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The Vacuum Issue 9 spacer Issue 9
The Illusionist - A Journey In Local Magic
An Interview With Jim Doherty

by John Mathews
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J.M - You got into the world of magic through working in a shop called The Magic Box in Belfast from 1948 to 1998. Could you tell me a little bit about that place?
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J.D - The Magic Box started in 1905 by an American policeman who was actually a member of a magic circle in New York called 'Magic Cops' which operated out of one of the precincts. Him and his wife came back to Ireland and started a small magic stall in the Markets and eventually opened a shop in Smithfield Square. My da brought me in for the first time in 1948 and the manager and me just took a shine to each other and I started helping out on Saturdays. The war was just over and there wasn't a lot of stuff about and the magicians in those times made their own props. We used to sell things like egg bags, you put the egg in the bag and it disappeared. I might have my one a month people or once a year people and if some day you brought in 93p, if the love of magic is keeping you going the next day you might bring in £93.00. At the end of the year you have to look at the bottom line and if its healthy that's it, it might only be a penny healthy but it has to be the joy of magic to run a business.
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J.M - What type of people would come into the shop apart from magicians?
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J.D - People form all walks of life like Billy Nickel who designed jewellery or Doctor Gardner who was a great man for racing and won one of the first Monte Carlo Rallies. Billy Mc Comb as well, who practised magic since he was six and went on to become a doctor because that's what his family wanted but eventually left that to become a top magician and set up the Magic Castle in Bangor.
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J.M - You are involved in the Northern Ireland Society of Magic, what sort of work are they involved in?
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J.D - They are involved in some charity work, if anybody is called on by a member to do something you automatically agree. We also make sure some of the older magicians are tended too. We have conventions and gala shows and somebody would decide to drive a car blindfold through the city centre. The driver would be blindfold and the passenger would direct them. Or somebody would be thrown off a bridge into the water in a straight jacket. There'd be a lot of thought going into it and you'd have to take it up with the safety officers in the city hall. It's all different now; the word magic has in some ways disappeared. Through 60 years and all the troubles we kept the society going, You might not be still working the stage but you are still making magic part of your life. You want friends with the same interests and you can share it with them. A magician called Murray (M. Carrington-Walters), who coined the phrase 'escapologist' was president of the society for a period. He started out as a boy and toured the world and ended up retiring to own a magic shop in Blackpool due to ill health. He worked through numerous countries including Europe, Russia, India, sometimes travelling on elephants and oxen. Fighting off Malaria, through the war, meeting Hitler, Churchill, and Mussolini, fleeing countries because of uprisings. Not always getting paid or having to pay to get out of a country. All those kind of things and at the end of the day he went into obscurity. People would go into the shop buying fancy hats or comic cards not knowing behind the counter was a phenomenon.
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J.M - Has magic changed a lot over the years?
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J.D - Oh God I, it had too, the Vaudeville disappeared after the war and the likes of the Opera House and the Empire all became cinemas or bingo halls. Lots of artists not only magicians lost their livelihood because of the introduction of cinema. They tried to bring it back but it didn't work and then disco came. Some boys won over on the disco; certain kinds of magic would suit it. Everybody would hit the disco about 11.30 and the magician would get himself a wee corner or walk around. One particular fella would have a thing that looked like a hanky and there were four beads on each cornerand that was his platform. People were quite happy to hold each corner of this and he would work it like a table. Do the tricks and then fold all his gear up into his pocket. Some people would be stressed out after work or have fallen out with their girl or something, anything would be happening round the act and people could say I don't want that but generally young people would have a great interest in how things go.
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J.M - Do you recall much of the Vaudeville era?
