Like many builders, Willie Deery could be described as a 'jack of all trades' but among these trades Willie boasts that he is a successful playwright, entertainment promoter and budding author. Willie talks to The Sunday about falling out with Shakin' Stevens, organising Derry's Factory Queen competition and growing up in his beloved Springtown Camp.
Willie was the first person to manage to get the famous Don Williams to come and play a concert in Derry. The singer only played two gigs in Ireland during the troubles, one in The Point, Dublin and the other in The Rialto, Derry. The belfast promoter Jim Aiken was so impressed he called Willie up to ask how he managed to bring Don Williams to Derry when he couldn't get him in Belfast. Willie said the only thing he did differently was bombarded William's office until he relented.
In the same year Glen Campbell came to Derry, thanks to Willie. Outside the Everglades he shunned the fancy Limo that was ordered to take him and his band to the Rialto and instead hitched a lift with Willie in his car. Willie said: "He told me about playing with Elvis Presley and starring with John Wayne in True Grit. So I got all the gossip on them.
He was a really nice man and very down to earth. I got him to come on stage with a Derry City Football scarf and sing Danny Boy and I could tell he actually enjoyed it." Willie brought other big names to Derry like Kris Kristopherson, Shakin' Stevens, David Essex and The Drifters.
During Shakin' Steven's visit Willie came across one of the toughest people he had ever met in the business, Steven's manager who he described as a battle-axe. Willie said: "Shakin' Steven's manager tried to kick myself and Sean Coyle out of a sound check in the Rialto but I wouldn't budge even though Sean Coyle scarpered. I stood my ground and ended up threatening to cancel the show because she wanted the supporting act who was a local girl, Denise McGrory from Creggan to stand in front of the curtain for her set, where the audience sitting in the balcony couldn't see her. Thankfully the Dublin promoter who was there took my side and said the show at The Point was cancelled too if things weren't put right in Derry. So Shakin' Stevens played and the gig and Denise McGrory got to play for the whole of the audience. But I don't think his manager was too happy with me after that!"
Willie talked about his life long affiliation with Springtown Camp. It was his love of the camp that encouraged Willie to write a play about it. Willie said: "I was born in the Springtown Camp in 1950's and I came from a family of nine. My first every memory was from when I was only four years old. My uncle worked in England and one time when he came home he gave my mother £5. At that time we had absolutely nothing, we were living in Derry's ghetto but with this fiver we thought we were millionaires. My mother bought us each a bar of Fry's chocolate and I remember eating a little bit everyday because it was such a novelty I wanted to save it and it lasted about a week.
"Growing up in the camp was brilliant. I think it was a great place for the children who grew up there but we were oblivious to the problems that our parents faced there. The huts were very small and in some families there was 19 to one hut which is unimaginable today. I grew up hearing about houses that were two up two down and I always thought that meant two at the top of the bed and two at the bottom. It wasn't until years later that I found out what a two up two down house really was. We had loads of space to play football, there was beautiful scenery around us, the summers were long it felt like the sun was always shining.
"At the bottom of the field there was a bridge that took us to the Buncrana Road. Chambers farm was further on down the road and he had his heart broken with us blocking the water from getting to the farm for the cattle because we used it for our own swimming pool. We went skinny dipping all the time and when the train that went out the Buncrana Road from Derry to Buncrana passed we had to hide in the rushes. We were poor but we were happy and there was a great clan mentality. I remember myself and my friends saving up all our money to go to the Strand Picture House with our pockets full of lucky dips, penny dainties, hap'enny chews and sticks of Peggies Leg. I remember the first night we got the famous 10:40 bus to Springtown Camp, it was just pandemonium. That bus was like a night out all in itself. The bus conductors enjoyed the craic and the sing songs so much that half the people on it didn't have to pay."
Willie got his business skills at a young age when he began wheeling and dealing in the camp. He said: "People put broc which was the leftovers from their dinner, into bins which were collected for the farmers animals. I made two bob for each bin I collected, that's around 10p now. My target was to get 3 bins a day, that meant 36 bob at the end of the week which was a massive amount of money back then. I always remember how great it felt to be lending money to the 'big boys' like Neil McLaughlin in the camp. I gave them half a dollar to go to the dances and they paid me back when their wages came in. I remember once refusing to lend out anymore money because someone didn't pay me back and all the other boys in the camp dragged that one fella to my door and made him pay me back. that was a great feeling when you were just 13 years old."
