The numbers are up for Stella Bingo

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Lavinia McKnight, Amy Mitchell and Laura Lyons. Photograph Liam Burke/Press 22
Lavinia McKnight, Amy Mitchell and Laura Lyons.

THE last time I visited a Bingo Hall I was eight years-old and spent the night being fawned over by kindly ladies and eating bag after bag of Taytos. Despite my protestations, I wasn’t allowed to play and instead had to content myself with watching the women, silently moving closer to those who’d just won.

But now, twenty-odd years later, a grown man, I can do whatever the hell I like – or at least, whatever my editor tells me to do.

So when I was informed that Stella Bingo was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and that I was to visit this esteemed venue to mark the occasion, I saw it as an opportunity to rectify the past.

This time I wouldn’t be forced to watch from the sidelines, this time I would play, and this time I would bring my own Taytos, thank you very much.

Naively, I thought not much would have changed in the intervening years. I expected bingo boards, wooden chairs and misfiring pens; what I got was a hi-tech, modernised environment, one complete with comfy booths, touchscreen games, and video display units.

However, the essence remained, it was still a place of friendship and warmth, a place to socialise, have fun and, most importantly, win money. And what money there was. But more on that later.

My chaperones for the night were Yvonne O’Donoghue, her daughter Susan, and their friend, Louise Mulcahy. Coming from Killaloe, they visit the Stella at least one night a week, every week, although Yvonne admits that she would “go seven nights if it was on”.

Stella Bingo is the only bingo they go to, they’re loyal like that.

Given my lack of experience, a quick crash course in the finer arts of bingo was required, a showing of the ropes before the games began. To this end I was given a ‘dabber’. Now I, like you, thought dabbers were people who dabbed, and dabbing was a strange dance practised by flamboyant sports stars when they’re feeling particularly cheerful.

Not so. A ‘dabber’ is a thick marker with a flat, bulky end, it is used to tick off your numbers as they are called. It is an economical piece of kit and a vital part of any serious bingo players’ armoury.

Dabber in hand, I readied myself for the first game and, after a sluggish start, I quickly got into my stride, dabbing like a bingo veteran. Not that it was getting me anywhere. While all around me people ‘waited’ and ‘checked’, I was left scanning my book for ‘lines’ and ‘full houses’, wondering if perhaps I’d been given one with extra numbers on it.

Secretly though, I was relieved.

A bingo hall can be quite an intimidating place if you are in possession of a Y chromosome, and the thought of getting a ‘check’ and having to alert the relevant people quite frankly, terrified me. Already I was getting funny looks from the women in attendance, what would they do if I started crying ‘check’ in my big, manly voice?

Right on cue, as if to assuage my fears, one of the few men in attendance announced that he had a check, and with no little gusto. Seconds later a woman came to give him money, lots of money. From that point forth I decided my shyness would no longer be an issue.

Oh yeah, the money. Jesus, the money. Gone are the days when you earned a crusty oul’ fiver or tin of USA biscuits for a full house, now it’s all wads of fifties and four-figure sums. That’s right, four figures, at bingo! There’s even a wheel you can spin, a lá Winning Streak.

And in a further twist to mark Stella’s fiftieth anniversary, there were bonuses for lines and full houses containing the number fifty. Already lucrative rewards were doubled, multiplied and buffed up, the recipients themselves even unsure of how much they were getting until the money was placed in their hands.

With so much moolah on offer. I expected whoops and hollers of delight to resound around the hall. But it was all very low-key, each mini-fortune was quietly accepted and then stuffed away for safe-keeping – hubby would never know.

I suspected that part of the reason for this magnanimity was that each winner was practically stealing the money out of at least a dozen other players’ hands. How else could you explain the moans of derision which accompanied each and every check?

Stella Bingo, hall

In bingo, as in life, there must always be losers, and boy there were losers.

No sooner had the groans and moans died down when the hard luck stories began. The woman in the table opposite had been waiting on the number forty for ages, the sympathy appeared sincere, that number forty could be a bastard at the best of times.

It occurred to me that the majority of the winners were coming from elsewhere in the hall, in fact everywhere in the hall, apart from where I was sitting. Was I a bad luck charm? Had my frequent, inane questions distracted my chaperones? They assured me that neither of these were true, that they “never won” anyway, and by never, they meant never.

Right on cue, the table’s luck changed.

Susan, who had been ‘waiting’ in every single game to date, got a full house, and one with a fifty in it. She was unsure of how much she’d won; barely had she calculated it in her head when the girl arrived with the money – in the interests of confidentiality I will not disclose the amount in question, although in truth, so quickly was it transferred to a handbag that I didn’t get the chance to see it, never mind count it.

It was however, richly deserved, Susan comes here regularly, remember, although not as regularly as her mam, Yvonne, who once ignored all kinds of weather warnings and drove through blizzard-like conditions for her game.

She also had her car stolen on another night, found burnt out the next morning. Yvonne had lots of entertaining stories, so many that the bingo was in danger of becoming an unwelcome distraction.

Such was the level of entertainment that a night which I’d been lukewarm about had flown by. I hadn’t even opened my Taytos! Sustenance was incoming however, in the form of free sweets. A lady circled the room dishing out a variety of confectionary treats, brands I’d forgotten even existed; milky moos, Foxes glaciers, emeralds. So this is where they kept them.

By the second-to-last game, coats were being put on, swift departures required lest someone stiff the winners for a spare twenty. And, as the final check was called and verified, the exodus began. With it came the renewed discontent; if I’d thought the moaning and groaning was bad earlier I’d heard nothing yet.

I stopped for a quick chat with the proprietor, and observed first hand the kind of heckling he was habitually exposed to: “Wasting my time,” whinged one, “never coming back again,” railed another. He just smiled deferentially, well used to it by now. Because, despite their protestations, they would be back, they can’t keep away.

And besides, Friday is Lucky 5’s night, nobody misses that.