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Sunday, 10 February 2019


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Michael Portillo, in his television train journeys shows, carries around his Bradshaw's Guide of railway timetables and travel notes, to compare modern trains and travels to days of yore.

It has struck me on more than one occasion that a series could be developed, based on Cathal O'Byrne's entertaining book As I Roved Out, to seek out places and stories of interest throughout Belfast's history. As I Roved out was first published in 1946 by the Irish News, and reprinted in 1982 by The Blackstaff Press. It's full title is As I Roved Out: A Book of the North - Being a Series of Historical Sketches of Ulster and Old Belfast. So, for the next few blog posts, I will dip into the book and highlight some of the stories within. I was born and raised in Belfast and O'Byrne's tales and recollections have always informed and entertained 

More than twenty years ago, I attempted a poem about old Smithfield Market, Belfast. It is not a very good poem but it noted what I felt about the place. Growing up in the 1970s, a trip into town would not be complete without a stroll through the old building and surroundings. For what it's worth, here's the poem:

The musty smell was wonderful, stale
damp, sour but comfortable and safe,
a sense of having been here for years,
secure for trade, exchange and sale.

Over two hundred years, day to day
buying and selling of farm produce,
hides, livestock, social and commercial
patter, agreements, prices to pay.

A quadrangle of single storey
shops filled the former open space,
where cows once stood, books, furniture, odds
and ends, mixed value antiques, hoary,

dusty with that thick seductive smell
teased and tempted the streams of browsers.
"I BUY ANYTHING" said Kavanagh,

Hugh Greer "BOOKSELLER" for well-thumbed
tomes on every subject known to man;
key cutters, scissor sharpeners, clothes
in heaps, as thrifty shoppers haaed and hummed.

Then the fire in nineteen seventy four.
What a blaze, what sadness in the ash,
as I rummage through my younger man's thoughts
for things new buildings can never restore.

Even within some poetic clumsiness, the Smithfield I loved came flooding back. I am not as fond of the replacement market. No offence to the traders who are working to earn a crust. It's the absence of 'atmosphere' that I miss most.

Cathal O'Byrne wrote about old Smithfield and painted a generally jolly picture of hustle and bustle amongst traders, browsers and customers. He described fair days when amusement booths were set up including 'the din and squeak of the Punch and Judy shows' and much good-natured banter.

He talked about 'the bartering and clapping of hands as horses, mules and asses changed owners, the screaming of cheap-jacks where the country people gathered, wide-eyed, around rolls of gaudy woven stuffs and big Dan Halliday rattling his delph to show its soundness at, it seemed, the imminent risk of reducing his plates and dishes to smithereens.'

Smithfield's traders included fruit and vegetable sellers, coopers, carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, coffin-makers, wood carvers, antique dealers, harness-makers, ironmongers, and many a pub. There was also the Mill Gate Theatre at the corner of Mill Street and Chapel Lane.

O'Byrne concluded: 'The people of Smithfield in the old days, while they made money by the hatful, did not neglect the social amenities. Kindly, neighbourly and generous to a degree beyond the ordinary, to them the finer things in life were as important as the goods of this world.'

I conclude that as a teenager, the place was magical to me. It still is, in my head.

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