Jimmy Duffin & Other Belfast Characters
By Joe Graham
Jimmy Duffin And Other Belfast Characters
But there were good days., particularly in the 1950’s, everyone’s childhood days are good ones. They were, no doubt, good times, and the people seemed gentler and more easy going. Belfast was full of characters back then and often enough they were diversions at times away from the harshness of those days. There was the “Duke Of Millfield”, an eccentric homeless man who would swagger round Smithfield in a top hat and frock coat, with an air of grandeur. Once he passed the corner of King Street and there was a peeler standing there, the ‘Duke’ stopped right in front of him, eyed him from head to toe, and in a loud masterly voice declared, “The devil finds work for idle hands.. why are you loitering around this corner my good man, have you nothing better to do.” The embarrassed peeler slung off towards Smithfield. Some characters were so colourful, “The Green Lady” or “Fenian Mary” as some called her, lived at a lodging house at 8 North Queen Street she dressed in all green clothing. “Corky” was a big woman who had an artificial leg, supposedly made of cork, hence her nickname, she carried a stick and for some reason hated men and often enough would lash out at any man just walking past her in the street. it was said she had been wounded while serving as a nurse in the war.
Then “Paddy Me Arse“, another peeler from Springfield Road Barracks so named because of his over use of the expression , “aye in me arse” meaning “No Way”, Paddy was shot dead in the 1940’s during a payroll robbery at a Falls Road Mill. ”Johnny Blue Bum” was a wee Blue Meth’s drinker, (Blue Mentholated Spirit) who when teased by kids calling him “Johnny Blue Bum” would clap his bum and shout, “My bum is not blue”, much to the disgust of passing women. ”Holy Mary” was a wee street lady who sold religious booklets around Smithfield, if someone bought one she bestowed a hundred blessings on them, if they refused she cursed them a thousand times in the most foul language you could imagine. ”Holy Joe” was a similar character, he sold “another wee homeless lady in the most brutal fashion."Hands Up Boyle", loved to tell a wee lie or stretch the truth a bit and when ever he was caught out, as he was many times, he would simply, "Ok, Ok, I put my hands up. maybe I was wrong" .Old Moores Almanacs” downtown, who ended up murdering his friend,
“Housey“ or “Bingo” as it is called today, was a great past time back then for mothers, they had ‘Housey’ sessions just about everywhere, even in the streets. At Ballymurphy a huge “Housey” Session was held in the field between Westrock and Ballymurphy Road, where the Chapel is today. Women would bring their own chairs or cushions to sit on while they played. We kids could not get a look in, there were always men there to chase you off. Even if you tried to remonstrate by saying , “But I want to speak to my mummy, that’s her there,” You would be told, “I don’t give a shit who yer ma is, go away and give her peace”. In earlier years in fields down the Grosvenor Road where the road into the R.V.H is today, there was a huge field known as the “Looney Park” due to it being behind the “Belfast Lunatic Asylum”, which was where the R.V.H is today. Anyway, every Sunday afternoon a massive “Housey” session was held there and women came from all over Belfast to play. There were also sessions held on summer evenings.
Jimmy Duffin was a great character, he would stand and talk to his own reflection in peoples living room windows, the people inside sitting watching him as though they were watching a television screen. His favourite expression when wanting to sound impressed was, “Hmm.. very intanjulietrical”, I don’t think the word can be found in any dictionary. “Bendy” McErlean was a wee bow legged man who played the accordion around the picture house queues, but perhaps the most famous busker was “Doctor McNab” from the old Pound Loney. His favourite song was “St. Teresa Of The Roses”, but due to his lisp the song came out, “St. Twesa of the Woses“. We also had “Jimmy Touch Metal” a shell shocked soldier from the war he would walk round downtown Belfast touching anything metal with a stick he carried, poor man thought he was mine detecting. And “Tommy Juke The Bullets”, another shell shock victim, he would be walking along Royal Avenue and suddenly pull who ever was passing nearby him to the pavement and shout, “Keep your head down they’re shooting”, It was quite funny to watch, but hilarious when who ever he would pull down believed him and covered their heads with their arms. Maggie Marley from Sultan Street was a fish trader, she coined the phrase, “Ach to hell with poverty, throw on another herring”, she was the salt of the earth and many a free supper she put on a poor family’s table, she was also the mother of Mickey Marley the Hobby Horse man, or as the media called him ‘The Roundabout Man’, where do those people come from?, sadly people parrot them!. I heard a cracker on Radio Ulster the other day, one of those newscasters trying so hard to sound English and attempting to pronounce her “ ing’s” reported that there was a lorry BROOKING down on the Westway, not BROKEN down? There were familiar street chants from the various hawkers,.. "Ardglass Herrings, "Delph for Regs", ..."Coal Breek.. Coal Breek" ,(it seems “Breek“ was the plural for Brick“). In Ballymurphy in the early 1950'S I used to laugh at how the fish man who would call round the streets with his cart, would chop the heads and tails off the fish and let them fall from his cart onto the street where the cats would snatch them and run off in every direction to feast. “Bunny” Rice, was a wee alcoholic man, much loved by Falls Road children, he would be seen with out stretched arms and a wide smile on his face, declaring, “Here comes Bunny”, and the kids would dance and echo, “Here comes Bunny”. Ach there were hundreds of characters and thousands of stories, were told on the “Corners”. Street corners were popular places where men, usually unemployed, would idle and joke for hours, perhaps even burst into song, many a full scale concert was to be seen on a street corner. These men were known as “Corner Boys”, and more often than not most of the stories originated from the boys on the corners, whether they be true or not one will never know, but does it matter?.
