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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 me.
Every town and city, it seems, has seen a fair share of buskers, troubadours and musicians over the years, some impressive, others tuneless. In fact, in a city near to where I live, I see an old chap sitting on a low stool plucking away at a guitar. The repertoire consists of hitting one string and one string only, alternating the speed from slow to faster for variety, but always only one string. The other five on the six-string instrument probably lost the will some time ago.
In As I Roved Out, Cathal O’Byrne recalled Belfast’s street singers, many singing unaccompanied, warbling away and selling their lyrics printed on flimsy paper. ‘From the ballad singers in the streets of Belfast, the old songs could be heard long ago, especially in North Street on a Saturday night.’ He mentioned Arthur Quinn, ‘an institution’ whose most popular song was Sitting in the Parliament Chair. There was Alex McNicholl, a balladeer, known for his Six Magnificent Bricks went Out on a Spree and a version of Master McGrath.
Josef Locke - The Garden where the Praties Grow
Pat Feeney, primarily a comedian, belted out The Gems of Old Ireland, a sixteen-verse epic that saluted many an Irish hero from Brian Boru onward. Johnny Patterson, a circus veteran, could be heard at horse fairs singing Brigid O’Donaghue and The Garden where the Praties Grow. (I remember Mr Sadler in primary school teaching us to sing this circa 1959/60.)
An anonymous singer is mentioned: ‘The high-pitched, dolorous voice of a certain woman ballad singer was well-known to the public of the city(in the 1920s). ‘This woman, for reasons best known to herself, never ventured out except in pouring wet nights, when her wailing voice sounded even more than ordinarily dreary.’ It appears she sang only one song called Dobbin’s Flowery Vale – ‘An’ to hell with you, and Armagh too, an’ Dobbin’s Flowery Vale’.
The Wolfe Tones – The Smashing of the Van
Blind Nicholas Ward’s preference was for rebel songs including The Smashing of the Van, Clare’s Dragoons and The Felons of Our Land. His pitch was West Belfast and his mission through his singing was ‘to sweeten Ireland’s wrong.’
These days, buskers give us The Beatles, Dylan, Coldplay and, more often than not, Brown Eyed Girl, all well and good, but wouldn’t it have been a joy to hear these old balladeers entertaining in the streets of old Belfast. I certainly think so.