Monday, October 3, 2011

William McCartney ‘Cocky’ Dunlop, BEM, MBE, 1920-2011: An appreciation

With the passing of Billy Dunlop, on the 15th of September 2011, Irish archaeology lost one of it great promoters and enthusiasts. I cannot claim to have known Billy longest or best, but, like many field archaeologists working in Northern Ireland, I owe him a vast debt of gratitude for his kindness and generosity. For those stories shared over cups of tea on site or for the books lent to me from his personal collection I was, and remain, grateful. In time, I trust, appropriate obituaries and appreciations will appear from the pens of others better acquainted with more aspects of his life. My intention here is to set down a general outline of his life along with some of my memories of this energetic and charismatic man, who I am privileged to have known and been able to call both a mentor and a friend.

Billy was born in 1920 in Court Street, Newtownards, and grew up on Deleware St, off the Ravenhill Road, Belfast. At the age of 14 he joined The Post Office as a telegraph messenger, delivering telegrams across Belfast, and by 1939 had graduated to the position of postman. In 1941 he signed up as a wireless telegraphist or radio operator. He was part of the group sent to San Francisco to commission the escort carrier, HMS Attacker. In December 1942 he was transferred to Landing Ship Tank (LST) 362, berthed in New York. He personally took part in the landings in Sicily, at both Salerno and Anzio. Coming back from North Africa in March 1944, to take part in the D-day landings, his ship was torpedoed and sunk around 400 miles west of Brest. Of the 115 soldiers on board, 88 were killed, along with 15 of the crew. After several hours in the water, and close to death, he was picked up by an LST, though not before twice falling back into the water, coming perilously close to being lost for good. Billy often attributed this and similar close brushes with death as changing his outlook on life, making him open to new ideas and adventures. After the war he returned to The Post Office, and joined the trade union movement in 1947. After holding a number of local and regional offices within the movement, he was elected to membership of the national executive in 1969. He was one of the chief organisers of the famous postal strike of 1971, and was personally responsible for the Northern Ireland branch at that time. Through his work with The Post Office Youth Club, he introduced the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to Northern Ireland. Even after his retirement at 65, he remained as leader of The Post Office Youth Club and remained active up until he was almost 70. During this period his activities expanded into contacts with other youth groups, in particular broadening the role and appeal of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to all sections of Northern Ireland society. After retirement from The Post Office, he enrolled in two classes close to his heart: archaeology and bird watching. The archaeology course led to him joining the Ulster Archaeological Society in 1971, eventually becoming a committee member in 1987 and editor of the UAS Newsletter in the same year. Although he spent three years as Vice President of the Society and was President in 2000, he maintained that his greatest contribution was as editor of the Newsletter. In 1979 he took part in his first excavation, for Prof. P. C. Woodman at the Mesolithic site at Bay Farm, Carnlough, Co. Antrim. After that he was deeply bitten by the excavation bug and participated in nearly all of the ‘Classic’ excavations of the period: Navan Fort, Donegore Hill, Haughey’s Fort, Ballynahatty, and Ballygalley. It is a testament not just to his importance in Irish archaeology, but the degree in which he was both loved and respected, that he was the guest of honour at the UAS’s annual dinner in 2010. The current volume of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology (Vol. 68, 2009) is also dedicated to him. I am also glad to report that, though in hospital, he was presented with an advance copy of the journal and got to see physical evidence of the regard in which he was held.

