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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.
Last year, my wife and I, and two friends from England spent a few days in Belfast. The friends were visiting for the first time and wanted to see and do a few things. One item on their list was a visit to the parliament buildings at Stormont - a first for all of us. As you may know, there was not a heck of a lot going on politically in the corridors of power, as the Northern Ireland Assembly had not assembled for a long time. But the building was open for tourists and talks about what should happen when the wheels of government are turning.
As a kid, the image of the magnificent building with its long driveway was always impressive. It was even more so as we drove up to the car park. The policemen outside the building's entrance were armed, friendly and helpful. The reception staff were friendly and helpful too. We had a tour, admired the magnificence of the interior and then settled into the former Senate area which is now a committee room. It feels like a powerful room, with its red leather seats and fancy decor. The presenter shared anecdotes about the past and it was all very entertaining.
It wasn't difficult to imagine adversarial exchanges, shouting matches and the natural trait of Northern Ireland's politicians and officials to engage in that wait-a-wee-minute/catch-yourself-on/dug-in heels type of debate.
Afterwards, the presenter told us that she was distracted by my friend who, she said, was a ringer for Ian Paisley Jr. (Later in the Crown Bar, I ask the bar staff if they could see a resemblance and, quick as a flash, they said yes. I got the same reaction when I asked the waiter in Deane's restaurant. Case closed!)
Cathal O'Byrne concentrated on nearby Stormont Castle, but on the day of our visit, it wasn't open to the public. The castle's history is interesting. '..... the brown towers and turrets of Stormont Castle show above the treetops, and in the little graveyard is erected the great high colonnaded mausoleum with its pepper-box cupola, to the memory of the man, the Rev. John Cleland, M.A., who built the Castle of Stormont.'
Cleland was the Rector of Newtownards, a property owner, said to be an avid land-grabber of fields, farms and some public roads. His castle was not really a castle at all. It started as a large house around 1850, and through extensions and alterations, it became quite a grand building 'by encasing it in Scrabo stone and furnishing it with towers, battlements and turrets, forming the Castle of Stormont as it stands today.'
According to O'Byrne, as well as being a Rector, property owner and land agent, Rev. Cleland was also a magistrate with strong links to the secret service, paying spies and informers when necessary to gather information against enemies. In the descriptions of the man and his activities in the chapter 'The Man Who Built Stormont', I kept thinking of the ruthless, power-hungry, gold-obsessed man in the same way I think of ruthless characters in The Sopranos or Peaky Blinders, people who get what they want whatever it takes.
A lawyer of the time said about Cleland: '....he tells you that his mind is unprejudiced, that his heart is full of humanity and that all his hopes, fears and wishes are a pure and innocent mixture of milk and water.' Of course, by accounts, the Reverend was nothing of the kind.