Big thank you from

Laughter with the townies that turned to tears

by The Rambler 05/04/2002


WERE there really more long, hot days in summer before the War, or does it seem so because we enjoyed them so much when we were young?

There always was great craic around Barton's Bay. The lough shore used to be thronged with townies and we always headed there on our bikes from seven o'clock onwards.

The notorious Lough Neagh flies were usually about as well - swarms of them - and we loved to shake a bush just to see them come off it like smoke and envelop the townies.

When rain threatened they were a menace. Riding a bike you could have seen them hovering like low clouds near head level. They were all wings and no bodies, but they_ would have smarted the eyes out of you. And the more you rubbed, the worse it got. Often we had to go and pump cold water over our eyes to wash the beggars out.

Holidaying townies were nearly as numerous as the flies, relatively speaking. When hot weather drove them out of the wee houses in working-class Belfast streets, they headed for the country in droves - especially women and children.

There were no radios blaring then. The lassies just paraded the road in groups of three or four, and there was plenty of larking about but nothing unseemly.

"Hi! Mister! Give me a ride on your handlebars," they used to shout. Sometimes we did. Sometimes we encouraged them, but as they ran after us we kept moving away, teasing the life out of them.
There was one tall, fine looking lassie with auburn hair who used to cadge rides on the bars of bicycles - a real sport and game for a laugh. We only knew her as "Molly."

She was from somewhere around Carlisle Circus or the Mater Hospital and she used to tell us about her life as a probationer nurse.

When the war came many things changed. By that time our gang had gone their separate ways and memories of the light-hearted frolics around the Lough of a Summer evening had begun to fade.

I had started work in the city myself and on the day after the first air raid on April 16, 1941, 1 had taken a walk at lunch time as far as The Mater Hospital to see the extent of the damage.

Later, when I headed for the station at Great Victoria Street, I found hundreds of people assembled in and around the entrance in a stampede out of the city. I had a season ticket and was familiar with the place so

I was able to reach the platform via the Glengall Street entrance and get aboard.

Outside the ticket barrier there was a sea of faces.

Every inch of space was crowded with desperate folk seeking escape from the nightmare of a city expecting another nocturnal onslaught by Hitler's bombers. Sixty one years on, memories crowd in at Easter.

I got home a little late. Train timetables had gone haywire but I was glad to be out of it. When I reached home I got the surprise of my life.

Who was there but Molly, with her was her husband, an Englishman who was an aircraft factory employee, and their two children.

One was about three and she told me her name was June. The other was a new-born baby. Like most other folk who had lived through the hell of the air-raid on Belfast of 15/16 April, they had spent a night on Cave Hill and when morning came they had fled with little more than what they stood up in. They had got a bus to Aghalee, and walked the last mile to our place.

Fortunately we had room but conveniences in the country then were rather primitive, and poor Molly had neither gas nor electricity to heat the baby's bottle, nor a handy shop to supply essentials.

When the second air raid of May 5 hit Belfast, she spent the whole night walking the landing, watching the glare in the sky, 20 miles away and listening to the occasional 'cramp' as another mine exploded.

The dull drone of heavy engines continued overhead for hours and we had difficulty in reassuring our guests that it was a long way from Belfast - and safe.

Next day when the impact of the terrible happening of that night hit us, we were not quite so complacent.

Molly's husband and I had to head off as usual, and Belfast was not a pretty sight on May 6, 1941, when all the public baths had been turned into morgues and devastation and acrid yellow smoke were everywhere.

Ulster Star