'Memories' Portadown  P3

By Harry Foy

“O Lord She Was Thin

Irish people spend a lot of time in graveyards.  No matter when you visit there are always people tending to the graves of their loved ones.

The whole history of a Parish is written on the headstones.  The names of parishioners, the clergy who served them and the names of the prominent people who have died aboard and whose remains have been returned from abroad to be buried in their native land

Visitors to the Shankill Churchyard in Lurgan will see a headstone, Margery McCall, 1711.  But this doesn't tell the whole story because Margery was buried, not once but twice.  Margery McCall was buried with her jewelled rings.  A grave robber visited the site that night but could not get the rings of her fingers.  He tried to cut the fingers off but the lady awoke having been in a trance.  She lived for another ten years before eventually dying.  A gravestone in Cork bears the inscription "O Lord She Was Thin" ,  the sexton explains that in olden times, the local stonecutter did the engravings on headstones.  In this case the man was slightly intoxicated and spaced the words wrongly and hadn't room for the "E".

The story is told of a man who fell into an open grave.  He tried several times to get out but couldn't.  As it was getting dark he was resigned to wait until daybreak.  He snuggled down into a corner to keep warm.  Some hours later he was awakened to find a drunk who had also fallen in.  He watched the newcomer make several attempts to get out and then he said, "You'll never make it".  To this day the drunk wonders how he did make it.  A man visiting a graveyard came across a blank headstone with small print at every bottom.  He stepped onto the grave to read the inscription.  It simply said, "You are now standing on my balls".


In 1983 there was no local entertainment for the children so I decided to produce a pantomime.  The members of the Gateway Theatre of which I was a member were agreeable but there was no money in the kitty.  An approach to some business people realised three hundred pounds and the managers of two textiles factories agreed to supply materials for making costumes.  All we needed was dancers.  The local Sharon Moore/Donna Whitten dance school had two hundred toe-toppers so we decided to give them all a part as two hundred Mums, Dads, and grand parents meant a lot of bums on seats. I decided on the pantomime Aladdin as it was easy to costume and it had the most popular pantomime dame the widow Twankey. To advertise the show a letter was published in the paper saying that an attractive widow with two grown up sons had arrived in town and was anxious to marry again and she could be contacted at the Town Hall where she was appearing in Aladdin. Strange to say three letters arrived from bachelors seeking the widow’s hand.  All a successful shows needs is a clean script a chase round the hall and audience participation which plenty of “OH NO YOU DON’T”.  I must say that I enjoyed my first show so much that I produced a further eight pantomimes.  Like Hitchcock I made a guest appearance in every show.  The highlight of the show for me happened on the final night.  In the story Aladdin is trapped in a cave but the wicked uncle Ebenezer tells the widow Aladdin is dead. As the widow sobs he tells that Aladdin had wrestled with a wild Animal on the cliff but had fallen into the ravine.  Just then a little boy the tears running down his face walked to the front of the stage and shouted up between sobs Don’t believe him he’s telling lies.”  Such is the Magic of pantomime.  Now after sixteen years the tiny tots of the first show are taking their own children to laugh at the antics of the pantomime dame and join in the shouts of “OH NO YOU DON’T” 

One Night Show

In the late forties the local drama group, ’The Pioneer Players’ were without a home.  St Patrick’s Hall came to their aid by building them a portable stage in their ballroom.  The play they were rehearsing was a kitchen comedy “Professor Tim” by the Ballymoney Dramatist George Shields.

It told the story of a lady in rural Ireland boasting about her brother the Professor, and his impending visit.  She is mortified when he arrives drunk and dressed in seaman’s clothes.  There is a lot of fun as she tries her best to hide him from the neighbours.  But all is well when at the end of the play as it turns out that he was only acting drunk to see what kind of reception he would get, and he really is the rich Professor.

Unfortunately the member we had playing the Professor got under the skin of the part too often and ended up slurring his words.  With two weeks to go to production we had to replace him and were fortunate to get a professional actor who was home on holidays.  He was Patrick Magee who later became a famous West End actor and who played in many films.  One of the best parts was the doctor in the film Zula.

The setting of the play was a country kitchen that had a fireplace.  In the early days of amateur drama a fire on stage consisted of an electric bulb covered with red paper and a turf stacked around it.  On the night of the first show, towards the end of the second act, smoke was noticed coming form the fire.  As the curtain came down, the actors rushed to the fireplace.  The hot bulb had ignited the paper and some of the turf was on fire.  The lit turf was stamped out on stage and the fire reset without the electric bulbs.  The rest of the show went smoothly and we looked forward to the next night’s performance.  Unfortunately there was no second night.  At two in the morning smoke was seen coming from the building. When we had stamped out the lit turf, some pieces had fallen between the cracks in the portable stage and ignited rubbish, which was lying underneath.  The fire brigade saved the building, which only suffered smoke damage, but alas the stage was gone.  We were never invited back as our shows were too hot to handle


When I was a nipper going to school I used to spend my Saturdays working in Sandford’s shop. One of the shop boys was Duggie Hutcheson who later became a leader in the D.U.P. and he gave me sixpence to clean his racing bike.  In those days people handed in a list of groceries which were then delivered by lorry in boxes.  I sometimes got going in the lorry with deliveries and especially in runs to the rural areas you got a penny or two at each house.  Sandfords was a big shop with a wine shop, groceries and chemists.  In the store flour and sugar were weighed up into bags between one pound and one stone.  In the chemists medicines were stored in large bottles and huge drawers so prescriptions had to be dispensed by the chemist.  There were none of the ready prepared remedies that are available today. 

