Sunday, August 22, 2010
I’ll tell me ma when I get home,
the boys won’t leave the girls alone.
They pull my hair and steal my comb
but that’s all right till I get home.
She is a’handsome, she is a’pretty,
she is the belle of Belfast city
She is a’coorting one, two, three;
please won’t you tell me
who is she?
Chapter 1 Young Boys in Belfast
Belfast, the biggest city in Ulster, sits at the head of an impressive lough that opens out into the Irish sea and divides county Antrim from Down. It was an attractive location to the first settlers who crossed the ice around 9000 years ago and as time passed it became more strategic and desirable as the port emerged in the 1600s at the conjunction of the rivers Lagan and Fearset. The city grew by leaps and bounds in the Victorian era and in the last century was renowned for its ship building and linen manufacturing. From the eyes of a young boy however, the city offered the best of many worlds, close to the water and surrounded by hills that give it a warm and friendly look and provide great hiking possibilities and adventures for young boys and barking dogs.
Spending my formative years in Belfast in the middle of the twentieth century was exciting and motivating and like most young boys in Belfast, it was with a great sense of pride that I grew to understand I was privileged to have been born in Norn Ireland as we called it. It was the center of our universe, and life in Belfast to me was the best there could be, with the friendliest people who enjoyed life to the fullest. The “Troubles” were seen as a thing of the past and everyone was looking forward to better times.
The Belfast accent is without a doubt one of the most recognizable in the world and combining that with the local sayings, its no wonder visitors can sometimes be confused. Of course we didn’t realize we had accents until we ventured out to see the world, and then realized that perhaps Belfast wasn’t the center of the universe after all, and in fact people out there thought we talked funny.
Even after many years of travel around the world, I still believe that growing up in Belfast was magical, and that the people are truly fantastic with their sharp wit and tongues, their love of life, and concern for their fellow men. The news reports in the last few years have given the impression to outsiders that Ulster, and Northern Ireland in particular, is a land of demons with violence on every corner, and as you read this you are probably saying that I am demented or blind to the reality of the situation. However I know for a fact that there are wonderful people living there, and that the vast majority wish the troubles would go away so that they can live their lives in peace with the same way of life and aspirations as others living in the civilized western world.
Ireland’s history has been chaotic, and especially in Ulster war and strife was ever present as wave after wave of invaders and power hungry men laid waste to the land and took advantage of the native Irish. But the Irish have a way of overcoming adversity and absorbed all those shocks as well as the invaders themselves. The Celts controlled Ireland for a thousand years until the Vikings arrived around 800 AD. But the Irish Celts and the Vikings intermarried and a blend emerged with heavy Celtic overtones. The same technique was used on the English when they started invading in the twelfth century, but after William II arrived in his campaign at the end of the seventeenth century, the English and Scottish settlers in Ulster displaced the natives and never really intermarried creating the Unionist feeling that remains to this day in Norn Ireland.
Belfast has been the center of industry in Ireland for centuries, with its factories, mills and in the 20th century its great ship building and aircraft manufacturing industry. In fact the infamous Titanic and its sister ship the Olympia were built in Harland and Wollf’s yard in Belfast Lough as well as the Canberra and many other famous ships and oil rigs.
In earlier times, the city was also on the leading edge of culture and knowledge. The Belfast News-Letter is the oldest English newspaper in the world. It was first produced in 1737 and has been published ever since. It provided information on affairs near and far and was widely read in Ireland. In August 23rd 1776 it published the American Declaration of Independence on its front page, long before most Americans had seen it, or for that matter George III, the King of England himself. The ship delivering it to the king had put into Londonderry due to storms and the declaration was sent on horseback to Belfast for shipment to the king. Somehow the editor of the Belfast News-Letter saw the document and promptly published it.
The Irish-American connection is strong in Ulster as evidenced by the number of Presidents and statesmen whose parents immigrated from the province, and even Stormont, the building which houses the Northern Irish parliament, is patterned on the Capitol building in Washington.
During the Second World War Belfast was bombed by the Luftwaffe in an attempt to eliminate the manufacturing capabilities and demoralize the people. I don’t remember the bombing, but the bomb shelters constructed on our street, remained for a long time after the war, and provided great hiding places for kids up to no good. I also remember lying in bed at night listening to the milk plane droning its way into Nutt’s Corner, (Belfast airport), and wondering if there were going to be any bombs dropped. I imagine the trauma of explosions registers on very young minds and remains there as a subconscious fear for a long time afterwards.
