There’s lots of things that I’ve felt proud about over the years; my kids, my wife attaining her Open University Maths degree in 2017 at the age of (withheld for personal safety reasons), obtaining my Cupla Focal Irish language badge at Turas last year and many, many more.

However one thing especially makes my chest swell when I talk about it during our Best of Belfast tour is the fact that, along with two of my former Methody pals, we edited PTQ in 1988.

Whatever happened to PTQ?

PTQ 1968

PTQ 1968

“PTQ…I remember PTQ!!! It’s been banned now hasn’t it? The dirty jokes just aren’t acceptable anymore to the wokerati or the PC Brigade” is something I hear on occasion from silly, ill informed people.

PTQ was never banned of course, however I have recently discovered its demise by 2013 was simply down to it being too costly to print, with few students prepared to sell it on the street and not many punters willing to buy a joke magazine during the era of the internet. This made me sad.

“What the feck was PTQ?” I hear some of you ask. To give it its full title; Pro Tanto Quid was, the joke filled magazine produced by the Queen’s University Student Union Rag team in March each year.

The title was taken from the Belfast coat of Arms which states; Pro Tanto Quid Retribuamus…a line from the Book of Psalms in the Bible which means “what shall we give in return for so much”. Pretty apt methinks, and you can see the coat of arms at City Hall and all around the city centre.

Belfast city coat of arms pro tanto quid retribuamus

Belfast city coat of arms

Known for its dirty/ occasionally offensive jokes, including the infamous pull-out “Blue Sexion”, PTQ would sell tens of thousands of copies on the streets of Belfast and across NI during Rag Week, making money for local charities in the process.

The great thing was that back in the day PTQ was generously sponsored by Guinness and the reward for the students selling the magazine was beer tokens, literally beer tokens, two pints per box to be specific. Each box contained 120 copies, so you can work out the maths yourself. Some students were VERY keen to sell PTQ!

The origins of Rag Week

The origins of Rag across UK universities comes from the phrase “ragging” which meant noisy/disorderly conduct and general defiance of authority, which makes perfect sense. Some suggest RAG nowadays stands for “raise and give” but I reckon that sounds like a lot of auld ballix.

Rag at Queen’s University Belfast has been in existence since the late 19th century and began selling PTQ in 1927 in hardback form. 81 copies are held in the university archives, as well as the Linenhall Library and QUB Rag is still raising money for charities to this day.

Here’s some footage of the 1928 Belfast Rag Week. Let’s just say it goes downhill from here:

Rag week often included all manner of wacky stunts, culminating in the Rag parade from Queen’s to the City Hall which regularly terrified and harassed the good denizens of Belfast, all in the name of charity. Some of the footage of Rag parades of yesteryear are available on BBC Rewind and YouTube and have to be seen to be believed.

I mean look – even by 1930, all hell had broken loose…

A photographer called Norman Craig took a great selection of photos of the 1971 Rag Week parade which are well worth a look if you want to get a feel for the mayhem of the seventies!

PTQ 1971

PTQ 1971

But as usual, it’s the wonderful NI Screen Digital Film Archive which has the best selection of Rag Week related footage over the decades, and I’d strongly recommend you take a look there for plenty more entertainment, like this UTV clip.

How I got roped in

My first experience of the Rag parade was in 1987 when it had to be cancelled due to IRA bomb alerts. The ensuing flour and egg battle in front of the Student Union left the area resembling a snowstorm!

Along with some school chums, I joined QUB Rag at the very start of my university career in October 1986. My only motivation at the time was to have a laugh, get drunk and hopefully meet some lovely girls.

We didn’t have much of an idea what Rag was about to be honest, but the organiser Vincent Kearney and the PTQ editor Graeme Lowry (RIP dude) seemed really sound and there were LOTS of lovely girls.

PTQ 1987

PTQ 1987

Now, to be blunt, myself and my Methody chums Alan and David were all prods from south Belfast and what was clear from the start was that Rag was completely mixed in terms of religion, class and creed. There were folk from all over Northern Ireland with plenty of Derry wans and others we city slickers considered to be culchies, especially Liam from Ballymena, who was also very ginger. Poor bastard.

The simple common denominator in the 60 strong Rag team was our desire to have fun and raise some money for charity. As for the educational aspect….we resolved to worry about that in 3rd year just before our finals.

“That’s what freedom smells like!”

Vincent took us three wee Protestant fellas under his wing, bringing us to his family home uppa Falls, also to Kelly’s Cellars (which was then situated just outside the ring of steel security zone) and to Dublin to buy the banned book Spycatcher as part of an elaborate Rag stunt.

When we crossed the border heading south, he wound down the car window and said “you smell that boys? That’s what freedom smells like!” We laughed, a lot and the great thing about Rag was that nobody gave a toss about religion or politics and nobody felt threatened.

We threw ourselves headlong into the Rag team, to the detriment of our studies of course. Such was our success at managing the “Immunity” campaign, which was essentially a charitable form of extortion, that the three of us were promoted to the lofty heights of joint PTQ editor the next year.

