Belfast towers over the Troubles

Like the soaring ship building cranes constructed during the height of The Troubles in the 1970’s, or today’s Big Wheel, optimism and civic pride are sky high in Northern Ireland’s capital and largest city. Some ten years after the peace process began in earnest, a new generation of young Northern Irish are eager to showcase their country to the world and create an identity far away from the violence of the past.

Ferry to IrelandThe Road Less Travelled

As the waves crashed against the side of the ship, and fellow passengers moaned and groaned, I thought it was quite ominous that my final destination was the city that gave birth to the Titanic in 1911.

Fancying myself somewhat of an adventurous traveller, I decided to forego the comfort, price and ease of one of Europe’s many cheapo charter airways, and hop onto the ferry that ships cars, cargo, and people across the Irish Chanel between Dublin, and Liverpool some 12 times per week. From there it was but an easy couple hours by rail to my final destination – although there is a direct ferry route between Liverpool and Belfast that did not fit my schedule.

My thought process behind this decision was that the 8 hour ferry ride would better connect me with the nautical histories of these two great 19th century hubs of maritime-based commerce. Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing ahead. After arriving in the middle of the night to find that my ferry crossing had been causally and unapologetically postponed until morning, the weather was not exactly cooperating either. A steady drizzle fell on Liverpool’s famous Merseyside port, as an umbrella-twisting wind gusted in relentlessly from the Irish Sea. After a wonderfully cheery night at what could generously be described as a truck stop in a dilapidated corner of Liverpool’s declining portside, I was ready to board the ferry and begin my Irish adventures.

As it would turn out, my grand Norn’Ireland sea adventure consisted mainly of staring out of the window of the ship’s bar trying to ascertain where the dark grey sea ended and the dark grey sky began. Somewhere between the painfully expensive full-Irish breakfast, the mid-morning pint of bitter, some minor nausea and a nap, we finally made landfall in Ireland.

City HallMust-see spots in Belfast

Belfast, Northern Ireland has always been a place that I had desired to visit, but had shied away from due to the political and religious unrest commonly referred to as “The Troubles.”  Tensions have eased since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, ushering in a new era of peace and cooperation between old enemies. In fact, there has seldom been a better time to visit Ireland’s north in recent decades, although this summer did see some violent incidents that were confined to particular neighbourhoods that tourists have no reason to actually visit.
Like many cities in the north of the United Kingdom, Belfast really began to blossom during the Industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Today the grey stone and red-bricked architecture in this city of 700,000 reflects its industrial past. My first stop was the impressive, but surprisingly recent, City Hall. This Baroque-Revivalist, copper-domed edifice was completed in 1906 to better reflect the official city status that Queen Victoria had awarded Belfast in 1888.

Regardless of where you are within the city, you cannot miss the Cty Hall building. Simply feast your eyes upward and scan the skyline for Belfast’s new 60 metre high Big Wheel which sits adjacent to the city hall grounds. This scaled-down version of The London Eye was launched in 2007, and affords visitors an excellent view of the city skyline from its top for a reasonable 6 Pounds.

While the pubs of Belfast are all great craic (Irish slang for a good time/enjoyment) no trip to the city would be complete without a drink in Northern Ireland’s most famous tavern – The Crown Liquor Saloon.  Located along Great Victoria Street, the pub was one of the most famous 19th century Gin Palaces in the UK, and its stunningly ornate tiled floors, stain-glassed windows, gas lamps, and elaborate ceilings reflect the opulence of a city very much ‘on the up’.

Step into Titanic history at Belfast’s Quayside

Harland and Wolff shipyardI soon found myself down quayside to visit a piece of the city’s celebrated industrial heritage. The world’s most famous, and ill-fated steamship The RMS Titanic was constructed right here at the Harland and Wolff shipyard on Belfast’s waterfront. Of course the ship that “God himself could not sink” went down with 1,517 souls off the coast of Newfoundland on its maiden voyage April 12th, 1912. 

Today Harland and Wolff’s two massive gantry cranes known as Samson and Goliath dominate Belfast’s waterfront.  The bright yellow cranes both extend roughly 100 metres into the air and can lift a combined total of over 1,600 tons of freight. Plans were recently unveiled to create a new memorial site in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter by 2012 in order to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the ship’s sinking. A visit to this part of the city would certainly be of interest to any history buff, Leonardo DiCaprio fan, or those who find huge pieces of machinery totally awesome.

Visit the Shankhill and Falls Rd: Setting of Sectarian Violence

ShankhillThese days Belfast’s former sectarian battlegrounds and working-class housing projects are amongst the city’s most popular attractions with foreign tourists. While I decided to walk through the troubled areas on foot, visitors can take a guided black cab tour through the Nationalist Falls Road area, and the Unionist Shankill Road.  This part of the city is famous for the politically-themed murals that adorn the sides of many buildings. These colourful and detailed paintings act as memorials to fallen friends, incitement to foes, and pleas of support to the International community.

As I made my way through the small, tidy Victorian and post-war row houses that lined these unassuming streets, I caught glimpse of an ugly, grey concrete wall that towered above the neighbouring houses.  Visitors can follow this infamous ‘peace wall’ that divides these rival neighbourhoods.

In the shadow of the wall sat two young boys. Their hair shorn clean, decked out in Gaelic Football shits they couldn’t have been more than five years old.  While not the World’s greatest photographer by any stretch of the imagination, my National Geographic instinct kicked in and I began to shoot. Before I could sneak away, I was spotted.  “Hey mister” yelled one of the boys. “You taking a picture of them boxes?” I could only mutter something unintelligible before slinking away embarrassed that I had been caught. The boys, as it turned, out had been playing King of the Castle on a pile of crates that were being stockpiled for use as fire wood during one of the many Sectarian parades or marches that still take place within the country.

During the period known as “The Troubles” that spanned from 1966 to 2002, some 3, 500 people lost their lives in violence related to the conflict. These figures include a number of terrorist bombings that took place in England and even spilled into continental Europe in a handful of instances. Memories of The Troubles have been immortalized in numerous works of literature, film and songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2 and “Zombie” by The Cranberries.

Although major tourist spots today, the areas have seen violent street battles, riots, murders, and decades of heartache. Visitors should avoid talking politics and keep their wits about them when visiting these working-class neighbourhoods, particular in the evening. While hostilities have greatly simmered down in recent years, the so-called peace line that segregates neighbours remains, and the divisive and political nature of the conflict must be respected.

Bragging about Belfast
If you speak to some young residents in Belfast you may find that they are quite embarrassed to accept that some of the city’s more notorious neighbourhoods have now become prime tourist attractions. This may be because young people in the city who grew up following the major unrest of the 1970’s were not as directly affected by the violence. As a result they have created an identity for the city that goes far beyond the fighting alone. Thanks to a thriving population of university students and the forces of gentrification, Belfast today is a hip, young, trendy city that is complex, cosmopolitan and multifaceted.

Having seen so much in but a few short days, the ferry ride home made for considerably smoother sailing. In the end I had emerged with a greater understanding and appreciation for a beautiful and often-misunderstood part of the British Isles that I would certainly return to one day soon.


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