The city of Belfast is a bustling metropolis, with a blossoming tourist economy existing side-by-side with an undercurrent of social tensions. Many of you who read this will full well remember the years of violence known euphemistically as “The Troubles”. Although those are technically over, there are still strong feelings on either side of the conflict still evident on the streets today. Despite all this, Belfast is absolutely a safe city to visit, and well worth a trip.
We usually try to spend our first day or two in an area learning what we can about the history and culture. Belfast is no exception. On our first full day off from WWOOFing, Clayton and I took the train from Dunmurry into Belfast and headed towards the Ulster Museum. Ulster Province is the northernmost province of Ireland, and of the nine counties it includes, six of those make up Northern Ireland. The museum would hopefully familiarize us with the rich history of the region. After purchasing our train tickets directly onboard, we alighted at Botanic station near Queen’s University for the short walk to the museum in the Botanic Gardens park.
It was a drizzly, grey day – perfect Irish weather. We passed by groups of students on their way to lunch or class and locals taking their dogs out to play fetch on the expansive green space in the park. Following the paved paths, we soon came across some powerful art installations. These were large structures made up entirely of electronic and plastic waste. Another stark reminder of the heavy burden we’re placing on the planet. Behind the largest of these sculptures was a picturesque glass structure – the 19th century Palm House conservatory. I’ve watched enough period pieces to recognize the Victorian architecture – whether that’s a point of pride or shame is to the discretion of the reader. Free to enter, we explored both the cool and tropical wings, and developed our first neck twinges of the day looking up at the tree tops in the center dome. Just down the park path was the Tropical Ravine, another testament to the Victorian fascination with plants. The recently renovated 19th century structure houses all manner of exotic plants such as banana trees, bromeliads, and custard apple trees, and it truly felt like walking into the tropics, temperature and all. I am thoroughly intrigued by custard apples – evidently they taste like a mix of banana, apples, and strawberries and grow predominantly in Central America, but due to their incredibly short shelf life are unavailable virtually anywhere else. Another food to seek out in the world!
Our green thumbs mollified, we finally reached Ulster Museum. Also free to enter, it houses Northern Irish history and art exhibitions, along with some visiting exhibitions. After some confusion in understanding the museum map, we began our tour in the Bronze Age section and slowly made our way up through modern history. There were some interesting artifacts to look at, such as gold from a Spanish Galleon that was part of the Spanish Armada (alas, it sunk on its way back to Spain off the North coast of Ireland!), or Bronze Age buckles and bells. An instructional video showed us how an axe in the Bronze Age was made, and what fascinated us most was how shiny and gold the axehead looked. Seeing so many old items in museums unconsciously makes you believe that all the metalwork has been rusty and green from the very beginning, when of course it looked entirely different when first made. We also got to try our hand at making a Neolithic tomb with little palm-sized “menhirs”. It was hard enough getting those to balance, and impossible to fathom constructing a tomb or henge with the giant boulders as people once did thousands of years ago.
As we wended our way further through the museum, we unfortunately found ourselves more and more confused. The museum exhibits were not well curated, in the sense that although there were plenty of artifacts to look at and signs to read, we couldn’t get a good understanding on the progression of politics, society, art, and culture at all. Every display seemed disjointed from its neighbor, and in trying to understand the origins of the Protestant-Catholic split that would lead to the Troubles, we found ourselves supplementing the exhibits with Wikipedia, much to our chagrin.
The Troubles is a violent period of Irish history that still causes much tension today. Although resentment had been brewing for hundreds of years, no one is clear on what exactly tipped the populace over into violence that year. To completely ignore hundreds of years of religious and socio-economic conflict, I will attempt to summarize: the “unionists”, predominantly Protestant, argue to remain part of the United Kingdom. The “republicans” or “nationalists”, mostly Catholic, wish to become part of the Republic of Ireland. In 1968, the ethno-nationalist tensions erupted into violence that would last thirty years, including a slew of bombings, assassinations, and riots. Thousands were killed, sadly the majority of which were civilians. Car, hotel, and pub bombings were common. It was an absolutely terrifying time. The museum at Ulster seemed keen to not take any sides, which is understandable, but for two tourists trying to understand them better, it was all very vague. We did see diagrams on how to check a car for bombs, maps of Belfast showing where roads were cut off to cars, and trash can lids that people used to bang on the ground to warn of policemen arriving. We read powerful quotes from victims or relatives of victims, of which there were many.
Thoroughly confused as to the timeline of the Troubles and the socio-economic past that led to them, we decided to seek out the infamous Peace Wall and some of the Belfast Murals. During the Troubles, walls dividing predominantly Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods were constructed to try and maintain some peace. Gates between them were closed each night and heavily monitored. Stunningly, those walls still exist today, and those gates are still in use. Many people have taken to creating art on the Peace Wall and many building sides across the city. We trekked across the city to where the greatest concentration of murals could be found. Our first stop was the Peace Wall itself, the longest continuous wall, and we walked the length of it, taking in the messages of peace and love. Unfortunately, most of these messages were covered in graffiti, which detracted from the majesty of it a bit. Still, the point was made. The predominant message was that this wall no longer belonged in Belfast, and peace should be everyone’s object. We then found a site online that mapped out other murals in the city, and they were color-coded based on what “side” they were for, be it Protestant/Unionist, