Those Were The Days, My Friend…

Do you remember when there used to be a metal paling fence outside Kelly’s Cellars that made a sort of corridor? It had a turnstile at the end, by St Mary’s. And there were those big gates at the end of Castle Street. Turnstile there too: once you left the city centre you couldn’t get back in. It was a real pain for guitar and banjo players to get through. They had to hold the cases tight to their body and shuffle through like prisoners on a chain gang. It was difficult enough when you’d had a few pints, never mind carrying a big case like that. I think those gates on Castle Street were the last ones to be removed.

We always used to play in Kelly’s on a Saturday evening, in the wee snug opposite the top door. It was just big enough for a small table and about seven people. It was brilliant, because once you were in there you could play away to your heart’s content, and the noise from the bar didn’t bother you. The ones at the edge of the session, where it spilled out into the bar, always got the melters asking for ‘Carrickfergus’, or the kids trying to sell jokes or cigarette lighters. So, you had to get there early enough to get a seat in the snug, and then you were on the pig’s back. It was no place for a non-smoker though; turned into a gas chamber within minutes of the session starting. You’d sit there playing tunes and there would be five Regal burning away in the ashtray, with nobody actually smoking them. Rollups were better because they’d just go out. There was so much free drink you would be steaming by ten. The bars used to close earlier back then, and once you were thrown out of one, you’d generally be trying to get in somewhere else for a late pint.

The Castle Mews, next door to Kelly’s, was usually a good place to try, but you wouldn’t get in every time. Sometimes it’d be rammed by the time we showed up, and no amount of pleading would help; tougher, and better-connected guys than us were getting turned away as well. There was always something exciting about knocking the door: the promise of illicit drinking for a couple of hours made the whole thing so much more enjoyable. The bar was class for late drinking because it had no windows downstairs, so from the outside it looked permanently closed. It also had this wee secret passage that led out onto Castle Street, so you could sneak in and out undetected.  If you didn’t get in, well, you either went home, went to a party, or tried one of the clubs, like the Docker’s or the Electrician’s, where you could drink all night if you were able for it. Sometimes we’d go up to Ardoyne and go on the rip in one of the bars or shebeens. That place had its own laws; closing time didn’t seem to really exist up there. It was a nightmare to get home from though.

There were a lot of house parties in those days, quite often at my house. It was a two-up, two-down terraced place on the Lower Ormeau Road; it was amazing how many people you could jam into it. On one legendary night the place was so packed that the musicians were sitting everywhere: on the kitchen floor, the table, the worktops, and the few available chairs, of course. Somebody fell into the sink and just carried on playing anyway. They’d all come back to play tunes with this amazing flute-player from Brittany, but in the end he couldn’t get a seat and had to stand in the doorway with a tin whistle.

I had great neighbours in that street, never complained at all, dead friendly. I remember there was a houseful of students over the road who didn’t fare so well. That was the first real ‘student house’ in the street, I think. The couple on one side of them had a wee baby and they were finding it hard enough to sleep anyway, without the all night rave music on top of the squealing. Didn’t need that carry on. The students were asked nicely to keep it down several times but they didn’t just ignore the requests, they were cheeky with it: told the neighbours to “eff off”. I’ll never forget the look on that girl’s face when The Man arrived at their door. He must have only said two words to her and she went pure white – like someone had walked over her grave. She called down her housemate: the blood drained instantly from his face too. They were gone the next day.

The main problem about being out in town was getting a taxi. There were two depots on the other side of the Castle Street gate. There was always a queue, so you would end up waiting for ages; and there’d be ones who arrived after you that got lifted after two minutes because they were going west or north. None of the drivers wanted to go south; it was like unknown territory to them, too dodgy. We were blatantly discriminated against, and the injustice burned us, but complaining was no use. I recall one particular time when we were standing there for absolutely ages; the depot kept telling us our taxi was coming, but it never showed up, and eventually we were the last ones there. Then this bloke rolled up and asked if we were looking a taxi; we thought it was the one we ordered, and got in. Well, he wasn’t a taxi driver at all: totally illegal. Got our names and told us if we got stopped by the peelers he was a mate giving us a lift home. He didn’t have a clue where we were going, and nearly crashed twice on the Stranmillis Road, where we shouldn’t have been anyway. Turned out he was blocked.  We got out after the second near miss; didn’t pay him.

