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This is an online diary of my latest trip to Ireland.
Dennis J. Ahern

Thursday, March 24th

Up early today so as to catch the 8:00 a.m. bus to Belfast. Have to repack and stow my bags so as to leave my backpack at the Dublin hostel and only take what I need for four days packed in an airline bag and the carrying case for the "appie" machine. I also carry my raincoat and orange juice, which I remember to clear out of the refrigerator in the member's kitchen downstairs. I take the shortcut through Cathedral Street, past the 24-hour Chinese cybercafe that's closed and stop at the SPAR convenience store where I neglected to buy orange juice the day I was taking the bus to Cork. They are only just opening up and the hot food display has not yet been stocked but while I am picking out my orange juice the girl puts out some bacon, eggs, and sausages and I ask her to make me up a sandwich of bacon and egg for 2.70 euro. She starts to put it on a baguette but I ask for a roll instead and point out the kind I want. It is the type of roll they call baps, which is also a slang term for female breasts because of the shape. I grab a thing of milk to have with it and remember to get some serviettes so I don't have to wipe my hands on the upholstery of the bus seat.

A few more blocks and I am at the bus arras and buy my return (round-trip) ticket to Belfast for 26 euro. There's only two people in front of me in the queue, but then two couples with piles of luggage simply barge into the line. They are going to Newry. There is much delay as they first get on, then get off, then get on again. Finally, a computer voice (male this time) warns us to "Stand Clear! Luggage Doors Operate!" and we are underway. Did I mention that the street signs are always on the walls of buildings at the corner or a street. Other signs say "Ramps" which turn out to be speed bumps, or what urban designers call "traffic calming devices". I buckle my seat belt and settle in for a nap with my cap pulled over my eyes, but it's only a short trip to the first stop at Dublin Airport. I sleep some more and wake up at a toll booth near the site of the Battle of the Boyne. The sign on the toll booth says "Operator does not have access to cash. Money removed by vacuum system."

The bus terminal in Newry is alongside the canal and I can picture this as a different sort of transportation hub in the 19th century. I can tell I am in Northern Ireland now as the car park for the Church of Ireland has security fencing and gates and the police station is a fortified bunker with tiny portals for windows. Coming into Belfast on the motorway, the bus slows to a crawl in traffic across from the cemetery where a Unionist attacked a funeral several years ago, firing into the crowd of mourners and lobbing hand grenades. An overhead sign flashes a symbol of a broken down car over the lane that is blocked. I'm surprised when the bus pulls into the terminal behind the Europa Hotel. In the past I've always come to Belfast by plane or train and I had in mind that the bus would be arriving at the other terminal, across town by the Lagan where I had gotten the bus to Cushendall before. This is much better as the youth hostel in Donegall Road off Shaftesbury Square is only a few blocks away.

The youth hostel is undergoing renovations and expansion. I've been coming to this one since it opened a little more than ten years ago. Before that the hostel was out near Belvoir on the Down side of the Lagan. To get to the PRONI (Public Records Office of Northern Ireland) by public transportation you had to take a bus in to the city centre and then another bus out the Malone Road to Balmoral Avenue. Instead I would walk down the Lagan to the first available bridge, cross over and up the other side, a journey of some miles. The worst part was there were no public facilities along the way and having consumed a pot of tea with my breakfast the pressure on my bladder was sometimes too much to endure and I would detour through this big park on the North side of the river and water the shrubbery. This was risky behavior even in the early morning hours as in those days there were always helicopters hovering overhead and I had visions of one swooping down on me to disgorge a battalion of paratroopers with automatic weapons, certain I was planting a bomb amongst the bushes. Belfast has come a long way since '93.

After I made my bed and stowed my gear in a locker I went around the corner to the Revelations Cybercafe to check my mail. There are Internet terminals in the hostel, but they are expensive and do not have telnet capability, which I need for accessing my unix shell account email. I was glad to see they were back in business because some time after my last visit they were firebombed and the place was gutted. Be sure to let them know if you are staying in the hostel as hostellers get a discount here.

