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Bookie gets his back up in Sandy Row

By Liam Murphy

I came back from the Down v Leitrim game last Sunday on the Ulsterbus Express. I was delighted when the driver left the dual carriageway he took a route through a private road which meant we avoided Sandy Row and Boyne Bridge.
The first time I was on Sandy Row was in 1965. I spent the summer of that year in London working on a building site to pay my student debts. I returned on a Sunday morning in October on the Heysham boat and made my way via a deserted Sandy Row at 7am to the end of the M1 at Donegall Road to “thumb” a lift. Within five minutes a shiny big red car pulled up and I was on my way. It was customary then for seasoned hitch-hikers to have a friendly conversation with the driver. One of the ploys used was to congratulate the driver on the quality of the car. This usually resulted in a considerable increase in speed. On this occasion I had no need to do this as my chauffeur asked, “What do you think of this car?” I rose to the bait and the journey time immediately shortened. He then informed me he was on his way to Dungannon to sell the car and that he was going to put all of the proceeds (he was hoping for £250) on a horse running in the Cambridgeshire the following Saturday. I knew very little about horses then – I definitely know less now! But I took a mental note of the name of the horse. The driver came off the motorway at Moy and dropped me at my door. He told me not to forget to back it. I mentioned it to my father – who liked a bet – the next day at lunchtime.
We went into Armagh city to the bookmakers and backed it at odds of 40/1. I returned to Belfast on the Tuesday. I stayed with friends who were at QUB in a flat in Wesley Street just off Sandy Row. I mentioned the horse and as one of the flatmates had a keen interest in punting he went to a bookmaker’s shop on Sandy Row to read up about it. He came back to tell us the price was now 33/1. We all had a bet. Next day the price was 25/1 and again we invested. On Thursday it was 20/1, on Friday 16/1. In those days you went up to the bookie’s clerk and named your horse and the stake and he wrote the bet. Each time any of us placed a bet the clerk laughed and made a snide remark, “students with more money than sense.” By the time the race started on Saturday at odds of 100/8 hundreds of QUB students had backed it – all in the same Sandy Row bookmaker’s office.
The horse won and a queue formed outside the bookie’s office. After about fifteen minutes we were informed that the office was closing as they had run out of cash. When I went to get paid out the following Tuesday the bookie growled at me as he counted my winnings and told me he would have me shot if I came into the office again. I took him at his word and have never ever conducted any business on Sandy Row again (wrong – I bought a pair of shoes four years later for the best man for my wedding – it was the only place I could get size 13!).
I always wondered how Sandy Row got its name. Amazingly it was once known as Dublin Road. It started as a bridle path to the south of the little town of Belfast. In 1641 Lord Chichester ordered a widening to make it into a proper highway on the way to Dublin. Sandy Row has long been associated with Orangeism as William, Prince of Orange passed through on his way to the Battle of the Boyne.
On the map of the Volunteer review ground dated 1783 a row of seven houses are marked as “Sandy Row” on the “highway to Malone.” The original owner of these little houses was one Sandy Frazer and they were originally referred to as Sandy’s Row.
It is also true that Sandy Row was always a Protestant stronghold as a coroner’s report from 1797 records the death of one James McKeon, described as “a most respectable inhabitant of this town, was on or about 10 o’clock on the night of October 7 foully murdered in Sandy Row by persons unknown”. The report further stated that the man was a Catholic and his attackers were believed to be “Orange Boys.”
The month of July has seen great unrest in Sandy Row down the years, particularly in 1864 when a mob attacked the RIC calling them “the Fenian police” who were guarding Salt Water Bridge afterwards known as Boyne Bridge. When a firing party fired shots over the heads of the rioters and failed to deter the attackers the police took aim and twenty rioters fell, two of them dead.
I don’t visit the district anymore and I rarely think of Sandy Frazer. When I think of Sandy Row I think of Tarquogan for that was the name of the horse who won the Cambridgeshire handicap in 1965 breaking the heart of one bookmaker and providing funds for me and a big contingent of students of the rugby and GAA clubs of QUB. I have never been so lucky since.

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