Video: Dame John Linehan puts on his panto face for 27th year

John Linehan is about to embark on his 27th pantomine in Belfast – oh yes he is! He tells Joanne Sweeney about turning 65, surviving bombs and having an out of body experience

John Linehan / May McFettridge is preparing to embark on his 27th consecutive pantomime at Belfast's Grand Opera House Picture: Hugh Russell
Joanne Sweeney

JOHN Lenihan is still one helluva dame, after surviving a UVF bomb, bacterial meningitis and a major knee replacement, and with over 30 years in show business as May McFettridge.

He is back once again at the start of next month to tread the boards at Belfast's Grand Opera House, when his straight-talking housewife alter-ego May takes on the role of the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella for a total of 74 shows from December 4 to January 15 – two shows a day, six days a week.

Former Pop Idol star Gareth Gates will star opposite John as Prince Charming. What he will make of May's broad Belfast accent, loud make-up and even louder costumes remains to be seen, but he will learn fast that no-one puts May in the corner. Because one thing is certain – May McFettridge is queen of the Grand Opera House; this Christmas panto will be John's 27th in a row at the venue, itself a grand old dame of Belfast theatre.

There's a touch of fairy dust around how May was born. Eamonn Holmes, a cousin of his wife, asked him to come on to his Downtown Radio programme for a bit of chat and craic.

John went on air as a Belfast woman, creating the name on the hoof – May, the name of a relative, McFettridge that of an Antrim hurler he happened to read about in The Irish News – and was an instant hit with listeners and then as a warm-up act for the audience of Gerry Kelly's UTV talk show. And the rest, as they say, is history.

As May, he's an oul besom of a Belfast woman who no-one will ever get the better of; as John, he's a down-to-earth man who has made his love of having a wee slag into an art form as well as his profession.

John's in fine form on the day we speak at the MAC theatre over a coffee (he had green tea); it's his birthday, as it happens, and he has just welcomed his first baby granddaughter Eve into the Linehan family, born to his youngest daughter Kerry and her husband. His elder daughter Donna also has an 18-year-old son.

"I'm celebrating today as I never thought that I would be here. I'm 65 today, so how good is that?" he says proudly.

"It's great to be 65. My health is so good now as I got a complete knee replacement about three years ago at the Kingsbridge Private Clinic. It was a superb job. Little baby Eve was born at 7lb 12ozs and mother and baby are doing fine."

North Belfast born and bred, John has had a life blessed with some fantastic strokes of luck, along with near misses.

"I've hit the bar a couple of times between bombs and operations and whatever," he jokes.

Pre-May, when he was still a car mechanic, the story goes he was working in a garage beside The Irish News building in Donegall Street when a bomb went off; he got out in one piece despite having missed the alarm to evacuate due to having been under a car at the time. He and his wife Brenda survived a UVF bombing of the Hole in the Wall bar on the Antrim Road; and about 10 years after that he was anointed with the last rites when he contracted meningitis following a brain surgery.

Did he feel that he could survive anything after the Hole in the Wall attack?

"It did feel like that actually," John recalls. "I was up and out – holes all over me but I didn’t lose a limb. I was just over the moon that I was alive."

He likened the bomb blast, in which Brenda, at that time his girlfriend, was more severely injured then him, to a mere "slap in the face" in comparison with what he experienced with his brain operation and the meningitis, where he's on record on saying that he had an out-of-body experience.

Asked what he remembers about that night of the bombing, he turns to his trademark humour, and says: "I'm not sure about it, but I think it was the 23rd of February, 1973 at 9.15pm.

"I heard a commotion down the stairs and thought it was a fight, which wouldn't have been out of the ordinary there. The next thing I was down on the floor. I didn't lose consciousness but I knew it had been a bomb.

"It was just like I had been hit with a big slap in the face on the left side of my face from the blast. I knew Brenda had been on my right hand side but she wasn't there and I heard her screaming.

"I bent down, saying 'Brenda, Brenda' and then I felt her hand and I said 'Get up, get up, c'mon, let's go this way'. Although it was pitch black I thought I could direct us to where the door was. But when we got there, there was no floor and we just dropped and ended up on the ground floor.

"We were the first two dug out" – he pauses at the memory of it – "actually by a couple of soldiers who were across the street when it happened, and then taken to hospital. But we didn't lose consciousness."

The courting couple gradually recovered physically from their injuries. After getting married, they went to live in Dublin for four years, in order to recuperate emotionally as well.

"Actually, it was the operation and the meningitis that was more traumatic to be than the bomb," John said.

In the 1980s he had been diagnosed with a spinal condition called syringmelia, which caused him problems with muscle wastage on one side of his body. When he was in his early 30s an operation was carried out on his brain to help alleviate the symptoms but he contracted meningitis shortly afterwards.

"I lost three stone in two weeks. I was horrendously sick, with the result that I thought my head was going to explode," John says. "I had an out-of -body experience and was floating about the bed in the trauma ward for about 20 minutes.

"I 'm not into paranormal stuff or anything like that – all I can tell you is what happened to me and what I saw, and I still say that 32 years later."

John doesn't stay in serious mode for long. He jokes that during panto season, he leaves his photo on the mantelpiece for his family to remember him by.

"We get Christmas Day off, which is very welcome as we have two shows on Christmas eve back to back and it's a day for the family," he says.

“We’ll have dinner and a few drinks. But by seven o'clock I'll be in my bed. I'm just exhausted."

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