Down memory lane with Fra Coogan

Well folks, never mind weapons of mass destruction or I'm a Celebrity - the big debate over the past couple of weeks has been about a district whose very existence I questioned. I was completely wrong. 'The Pool' is exactly as Bap Fitzpatrick said: 'round about Sultan Street'.

I must add that I wasn't alone in my ignorance. Those who agreed with Bap were in the minority. Not surprising really, as this particular name for the district was used by a certain breed of men who used the district as a sort of recruiting place for anyone who was interested in joining the Merchant Navy. Getting a stint on Kelly's coal boats was the stepping stone to a life on the ocean wave. The Pool was one of the main avenues for getting on the romantic sea routes of the world. I should have guessed this as I knew all the guys who, as they say, “went to sea” and in this area literally hundreds were lucky enough to see the world and earn a good living at the same time. Lucky might be the wrong word as they had to graft on Kelly's coal boats to be considered - hard, backbreaking work.

I remember how jealous I was when any of these sea dogs walked into the Hibs dance with their tanned faces, their black hair and white glistening teeth, mohair suit and Italian slip-ons. It was even worse if they came in with the other working class elite of the fifties and sixties - the bold, swaggering dockers who seemed to look down on ordinary mortals like myself, who carried 9”x3” mahogany planks in McCue and Dicks for a living. I'd have given my right arm to have been a deep seaman or a button docker. They were the kings of the Plaza dance hall and they let you know it!

This painting is the work of one of the city's best known artists, John Burns, who believe it or not, qualifies as a Pool-dweller. John comes from Belgrade Street and his father was a roof tiler. I worked with John at the tiling and I can tell you I considered tile-carrying to be a harder game than hod-carrying, or maybe let's say it was much more dangerous, which is the main reason I became a hod carrier.

Charlie McAlisker (RIP) was a bricklayer but also worked on the boats and in his youth he boxed for the Immaculate. A couple of other Belgrade Street men were the Cooney Brothers, Vincent and Bobby, who are both great film buffs. Big Billy Brownlee is one of the Road's best known dart throwers and also one of the nicest men you could meet. His mate at St Corngall's was Jamesy Carson (RIP) from Cuillingtree Road who also boxed all his life and claimed a remarkable victory over world bantamweight champion Alphonse Halimi. After the fight Jimmy hit Halimi a playful kick on the backside - Halimi just laughed.

The painting shows what I would consider to be one of the main entrances into the Pool district. Panton Street is of course, better known as the home of the famous Shots billiards hall. The Shots was run by Simy Clarke and it made Rick's Place seem like the Adoration Centre - “Knock three times and ask for Joe” was the password for getting in.

Mickey Hamill's bar was called after one of Belfast Celtic's legendary centre-halfs and was owned by the Hamill family. The Centre Half bar was one of the best sing-song venues on Saturday nights at a time when sing-songs were the whole go on the Falls.

I'm trying to get on to the unending list of the men who became Merchant Navy stalwarts. In the mid-sixties Hamill's Bar became McKennas. The pawn on the other corner was Lavery's with McCluskey's greengrocers just beside it at the top of Milliken Street (I'll get to these seamen yet!). In this small area of the Falls you had the Diamond, Clonard, Falls Baths, Morelli's ice cream parlour, the Dolphin, the Hibs, Rice's fishmonger's, Valet Dry Cleaners, Walsh's, Farry's, Tassy Malocco's and the Wee Park.

Now it's time to put to sea. I have to start the Merchant Navy saga with big Mickey McQuade and his son who are now captains of their own ships. I haven't seen Mickey for a while, but Mickey, if you have any old suits or shirts lying spare don't forget about me! Mickey gave me a great suit at a party in Maxie McDonnell's house one Saturday night a million years ago. I wore it for years.

Neilly Coyle was a great Hibs mate of mine in those carefree days. Neilly and big Charlie McCann are two lifers on the ocean's waves but would prefer a pint down in the Celtic Bar or the Davitts. Nelly came from Spinner Street but had been in Australia for umpteen years. Seamus Meredith was on the boats for years and used to work in a butcher's shop on the falls during breaks. Then we had the Clarkes, the Wards, the Dempseys, Peter and Joe Sharpe, Tommy O'Connor, Patsy Sloan, big Frankie Lowe (RIP) from Scotch Street who ended up setting up home in Oz, Jim Lowe, Fra Brady, who lived next door to us in Currie Street - he married a Maori girl and has settled in New Zealand, I haven't seen him in years.

I had many's a yarn with a lot of these men and they all said the same thing: “It was no easy way to earn a living.” They weren't griping but they explained that months at sea could take its toll. Still, I would love to have been on the deck of a ship sailing into New York or Rio - it all seemed so impossibly exotic in those days - still does, I suppose.

The main Pool office was in Tomb Street where the men got their chits and apparently headed straight into Maguire's Bar or McCusker's at the corner of Gamble Street. Mark Duffy and Eddie Fleming lived next door to each other just beside John Turk's bookies. Tom Maguire's pub was in Garmoyle Street on the corner of Ship Street. What annnoyed a few people I asked about the Pool was when I told then I played football with Maguire's head barman Davy Saunders from the Bone. Davy was a great goalkeeper who played for big Johnny Logan's great Lodgeville side and the newsboys team that had scholar Largey and big Patsy Reid - a hard duo to pass.

It's near time I wrapped up, so I'll just remind readers that the other side of Albert Street was indeed at one time nicknamed the Pool. I have left out a million guys who all went to sea such as Wille Mervyn, Frankie McCabe (RIP), Nick McCalion - apologise to anyone I have omitted, it's not intentional.

I must ask, does anyone know were a great mate of mine named Peter Smith from Cape Street is? He was a fitter in the Merchant Navy and went on a trip many years ago and I never saw him again. It must be nearly 40 years now, so if anyone knows what became of him, or if you're reading this Peter, drop me a line.

Courtesy of the Anderstown News
February 2004