If we were early enough out of the bar we’d ring our local firm, but most times they’d be closed by the time we got to the payphones at the corner beside D Cabs, or else all the reply you’d get would be: “do you know what time it is mate?” Quite often you had to queue for the phone. I remember one night I’d been in the Hercules Bar, and there was this drunk girl in the phonebox. She was having a fight with her boyfriend – I don’t think he was keen on coming to get her – and she bashed the handset really hard off the metal box in front of her. After she’d stormed off, cursing all round her, I went to have a look and see if it was still working. It wasn’t: the top of it was hanging off, and the wiring inside was easily visible. While I was optimistically wondering if it could be repaired, a middle-aged fella came up beside me. “Here, let me have a look” he said, taking it off me. He inspected the wiring; seemed to know what he was talking about. “Hmmmmm. Red to red, ok. Black to black. Green to green. Blue to … bits!” This little joke cheered me up as I decided to take the rainy walk home. Plodding slowly towards the Ormeau, I idly wondered if he’d ever really wired up a bomb. I didn’t stop in Shaftesbury Square for a kebab that night, seeing as I was by myself. Something had happened during the week, and reprisals were expected; it felt a bit too risky. I took a safe route home via Dublin Road and the Holylands.

Belfast was so different then: it was edgy, dangerous. There was this constant awareness of peril that lay behind everything you did. Even a five-minute walk to the shops or a visit over the road to Bilko’s for chips could be a tense experience. When the IRA blew up Frizzell’s on the Shankill, killing all those people, we knew there would be a revenge attack. We walked through the entries to keep off the road; some people put up barricades in their front hallways. When we went to Kelly’s that Saturday we were the only ones in the bar. We played down the other end of the pub, by the locked main entrance. The doorman thought we were mad coming out at all, and told us if we saw him running, to get behind the bar and hit the deck. We didn’t stay long. The thing is, you never knew what was coming next. Sometimes it was comical; like when we were upstairs in Madden’s and one of the barmen came in, told us there was a bomb scare and we were to drink up and get out; the peelers were downstairs. There were these visitors from Galway up for the weekend; they freaked out, spilled drink in their rush to leave. We laughed at them, calmly finished our pints, took our time. We knew it was just a ploy.

I suppose one of the ways we coped with the mayhem around us was by partying. We’d play tunes and drink anywhere. Nobody had any money in those days, but the bars were packed all the same. Belfast’s a much better place to be living in now, of course. No way you’d want to go back to the bad old days. But you know what? I loved the craic we had back then; the pure wild madness of it all. We didn’t give a damn.

Still can’t get a taxi though.

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14 Responses to Those Were The Days, My Friend…

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Jason, great ‘auld yarns and stories there…brings back the memories…we’ll have to meet up for a tune some time! Thomas

  2. DeafboyOne says:

    Nice one Jason, I lapped up the ‘atmosphere’ I felt the smoke in my nostrils as you described the bar scenes, the overriding feel I got though… was that despite the ‘alienation’ and feeling of being in an ‘us against them’ situation you could see hope and never gave in to the despair that was knocking on your skull everyday. Beautiful piece. Sleinte my friend 🙂 Pete DeafboyOne

