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How Northern Ireland's bingo halls have fostered lifelong female friendships

A BBC NI documentary follows three Belfast friends for whom the pastime is a welcome escape from the stresses of everyday life. Leona O'Neill reports

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From left: Eilish, Karen, Eileen and Margaret who feature in True North: Big Night At The Bingo

From left: Eilish, Karen, Eileen and Margaret who feature in True North: Big Night At The Bingo

From left: Eilish, Karen, Eileen and Margaret who feature in True North: Big Night At The Bingo

They say it's a game of chance that requires focus, speed and often patience, but bingo is more than just numbers. Northern Ireland's bingo halls are special places, where life and all its complexities are worked out and lifelong friendships forged.

BBC One Northern Ireland's True North: Big Night at the Bingo, which will air on Monday, delves into this vibrant world few of us beyond the walls of our local bingo hall and out of earshot of the bingo caller will get the opportunity to see.

The programme revolves around the Westway Bingo Hall in west Belfast's Falls Road as locals gather for their gala night.

And with the chance of winning "big money" in the thousands of pounds and all the possibilities that come with it, the drama and intensity is high.

We meet bingo ladies Eileen, Kate and Margaret, who have played regularly at Westway, one of Belfast's oldest bingo halls, for many years.

For these women, the bingo hall is an escape from the rigours of working lives and demanding family commitments.

It's a place they can go to meet friends and laugh, while buzzing from the chance of winning cash.

Hall manager Karen explains that bingo is much more than winning money; that, in reality, the bingo hall is a haven for many women and a place they can come to forget the stresses of daily life.

"These are hard-working women, dedicated to their families," says Karen. "But when it comes to bingo, this is their time, their space and nobody gets in the way of their bingo. It's their escape."

Margaret juggles work at a local supermarket with night classes, school pick-ups and supporting her husband, who has developed health problems. She's hoping for a win to help pay for her daughter's dream formal dress.

She says she has a "real passion for numbers" and "working out calculations" has fascinated her since she was a child.

Her biggest win at the bingo has been £500 and with that she bought a washing machine, a cooker and a fridge-freezer.

She is joined on gala night by her husband, Angelo, a taxi driver who had to give up work due to health reasons three years ago.

She says they have been back and forth from the hospital for appointments to figure out what is causing his medical issues and are still awaiting answers.

"They've ruled out Parkinson's," she says. "But now they've found a tumour and are investigating it. We take things day by day. They say he won't get any better, but we are hopeful that he won't get any worse.

"It's the not knowing that I think gets to him. I like him to come to the bingo with me becaus e it means he's not isolated and I know he's happy."

During the game, Margaret and Angelo hope Lady Luck shines on them, so they can buy their teenage daughter, Marie, a beautiful dress she wants for her school formal, which comes with a hefty price-tag.

It's clear to see that the bingo highs and lows are life-changing for these women and that the community that has been formed over the numbers sheets is a very important one in their lives.

Bingo veteran Eileen has been playing for 27 years and says she'll never stop.

She says if she "won big", she would keep it for the next bingo night. She says the people she meets at Westway are "like a big family".

"It's the only place you feel comfortable in and you can have a laugh," she says.

Eilish says that she was taught how to play by her grandmother as a young teenager. She was 14-years-old when she was introduced to the fat bingo pens and the callers up on the stage determining if you had a good night, or a bad week.

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Eileen checks her numbers

Eileen checks her numbers

"My granny would always warn me to keep my eyes down," she says. "I get butterflies before my number comes up. I always pick significant numbers. My son will turn 40 soon, so I pick that. He was born on June 12, so I pick 12, things like that. The numbers mean something to me."

Kate, who claims to never win anything, says the bingo family are very close to her heart. She organises birthday celebrations for regulars who have become close friends.

"If I didn't go to bingo, I wouldn't see anyone from one day to the next," she says. "I don't go out. This is about getting out of the house and seeing your friends.

"I had a friend, Noreen, who used to come with me and sit in the seat beside me. She wanted to talk all the time. People would say over to her, 'Stop that talking!'. Noreen died last year. I always put my handbag on her seat, because I just can't get used to anyone else sitting there."

Kate arranges an impromptu surprise birthday party for one of her bingo friends celebrating a big day.

She says they bring in food and a cake to mark birthdays and they halt proceedings to sing Happy Birthday.

She says it's just what they do, because they are just a "big family".

We get to meet some of the other regulars - Mickey, who comes to bingo because he "loves the craic", and others who have won cash prizes from £500 to £5,800.

We see the build up to gala night. We see the staff charge 200 genie boards and gather to get ready for one of the busiest nights of the year.

We hear people talking about the adrenaline buzz and the excitement waiting for their numbers to come up. We are told about "sweating", which is bingo lingo for waiting for a number to win.

There's £6,500 up for grabs on the night and the cameras follow the proceedings as many of the players' dreams hang in the balance.

Will Margaret and Angelo win enough to cover the costs of their daughter's dream formal dress? Will Kate win, finally? Will Eilish continue her winning streak?

Bingo hall manager Karen says that bingo can make people's dreams come true in a variety of ways.

She says that there are people in the hall for whom bingo is a part of their routine; that, for some of the patrons, those in the bingo hall are the only people they speak to all day. She says they will come to the hall come rain, hail, sleet, or snow.

"Bingo can be life-changing for people," she says. "We be delighted to see people win, because we know that it's making a difference. People are happy to win money - and it makes us happy to see our customers leaving happy."

Whatever the outcome, it's clear that these bingo addicts are not giving up the game anytime soon.

Kate says she will never stop playing: "If you have a bad night, you'll have a bad week. But it can change in an instant.

"Your luck comes and goes, but I'll never stop playing. The only way I will stop bingo is if my fingers fall off - I'm playing it for too long."

True North: Big Night at the Bingo, BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday, 10.35pm

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