My dad told me about the raids at night when I was just a baby and sleeping in a drawer of a night stand in their house near Great Victoria Street which is virtually in the middle of the city. He said that when the sirens started he and my mum would go up to the top floor of the house and would open the skylight so that they could see what was going on.
The planes would be obscured by the darkness except when they were caught in the beam of light from a searchlight. Once one light illuminated a plane it would stick with that plane and then other searchlights would turn and focus in on the plane which would try to evade the cone of lights by twisting and turning. All the anti-aircraft guns would fire and the tracers would fly up at the plane as the gunners tried to bring it down before it dropped its load of bombs on the shipyard or the city. He told me stories of the flashes as the bombs dropped and the roar of the explosions and how he and my mother would stand there with their heads sticking out of the skylight as all hell broke loose around them and hope that nothing came too close.
He also told me about the barrage balloons that were anchored around the city with heavy steel hawsers to dissuade the pilots as they flew in to drop their bombs. I was very young and saw these large objects in the sky and called them piggies which made my parents laugh. Laughter must have been a great escape.
Much later in life I met my cousin Joan at a family reunion and she told me a story about my grandmother, on my mother’s side, who lived off the Limestone Road in Belfast. During one nighttime raid a bomb fell on her house and demolished it without exploding. The bomb sat lodged in the rubble with my grandmother buried under the mess. The wardens knew she was in the house and brought in equipment to get her out and all the while the bomb sat there in the ruins of her kitchen ticking away. As the men worked around her she called out instructions to them as to what parts of the rubble needed to be removed so that she could get out and wasn’t too kindly with her criticism of their progress. It took two days to get her out and I don’t think she stopped talking all the time.
Living in Belfast city in those years was obviously dangerous and probably the reason that we moved to the outskirts though I remember there were gaps and vacant lots in the streets all around where bombs had fallen. The air-raid shelters sat as grim reminders on every street and much of the rubble in the fields had metal fragments and even some shells buried in it. We were warned to be careful not to dig in those areas and to stay away from anything that looked metallic or suspicious.
Of course we never paid any attention to that advice and I did uncover a strange looking metal object on the banks of a small stream near Deerpark Road. My dad was not very happy with me and turned it over to the Police at the station on Torrens Road near our house. I received a stern lecture from the Sergeant on duty as well as from my dad but no one ever told me what the object was, but I assumed from their expression, it was bad.
Not all of my earliest memories are riddled with havoc and mayhem however, and in fact are more of a loving family in working class Belfast in the Torrens estate just up from Ardoyne. The area was called The Bone though I have no idea how it came to have that name, but I remember that my mother considered it a derogatory comment about where we lived. My mammy had clear views on how we should live life and was very particular about how we were perceived by our neighbours and family. She was quite religious in her own way and had a very high opinion of the Salvation Army, though she didn’t attend church regularly.
She didn’t drink or smoke and frowned on drinking in the house. She never swore, ever, and I don’t remember my father uttering a curse word, other than damnation, when something vexed him. In fact cursing was really frowned on. Most of us had heard the words, usually whispered by one of the bolder boys, but we felt guilty if we used such a word in conversation and it wasn’t until much later that cursing came into vogue for the younger Irish set.
The adults on our street were all working class people with a sense of pride and to them it was important that we had a happy childhood. But there was also a feeling that we should grow up with beliefs and understanding of right from wrong and so, even though we roamed the street in unsupervised chaotic play, we knew what not to do and the boundaries of reasonable behaviour. The lessons from the war probably had something to do with it and coupled with the enthusiasm and optimism of young children, our lives were happy and carefree in post war Belfast.
Rationing was in place and my mum didn’t have too much choice in the food that she could obtain for us. Every day, after she returned from work, she would take her shopping bag and walk down the Oldpark Road to the shops where she would usually find something in the butchers or fishmongers or grocers that we could have for dinner. Mutton stew with potatoes was a mainstay. Sometimes we had horse meat or liver and onions or sausages and eggs. Sometimes we had tripe. On occasion she would come home with a chicken.