One evening near closing time one of the staff accidentally knocked over a paraffin stove and started a fire, which spread quickly.  Before the fire brigade could get the blaze under control it had spread to adjoining buildings. I stood there watching my wee job going up in smoke.  A few days later I scrambled over the burning to see what I could find, I stumbled across a partly burned drawer that has some pennies in it so I took them home to wash them, before giving them in to the cashier in the picture house.  On another day I found knives and forks from the adjoining fish and chip shop, which had also suffered in the blaze.  The find, which excited me so much, was the day I opened a drawer in the chemist’s section and it was full of sticks of licorice.  I filled my pockets with them and next day I took them to school and give them to my school chums. For the next three days the class was in chaos. Being so young how was I to know they were licorices laxatives. We really learned to run for our lives.

"Sorry" Wrong Door

In the late fifties I went to work as a postman in Glasgow.  My first delivery was in the famous Gorbals, five story tenements with no lifts.  In the sorting office the letters were marked for each floor and as they were up to six families living on each floor they were also marked 2 left or 3 right.  When I returned to the office there were complaints about my delivery.  Every letter marked 3 right I had put under the toilet doors, not knowing that there was only one common toilet to every landing.  On the whitewashed surrounds of the door postmen wrote tenants name but sometimes they were wiped out, if people did not want the tickmen to know where they lived.  I used to have trouble with foreign names so I just listened at the letterboxes and if I heard a strange tongue I just shoved the letters in.  A tougher job I did was as mail messenger, meeting the London to Glasgow five a.m. mail train.  It meant travelling in a cold tram in all sorts of weather at 4 a.m.  We sorted out the bags of mail for Glasgow or for forward delivery.  In the station we could always watch the passing parade.  I remember one day with my pal Jock McKay watching a 'young couple on number one platform kissing as if they were parting. After three trains had left Jock went up and told them.  If you go round to number three platforms, A local train leaves every ten minutes.  One of the better deliveries called 'walks' by the postmen I was privileged to do was, Hope Street as calls to the Scottish Television Office were rewarded with tickets to live T.V shows.  They were also free tickets at Green’s Playhouse and a registered letter to Docherty; the Boxing Promoter got you a two-shilling tip.  New Years Eve was a big day for postmen as it was then they were rewarded by the firms they called at, sometimes with a little tipple.  I recall seeing postmen still staggering around the streets at four o'clock on their first delivery.  Letters were the last things on anyone's mind.  Nobody waited for the postman's knock

Stolen Kisses

For working class people living in a street with no gardens, a visit to the public park was always a treat.  The large imposing wrought iron gates welcomed you to your own stately garden.  On each side of the path there was a large cannon gun, sovenenirs of the First World War.

It was fun for the children to climb to the top of the cannon and crawl along its long barrel.  In the evenings people could be seen out for a stroll, picnicking or watching the cricket or football.  The large pond in the centre was a great attraction for families, for here they could feed the ducks and the geese.  In the middle of the pond a small island housed a variety of foreign fowl.  The nearby back path with its overgrown bushes was the haunt of courting couples.

One evening while walking the path a woman was heard to say to her male companion, "John we have been going together for over thirty five years.  How about getting married?"

"Talk sense", said the man "Who the hell would take us!"

Local bands would parade to the park on summer evenings and give a musical concert, while people sat on the grass with playing children or indulged in a picnic.  A large notice board spelt out the by-laws, which were reinforced by uniformed caretakers.  One bylaw forbade the use of "mechanically propelled vehicles" On the cycle track the local wheelers competed against the best including The McQuaid brothers from Dublin, who were Irish Champions.

During the War part of the grounds were given over to garden plots, to help the war effort.  A local wag had a plot next to the Head Constable who was a keen gardener.  One day on meeting the Head Constable he said, "Sir I planted cabbage plants and guess what came up?"  The constable all ears said "No! What came up?"  " A cow and ate them" said the wag.

Unfortunately with the building of new houses with their own gardens, the park was no longer an attraction, but many a girl will recall their first kisses on the back path.

Thank God for Long Trousers

In 1938 two of my chums were going to Armagh to sit the entrance exam at the college.  As they intended a first time visit to the museum and the Ritz picture house, they persuaded me to go with them.  The railway fare was five old pence.  Arriving at the school they went into the exam hall and I sat outside reading a comic.  An old priest saw me sitting there and persuaded me to sit the exam by telling me I would get a great dinner.  We enjoyed the day out, especially our first visit to a museum.

Six weeks later a letter arrived at the house to say I had been awarded a five-year scholarship.  I hadn't told my parents about the exam as a secondary education was beyond their means.  However, relatives rowed in and got me my first school uniform.  Then there was the question of the weekly train fare.  But luckily, I got a job as a casual telegram boy at the rate of three old pence a mile.  Dressed in school blazer, cap and scarf, I was the little Lord Fontenoy of the street.  I carried my books and lunch in a small brown attaché case.

At school I settled in to a new curriculum with Latin and Science my favourite subjects.  The school had all the traditions of a boarding school, including fagging and pumping.  When a student offended a perfect he was taken outside and had his head held under a pump and rebaptised.  In the morning, all the students on the train were busy finishing their exercises but in the afternoon it was different.  Being the smallest boy and wearing short trousers I was spread across the lap of an older boys from the Christian Brothers' School, while they used their rulers to drum their favourite tunes on my bare legs.  They thought this was great fun and no matter where I hid on the train they came hunting me.  Someone once said "an education gives you a foot in the door of opportunity" It gave me sore legs.  At the age of fourteen I got my first long trousers.  The drumming days of the older boys was over.  As I headed for the train I smiled and said "Thank God for long trousers"

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