Danny Carlin Interview
Railway 'pageboy', school caretaker, plumber's mate, navy cook... Danny's done it all - and more!
SHARING BREAKFAST with Irish film great Noel Purcell in a Belfast 'milk bar' at the height of World War II is something Danny Carlin is proud of. Brandywell-born Danny, now in his late 70s, often bumped into Purcell - star of cinema classics such as Moby Dick, Mutiny on the Bounty and Lust for Life - during stays in Belfast as a Great Northern Railway (GNR) employee.
"Noel Purcell and other well-known Irish actors such as Jimmy O'Dea - who went on to star in Darby O'Gill and the Little People - would have been in Belfast appearing at the Grand Opera House," Danny recalled this week. "I was working the 'Enterprise' service to Dublin at the time and we would have had breakfast in the same 'milk bars' as they were called at that time. "Purcell was a real gentlemen, down to earth and full of great stories. Indeed, in later life when I saw him on television or at the movies, I had a great feeling of self-satisfaction knowing that I'd been on speaking terms with him."
Danny - who lived for more than 40 years in Creggan's Carrickreagh Gardens - acknowledges that the GNR railway, located at Foyle Road, close to Craigavon Bridge, played an important role in his early life. Indeed, it was in 1938, at the age of 14 - only days after leaving school - that he secured his first job: as a five bob a week "pageboy" with the famous GNR. "As the trains were about to depart from the station, we could be seen standing on the platform selling cigarettes, matches, chocolates etc., from a small tray that was hung round our necks. Scam! "However, in order to get a few extra bob, we worked a bit of a scam. "We waited until the trains were just about to leave before shouting: 'Cigarettes, matches and chocolate'. Passengers then rushed out and, knowing the train was about to leave, never waited for their change. You have to understand that times were tough and every little bit helped," says Danny with a wry smile.
It wasn't long before Danny moved up in the railways world, securing a job as a dining car pantry boy - worth 12/6 per week. Danny recalls that the Derry-Belfast service left the city each morning at 7.20 a.m., arriving in Belfast at 10.50 a.m. - a lengthy three-and-a-half hour journey. During the war years - especially during the height of the blitz in Belfast - Danny's worried parents frequently asked him to give up his job. "I stuck it out but I recall arriving in Belfast many mornings to find the railway station closed due to air raids," he says.
Danny, a lifelong pioneer, was born and bred in a one-and-a-half storey house on Brandywell Road. "I had two brothers and a sister. But my mother also had two sets of twins who died and I had a brother and sister who died from meningitis. Sadly, there was nothing they could do for meningitis in those days." His father, a lorry driver, had served as a drill sergeant with the Inniskilling Fusiliers and was almost killed in the Dardanelles campaign in World War One.
As with most Brandywell natives, Danny is very proud of his roots. "The Brandywell was a great place when I was growing up. We had good neighbours. There were no locks on any doors." Danny says the Brandywell was famous for some of its bizarre "cures" for a series of ailments. "During my time on the railway, I got something in my eye that was absolute agony. I was sent to a woman nearby who, believe it or not, put her tongue into my eye socket and was able to tell me that I had lime in it. She told me to get to a doctor fast before I went blind."
Educated by the Christian Brothers at the Brow O' The Hill, Danny recalls "knocking about" with some of the "home boys" who lived at the orphanage at Termonbacca. "On their way to school in the morning, the 'home' boys would call at my house. Because they didn't get a lot to eat, I often sneaked bread into them at lunchtime and, boy, were they thankful." It was in the late 1940s that Danny decided to leave the GNR and, in 1948, secured a job as caretaker at his alma mater, the Christian Brothers. That year he also married his sweetheart, Lila Carlin, from Lecky Road. "As caretaker at the Christian Brothers, each morning I had to sweep out and dust 18 classrooms that housed 600 pupils. "In addition, I had to light 16 fires and fire up two boilers. I also had to cut lawns and hedges. It was hard work and only for £3 10s per week. Four years later, he decided to move on - incidentally he would have earned more money on the "dole" than as school caretaker.
In 1952, Danny began his first stint working for the United States Navy - cooking meals for 40 men at their Clooney base. However, thinking that the base may be on the verge of closing, Danny decided to look elsewhere for work. After short periods building houses in Creggan and working as a plumber's mate in Du Pont, Danny returned to the US Navy base in 1961, quickly rising through the ranks, eventually to become Head Cook. Cooking breakfast, lunch and supper for upwards of 200 men, it was a tough life as a US navy cook. "We started each morning at 6 a.m. preparing for breakfast which would have included, among other things, cooking 30 dozen eggs in an hour. "Also on the breakfast menu was 10 gallons of coffee. As soon as breakfast was over, we would begin preparing for lunch which could involve readying 20 gallons of soup and, perhaps, 40 lbs of beef." Due to ill-health, Danny was forced to quit the navy base in 1968. However, make no mistake about it, bringing up a family of eight - five sons and three daughters - during the troubles was a tough job, too.
Sadly, in 1990, Danny's wife, Lila, passed away. "You might as well have cut off my right arm," he says. "It's never been the same since." Despite suffering five heart attacks, Danny, while frail, remains fighting fit. "I'm still here. I've fought off everything they've thrown at me. In fact, I recently bumped into a nurse who treated me in hospital years ago and she said to me: 'Goodness, Danny, you just don't give up, do you?"."
But, then, that's Danny Carlin for you - a true fighter.
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