Paul F. McCann

BELFAST: PRE-INTERNMENT DAYS

My beautiful Belfast was hi-jacked by a monster in 1968 and almost over night the monster destroyed all the essence I had known to be innocent up to that point in my life.

One by one I saw my school friends murdered, arrested, while others emigrated to foreign countries to get away from the bloodbath that had become an everyday way of life to the city I had where I lived and had loved for 16 years.

In the early nineteen sixties before the first shot was fired, before the first riot had started, before the first bomb exploded, before the tit for tat killings had begun and before the introduction of interment, life was full of fun and blue skies stretched over Belfast as children freely played without fear in the streets.

There were echoes within the minds of every passing by as the chorus of life continued its journey through a peaceful place in time.

Belfast Echoes

Dandering down through the windy city,
I spied my fancy one.
I nodded with unspoken thoughts,
the echoes of someone.

Knowing well these streets may keep secrets.
It’s grace where love makes it’s home.
Linen lovers by Lagans flow,
where Flaxy people roam,
past windows.
Belfast echoes like the corner boys
in back street brawls.
Shankill serenades.
The bells echoes ring loud up the Falls.
Wee boys and wee girls:
We walk and we talk.
We give peace in a nod.
Silent words we speak.
The echoes are rights given by God

I was a member of the Holy Cross church choir and we rehearsed twice a week with certain individuals who directed us like Mrs Kane and Dermott McGuinness.

At times we as a choir performed at the Ulster Hall and on the BBC 3rd program live to air giving a rendition of The Hallelujah Chorus.

Holy Cross Church had this huge pipe organ that bellowed out anything from Bach to Brahms at any given moment depending on what time of the day it was and who was sitting before the organ keys.

As a choir we rehearsed Thursday nights and on Saturday afternoon. The organist at Holy Cross Church was Father Marcellus. He was a catholic priest with long white hair and he rode a motorbike and wore a leather jacket. Apart from playing the pipe organ Father Marcellus was always involved with the youth of the parish. When he played the organ at midday mass on Sunday Holy Cross Church was packed. Every seat was filled and so there were lots of people who enjoyed the choir and organ music. Father Marcellus loved to play Bach’s Tocca in D minor and looked like some gifted German composer at the organ. His frantic head movements shook his long white hair around and his hands and fingers taking to the keys with each note played without fear or falter.

If he hadn’t been a priest he could have been famous musician, if God’s will had decided so. But instead Father Marcellus rode his motorbike and called out the bingo numbers in the hall on Friday night. Then on Sunday he turned the key and opened up the door to the choir loft and played D minor as the choir sang well-rehearsed hymns in harmony. Mrs Kane stood nearby and directed us, waving her arms and motioning us to the tempo.

I played football for the school youth club and we won the Down and Connor cup beating St Patricks, 2 goals to 1 at Celtic Park. We had a great team and our soccer coach Micky Brennan took all of us over to England to play a club in Liverpool. We returned with a victory.

Apart from being a great coach Micky Brennan did repairs and restored old bicycles.
His front yard was always littered with bikes needing fixing.

Life was much different then. There was no fear and people went into the city centre and went from shop to shop with being searched or without the threat of a bomb going off. There was Smithfield market and bargains to be found everywhere. There were summer afternoons in the places like the Botanic gardens and the city hall or even along the banks of the Lagan.

Belfast Bargains

Quality goods in Littlewoods:
The bright lights of Shaftsbury Square.
If you’re looking or buying, all you need is a bus fare,
or a tiger in the tank to appreciate
all you’ll see.
There’s leather gear,
rings for your ear,
even coffee in a cup.

Knives that carve,
or a scarf for your head
and ozone free make up.

Cornmarket stalls with shopping malls,
they’re begging you please come see.
Belfast bargains and botanic gardens;
They’re a sight to see!
Clothes and clogs - smocks and clocks;
Velvet gloves, slippers, yards of carpet;
Radios and records undercover
in Smithfield market.
Good gas lighters and writing pens
for writers with dignity.
Belfast bargains and botanic gardens
come and walk with me.
Bars for your gut;
Keys cut for cars.
There’s something to drive you mad,
like crazy collisions
and some provisions that you nearly had.
Sofas for sitting –
beds for your head:
Cards without poetry:
Belfast bargains and Botanic gardens,
a quare place to be.
Linens and ropes,
tobacco and soaps:
Ships and trains.
- The harbour, the Barbers,
bakers, butchers,
hovis wholemeal grains.
Anybody with a good eye can see
it’s top quality.
Belfast bargains and Botanic gardens
all is well you’ll see.
“C & A” comforts
- Woolies.
Summertime blues:
Caps for the head.
In this business of life nothing changes
till we are dead.
Belfast bargains and botanic gardens:
Stay and be happy.

