We spent three days in Belfast – but we didn’t mention the war.
The very informative tour guide on the sightseeing bus mentioned it once or twice, but, like Basil in Fawlty Towers, I think he “got away with it.”
We had ended up in Belfast after joining half the country in a desperate ‘Before-the-kids-go-back-to-school’ last-minute scramble for a late summer break.
Easier said than done. Last weekend, it was easier to reason with Kim Jong Un than it was to find accommodation in Ireland. We were delighted to eventually secure a few nights in Jurys Inn Hotel in Belfast.
The hotel is centrally located, in the heart of what is now a modern, confident, bustling city. Its grim past has been replaced by great vibrancy, and Belfast is now a very nice place to visit. Although guardians and beneficiaries of the peace process remain wary of dissidents, and of the lessons of history, it’s pretty clear that there will be no turning back. Nobody is forgetting the past, but nobody wants to repeat it.
Signing up to the ‘hop on/hop off’ sightseeing bus tour (which is recommended) we headed for ‘Titanic Belfast’, the now world famous tourist attraction. No doubt many Roscommon People readers have already visited. It was our first time. You could spend a full day there. We enjoyed it and yes, you really do get a strong sense of history as you emotionally connect with the sheer enormity of the tragedy of April 14th, 1912, when over 1,500 people died after the Titanic ship struck an iceberg. The Titanic centre in Belfast, with its range of tours, museums and attractions, takes you inside the stark statistics and reveals the raw and deeply moving human aspects of the tragedy as you learn more about the victims, the survivors and their stories. Just as riveting and poignant too (no pun, on use of rivets in the project, intended) is the extraordinary story of the construction of the ship.
Later, we explore the ‘High Street’ and are well impressed with the buzz and atmosphere in downtown Belfast. Good shopping, many great attractions, a real ‘young’ feel to the place too, with lively bars, restaurants and cafes.
On today’s ‘hop on/hop off’ bus, the tour guide was friendly, kind of charismatic, certainly ideal for the role, a retired teacher with a marvellous knowledge of the city and its complex history.
He loved telling his motley crew of tourists all about Belfast, its people and its fascinating past and present. Our guide almost had ‘labour of love’ etched on his forehead. You got the impression he’d enjoy dispensing his impressive knowledge all day as a hobby, though there was a box for tips on the way out. When it came to the ‘Troubles’, he may have mentioned the war once or twice, but he was a master of diplomacy and balance, knowing exactly how to paint a picture of the past and present, without causing offence to either tradition or misrepresenting history.
Seeing a ‘peace wall’ (initially built to keep two warring communities apart) was quite an experience, as was our visit to the Shankill Road and the Falls Road. The peace wall is covered in murals, many of them very impressive works of art, the blitz of colour and conflict commentary a stark reminder of the dark times the people of this inspirational city have experienced.
Noting that there had been talk of tearing down these walls – in the interests of the peace process and the greatly improved relations that now exist – our guide wryly admitted that one reason the walls are still in place is because of their value to the tourist industry!
Later – yes, more ‘Troubles tourism’ – we visit Crumlin Road Jail, an infamous Victorian era prison which was actually open and functioning up to 1996. Conditions for the inmates in the 19th century and beyond were appalling. Over the decades, seventeen prisoners were executed there, the last such episode being in 1961. We had the dubious pleasure of visiting the ‘Condemned man’s’ cell, and the execution chamber, complete with the actual hangman’s rope still present.
In more recent decades, Crumlin Road Jail was brimming with hardened criminals, including many killers, as well as political prisoners, both republican and loyalist. Amongst its inmates were the late Ian Paisley, the late Martin McGuinness, and Gerry Adams.
Not surprisingly, a relaxing pint was called for on Saturday night, after all this grim, albeit fascinating, hopping on and off history’s trail.
On the big television screen in Jurys, tributes were still being paid to the great entertainer Bruce Forsyth. Oblivious to this, and to the football scores flashing across the screen, were the members of a hen party who were downing cocktails. Soon they had moved on in search of the city’s nightlife, as the great song and dance man Brucie swivelled and smiled in black and white footage.
Meanwhile, tourists continued to order bar food. The tasty looking burgers were served in a box/miniature wooden briefcase, in keeping with the fashion of the times. On seeing the briefcase, one might have been tempted to say ‘I ordered a burger, not a Budget.’ Does any restaurant still serve everything on a plate?
“Smells wicked” reported the teenage American girl to her parents when her pizza arrived, and I’m pretty sure that was a compliment to the chef.
By 10.30 pm the young barman was in ‘winding down’ mode. Jurys had fallen quiet. Then a resident rang to order room service.
The barman took the order and repeated it.
‘So…pizza…tuna sandwich, no cucumber…on white bread…and a gin and tonic…got it.’
Presumably it smelt wicked on arrival.
Very noticeable all weekend – maybe it’s the same in most cities now – was the presence of many homeless people on the streets.
Jurys Hotel is beside the Europa Hotel and the Grand Opera House. All weekend ‘The Europa’ and the Opera House were buzzing, with much evidence of economic buoyancy.
Tucked against the walls of these and adjoining buildings were a number of homeless people. One guy in his 30s wrapped his legs under a sleeping bag, his dog at his side. When I passed again about a half an hour later, he was helping himself to a pizza (the man, not the dog). Then he cheerfully directed some theatre-goers to the Opera House – “over to your right, the next door…there you go.”
The following night, the same guy was staggering down the street along with an ‘out of it’ woman who could barely stand up. A pitiful sight. After a few minutes of wobbling and weaving, they made it ‘home’ and zigzagged into their sleeping bags, where the loyal pet dog was waiting. Minutes later the dapper ladies and gents emerged from the Grand Opera House, inoffensively but matter-of-factly sidestepping the homeless folk…two worlds briefly merging on a buzzing Saturday night in Belfast.
Driving to Giant’s Causeway. Conscious of Mayo v Kerry in Croke Park. Dodgy reception on radio, well, dodgy in terms of trying to get RTE Radio One. Stopped in a couple of pretty villages along the stunning coastal drive, thought ‘we’re in County Antrim, maybe some of these quaint pubs are showing the GAA?’
Stepped into one quaint pub, which was heavily decorated with Union Jack flags. Some Chelsea player stares back at me (from the television). I retreat. Ten minutes later, step into another small pub, also adorned with Union Jack flags. Nobody here seems interested in Donaghy v O’Shea either.
Through some patient Internet/smartphone tinkering, Fiona works wonders to get the radio commentary going, and as we continue our journey we are gripped by the drama in Croker.
On arrival we marvel at Giant’s Causeway, a mysterious wonder of nature which has withstood the ferocity of all types of challenges for years.
As we park, the final whistle sounds in Croke Park, and we marvel at Mayo, a mysterious wonder of nature which has withstood the ferocity of all types of challenges for years.
Giant’s Causeway was great, as were the giants of Kerry and Mayo. And I’d certainly recommend Belfast for a weekend break.