'I opened my arms and said ‘go ahead' – they gave him a 10 glass bottle of whiskey as a spot prize. That was the last time I let anybody go in front of me'
Running the Great Wall of China to mark his 80th birthday, taking the scenic route to represent Ireland and eyeing up another crack at the Belfast marathon next year, Francie Arthurs continues to live a life less ordinary. But, as Neil Loughran found out, the west Belfast man is lucky he is still here to tell the tale...
IT all started with a tweet about four months ago. A picture of a small man wearing a green t-shirt, the number 502 pinned to his abdomen, eyes smiling behind thick-rimmed glasses.
“This is Francie,” it read. “Francie is 81 and runs with my club, West Belfast Coolers. Yesterday he ran a 5K in 30.44. He is an inspiration. I want to make him famous.”
Over 700 retweets and 2,700 favourites later, ‘Aine’ had gone some way towards her goal. Other users on Twitter and Facebook reposted as the hits continued to rack up, a steady stream of messages flooding in.
‘Holy feck, he looks fresh for 81’
‘Francie you legend’
‘That's about the same pace as me and I'm in my 30s. Well done to him!’
A clinic in Bangor even offered free foot care treatment if he happened to be down their neck of the woods.
Others recognised him from his past life as a lollipop man outside St Gall’s primary school near Clonard monastery.
In the real world, fellow runners would pat him on the back and pass on their best wishes - if they could catch him.
The man in the picture is Francie Arthurs, known as Francie senior among the Coolers because there is another Francie 10 years his junior.
To friends who have known him for over half a century, he is ‘The Don’.
Francie is one of a kind alright. He laughs heartily as he rolls up the sleeves of his t-shirt to reveal, on his left shoulder, a tattoo of his dog Sparky, and on his right an image of cat Snowie.
For his 80th birthday, Francie travelled to China to run along the Great Wall. Why? Because he had always wanted to.
In 2005, at the age of 68, he strapped a tent to his back and headed for San Sebastien. Bus, taxi, boat, taxi, boat, taxi, train, bus. Two days later he arrived in the Basque country, 24 hours before he was due to represent Ireland at the World Masters Athletics Championships.
Before his wife Maureen died four years ago, they used to take down the globe that sits on top of the bookshelf in their living room, spin it and make plans to travel to wherever it stopped.
Born and raised in Belfast’s Sailortown, down by the docks, the travelling bug had caught him from the earliest of days.
“I was always in the boats - we used to go over to England and France then back again, working as cabin boys.
“You didn’t need all the paperwork then; you never thought nothing of it. You just went.”
Running came a bit later. Smoking 60 cigarettes a day, drinking the odd night, a 48-year-old Francie was packing 14 stone into his 5”6 frame (“that’s what I was anyway, I’m shrinking now...”)
Something had to change.
“I couldn’t sleep at night, I was getting awful heartburn. I was a telephone engineer for BT, working with lead and solder, and I used to be lying in bed saying ‘I’m dying, I’m dying’.
“I didn’t really know what to do, but I knew I had to do something. So me and some of the local lads started running around the square, and it went from there.
“Eventually, the longer we stuck at it, the better we got.”
It started off with charity runs, then 5Ks, 10Ks and eventually marathons - Belfast, Dublin, London; all over Europe in fact. Been there, done that.
He even ran New York dressed as a leprechaun, raising £5,000 for Nazareth Lodge, and carried the Olympic torch for a stretch in 2012. Francie estimates he has run over 100 marathons by this stage.
Old habits died hard in those early days though.
“I was still smoking at the start, though I’d cut down a right bit - maybe only 40 a day.
“I used to be running the marathons and the wife would meet me at Springfield Road corner, I’d light up and smoke all the way round to Beechmount. I eventually quit when I was 55.
“But running wasn’t in the family or anything like that. My da used to chase cows down at the docks; cow wallopers they called them. That’s what he did, and I used to help him out, chasing cows and sheep up and down the streets.