BUBBLY DAN AND OTHER BELFAST CHARACTERS
Bubbly Dan was a Carter who drove a horse and cart for “Wordie’s” a huge carrier firm that had stables in old Divis Street, how did he get his nick name, I don’t know. “Mickey Diddle” was a fruit seller he sold his goods off a hand cart, some said he got the name “Diddler” because he had his scales fixed to give under weight, he ‘diddled’ his customers. “Cryin’ Robbie” was another fruit seller he was always cryin’ at the high price he had to pay for his goods and so found it hard to make a profit. Whenever a house wife would complain about his prices he would bleet, “For God’s sake Missus, don’t blame me, I am charging you what I paid for it, I‘m standing here and all I am doing is making the wholesalers rich”. Then there was the man who owned a Bookie Shop at the corner of Cullingtree Road and Albert Street, he had only one eye and his other eye used to blink of its own accord. The punters used to swear they never won a bet at McCloskey’s because that bloody eye of his put the “blink” on them hence he became known as “Blink” McCloskey.
In the 1930’s there was a little tin hut at the corner of West Street and Millfield and this was known as “The Idler’s Club”. The club was formed by out of work men from the Falls area and they would while away their time there playing cards and darts, no alcoholic drinks were served in the club.
During the 1920 troubles a British Army Officer who was on regular duty in the Falls became known to the locals as “Haw Haw”, due to the perpetual grin he had on his face, some say it was a hint of the distaste he had for the locals, and was said to sneer at the lads who would stoned him and his men as he passed though the area in their caged car. Hoping to put a scare into him some lads wrote slogans on the gable ends saying, “Haw Haw Beware”. A few mornings later the Falls woke up to dozens of new slogans saying “Haw Haw Doesn’t Care”, old Haw Haw had sent his men out during the night with paint and brushes.
The “Pitch And Toss” was a sport or form of gambling that many working class men followed in Belfast right into the 1960’s. At Ardoyne there was a big ‘school’ as they called the gathering, which was run by “Nailer” Clarke, father of the late well known republican “Cleeky”. There was one at Diary Street off Nansen Street on the Falls and a big one in the lane between Westrock Bungalows and the Whiterock estate. This one was ran by Jimmy McKenna, a well known fighting man. Indeed all the pitch and toss games were ran by hard men, otherwise their would have been murder at times over who won or lost, It took some one with a bit of ‘position’ to keep things in order. The gambling was taken very serious and of course was illegal, ‘look outs’ had to be posted to watch out for peelers, these men got paid from the ‘kitty’ whilst the ‘hard man’ got a percentage for keeping order and making sure losers paid out and winners got their dues. At that time there was a peeler from Springfield road Barracks who used to patrol on a motorbike he had got the name “Durango Kid” after the cowboy in the popular series of movies showing around the cinema‘s then. “Durango Kid’s” favourite trick was to race into the gathered men who would scatter, and scoop up any money that had been lying on the ground which had been placed as bets. What he done with the money no one ever found out.
“Nailer” Clarke was a diamond, a rough diamond, he could fight for fun but unlike Jimmy McKenna, he was never known to take a liberty with anyone. My favourite story of “Nailer” goes back to the 1950’s. A family was about to be evicted from a house in Glenard by a court order which brought the arrival of a few burly bailiffs and a couple of peelers to the door of the family. “Nailer” just happened to be passing the house as the bailiffs very roughly dragged the woman from her home. This was all to much for “Nailer” to stand idly by and watch, so without a word he clouted one bailiff and some say with the same punch downed another bailiff. At this the other bailiff and peelers made to move in on “Nailer” but his action had inspired some other men and they tore into the peelers, who took fright and scurried off dragging their wounded with them. For years it brought great laughter to street corner yarns when someone would say, “Do ye min’ the day “Nailer” Clarke evicted the bailiffs from the area.” ?
