Mem’ries o oul Newtownards

Author: Hugh Robinson

Date: 1997

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 5 Simmer1997

Noo, Ah suppose iverybody haes a hame-toon. A hame-toon or village, or some wee place that in their hairt o hairts they ca hame. The place we were boarn in, the place o sweet chilehuid mem’ries, the friens we grew up wi, an the schuils we gaed tae.

Fer me, thon place is Newtownards, Newton we ca’d it, in the sweet Coonty Doon. Ah was boarn here. Sae was my parents, an ma ain weans, an their weans. Yin belovit dauchter, Donna, lies in the cemetary at the oul Movilla Abbey. Aye. There’s monie things that binds ma hairt tae this place.

Ah was boarn in Greenwell Street. Ah wunner what history lies in that name. What daes the Greenwell mean? Tae me it paints a picture o a cool clear wal o spring water, a leafy loanen, an a clatter o wee hooses scattered aboot. Noo, maybe it wasny really like that. But it micht hae been.

Hitler’s war o mass-murder an extermination was still ragin in Europe whun Ah was born in Greenwell Street. Ma faither, Frank, like mony ither brave men o the toon pit on a uniform an went tae fecht fer liberty an peace. Like mony ithers, he didny cum bak. His name, an theirs, can be foon on the War Memorial at the oul Bowlin Green in Castle Street.

When ma mither Ivy died four year later ma sister Ann an masel was taen tae leeve wi oor granparents John an Annie McLaughlin in Ballyhay, a toonlan that is gye dear tae me yit.

But hoo we looked forrit tae Saturday moarnins whun oor granparents tuk us up tae Newton on the bus. Whiles Ah went roon the shops wi my grannie an Ann, an specially the grocers shop rin by Joe Kerr an his oul faither in High Street.

Even noo, aa these years later Ah can smell the reek yit of the loose tay in the silver-lined tay-kist. A hunner-wecht bag o sugar sut at the en o the coonter, an, like the tay, was scooped oot and packaged accordin tae yer ain requirements. The loose biscuits was picked oot fae a braw gless-framed mahogany cabinet an ivery soart o biscuit had its ain wee compartment. The sweet smell o American apples, each as big as a man’s nieve an as bricht as a billiard ba, added tae the heady aroma o the oul-farrant wee shop. Grocers shops dinny smell like that onymair.

Ma grannie aye bocht her sausages fae Mawhinney’s butcher shop in the Square. Ah can still see the creamy-rid carcases o the slauchtered bastes hingin up ootside, an Mr Mawhinney, a stout wee man wi a blue an white striped apern an a peaked cap haulin them intae the shop to be cut up as needit. In them days the guid wifies jist pointed tae the piece o the baste she wantit an Mr Mawhinney was gart set tae wark wi meat-cleaver an hammer an hack-saw tae secure it on the spot. A bit o tissue paper was pit on the scales an the meat tossed on tae it. The price was ca’d an if agreed the joint was wrapped up in a piece o broon paper an tied wi string. Aa before yer very een !

But ma main interest in Newton on a Saturday mornin was tae gan wi ma granda tae the pig an cattle market in the sale-yaird alangside Jeffersons pub jist forenent the Oul Cross — where the Electric Showrooms noo stans. Entry tae the yaird was through a big gateway that apened up tae accommodate a square o white-washed ramshackle buildins, maistly pig an cattle-pens. The bastes in the yard were monie an varied, an them that came tae dale for them were nae less so.

Gentlemen fairmers, wi tweed caps an yella waistcoates, an speakin wi such cultivated voices Ah wunnered what sich gran people were daein here in the stench an stour an clabber o the sale-yaird. Cattle-drovers, clarty an un-kept, glar tae the ee-broos an carryin stoot blackthorn sticks tae drive the bastes tae their ultimate destination an jist as much at hame in the muck an gutters as the bastes theirsels. An there was real fairmers, dressed jist like my granda in a rouch heavy overcoat, stoot broon boots, a duncher, an a ragged muffler roon the neck.

But the star o the moarnin wi’oot a doot was the auctioneer. There was a buzz o excitement as he left his wee office at the back o the yaird an pushed his way tae the middle o the sale-ring. Noo, he belanged tae the tweed cap an yella waistcoat brigade an wore a heavy canvas overcoat an a pair o knee-length water-boots.

