Bingo after lockdown is 'like a dream come true'

By Chris Buckler
BBC News NI

  • Published
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'I don't drink or smoke, bingo is my night out'

The extra excitement inside the bingo hall isn't due to any big jackpot.

Many in this club are simply relieved that they finally have the chance to catch up on several months of gossip.

During the coronavirus lockdowns they weren't able to gather together, never mind play the game.

But after an easing in restrictions, bingo is back.

Once again at Jackpot Bingo in west Belfast eyes are down and spirits are up.

"It was like a dream come true," says Sharon Lindsay, one of the more dedicated players.

"I couldn't wait until 6pm when the doors opened, even though the bingo doesn't start until 8pm."

Image caption,
Sharon Lindsay celebrates her first win since lockdown

Inside the room there is the constant sound of chatter - at least until the numbers are called.

At that point the priority is playing.

There is no attempt to hide the very competitive nature of the group.

"The others don't like it when you win," one woman whispers to me as I pass her table.

However the friendships, like the rivalry, run deep and the staff have missed seeing the familiar faces from this club.

'It's good to see them back'

"Some of them live by themselves and haven't seen anybody for the past five months," says Ciaran Gallagher who is the manager of the club.

"I have been here 12 years so some of my friends are the pensioners and it is good to see them back again as well as knowing that they are well and safe."

Some of the older clientele are affectionately known as the "golden girls".

They sit together laughing and joking in what they call "rowdy corner" but when the bingo caller turns on the microphone the atmosphere turns tense.

"I tried playing it online but it just wasn't the same," says Mary Doak.

"You missed your friends. We don't drink, we don't smoke - this is our night out."

Although she then adds, almost conspiratorially: "You're still really out to win, though."

'Some things have changed'

Not every seat is in use to try to ensure social distancing, all of the staff are wearing masks and the tables are constantly being cleaned.

Everybody I speak to has been vaccinated but there is an awareness that many of the players are pensioners and would be categorised as more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Image caption,
Rose Shaw is delighted to return to bingo after struggling during lockdown

Rose Shaw tells me she contracted coronavirus.

"To me it felt like all my veins were being pulled down and it was so painful," she says.

She has now recovered but her mental health suffered during the months of restrictions.

"I got depressed, it really got me down.

"Just knowing that you can go (to bingo) again, it's great and if you win it is a bonus, which I did on Saturday night."

That bit of good fortune prompts a very warm laugh.

During the faster games of bingo, the caller rattles through the numbers at a furious speed.

Some of the players mark off the numbers on both touch-screen computers and traditional bingo sheets.

It's then that the experience shows.

'Missed being together'

"I love it," says Laura Maguire who comes with her daughter-in law Maria Maguire.

Image caption,
Laura Maguire and daughter-in law Maria Maguire enjoy their time together at bingo

"She taught me everything, all the bad habits" laughs Maria.

"She just missed us being together."

That is true for people right around the room, although the thrill of the game can't be ignored.

In a place where superstition matters it doesn't go unnoticed that as I am speaking to Phyllis O'Hare she wins not once but four times.

Image caption,
Phyllis O'Hare introduced Chris Buckler to the banter of the bingo hall

"Sit down, you're bringing me luck," says Phyllis as I try to leave.

At one stage she even promises me a share of the winnings.

Although then, not entirely convincingly, she says: "The only thing is I left my purse in the house!"

That's the kind of bingo banter that these ladies have been missing for too long.