The Shankill Road had a similar story, and don’t let anyone tell you there was no poverty among the Protestant working class, they suffered evictions too when they couldn’t afford to pay their rents. The Warnock Brothers were two very successful boxers and the story goes they were sitting eating their dinner when their mother, who had been at the door of their home , came in and said “Ahh, the bailiffs are evicting poor wee Missus so and so,” The boys got up from the table to see for themselves, and they obviously didn’t like what they seen. They went and punched the bailiffs all over the street who retreated without completing their hellish task.
J. J. O’HAGAN AND THE HANDCART ARREST
J.J. O’Hagan was a quiet, small in stature man, he and his family lived at 20 Bow Street in the old Pound Loney district. He was known for his literacy and was often called on by neighbours to write ‘important ’ letters for them or to complete awkward ‘official forms’. But J.J. Was ’handy’ in another way which the ‘Peelers’ from nearby Cullingtree Road Barracks knew only too well. A well told story is that two peelers were at J.J’s door on some little matter and one thing led to another and one of the peelers made to grab at him. He dropped the peeler in one punch and was battling with the other when the downed peeler ran off and returned with four other peelers, now I know some of you say I am a bit of a seanachie, but what I am telling you is the God’s honest truth. The six peelers couldn’t get J.J’s round to the barracks he fought so furiously. So down went one to Nora Daly’s house at number 8 and commandeered her handcart from her door, Nora was a flower seller. The cart was brought up nearer to the fight and after a while the peelers were able to get J.J onto the cart and tie him down with some cord Nora had lying on the cart. They then wheeled J.J round to the Barracks. The peelers had the cheek to throw nine pence to Nora for the loan of her handcart which she threw down the street after them.
During the World War 2 . Outside 10 Bow Street an air raid shelter had been built and remained there for quite a while after the war. The old shelter became the home from time to time of two much loved old characters, Mary Spiers and Barney “Hotplate” Connolly. Every now and then Mary would be arrested for having a wee bit too much to drink and in court her name and address would be read out as Mary Spiers, The Air Raid Shelter, 10 Bow Street.
“OUL TOMMY TWO FACES”
Back in the 1950’s there were still a few street singers and musicians around, one in particular was a man who would come round the streets playing the accordion, he wasn’t bad either. But the rumour was that Tommy had a tactic for getting the most out of those who would throw him pennies. The word was that he would go to Sandy Row Streets and play Orange tunes then maybe the next day he would be in the Market area playing Rebel tunes. No one every said anything about it to him... That is one day, it was close to the 12th of July and he arrived in Thames street on the Falls Road which was mixed in those days, the bottom half of the street was Protestant, the top half Catholic. Anyway, Tommy arrived in the bottom half and standing under the red, white and blue buntings the fluttering Union Jacks hanging from the houses he broke into “Dolly’s Brae”, then came “The Sash My Father Wore”, by then every neighbour in the bottom of the street was out. Tommy upped the tempo and went into a medley of “Kick The Pope “ tunes which brought his audience to dancing in the street. The pennies flew at him. Half an hour later he moved up to the Catholic top half of the street and no sooner had he arrived when he broke into “Faith Of Our Fathers”, then came “Father Murphy” and a few of the boys. A wee Catholic woman sat sternly on her doorstep taking it all in, whilst the protestant neighbours who had been dancing merrily just a few minutes go were now doing a war dance and shouting up at Tommy, “You two faced oul bastard.” Tommy ignored them and launched into “Kevin Barry”. The wee woman gets up from the door step and approached Tommy, puling from underneath her shawl a poker. Before Tommy could get out, “Lads like Barry are no cowards”. The wee woman stabbed the accordion which let out a squeal as the compressed air escaped from it, this brought great cheers of delight from the Protestants down the street. “Gawn ya hypocrite.. You have a foot in both camps” said the wee woman giving Tommy a clout on the shoulder with the poker, “You were down there a minute ago with that load of heathens kicking our Holy Pope.” Tommy took of like a bat out of hell and was never seen around Thames Street again. But at least the neighbours agreed on one thing, Tommy was ‘a two faced oul bastard”.
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