Obviously, I didn't know Billy throughout the majority of his long and eventful life. He and I only became acquainted in June 1999 when we worked together on the excavation at Navan Fort, Site C, Co. Armagh. My first impressions were of an exceedingly energetic pensioner who, with both his ability to shovel earth and general enthusiasm, put many of us - less than a third of his age - to shame. Some of us (me included) wondered at his capacity for endless work. As we sweated and swore about aching shoulders and sore arms, Billy gauged that the time was right for an introduction to his mini lecture series on the right and wrong ways of using what is termed in Northern Ireland, the 'long tail shovel'. Although difficult to put into words, the 'Dunlop Method' centred on using the long handle as a fulcrum, thus letting nature (and physics) do most of the hard work. Billy claimed that by using this method, one could easily shovel spoil all day without tiring. As is the way of such good advice, so generously given, some of us listened and adopted this new method pretty much immediately and some of us didn't. In retrospect, I would like to say that I was instantly convinced of the merit in Billy's suggestion and benefited immediately from this good advice. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that I didn't, and expended much time and energy needlessly hefting soil. Eventually, with a little further tuition from Billy, I came around to his way of thinking - and have benefited from it ever since.

When it comes to interpreting Navan Fort, the professional archaeological classes immediately go to the 'ritual' default setting. In fairness, it is difficult to envision describing such a site as this without invoking 'The R Word' - so much of the evidence appears to depend on a 'non-domestic' interpretation. Could anyone reading this explain the preparation of the '40 metre structure' - literally packed to the rafters with stone and then set on fire - without invoking a ritualised aspect to the procedure? It was for this reason that I was particularly taken with Billy's approach to the site. Instead of talking about the individual features, Billy was more interested in how the site was used by ordinary people - not the aristocratic warrior or elite priestly classes - and how they would have interacted with and responded to the space. As he explained it to us excavators (under the watchful, if slightly bemused, eye of the site director, Dr. Chris Lynn) the majority of Iron Age society would have been isolated from the reasoning and decision-making processes behind the ritual activities on the site. The way Billy saw it, most people came to Navan Fort, not out of any high-minded desire to be involved in any of the 'elite activities', but because it would be a large gathering of people. Sitting on the side of the Site B mound, Billy painted a picture of friendships made and renewed; marriage matches agreed; true loves found and lost; along with quite a bit of cattle-trading; story-telling; drinking and general fun and rowdiness. Over time, this line of thinking has become particularly influential on my own approach to archaeology. Admittedly, these activities are all but irrecoverable by traditional archaeological means. Nonetheless, we risk radically misinterpreting any site we excavate if we fail to contemplate the range of uses to which it was put and how its meaning would have differed to different sections of society, even at the time it was constructed and used. While it does not always filter throughout to the final excavation reports I submit, or the papers I publish, it is integral to how I understand and interact with the site as we excavate it.

In August and September of that year (1999) we worked together again - this time at the Late Neolithic timber enclosure at Ballynahatty (BNH5), beside The Giant's Ring, Co. Down. Like Navan Fort, Ballynahatty is best described in terms of ritual activities carried out there. I admit that I was particularly shocked when I heard Billy trotting out the same story of how this site worked - the animal markets, the feasting, the friendships, the true loves found and misplaced, the story-telling, and (of course) the drinking. The only real difference this time was that the watchful eyes and slightly bemused look belonged to a different site director - the indefatigable, Barry Hartwell. It took me a little time to realise a couple of things. First, this approach is equally valid for both Navan Fort and Ballynahatty. Secondly, and more importantly, Billy was telling those of us willing to listen how he saw the world and what was truly important in it. Not the creation of great buildings, nor the dedicated following of religious observances; but the personal moments of loves found, and friendships made, jokes and stories told, food and drink shared.

I worked side by side with Billy only once more - at Navan Fort in 2000. By that time I considered him a mentor. I also smiled quite a bit as both excavators and visitors to the site were treated to his special view of how a large part of the Iron Age population of Co. Armagh felt about the site. After that I moved south to work on various excavations, and didn't see Billy all that frequently. However, once I returned to Belfast in 2002 to direct sites for NAC, Billy was regularly on the phone looking to elicit any details I could give him about our excavations for the UAS Newsletter. As I noted above, Billy took on the job of Editor of the UAS Newsletter in 1987, and quickly made it his own. For nearly 23 years he kept the members informed on all aspects of the society, from descriptions of outings, lectures and AGMs to lists of recently published books. As an aside, in conversation after his funeral service I learned that although he accepted the support of an Assistant Editor for the last number of issues of the Newsletter, his last editorial was dictated over the phone from his hospital bed. For myself one of the most important feats Billy performed with the Newsletter was his collection and dissemination of information on the excavations ongoing across Ulster - it was apparent that I was not alone in being regularly contacted to provide information. The fantastic thing about Billy’s reports was that the information was frequently gleaned while the site was still ongoing. In this way he managed to capture some of the excitement and spontaneity of field excavation, where all the evidence had yet to be excavated and theories fully explored. In my case Billy produced the first published account of my excavations at Oakgrove, Co. Londonderry. Unfortunately, he chose to quote me verbatim when I said that I was confronted by an extremely difficult site and that I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on with it.

