Catch the right day and you may glimpse their gentian blueness along a narrow alleyway or side street, through the trees in a square or glinting in the sun high up on the wall of a building. These are the blue commemorative plaques whose recipients are from diverse backgrounds representing all classes and creeds. They come from a swathe of society that includes poets and playwrights, singers and musicians, bishops, doctors, inventors and scientists, shipbuilders, soldiers, sculptors, scholars and sporting heroes, patriots and rebels, a veritable raft of authors, actors, architects and artists – and even a 14th-century king.
The commonality that links them – some prominent in their day, others woefully neglected – is that they have been recognised by the Ulster History Circle with a distinctive blue roundel on a building connected to their lives. The Circle administers the scheme for all nine counties and has collectively chalked up a significant milestone of 250 subjects. Behind the plaques, down through the centuries of rebellions and wars, lie extraordinary narratives of drama, hardship or ground-breaking achievements by pioneering people.
But as there was a bias written into the world, women are thinly represented. They make up just 14 per cent of the total number, resulting in female invisibility, an issue which is being addressed. In recent years plaques were unveiled to the Belfast singer Ruby Murray, who achieved five songs in the UK top 20 single chart in one week of 1955. Her name has lived on in the unlikely setting of the BBC television series Only Fools and Horses when Del Boy says he is going for a "Ruby Murray"– cockney rhyming slang for a curry. The poet and novelist Moira O'Neill, who lived in the Glens of Antrim and later moved to Wexford, has also been honoured, while a plaque in Garvagh recalls the founder of the north's first branch of the Women's Institute, Dorothea Florence Macausland.
The plaques open up a quiet alleyway like a textbook, evoking the street to provide a portal into the past. Some houses and shop fronts in Belfast burgeon with them recording the residence of a gallimaufry of famed names – even if they spent only a short time there in rented lodgings. They all left a trace behind adding an elusive mystique to the area. Let your mind wander and you can visualise the tragic figure of Henry Joy McCracken being led through Joy's entryway to his execution in Cornmarket. You may discover that Thomas Russell, born in Cork, became librarian of the Linen Hall Library and organised the United Irishmen before he was hanged and beheaded at the gate of Downpatrick Gaol in 1803.
The Circle operates rigorous detective work on a research quest. The plaque-pack prowl the streets in search of the best location and consult property owners to seek permission before chasing a paper trail. Archives and directories are plundered and contact is made with surviving relatives. As the group is a charity run by volunteers, financial support is sought from various funders.
Buildings chosen are generally either the place of birth or relate to where the subject lived or worked. They may be raised on private houses and street corners, along busy roads, on churches, museums and schools. Wherever the chosen spot, the unveilings attract community recognition, attesting to the cachet of the Circle and the interest in these trailblazers.
For blue-plaque twitchers, locating the most inaccessible one involves a ferry ride to Rathlin Island, where on the Boathouse Visitor Centre, Robert the Bruce’s stay is recalled. After fleeing there, Bruce – an early tourist arachnophile – lived in a cave and devised a successful strategy to defeat the English, based on watching a spider. He was crowned King of Scots at Scone Palace in 1306.
Further west, the "poet scout" of Inishowen, Capt Jack Crawford of Carndonagh, who in 1864 fought with the Pennsylvania Regulars in the Civil War, is memorialised in a plaque. The journey that he made from north Donegal to the American frontier won him acclaim for his work as a scout with the US Army and for the verses he wrote about the heroes of the West.
In Fermanagh, Enniskillen Royal Grammar School (formerly Portora Royal) celebrates its connection to the stars of the literary firmament with plaques to Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde, as well as the poet and hymn writer Henry Francis Lyte.
The shiny blue plaque brand is regarded as the ultimate salute of approval. The 250th was raised recently at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast to commemorate Prof Frank Pantridge. A cardiologist who transformed emergency medicine worldwide, he was the leader of a team that developed the portable defibrillator which has been responsible for saving thousands of lives.
The number of achievers being honoured shows no sign of running out of steam and the Circle continues to cast its net wide. Its intrinsic aim is to link the people of the past with the buildings of the present to preserve their names for future generations.