Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Halcyon days (and nights): Memory of my youth that still burns bright

Recalling when 10,000 gas lamps lit up Belfast

A lamplighter at one of the 10,000 gas lights in Belfast's streets
A lamplighter at one of the 10,000 gas lights in Belfast's streets

There used to be a huge lamp at the corner in my home village of Carnmoney, droning away – as gas lamps did – up there above Granny Boyd's shop.

It came on automatically at dusk, according to the season, every evening. And then my pals and I would gather underneath to discuss the football, gaze longingly at the sweets in the window and put our coppers and few silver coins together to buy a quarter of Dolly Mixture.

We had them scoffed just before we were called in for our dinner and left the lamp buzzing away to await more adult company later in the night, when the discussion could still centre on football, with a little bit of politics for flavour.

My picture today reminds me of those halcyon days of yore and childhood when every street in Belfast, eight miles down the Antrim Road from Carnmoney, was dotted with gas lamps and lamplighters were legion as they rose from their beds before dawn to switch them on and then went on patrol again in the evening to snuff them out again.

Even when the lamps went automatic lamplighters were still employed in the early years to make sure the timing devices worked accurately. Belfast Corporation couldn't afford to burn gas in broad daylight.

Would you believe there were 10,000 gas lights in the city streets? What intrigues me today is that gas is back in vogue for home heating and cooking etc. Sadly, it hasn't reached the streets in its comeback and probably never will.

When electric streetlights took over from the gas it was never the same at Granny Boyd's corner. There's nothing romantic or compelling about electric light. Us boys were never drawn to the shop window again. We missed the softness and the gentleness of gaslight which drew us together.

I wonder where my shop window mates are now? We should have a reunion at that corner. Even though Granny Boyd is long gone there is still a modern block of shops in the area where we could gather to explain to one another how life was treating us.

One mystery – I haven't a clue in which Belfast street the picture of the lamplighter was taken or when, although the date I'm suggesting is in the 1950s.

Ignore the wartime air raid shelters in the background. The shelters went up in a hurry in 1939 when WWII broke out but it took years to knock them down again. Some eyesore shelters were still up in the streets into the 1960s.

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