Kerr's Corner

Kerr's Corner is a regular feature in East Antrim and Newtownabbey editions of The Wizard. David Kerr would like to hear your memories of life in your own area. Maybe you'll trigger some thoughts for a future column. kerrscorner@ulsteronline.org.uk

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Able Sea Cat Simon

JANE FROM LARNE asked me a while ago about medals being awarded to animals during times of war. I knew about a ships cat called Simon being awarded a Dickins Medal – the animal VC – on board HMS Amethyst for its bravery despite wounds during the Yangtze incident in 1949, but not much more. However, a bit of detective work has resulted in more information.
Simon the ships cat was first found hungry and wandering around on Hong Kong’s Stonecutters Island by Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner of a Royal Navey frigate, HMS Amethyst. The friendly cat won over Skinner and was adopted and taken on board the frigate. Skinner named him Simon. He soon became a favourite of the ship’s crew, with his most impressive trick being the ability to fish ice-cubes out of a jug of water.

In 1949, a civil war broke out in China between the Communist-led Mao Tse-Tung and the Nationalist-led Chiang Kai Shek. The British government, fearing that its citizens would be in danger, ordered one of their ships, a destroyer HMS Consort, to stand by to evacuate their people. As HMS Consort was running low on fuel, HMS Amethyst was ordered to proceed up the wide Yangtze River to replace her.

The Communists promised the Royal Navey freedom to navigate on Chinese waters but did not stick to their word. They opened artillery fire on the Amethyst, killing Lt. Commander Skinner. The ship had lost 17 men, including Skinner. Many others suffered serious injury.
Simon was asleep in the Captain’s cabin when it took a direct hit from a shell. His whiskers and eyebrows had been burnt off, his fur was badly singed, splinters and metal shards had caused severe gashes on his back and legs, and his lungs were punctured. The seamen who picked him up were sure that Simon would not survive the night but he did. Simon’s amazing survival revived the spirits of the demoralised and despairing crew.

The grounded Amethyst was soon invaded by hoards of rats, and they raided the ship’s dwindling food supplies, and even the sleeping quarters of the crew. Simon took on the rats during the three months that the ship was stranded catching at least one a day including an especially bold one nicknamed Mao Tse- Tung. For this Simon was promoted to the rank of Able Sea Cat.

When he was not hunting vermin, he, along with Peggy the ship’s terrier dog, played with and comforted their weary shipmates. When the ship finally arrived back in England, the captain of the ship Lt. Commander John Simon Kerans contacted the PDSA and recommended Able Sea Cat Simon for the Dickin Medal.

Commander Kerans, in his recommendation wrote: “The large number of rats on board the ship represented a real menace to the health of the ships company. Simon rose nobly to the occasion and after two months the number of rats had diminished greatly. Throughout the incident Simon’s behaviour was of the highest order. One would not have expected him to survive the shell that had made a hole over a foot wide in diameter in a steel plate. Yet, he did and after a few days, Simon was as friendly as ever. His presence on the ship was a deciding factor in maintaining the morale of the ship’s company”.

The PDSA confirmed Simon’s award and when the Amethyst returned to England in November 1949, word of Simon’s deeds had made him a great celebrity. The Amethyst had to appoint a Cat Officer to cope with the letters for Simon. Simon was put into quarantine but he was weakened by his ordeal and he died three weeks later. Lt. Commander Kerans received Simon’s posthumous Dikin war medal. Simon was buried in the PDSA Pet Cemetery with full Naval honours and his coffin was draped with the Union Jack.

In Conversation With … The Twelfth

THE FIRST two articles in this new series have dealt with Autism and Special Schools. I was wondering if I should continue in a similar vein with this issue – or should I look at a completely different subject? My mind was made up for me as I was coming home recently after a late shift at work and I bumped into a local band parade! It suddenly hit me how close we are to the 12th July celebrations. It hardly seems like it’s been a year since the last Twelfth! But it’s with us again and the signs are there for all to see - wood is being collected for bonfires, kerbstones are being painted and flags can be seen flying from many houses.

Like it or loathe it, one cannot deny that the Twelfth is Europe’s largest indigenous cultural and folk festival. And for tens of thousands of Ulsterfolk the colour, crack, noise and atmosphere of the Orange parades are the highlight of the year. I’m not just talking about the members of the Orange either. The 12th July celebrations are a social, communal and commemorative event. To me, no one should be offended by it.

But how much do we really know about the events celebrated on 12th July? To find some answers I spoke to John Jenkins who helps with the publication of The Twelfth and it’s associated website: www.the-twelfth.org.uk

First of all, I asked John to give me some background to The Twelfth. He told me that the Shankill Road-based Glenwood Publications produced it. They concentrate “on the interwoven Ulster, Irish and British Heritage, History, Culture and Traditions. We aim to publish or distribute low-cost or free educational pamphlets, booklets, magazines and multimedia materials on not-for-profit basis”. In time they hope to produce items relating to sporting and community events. “Our aim is to bring Ulster to the world”. Check out the Glenwood Publications website at www.glenwoodpublications.org.uk for more information.

Moving on to The Twelfth, John told me that its full title was The Twelfth: Celebration – Not Provocation. “It’s an eight page cultural and educational mini-broadsheet”. The idea is to project the positive side of the 12th July celebrations and to counter the lies and misrepresentations and to promote much more of a carnival atmosphere.
So what about the events of 1690 – why are they so important are why should be celebrating them today? John’s answer was very detailed:

“1690 really was the Year of European Freedom. The Twelfth celebrates the Williamite victory of 1690 when the forces of William, Prince of Orange defeated those of his father-in-law, James Stuart, at the Battle of the Boyne. This was no family squabble, but a real turning point in European history.

King James II was a stout defender of the doctrine of 'the Divine Right of Kings', as practised in France by the 'Sun King', Louis XIV. Louis was the absolute dictator of France and James wanted to have the same dictatorial powers in England, Scotland and Ireland. In England, the principle had become well established that elected representatives of his subjects should check the King's actions and that those representatives should be able to make laws. It was by no means truly democratic, but it was a step away from absolutism. It is not surprising that James encountered strong opposition, which led to his removal by William and his defeat at the Boyne.
The accession of William and Mary to the Throne was a progressive step forward for the British peoples. The Stuarts' tyrannical arbitrary power was overthrown and the Constitutional Monarchy and parliamentary government were established. We now know that the system of parliamentary representation is not in itself genuinely democratic. However, it's better than the royal tyranny and arbitrary power that James represented.

As we all know, the limited freedoms gained by the Glorious Revolution are still remembered today. Celebrating the Williamite victory is not a 'sectarian coat-trailing exercise'. The Twelfth is Europe's largest indigenous folk and cultural festival. Historically and culturally, it inextricably links Ulster with Europe. It marks one of the most pivotal dates in the shaping of European history – for 1690 was the year of European Freedom. That’s why we ought to carry on remembering 1690!”

To John, who is not an Orangeman, the Twelfth is a genuinely non-commercial, non-class, grassroots expression of popular culture. He argues that the Twelfth should be something for Ulster to continue to celebrate in this increasingly bland world of commercialism and globalism.
I tend to agree with him. I feel that the 12th July celebrations represent our wee county’s contribution to the diverse mosaic of European culture. And there’s both a right and a duty to preserve and protect this unique European sub-culture. All traditional societies have a God-given right to maintain their own distinctive cultural mores and ways of life. We should cherish and celebrate our distinct traditions with pride and joy in a spirit where we seek to give offence to no-one!

Anyone interested in buying copies of The Twelfth 2005 should contact Mr Jenkins at admin@the-twelfth.org.uk