SINCE Londonderry had two departmental Area Offices and I had to audit each at six monthly intervals, I spent four weeks in each year, 1942 and 1943 in the Maiden City. That was my first experience of the place and it so happens, my last as well. My abiding memories are extremely pleasant. I found the natives most friendly and hospitable. As soon as I arrived I was adopted and taken along to a house party at least once a week - no formalities, no nothing. I was just kind of hi-jacked. For example - "We're going to Dickson's tonight. You have to come too. Call for you about eight. No you don't need to dress up or bring anything. It's a come easy, go easy."
Maybe I was special - but I don't think so. Granted I happened to know a Londonderry lass who taught in a local school and as soon as I announced that I was going to Derry she arranged a reception party and got me digs, etc., without request. On arrival I was adopted by a happy band of people my own age. Never a dull evening in the five that I had to kill each week. Often I joined a relaxed band of strollers and headed out towards the Customs Post at Muff.
This was thronged by an orderly parade, even in the wartime blackout, giving locals an opportunity to socialise. There were picture houses and other functions in the city but in 1942 American GI's, who were newcomers were everywhere, mostly with female 'hangers-on', and locals took evasive action.
The Yanks were everywhere. I recall seeing a free-for-all in the Diamond when some GI's knocked hell out of each other, but not for long. The 'Red Caps' (Yankee military police) charged in aboard open topped jeeps and without even dismounting flailed all around them with long handled truncheons and stunned the ring leaders, threw them into the jeeps, and drove off. Mission accomplished. Not one kid glove in evidence!
Happily 'the troubles' hadn't broken out in the city in the early 1940s and of course the modern cult of drugs, the telly, the computer, and the ubiquitous mobile phone had not eclipsed 'civilised' social life. There was music, especially singing and good craic, partying galore.
Male unemployment was horrendous. The women folk all had jobs in the textile industry, which was booming. As the popular ballad put it the men just walked the dogs, i.e. the greyhounds. It was a crazy socioeconomic system. If the married women worked harder and earned more their unemployed husbands who were signing on and claiming 'means tested' benefit suffered a reduction or lost all their allowance. No incentives at all. Jobs for male unemployed were as scarce as hen's teeth. New industries were all being kept to the greater Belfast area.
On a later occasion I was startled by the behaviour of some GI's aboard the GNR train. It slowed to walking speed approaching Derry and finally ground to a halt at a small station. There was a small group of American GI's aboard and they immediately hit the floor. I really got a fright, but immediately the train moved on, the soldiers resumed their seats.
On arrival, I sought an explanation of my colleagues and I was told that Yanks in uniform should not have been on the GNR train as it passed through Saint Johnston in the Free State where they should have been arrested and interned. Some of them chanced their arm on occasions, as the train should not have stopped. They should have travelled on the LMS line via Coleraine. Where were the 'Red Caps' when the GI's got on the GNR line one wonders? Looking the other way?
In the early forties Derry was a huddle of wee houses in poor repair. Nobody had riches but all were reasonably happy. In a few short years all was changed - all was strife and the priceless spirit of camaraderie and music and song had gone forever.
Nowadays there are wide-open spaces where the wee houses once stood, modern dwellings with all mod cons and jobs for the men or some of them.
The world famous shirt making industry and the linen industry are but a few of the casualties. The closely-knit self-sufficient social fabric is an even bigger casualty. Everyone is hunched over a computer - no time for frivolities. Big brother, instant global communication here we come. Get with it.
By Pat Smyth
Ulster Star 18/02/05