If you could paint a picture or draw sketches Of A Better Time in Belfast you would have to include the back streets with icy footpaths and a flair of passion in the faces of the people who lived there. They had a soul and a real originality in all they did. They were untroubled before internment came.

Back Streets Of Belfast

Without a word of a lie you can’t deny
there’s something there.

Beyond the doors of little homes,
Belfast had a kind of flair.

Schoolbag goalposts left lying down
beside the burnt bonfire stack.

After all where does the ball go
if there are no nets to wreck?

Looking for the Lagan flow
when it’s an icy rink to skate.

It’s like missing the leaves on trees
and kissing on a blind date.

Around the corner near
to where Shaftsbury Squares bathed in light.

Searching for a heart to maybe walk home
on a Friday night.

Up the entry with no direction
of which way you should go.

Its like running round in circles
with a skipping rope you know.

There are no short cuts or cul-de-sacs
about Belfast City.
There are just back streets
where the talk always pretty witty.

Where there is no end to the freeway
in a Black Taxi Cab.

You’ll find Belfast has a soul
and its secrets you’ll maybe grab.

Every Sunday after mass my Father would my take us for long walks around the quiet streets when Belfast was full of colour. He took us to places like Greengate where you could hand wallop and catch trout from the streams and we discovered other magic places in Belfast like The Falls Park.

Around Shaws Bridge and a very special place up at Cave Hill Mountain where we often picked wild blackberries and later on my parents made jam with all we had brought home. It wasn’t a bed of roses thought as in the brambles where roses grow thorns are there and bees with stings can be awful things for a child on mountain paths.

Bees Sting And The Final Fling

Looking down from Cave hill,
picking blackberries up Napoleons nose.
Ducking and looking for cover,
that’s how the story goes.
As a wasp there was doing
the high head humming blackberry fling.

There was no getting away.
So I turned to face its sting.
I screamed to the coast,
Come Holy Ghost take away this buzzing beast. That’s all was said,
the wasp dropped dead, at the blackberry feast.

In the early years of my life in Belfast, I saw as a child smiles on everyone’s faces. I heard laughter and music through the sound of silence on the streets and each day was a dream and everything was beautiful in my life.

Although there were hard times and poverty people were happy and got along well together.

Music that was in my life and as a young lad came through my playing and listening.

There was always a romantic attachment about my writing poetry. I hid it under the floorboards and behind bookcases for fear of someone discovering a Belfast boy writing such things. Belfast boys fought and played football.

Belfast boys were hard nuts and just one or twice I had thought about running away to join the circus and somehow within this lifestyle I could discover other countries and cultures during the sixties. I had heard of places like San Francisco where you could wear flowers in your hair.

There was music like everything the Beatles recorded. There was peace and love. There was something civilized and proper about life in Belfast before internment.

You could travel by train or bus anywhere with no fuss of threat.

The sound of music arrived, as did Julie Andrews with all of the wonder of Belfast movie theatres. There were other shows in the Belfast Palaces and dances and other live performances in places like The Belfast Opera House.

There was a story about to be told anytime of the day and we were all part of that and we all could relate that to one another.

We had pirate Radio stations like Radio Caroline and other radio stations like Radio Luxembourg that always provided a vehicle for new music to be heard. Emerging bands like The Moody Blues and songs like A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procol Harem had interesting sounds that took us all somewhere else in the days before the troubles came to Belfast.

Music was and still is today a source of encouragement for us all.

During my time of study for O levels at school, the monster came to my beautiful Belfast and my family and I escaped to Australia.

1968 had come and gone as did all the peaceful sounds of silence and now the hits on the charts were songs like Children Of The Revolution by T-Rex and Look Wot You’ve Done by Slade.

I was now in Australia just after interment was introduced and every week I got a letter from my friends in Belfast telling me of someone else I knew that had been killed. So many innocent young lives ended mush too soon. A book has recently been published about the village where I grew up called Ardoyne: The Untold Truth. It is dedicated to all of the people from my village who have lost their lives during the troubles.

There was another side to life in the seventies, well, more insight behind the scenes then. Another story for another time perhaps.