Seaside memories: Owen O'Neill's Bangor bygones
Cookstown comedian, writer and poet Owen O'Neill will be appearing at this year's Aspects Literary Festival in Bangor. To help get us in the mood, the Co Tyrone comic has dredged his memory banks for some special memories of an eventful day by the seaside long ago.
IT WAS 1976 and the sun was splitting the trees, hottest summer in Bangor for 10,000 years – or at least since July 1690.
Myself and Hooter Nugent had thumbed all the way from Cookstown. Hooter had a notion of a girl who worked in a cafe on the High street who he'd met at a dance in Cookstown Town Hall.
I can't remember her name. It may have been Ronda, or Sondra, something weird like that.
She was a farmer's daughter from Aughintober, had a cast in her eye and long wavy copper hair. Sometimes she wore a patch over her good eye and I was never sure if she was looking at me or Hooter.
She served us two cans of Fanta and never charged us for the Paris buns.
Occasionally she would stare at the both of us and laugh like a Hyena. We never knew why she did this and we never asked.
She said she would be finished at half four and told me not to be a Gooseberry. I had no idea what that meant. I'd never heard the expression before.
Hooter said he thought it meant that I wasn't to be bitter and green with jealously because he had a girlfriend and I was alone in the world with ginger hair.
Compared to Cookstown, Bangor seemed to me then like some kind of sparkling sea-side paradise. The ice creams were bigger, all the houses had signs that said no vacancies.
It was the first time I saw a seagull and was shocked when one, the size of a goose, swooped at me and tried to steal my chips.
At half past four exactly, Ronda, or Sondra, appeared beside us on the summer seat, took Hooter's hand and told me they were going to Ballyholme beach.
She told me to enjoy my chips and they wandered off along the promenade. I licked the inside of the chip bag and watched them until they disappeared.
Five minutes later, a drunk man who had been lying under a tree near the summer seat approached me and asked could I sing Six Miles From Bangor to Donagadee.
I told him I couldn't and he said the song was a lie anyway – it wasn't six miles he had walked it manys a time and it was actually seven miles from Bangor to Donagadee.
He said the songwriter probably knew this, but also knew that seven had two syllables and didn't scan so he made it six. He then started to sing "It's seven miles from Bangor to Donagadee! Turralurra lee. It's seven miles from Bangor to Donagadee!"
He had my arm in a vice-like grip and was waltzing me around the pavement, singing at the top of his voice.
I remember he was actually quite a good singer.
He told me his name was Bandy Andy, because when he was a child he had Rickets. I had no idea what Rickets was.
It was the first time I had drank cider. It was called Blackthorn Cider and it tasted sweet and gorgeous. Bandy Andy told me it would put lead in my pencil.
I learnt so many new phrases that day in Bangor.
By half-past six I was paralytic drunk and singing 'It's seven miles from Bangor to Donagadee. The police arrived, put Bandy Andy and I in the car and took us to the police station.
I told them I was from Cookstown and had come down for the day with my friend Hooter Nugent.
The policeman asked me my name and for some reason I told him it was Jimi Hendrix. Luckily, he hadn't a clue who Jimi Hendix was and printed my name on the charge sheet as 'JIMMY HENDRICKS'.
They eventually let me go. I went back to the summer seat and that's where Hooter and Ronda, or Sondra, found me fast asleep.
We eventually made it home about half-past ten. Cookstown seemed drab and grey, but I was glad to be home.
I drank Blackthorn Cider many times after that and I still have an aversion to seagulls.
I'm back in Bangor on September 23 to do my poetry/comedy storytelling show for the Aspects Festival and I hope to have as much fun as I did in 1976.
Be good to see you all again – Bandy Andy will get in free, of course.
:: Owen O'Neill – Red Noise, Friday September 23, Aspects Festival Yurt, Bangor Castle Walled Garden, 9.30pm. Tickets (£12) and full programme information from Aspectsfestival.com.