I had applied for a number of jobs before I sat the exams for Senior Certificate in 1957 and I was called for interview for the civil service in September of that year. The interviews were held in the Law Courts in Belfast and I travelled up by bus. I remember reading the newspapers on the way up and they were dominated by two topics, the Trade Union Congress and trouble in Little Rock Arkansas where the National Guard had been drafted in the ensure the registration of a black pupil in an all-white school.
The interview panel was comprised of two men and a woman and I remember being asked about both topics. The questions about the Little Rock were unremarkable. However, the woman panellist then turned to the TUC and asked me why so much attention was being paid to the this organisation compared with the deliberations of the Housewives' League, whose national conference was being held at the same time. I remember saying something to the effect that the TUC was an important industrial organisation while the Housewives' League was just a bunch of women and who would be interested in their opinions. Shock from the woman and hilarity from the men. I got the job.
I started work in the Service on 23 September 1957, about a month before the launch of the Russian Sputnik. I vividly remember, a few week after arriving, standing in the middle of Eliza Street in the Markets area of Belfast gazing up in wonder at the fleeting spark partly dimmed by the street lights.
I had been in Belfast only once before, for the job interview, and knew nobody in the place. Luckily Tommy Magill, from Carrive I think, was already working there and he set me up with digs.
The day I started work began in Parliament Buildings in Stormont, at the end of a long trolley bus ride from the city centre. I had to report there to be sworn in and be assigned to an office. In those days it was normal for a new recruit to have no idea of where he or she would wind up and many a one was packed off to far distant parts, like Enniskillen, or Dungannon, or Derry, or Newry - in fact anywhere that had a local office. They had to go there right away, without any preparation as to accommodation when they arrived.
There were two preliminaries before being handed our assignments - signing the Official Secrets Act and swearing allegiance to the Crown. At the swearing part we were presented with two bibles, a catholic and a protestant version ( I'm not sure even now what the differences are). Although I was never of a republican inclination I did have the natural antipathy to the Crown instilled in us by our background and the Christian Brothers, so to be on the "safe side" I swore on the protestant bible; possibly less binding I thought.
In the event I was sent to the Corporation Street Local Office of the Ministry of Labour and National Insurance and I made my way there with directions from the Stormont staff.
At that time the Local Office was in the middle of a large populated area, now completely obliterated by by-passes and car parks. The area had been extensively damaged during the blitz of Belfast in the Spring of 1941, with great loss of life and there were still many bare bomb sites along High Street, Bridge St, North St, Donegall St, York Street, and around St Anne's Cathedral. The office served the whole city with out-offices in Hollywood and Newtownabbey. The Manager was Norman Brown and he greeted me personally on my arrival. I can't see this happening in today's service. He made me very welcome, arranged for tea and spent over an hour telling me what the office did and what I could expect to be doing. I recall that at one stage he pointed to a long shelf of large books, called Codes, which detailed every procedure for every process in the office, and said that I would need to understand all of them. This scared the hell out of me and I decided then and there to seek a different career.
My starting salary was £292 a year, rising by 17 annual increments to £670 with an efficiency bar at£500. This worked out at about £5.12s a week. I had of course to pay my lodgings out of this and send something home. I was lucky that I had no daily travelling costs. I thought that it was reasonable pay and since I didn't drink and smoked about 10 cigarettes a day, I was content enough although for a few weeks I was lonesome for home.
Eliza Street was dominated by Inglis' Bakery which occupied half of one side of the long street. At the Cromac Street end there was a place where they cured animal skins. I hated passing this place as the stink made me gag and I got into the habit of holding my breath as I passed. Years later I had occasion to visit the premises in an official capacity and I can tell you the bouquet had not improved. Worse, the management insisted on showing me the processes involved and I was too polite to refuse. I was unable to hold my breath as long as I would have liked.
The lodgings, owned by a Mrs Minnie Duggan, a widow, were in a typical three storey terrace house. I shared an attic room with two other men - each with a single bed. The roof was low and sloped down on one side, where my bed was, so there was not much room. Mrs Duggan was a middle aged, thin, somewhat grim and careworn person who kept very much to herself; I can not recall ever having a conversation with her. She was a competent, if unimaginative cook and our fare was edible and sufficient. The only complaint I had was the "piece" I got - cheese sandwiches every single day of the 10 weeks I was there. I didn't really like cheese but was too shy and intimidated to ask for a change.