The autioneer strode up quick tae his high desk at the centre o the ring, leanin slightly on his ain blackthorn that would serve the dual purpose o pokin some life intae ony baste o a lethargic disposition, an as a means o defence agin an ower-aggressive bull or boar forbye. He shuffled some papers on his desk. Then he looked roon the assembled gatherin, much as a clergyman micht survey his congregation, nae sae much tae see who was there, but wha wasny.

Satisfied, he nodded solemn-like tae a skinny wee drover at the back o the crood. The man apened a gate an ushered a Lanrace soo, near ready tae pig, intae the ring.

The auctioneer proceeded tae enumerate the mony attributes o this fine pig, an was that successful Ah wunnered why the man at owned the splendid baste cud possibly bear tae be pairted frae it. But this didny deter the bids comin in thick an fast. The auctioneer’s eagle ee swept the ring, notin ivery touch o the neb, ivery raise o the eebroo, ivery couch, ivery nod o the heid. To a seasoned campaigner like him ivery yin was a bid, just as sure as it was writ doon an signed at the bottom. But the signs were sae discreet I catched very few o them, an fer a while I thoucht the auctioneer was biddin agin hissel as his was the only voice tae be heerd, rattlin awa in a machine-gun like stacatto.

“Twunty five pun Ah’m offered — thirty pun — come on noo men — forty — thank ye sir — forty five pun gentlemen — fifty — fifty five, dae Ah heer saxty — thank ye sir, saxty, saxty pun noo gentlemen, saxty pun I’m offered. Saxty pun noo gentlemen — it’s no enough — saxty six pun — saxty seven — saxty echt pun gentlemen. Dae I hear ony mair at saxty echt pun? Are ye aa daen at saxty-echt pun? For the last time o askin then gentlemen? Are ye all finished at saxty-eight pun?”

They were. The auctioneer banged his wooden mallet doon haird an declared that the finest pig in Ireland had been sowl tae a gentleman at the front o the ring, wha as far as Ah cud see had tuk nae pairt in the proceedins whatsoever.

When it was aa iver, an especially if he’d got a guid price fer his ain litter o pigs, ma granda micht hae repaired wi pig-daler Herbie Beattie an his sinn Sylvan tae the Red Heairt Bar at the corner o Conway Square an Frances Street on the site that rins up tae Meetinhoose Lane.

While the men were doonin their pints ma granny an Ann an masel foon oor pleasure in a big saxpenny slider o ice-cream frae The Orchard, better known as Charlotte Herrons, richt nixt dure tae the pub. Charlotte was a toaty wee wumman at wore a black beret an a lang black iverall that reached somewhore near tae her ankles. Charlottes shop was famous amang Newtown folk as a fish n chip emporium. But she sowl ither stuff as weel, includin piles o fresh fruit an vegetables that ye had tae literally climb ower jist tae get intae the shop.

Maggie Berry was anither character aye tae be seen aboot the toon in them days. Maggie aye pushed an oul ramshackle pram roon the streets. Ah dinny ken what was in the pram, but it certainly wasny a baby. Maggie was best known for the love an care she lavished on the pigeons in Conway Square. Maist efternoons an evinins ye wud see her sut on a seat ootside the Toon Hall feedin her feathered friens. Ah dinny suppose Maggie was ower-fed hersel. But her pigeons niver went hungry. An when Maggie deed there wasny ower mony floral tribuites. But there was yin that said it aa. The card read, simply, but eloquently: FROM THE PIGEONS.

Anither oul character at scarred the life oot o me, though no on purpose, was Joe Blake. Joe was a harmless sowl, but in protest agin the fashion the weemin had tuk tae o wearin slacks an men’s breeks, Joe donned skirts an blooses an broad-brimmed ladies hats. Wi his long matted rid hair, swirlin skirts an men’s boots he was a strange lukkin sight dannerin roon the toon wi his shoppin bag filled wi groceries. By aa acoonts Joe was a larned man an he swum affen up at the High Dam. No a safe place tae sweem!

Anither oul-timer from them days was the weel-kent William James McCauley. Fer the want o a better hame William James resided in an airraid shelter on the tide-bank at the edge o Strangford Lough. To earn a copper or twa he gien impromptu performances o singin an dancin roon the streets. At the stairt o ivery performance he doffed his duncher an introduced himsel as “the famous William James McCauley fae Northern Ireland” an at the finish he was the first tae lead aff in a roon o applause fer himsel. His audience o street urchins at sut alang the edge o the cribben-staines tae see the yin man show rarely had a penny tae their name. But oor parents made sure William James aye had tae pick a few coppers frae his hat afore he pit it back on his heid.

