In Belfast on a rainy morning
I awoke to another dismal day. It was wet and it was cold–hardly the kind of weather in which one could go out joyfully to explore a city. Thanks to the Hop On Hop Off Bus, my day was saved in that I was actually able to salvage it. I purchased a ticket for 12 pounds from the Belfast Tourist Center and caught the 11 am bus–upper deck, front seat, of course! I enjoyed the tour so much, I took it twice for the same price, each time in a different bus with a different tour guide and I wasn’t bored!
It was cold and my fingers ached. As the bus wound its way through the City Center towards the Alfred Clock Tower (named for Victoria’s beloved husband), I tried every way I could think of to warm them, but to no avail. Finally,I just sat on them and that did the trick!
Commentary was provided by those Irish tour guides known for their wicked sense of humor. His name was Ivan and our driver was Ciaran. About six other people shared the bus with me. You could tell it was decidedly off-season. In fact, a few days previously,I had heard an Irishman comment upon a tourist who was lugging a suitcase through St. George Market: “Imagine a tourist coming to Belfast in the winter!” He clearly thought the lady was nuts. As I tried to get warm, I thought I was nuts too!
Soon we were crossing the Lagan Weir and heading towards the ship-building yards of the renowned company known as Harland and Woolf that once ruled the world–or at least Ireland. Responsible for building some of the most famous ships in history–the Titanic, the Olympic, the Lusitania–they once employed 34,000 people. Their giant cranes, affectionately nicknamed Samson and Goliath, tower above the city’s skyline, a silent reminder of the glory that once was navigation. Today, they linger idly waiting to be restored to, as some have suggested, a five star restaurant! At the deserted dry docks, we saw the Pump Room close to where the Titanic was once docked as she went through the final stages of construction and decoration. Though many cities host Titanic exhibitions today (Liverpool, for one), Belfast claims that this honor should go to her alone as the ship was fine when she left Irish shores!
On to Stormont (left) , a massive mansion made of Portland Stone that sits on a hill approached by a mile-long alley lined with lime trees–one for each of the workers who built it. This is Northern Ireland’s Parliament Building where affairs of state are still debated and laws passed. The area around it is elite, with lovely terraced housing and the campus of Campbell College not too far away.
Then, it was time to enter the most notorious parts of Belfast, known for the infamous strife between Protestants and Catholics that kept the country in a state of high tension through most of the 70s and well into contemporary times. The bus took us through Shanklin Road, Protestant stronghold, where all the fallen sons of the Loyalists are remembered in large size murals painted on the sides of the houses and stores that line the narrow streets. We passed through the Court House where the scales of Justice are missing from the hands of the Goddess perched on the pediment. They turned up recently on ebay! Right across the street is the Crumblin Jail, a tunnel linking the two buildings underground. Some of the most notorious political prisoners were held in this jail which today is used only as a memorial to the country’s troubled history.
In the distance, the guide pointed out a Linen Factory, another remnant of Irish history that has gone with the wind. Once the mainstay of the economy, the creation of linen from flax is a long and laborious process and involves a great deal of manual work. No wonder the industry fell by the wayside as synthetics flooded the market. Today, it serves only the luxury market and a few consumers able to pay the vast sums it costs to make the fabric wearable. I know that I will never look at linen again without appreciating the time and trouble that went into its creation.
On Falls Road, we saw the other ugly side of religious warfare–this is the Catholic side, home of the IRA or the Irish Republican Army manifested in the offices of Sinn Fein (left) that sits on a rather nondescript street in a modest brick red building. This was the place that Bill Clinton visited in his attempts to broker a peace agreement with Gerry Adams. The Peace Agreement is holding tenuously (so far, so good, everyone says, but they’re clearly not holding their breath!) as seen in the ease with which one can now travel from the Protestant to the Catholic side. The Peace Wall still stands, though, dividing the town and the people. It snakes around the residential streets in brick red decorated with a few black details. The murals here remember the Catholic martyrs such as Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in the Thatcherite era to gain dignity for political prisoners held in British jails. There are other murals–loads of them–featuring Bush sucking away all the oil from Iraq and reproductions of Picasso’s Guernica. The people of Northern Ireland are passionate about their politics–I will say that much. No wonder so many of them came to America where they entered politics. No less than 23 American presidents can trace their roots to Ireland including, of course, the most famous of them all, the Kennedy clan!
We passed through Queens University next (left) , the educational institution that produced Literature Nobel Laureate Seamus Heany whose portrait, together with several others, adorns the walls of the Great Hall inside. Built by Charles Langdon in imitation of Magdalen College, Oxford, this red brick Tudor building brings tremendous dignity to Queens Quarter with its funky clubs, lively restaurants and smoky taverns. Indeed, Belfast is known for its historic pubs and I downed a swift half in two of them: Magner’s Irish cider in Robinson’s and Guinness in the Crown Tavern, that sit cheek by jowl on Great Victoria Street. The latter is a confection of Victorian embossed tiles and a plasterwork ceiling, mirrors and carved counters and booths–the most ornate of the country’s pubs. No wonder it is managed today by the National Trust–one of only two pubs that the Trust runs.
Of course, we passed the bastion of the City Hall (left), built in the manner of St. Paul’s Cathedral, with a towering dome and the statue of the Queen looking glumly over her city. Near at hand is Belfast’s newest attraction–the Wheel–a huge ferris wheel that provides good views of the city. Not that it would work on a foggy day and there are many of those in Ireland!
In the City Center, there are churches and cathedrals and shopping malls of which the city is very proud indeed. In these days of credit crunches, the streets were still thick with shoppers who found relief in the Continental Market being held in the grounds of the City Hall where shoppers could feast on everything European from French crepes and baguettes to Spanish paella, from Greek mezes to German marzipan. There was also a carousel and games of skill to add to the festive revelry.
I took the bus tour twice. It was the only way to escape the cold and receive a bird’s eye view of the city at the same time while being entertained by the tour guides whose humor never faltered. I spent an hour browsing through books on Ireland at W.H. Smith and sipped Ginger and Ginseng tea in the tea rooms of Marks and Spencer where I also indulged in a warm mince pie! I stopped to appreciate the attempts to instill holiday cheer through music as a lone accordionist from Romania named Fernando played Jingle Bells outside Clarks from where I purchased two pairs of shoes at bargain prices! Alas, people were too frenzied filling their stockings to support his attempts to make an honest living in the midst of his poverty.
Visiting Belfast at Christmas might have been idiotic in terms of the weather, but it offered me a glimpse into the holiday spirit of a city that is slowly recovering from its decades, if not centuries, of religious war mongering and trying to extend a hand of friendship towards diversity. Harmony, the Ring of Thanksgiving, a sculpture that towers above the weir, is a testimony to the possibilities of friendship.
Belfast has none of the gaiety of Dublin. I realized that almost immediately. It still seems to be covered under the dark shroud of doubt and religious famaticism and though it is making frantic attempts to be respectful of religious difference, I found that it lacked the kind of happy and joyous spirit that the Republic of Ireland seems to possess so effortlessly. Of the two major cities, I found Dublin infinitely ‘happier’ but I am glad I visited Belfast. I achieved an understanding of the kind of harm that radical relgiious politics can do as well as saw for myself how difficult it is to recover from such dogmatism when one has made it a way of life.
To follow me on the next leg of my travels along the Antrim Coast, please click on Carrickfergus.