  3. Peter McCavana says:

    Hiya Jason,

    That’s great great stuff! I didn’t know you had it in ye!
    It’s full of life (tinged with hints and threats of death) and energy. It has great flow, and it conveys a lot of the mood of the times, dark yet full of devil-may-care vitality.
    In those days, I went through all of that craziness in bars, too, as a “punter” and as a session musician in bars such as Kelly’s Cellars (my favourite haunt at the time) and, worst of all, as a waiter in a couple of lounge bars that were hit by bombs (with no danger money, of course!).
    I can tell you that, after a night out in the pub, sneaking home to the Cliftonville Road (alias Murderer’s Mile) was one hell of a nightmare!
    In those troubled times, we often acted like we didn’t give a damn about all the horrors going on around us, but it was often escapism, and I think we couldn’t escape the fact that they were always there, lurking at the back of our minds…

    I really enjoyed your “piece”. If it had been a book, I would have said I couldn’t put it down until I got to the end!
    Any more like that?
    (Maybe I’ll contribute something similar some time. I’ve been known to write various things that may be of interest to some people. I write a lot of things to people by personal e-mail, off the cuff, but I’ve never sat down to make a public “piece of writing” out of them.)

    All the best,
    Peter (McCavana, in Marseille)

    P.S.
    Yea, those were the days, my friend, especially as regards the intensity of the music, but, between you and me, I think sessions in Belfast have now gone to the dogs…

    • jasonoruairc says:

      Hi Peter, great to hear from you, and thanks for the comment, I love this kind of feedback. I suppose the trade-off for being able to get a taxi was that it was so dangerous up where you were living…I remember walking back from the Rotterdam one night up Duncairn Gardens when I was living up north. Made it home in one piece, but sobered up and wised up the next day.

      There’s a whole series of stories – I would recommend you start in August and work forwards.

      Have you thought about setting up your own blog? Re. Today’s Belfast sessions, I’ve just started a new one in the Hatfield on Saturday nights – see you there next time you’re over, I hope. Nice to hear from you, J

      • Peter McCavana says:

        Hiya again Jason,
        (none of that foreign “Hi” stuff from me, especially since this blog/site is called “Vernacularisms”, like, y’know what I mean! 😉

        Yes, sometimes, I do think of setting up my own blog, particularly since my main correspondent died a premature death last year. (He was a professional musician and so he had free time when I was working at my keyboard, and he wrote well, and we were on the same wavelength in many ways, but with enough differences of backgrounds and viewpoints to make the exchange of ideas interesting.)
        But I already spend all day at the computer, translating (when I’m not out interpreting at meetings, conferences, etc.) and also writing personal e-mail to individuals, so I dunno if I have the time or energy for a blog as well (and the oul’ eyes need a wee bit of a rest now and then!).

        You wrote:
        > I remember walking back from the Rotterdam one night up Duncairn Gardens when I was living up north. Made it home in one piece, but sobered up and wised up the next day.
        In fact, a very similar wee story (as Belfast people call an anecdote) sprang to mind just last night while reading your piece on Those Were The Days, My Friend…
        I could virtually make a whole short story out of it, especially as it concerns a very important date in the history of the Troubles and it also has a strong musical dimension.
        Here is a brief synopsis:
        On 31 August 1994, the IRA declared an indefinite ceasefire, which came into effect at midnight that night. That evening, a crowd of musicians were playing in the session in the Liverpool Bar. At midnight, to mark this historic event, some of the sessioners suddenly burst into an instrumental version of “Give Peace a Chance” and soon everybody joined in.
        As we stood outside the pub afterwards, after waiting for ages for the proverbial taxi, Dusty and I got fed up hanging around. So, carried by the momentum and euphoria of the occasion (not to mention the false courage provided by a lot of pints!), we decided to walk up the Duncairn Gardens to go home. This was something I had never done at night since around 20 years previously, because “the Gardens” was such a dangerous, exposed “interface” (as such places were later described). Like foolhardy dare-devils, we waddled up the Gardens together, forgetting all about the danger!
        Ah, Those were the Nights, my Friend, indeed!

