Jonny McCambridge: A day in Portrush with a Barry’s-shaped hole

As a child growing up in north Antrim in the 1980s, foreign holidays were an elusive dream.

Wednesday, 25th August 2021, 6:15 am
A last look at Barry's

I was in my 20s before I stepped onto an aeroplane, and even older before I first visited a country where the pound or punt were not the accepted currency.

This meant that, apart from a couple of trips to Donegal and Blackpool, my school summer holidays were spent close to home.

Which usually included a trip to Ballycastle beach, perhaps a visit to an agricultural show, sampling the delights of the Lammas Fair, and the annual day out in Portrush.

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The Portrush experience can be further condensed. What it really meant, and what was the highlight of nearly all my summers, was a visit to Barry’s.

It is difficult to find the words to explain exactly what Barry’s meant to local children growing up in those troubled times. The night before I knew I was going I was always too excited to sleep properly.

The very sight of the glass fronted wall with the red and yellow lettering at the complex would immediately cause the pulse to quicken even further. It just looked different from every other building I knew. The sounds of laughter when you entered, the howls of fear and excitement, set it apart.

There was almost unbearable tension as money was changed into the little silver tokens which gave you access to the rides. The scarier the ride, the more enthusiastic my brother and I were to go on it. It was the only place we knew that was entirely devoted to fun.

Even back then I was aware that there were bigger attractions. There were kids in my class that had been to Disneyland and Alton Towers; but it didn’t really matter because Barry’s was our place. It was what we had and every moment there was cherished.

The best way to describe it is that a trip to Barry’s made it feel like Christmas in the middle of summer. It filled you with that undefinable sense of magic deep in your soul that only children can truly understand.

There is a certain comfort and nostalgia in the fact that this year, due to Covid, my family has returned to north Antrim to holiday. I spent several days showing my son around the rugged beauty of the Causeway coast. I am not sure that we could have enjoyed our time more if we had been in a far-off and exotic location.

And, of course, we visit Portrush. As I walk through the streets I am struck by the number of people in the town. It is hardly novel to say that Portrush is packed in the summer, but I am not sure I have ever known it as busy as this. There is a sense that the footpaths are just not wide enough, the cars are in a convoy which crawls slowly along the roads.

From a distance it seems that the balconies, bar terraces and restaurants are filled to saturation point with customers, moving around almost on top of each other like wasps in a nest.

I have a peculiar sense of how the old is mixed with the new. The number of dining establishments has exploded. Everywhere I turn there are apartments which did not exist before. Yet, there are other parts of the town which seem to look exactly as they did when I was a child, as if frozen in time.

We walk to the end of the long street towards the Barry’s complex, as if drawn there magnetically. There is a strange scene here. A small crowd has gathered at the large glass wall and are staring through the windows. There are a few children, but more adults.

I join them and see that the interior fittings and the rides seem to be mostly intact. It is almost cruel, like a mirage or a promise that remains just out of reach. I notice a sign which reads ‘The fun starts here’.

‘It’s a tragedy,’ one of the grown-up men at the door says sadly to nobody in particular. ‘It’s such a tragedy.’

‘There’s nothing for the wains now,’ a woman says.

The wooden helter skelter is still out the front. Just where it was when I went on it as a child, some decades ago. The excitement of grabbing the heavy mat and dragging it to the top remains with me in a way. Begging my da to let me have just one more go.

A couple of years ago, I introduced my son to that helter sketler. He loved it just as I did.

We stare for some time at the white frame of the slide. With no children climbing the stairs it seems industrial. There are no screams of delighted terror, no more laughter.

After a while, the small crowd begins to disperse, some still muttering under their breath. I take some photographs because I think it may be the last time that I see this building.

We walk on. After a while my son turns to me.

‘What do we do now daddy?’

And I find that I’m genuinely not sure.

I know that my boy loves video games, so I tell him that we can go to one of the indoor arcades. I select one which has a name which suggests that it may be child-friendly.

But, as we enter, I am struck by how stale the air is. The cavernous space with stained carpet is dominated by lines of gambling machines. The sound system is playing ‘I’m In The Mood For Dancing’ by the Nolan Sisters.

We have a quick look around but there are no video games for kids here, just a couple of garishly coloured claw machines filled with yellow Minion teddies and sliding machines full of 2p coins which seem to defy gravity.

I watch a mother shush her two crying children. Their father doesn’t seem to notice and is mechanically sliding coins into a slot machine.

‘I don’t think there’s anything for us in here buddy. Let’s find somewhere else,’ I say to my son.

Before we go, I notice that the sound system is now playing ‘Put Your Sweet Lips A Little Closer To The Phone’ by Jim Reeves.