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Legendary shows brought trad to a greater audience as well as having other benefits

More than A Drop In Your Hand in the UTV bar

By Liam Murphy

I greatly enjoyed Paul Brady’s From The Archives series recently on UTV. Some of the film shown was priceless including the renowned McPeake family who kept traditional music alive in Belfast for over half a century; fiddlers, storytellers and singers John and Mickey Doherty from the Blue Stack Mountains in South Donegal and many others. I hope that a new series is made soon. Many of the artistes were filmed at open air events such as the Fleadh Ceoil na hEireann in Clones in the 60s and groups such as the Siamsa Ceili Band from Dundalk at a festival in Carlingford.

Others were filmed in various music pubs such as The Duke of York. In the days before VCR circa 1976 this presented great difficulties for the programme makers as the cameras used then were big and very heavy.

When a pub in the Markets was bombed in the early 70s many UTV personnel from nearby Havelock House went along to see the damage. Among them was Andy Crockart who had been the leading producer from the inception of UTV producing successful series such as Romper Room and the long running Tea Time With Tommy which helped to establish the fledging station. On learning that the building was to be demolished he bought the bar counter and cabinet behind it and built a typical Irish bar in one of UTV studios.

This was the setting for a series called A Drop in Your Hand. This was Andy’s brainchild. Guests were invited to the bar and different artistes were filmed as they performed to a live audience in a real bar setting. It was a roaring success. A poster caught my eye during one of Paul Brady’s clips which brought me back to the live programme.

My boss, Victor Archer, was well known in music circles. Victor was an accomplished bass guitarist and keyboard player. He was choirmaster for many years and was an expert in sacred music.

He also liked pop. Back in the 70s he played a big white Hammond Hammond organ with sliding drawbars mounted above the two keyboards. He acquired this in the late 60s importing it from the USA with a state of the art Leslie speaker. This organ, the Hammond B3 was in production until 1977 and is still regarded as the best ever. He had seen it used by top US blues, progressive rock bands and blues rock groups and for a long time his was the only one in the north of Ireland. He once formed a band called the Dwarfs. The O’Neill brothers had just returned from Reading where they had been playing in a pub in a country and western group. They approached Victor about forming a group. Victor had introduced them to music when he taught them many years before in Stella Maris Primary School. After three practice sessions Victor rang  promoter Cecil Long on a Wednesday night and asked him to keep them in mind for some dance dates three months down the line. He received a phone call the next day to say the Dwarfs were appearing the following night in Carntall Orange Hall at a Young Farmers’ Hop. He convinced the O’Neill brothers that it was only a rehearsal and that they would only be stage for three or four numbers. Very quickly their repertoire was exhausted (six songs) but Victor was undaunted and gave a few hymns the rock n roll treatment. Some of the dancers even asked for some of “them jive” numbers to be played again. The Dwarfs never looked back!

Victor knew Andy Crockart well and was invited along to the filming of the series. I was lucky enough to accompany him and enjoyed at least twelve nights in the UTV bar. Two things made it attractive. The filming took place on a Friday night AND the drink was free.

At that time Victor was a great aficionado for King Edward cigars. Bobby Maskey was captain of the Harwich – Zeebrugge ferry and brought Victor a liberal supply when he came home every two weeks. When Andy saw we were cigar smokers we were given seats at the front so that our wafts of smoke would enhance the atmosphere (how times have changed. I haven’t smoked for thirty years but I still have a smoker’s cough). This meant that we would be served even as the artistes performed and we developed a taste for Irish whiskey.  The “barman” was the Belfast actor Joe McPartland and he replenished our glasses without having to be asked. Victor was partial to Bush while I found Jameson very palatable.

There were some memorable performances. One that springs to mind was John Rea from Glenarm who played the hammer dulcimer. Victor inquired if any of his family were learning the instrument.

“Naw, they be to throw it inte the hole in the groun’ wi’ me when ah go.”

Another night, singer John Kennedy from Cullybackey had taken advantage of the free bar and when he was giving the introduction to his song no-one could make him out. After three attempts Andy lost his cool. “Just sing the f**king song will ye?” Priceless.

The poster I mentioned was advertising Boyd’s Irish Whisky  showing the waterfall in Glenariffe known as the Mare’s Tail. Samuel Wilson Boyd was a colourful character. He inherited a distillery in Belfast in the mid 1800s. He was good at the business and travelled himself throughout the north of Ireland. He travelled by pony and trap and this featured in some of his advertisements. He was a staunch Presbyterian and was a member of the Temperance League but enjoyed a dram in private. He always put some Gaelic words on his advertising posters thereby getting the best of all worlds. I have a copy of the poster but I have never tasted Boyd’s whisky – and I’ve never been in Carntall Orange Hall.

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