A peak behind the curtain

Lawrence Hennigan with his wife Kath.

One-time would-be seminarian turned nightclub promoter and publican Lawrence Hennigan chats to Mags McGagh about his life in Levenshulme, his recent heart transplant, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I was born in Withington Hospital on 10th August 1957. My parents, Joe and Kathleen, were expecting a girl so they didn’t have a name for me when the priest asked.

“The priest said, ‘Well, today is St Lawrence’s day’ and Lawrence it was.

“I was brought up on Weatherall Street in Levenshulme and attended the local primary school St Mary’s.

“When I was eleven, I left home, moving to Ushaw College in Co Durham to attend the seminary where I began studying to become a priest.

“After a year I was so homesick that I had to return home.

“On my return I attended the local high school, St Peter and Paul’s in Gorton. I left school at fifteen and became a draftsperson in Manchester.

“I was an outdoors person and couldn’t stand being cooped up in an office all day.

“I was lucky enough that I could train to be a heating engineer, pipe fitter/ welder within the same company and began working all over the country, away for two weeks, back home for the weekend.

“I always had part-time jobs since I was at school. I worked as a pot collector at St Mary’s Social Club and at Sivori’s ice cream factory where I made ice cream and lollies in the evening. Through this I also worked at the Sivori’s café in Longsight which was called Raffles.

“It was the meeting place for all the Irish lads who would go there to eat.

“Every Saturday morning, they would regularly serve up four hundred breakfasts.

“Rose and Tony were great to work for and the family still have a hugely popular café on Gorton Market.

“When I was home on my weekends the one place I would long to visit was the Boatman’s Home pub on a Sunday afternoon.

“There you would find everyone from contractors to men on the shovel – even United manager Sir Matt Busby – all socialising on the same level, it was a great place.

“I don’t think I ever sat down in there it was always so busy.

“On a Saturday night you would always find me at St Mary’s Club, a brilliant place which had all the best local bands of the day, including the likes of Johnny Loughrey and The Sweeneys, those were great days.

“All the youngsters would meet up there with their parents before they would head off into Manchester at the end of the night.

“It was a great community club which kept us all together.

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. When enough money had been raised by the parish and the new church had been built, for whatever reason, the club closed. The whole community was devastated.

“I began looking to see if there was somewhere locally, we could open.

Lawrence with Kevin Fitzpatrick of St. Kentigern’s and Michael Flatley.

“I had been out for a drink one night with a friend of mine working for the council. He told me about this now derelict local cinema, The Palace.

“A ‘little bird’ also told me that the piece of land adjacent to it going to be turned into a car park – very handy for a club.

“The Palace was owned by a man called Mr Delawyce, owner and trustee for a lot of land around Levenshulme.
“When he heard I wanted to buy the cinema he summoned me to a meeting. He told me that he had, had me checked out and that he had heard I was a good Levenshulme lad, liked what he had heard so he would sell it to me.

“Always one to chance my arm I replied, ‘If that’s a case can you knock a bit off the price then?”

“He said, ‘They told me you were cheeky!’ Anyway, we came to an agreement.

“I took my bank manager to have a look at it – I didn’t have two pennies to rub together.

“The floor was that rotten that when we looked around my bank manager went through it. He said he’d seen enough. I said, ‘But you haven’t been upstairs yet’.

“He told me I wouldn’t be getting the loan.

“On leaving the building I noticed a billboard over the road advertising the TSB ‘the bank that likes to say yes’. They didn’t think it was viable either.

“Back to square one. Cap in hand, I went back to see my old bank manager and persuaded him to lend me the money. He would only agree to match whatever capital I raised, I was happy with that.

“I won’t tell you what I did next but I got a letter stating that I had raised £50,000 and the bank matched it. We were in business.

“Back in the early days when I was trying to get the club up and running, I had amazing support from everyone especially from Kevin Smyth and my brother-inlaw Joe Naughton.

“It took me years to get it established properly, I was doing it all myself while still working. I eventually had to give up the job so I could concentrate on making the club viable.

