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Belfast birthday boy John McGeown (103) still feeling chipper

By Ivan Little

One of Northern Ireland's oldest men - John McGeown - celebrated his 103rd birthday yesterday by tucking into a fish supper at a famous Belfast chippy that's the same age as him.

Mr McGeown, who was given a bus tour of Belfast as a birthday treat, attributed his longevity to "clean living".

"I've never had a drink or a cigarette," said the ex-showband musician as he enjoyed his favourite meal at John Long's restaurant in Athol Street.

The former sheet metal worker revealed that another secret of his hitting the ton and beyond was walking.

He lives with his son Ronnie at his home in Twinbrook and is regularly seen out walking - albeit with the help of a Zimmer frame.

"A good walk is the best form of exercise I know. I used to enjoy walking from Twinbrook to Lisburn," Mr McGeown said.

"I still try to do a wee bit from time to time, but it's not so easy."

Friends and family gathered at Long's for what was a nostalgic stroll down memory lane.

"I first came to John Long's when I was a boy and the chip shop was just a short distance away on Durham Street, before it moved to where it is now," he explained.

"They're still the best fish and chips in Belfast."

He was born at Alexander Street West in the lower Falls, where one of his contemporaries was a boy called William Conway, who went on to become the Catholic Primate of Ireland. Mr McGeown's daughter Isobel Stuart has fond memories of visits to the chippy.

She said: "Dad used to bring us to Long's when we were kids and he was a regular here with his workmates."

Mrs Stuart was accompanied by brother Ronnie and sister Esther Blake, who had flown in from her home in Ottawa, Canada, for the birthday celebrations.

Mr McGeown's wife Esther died 12 years ago at the age of 82.

Friends said he cared for her through an illness, refusing to allow her to go into a home.

Yesterday Mr McGeown was presented with a birthday cake that proclaimed - alongside a hammer, a piece of chalk, and pliers all made of icing - that he was 'the best sheet metal worker in Belfast'.

On top of the cake there were also musical notes - a nod to Mr McGeown's past in Billy Pinkerton's Showband, which used to entertain at the legendary Plaza Ballroom in the centre of Belfast.

Mr McGeown was the trumpet and trombone player, and continued his musicianship into his 90s in St Peter's Brass and Reed Band.

He revisited some of his old haunts around Belfast on a bus laid on for him and his guests by Allen Tours.

The sign on the front flashed up a birthday greeting for Mr McGeown, who also had a banner adapted from the front page of the Belfast Evening Telegraph on his birthday, Saturday, March 21, 1914, four months before the outbreak of the First World War.

Mr McGeown had jobs in England and in Dublin before returning to Short and Harland aircraft factory, where he was employed for the rest of his working life.

Long's owner John Copeland said it was pleased to host the birthday bash for their oldest customer.

He added: "The original fish and chip shop opened at the end of 1914, a few months after John McGeown came into the world. We are happy he still rates our fish and chips so highly."

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