        Maybe more some other time…

        Peter
        P.S.
        You wrote about walking back from the Rotterdam session, but I suppose that was the second “phase” of Rotterdam sessions, maybe in the 1990s, was it?
        The first sessions in the “Rott” were started by the McCrickards, Aidan Short, Sid, and a few others including myself, in the mid-to-late 1970s (there’d be a right few stories about them there sessions!).
        That was during the time when the Shankill Butchers & co were really on the rampage, and walking up the Duncairn Gardens late at night was TOTALLY out of the question, even for inebriated euphoric musicians!

        P.P.S.
        I might turn up at the Hatfield some Saturday night (maybe even around Christmas & New Year, IF I make it over). But I’d probably go along “unarmed”, without the guitar. There are now loads of guitarists in sessions in Belfast, and I don’t usually believe in cluttering a session with an additional guitar that can often be in harmonic and/or rhythmic contradiction or conflict with them (or vice versa).
        After a lull, there now seem to be as many guitarists as there once were in sessions in the 1970s. In those days, many (or most) guitarists battered away regardless like fuck, but now there are plenty of technically excellent guitar accompanists, presumably the products of the Andytown School of Trad Music and so on. As I say, they are technically excellent, but I find they often try too hard to make the guitar stand out in an attention-grabbing, showy way, rather than accompany and support the lead players. In brief, the tail sometimes wags the dog. Many seem to be too intent on emulating John Doyle and such players (who are themselves very good, I hasten to add), and they tend to overdo all the dissonant discord / (“dis-chords”?! 😉 and “counter-rhythms” or whatever.
        I think such things have their place on stage in a concerted, arranged group setting, but not much in sessions.
        But that’s just my opinion. I don’t have any “ill feeling” or whatever towards anyone who has a different opinion or approach. I suppose everything in music is a matter of taste and so on (not to mention age!…), eh?! (;-)

        P.P.P.S. (!!)
        If ever I do turn up at the Hatfield some Saturday night, will I be able to get a taxi afterwards to the Cliftonville Road?! (“Aye, there’s the rub!! – That is the question!!!” 😉

        • jasonoruairc says:

          I remember the ceasefire in 1994, might even have been in Tom’s that very night, although I don’t remember it. But used to go to the Liverpool Bar religiously (i.e. on my knees). Yes, the Rotterdam sessions were in the 90s, and mighty they were too, until a new manager came along who had other ideas. The sad tale of many session bars over the years. Would love to hear some of your stories from the Rott in the 70s. If you come down the Hatfield I’m sure you’ll get a taxi no bother!

  4. Aine MacParland says:

    Yes you are so right. Kelly’s was the haunt in the late seventies and early eighties. If you we’re feeling a bit down you were always cheered up in there by compliments from drunken punters on your way to the bogs. Men probably didn’t realise this but the ladies toilet had the most tarnished smoky but dead flattering mirror and we all thought we were sex goddesses when we came out! Many many hours of Craic were had in there and you’re right about the edginess. I remember climbing over the turnstile in Castle Street with the bride and groom after a wedding in the National! It still looks the same but it’s not and every time I’m in there now after a few drinks I pass the ladies and instinctively go for the gents as they’ve changed the toilets round. Those really were the days …

    • jasonoruairc says:

      Thanks for sharing those memories Aine, brilliant.

    • Peter McCavana says:

      Thanks for your vivid account of events in the Ladies at Kelly’s, where I hung out (Kelly’s, I mean, not the Ladies!!) through thick and thin during the 1970s. It’s edifying to have an insider’s viewpoint on the mysterious goings-on in the Ladies!
      I still go to Kelly’s on a “pilgrimage” every summer (when I’m home from abroad). And, even when I’m sobre, when I head for the bogs, I still go for the Ladies as a well-conditioned reflex. Who was the fiendish person who decided to switch the toilets around? It’s like a stunt that’s been set up for “Candid Camera”! (;-)

      Peter McCavana

  5. Anonymous says:

    That one’s so good, Jason, well done.. Really enjoyed reading it 🙂

  6. Phil says:

    First time I have read your work, loved it!

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