I remember other times too, such as when we sat in the ditch of the Bronze Age site at Loughry, Co. Tyrone. He and a number of boon companions from the UAS had made the trip out to see the site and the amazing collection of pottery vessels we were in the process of recovering. As we sat on the hard-baked earth in the slowly dimming light of a summers evening, in between stories of his time in the Navy and in ‘The Union Game’, he still argued that I should be looking beyond the artefacts we were recovering and instead think about the meanings that the place held for the ‘ordinary people.’

As the years have gone by our friendship developed. Even in this economic downturn he would frequently call me to ask if I had details of any new excavations or other items for the Newsletter. When I read his plea for a computer on which he could write the Newsletter, I donated one of my machines. Having heard Barrie Hartwell’s eloquent and moving eulogy, I now realise that Billy was a frequent accidental killer of computers … through misplaced cups of coffee, to (apparently) spontaneous combustion. I now realise what he meant when, as I apologised for it being a rather elderly machine, he said ‘if it does me for one or two issues of the Newsletter, it’ll be fine’. The last time we met was when he invited me around to his house – I had been after an early volume of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology for one of my research projects. While he seemed slightly frail, none of his energy or enthusiasm was in any way diminished.  He was full of delight in what I was working on and, next thing I knew, books and journal volumes were being thrust into my hands with instructions to read. When I told him that, with all my other commitments, it would be some time before I could return them, he simply replied: ‘keep them – I think that all of my major research projects are over now and I doubt that I will be embarking on any more’. I think it is a testament to the man that even at the age of 90, and looking slightly frail, I was disinclined to believe him – it seemed impossible that Billy could ever be finished researching and writing. Even when I heard that he had been taken to hospital, I presumed that it was something routine and he would be back at the heart of the UAS in no time. Unfortunately, I was wrong. At his funeral service I was moved and impressed by all the facets of his life, some of which I knew about: postman, sailor, Union organiser, youth worker, bird watcher, Duke of Edinburgh’s Award organiser, archaeologist, and aficionado of the Ulster Fry. Others I was not particularly aware of, if I even knew at all: candidate for election, Oxford scholar, and a tone-deaf lover of both opera and jazz. While there was so much life crammed into one man - or one man who crammed so much into his life – this is not how I will remember him. When I think of Billy, my mind will first go to the grassy slopes of the Navan Fort mound on a long-ago lunch break, listening to him talk about the importance of personal relationships in both the past and the present. As the breeze ruffled the leaves on the trees, and the percolating sunshine dappled the faces of the excavation crew, I remember a man, telling his stories, content in himself, and happy to pass on his wisdom to those willing to listen.

Note: you can hear Billy talk about his life in his own words here.

The photograph used at the beginning of this post is a shot from the top of Navan Fort mound (site B) in 1999. Billy is the standing figure on the left, in all probability holding forth on his theories on the site.

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  1. I met Billy a number of times when digging in the North in the late '80s and later when he attended IPMAG conferences and am saddened to hear (only now, this morning)of his passing. He was one of the great auld characters of Irish archaeology...

  2. Robert, thank you so much for your warm tribute to my father and for sharing stories of your personal relationship and friendship with him. Thank you also for finding homes for some of his vast collection of Archaeology books and materials. I have enjoyed meeting you and look forward to your next visit.