Chapple, R. M. 2011 'William McCartney ‘Cocky’ Dunlop, BEM, MBE, 1920-2011: An Appreciation' blogspot post
William McCartney ‘Cocky’ Dunlop, BEM, MBE, 1920-2011: An appreciation Originally posted online on 3 October 2011 at rmchapple.blogspot.com (http://rmchapple.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/william-mccartney-cocky-dunlop-bem-mbe.html) With the passing of Billy Dunlop, on the 15th ofSeptember 2011, Irish archaeology lost one of it great promoters and enthusiasts. Icannot claim to have known Billy longest or best, but, like many field archaeologistsworking in Northern Ireland, I owe him a vast debt of gratitude for his kindness andgenerosity. For those stories shared over cups of tea on site or for the books lent to mefrom his personal collection I was, and remain, grateful. In time, I trust, appropriateobituaries and appreciations will appear from the pens of others better acquainted withmore aspects of his life. My intention here is to set down a general outline of his lifealong with some of my memories of this energetic and charismatic man, who I amprivileged 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, offthe Ravenhill Road, Belfast. At the age of 14 he joined The Post Office as a telegraphmessenger, delivering telegrams across Belfast, and by 1939 had graduated to theposition 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, HMSAttacker. 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 Salernoand Anzio. Coming back from North Africa in March 1944, to take part in the D-daylandings, his ship was torpedoed and sunk around 400 miles west of Brest. Of the 115soldiers on board, 88 were killed, along with 15 of the crew. After several hours in thewater, and close to death, he was picked up by an LST, though not before twice fallingback into the water, coming perilously close to being lost for good. Billy often attributedthis and similar close brushes with death as changing his outlook on life, making himopen 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 regionaloffices within the movement, he was elected to membership of the national executive in1969. He was one of the chief organisers of the famous postal strike of 1971, and waspersonally responsible for the Northern Ireland branch at that time. Through his workwith The Post Office Youth Club, he introduced the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award toNorthern Ireland. Even after his retirement at 65, he remained as leader of The PostOffice Youth Club and remained active up until he was almost 70. During this period hisactivities expanded into contacts with other youth groups, in particular broadening therole and appeal of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to all sections of Northern Irelandsociety. After retirement from The Post Office, he enrolled in two classes close to hisheart: archaeology and bird watching. The archaeology course led to him joiningthe Ulster Archaeological Society in 1971, eventually becoming a committee member in1987 and editor of the UAS Newsletter in the same year. Although he spent three yearsas Vice President of the Society and was President in 2000, he maintained that hisgreatest contribution was as editor of the Newsletter. In 1979 he took part in his firstexcavation, 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 nearlyall of the ‘Classic’ excavations of the period: Navan Fort, Donegore Hill, Haughey’sFort, Ballynahatty, and Ballygalley. It is a testament not just to his importance in Irisharchaeology, but the degree in which he was both loved and respected, that he was theguest of honour at the UAS’s annual dinner in 2010. The current volume of the UlsterJournal of Archaeology (Vol. 68, 2009) is also dedicated to him. I am also glad to reportthat, though in hospital, he was presented with an advance copy of the journal and got tosee physical evidence of the regard in which he was held.Obviously, I didnt know Billy throughout the majority of his long and eventful life. Heand I only became acquainted in June 1999 when we worked together on the excavationat Navan Fort, Site C, Co. Armagh. My first impressions were of an exceedingly energeticpensioner who, with both his ability to shovel earth and general enthusiasm, put manyof us - less than a third of his age - to shame. Some of us (me included) wondered at hiscapacity for endless work. As we sweated and swore about aching shoulders and sorearms, Billy gauged that the time was right for an introduction to his mini lecture serieson the right and wrong ways of using what is termed in Northern Ireland, the long tailshovel. Although difficult to put into words, the Dunlop Method centred on using thelong 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 withouttiring. As is the way of such good advice, so generously given, some of us listened andadopted this new method pretty much immediately and some of us didnt. In retrospect,I would like to say that I was instantly convinced of the merit in Billys suggestion andbenefited immediately from this good advice. However, I have a sneaking suspicion thatI didnt, and expended much time and energy needlessly hefting soil. Eventually, with alittle further tuition from Billy, I came around to his way of thinking - and havebenefited from it ever since.When it comes to interpreting Navan Fort, the professional archaeological classesimmediately go to the ritual default setting. In fairness, it is difficult to envisiondescribing 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 explainthe preparation of the 40 metre structure - literally packed to the rafters with stone andthen set on fire - without invoking a ritualised aspect to the procedure? It was for thisreason that I was particularly taken with Billys approach to the site. Instead of talkingabout the individual features, Billy was more interested in how the site was used byordinary people - not the aristocratic warrior or elite priestly classes - and how theywould have interacted with and responded to the space. As he explained it to usexcavators (under the watchful, if slightly bemused, eye of the site director, Dr. ChrisLynn) the majority of Iron Age society would have been