Meetinhouse Lane affords a good clue as to what originally stood there. But Ah mind it best as the hame o the Ritz Cinema at fronted on tae Frances Street. Whiles on a Saturday afternoon Ah’d be alooed tae gan tae the matinee at the Ritz, or maybe the Regent at the corner o Regent Street an Gibsons Lane.

Ah think Ah liked the Ritz best. Maybe that was because o the splendid rid an blue ABC neon sign whase vivid colours intermingled an seemed tae flow in rivers alang the shiny black road on a dark rainy nicht. Or maybe it was because the Manager, Mr Campbell Morrison, was aye sae immaculately attired in fu evenin-dress, complete wi bow-tie an tails, even for the matinee performance we went tae.

There aye seemed to be hunners o us waitin tae get intae the Ritz on a Saturday efternoon an the queue trailed doon Meetinhoose Lane near as far as High Street. Aa ages was representit, aa shapes, aa sizes, aa classes, lauchin, gigglin, gulderin, duntin an shovin, graspin paper pokes of dolly-mixtures an mooths stuffed wi brandy-ba’s an gub-stappers. Great days! Great fun!

As a very young wean Ah went tae Castle Gairdens Primary Schuil, named efter the castle that had stood close by centuries bafore. The late Dora Baxter an a Miss Savage taucht me there. But Ah finished my education at Newtownards Technical College, the ‘oul’ Tech that stood in Sooth Street an that is the Ards Arena noo. Conditions were rouch eneuch, an Ah certainly didny set my mind tae dae very much in the way o larnin. But what a wunnerful array o characters there was that made a valiant attempt tae knock some larnin knowledge intae oor thick skulls. Mr ‘Spud’ Murphy taught Mechanical Drawin, a subject for which Ah had nae aptitude whatsaeiver. Spuds penalty for an un-completed hamework was an on the spot fine o 3d (yin an a hauf pence) an an invitation tae join him in “the morgue” (detention). Ah handed ower mony a three-D-bit an received mony sich invitations. The immaculate bow-tied Mr Burrowes was a Scotchman at was aye impressin on us the beauties o Shakespeare, the writin skills o his fellow country-man John Buchan, an recitin his favourite poem ‘Sir Patrick Spens’. The poem wasny bad an Ah can still mind the openin lines.

The King sits in Dunfermline town,

Drinkin his blude-red wine

O whare will I get a skeely skipper

To sail this new ship o mine?

Mr Wallace ‘Bouncer’ Broon was probably the maist teuch maister in the hale schuil, but weel respectit by aa wee fellas at enjoyed his caustic wit, if no the dunt on the heid he administered tae us gye an affen. The cloot on the heid didny dae us a button o hairm. But it larnt us a lot in the way o discipline an respect.

Mr Albert McIlroy larnt us English. Like Mr Broon, he leeved in Newton. He was a full time teacher, part-time church minister, whiles a candidate for the Liberal Party, an when they werny daein ower weel, a candidate for the Labour Party. But Ah hae min o him best fer the whussles an roars o approval he drew when he giv oot he was gan tae read us a romance.

“Not THAT sort of romance, you silly boys!” he roared, rid-faced an wavin his book in the air. “A SCOTTISH romance! John Buchan! The Thirty Nine Steps!” Ah niver saw a school wi sae mony Scotchmen, an ivery yin o them a disciple o John Buchan.

But Ah coudny get left schuil quick eneuch. When Ah was fifteen Ah gien up the Tech an went tae work in Walkers Flax Mill that stood on the canal bank at Canal Row an gien wurk tae aboot hauf the Airds Peninsula. Ah wrocht on nummer fower machine wi Eddie Mullan, nephew o the wee blin fiddler at leeved somewhore aboot Aist Street. But because o the deefinin noise o the machinery the ainly time we cud share a word o conversation was at dinner time. Efter aboot sax weeks Ah gien up the mill.