My Aunt Annie lived on the same street as us with her family and sometimes would give us a rabbit that her cousin had caught. Many times we ate fish such herring or cod when it was available. We all had coupon books issued by the government and my mammy would take the books with her and had to provide enough coupons to obtain the food.
The children received special allotments of orange juice which was very hard to find and most fruits were just not available. In spite of all that, we seemed to eat well enough. In fact when my mammy made soda bread or pancakes, or we had fried potato bread it tasted wonderful and I never noticed that we were living under rationing. Above all we always had our tea. It was strong and sweet and milky and I became addicted at an early age. In fact when I missed having a cup of tea I would develop a headache and it was the only thing that seemed to fix me up when I was feeling poorly.
My daddy worked at the Belfast Ice and Cold Storage plant. Since no-one had a refrigerator, businesses would use blocks of ice to keep their perishable goods cold. Some people also had an ice-box at home where they would store their meat and fish and other foods. My dad’s job was called a Stationary Engineer at the plant. He wasn’t an engineer in the true sense of the word, but was responsible for keeping the machinery running during his shift and for the flow of coolant and maintaining the temperature in the extremely large freezers in the plant.
One of the foods that were stored at the plant was Walls ice cream. It came in a variety of flavours in cardboard boxes and was stacked from floor to ceiling. Sometimes the boxes would get crushed or damaged and the ice cream was not saleable in that form so the Walls people would give some of the cartons to my dad to bring home. The ice cream was delicious. My cousins would come over to share in the treasure and we all loved it. It was soft and creamy and I can’t get the memory out of my taste buds.
My daddy took me to work with him sometimes and I especially liked staying there when he was working the night shift. It was very exciting for me. Daddy made a bed up for me in one of the storage rooms that wasn’t cooled and I followed him around as he checked valves and gauges and looked for leaks and problems. I remember going into one of the deep freezers with him. The cold was fierce and it took my breath away. My lungs hurt and I remember being warned not to touch anything in case my fingers froze to the wall.
The moisture in the air steamed when the door was opened and to me it was a magnificent sight to see all those boxes of ice cream stacked sky high with the clouds forming around them. After he had finished work, my daddy would take me round the corner for breakfast in a little restaurant that was actually the front room of somebody’s house. To this day I remember that we had sausages and eggs and baked beans and sweet cups of tea with buttered toast, and it was one of the finest meals I ever had.
Like most of the men in Belfast, my daddy loved to go to the pub for a drink after work and usually there was a bookie’s office next door. So the men would place their bets and rush back into the pub where they drank their Guinness and listened to the horse race on the radio. After he retired, he would go watch the racing on the television in the pub and would nurse a pint of Guinness for hours if his luck was bad, or buy rounds of drinks for the other retired cronies if the racing was in his favour.
I never thought that this way of life was harmful until I realized that thousands of wives were left to do the cooking and work around the home and bring up the children while the men enjoyed themselves in the pubs. It was tradition; something had had been there for centuries. But it seemed wrong to me, even when I was in my early teens. It made the women the real power in the home for they were the ones who made sure the rent was paid, and the insurance, and that everyone was healthy and well fed. Irish women are strong willed and formidable when their temper is aroused as I found out later in life.
But in the fifties as I played in the streets, I wasn’t conscious of any of that, and was intent on having a good time. We lived on the outskirts of Belfast in Torrens Drive, a short distance from the Oldpark Road and near the police station on Torrens Avenue In those days the station was just a large building with high walls and was approachable from the road. Today the same building is a fortress surrounded with barbed wire and concrete blockades with armed police constantly on watch. No-one can approach without going through a checkpoint. When I lived there, none of the police were armed. They walked a beat through all the neighbourhoods with only a truncheon for protection. They knew most of the families around, and were aware of who needed closer watch.
To the west of the estate on the other side of the Oldpark Road, the skin fields, a great expanse of ground that had once been used as a dump, separated us from Ardoyne, a heavily Catholic area, and from the factories and commerce of the Shankhill and Falls roads. We lived in the shadows of Divis mountain and Black Mountain and Cave Hill with its grey gash where the men used to quarry for limestone and send their day’s efforts down to the docks on the small gauge railway. As a young boy it seemed so far from the center of the city, but yet it was no more than a mile and a half, and we felt that we had the best of it by living half way between the city and the country.
