THEY say you can take a man out of Belfast but you can’t take Belfast out of the man. I was reminded about this as I spoke to two men on the telephone during the past week.
“Och, I toul’ ye that a long time ago,” said Wee Jap McWilliams when I reminded him that many pubs and clubs would not be reopened during July. Later, he informed me that the semi-final of the FA Cup was taking place the coming weekend between his favourite, the Russian-owned London club Chelsea, and Man United. When I asked him who would win he replied, “Och, it'll be a piece of cake.”
Jap is a native of Ardoyne now living in the elevated suburb of Glengormley.
“Och, it's a coul’ hole in the winter,” he explained when asked about the differences between the two localities. He mentioned many others but we'll leave well enough alone.
I might be exaggerating slightly but it seems that most of Jap’s sentences begin with ‘Och’. This was pointed out to me by a Limerick man. When I told him that it was common not only in Belfast but throughout rural Ulster and that it is in fact the Gaelic, ‘Ach,’ he admitted that while he has a good grasp of the Gaelic language he had never encountered it until he came to work in Belfast in the 1970s as a bar manager. He says he's making up for lost time. “I heard ‘Och’ in Dublin once when I was asked for a pint of Guinness and a whiskey,” he told me. “I asked what kind of whiskey he wanted and the reply came, ‘Och, give me Jameson.’ He was from Portadown.”
Billy Gillen on the other hand rarely uses the expression “Och” but he has a few favourites himself. Billy is now an octogenarian (the party was postponed because of Covid-19 but we’re expecting a big night when the Tuesday get-together in the CCCs reconvenes). Billy has a good vocabulary and a sound grasp of the Gaelic language. He once prodded me in the side as the Dublin-bound train pulled out of Newry station and pointed out Slieve Gullion. “That’s ‘Cute Hoor’ country,” he said. He has spent some holiday time with residents from that district. Billy is wont to describe a mutual friend in a complimentary fashion as being a little ‘throughother’. Again our Limerick bar manager was nonplussed until Billy explained.
“I have you now. He's a go-lucky, careless, untidy fella who probably lives in a chaotic confused household.”
Years later the Limerick man who had worked for many years in Great Victoria Street told us he had heard the expressions, ‘Och’ and ‘throughother’ more often than the chimes of the Presbyterian Assembly Buildings. “However, when I refer to a customer as an ‘amadán’ no-one follows me. Maybe it's just as well.”
One of the members of the CCCs Tuesday gang was Gerry Mann. Gerry would sit and listen to the banter but when he coughed and said, “And do ye know what?” he was sure of rapt attention with some of the company fearing they would be the subject of his discourse.
When the general election was called for December Gerry made a prophecy about change in Belfast, especially North Belfast. Gerry had long wished to see a change in the political landscape of the North Belfast constituency. During his school days he was sent to live with relations in Downpatrick for nearly two years as his parents worried about deteriorating community relationships in Rathcoole where they lived. It was only when the family moved out of Rathcoole that Gerry came back to Belfast. When the election was announced he asked me to act as proxy for him as he was ill with arthritis and other ailments.
The application was duly submitted but just a few days before the election it was discovered that the proxy voting forms had been sent to the wrong address – Park instead of Gardens. “That must be a first for you, forgetting your own address!” Gerry told me, with a straight face. He refused to believe that it might have been a clerical error.
Despite his illness he was determined to vote and on the morning of the election I picked him up and brought him to the polling station on the Shore Road which must have been more than two miles from his home address. I accompanied him into the polling station as with his mobility problems he had difficulty in opening doors. I cautioned him to not let his temper get the better of him and to stay silent. If only!
Gerry approached the desk and handed over his polling card. The clerk took the card, checked the register and with a big smile, announced, “You didn't have to come here at all today, Mr Mann. You are registered for a proxy vote.” Gerry snapped the paper as the clerk stamped it, marked it in front of him, instead of going over to the booth, folded it and put it in the canister.
So far, so good, I thought, but then when I heard his much heralded introduction, “Do ye know what?”, I knew there was a big announcement coming.
“And do ye know what? My name’s Gerry, I'm Gerry Mann and you're gerrymandering.” I watched the clerk’s face redden. And with that we exited. “Did you see his face when I said that? I thought he was going to explode,” Gerry chuckled as we left the church hall.
When the story was retold in the CCCs the following Tuesday it was followed by similar memories. Sadly we won't hear Gerry’s wit again as he passed away suddenly about three months later but the stories about him will live long in the memory.
A Belfast man out and out!