Horace reflects on life in BBC radio show

Horace reflects on life in BBC radio show

8 May 2019

BALLYNAHINCH historian Horace Reid was one of the guests on BBC Radio Ulster’s Time of Our Lives programme on Sunday.

Horace and fellow guest Frank Rodgers, an expert in Irish stained glass windows, were interviewed by presenter Colum Arbuckle.

After studying at Queen’s University Horace began a 20-year nursing career at the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1971, specialising first in the fracture clinic, and then in cardiac theatre.

At Queen’s his tutor, Hugh Purcell, had given him this advice: “If you want to be an expert in any subject, get a shoebox.” Horace soon began researching the effects of the Troubles on the RVH, and started collecting photos, videos and press clippings. The shoebox collection grew and eventually occupied two filing cabinets.

He had intended to write a book on the subject, but sudden illness put an end to that intention. He subsequently made his Troubles archive available to other authors, such as the late Kate O’Hanlon, senior sister in RVH Casualty, Margaret Wilson and Moore Sinnerton.

In June 1993 he sustained a sudden onset of severe ME, which immediately ended his hospital career. He spent most of the next five years flat on his back in bed, with frequent migraines, insomnia, continual acute flu-like symptoms, muscle pain and weakness, weird new allergies, and a brain gone AWOL.

On air on Sunday he compared ME to having a defective battery on a mobile phone. Instead of the battery operating for 18 hours a day, it reluctantly provides power for only two hours. And once flat, it takes a full day to recharge. Horace never thought it was a fatal condition. But it has the same ill effects as a killer disease — energy loss on such a scale suddenly deprives you of job, career, income, and social and family life.

ME was first defined in 1959 by a famous Ulster doctor, Sir Donald Acheson. In the 60 years since, the NHS has made very little progress in identifying a cause, or developing a cure. So ME patients find it very difficult to access competent medical care. But they have no difficulty in encountering hostility, prejudice, and stigma.

Horace received exemplary care from a small number of NHS doctors. But he experienced hostility, suspicion and a damaging lack of knowledge with some others. His eventual route to partial rehabilitation was provided, not by the NHS, but by the arts and media sectors in Belfast and Down District.

Part of his initial five-year nightmare was that he couldn’t read much, or watch TV. By the time he got to the bottom of a page, he had forgotten what he had read at the top. Eventually he discovered that if he underlined relevant sentences in a book, he could then fix information in his memory.

Triggered by the cover illustration on Jonathon Bardon’s first edition A History of Ulster, in 1992 he had begun researching the 1798 Rebellion and the associated fighting in his home town of Ballynahinch. He continued this exploration after illness hit in 1993. By 1998 — the Rebellion bicentenary — he had acquired a wide knowledge of 18th century politics, personalities, warfare and weapons.

A number of NHS personnel seemed to doubt Horace’s sanity and/or integrity — an attitude they automatically extended to all ME patients. But other prominent individuals, in equally august institutions, took an entirely different view. Horace had amassed a knowledge of the 1798 period, and in 1998 they all wanted to access it — Brian Turner from the Down Museum, Dr Desmond Bailie of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Moore Sinnerton at the BBC and Jane Leonard at the Ulster Museum.

Post-ME Horace had significant difficulty with reading and writing at any length. So everyone was very patient with the small amounts and slow pace of his product. But eventually he produced a well-reviewed major article on the Battle of Ballynahinch, (with a bit of help from Ken Dawson and Dr Bailie). And he gave a lively bicentennial lecture on Betsy Gray to a capacity audience at the Ulster Museum. A new career was launched, though on a much, much smaller scale than before the onset of illness.


Horace has now developed a lecturing technique which overcomes his difficulty with the written word. His PowerPoints are really image-rich slide-shows, and he talks to what he sees in the pictures. Audiences remark that “he can talk for an hour without notes”, unaware that he continually faces the screen, and uses the images as visual prompts. They quite like the near-cinema experience.

Recently Pamela Cooper, of the Lecale Historical Society, has further improved on his technique. She made a tran of his Five Montalto Dynasties lecture, and then turned it into a major printed article — his first in 20 years.

Horace continues to have significant ME disability, with the typical energy deficit, so for him local history is a vital form of occupational therapy. One of his reasons for going on radio was to thank all those down the decades who have given him an outlet for his hobby.

These include the late Dr. Brum Henderson, of the Ballynahinch Murals Group; Vincent Fullam, of Ballynahinch Regeneration; Joanne Patterson, BBC, Your Place and Mine; Martyn Todd, of Discover Saintfield: Dr Winston Shaw and the Presbyterian Historical Society; Gordon Wilson and the late David Anderson at Montalto Estates; Dr Éamon Phoenix; the Editors of the Mourne Observer and Down Recorder, on many occasions; Dr. Terry Cross at Killaney Lodge; Karen Patterson, of the Rowallane/Slieve Croob Partnership; and many Probus branches and local historical societies. 

Arthur Davidson, Derek Rowlinson, and Peter Rowan have always kept him supplied with rare books., as did Deirdre Armstrong when the SEELB Library Board Irish Special Collection was based in Ballynahinch. Recently, published authors have consulted him about the 1798 period, such as Conor O’Clery, Ken Dawson and Guy Beiner.

For Horace, outdoor recreation is almost a thing of the past. But MLA Jim Wells allows him on board his birdwatching boat trips on the north coast. By this means it is possible to enjoy unique access to glorious scenery at Carrick-a-Rede, Torr Head, Fair Head and Rathlin, all without getting out of your seat, or walking a yard.

Guests on Sunday’s BBC programme were allowed to play one piece of music: Horace picked a paraphrase from the Scottish Psalter. During the worst period of his illness he was often unable to read, but he could always enjoy music. He steadily worked his way through the HMV Classical CD catalogue. And he also reverted to the music of his childhood – hymns he remembered from the Ballynahinch Methodists.

Dr. William Drennan, founder of the United Irishmen, once worshipped at First Presbyterian Church in Ballynahinch in 1808. That was before the introduction of hymn-singing and church organs. Horace’s own Scottish ancestors probably arrived around 1700, and he imagined they would have used paraphrases in their services.

This article is an amalgam of what Horace actually said on radio – and what he would have said given another half hour on microphone! The original programme is available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0004tkl.