Lawrence with his son also called Lawrence and President Michael D Higgins.

“I had a great relationship with the community and became very friendly with the lads down at the tip. They would stay open for me each evening so I could bring down all the rubbish from the cinema.

“Most of my friends helped me out doing the plumbing, electric, civils, well everything, really. There are too many to mention.

“Eventually we we had to open as we had so much money invested in it.

“On the opening night the queue stretched down the road all night.

“I had fabulous support from other Irish venues in Manchester. John Keenan from The 32 Club and Tommy McKenna from the Ardri were extremely encouraging.

“Tommy was a great friend to me. He put me on the straight and narrow on a few things which was invaluable to me and I will always be grateful to him.

“Lawrence Mann who was working for BBC Radio Manchester would keep everyone up to date with the progress of the club and regularly came down to see how we were progressing.

“I didn’t need any financial support from these people – all I needed was their support and welcomed advice.

“In those days Stockport Road was extremely busy, especially at the weekend, all the pubs were full of Irish lads.

“Over the years they gave us tremendous support.

“We were only open about eighteen months when the recession hit. It affected a lot of the people who we would see regularly at the club.

“Contractors were having to sell off their wagons and machines and, of course, the lads didn’t have the money to go out anymore like they used to.

“There was only one thing for it. We would have to diversify and bring people something different.

“One of the things that I particularly enjoyed at the time were the plays staged by the Manchester Irish Players led by Eileen O’Boyle and Evelyn Gallagher.

“We had originally started off with the bands coming over from Ireland but the diaspora who were settling in Manchester were looking to experience something a bit different so that is how we got into the disco scene.

“In the early days our resident DJs were Andy Murphy and Ollie Mullooly. One-night Ollie had been playing at a function earlier and arrived at the club. I had bought him some decks which had cost me the princely sum of £80, a lot of money in those days.

“As he was coming down the stairs, Ollie lost his footing and slipped with the decks, all going tumbling down the stairs. All I could think of was, ‘Oh no, the decks, I hope they aren’t broken’ as the place was packed out. Poor Ollie was flat out in the middle of them. Luckily both survived.

“By the time we sold the business, the light and sound equipment in the club were alone worth £150,000 – a lot more than £80.

“As time went on we started to book more trad/rock bands like Toss the Feathers and Goats Don’t Shave, a bit different to your regular bands. When we first booked Goats Don’t Shave, I wondered how I’d promote them as I wasn’t sure if the Manchester Irish would know who they were.

“I got hold of 25 copies of their records and knew the lad who used to load and change the records in the jukeboxes and persuaded him to add the record when he was changing the records.

“For weeks before the gig all you could hear in the pubs was their records pumping out. The plan worked, they played their gig on a Thursday and we were packed out.

“The band that holds the record for the biggest ever crowd at the Palace is local band Toss the Feathers. Whenever they get together and play now, they still fill the place.

“Our City Life Comedian of the Year competition saw people like Johnny Vegas and Peter Kay taking part early in their careers. Both were great lads who never forgot their roots.

“I remember Johnny Vegas sending his manager back after appearing at the club the previous night with a signed T-shirt and a thank-you card for me. That shows the measure of the man.

“One of the best and most memorable nights we had at the club was with two-time Eurovision winner Johnny Logan. I’d never seen anything like it. The place was packed with women.

“I was looking after him that night and thought these women are going to go crazy when he steps on stage. As he appeared the place erupted with women screaming and rushing forward.

Goats Don’t Shave

“Johnny then decided that he would move down to the lower stage and there was another surge.

“I rushed forward so he wouldn’t be grabbed from the stage but in doing so I fell over the stairs.

“Our DJ Tommy D was watching all this unfold and couldn’t do anything to help me for laughing. What a night.

“At the end of the night the security lads said to me, ‘Why didn’t you say he was so popular so popular?’ The thing was I didn’t expect the reaction he got. Johnny was an absolute gentleman. He stayed on and gave all his fans time for autographs and a chat.

