There were not many tomes at that time to fill that category. This was long before local history had become the cottage industry that it is now. But it was there I first came across “As I Roved Out,” by the local historian and storyteller Cathal O’Byrne.
As a boy, I thought it was a miracle that Belfast had a history at all. When I flicked through the pages of the volume, which was published in 1946, I was equally amazed at how various and interesting a history it was.
I was about 10 or 11 years old, I guess. Back then, “local” history usually meant as far as Belfast was concerned, the last period of the Troubles — the massacres and assassinations of the early 1920s, following partition. I had heard something of that first hand — the story of the police constable shot dead on May Street near the gateway to our house, the story of how my grandfather was threatened by the Black and Tans because he took too long to lace his boots on being roused from his sleep during a raid at one o’clock on a bleak winter’s morning.
That was not the history I found in O’Byrne’s book. There, the only troubles he writes about involved the rising of the United Irishmen, in 1798, in which Belfast played so active and prominent a role. Indeed, his treatment of the heroes of that rebellion, Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, Henry Joy McCracken, amounts to something like an obsession. But that was not why I fell in love with “As I Roved Out.”
It was the first book I ever read that made of Belfast something more interesting than the dreary, rain-drenched, fog-enfolded, maze of narrow side streets and gloomy factories in which I had spent my life. It was hard for a boy with a romantic notion of what constituted history to find it in such surroundings. But O’Bryne’s stories offered such items in the table of contents as “Castle Place and its Castle,” “Stage Coaches in Old Belfast,” “Italian Art in Old Belfast,” “Easter Monday and the Mummy Woman,” “Belfast’s Fairy Thorn Trees,” “The Friar’s Bush,” “At Molly Ward’s Locks,” “When O’Connell Came to Belfast,” “A Highwayman on Collin Mountain,” “Dean Swift and Waring Street,” and “A Famous Dramatist in Old Belfast.”
To me it was extraordinary to read that Jonathan Swift, the author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” might well have set foot in Belfast — indeed, had probably walked down a street that I knew! The street is Waring Street, and it was named after a tanner by that name. According to O’Bryne, when Jonathan Swift was made curate of the obscure little parish of Kilroot, just outside Carrickfergus, he courted the tanner’s daughter, whom he named in his correspondence with her as Varina. When he took up his new post (which he despised) he wrote to her, proposing marriage.
“Will you be ready to engage in those methods I shall direct for the improvement of your mind so as to make us entertaining company for each other, without being miserable when we are neither visiting or being visited?” Swift asked. This rather unromantic and straightforward approach did not win Varina’s heart. No doubt the prospect of living on less than