Thon was heady days for Airds Fitbaa Club an Castlereagh Park was the place tae be as the team liftit the Irish League title unner manager George Eastham for the ainly time in the club’s history. Ah can still mind sim o the team: Smyth, Moffat, Hunter, McGuiken, Forde, Humphries, Lawther, Richardson …

Efter the match on Saturday evenin it was bak tae the Ritz or the Regent. But no tae see my oul heroes at used tae ride the range in them lang days o innocence an lauchter. Roy Rogers an Gabby Hayes an Trigger had lang ago rid aff intae the sunset, an Ah nae no langer sut in the front stalls. Noo it was the best sate in the hoose for me. An when the pictures were ower it was jist a wee dander doon tae the big Cafollas in the Square for a fish supper an a bottle o Iron Brew. That was a big nicht oot an we were maistly hame by eleven o’clock.

Anither favourite cafe was Nancy Cafolla’s at the corner o Mary Street an Frances Street. Nancy was a tall guid-lookin lady wi jet black hair, usually tied back in a pony-tail. She wore lang danglin ear-rings an whiles the ither sort that looked like curtain rings. But they were aye gowd, and Nancy’s expressive een aye flashed an sparkled abain the ready smile that aye played aboot her finely featured face. There was a brave sadness in the toon when Nancy, then an oul lady, passed awa a wheen o years bak.

But in them days Nancy had a juke-box in her wee cafe, an Ah think that’s what drew us boys tae it. Ye cud while awa an hoor or twa ower a bottle o Iron Brew while listenin tae the hit sangs o Frankie Laine an Guy Mitchell an the newcomer Elvis Presley. An Nancy even had a tellyvision stuck up on a shelf jist abain the dure so ye cud enjoy Lonnie Donnegan on the Six Five Special in glorious black an white on the 14 inch screen.

Aroon that time Ah can mind some o the ouler generation comin aff wi a wee ditty Ah niver hear noo:

Donaghadee’s a dirty wee hole, and Bangor’s fu o ashes,

But when ye come tae Newtownards toon ye’ll see the bonny wee lasses.

No great poetry, an Ah wudny hae been in agreement wi the first twa sentiments. But Ah hale-hairtedly endorsed the third an took a Newton girl, Betty, for ma wife. We set up hame in a wee hoose in Robert Street. The rent? Ten bob, or if you like, fifty pence a week.

What a great wee toon Newton is, an still gan strang efter echt or nine hunner year o history. John Wesley, the great Methodist preacher declared the Gospel o Christ in oor beautifu Toon Haw, at was yince the market hoose. A hunner year later Bill Haley, the King o Rock n Roll rocked the nicht awa in the Queens Haw. World War Twa hero Blair Mayne was a Newton man. Royality has walked oor streets. The toon has spawned sportsmen, artists, writers, an musicians like Ottillie Patterson the world famous jazz an blues singer. Aye, an they’re jist a sample o them wha haes brung fame an honour tae the toon.

An whiles, maist o aa, in the queet o an evenin, Ah dander roon the oul Raas an the oul lanes. Mindin, jist mindin. An then, as the sun begins tae set behin Scrabo Hill Ah wend my way hame wi a gratefu hairt for aa that this place means tae me. An Ah ken Ah belang here. In Newtownards. My hame toon.

Hugh Robinson

• • • • •

Sammy, a Ballymorran farmer, had a very tidy place. The dwalling hoose and offece hooses wur thatched wi’ a very thick coatin o’ thatch.

A local handyman, who merried late in life, had very big teeth (he cudda scobed a turnip through the bars o’ a gait), an’ his wife gat him tae grow a moustache. It made his mooth look worse because it was like a yard brush.

Sammy wus comin alang the road yin day in the horse an’ cart an’ met him.

He driv the meer straicht at ’im, and shouted, “Turn yer back, Tam, turn yer back, she thinks it’s the stable dor.”

• • • • •

Aul’ Jo’n Merheid wus aye used wi’ big horses. Whun the syn taen ower the farm he bocht in a new horse that wus very wee, nae bigger nor a cob, an’ the aul’ man wus sairly disappointed whun ’e sa’ it.

“It’ll grów, da, it’ll grów,” sayed the syn. “It wull,” sayed the aul’ man, “but ye nivver sa’ a moose grówing inty a rat, yit.”

• • • • •

Walter T, usety gan roon the Killinchy district, on a bicycle, buying empty bägs.

He bocht a pownie and a flat van, and whun he wus driving by a naybur, the naybur shouted, “Ah say, boy, your gettin’ up in the wurl.”

“Ah am,” sayed Walter, “but Ah hae a brave bit tae rise yit, afore Ah bump ma heid.”



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