Note: I am indebted to Jim Walsh, Nashville, Tennessee, for this picture of Mrs Duggan. Jim was born and lived for his first 12 years in Eliza Street in the 1950s and recalls that Mrs Duggan had the only telephone in the street which was used by all the neighbours when needed The picture was taken at the wedding of his relatives and must have been taken in the 1940s since, although I can recognise her features, they are those of a much younger woman than I recall. Thanks Jim.
One of the other occupants of the lodgings was Gene Hughes, who came from Silverbridge, not two miles from where I had lived in Creggan. Despite this, I did not know him or his family. He was a taxi driver whose depot was just beside the Albert Clock. We became friends and I used to accompany him sometimes in the taxi, of which more anon.
What I most remember of Belfast in those days was its terrible Sundays - everywhere was closed down. There were few if any buses, shops and cinemas were closed and without a car there was nowhere to go during the day.
Although I didn't drink at all in those days but I would go with Gene to a bar, The Black Bull, on the corner of Victoria St and Albertbridge Road. The bar was owned by a man called Keegan, whose family came from Culloville, less than two miles from Crossmaglen. While he had his pint I lowered a few minerals. He would devour small jars of mussels while I had the odd boiled egg in vinegar. The bar had a television and it was here that I was introduced to Panorama and the larger than life personality of Richard Dimbleby. I have remained a fan of both, though Richard is long gone.
The one redeeming feature of Belfast was the dance halls - The Fiesta, The Plaza, The Kingsway, The Floral Hall, The Club Orchid to name but a few. Then there were the dances in the Mater Hospital - all those nurses! The big difference in the dance halls in Belfast and what I was used to back home was the availability of drink - not that this mattered to me but it worried me a little because at home most trouble at dances was caused by those who had drink taken. In Belfast however this did not seem to be as big a problem, probably because it was normal and not an issue with those organising the dances. Of course there were rows and fights but these were very efficiently controlled and seldom caused any disruption to the pursuit of romance.
Being from South Armagh I had no real conception of sectarianism and knew nothing about the tribal divisions of Belfast. Gene had the job of bringing me up a steep learning curve about the realities of city living. He introduced me to his girlfriend's sister and for a while we went about together, dances in the Kingsway and Fiesta, trips to the Castlereagh Hills, the airport at Nutts Corner, the pictures etc. The girls lived off Dee Street in East Belfast. They were from a Catholic family living in a predominantly Protestant part of the city without, at that time, any major strife. Nevertheless it was not advisable to hang around the area for too long so the coorting, such as it was, was short and sweet.
Although I wasn't really aware of it then, the Markets area of Belfast was a republican stronghold and as this was in the middle of the IRA's mid 1950s campaign there were no doubt a few active members around Eliza Street. I never found out who the lodger was that I replaced but I was stunned to find, under my mattress, a copy of the banned paper "The United Irishman" and a live bullet; at least I assumed it was live since the lead bullet head was in place. Without telling anyone of what I had found, I swiftly disposed of them - burning the paper and dropping the bullet down a drain. Had I been caught with them my career in the civil service might well have been a short one, very probably followed by a spell as a guest of Her Majesty.
There was no bath in the digs and Gene and I would make our way every Saturday to the public baths in Ormeau Avenue. For 6p or 1s, I've forgotten which, I was provided with a small bar of soap and a large rough towel and directed to a white tiled cubical where I could soak in a tub of steaming hot water for up to an hour. I really enjoyed those sessions. The baths were extremely busy as they served the whole of the Cromac Street and Lower Ormeau Road areas which was made up of streets of two up and two down terrace houses, none with baths and few with indoor toilets.
As I made my way on foot down Victoria Street to work, past the smoke blackened Victorian buildings, I was confronted by the throngs of cyclists, far more numerous than vehicles, who pedalled furiously from traffic light to traffic light. Many were shift workers in Harland and Wolfe making their way home from the night shift. The drabness of the street and their clothing, the tiredness etched on their faces and the grey of an autumn morning combined to make a scene so dismal to one used to the colour and variety of the countryside that I often started the day in a state of depression. Luckily, I have a naturally cheerful disposition so the mood didn't last.
To begin with the work was for the most part dreary and monotonous and I doubt I could have tolerated it for more than a few months. I was away from the public areas in what was called "After Pay Check" and the job consisted of checking the unemployment benefit dockets signed by the "claimants" and presented to the Pay Clerks in exchange for the money. I had to check that all the days were properly completed, that they were signed and properly stamped. After a while one started to have hallucinations; visions of dumping the lot in the waste bin and escaping or just walking out and going home swam through my blurred vision.
