The magical world of Philip Swann!

PHILIP Swann is one of those people who can’t just have a passing interest in a subject.

“When I’m listening to the radio I’m wondering what year the song was from, when I am watching a TV programme I need to check if the music is correct for the period or if the number plates on the cars are right - it drives Jean mad!

“Sometimes I just wish I could watch or listen to things without wondering all the time!”

Philip has been married to Jean for almost 50 years and she is now well used to a man whose brain is always working overtime.

He was born in September 1949 in Bruslee, Ballyclare, and his first memory is in August, 1951.

“I remember my da asking me if I wanted to come and meet my new sister,” he said.

“We went to the sick room, as it was called. When any of the children were sick there was a fire lit and we were put in there.

“I remember my mother was in the bed and there were three people in the room and they were all laughing.”

It wasn’t until the early 1990s when his mother corroborated the story.

Midwife Jean Dundee was trying to weigh baby Wendy, suspended from her nappy.

The child was kicking out and kept upsetting the scales, prompting laughter from all in the room, including their mother Laura.

Philip later remembers Wendy crawling around the floor.

Their father was the late stage magician Emile Swann, who later gained notoriety when he shot dead Hillary, his stage assistant and mother of his two younger children as she lay in Whiteabbey Hospital.

Previously, Emile was famous as the first man to saw a woman in half with a chainsaw!

Along with their late brother Terry, who tragically drowned in Lough Neagh in 1963, the siblings followed their father on to the stage and into the limelight.

Later, they got two sisters - Tracey and Pilar - and a brother, Daran.

“I was first on the stage in late 1958,” he recalls.

“James Young would do a monologue with a brush, we were the warm-up act.

“I wanted to be a trick rider when I was a boy.

“Terry was the ring master and Wendy would ride the pony bareback.

“Wendy and I later had a circus act called Ricarda and Dwe - her initials, as she was called Dianne Wendy Elizabeth!

Poor Wendy was also sawn in half in a box more than once.

“My father was famous for his shooting act,” said Philip.

“I tried it a few times but it was too much of a risk for me.”

He had been given a conjuring set as a child, promoted by the famous TV magician David Nixon, and he adored it.

“Some of the tricks were too complicated for a child to do,” he said.

“But when I saw Fernie, or Victor Ferns from Glenarm, he came to the school, I was mesmerised.”

In later life Philip joined the Ulster Society of Magicians and worked full -time as an electrician as well as performing for children in his spare time.

The legendary promoter David Hull became his agent, and many evenings were spent making balloon animals and producing multi-coloured hankies from his sleeves - with glamorous assistance from Wendy and later, his own two daughters Nancy and Rachel.

“One night at the Killyhevlin Hotel, we just blew up hundreds of balloons.

“There was another girl who used to help us called Grainne Hackett.

“Grainne was a lovely, bubbly, smiling young girl full of fun and laughter and it was a real joy to have her helping me to do the gigs.

“Unfortunately Grainne is not with us anymore except in our memories.”

“Swords are the easiest and quickest thing to make with balloons.

“One time a child asked me for a ‘board’.

“It was a while before I found out he was from down the country and he wanted a ‘bird’.

“On another occasion a wee boy asked me to make him a lawnmower.

“He got a dog!”

Philip attended Bruslee Primary School, before the family moved to Templepatrick when he was six and he enrolled in the village school.

“I never mitched, but I was dyslexic, so they all thought I was stupid. The best day of my life was the day I threw my bag into the cupboard under the stairs and I never had to go back.

“To this day I have notes stuck beside my computer to remind me what letters go where.

“There were two classes, Mrs Nicholl’s and the Master’s class, Mr Seymour and the room was partitioned in two.

“Then a new teacher called Miss McClurg arrived and the biggest class was partitioned into two.

“There was a fire in the middle. The big boys would put a bit of coke on it and in the cold weather you would put the milk beside it to thaw out.

“When it was frozen the cream would stick out the top, it was as good as a lolly.

“Once or twice a week we would get the songbooks out and the wireless would be turned on and we all had to sing.

“The announcer said we weren’t singing loud enough and I could never understand how he knew!

“In the snow we would take the sleigh to school, then we would ask the teachers if they wanted a go.

“When they got in, of course, we would snowball them!”

Moving to Templepatrick helped imbue Philip with his lifetime love of all things equestrian.

“Dad brought three ponies home and that was how the riding school started.

“There was Polly and Francie-Jo and Butch.

“There was no such thing as health and safety in those days, you could ride after about three lessons.

“At first someone would run along beside you and say ‘up down, up down’ - and as soon as you could post to the trot, that was you on your own.

“If you said you were scared or you thought you couldn’t do it, all you would get was ‘kick on!’

“All the hats and the boots were shared.

“The hats were made of cork and you only wore them at competitions to keep them good!

“They were actually quite dangerous as they had a wee rivet in the top where there was a vent and it would actually cut into the top of your head!

