin. We were appearing on ‘The Late, Late Show’ where the erudite Gay Byrne was in charge, a man deep of intellect and razor sharp of wit. Our vocal efforts were being transmitted simultaneously AOI (All Over Ireland), including ‘The Gerry Kelly Show’ (UTV) so that viewers north and south could thrill at Coulter’s latest composition. (I remember wondering why a professional Derry Man – ‘The Town I Love So Well’ – actually lived in County Wicklow!)

Little did we know that we were making musical history that fateful night! We didn’t think ‘Ireland’s Call’ would catch on. But it has – big time – as it sounds in every rugby country on Planet Earth, during the current World Cup where Ireland have played two, won two.

(Portadown-born Niall Sloane, Head of Sport on ITV, is the man responsible for buying the rights for terrestrial television, and his views are carried elsewhere in the paper).

My enthusiasm on the RTE transmission could have been a point or two higher on the Richter Scale that night, even though our fellow guests on the show were the marvellous Michael Palin (Globetrotter and Monty Python’s Flying Circus legend); Frank (‘It’s the way I tell ‘em) Carson; and a montage of Irish rugger stars of the era.

The problem was that my beloved Ports (Portadown Football Club) were that very night playing in the semi-final of the Irish Cup – Carrick Rangers were the opposition and my heart was at Windsor Park, rather than Donnybrook, Dublin 4.

I blamed the editor Davy Armstrong. He’d ordered me to go south to Dublin with Mr Speers and his hordes. “It’ll be great for the paper fella,” he encouraged with his accustomed enthusiasm. “Brian (Courtney) will be covering the semi-final, and frankly I have a bad feeling about that match.”

Sadly, he had called it right. When the Late, Late cast (ourselves included) repaired to the Green Room to wet our tonsils after The Great Sing, I rang the aforementioned Mr Courtney, who relayed the awful news. “They lost 1-0 Vicky,” he mourned. “They hit the woodwork at least eight times, the Carrick keeper was inspired, Rangers broke away, got one shot at goals and it went in.”

Mr Armstrong had called it right. ‘Ireland’s Call’ is a 32-county hit, and the semi-final is best forgotten. Sometimes editors do my head in…

A few years beforehand, one difficult call that Davy had to make surrounded a rather vague young man who had aspirations to become a famous ‘snapper’, photographer in newspaper speak.

I don’t know how he progressed eventually. But the genesis of his career was not happy. Memorable, though, but for the wrong reasons.

The Troubles were in full flow, and he (the would-be snapper) arrived at work that morning with a great air of hope and enthusiasm around him. But it had evaporated by lunchtime.

Off he drove, circa midday, in the firm’s beige Austin Allegro, for a marking in the Dungannon direction. But imagine our anxiety when he came back some time later, clutching his stomach and mumbling that he’s been “hi-jacked by two guys wearing balaclavas” en route to the job.

In those dark and trying days, the Portadown Times had great relationship with the police. Portadown’s barracks in Edward Street was a hive of activity, with cops and detectives of all ages and all levels. The building was chock full of great contacts – the Drew Coids, Brian Houstons, George Jackson of the RUC, all willing and able to co-operate with the local Press. Yes – they were actually allowed to mix and talk to us!

Anyway, Davy immediately got on the ‘blower’ to Drew Coid, brilliant detective and a man with an unerring nose for news. Dungannon was soon sealed off, eager members of the Constabulary were watching every yard of road between the two towns in the hope of nabbing two terrorists.

I was despatched to the Edward Street nerve centre to watch the action with the aforementioned Drew, and there was no sign of the hi-jackers anywhere. As things unfolded (or failed to unfold) a young Times reporter called Jane arrived to check up on the weekly police notes.

“Jane,” I told her. “Harry (not his real name) was hi-jacked about an hour ago.”

“A likely story,” she scorned.

A light flicked on in Drew’s head. “My goodness, (or words to that effect) you’re right, Jane.”

In the meantime, the crashed Allegro had been discovered a couple of miles from the town. Harry (not his real name) was hauled in for police questioning and soon confessed that he’d taken a bend rather fast, the car had ended against a fence and he’s escaped with only minor injuries.

Had it been the modern era, a cache of probation officers, social workers, top brass and all manner of do-gooders would have been assembled, but it was left to Davy and Drew to sort out.

Davy reacted the only way he could. He threw himself on the mercy of the court, and thanks to our great RUC-PT relationships, they decided not prosecute for wasted police time. But Harry’s (not his real name) short career with the Times was terminated.

He might just have got off with it, had he not made a total idiot of himself during the post-hi-jacking interview with the editor.

A firm but fair man, Davy called Harry (NHRN) to his office to de-brief him, as they say. And I (as the Union representative) was in attendance to guarantee openness and transparency.

“Right!” Davy sighed, “what really happened?”

“Well, I was driving out to the job and these two guys in balaclavas …”

“Get him out of here, Vicky!”