PTQ 1988

PTQ 1988

PTQ 1988

Creating PTQ 1988 was very much a team effort by the three of us. We sent away for other Rag magazines from all over the UK with the intent of plagiarising their jokes and cartoons. They did the same to us of course, meaning the pool of original jokes was very, very small. Viz and Private Eye were also plundered for material.

One of my proudest moments was when I went to Botanic Avenue’s legendary Candy Cabin newsagents and bought the entire top shelf of dirty mags…using Student Union funds! I never informed the Union Executive Committee of that obviously, until now. I should clarify that I only bought them in order to harvest them for jokes and cartoons suitable for the Blue Sexion. The rest of this disgusting filth was immediately disposed of. Honest.

The jokes and cartoons were then attached to A4 sheets of paper before being submitted to the Rag scrutiny committee before being sent to the printers. This was a fully inclusive/cross community group of piss-heads and there were no objections to any of the material. There was a brief attempt by the Student Union Executive to subject our issue of PTQ to censorship of sorts, but this was after the 40,000 copies had been delivered from the printers. Tough luck buster!

PTQ 1987 had led the way with both a Mr and Miss PTQ gracing the pages and we continued that inclusive trend, with Donal and Joanne kindly agreeing to have their pictures taken in the far flung, exotic location of Botanic Gardens Palm House just across the road from the Student Union. No expense spared!

Queens University Rag Week 1988

Rag Week 1988 was actually a fortnight and we travelled the length and breadth of Norn Iron selling PTQ on the streets from the Union minibus driven by Rag Organiser Glenn Gibney. Glenn was a mature student who risked his sponsorship from BT by getting mixed up with the Raggies. I sincerely hope he did well in his chosen career and that we didn’t balls it up for him.

Glenn arranged meetings with small local charities who then explained their needs and how Rag funds would help them, a very enlightening and humbling experience to say this least. It was also the first time any of us had been interviewed by local media including BBCNI, Ulster Television and the lovely Linda Jane on Downtown Radio who swore like a trooper when off air.

We even met radio legend Candy Devine and in a bizarre Rag stunt gone wrong, TV news anchor Paul Clarke kicked me in the goolies when we tried to kidnap him from a Belfast bar. Long story….

“Is this that mucky book with mucky pictures inside?”

Selling PTQ on the streets was a brilliant experience with such a mixed group of mad feckers and the generosity of the Northern Irish public was outstanding. Bearing in mind March 1988 was a very violent era in relation to the Troubles, we encountered very few problems, although I recall the tension of Portadown and Lurgan town centres, with one side of the street bedecked in Rangers tops and the other side wearing Celtic ones. We still collected lots of money though.

James, Alan and David

James, Alan and David

On one occasion in Portadown an elderly, well dressed gentleman stopped with David asking him “is this that mucky book with mucky pictures inside?” When he replied that the mucky pictures were a thing of the past, the gentleman stomped off without buying it, the dirty old brute.

I recall we nearly caused a major security incident when we kidnapped a student from Jordanstown Poly (Ulster University will ALWAYS be the Poly to me!) as part of another Rag stunt. When stopped by the RUC as we made our escape towards Belfast, Johnny the victim who was lying on the floor of the minibus, replied that his name was Terry Waite when asked to confirm his identity. The world-weary cop just shook his head and waved us on, rather than banging us up as subversives and having us all strip searched.

PTQ 88 was a resounding success with approximately £30k raised for 12 local charities, a fact I am very proud of to this day. Our merry band had played a blinder and we made good use of the remaining beer tokens at the subsequent Rag Ball where Katmandu played in the Speakeasy Bar….of course they did.

Unsurprisingly, as part of the editorial team I was selected/shafted to be called to account for PTQ’s content by the Student Union Executive Committee at an extraordinary general meeting a few days later. The same meeting discussed the shooting of Queen’s politics student Mairead Farrell by British special forces in Gibraltar on the 6th March, a few days before Rag Week.

Therefore the meeting was absolutely packed and the atmosphere was tense to say the least. To say I was unrepentant from the podium about PTQ is an understatement, some would say I was a cheeky wee bastard in fact, but Rag represented all that was good within the student body. Rag rose above sectarianism and petty politics and helped those in society who were in need, at a time when society needed it most. Was I going to apologise for that? I think not.

PTQ 1989 – the final fling

PTQ 1989

PTQ 1989

Fast forward a year and our chums Conal, Liam (the ginger one) and Steve are the editors of PTQ 89. Yet again they were being held to account for the supposedly offensive content of the magazine, but this time it was on BBC Radio Ulster and their inquisitor was the Reverend David McIlveen of the Free Presbyterian Church, a softly spoken but nevertheless fearsome character. The guys brought us along as some sort of Protestant comfort blanket and I confess I sat in the studio trying not to laugh at their obvious discomfort. Happy days indeed.

In 2024, David and Alan remain two of my best friends and we stay in contact with many of the Raggies from the late 80s including Conal, Liam, Steve, Robert, Richy, Gillian, Vincent and Joanne amongst others. On occasion we pull up a sandbag and talk about the fun times in the Rag office and on the streets of our wee country. We are all very proud of what we achieved and I certainly believe that in our time, we gave something back.

If you want to know more about the Belfast coat of arms and the history of our city, you can book the Best of Belfast Tour right here.