We have previously several times mentioned The Valley, the area of our town centred on Cecil Street.
A number of notable families originally hail from this area perhaps the most famous individual being the late Frank Hall who was the most popular compere on RTE for decades. As noted, Rames McGuigan and his forebear Pater McGuigan, boy soldier, came from Cecil Street as did the late Hugh Golding, the Kiernans, Rodgers, Gambles and many more. These are the reminiscences of the late and very popular Gerry Magee of Derrybeg, father of Gerard Magee.
‘Frank Hall’s mother was a Golding and his father Jack was an American soldier. You will recall too Joe McGuigan who was a long-time mainstay of the St John Bosco Club, boxing being his sport and very popular it was too with the young lads of the time. Dan McEnerney, another local, invested his talents, time and effort in St Patrick’s Band. The Rodgers’ was a ‘railway’ family, the station and lines lying just behind our homes. Myles Connolly of Cecil Street became a local Councillor. Local man Johnny Lynch lost his life in the canal while saving the life of a boy, P J Devine.
The 20s and 30s were hard times. If you ate meat on Christmas Day you were lucky, and it would be the only time. Entertainment was of the home-made variety. Liz Garland’s shop at the top of the street had a huge loft behind that we dubbed the Queen’s Theatre. Jack Brady put on concerts and dramas here on Sunday nights. If you didn’t have the 6d admission you could get in for an empty jam jar or porter bottle. Terry Ruddy at the time had a successful band and the players were less than appreciative. They’d come along to heckle. They had just cause. But Jack would strut the stage threatening the hecklers that he knew their names and their mothers! The plays were badly rehearsed and the actors never knew their lines. Floodlights were oil lamps wrapped around with different coloured crepe paper. You can guess what happened!
Once for a nativity play Jack insisted he parade a donkey on stage. He couldn’t find a donkey and made do instead with a cart horse of Frank Maguire’s. Sadly when the horse disguised as a donkey took to the stage he went through the floor. The poor animal went berserk trying to free itself. In the end someone had to be found to come and shoot it. Frank was less than pleased.
‘Night life’ in the Valley saw residents take their chairs into the middle of the street to play music and sing and dance to the early hours. ‘Wakes’ were another popular form of social gathering. I recall one woman waking her husband who enjoyed this so much she waked him for seven nights till people stopped coming for the smell of decomposition.
People then were scared of ghosts. There was one about the Victoria Hotel on the street and even the men folk wouldn’t pass that building at night unaccompanied!
Johnny Brothers, an ex-British soldier with an appropriate handle-bar moustache was another character of the time. To answer sectional flag-flying at seasonal times of the year, Johnny hung out a loaf of bread from his window to signify where his priorities lay! Jack Magee of Magennis Street, Chief Ranger of the Foresters was another character who would bedeck himself in full regalia to advertise his allegiance regardless of that of his neighbours.
Rames McGuigan and I one time found a discarded window dummy outside a clothes shop on Monaghan Street. We dressed it up in old clothes and threw it in the canal. Soon half the town was cordoned off as Sergeant Junk called in the divers to retrieve the ‘drowned man’.
‘Junk’ was a rough and violent individual who liked to show his authority. He advocated this line with rookie cops who would occasionally patrol with him. Then he’d pick on some poor inebriated soul on his way home and demonstrate. With a push, shove or even a blow he’d remonstrate the individual, ‘Get home to your wife and children, you drunken bum!’ He made a serious error one night when the man he picked on, Tommy Grattan, was the current Ulster Boxing Champion. With a single left hook, Tommy flattened him. The startled rookie was fixed to the spot. ‘Do you want some too?’ Tommy demanded.
‘No, Sir,’ he replied.
Junk got up, dusted himself down and sidled away.
‘Tommy’s in quare bad form the night, that he can’t take a joke,’ he said.
One time I was standing outside Minnie Ward’s shop on Hill Street, said Gerry. A man ran past and up the alley towards the Back of the Dam. A police man [not Junk!] was in hot pursuit. Next I heard three shots. I followed. The gate out of the alley was locked and the man, Tommy Carr had tried to scale it when he was mown down. I saw him slumping to the ground. He was taken into Kane’s Hotel (later the Boulevard) where he died.
People will tell you those were the good old days. Anything but. I worked six days a week for the equivalent of 60p. My mother and father never ever saw the inside of a picture house. Our parents slaved day and night in mills in deplorable conditions. But neighbours would help one another.
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The story on “the Valley”was very interesting, especially the part about Johnny Brothers. I am the grandson of Johnny Brothers. My mother was Kathleen Brothers. I as born in “The Valley”. My uncle Jamsie was involved in those plays in Pauline Garlands’.
Jamsie emigrated to the US,his wife is still alive,she is about 90yrs old,she lives with her son Phil in Arizona,she has another son in Virginia and a daughter in New Jersey they were all born in New York.
Oh! one more thing,Johnny Brothers has a daughter living in Warrenpoint and a grandson in Newry.