It was four in the morning when the ringing of the telephone woke Alex Quinn from his slumber and a sobbing voice pleaded: “I’m so homesick, please, please sing Belfast to me. I need to hear that song so much.”
And there in the darkness with his wife Deirdre now wide awake too, and listening in astonishment in the bed by his side, Alex (62) did indeed serenade the tearful lady on the other end of the phone.
Quinn, of course, is a member of showgroup Barnbrack and the author of the emotive ballad about his home town and he was singing that dawn to a housewife far away, over there in Milwaukee.
“She was the wife of a good friend and they had sailed off to a new life in America two years before,” he explains.
“But suddenly she was missing Belfast and home and on impulse called me up to help her ease the pain with the lyrics and the tune I had written.”
By the time Alex had reached the chorus that woman in exile was ready to book her flight back to where she belonged. That’s how Belfast, the song about this old place, grabs a lot of exiles when they hear Barnbrack performing it on their record which actually got into the UK charts in 1985 and which goes like this:
Of all the places I have been there’s only one that fills my dream
The place that lingers in my mind is the town I’ve left behind.
I’ve been away now for too many years,
I’ve read all the papers they’ve told me of your tears.
Though I’ve left you with a heart that’s been torn, I’m coming home now to the place I was born.
Belfast you call to me
When I am far away I think of thee
Your Black Mountain, Cave Hill, City Hall, Shaw’s Bridge, River Lagan. I’m going home to them all.
For goodness, with words like that to sing we would all be queuing up to go home.
“I wrote the song in the middle of the Troubles when people were leaving in droves seeking a new life down under in Oz or in America,” adds Alex. “So I decided to put together words that would make these exiles feel close to home.”
In some cases though, Belfast had the opposite effect and brought folk who missed the town where they were born flocking back, some on holiday, others home to stay.
Which is quite a tribute to the song, the city and the people who never forget their roots. I can’t think of any other town in the British Isles which can match this old Belfast for passion, never mind its many faults.
Sure Belfast has been much maligned, is stained with violence and hatred, but it is now fighting back to retrieve its lost |reputation for fair play and justice for everyone.
Alex Quinn and Barnbrack — the other two members are Jimmy McPeake and Eoin McMahon — are helping the cause by recording a fresh Belfast song, a sequel, called Belfast City.
All very nice of course, but I have to confess that my first experience of a city with which I have been associated for too many years was anything but joyful. The tears I shed were tears of fear when as a little boy in my uncle Jim’s arms, I peered into the night sky from an air-raid shelter on the side of Carnmoney Hill six miles away and watched the searchlights seeking out the Nazi bombers dropping their missiles of death on the shipyard and the docks.
It’s a scene that’s imprinted on my mind, especially as I also struggled through the rubble of flattened houses and shops when my father took me on a walk through the blitzed town days later that awful time in 1940. Belfast was a terrible place for a little boy to witness.
So down the years I’ve never lost my sympathy for this town and its people who have to be a special breed even if in some areas they are still fenced off from one another because of their beliefs.
I’ve been side-by-side with them during the bad times of the Troubles which are documented elsewhere and I’ve had my hairy moments too, including being held at gunpoint once upon a time in a city street.
But here’s what used to be a closely-guarded McIlwaine secret: When I’m feeling low and a wee bit of depression is on the horizon I’ve got this secluded place in the woods up behind Belfast Castle where I can steal away to be alone, to think and let commonsense flow over me and give me back my confidence.
Sure it’s a toss-up between the Castle woods and the Pipers Knuck on Carnmoney Hill. Only problems with that hillside where I rambled as a boy is that if I close my eyes too tight I can still see those Nazi bombers zooming in on their Belfast target through the searchlights.
There is another place downtown though where I can relax blissfully content and let the world pass me by. I’ve got my own special seat in the Grand Opera House where I can watch ballet, hum along with the opera or enjoy a good play and usually meet up with celebs like Sir James Galway and Sir Kenneth Branagh who have Belfast ingrained on their hearts.