Belfast street games

Nowadays you very rarely see children playing in the streets. A combination of television, more cars and parental paranoia over ‘stranger danger’ has transformed play into a solitary activity for many children. In this article T. Leinad remembers the days when the streets rang out to the sound of skipping rhymes and children’s laughter.

Belfast Children - 1969 © William DohertyI hated school as most children did in those days. It was just accepted that school was an unpleasant necessity. My Aunt Josie would sometimes bring me to the Willowbank playground, which was, and still is near La Salle Park near where the old Broadway Cinema stood. We walked all the way from Quadrant Street, which was a very long walk for a small child. It was made worse because the Royal Victoria Hospital had a continuous blank wall stretching from the Grosvenor Road to Broadway. As a child I hated that wall because it seemed interminable. I can still recall the sense of utter boredom I experienced walking past it. When I thought of school on a Monday morning stretching to Friday in the far distance, I always pictured it as the hospital wall. What I do not understand is why we walked past the playground in the Dunville Park, which was quite near home. I don’t ever recall playing there.

Most of our playing was done in the street and the residents were remarkably tolerant because I suppose there was nowhere else to play. The games and pastimes seemed to happen cyclically following seasons of their own. One day, for no apparent reason, all the children, and there always seemed to be hoards of children, would appear with peeries and whips, and in due course these would be replaced by skipping ropes, or hoops, or skates or marbles (“marlies”). No one organised these things. They just happened. Quadrant Street was one of the few streets that had been concreted which meant it had a smooth surface for playing with these toys. Most other streets in the district were still paved with cobbles, round stones set into the dirt. These were sometimes called “kidney pavers” because of their shape, and were standard ammunition in riot situations.

A peery was a wooden spinning top that was driven by a whip. Perhaps it should be spelt peary because the original tops were pear shaped. We had two kinds. One was shaped like a curved inverted cone and was difficult to start and keep spinning, but the other was shaped like a mushroom and could be started with a snap of the fingers if the fingers were strong enough. This had to be done with the left hand if you were right handed with the whip. With every stroke of the whip, this peery would leap a considerable distance through the air and land still spinning further along the street. These were known as, “Racers” while a slimmer and livelier type were called “Windy brackers”. (Window breakers). (The residents were indeed remarkably tolerant.) If you couldn’t spin your peery with your fingers, you could do so by winding the cord of the whip round the stem of the “mushroom” and then flicking it away. The real wimps pushed the peery into the dirt between the paving flags and wound the string round it, and then flicked the whip to start it spinning. We experimented, adding different colours to the top of the peery to see what effect the spinning would have. After a day with a peery and whip, your right arm would be very painful at the shoulder joint.

Hoops were always the rims of old bicycle wheels. These could be propelled by holding a stick in the V shaped groove round the rim, (most bicycle wheels in those days had a V shaped profile) but we usually made a “cleek” out of stiff wire which curved round the sides of the rim and enabled the hoop to be steered and turned. Of course we played the usual games of street football, and a game using hurley sticks in which the ball never left the ground and we played various forms of, “Tig” (Tag), such as Chain Tig and Hospital Tig. We also played a form of cricket, (often with hurley sticks), rounders, hopscotch, and leapfrog. A development of leapfrog was a game we called, “Mussy Cock”. (Some called it, “Churchy”.) The participants were divided into two teams one of which formed a long line of bent backs at right angles to a wall while holding onto each other. One person standing with his back to the wall acted as a cushion for the first person’s head. The others in turn ran and leapfrogged as far up the line as they could, shouting as they did so, “Mussy cock and one over, Mussy cock and two over” and so on until all the second team were perched on the backs of the first. They counted to ten, and if no one had fallen off, they had another turn. When they failed to complete this exercise successfully, the other team took their place.

There were a couple of variations of, “Hide and Seek”. (We always called it, “Hide and Go Seek”, usually pronounced, “Hingoseek”. In one variation, “Kick the Tin”, a tin can was kicked as far as the leader of the gang could do. The person who was, “On It”, had to recover the tin and place it in “The Den” while all the others scattered and hid. Then, “On It”, had to go in search of them. As he discovered each fugitive he would name him and signal his capture by tagging or touching him or spitting over his head. The captives had to retire to the den and stay there until all were discovered when the game would be repeated with the first person captured being, “On It”. However, if any player still free could make it to the den without being seen and named by, “On It”, he could kick the tin again and release the captives who would rush in all directions and hide again. In another form of the game, a free player rushing through the den shouting, “Relieveo”, could release the captives. This game was of course called, “Relieveo”.

The girls, and often the boys too, played skipping games of varying degrees of difficulty. Some of these involved running into and out of the turning rope at the correct time. Some required the ability to skip very fast, while others involved skipping over two ropes turning out of synch, (“French skipping”), or stopping the turning rope by trapping it between the legs at just the right moment. All these games were accompanied by specific songs or rhymes, some of which included quite explicit sexual references, but we were innocent of all such notions.

