Jimmy Webb's Memories of Raglan Street

Brendan Deeds finds colourful characters in a Belfast long gone

Google 'Jimmy Webb' and chances are you’ll find a few hundred links to pages about the songwriter who penned 'Wichita Lineman'. Amongst those links you will find an oddity.

On an auction site one mischievous seller is advertising a memoir of one Jimmy Webb about his childhood spent on Belfast’s Falls Road.

Don’t worry, we haven’t fallen into a parallel dimension where Dolly Parton lived on the Shankill Road,  where Johnny Cash crooned in Cullybackey and Elvis spent his boyhood in Ballycastle. We have, however,  chanced upon a work by one of Belfast’s little known and under-appreciated memoirists.

Jimmy Webb was born in 1920 on the Falls Road. He spent his working life there and after his retirement, wrote two memoirs, Memories of Raglan Street (1988) and Raglan Street and Beyond (1989). These books vividly evoke the changing city and particularly the lives of a close knit working class community from 1920s - 1980s.

His experiences take him from the cobbled streets of the Falls to the bustle of the thriving shipyard, through the dark days of WWII to the beginnings of the Troubles but it is the characters he encounters that make his books so entertaining.

One such character is the local GP - a doctor who is afraid of his patients.

‘He had a phobia about germs and in an effort to avoid coming into contact with them he went to extraordinary lengths. Never would he shake hands with anyone, no matter what the occasion was, and before touching a door handle he would cover it with a handkerchief.

‘His phobia extended even to church where during the receiving of Holy Communion he insisted on using his linen handkerchief.’ This was during an era where other doctors would smoke in front of their patients so that the smoke would create a barrier between the patients germs and themselves!

Webb writes of being in awe of the doctor’s car. It was the first seen on the Falls Road. ‘And what a magnificent sight it was with all its brass fittings, white-walled tyres and, crowning it all off, its highly polished lamps which had to be lit with matches.’

There’s a wonderful passage about the fourteen year old Jimmy’s last day at school. He and the other boys in his year were assembled before the Head Brother of the school and asked if they knew how they were born.

‘Some of the boys said that the nurse had brought them in her black bag while others said they’d been found behind a hedge. Brother said we were all wrong because we had come out of our mother’s womb which was inside her tummy! That was the start and finish of our lessons on the Facts of Life!

The Brother concluded our last prayer together, said goodbye and wished us every success in the years to come.’

With information like that it’s a wonder any of us are here today!

Raglan Street and Beyond follows Jimmy Webb’s life through adolescence into manhood. We learn how, in 1935, he had his first job making tea (as a 'tea-nipper’) on a building site.

‘On pay days the nipper usually got a couple of pennies from each man but on this particular job I remember a kind-hearted man who gave me a whole sixpence every week. The man was Joe Tomelty, one of the site painters, who was later to become famous as the creator and star of the McCooey radio series, as well as a renowned international actor and playwright.’

Webb recalls how Tomelty would entertain his fellow workers with songs and witty banter during their tea breaks.

In the 1940s Jimmy was an accomplished joiner, employed on the thriving shipyard of Harland and Wolff. Here he found himself working alongside Sam Thompson. Although a painter at the time, Thompson later became a playwright, writing such pieces as Over The Bridge and The Evangelist.

Other famous figures who Webb encounters are the singer, Joseph Locke and heavy weight boxer Jack Doyle.

Jimmy Webb gives a fascinating insight into the development of Belfast from its early cobbled streets where everything from milk to coal was delivered by pony and cart, to the introduction of the early tram network.

These are among many of the wonderful photographs in the memoirs. There are other remarkable photographs, especially in the passages detailing the past splendour of Dunville Park and the Falls Park but it is the evocative and charming stories of early West Belfast life that make his memoirs such gems.

He continued to enthral readers with his regular contributions to The Andersonstown News and will be remembered fondly for those but it is his memoirs which are important, necessary and delightful additions to Belfast’s celebration of its heritage. We respectfully doff our cap to our Jimmy Webb and thank him for his memories.

A copy of Memories of Raglan Street rests in the Linen Hall Library. Passages of the book are also included in The Ulster Anthology (2006)