isolated from the reasoning anddecision-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 inany of the elite activities, but because it would be a large gathering of people. Sitting onthe 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 ofthinking 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 tocontemplate the range of uses to which it was put and how its meaning would havediffered 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 thepapers I publish, it is integral to how I understand and interact with the site as weexcavate it.In August and September of that year (1999) we worked together again - this time at theLate Neolithic timber enclosure at Ballynahatty (BNH5), beside The Giants Ring, Co.Down. Like Navan Fort, Ballynahatty is best described in terms of ritual activitiescarried out there. I admit that I was particularly shocked when I heard Billy trotting outthe same story of how this site worked - the animal markets, the feasting, thefriendships, the true loves found and misplaced, the story-telling, and (of course) thedrinking. The only real difference this time was that the watchful eyes and slightlybemused look belonged to a different site director - the indefatigable, Barry Hartwell. Ittook me a little time to realise a couple of things. First, this approach is equally valid forboth Navan Fort and Ballynahatty. Secondly, and more importantly, Billy was tellingthose 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 Iconsidered him a mentor. I also smiled quite a bit as both excavators and visitors to thesite 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, anddidnt see Billy all that frequently. However, once I returned to Belfast in 2002 to directsites for NAC, Billy was regularly on the phone looking to elicit any details I could givehim about our excavations for the UAS Newsletter. As I noted above, Billy took on thejob 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 ofoutings, lectures and AGMs to lists of recently published books. As an aside, inconversation after his funeral service I learned that although he accepted the support ofan Assistant Editor for the last number of issues of the Newsletter, his last editorial wasdictated over the phone from his hospital bed. For myself one of the most importantfeats Billy performed with the Newsletter was his collection and dissemination ofinformation on the excavations ongoing across Ulster - it was apparent that I was notalone in being regularly contacted to provide information. The fantastic thing aboutBilly’s reports was that the information was frequently gleaned while the site was stillongoing. In this way he managed to capture some of the excitement and spontaneity offield excavation, where all the evidence had yet to be excavated and theories fullyexplored. In my case Billy produced the first published account of my excavationsat Oakgrove, Co. Londonderry. Unfortunately, he chose to quote me verbatim when Isaid that I was confronted by an extremely difficult site and that I wasn’t exactly surewhat was going on with it.I remember other times too, such as when we sat in the ditch of the Bronze Age siteat Loughry, Co. Tyrone. He and a number of boon companions from the UAS had madethe trip out to see the site and the amazing collection of pottery vessels we were in theprocess of recovering. As we sat on the hard-baked earth in the slowly dimming light ofa 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 andinstead 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 hewould frequently call me to ask if I had details of any new excavations or other items forthe Newsletter. When I read his plea for a computer on which he could write theNewsletter, I donated one of my machines. Having heard Barrie Hartwell’s eloquent andmoving eulogy, I now realise that Billy was a frequent accidental killer of computers …through misplaced cups of coffee, to (apparently) spontaneous combustion. I nowrealise what he meant when, as I apologised for it being a rather elderly machine, hesaid ‘if it does me for one or two issues of the Newsletter, it’ll be fine’. The last time wemet was when he invited me around to his house – I had been after an early volume ofthe Ulster Journal of Archaeology for one of my research projects. While he seemedslightly frail, none of his energy or enthusiasm was in any way diminished. He was fullof delight in what I was working on and, next thing I knew, books and journal volumeswere being thrust into my hands with instructions to read. When I told him that, with allmy other commitments, it would be some time before I could return them, he simplyreplied: ‘keep them – I think that all of my major research projects are over now and Idoubt that I will be embarking on any more’. I think it is a testament to the man thateven at the age of 90, and looking slightly frail, I was disinclined to believe him – itseemed impossible that Billy could ever be finished researching and writing. Even whenI heard that he had been taken to hospital, I presumed that it was something routineand he would be back at the heart of the UAS in no time. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Athis funeral service I was moved and impressed by all the facets of his life, some of whichI knew about: postman, sailor, Union organiser, youth worker, bird watcher, Duke ofEdinburgh’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, Oxfordscholar, and a tone-deaf lover of both opera and jazz. While there was so much lifecrammed into one man - or one man who crammed so much into his life – this is nothow I will remember him. When I think of Billy, my mind will first go to the grassyslopes of the Navan Fort mound on a long-ago lunch break, listening to him talk aboutthe importance of personal relationships in both the past and the present. As the breezeruffled the leaves on the trees, and the percolating sunshine dappled the faces of theexcavation crew, I remember a man, telling his stories, content in himself, and happy topass 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 Fortmound (site B) in 1999. Billy is the standing figure on the left, in all probability holdingforth on his theories on the site.