It was a friendly and comfortable setting with families living in row houses that backed on to alleys that we called entries, and faced one another across narrow streets. We were lucky that on our side of the street we had a front garden; a small rectangle of grass surrounded by privet hedges and a pathway that led from the front door to the pavement. Every house on our side had its own unique style of garden distinguishing the owner by their choice of shrubbery and flowers, and each front door designed and painted to match the personality of the family within. The houses across the street bordered directly on the pavement, each with its own paint scheme and curtain arrangement on the window of the front room. Inside the houses the arrangement of rooms was identical, though symmetrically reversed on adjacent units.
There was a fireplace upstairs in the biggest bedroom as well as one downstairs used to heat the house and the hot water. Behind the front room we had a bathroom and the kitchen with a back door leading to the “yard”, a concrete paved area surrounded by tall walls and a door that exited onto the entry between the rows of houses. We kept our coal in the yard along with the bins for trash. The entry gave great access for the coalmen who would deliver, the binmen picking up the trash, and the skinman who would come around looking for scraps of food that he could use to feed his pigs. The entry also provided a great place for mischief and rendezvous, especially in the dark.
Everyone knew one another on our street, and we kids played our games in the road never worrying about cars or vans. We were usually a scruffy lot, with scraped knees and runny noses from the cold and rain, and as we grew up together we quickly established a pecking order through bravado, shouting and “daring do”. We played football, (the real kind), and cricket, and if pressed we also played rounders, a form of baseball, though we weren’t too keen on it since it was thought of as a girls game. Our goal or wicket was marked out against the gable that formed Harry’s house at the end of the next street, so it faced into our street and made a perfect spot for gathering and playing.
The lamps on the street were gas lights that came on automatically at dusk, lit by a pilot light. The lampposts provided a pole for the girls on the street to swing on. They would tie a rope to the crossbar at the top of the lamp and arrange it so that there was a loop at the bottom that they could sit in. Then they would run around the lamppost until the rope was looped around a number of times and would commence to swing in a circle as the rope unwound and rewound itself in the opposite direction.
My cousin Beth, who lived on the same street, and my sister Patsy would take turns with the other girls swinging and singing as they whirled around and around getting dizzy in the process. Sometimes they would all get together to jump rope with intricate steps and rhymes and would sing and dance together as the ropes twirled sometimes one way, sometimes in opposing directions. It was something we boys never participated in or understood, but we watched in awe as these girls jumped in and out of the spinning ropes, never missing a beat as they skipped and danced and laughed at this complex game.
The boys played Cowboys and Indians, strapping on belts and holsters with cap guns on each side that looked like colt forty fives. We would run and shout and point our guns at one another and yell “bang, bang you’re dead”. This was no organized gunfight with teams or partner, just an ongoing running hiding and pretending battle with everyone shooting at everyone else, and it often ended in shouting and arguing over who had been killed and who hadn’t.
Sometimes we went over to the skinfields and played a game of football. The boy who had the ball decided who he wanted on his side and those selected would pick their best friends to join their team. Then those left over would be the opposition. We played with different numbers of boys each time, and there were no real teams or rules for that matter. The field we played on was not too pretty with weeds and dirt and little grass, and we marked out the playing area with stones. The goals were set up at each end also marked by rocks and then we would start the game.
No one cared about the finer details and often it was hard to know who was on which team, but we shouted at one another to pass the ball, and it wasn’t unusual for one team member to pass the ball to someone on the opposing team. The game went on for as long as we wanted to play and everyone seemed to play every position. No-one wanted to be goalie since that meant standing watching the action at the other end of the field, so usually the goals were open if someone had a break. We dribbled the ball, kicked it wildly, headed it, ran into one another, fell in the dirt and generally had a great time.
Sometimes other boys from the Ardoyne would come up the hill to where we were playing and there would be a shouting match between the two groups with religious slurs and threats hurled back and forward along with the occasional stone. It never came to anything serious between us, but the tensions were there. Once during one of these altercations I was hit with a rock and fell down as my friends ran away and the other boys ran towards us. They gathered round me making fun and not knowing what to do, and eventually helped me up and sent me on my way.
Radio was big in those days, and especially the half hour comedy programs like “The McCooeys” that made us laugh. My favorite show was the Goons, with characters like Eckles, who was forever falling in the water, Neddy, and Seacombe who sang hilarious songs in his operatic voice about walking back wards for Christmas across the Irish sea. The earliest radio I remember was a valve job with a battery and an accumulator; the latter being similar to a car battery and requiring charging up every so often. It was in a time of Morse code signals, and scratchy voices and music in the background coming to us over the AM airwaves. Night was the best time for reception, and sometimes we were able to listen to radio Luxembourg playing the latest trends in music.