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J.D - I remember the Empire, St. Mary's hall and going to the Troxy to watch Doctor Hunters Circus which also carried a magician whose work was done with doves. My father knew quite a lot of them and that's how he got to write the book (Standing Room Only). Back in those days you would have the writing in between the action to go along with the silent movies. My Grandmother used to go in and sit and read off the screen. Because you had grown up people there whose families couldn't read or right. She would sit and read that for the audience and if my grandmother was working my father would have went instead. There was nothing macho about this seven-year old boy sitting reading out, even though the people sitting beside him would be much older with a family of four or five. So he done that for them and he wasn't paid, it was just community spirit and there'd be a woman who'd play the piano to the films as well. They'd all like to see Hopalong Cassidy ridding the horse and shooting the gun but they got that extra wee bit from the words on the screen. Vaudeville died in America once the Jazz singer was released and then you had the Niclkleodeans. You had to say goodbye to the stage because they used that for the screen. The likes of Houdini came to Europe because they had the money to follow on when America was closing. They would travel on the big steamers to France and Germany following the demodernisation. I remember there was also a guys who'd pickpocket for a living, not stealing but just for laughs. One particular guy was giving it a go and doing very well and what happened one time was he had taken somebody's hanky, whose false teeth were wrapped up in it. Of course when he returned the hanky, the wee man noticed his false teeth were gone He shouted up to yer man 'you didn't give me my teeth back'. So he had created an impression in the audiences mind that not only had he pickpocketed the man but had also taken his teeth out when he wasn't looking. He just played high with the sunshine and it appeared in one of the local papers. There was also Michael Costello alias The Amazing Blondini who done all the sword swallowing, getting buried alive, getting inside coffins and blowing them up with explosives. His father was a strong man and his mother a fortuneteller. Those were the sort of people who made the Irish magic scene so special.
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J.M - Do you think magic is being lost or dissapearing from modern culture within Northern Ireland?
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Yeah it's possibly because you just don't get people to come on stream with it in the present time. If you got one or two people becoming magicians in one year, you were happy. What I have noticed now is a lot of magicians are willing to come in from other parts like magic George who is on every Tuesday in Harry Ramsdens chip shop all day. You just find a niche in the market. There are a few children's entertainers who have passed away over the years, punch and Judy seems to making a comeback because its very visual, ventriloquists not so much. There was another guy called Creg Keith who had a thing called 'the creation of days' like making the Eiffel tower in balloons on Bastille day and on the Chinese New Year, he would create pagodas and dragons in balloons. He performed this in hotels and you'd see him outside Laverys at three or four o'clock in the morning as the people came out. At the end of the day he educated himself to a very high standard in the media and art of magic to such an extent he trained himself in the technical side at Queens University and then moved onto special effects in Hollywood. The love of it andthe business of it look after themselves.
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The Illusionist - A Journey In Local Magic - An Interview With Jim Doherty
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J.M - It must have been a hard life to a certain extent, working as a travelling magician, living out of suitcases.
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J.D - Oh God I, for instance there was Verny of the glens (Bernard Victor Verns) who went about on an old motorbike all over the country doing his shows in all sorts of weather and times. Going out to the countryside doing schools and fairs working off the motorbike, as some guys did from the back of a drop down lorry. It certainly was tough.
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J.M - Was there ever any difficulty playing a diverse range of venues especially in Northern Ireland.
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J.D - We didn't care where we went, we would go into any area, anytime, it's never been we can't go there or do this. It didn't reflect on the troubles as such in Northern Ireland but certainly it would have come in there, when one time we had a gala concert in an Orange hall in Moira. We brought along a girl to play the organ and she was placed above the stage in the pulpit and every now and then we'd give her a nod to play. She was a girl from Dublin and as it came time to play the national anthem at the end of the night all the Orangemen and everybody in the hall got up but she started to play the soldiers song. We couldn't get up to the pulpit to let her know it was the wrong anthem. She had been on tour with us all over the place and for that particular moment she thought she was in the South of Ireland. There were a lot of red faces but we got out that one anyway.
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J.M - You wouldn't have been involved in the physic end of magic such as seances or was it mostly practical magic you would have been involved in?
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J.D - No, not at all but one of the most famous people who done that sort of thing came from Lime Street in Belfast, a woman called Golligher. It was Arthur Connan Doyle who got to know about her and he corresponded with Houdini in America. Houdini didn't like psychics but Doyle told him that he had discovered this girl and had never witnessed anything like it. So Houdini came to work the Opera house in Cork and the Empire Belfast and came early to spend three days with her. He returned to America and wrote to Doyle that of all the psychics he had met there was something about the girl Golligher that was definitely genuine.
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J.M - Houdini was obsessed with exposing Psychics as frauds since the death of his mother were he repeatedly tried to contact his mother through the afterlife. So it was through a source of disappointment that drove him to this self appointed task.
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J.D - Yes that's true they would be called charlatans and Houdini and Doyle would reek havoc on them. They were like the untouchables but they couldn't find anything fake about her. After she passed away the Golligher Society was formed and they would meet at the bottom of Donegal Pass for a number of years. It was nice know that if she did have this great gift that a wee lonely place at the bottom Lime Street in Belfast had it.
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The Illusionist - A Journey In Local Magic - An Interview With Jim Doherty
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