Click play on the video below:

Skipping Rhymes

Silly old Sailor

Silly old sailor went a sailing

For to cross the ocean wide,

But he left his girl behind him

Weeping by the Liverpool side.

Weep no more my dearest Peggy.

Take your baby on your knee,

For I’ll be back tomorrow morning

And a sailor I will be.

I will buy you sheets and blankets.

I will buy you a diamond stone.

I will buy you a horse to ride on

When your true love’s dead and gone

Get away you silly old sailor.

Get away to the bottom of the sea.

You’re not fit for a fish in the water.

You’re not fit for a girl like me.


I Know a Woman

I know a woman and you called her, “Miss”,

And all of a sudden she goes like this. (The skipper opens her legs to catch the rope.)


I know a woman and you called her, “Black”.

She worked in Woolworth’s and got the sack

For stealing toys and kissing boys,

And shouting, “Whoopee! Me da’s a cowboy”.

The most frequently used rhyme was:

Eightsy, datesy, miss the rope you’re out-eo.

All the money’s scarce and the people’s out of work-eo.

There was also a game where the skippers ran into the turning rope in quick succession, skipped once, and ran out again to a chant of, “One eightsy, one eightsy, one eightsy”.


On Yonder Hill.

On yonder hill there stands a lady.

Who she is I do not know.

All she wants is gold and silver.

All she wants is a handsome beau.

Lady, lady, tip the ground.

Lady, lady, give a boul (birl) round.

Lady, lady, show your shoe.

Lady, lady, run right through.

(The skipper had to perform the actions while continuing to skip.)


Will You Have a Cup Of Tea?

Will you have a cup of tea, sir?

No, sir.

Why, sir?

Because I’ve got the cold, sir.

Where’d you get the cold, sir?

Up the North Pole, sir.

What ‘ere you doin’ there, sir?

Catchin’ polar bears, sir.

How many did you catch, sir?

One, sir. Two, sir. Three, sir… and so on. (With the rope turning more and more rapidly until the skipper was out)


Jelly on the plate.

Jelly on the plate.

Jelly on the plate

A wriggley-i a wriggley-i

The jelly’s all ate.


Keep The Kettle Boiling.

Keep the kettle boiling for my tea.

When it’s ready call for me.

Don’t take it off till I count three,

A h-aon, do, tri. Take it off.

(The counting was always in Irish.)

When a skipping game was proposed, all present shouted, “No ender”. The last two people to shout would have to be the, “Enders”, i.e. those who turned the rope until someone was, “Out”, and took their place. If the matter went to a dispute, it had to be resolved by a choosing rhyme.

The girls, but never the boys, also played very skilful games that involved throwing, catching, bouncing and juggling rubber balls. There was a strict but unwritten routine to be followed. The ball could be thrown into the air, and caught, or it could be bounced on the ground and caught. It could be thrown into the air, allowed to bounce and caught. Then it could be thrown against a wall and caught, or it could be allowed to bounce before being caught. Then came the “dickety” and the “dickety-bounce”. This involved bouncing the ball on the ground so that it then bounced off the wall to be caught or was allowed to bounce on the ground again before being caught. (“Dickety”, was of course an onomatopoeic word). This routine was repeated with two, three, and even four balls being thrown in quick succession. Refinements of the routine also demanded that the balls were thrown simultaneously in opposite directions, e.g. the dickety, and the wall-bounce at the same time. I have seen jugglers in a circus inviting applause for less complicated and skilful routines. Some of the ball games also had rhymes to go with them.


Choosing Rhymes

When it was necessary to choose a person to be, “On it”, there were many rhymes by which the person was counted out.

Eerie orie iggerie ann.

Pour the vinegar on the pan.

Im skim boxalim—eureka.


Eeny meeny miny mo.

Set the baby on the po.

When it’s done

Clean its bum.

Eeny meeny miny mo.

Sometimes this one took the form,

Eeny meeny miny mo.

Catch a nigger by the toe.

If he squeals, let him go.

Eeny meeny miny mo.

Even less politically correct was,

I think, I think, I smell a stink,

I think, I think, it’s you.

Open the door and let it out.


Sometimes we played games such as, “Hoppy Dunchy”, or “Tug o’ war”, which required teams to be selected on an impartial basis. There were rhymes and rituals for selecting teams, and sometimes the ritual was as important as the game.


Here’s the Robbers Coming Through.

Singing this song, the children would file under the outstretched arms of the two team leaders and at the words, “My fair lady”, the person under the arch would join one of the leaders alternately.


Angels and Devils.

All the children would line up against the wall and each be given a colour to remember by a leader. The team captains, one the devil, and the other the angel would then approach the leader and begin the ritual selection saying,

“Knock knock”.

Leader: “Who’s there”?

“The devil with the black hair”.

Leader: “What do you want”?

“A box of colours”.

Leader: “What colour”?