After checking my email I hopped on the Malone Road bus (£1 20p) to Balmoral Avenue. If you don't know the neighborhood, ask the driver to sing out when they get to Balmoral. This is a residential neighborhood and the PRONI is about a ½ mile down the street on the right-hand side. There is a secure car-park there but it almost always fills up shortly after they open. If this is your first time here you will have to get a reader's ticket which will have a number on it that you use when requesting material. There was a notice on display to the effect that beginning April 1st they would be requiring new photo IDs. The research room has recently been refurbished and expanded, incorporating the room off the reception lobby where the Calendars of Wills and Administrations used to be on the shelf. By the way, if you are researching someone who had a will probated in Ireland, the ones for the six counties of Northern Ireland were moved to Belfast before the Four Courts fire in Dublin in 1922. Those for the rest of Ireland were lost in that fire, but even just reading the Calendars you can find info on persons and estates. And it was not just the wealthy who left their names in these records. When I indexed all of the Aherns several years ago, I found one woman who had an estate of £4. I also found the probate of the will of Thomas Andrews, builder of the Titanic, "who died as is believed on or about 15 April 1912, at sea".

I was fortunate that the PRONI is open late on Thursdays as I had several tasks before me. One was to research certain estate papers of the Carey/Cochrane family that leased lands in the Inishowen Peninsula and the other was to look for Valuation maps and cancelled books for a property in county Tyrone. You may wonder what I was doing looking for estate papers from Donegal when Donegal is in the Republic, but that is the nature of things. The family that leased the land held other properties in what became Northern Ireland and their papers were deposited with the PRONI.

Fintan Mullan of the Ulster Historical Foundation came by to see me and we went to the canteen for a late lunch. The canteen, which is housed in a trailer next to the PRONI, is a welcome feature. They serve hot entrees and sandwiches, coffee, tea and pastries. Fintan and I had a chat about the state of the Irish Genealogical Project and the national signposting index.

There are three main sections to the PRONI; the research room where you look through various catalogs and order documents, the manuscript room where you look at what you've ordered, and a microfilm reading room. The research room also has various books on open shelf. To order a manuscript, you enter the call number and your reader's ticket number in a computer. The system limits you to five requests at a time. Once you have viewed and returned a document, or documents, you can add new items to the queue to bring it up to the maximum of five. One flaw I found in this system is that you couldn't enter your number to see what you still had in the queue, so it was necessary to keep a written record of what you had ordered and what you had returned.

Although the PRONI was open until 9:00 p.m., I had pretty much looked at everything I could and it had been a very long day so I packed it in about 8:00 and headed back to catch the bus. As luck would have it, the bus went by just as I was within sight of the corner. That meant about a 20-minute wait. At one point, I decided to try walking back to the hostel, but after I had gone a few blocks it started to rain and I stopped at the next bus shelter and waited. I got off the bus at Queens University, which was not far from the hostel, and stopped by the Queen's Film Theatre to see what was on. It turns out I was too late to catch the last screening of The Aviator, which I had missed when it was on the big screens at home. There wasn't anything else to see that night so I went down Botanic Street looking for someplace to have supper. These is a spot where there are a variety of restaurants and I have eaten in a few of them over the years. I particularly remembered a Chines restaurant I had eaten at on several trips where I got a nice egg foo yung that had a different sauce from the brown gravy stuff you typically get in Chinese restaurants at home. I went in search of this dish and actually took a table in the restaurant where I had eaten it before, but was disappointed to find it no longer on the menu. Instead I went down the block to a Harry Ramsden's Fish & Chips. They are a popular chain in England but this is the only one I've seen in Ireland. I got a cod and chips to go and while it was cooking went next door to the SPAR convenience store and got a takeaway tea. The food was still hot when I got to the hostel and I sat in the dining room to eat it. Then I went around the corner to the cybercafe to catch up on my email. The Revelations cafe gives a concession (discount) to hostelers so it only cost me £1 for half an hour.

Addendum

When I got back to the room there were a couple of teenaged Russian skinheads using the chair and wastebasket as an impromptu barber shop, the one using an electric shaver to get the other's locks down to the bone. It was still too early to turn in so I went to the common room to see what was on TV. There was some sort of Discovery Channel biography about Roald Amundsen's search for a Northwest Passage in a converted sealer called the Fram. This was the man who later beat Scott to the South Pole by a couple of weeks. I was enjoying the program until someone sitting next to me on the couch proceeded to light up a cigarette. I tried to tell them there was no smoking allowed, but he pointed to the ash trays and the lack of any "defense de fumier" signs and I was forced to relent. It seems the Youth Hostel Association of Northern Ireland has a more liberal policy in tolerating such unhealthy behavior. Either that or somebody brought in their own ash tray. Faced with a choice of second-hand smoke or tonsorial terrorists scattering dandruff, I stuck it out 'til the end of the program. Back in the room I hung my towel from bottom of the upper bunk so as to block the overhead light if someone came back late from the pubs and went to bed.
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This page copyright © 2005 by Dennis Ahern.