“Another area we diversified into was karaoke. Alan Keegan, now ‘the voice of Old Trafford’ did a Wednesday night called Karaoke Goes Crazy with five to six hundred people every Wednesday night.

“You have to be open to ideas and change and go with it.

“We had a massive twenty-foot screen in the club, and showed all the live GAA games for free, and more than making it back in bar takings. On Saturday afternoons we showed Premiership football – but with a cover charge which went into a fund we had for local charities. You must be able to give back to the community if you are a community club.

“No pensioner ever had to pay to go into any of our events and we never charged them for tea or coffee.

“A highlight of the year was always the Christmas party for pensioners, a lovely event.

“Times changed and so did people’s taste in music. The Rave Scene was just starting, something I didn’t want to be involved with so decided to sell the club.

“We’d had very happy times there, but it was a time for another challenge.

“With the money we made from the club we set up the Levenshulme Pub Company with a string of five pubs. We also invested in local property.

“My other great passion in life is Mayo. I love spending time there. I am a committee member of the Mayo Association of Manchester and was Vice Chair for a year until I felt I had to step down due to ill health.

“I couldn’t carry out my duties fully and I didn’t want to let people down. I have also supported my brother Tony who established the Mayo Manchester Business and Tourism group which came about as a result of The Gathering in 2013.

“It was established to bring tourism to both Manchester and Mayo through entertainment. Its very important to maintain those links.

The Mayo Association of Manchester is very important to Lawrence.

“My wife Kath and I have known each other since we were at school, although I am a few years older than her.

“We met up again one night at the Ardri and began dating. Kath has been by my side since the beginning.

“She is a complete natural and wonderful at the hospitality and front of house side of the business.

“We will be celebrating our Silver Wedding anniversary on the 17th April.

“Nineteen years ago, our son Lawrence came along. We now have a real family business with young Lawrence now taking an active part in things.

“Just before I was sixty my life changed dramatically.

“I was going to mass one Sunday morning and felt so unwell that I couldn’t go into church.

“I dropped my dad off and returned home where I sat in the car for half an hour.

“Kath noticed and came out to me. She took one look at me and took me straight down to the MRI. We were waiting in reception when a nurse saw me and didn’t like the look of me, so she took me through to see a doctor.

“He in ran tests and sent me to Wythenshawe Hospital for surgery.

“All this happened on the day that there was a bomb scare at Old Trafford and all the ambulances were on standby for that.

“Eventually, they found one and I was rushed over and immediately went to theatre.

“It was discovered that my heart had been very badly damaged and that I had been living with heart disease for years and didn’t know.

“Over the coming weeks I was monitored regularly, and I was being placed on the heart transplant list.

“I spent all day every day with my phone in my hand waiting for the call. My consultant Derek Shaw said that they wanted me to go into hospital so that they could get me to the best health they could in preparation for the transplant.

“So, I spent the next three months in hospital waiting. The day my new heart came I went down to theatre at 6.45pm and seven hours later I was in ICU. The following afternoon they woke me up.

“I had made a little pact with Kath and Lawrence beforehand. I wasn’t sure if I was going to survive so I had asked them to give me a sign that I was still aliveby scratching their ear. As I came around, I could see them both there. I then noticed Lawrence scratch his ear, he in turn was nudging Kath to do the same which she eventually did. We all smiled, and I knew I had survived.

“The NHS has been superb in the care they have given to me and continue to do so I can’t praise them enough.

“I have to say something at this point. To me it is all about prayer, faith and your determination to want to live.

“The thing that kept me going through all this is knowing all the prayers that were being said for me each Sunday.

“I could feel them giving me a lift. My aunt back in Mayo would be out daily lighting a candle for me.

“Having something or someone to believe in got me through that time. Its an experience we went through, and we are all dealt these blows.

“I had always been healthy up until this and it certainly puts things in perspective.

“Through the present pandemic I can see that the world is going to have to change and this is a wakeup call for us all.

“We will have to look at the future as a community to get things back on track when we are through this. Community is what it is all about.”

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