St George for England

Or, as William Shakespeare wrote in Henry V - "Pray God for Harry, England and St George!" I'm sure 'Harry' Heron would approve, though he'd probably prefer St Patrick, since his home is in County Down at the head of Strangford Lough, and the real Henry Nelson Heron was really born in Downpatrick, less than four miles from where St Patrick established his first church and congregation at Saul.

Yesterday was St George's Day, and despite modern attempts to downgrade him to 'legendary' figure, he is very much revered in the Orthodox Churches of the Levant, Israel, Egypt and North Africa. Legendary 'dragon' or no, he was a real person, a soldier who prefered death to the recantation of his faith. According to the Orthodox, he lived in Smyrna. The dragon is an allegory for oppressive rulers, something 'pre-Enlightenment people understood well, and often the source of legends and myths about historical figures. 

Ireland is a place rich in mythology and legend, the very soil seems to breathe it, and the area around Strangford is a particularly fertile place for it. The present landscape is very different from what St Patrick would have known, for one thing the lough extended its water over a larger area. Downpatrick (Dun Padraig in the original form) was an island surrounded by marsh and open water approached by a causeway. The land has risen in the last 1600 years and is still rising as the underlying geographic plate reforms now the weight of the last ice age has gone.  Though it is a much weathered landscape one can still see the shape of the 'drumlins' that mark it, and Scrabo is the upthrust of lava from some violent volcanic upheaval some millions of years ago.

It was in the shadow of Scrabo that my grandfather, the original Harry Heron (his real name was Henry Nelson Heron) grew up. His father had been the Colour Sergeant of the Royal Irish Rifles, and they were part of the very large 'Heron' family which still populates this part of the Emerald Isle. Henry Nelson Heron grew up attending the local school in Newtownards, and sometimes working with other boys on relatives farms. He had many funny stories to tell of those days which kept my brother and I amused, sometimes scared, and always intrigued. One of his tales from his misspent youth I have included in one of my books, and both the fictional Ferghal and Harry make reference to it on occasion.

A school photo from 1906. Henry Nelson Heron is fourth from the right in the front row.

As I said earlier, Ireland is rich in legends and myths, one being the Banshee, said to perch on the roof tree of a house in whcih someone is about to die. The wail of the Banshee is - or was - much feared, as some stories have it that if she can seize the departing soul, that person is lost forever. So my grandfather used to recount the tale of an evening he and his companion - Ferghal in the stories - had been playing in the fields when they should have been making their way home and nightfall caught them seriously adrift when they should have been long at home. As they ran along the road in their hobnailed boots, they heard a rattling chain following them. Inspired to run all the harder, they were dismayed when the chains rattling not only kept up, but got louder and then - terror of terrors - the Banshee screamed at them from just the other side of the stone wall bounding the field. 

They dived into the ditch and hid beneath a culvert, while the Banshee struck stones from the wall above them and screamed all the louder. To afraid to move (they were only around 12) and with the Banshee obviously not about to give up on such a prize, grandfather plucked up the courage to take a peek. 

Their Banshee turned out to be a Donkey's colt that had pulled free of the anchor point to which he'd been attached and was looking for his mother. The poor beast had heard their boots on the road surface and followed them. In the end, instead of the hiding they'd expected, they were praised for finding the 'lost' colt ... Presumably the Banshee never did find them after that, both died peacefully in 1978 in South Africa having survived the First World War, the Irish Civil War and everything else life had to throw at them in their chosen new country.

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