As Willie got older he realised that not everyone looked on Springtown Camp with the same affection that he did. He said: "One of my saddest memories of the camp was when families had to leave to emigrate to England but in those days people didn't leave to go for a job, back then they went for a house and for better living conditions. A hut was auctioned off after the family that lived there moved out. Farmers would buy the huts for about £15 and house their animals in them. That's when I knew something was wrong. On Tuesday there would be a family living in the hut and by Wednesday it was full of pigs. There was definitely a social prejudice against people in the camp. I remember going for a job over in a chemist in the Waterside. Everyone in shop stopped what they were doing and glared at me when I told them I was from Springtown Camp, needless to say I didn't get the job. The realisation that people thought of us differently just hit me like a ton of bricks and I knew myself that the conditions were bad but that didn't mean the people were too."
Willie remembered the first job he got working on a building site which had a lasting impact on his career. He said: "When I was 15 I went to Sammy Quigley who was the foreman on a building site and I asked him for a job. He was the first man to give me a break and I was afraid to tell him where I was from but thank God, when I did it made no difference to him. He told me I could start on Monday but I wasn't to be wearing those winkle picker boots. I can still see my mothers face now, she was delighted for me.
The time came for Willie's family to leave Springtown Camp but the camp was something that would never leave him and so he started a series of events that would keep the memories of the camp alive for all those who had a connection with it. He said: "We left the camp in 1966 to go to a house in Rosemount. It was such a big thing to have stairs, a bath and hot water we found it hard to adapt. Sadly my mother died just six months after we moved from the camp. The years rolled on and in 1986 we held a reunion dance for Springtown camp. All the entertainers came from the camp and it was a massive success.
"They came from all over the planet to go to that dance which was supposed to be over at one but went on until five in the morning. Jack McLaughlin and his wife who were well known ballroom dancers said afterwards that they have danced for bishops, cardinals and prime ministers but they never had a night like that. There was lots of lovely stories that surrounded that night. There was a woman from England who had her flight to Derry paid for her by her friends in her local bar because they knew how much it meant for her to go back to Derry for the dance and see all her old friends from the camp and when she landed in the Stardust that night the place erupted. Because of the success of the first dance things just took off. We had 3,600 people looking for tickets for that dance so we decided to run some more. For the next concert we got Dickie Rock, The Searchers, The Tremelos, The Fortunes and Marmalade who were all big names at the time. That night we rocked the Rialto and we were literally dancing in the aisles."
Willie also organised famous Derry events like The Factory Queens pageant which was like the Rose of Tralee for Derry's factory workers. Willie remembers 18 limos stopping in The Diamond for the girls to be escorted down Shipquay Street and into the Guildhall by a pipe band. Willie said: "That was a great night and a great boost for Derry especially the girls from the factory that took part, we had the idea to relay the competition from the Guildhall to Squires nightclub and there was bedlam that night. I remember some of the factory managers taking it very seriously and going to Paris and London to find material for the girls dresses."
With all this going on in Willie's life it is surprising to hear that he raised a family and started his own building business along the way. He met his wife Betty in the Stardust and was married in 1976. They have five children, three boys and two girls and settled in Hatmore Park in 1984 after living in Osborne Street for a while. Willie said: "One of the worst times in my married life was when my eldest son Sean took meningitis when he was just eight years old. It definitely taught me the lesson that the people nearest to you are the people dearest to you." Willie became a building contractor and started his own business in 1980 and is still running the business today.
In 2007 Willie wrote the highly successful play 'Springtown Camp' with John McLaughlin. The play was a run away success with people coming form Africa, America and New Zealand to see the play. Willie said: "Writing the play was one of the best experiences of my life, it got a great response and is something I'm really proud off because I know myself that everyone from Springtown camp could relate to it because it was so true to life. I'm nearly finished writing a book about Springtown camp at the minute."