Of course my mammy and daddy had been raised on more classical music, my dad especially since he had played a trumpet for many years in the band of the Queens Own Scottish Borderers, so the sounds coming over the radio from the continent were not well received at first by my parents.
As I grew older I became fascinated with all things electronic and when I had saved enough money I bought a mail order kit and built a small transistor radio that was able to pick up the foreign stations as well as Radio Caroline, a ship moored off the Isle of Man enticing the youth of Ireland and England with rock music. Elvis was a big hit, as well as Tommy Steele, Bill Hayley, Buddy Holly, and the big bands.
With the advent of black and white TV, timed to coincide with Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, we gained a lot more information about the outside world. Of course there was only one TV on our street for a long while, and it was great to be invited in to see these images along with half the other neighbors on the street.
Whilst the grown ups watched the coronation procession and its spin off, Coronation Street, the A bomb tests being conducted by Britain and America were big news with the kids and we all lived wondering if missiles and mushroom clouds were coming to get us.
Many a night I lay in bed listening for the sound of rocket motors, and shivering in the dark. Of course it didn’t help that our house wasn’t insulated, with single glazing on the windows, and only a fireplace to provide heating. Belfast in February can get pretty cold, even to the point of freezing the water in the storage tank in our attic. The nights were bitter, and when we moved away from the fire the temperature dropped quickly, so everyone dressed warmly with sweaters and long sleeves inside the house. Going to bed meant racing upstairs and changing quickly into pajamas so as not to expose any part of the body for too long to the frosty air. Then I had to leap into bed and snuggle quickly under the multiple blankets that lay like a cold lead weight on top of me.
My usual sleeping position in winter was to have all the covers pulled up firmly over my head with only my nose exposed to the air so that I could breath. It was quite comfortable once my body heat had raised the temperature inside the bedclothes above freezing, but getting out of bed was avoided at all costs, especially in the middle of the night when the fires were burning low. My mammy would often fill a hot water bottle for me to use in bed. It was a stoneware cylinder with a filler hole that was closed with a screw in stopper. I would keep the hot water bottle at my feet even at its hottest, and would fall asleep in my warm cocoon only to waken some hours later with a freezing bottle at my feet.
Getting up in the morning was a chore in winter time since it seemed to be dark twenty hours a day, even when it wasn’t raining, and my mother would get me out of bed to come and sit by the fire downstairs before going to school. Both my parents worked, and my daddy worked shifts, so he wasn’t around in the morning most times. My mammy worked as a charlady; as she called it, in offices in downtown Belfast, so she had to leave very early in the morning before I was due to go to school. She didn’t trust me to get up from my nice bed so she would roust me out and get me all set up downstairs with an alarm clock by my chair. That way I could doze on and off by the fire until it was time for me to go to school. Sitting by the fire in a half conscious state, I learned how to catnap,but I don’t remember being late for school.
I attended Finiston primary school which was only two streets over, so I could cut down through the entry to school and walk home for lunch. Primary school was great, once I got used to the idea. We had to take classes of course, but we also played games in the schoolyard, made new friends from other streets, and grew up little by little under the guidance of the great Belfast educational system.
It was the glorious age of cinema. Everyone loved the films and it was favourite pastime of all the generations. The younger set would go to the Saturday afternoon matinees at the Park cinema to see their heroes and watch the ongoing serials that ended each week with the hero in an impossible situation from which he easily extricated himself the following week. There were cartoons and newsreels and we ate candy and chocolates and sat agog at the antics of the actors and comedians flashing across the screen. Most of the films were black and white though colour was beginning to make an appearance. For the kids it was cowboy movies and adventure movies, and we rushed out from the cinema pretending to be Roy Rogers or Errol Flynn replaying the action with our friends as we shot one another with our fingers or fenced our way up the street with wooden swords.
