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Saturday, 9 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 me.

I am a sucker for street directories, especially old ones illustrating streets that are no longer there. While writing a memoir in recent times, I got hold of a couple of Belfast Street directories from the early 20thcentury to pinpoint where my ancestors lived. They are fascinating documents and they helped me enormously to condense their neighbourhood into a few closely-knit streets in the New Lodge Road area.

So, it was with considerable interest that I found a chapter in As I Roved Out in which Cathal O’Byrne combed through directories, one from 1819, more of a list than a directory, of residents, streets, lanes and entries. The first actual directory is dated 1840 – 41 and was known as Martin’s Directory, available to subscribers for four shillings, and four shillings and sixpence to non-subscribers. For your money, you got ‘the names and addresses of Nobility, Gentry, Clergy, Merchants, Traders and Principal Inhabitants of Belfast and Beyond’as well as the addresses of landowners and magistrates.

One example - an interesting paragraph recalls a confectioner. When I was growing up in the 1960s, we would buy little bags of butter balls, mint imperials, dolly mixtures, flying saucers, lemon bon-bons, pineapple chunks, black jacks, fruit salad and more. I did recoil, however, at the thought of brandy balls, clove rock and aniseed balls – the devil’s confectionery. We also devoured packs of fruit gums, wine gums, fruit pastilles, opal fruits, midget gems and spangles. In the 1840s, the inventory was a little different.

The confectioner in the street directory is David Sheills, at 45 Union Street, Belfast. His entry notes that he ‘takes the liberty of informing his friends and the public that he still continues to make Superior Lozenges…  Peppermint, Cinnamon, Lemon, Cayenne and Ginger at different prices from 10d to 1s 6d per lb. He mentions ‘Warm Stomach Rock, recommended for a sore throat or a pain in the stomach. This rock ‘expels wind, changes the acrimony of the bile, strengthens the stomach and promotes digestion and the different secretions.’

The entry continues to list items such as paregoric and horehound candy, coltfoot candy, worm candy, squill candy, marshmallo (sic) candy, real China honeycomb, Spanish juice ju-jubes, acidulated drops, shells, comfits, sugar sticks ‘in white, black, red, pink or amber, as required.

Sugar baskets, blown, spun or plait, plain or crystallised lions, dogs, birds and bottles, black lumps, bull’s eyes and paradise balls were all available. (No sugar police in the olden days!)

As a former retail manager, I noted O’Byrne’s comment: ‘With the Belfast merchant of the old days there was none of the ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. They were out to please their customers, and that they usually succeeded in doing so, the flourishing business firms of the old town attested.’

I would recommend acquiring an old street directory connected to family history. It will fascinate. Oh, and have a bag of toffees close by, for old time’s sake.

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