All aboard the Pony Express!

MY name name is Philip Swann and I was born in September 1949 in Bruslee near Ballyclare.

When I was six we moved to Templepatrick and shortly after that my father, Emile bought three ponies and a horse in Donegal and brought them home and that was the start of the Templepatrick Riding School.

It proved very popular so more and more ponies and horses were bought, new stables built and on a Saturday there would have been between 30 to 40 children up riding and helping with the ponies.

During the week it was mainly adults and on a Sunday mostly families. Dr Bill from Templepatrick was the main man when it came to sorting out any injuries!

From as far back as I can remember we were always doing ‘stunts’ with the horses and ponies and so I never thought much about it. A photo journalist from the Belfast Telegraph called Stanley Matchet would phone Emile and ask him to organise stunts with the ponies in Belfast so he could get a story for the paper. In later years Eddie McIlwaine took over and would ask for some stunt or other which we would gladly do.

At that time the big pictures at the Ritz Cinema were ‘Ben-Hur’, ‘Okolomha’ and loads of other westerns shows so horses were very much in vogue.

At Christmas time we took Santa to Robb’s and on Christmas morning we visited Muckamore Abby and brought the ponies up to the ward windows so the children and adults could see them. At these stunts we were all in fancy dress costumes. We also had to ride the ponies into Belfast - and after it was over ride them back home again!

The Troubles put an end to this practice, but it was great fun and we got free tickets to the cinema and to see Santa in Robb’s.

Three stunts which really stick in my mind are being on stage in the Empire Theatre with the late James Young when Terry, Wendy and I were playing a circus troupe which was an introduction to one of Jimmy’s monologue about a circus trick rider. I was the clown trick rider, Terry was the mounted ring master and Wendy was riding the beautiful palomino pony.

The other two stunts were long distance rides, one from Cork to Ballyclare and the other is the ride from Dublin to Belfast which was the first long ride.

My brother Terry, sister Wendy, myself and two other children from the riding school, Anne Austin and Michael Black were told to start practicing riding in formation for a stunt which was coming up. It was all ‘hush hush’, and that was quite strange because the Swanns at that time were not known for rehearsing or practicing and to be truthful, still aren’t.

But practice we did, Terry taking point, Wendy and I riding abreast then Anne and Michael. We rode in single file, formed into five abreast, wheeled to the left in formation, mounted and dismounted to Terry’s command until we had it down to a tee.

At last we were told what was going to happen. We were going to do a ‘pony express’ ride with a letter from the Lord Mayor of Dublin to the Lord Mayor of Belfast and to deliver it to him at the Lord Mayor’s Show that Saturday.

We would be riding throughout the night and taking it in turns to carry the letter like a relay race. As you can imagine we were all excited and couldn’t wait.

Emile and Roy Hamilton would drive the ex-WD Royal Navy petrol Bedford lorry which had been converted into a horse lorry of sorts to carry the ponies. Antrim man Dennis Young drove the old J2 van, with Laura and our mother whose duties were to look after us and make the grub and also to rub our bums with ointment and methylated spirits to stop us getting saddle sores from the constant riding!

The children also slept in this van during the ride. Audrey Bruce looked after the ponies and another man called Eamon who drove a red convertible sports car. Eamon had a signet ring with a watch in it and also he was supposed not to have a belly button. We all saw the ring with the watch but I can’t remember seeing the belly button...

We arrived into Dublin and the first thing was a photo shoot and we were all taken to a bridge over the Liffey and sat on it while we had our picture taken.

Laura was really ‘bricking it’ because Terry and Anne were the only two with any sense - the rest of us were a ‘bit witless’ while her only thoughts were that we would fall into the Liffey.

From there we went to an aunt and uncle of Laura’s where we were fed and then put to bed for a rest because we would be riding all night.

The girls were put into one room and the boys into another which had several tailor’s dummies and a manikin.

Well it wasn’t too long before we were messing about with the dummies and having a power of fun and annoying the girls!

Unfortunately the fun came to an abrupt end when Laura came running up the stairs and read the riot act to us.

Soon we were all dressed and on our ponies and riding through Dublin to Manson House and the Lord Mayor.

We were very smartly turned out - blue fleecy type jumpers with Templepatrick Riding School on the back, white shirts, red ties with white TRS embroidered on them, white jodhpurs and gloves and shiny boots.

The ponies were all well-groomed, feet oiled, manes nicely plaited and tack polished. New white saddlecloths with a red border and black TRS in one corner.

We definitely looked and felt the part.

We rode in 1, 2, 2 formation until we arrived at Manson House, Terry on Shep, Anne on The General, Michael on Polly, me on Benny and Wendy on Butch.

On reaching Mansion House Terry gave the order and we formed into five abreast, wheeled left and came to a halt at the steps of the building where the Lord Mayor and some guests were standing.

On command we all dismounted. Anne took Terry’s horse and Terry marched smartly up the steps and saluted the Mayor and his party.

After a brief introduction the Mayor handed Terry the letter addressed to the Lord Mayor of Belfast.