I spent too much time at the movies on Saturday afternoons and often came home with a headache from the noise and flashing lights on the screen. At those times my mum would make a nice cup of tea and I would be right as rain afterwards and ready for next week’s session with the big screen. Sometimes I was able to get into the cinema at night. The adults who smoked would go upstairs to the balcony and as the movie progressed we could see the smoke curling up though the beams of the projector. The hall would gradually fill up with a smoky haze and we all left in a rush after the movie to get out of the smoke and avoid having to stand for the national anthem which normally played at the end of the night. It seemed like everyone smoked in those days.
One of the boys at Finiston had a small movie theatre in the back of his house. Derek’s daddy worked at the Gaumont theatre in Castle Lane in Belfast; I think he was a projectionist and somehow or other he had obtained a full size projector and a row of cinema seats. They had modified their house to extend the kitchen and had set up a mini cinema in the small room that remained between the new kitchen and the front room. The room was arranged with three rows of real cinema seats, heavy curtains around the walls and the doors to keep out the light, and a large white screen at the front with speakers on the floor. The projector was mounted at the back of the room and handled full size reels of film and had to be changed part way through each film. It was amazing. Just like a real cinema in a house, and I was thrilled to be invited to watch a few of the movies that my friend’s dad had borrowed. Home theatre in the nineteen fifties!
Reading was especially important to me and all members of my family were voracious readers. I think that set us apart someway, because the other kids never read as much, nor their parents, and in fact most of the kids read comic books like “The Lion”, or “Beano”, “The Eagle and the Swift”, “Hotspur”, and “Victor” . I loved the comic books, but I also loved reading real books such as the Biggles books by Captain Johns.
Biggles was my hero for a while, and I especially loved his philosophy. “If you fly in a fighter plane one of two things can happen, you land safely or you crash. If you land safely then everything is fine. If you crash, one of two things can happen. You survive with no injuries, or you are injured. If you survive then everything is fine. If you have severe injuries, one of two things can happen. You get well, or you die. If you get well, then that’s fine. If you die, well then you don’t have to worry about it”.
I also loved Science Fiction and would scour the shelves of the local library for new authors suitable for young boys. By the time I was eleven, I had read all the boys books that I could find in the library including books by Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and even Edgar Allen Poe. I discovered that there was a small shop in the front room of a house behind Torrens Road near the Finiston School. They sold sweets and sift drinks and some food stuff and dry goods but the real attraction was the pile of used books that they kept for sale to the children of the area. I would go through the pile and seek out the latest issue of Analog Science Fiction, a monthly magazine of short stories, or a book by authors such as Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein. I immersed myself in these fantasies and often stayed up until 3 am reading and gorging myself on sweets or chocolates.
After I had passed the “Eleven Plus” exam, I went to Belfast Royal Academy or B.R.A. as it was affectionately known. It taught me many things, and widened my circle of friends who helped me develop an enhanced interest in the cinema and girls, especially as I entered the teenage years. It was a new experience for me because the people at BRA were from a variety of walks of life in Belfast including the rich as well as the poor. In many ways it was a great equalizer and I began to see possibilities beyond what I knew.
I visited with friends at their houses and saw a different side to life. I joined in activities that I hadn’t before and I participated in adventures that helped me grow and become something more than I could have been otherwise. But the lure of love and sex affects us all and whether rich or poor we all conspired to meet the ones we admired the most and the cinema provided a catalyst for these fledgling trysts.
Belfast offered a plethora of cinemas, and even as television started to take over, going to the movies on the weekend was a rite of passage. By then I was taking the bus or walking to cinemas in other parts of the city since the public transport was so good. Belfast is a fairly compact city arranged around the end of the lough and the banks of the river Lagan and the bus service provided transportation for most people to all parts of the city. The frequency of service and the routes covered were such that we usually didn’t have to wait for a bus for more than five or ten minutes, unless it was raining of course.
The buses were double-decker diesels painted bright red with the driver sequestered away from the passengers, and a conductor in the back to take the fares. The upper deck was usually for the smokers and was accessed by a spiral staircase that rose from the platform at the back. The platform had a single metal pole at the edge in the middle that was used for holding on to when boarding. It also served as the hand hold to grab onto when running to catch the bus.
This was quite a common sight around town. Men, usually, running after buses with their right arm stretched out in a last ditch attempt to get the bus they had just missed. It also served the same men when alighting before the bus had stopped. This technique called for stepping down off the platform with the left leg whilst holding on to the pole with the right hand, and letting go at the precise point of impact with the road so that the bus would continue on leaving the man stumbling along behind in an attempt to decelerate. This was the accepted method of alighting between stops.
