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.