Luckily this phase only lasted a fortnight I was then given the task of Pay Clerk. Now this was much more responsible and interesting. The day before the payout (and there were payouts every day such was the size of the unemployed population) I would go with the Finance Officer to the Northern Bank to count and bag the next day's cash. In all my life I had never seen such mountains of money; piles of one pound notes, half crowns, florins, shillings, sixpences, threepenny bits, pennies and halfpennies. The exact proportion of these was worked out by the Finance Officer - I've no idea how he did it. When we were satisfied with the count it was carefully bagged and sealed and placed in the Vaults. The next morning the money was collected and, with a discreet police guard, taken to the office.
The public office comprised a large room with a wide, long, curved counter of just below average chest height. Along this was ranged a number of "Boxes" each holding up to 600 "claim units", one for each unemployed person. These were referred to by staff as "claimants" or "IPs" (Insured Persons); never as "punters" which was a much later crudity used by insensitive staff to describe unfortunates who relied on National Assistance, or as it was later known, Income Support.
Attendance was strictly time controlled and people had to wait in an outer area to be admitted in batches. When the doors opened there was always a stampede to the Boxes. Most people only had to attend twice a week but one group, the dockers, attended every day that they had not been selected by the stevedores. Working the docks was a harsh regime and the method of daily selection was arbitrary, open to abuse and to bribery and favouritism.
On pay day the claimant would sign the docket and take it to the Pay Clerk who stood, behind a grill, with the cash, ranged by denomination, neatly laid out in a tray. The docket was presented, checked, with the help of a second officer, against a pay sheet and if all was in order, the money passed over. The docket was then stamped to show that it had been paid.
I liked this job, people were usually pleased to be getting money and were friendlier than when simply signing-on, I was responsible for the money and had to account for every penny at the end of the session. There was a rhythm to the job, and time passed quickly. I got quite adept at counting out the right sequence of coins. When I think back the amounts were small, benefit for a single person was 6s 8d a day (£2 a week) and 4s 4d (£1.6s) for a married woman.
The kicker came at the end of the session when the remaining cash had to be reconciled with the pay sheets. Most of the time the first pass ended in a discrepancy and every transaction had to be checked and totalled. Mostly this resulted in a perfect balance but occasionally the difference could not be eliminated. Never, of course was the too much money left, always a deficit, and then there was dreary process of signing all sorts of forms.
There was a special horror of "crossed dockets", where one individual had been given the pay docket of someone else of the same name. By the nature of things, it was always the first one to be paid who got the most money and he was long gone before the rightful owner arrived. How do you get money back in these circumstances? You don't and those Codes I mentioned earlier set out, in tedious detail, all the seemingly pointless actions you had to take to sort things out.
As I said, Gene Hughes was a taxi driver and occasionally I would accompany him. I think he enjoyed the company and I suppose too it added to his personal security to have another person in the cab. The taxi office was beside the Albert Clock and it was a busy stand. With Gene I travelled all over the city although I didn't really know where I was most of the time. The occasion I remember most clearly was the arrival of a Canadian Aircraft Carrier "The Bonaventure" with its hundreds of ratings on the streets, and especially in the dancehalls. The local girls flocked to the dances and the local lads, with their noses severely dislocated, were more than ready to repel these affluent invaders, who were "taking their women". The streets, bars and dancehalls were patrolled by the naval police, in their distinctive white helmets, crossed white webbing and white batons. The taxis were very busy and what went on in the back seat was an education to me.
Gene was a member of the Armagh Men's Association, a group of expatriates from the fair county living in Belfast. The Association met weekly in a pub/restaurant in Ann St. I think it was called The White Horse. Apart from Gene and Keegan, who owned The Black Bull, the only other person I can recall who was a member was Jim Aiken from Mullaghbane, who subsequently became a successful prompter in the music scene.
My total time in Corporation St office, and in Belfast, was less than ten weeks and I was transferred to Newry in early December. Looking back it seemed longer than that because of all that was packed into such a short space of time, both in private and office life. It was my first time away from home and my first taste of freedom and after the first couple of weeks I enjoyed every minute of it.
Many years later I met Gene again in Belfast. He was by then married with a family and living on the Falls Road. He was as ebullient as ever.
Chapter Two: Newry 1957 to 1961