The “devil” would name a colour and if one of the children had been given that colour he joined the devil’s team.

The other captain as, “The angel with the golden hair” would repeat the ritual, and so on alternately until all the children had been chosen.


There Came Three Lords.

“There came three lords just out of Spain

To try and court your daughter Jane”.

Leader. “My daughter Jane is much too young

To marry a man of eighty one”. (Or, “She cannot speak the Spanish tongue”).

“Then fare you well for I’m away,

I’ll not be back another day”.

Leader. “Come back. Come back. Your coat is white

And pick the fairest one you like”.

“The fairest one that I can see

Is (name). Come here to me”.

Sometimes as a prelude to a general melee or rough and tumble fight we would form two lines facing each other and, linking arms, we would dance back and forward singing alternate verses of, The Gallant Soldiers”.

“Have you any bread and wine,

For we are the English?

Have you any bread and wine,

For we’re the English soldiers”?

“Yes we have some bread and wine

For we are the Irish.

Yes we have some bread and wine

For we’re the Irish soldiers.”

“Will you give us some of it etc.”

“No we’ll give you none of it etc.”

“We will set our dogs on you etc.”

“We don’t care for dogs or you etc.”

“Are you ready for a fight? etc.”

“Yes we’re ready for a fight etc.”

Then the friendly battle would commence.

Quieter Games

Not all our games were so rough. We played quite happily in pairs or small numbers at games such as, “Blowsies”, “Dropsies”, and, “Draw a Snake”. The first two were played with cards that were collected such as cigarette cards or used tramway tickets, or the milk bottle tops mentioned earlier. Tobacco companies issued cigarette cards as a marketing ploy, one card being included in each packet of cigarettes. They were issued in sets and the idea was that smokers would be encouraged to collect a full set. Each card had a picture on one side and an explanation or description on the other, the subject being perhaps great sportsmen, military heroes, horses, historical figures, or scenery. The range of subjects was very wide. These, “ciggies”, as we called them were very collectable and boys often begged them from adult smokers.

Blowsies. Each contestant placed a card flat, one on top of the other, on a windowsill and against the widow frame. Then each would try to turn the cards over by blowing three puffs from his mouth held close to the sill. If one succeeded, he kept the cards. If all failed, each added another card and the game proceeded with the pile getting higher and thus easier to under blow. Great delicacy and skill was required when the cards were blown upright against the window frame, to persuade them to slide out from the bottom and thus fall the right way up for a win. All the cards did not have to be flipped over at once. The winner kept as many cards as he managed to turn over.

Dropsies. Each contestant in turn held a card, (or ticket), against a mark on the wall and let it flutter to the ground. When a falling card landed on another on the ground the owner of the upper card lifted and kept all the cards that were on the ground.

Draw A Snake. The player who is on it hides his face in his forearm against a wall, holding his other arm behind his back with the index finger extended. A leader draws a wriggley line down his back with his own finger saying, “I draw a snake right down your back. Who tipped your finger”? One of the others quickly touches the hider’s finger, and he must then guess who touched him. If he guesses correctly, the toucher takes his place.

Piggy. This is an interesting game I remember playing, as do many of my contemporaries. However having consulted them, I find that, like myself, they know the mechanics of the game but they cannot agree about how it was scored or won. I think the reason for this is that like street football, street cricket, street tennis and many other games, Piggy was a degenerate form of a popular adult pastime that could never be properly replicated on the street. It was played in England from fairly ancient times under the names of Piggy, or Tip-cat. It was also known as, “Poor man’s golf”. The name was derived from a piece of wood called the piggy, (or the cat) about four inches long (10 cm.) tapered at both ends. This is struck with a bat or club. In our case the piggy was a stick taken from a bundle of kindling wood and sharpened at both ends with a knife, and the club was a piece of wood broken from a packing case (or indeed anything that could be wielded as a club). If the piggy was struck a downward blow at either end, it rose spinning into the air and could then be struck again while airborne. I think the idea was to see how far it could be sent in three strikes. Some say that the opponent was required to throw the piggy back into a den or pre-set area. The rules of the official game also varied according to the area in which it was played, some versions suggesting a form of rounders. We always gave ourselves an advantage for the first strike by placing the piggy projecting over the edge of the kerb. (Which we called the, “crib”.)

Another reasonably quiet game was, “Queenio”. One person threw a ball back over his/her head and the rest scrambled for it. They all then approached the thrower chanting,

“Queenio, Queenio, Who’s got the ball?

For I haven’t got it, and I haven’t got it.”

(They dramatically displayed each hand alternately from behind their backs as they did so.) The thrower had to guess who had the ball.

We also derived great pleasure from swinging round a lamppost, sitting on a rope. And we were all experts at “speeding” (shinning) up the lamppost to hang from the horizontal arms at the top. Both of these activities were illegal and if a policeman appeared, everybody took flight. Policemen did walk their beat in those days to deter serious criminals like us.

Photo of children © William Doherty

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