By Eamonn Keyes
For me The Beatles will always be the greatest. Nowadays it’s quite fashionable to sneer and say they weren’t that good. Mostly by people who didn’t live in the time when The Beatles became the zeitgeist, with each new release rewriting music and opening a new soundscape to our ears, becoming the soundtrack to the 60s and massive changes in society and the social fabric.
My love affair had started even before the first time I ever saw them on TV with their appearance at the London Palladium on Sunday 13 October 1963. I’d heard those tunes on the radio during 1963, and even as a 7 year old they had me. The TV appearance sealed the deal forever. The cheeky personalities and musical abilities were like something from another planet, and I wanted to join them instantly.
I set about transcribing the words to the songs I had heard on the radio, none too frequently as all we had was the BBC Light Programme, and they were mainly on Saturday Club and Easybeat, with the odd track on Housewives’Choice and Family Favourites. The resulting notebook was hid under my pillow in my grandmother’s house, and when I stayed there I’d memorise the lyrics far into the night.
Back at the end of 1963 Belfast was a drab place. The Troubles were almost 6 years away, and until then we had to be quiet and co-exist with the almost mundane daily discrimination in jobs and housing that was the norm in that still post-war society. None of your overt murder, just friendly exclusion from social progress until mandatory secondary education would threaten a government filled with politicians who were still publicly addressed by their wartime ranks.
The Prime Minister, Basil Brooke, stepped down from office that year, yielding to Captain Terence O.Neill. Basil Brooke was fairly typical of the bigoted landed gentry, having shown his opinions in his 1933 speech:
“Many in this audience employ Catholics, but I have not one about my place. Catholics are out to destroy Ulster…If we in Ulster allow Roman Catholics to work on our farms we are traitors to Ulster…I would appeal to loyalists, therefore, wherever possible, to employ good Protestant lads and lassies”
By 1963 nothing had changed, and that was pretty much government policy in Northern Ireland, ignored by Westminster, who were happy to leave ‘Ulster’ as Britain’s Alabama.
Back to our hero, however. The word came that the Beatles would be appearing at the Ritz Cinema in Belfast on November 8th 1963. I was ecstatic, but soon realised that my ambition of attending was about as likely as a weekend trip to Vladivostok via the Trans Siberian Railway using my pocket money.
My disappointment was channelled into learning even more songs by them, and then the whispers started…..
It appeared that Paul McCartney claimed Irish Catholic ancestry, and suddenly my maternal grandparents and their three bachelor sons- the McCartney family- began mumbling about this. My grandparents’ eldest son had disappeared to England around 1930 and had never been heard from again. Could it be…..?
In days without the internet little information was available to deny or confirm this.
At some point the story leaked, and grew….and grew.
Next thing I heard was the chatter in school. And in the local shop. And in the library.
Paul McCartney’s grandparents lived in Belfast, and he was coming to visit them in his limousine on the afternoon of the November show after the soundcheck. I was very excited and asked where they lived. ‘Chatham Street in Ardoyne”. That was fantastic, as my grandparents lived in that same street and I’d be sure to seem him turn up there.
Eventually it sank in. It was my grandparents they were talking about. Why hadn’t they told me? I felt totally excluded, as they’d kept me out of the loop.
I confronted them with righteous indignation as I hadn’t been told my cousin was visiting. Their denial convinced me even more, and when I arrived home from school there were a few teenage girls lurking around in the cobbled street. One or two who knew me asked if I could get them tickets for the show tonight, and being at the centre of attention for the first time in my life, I said I’d see what I could do, with my 7 and a half year old brain adopting the authority of a figure of importance.
I eventually pushed past, got into my grandparents’ house and asked what time he was arriving. They told me they knew nothing, which my brain decided meant pretty soon. I went upstairs to the front bedroom window so I’d have a grandstand view of Paul’s arrival, and noticed that the crowd was substantially bigger and that the police had arrived. Shortly afterwards they took up positions to keep the girls back, as the screaming had started. I had vision of Paul and me waving from the top bedroom window, and of course the other Beatles would be there too, as they went everywhere together.. They might even ask me to sing a song at the show later.
I was both elated and terrified. When Paul and the lads came in it would be difficult to hold them back, and if they invaded the house I was sure to be a casualty as well, given the fact I was his cousin.
For a while the screaming went on, and I could see the police holding the girls back with difficulty. Once or twice a car came down the street and was mobbed, startling whoever was driving it, as the girls claimed they could see Beatles hiding in the back seat, or they might even be in the boot.
By 6pm the crowd had started to thin, and eventually I realised that we’d been let down. Bloody McCartney couldn’t be bothered to visit his grandparents, eh?
The shame I felt was awful. I’d been abandoned, couldn’t get tickets for my new friends or even myself. I contemplated suicide in the local mill pond, but decided that I’d have dinner first, as I was pretty hungry with all the excitement, and besides we were having sausages that night.
In years to come we discovered that Paul McCartney’s father was called James, not David as my vanished uncle was named. I still couldn’t work out why he would’ve changed his name.
I never got to meet Paul, although I’ve since been within about 10 yards of him.
I’m sure he doesn’t realise how close the Beatles came to discovering a major 7 year old talent who would have greatly enhanced their show.
Still, it was their loss, they could have been so big……..