In my last couple of years at BRA my friends and I were into dancing. There was a wide variety of dance halls to choose from depending on the type of dancing and clientele desired. Some of them were arranged for teenagers who were too young to get into the adult dance halls, and it was there that we practiced our ballroom dance steps before we dared progress to jive and rock and roll. We would take the bus to Fosters hall to dance to the sounds of a quartet that sat in the balcony and played waltzes and quicksteps and watched the youth of Belfast struggling to dance and overcome the shyness of being so close to the opposite sex. It was very traditional. Older teens and drunks were frowned on and requested to leave, and only classical ballroom dancing was allowed. We danced in dim light with a glittering ball in the ceiling reflecting light off the colored spotlights, the boys in suits, the girls in nice long dresses, and it was a wonderful introduction to life.
A little later my friends Walter and Raymond and I would go to the Square Dancing at the church hall on the Oldpark Road just before Cliftonville circus. We were in our late teens, but not yet old enough to drink or get into the adult dances so we made the most of this venue. It was a hilarious time.
The hall was quite small and had a waxed floor that would sweat as the temperature increased which made dancing and twirling very risky and only encouraged us to move ever faster. The music and calling was provided by an old man with an accordion. He had one arm amputated below the elbow but could still manipulate the accordion with incredible dexterity and he knew all the square dance tunes and formations. He would instruct us how to perform the dance and lead us through the first set slowly with instructions that let us get the hang of it. Then he would launch into the dance with gusto and we would doh-see-doh and swing our partners and parade around and have the time of our lives. We soon realized that this was a much better way to meet girls because the pressure to dance with a partner was reduced since there was a square of eight people, four girls, four boys, and during the dance we would move from corner to corner and partner to partner, laughing all the way.
It wasn’t uncommon as the night grew warmer and the merriment took its toll to see dancers slipping and sliding on the waxy floor, and as the dances grew faster and faster partners would collide and people would fall in heaps with bursts of laughter and squeals from the girls. The night seemed to rush by, and all too soon it was over and then we would walk home in groups, the boys eying the girls, and the girls whispering and giggling at the antics of the dance.
When I turned eighteen, I could officially drink and get into places that were denied to younger teens. I thought that I was grown up and sophisticated, and to make matters worse I had passed the Advanced Senior Exams and was headed to Queens University to take a degree in Science. This opened all sorts of new doors for me, apart from the academic situation, I now could attend formal dances at Queens as well as the wide variety of clubs and bars that dotted Belfast. I still traveled buy bus, since I didn’t have money for a car and riding a bicycle was not too fashionable for students.
The cost of traveling by bus was small, and we all used them. The only drawback was the hour at which they stopped running. Usually on a Friday or Saturday night there were dances or other events taking place around town, and it was a mad scramble to catch the last bus leaving town. This would be around eleven thirty at night, timed to coincide with the pubs closing an hour earlier. However for the students the time of the last bus was much too early. We would only start going when the pubs closed, so there were many nights when we had to walk home from across town.
Walking home in Belfast in the sixties was very safe. It was a normal accepted part of life, and rarely was there any crime that would involve people walking home at night. I often cut through the market and up the Crumlin road which meant I had to cross the skinfields from Flax street to get to the Oldpark Road. It was pitch black on the skinfields, and if it was raining it could be a very mucky walk. This was the only part of my journey where I felt uneasy and made sure that I wasn’t walking into a gang of rowdy youths. Ardoyne is a predominantly Catholic area, and a Protestant walking through there late at night was taking a risk of being roughed up.
At the time I attended Queens, things were improving greatly between the two religions. Catholics and Protestants attended classes together, went to dances together, and participated in sports and games. We all would go to the pub together and join in all the songs no matter what the meaning of the words. There was a growth of Irish pride in those days, and the chasm was being rapidly bridged. I guess that didn’t sit well with those that had held the two groups hostage for centuries with their hate mongering, since it might mean losing a grip on their power over the mass of people. I was saddened when Derry erupted in violence in the late sixties stimulated by the conniving few on both sides of the divide. By that time I was living in Montreal Canada and only saw the reports from afar. It broke my heart to see the country I loved once again pulled apart by stupidity, fueled by ignorance and hatred.
Posted by Tom at 6:31 PM