“I remember my mother sewing elastic on to them so they wouldn’t come bouncing off.”

Phillip now has 11 horses, ponies and a donkey and continues to hunt and compete at ‘events’ - dressage, showjumping and cross-country.

In his younger days he took part in Point to Point events all over Northern Ireland.

“The type of horses winning races now would never have won in those days and the type of horses winning then would never win now!

“They didn’t need ‘back men’ or their teeth done or anyone to see if their necks were okay - we just got on and rode!”

Philip is taller than the average jockey.

“My natural weight is 12 stone and I was trying to race at 10.5.

“I was working back then as well so I wasn’t eating properly at all - two cream crackers when I was fit to be eating a loaf.”

Philip admits he is competitive.

“I was never good enough to be first and never bad enough to be last. Hopefully I am somewhere in between!”

He still rides out with the Killultagh Old Rock and Chichester Hunt, the oldest registered hunt in Ireland.

Attitudes to the sport have changed over the years, but Philip’s love for the countryside has never changed.

“The hunt is still going, the kennels are still at Dundrod.

“What I always say to people I hunt with is, take notice of your surroundings.

“Look at the ditch, it was probably dug 100 years ago, who dug it?

“That old abandoned cottage, has that been around since the time of the potato famine?

“Don’t disrespect the landowners who have looked after these places for centuries.

“I like everyone to be clean and tidy.”

He also made the foray into motorbikes, first racing on grass before going to short circuits and then road racing.

Between horses and bikes, he has broken collar bones more times than he cares to count.

After Templepatrick Primary, he went to secondary school in Antrim in 1961.

“It was a bit of a shock going from having 40 people in my school, to 30 people in my class, but I was just told to sit down and shut up!” he laughs.

His claim to fame in the new Antrim Secondary School in 1961 was that he was the first pupil to get caned by Mr Lyttle.

“Myself, Allen Walker and Mervyn Calcutt were sent out of the music room by Miss Livingstone for codding about and the headmaster saw us and told us to go to his office,” he said.

“So the three of us duly went to his office to wait for him to arrive but were a bit taken back when he reached into the cupboard and took out his cane and ordered me to hold out my hands and as the cane came down he announced that I was the first one to get caned.

“Mervyn and myself got caned again on different occasions but Allen never got it again.

“I often thought that I should have got it in writing and then at least I would have left school with something!”

What not a lot of people from his school days might have known, was that amongst all the other strings to his bow, Philip was also something of a ‘Billy Elliot’!

“I loved boxing, I boxed for the Northern Ireland Sea Cadet Corps but I wasn’t quick enough. I think I got as far as a semi-final once.

“I joined the McCartney School of Ballet in Belfast and I also danced at Hall’s Hotel in Antrim town.

“But I didn’t tell a lot of people in school, for obvious reasons.

“Between the boxing and the ballet and the horses, I was fit as a flea.”

In 1966 he was indentured to an electrical company.

As Philip explained: “That meant if the company got into trouble or went bust then you were protected and guaranteed your money and they would get you another job.

“If you were a ganch, you didn’t get indentured!”

Philip is still working, admitting he has probably been inside every house and business premises in his hometown of Crumlin.

He worked at Belfast International Airport for many years and has also done the wiring on more than one military facility.

“Boys hated working with me,” he said.

“When you would strip back the insulation on old houses you would find very old newspapers and I would sit and read them.

“Working at the airport was great. I got a few autographs - George Best, Alex Higgins, and Phillip McCallen and Joey Dunlop signed my copy of Classic Bike magazine.

“I often thought I should collect autographs, but it would have driven me mad, I think.

“If I do something, I have got to do it right and put my all into it.”

An avid newsman, Philip faithfully buys the Antrim Guardian and Farm Week every week.

Which feeds into another of his many hobbies - quizzing!

“I read the paper and I listen to the radio and watch the news and that’s how I get my questions.

“The younger ones always ask why I don’t look things up on the internet but there’s no fun in that!

“I have a book that I write things down in, interesting facts that I hear and for the picture round, I draw glasses on people or use pinking shears to mess them up a bit, so that it’s not too easy.”

Philip is also a stalwart of the Killultagh Historical Society.

“I’ve just always liked facts and history.

“I knew my grandfather’s brother had been killed at the Somme so Jean and I went on a tour and we were able to locate my great-uncle Ernest’s name on the memorial at Thiepval - his remains were never recovered.

“He died in September 1916 at the Somme.

“Most of the family knew nothing about it, but even after 100 years when I tracked him down, it brought a lump to my throat.”

Family is hugely important to Philip, who dotes on his grandchildren and still mourns the loss of his two late sons, Niall and Nathan, the latter also a promising rider.

“Rachel travelled all over with her husband’s job but when she came back home I entered her into a competition in Kircubbin without telling her.

“She hadn’t sat on a horse in eight years.

“She came second, only beaten by a point in the dressage.

“That was a bitter-sweet day, we were all very emotional.”

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