“Maybe that’s where it started for me.”
And the better he got, the more competitive Francie became.
He laughs as he recounts tales of giving, and receiving, elbows to the ribs and kicks to the ankles during cross-county races, and still recalls the moment that changed his outlook completely.
“It was a three mile run and as we were coming home I saw this other guy beside me and I opened my arms and said ‘go ahead’ – they gave him a 10 glass bottle of whiskey as a spot prize for our age group. Bastard. Boy was I sick.
“That was the last time I let anybody go in front of me...”
Francie can regularly be seen pounding the streets around the top of the Falls Road. Before Maureen died they downsized, moving into an apartment block opposite the entrance to Falls Park, right next door to a fold.
“Our block is just beside the fold where the old people live,” he says without a hint of irony when offering directions on how to find him.
A lifetime’s worth of memories are crammed inside these walls. Memories of Maureen, of their family and of his many achievements. They smack you in the face at every turn.
He is rightly proud of it all, giddily jumping from one to the next. With every picture, every trophy, every medal, a story to be told.
Yet Francie Arthurs knows he is lucky to be here to tell the tale at all; that the Nazi bombs which killed his baby sister and hundreds of others during the ‘Belfast Blitz’ didn’t cut short his life too.
The events of 1941 are a dark part of the city’s history – World War II so long ago that it is almost impossible for the rest of us to conceive of.
But for Francie it was, and remains, all too real.
THE swirling, nightmarish drone of the air raid sirens, the buildings crumbling all around, the terror in adults’ eyes. Those sights and sounds never leave you, but it’s the flour he can still see and feel.
Billowing across the night sky, intermingling with the smoke rising from the rubble, Belfast’s mills gave way as explosives fell from the skies like confetti.
Between April 7 and May 6, 1941 four German air raids strategically targeted the city and Belfast’s meagre defences could offer little resistance.
On Easter Tuesday, 200 of the Luftwaffe set their sights on military and manufacturing hubs, leaving over 900 dead and 1,500 injured. Apart from the earlier attacks on London, this was the greatest loss of life in any night raid during the ‘Blitz’.
Francie Arthurs was just four but, 77 years on, the images and the impact of those harrowing nights remain crystal clear.
“The flour was just going up everywhere from the flour mills nearby. I can still see it now.
“The soldiers were on the roof with the ack ack guns, and the Germans used to put the spotlights on to shoot at the planes but then the planes were using the spotlight and diving in and shooting; they were shooting the soldiers. I remember them bringing all the bodies out past us.
“One of the mills in Henry Street, where we lived, got hit and the night staff couldn’t get out. There was always bars on the windows on the bottom floor and they couldn’t get out; they were screaming ‘help us, help us’, but then the big chimney pots came down and they were all killed.
“It was awful.”
In those days, only the privileged classes could afford houses. The rest made do with rooms – sometimes there could be 10 to a room, with maybe five or six rooms out for rent in a property.
And it was while living in one of these rooms that tragedy struck the Arthurs family, his baby sister Lily an unforgotten casualty all these years later on a night that could also have been his last.
“She was blown up in one of the bombs. Our room was on the second floor and I got blown out and lucky enough somebody actually caught me in their arms.
“As soon as you heard the sirens, everybody headed for Cave Hill to hide because the buildings just came in around you. You were lying in the fields at night, kids and all.”
If only a pile of bricks and mortar was left in the place once called home, you joined a long list waiting to be re-housed elsewhere. Given the madness surrounding them, that didn’t happen quickly and young children were often despatched to safer environs.
“I was a refugee. They put a label on me, threw me in the back of a lorry and I ended up in Castlewellan.
“I can still remember the prisoners of war marching up and down Corporation Street with their hands above their heads. They used to take them off the submarines and we’d go down and play tig on the submarines.
“The Yanks [American soldiers] used to sleep in our house. When ships came in there was that many of them, there wasn’t enough accommodation so people would throw mattresses down, let them sleep on the floor and they’d throw you a few quid, which was massive for us.”
