Belfast Telegraph

Sandy row mural: We’ve heard of Alex Higgins and Ruby Murray ... but just who is the Singing Butcher?

By Amanda Poole

Snooker legend Alex Higgins and singer Ruby Murray are perhaps the best-known products of Belfast’s Sandy Row area, but have you ever heard of the Singing Butcher?

James Johnston, while not as famous as the ‘Hurricane’ and the woman whose name became rhyming slang for a curry, was an astonishingly successful opera singer who performed with world-renowned international artists for almost two decades.

The trio are featured in a new artwork which commemorates Sandy Row’s famous sons and daughters, along with legendary ‘double hat-trick’ footballer Joe Bambrick and other local characters.

The 30-feet piece, by Ed Reynolds, runs from the Presbyterian Church on Great Victoria Street, along a wall in Stroud Street, bordering the adjoining St George's Gardens.

While Alex Higgins and Ruby Murray both feature, so does relatively unknown but critically-acclaimed opera singer Johnston.

Between 1945 and 1960 Johnston performed across the world with legendary sopranos such as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland before retiring at the top of his profession, back to Sandy Row and his butcher’s shop.

Journalist Eddie McIlwaine said: “He was a very modest and unassuming man.

“When he went to Covent Garden to sing he usually took a pound of fresh steak with him.

“When customers came in to his Sandy Row shop he didn’t like to talk too much about his singing. He was way ahead of his time and a wonderful singer.”

Other images, which form the artwork commissioned by Belfast City Council, include workers on the tramway and the Moyola Arms pub.

Artist Ed Reynolds, originally from Co Meath, but living in Holywood, Co Down for the past six years, has an extensive background in visual art.

He has worked with community organisations, such as the Beat Initiative, and with Belfast City Council on the Re-imaging Communities project on the Shankill Road and the Titanic Community Engagement Programme.

Mr Reynolds told the Belfast Telegraph he thoroughly enjoyed the Sandy Row project which took him around two weeks to paint.

Before the finished piece was realised, he did lots of research and the wall was power-blasted and prepped with three base coats for the colourful images which now adorn it.

“I’ve learnt a heap about the area,” Ed said. “It started with workshops and then as the project developed people would come up to me with ideas and little snippets.

“It really became a work in motion. I would have needed a wall the size of the Great Wall of China to facilitate everyone, but it was great.

“It didn’t feel like work to me at all. I loved the process and all the characters I met along the way.”

So who’s who on the mural?

Alex Higgins

Snooker player (1949-2010)

Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins was dubbed the ‘People’s Champion’. He won the World Snooker Championship in 1972 and 1982 and the Masters in 1978 and 1981. A complex character, he was a heavy smoker who adored horses and gambling. Higgins had suffered from throat cancer, and before his death, aged 61, was often spotted drinking in The Royal Bar on Sandy Row, wearing his trademark fedora hat.

James Johnston

The Singing Butcher tenor |(1903-1991)

Between 1945 and 1960 Johnston was the world’s leading operatic tenor. He had no formal musical education and never studied at the highest level because of his father’s misgivings about a stage career.

He was headhunted by the great Tyrone Guthrie to perform with the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, and worked with Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. His final performance was a production of Carmen at Covent Garden. He retired to Sandy Row and his butcher’s shop.

Ruby Murray

Singer (1935-1996)

The popular singer’s characteristic hoarse voice was a result of an operation on her throat in early childhood. Her first single was Heartbeat, which reached the UK top 5 in 1954. The next, Softly, Softly, hit No.1 in 1955, a year in which Murray achieved the rare feat of having five singles in the Top 20 at the same time. Her name lives on as the cockney rhyming slang for curry.

Joe Bambrick

Footballer (1905-1983)

When Ireland beat Wales 7-0 at Celtic Park, Belfast, on February 1, 1930, the man of the match was without question centre-forward Joe Bambrick. He scored a double hat-trick — an unprecedented achievement which has never been equalled by any other international footballer in the 82 years since. A local soft drinks producer marketed a beverage which they called ‘Joe Six’ to mark his amazing feat.

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