29 May 2006

Andytown News bids farewell to our veteran columnist Fra Coogan

Irelandclick

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usIt is with great sadness that the Andersonstown News bids adieu to one of our longest-serving columnists, Fra Coogan, who is hanging up his pen after over two decades.

For over 20 years Fra has entertained our readers through his column Down Memory Lane, giving us his colourful take on local life, places, characters and sporting heroes. Fra’s column was hugely popular and widely read and he will be sorely missed by all at the A’town News Group and, of course, by his readers. We wish Fra all the best in his retirement and thank him for the memories.

This week we have included a few of our favourite pieces.

Good Luck Fra

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Back in January 2004, Fra took one of his many trips down memory lane to revisit his memories of the Pound Loney:

I get numerous letters from all over the place either praising or criticising my efforts. There is a reader in Calgary in Canada who, over the past 15 years or so, has been assaulting me with an onslaught upon my ‘off-the-top-of-the-head ranting’. However, the one redeeming feature is he always finishes with, “for God’s sake Fra don’t stop as your articles cause more rows in our local than George Bush and Saddam put together”. The letter that put me on this track came from a young fellow, I don’t know the lad but if he took the time to both read and comment on my writing I deem it only courtesy to reply.

I must tell you I took a break from writing to watch Laurel and Hardy in their famous piano routine, sorry to digress, but every time I see that pair in action it cheers me up no end.

My new pal begins his letter, “A Chara, hello Fra, I know you come in for some criticism from time to time for getting facts wrong. Some people should realise you are writing about 40 or 50 years ago, most people can’t remember what they were doing a week ago, so fair play.” Thanks, I do my best.
He goes on, “The reason I am writing you this letter is you mentioned my granda’s name, John Curoe, who lived at 32 Massareene Street.”

He goes on to add that his grandmother was Christine Curoe and her brother was Paddy O’Reilly, a life-long member of the Roddy’s. I knew Paddy well for years and he was some craic. The granny he’s talking about used to live in Kenard Avenue just around the corner from me, many’s the yarn I had with her and her daughters about the old times in the Loney.

He also states that like most ‘post-Loney’ kids he was brought up on a diet of stories of the Pound Loney and how wonderful it was. He says he sometimes feels he grew up in the Loney himself and he says he has heard of all the characters from Pig Meneely to some woman called ‘Burnshy McAteer’ – what a name! He recalls he was told of the half-moon circles spotlessly scrubbed at the front door and the sharing of cups of sugar and pots of soup on Sundays.

I am surprised he hadn’t heard of Martha Ward’s famous apple cakes that were a must on Sundays. Martha is a relative of twins Frank and George Gillen. He mentions Paddy Lidster, the newspaper and ‘Tele’ king, Patsy Robb the lamplighter and he goes on, “Anyway the main reason I wrote the letter is that you write mainly for the people of that era. I know there are possibly thousands of people like myself who grew up with the myths of the Loney but were too young – or perhaps not even born – to remember it.

“It would be great if I could tell some stories about the times and the people. What about the dance halls and the everyday existence of the ordinary people?”

My reply is that over the years I have written about the things that have made the Loney a place of myths in its own right. Every district I have written about lays claim to its own identity, such as Carrick Hill, Sailortown, Beechmount, Whiterock, the other side of Albert Street, Iveagh, Ardoyne and the Strand.

The Loney had three things that made it stand out for me: the Shelbourne football team, the Immaculata boxing club and, perhaps the most important of all, St Peter’s Cathedral, or pro-Cathedral as it was back then. To the young lad who took the trouble to write me such a welcome note, thanks again for your letter and I will try and do what you ask – in the meantime you look after yourself and take it easy.

Always remember the Groucho Marx saying: “When the eagle flies high there’s an Indian behind every rock”. And, yes, you’re right – I am crackers!

Good Luck.
.......................

Taking a wander down Abbey Street, Fra tells an entertaining tale of his past professions and favourite occupations:

“I started work as an apprentice dental mechanic with Armstrong and O’Brien in May Street and was paid off for smiling at the receptionist with somebody else’s teeth”

What first caught my eye when I was handed this photograph by big John McGeough from Spinner Street was the little boy sitting at his granny’s feet. I’ve seen that obstinate look on a thousand faces down the years. It’s like looking into a mirror and for me it sends out only one message which is simply, ‘I don’t need or want your sympathy, I’ll survive’.

The location is over at Peter’s Hill, a place called Abbey Street, and the year is 1901. And despite all the ostentation of the Edwardian era the working class people of Belfast along with those in other major cities all over Ireland found life a grim struggle. I didn’t step on to the world stage until 40 years after this picture and employment was still at a low ebb.

Let’s start in the year 1940 when myself, my mother and father lived at Mickey McQuillan’s house in Cullingtree Road. Mickey had a music shop in Smithfield and was a friend of my father’s for years.
My father and his brother Joe were put in Crumlin Road Jail in 1942 and my mother, who was very young, took me to her granny and grandad, who lived at Stanhope Street. The street had a number of well-known dockers living in it and it was always my ambition to try and become one. McCue and Dick’s timber yard was the closest I got when I was selected for their famous, or infamous, ‘dock squad’.

Our next move was to my mother’s family, the Friels, who lived at 71 Stanfield Street down the Markets. The head of the house was Johnny Friel who was employed as a foreman drover in the abattoir. His wife, Annie, was a dealer and had me delivering groceries all over the Markets – I loved it.
My first real job was as a message boy for J. Smyth who had his record shop in Queen Street. And yes, I had a bicycle with the big carrier basket at the front, but I didn’t last long.

The year was about 1952 and I had a couple of heavy boxes of records to bring over to the Strand. The six boxes of records were all of Jo Stafford singing the No. 1 hit ‘Allentown Jail’. I nearly ended up in it! I was cycling down Wellington Place when I spotted a load of horse dung on my shoe.
I took my right foot off the pedal to have a better look at it and in doing so I put my foot through the spokes and myself and Jo Stafford ended down the steps of the Cotter’s Kitchen.

Every single record was ruined. Being the hero that I am I just walked away and left Jo and co lying there. I pushed the bike up to Mr Smyth who looked at me and just said, “You’re fired and don’t come back!” Relief flooded through me.

I started work as an apprentice dental mechanic with Armstrong and O’Brien in May Street and was paid off for smiling at the receptionist with somebody else’s teeth. I then started as an apprentice fancy baker along with my Aunt Aggie. The master baker was a giant of a man named Sidney Torrens who specialised in showing off his genius as a master baker. One of my life-long mates, Danny ‘Rocky’ Radcliffe, got a start and he got the both of us sacked when he burnt 2,000 fancy biscuits that Sidney termed his ‘Jaffa Gems’.

I next moved to McCue and Dick’s and it was here I learnt about hard work, but I loved it. There wasn’t a lot of time for thinking about poverty, life was great. I just lived for football and was playing for both the Immaculata and Hibs and the Belfast Schools team at Croke Park. I was fortunate to be still playing when I was nearly 40. I was blessed with great mates all my life. A lot of them are gone but the memories are still there and always will be.

Although I’ve had my fair share of hard times just as everyone else has, I think the great song 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' was meant for me. Then again we had never heard of drugs and a knife was for making yourself a sandwich.

Good luck.

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