Terry took the letter, put it into his haversack, saluted the Mayor and marched back to his horse.

At this stage the Mayor came down the steps and shook hands with all of us and wished us good (or God) speed.

Terry gave the order and we all mounted our ponies and gave the Mayor a wave and set off five abreast along some main road in Dublin before going back to 1,2,2 formation at the trot.

RTE had a camera van which took some film of us riding through Dublin and the public were waving and clapping as we rode past and I felt really happy and important.

The weather was fine as we left the city on May 19 1961, and we were full of beans and excited at the thought of riding through the night.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Dublin we started the relay and the other ponies were put on the lorry and Wendy set off on her own.

Considering our ages ranged from 9 to 13 it was a big undertaking although we never thought about that we were just having fun.

Emile’s instructions to us were to keep riding along the main road and if we had to make a turning, Eamon, in his red sports car would be at the junction.

There was no one at the front and no one at the rear with hazard lights flashing to warn other traffic. I don’t think hazard lights had been invented at that time.

When darkness fell Laura had made up a belt with two bicycle torches tied to it. Laura had screwed the glass off the rear light and put an old paper poppy into it and screwed the glass back on so it would show red when switched on.

However to save the batteries, we had to switch the torches on when we saw a car coming and switch them off again once the car had passed.

I remember it was a moonlit night and not all that cold, and I think we changed places every five or six miles. Sometimes if there was a village or town Emile would have told ones about what was happening and a small crowd would have gathered to watch the changeover and that was another round of applause.

There wasn’t all that much happening when you were out in the country, an odd wave from someone at the side of the road and the odd toot of a horn as a car passed.

I was riding my turn which was coming up to the customs post, and both sides of the road were lined with trees and I felt like a cowboy in a film and was playing shooting Indians who were hiding in the trees. As I approached the custom hut the next thing the door opened and the custom officer walked out onto the middle of the road and put his hand up for me to stop.

“Hello sir,” he says, “What’s your name and what’s your business at this late hour?”

I remember saying to myself, ‘my name’s Philip Swann’ but nothing was coming out from my mouth. It was probably opening and shutting like a goldfish.

Eventually after what seemed like minutes I told him my name and he smiled and said he had been waiting for me and reached me a paper bag before wishing me good luck and good night. I thanked him and road off still shaking, but once I looked in the bag everything changed as there were Fry’s Cream chocolate bars, Nestles chocolate, some sweets and a snake and ladders game. Needless to say I was given a hand to eat the chocolate once back at the van.

Somewhere this side of Newry, Emile discovered we were too far ahead of our target time and would be in Belfast far too early so we stopped in a stable yard and put the ponies into a stable and the riders had a sleep before having a slap up breakfast. I don’t know if it was just a chance meet or more likely Emile knew the stable yard owner and had it arranged with him.

Once more we rode in 1,2,2 formation through part of the town and then set off one at a time and the rest of the ponies were put back on the lorry. I remember I was riding through Banbridge and rode through the undercut and under the bridge. Even now if I’m driving through Banbridge it brings back memories of that morning.

I don’t really remember riding through Belfast or where we had to gather for the start of the Parade, but I remember there were loads of people and floats and several horse drawn carts, drays and flat vans.

Soon the parade got underway and we rode five abreast. Terry’s horse was a bit excited with the noise of the bands and was prancing about so he went out in front and we rode four abreast and the crowd were clapping Terry’s horse thinking it was supposed to dance to the music.

As we approached the rostrum where the Mayor and dignitaries were seated Terry once again gave the order and we left wheeled up to the foot of the rostrum and dismounted.

Anne took his horse and Terry marched up to the Mayor and saluted him and handed over the Dublin letter.

Just as the Mayor was about to say something my pony, Benny stretched himself and started to piddle, and piddle and piddle. He must have been saving it up for hours. Anyone who has been near a horse when it’s piddling epically on tarmac will know that it looks like there are gallons of wee and it is quite pongy, in fact it’s very pongy and on a warm day it’s really pongy.

Onlookers were having a good laugh as Terry gave the order to mount and we rode off to rejoin the parade. Back at the rostrum I could see men with brushes trying to clean it up but I don’t know what they did about the smell.

We all had a good laugh about it as we trotted along waving at the crowd and the next thing it was all over and we were back home as though nothing had happened.

So where are they now?

Well time has taken its toll and my mother and father, Laura and Emile are both dead as is Roy Hamilton.

Dennis Young is living in Templepatrick, Audrey Bruce lives in Australia and I have no idea about Eamon and his red sports car.

Unfortunately my brother Terry was lost in Lough Neagh in July 1963.

Wendy married Robert and lives near Ballyclare. I married Jean and live on the Randox Road in Crumlin.

Michael Black lived off the Antrim Road in Belfast and went to BRA. Anne Austin also lived in Belfast. She went to Princess Gardens School and she could play the piano.

After writing this it has given me the urge to try and get to get in touch with Anne and Michael as it will soon be the 60th anniversary of the ride.

Perhaps they might read this or someone who knows them may see it and say to them because the chance of me finding them on the computer is zilch!

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