Tough times lay ahead too, long after Belfast had been rebuilt. During the Troubles, Maureen’s hairdressers on Springfield Avenue was bombed. Close friends died in the conflict too, including a former class-mate from their days at Earl Street school - Jimmy Hasty.
The legendary one-armed footballer, whose goals helped Dundalk to League of Ireland glory in 1963, was murdered in 1974, the innocent victim of a sectarian tit-for-tat killing.
At that time Francie would help out with the kids in Ballymurphy, taking them on day trips and passing on his knowledge of mountaineering and orienteering, becoming a cult hero amid the chaos.
“The kids grew up with me,” he smiles.
“When I see some of them now they’ll say ‘Francie, do you remember you barred us from the youth club for two weeks?’
“There was times I’d have been driving up and there’d have been riots going on with the army. The kids knew my blue Ford Anglia, and I’d wind the window down and tell them that if one stone hit my car the trip was off. Next thing they’d all be shouting to each other ‘houl on, Francie’s here!’
“Like everybody else, you just had to get on with it. It was all you could do.”
Darts was the height of his sporting interest in those days, going hand in hand with drinking and smoking.
He didn’t know it then, but a new passion was just around the corner; one that would change his life completely, and one that would endure for all his days - and there are plenty more to come.
MAY 5, 2019. The date is already ringed in the calendar. He hasn’t done a marathon in 13 years, focusing instead on shorter distances, but fancies a crack at Belfast again next year to mark his 82nd birthday.
His best time for the 26.2 mile course is three hours, 17 minutes but that was a long time ago. Nowadays if Francie can nail 10K in an hour or less, he’s happy.
The marathon is a quantum leap away from early morning outings with the Coolers but only a fool would back against him doing it. In Francie Arthurs’s world, you see, nothing is impossible.
“I’m trying to psyche myself up for it to see what kind of time I might do it in. You hit the wall around 18 miles, which is around about here, just in front of these apartments,” he says, looking out on to the Falls Road, “so you don’t want to be hitting the wall in front of your neighbours!
“We’ll see what happens, but part of me just thinks ‘why not?’ I was 80 when I went to China on my own to run the Great Wall.
“All through my life, I would have thought nothing of just packing up and heading away. Ireland rang me when I was 68 about going to the 2005 World Masters Championships. They said I was on the team but it would cost £1,500.
“I’m a pensioner, I can’t afford money like that. So I got my tent together and used my bus pass to get to Dublin, then from Dublin on to Rosslare. I got a taxi down to the boat for a fiver. From there I got the boat over to Fishguard, the train down to Portsmouth and the boat into Santander – I hadn’t really a clue where I was going!
“When I was getting off the boat I stopped a fella ‘here mate, where’s Donatsia?’ And he said ‘about 400 miles that way’. So I hopped on the bus, and I was there a day later, got set up at the camp site and I was racing the next day.
“I did the whole thing for 250 quid. I’d given up the fegs by then but I bought cigarettes for cheap on the boat home and sold them all when I got back, so I ended up getting my 250 quid back anyway.”
At the Anoeta Stadium, Francie reached the final and finished 24th in the M65 marathon - exactly the same position he finished at the 1999 Worlds in Gateshead, and in Brisbane, Australia two years later, behind exactly the same 23 men.
“The same guys are still there, the same guys that beat me. That’s their pastime. It’s in their blood, they just want to keep on going when there’s medals at stake.
“After the final the last Worlds, we were all sitting having breakfast the next morning and I was saying to them ‘would any of youse ever think of dying so I can get myself up a few places?’
“And one of them said ‘f**k sake Francie, we’re waiting on you so we can knock it on the head’.”
Laughing so hard he was struggling to finish the story, Francie can finally let himself go, eyes smiling behind those thick rimmed glasses once more.
With the next Worlds in Toronto two years from now, those men could be waiting a while yet.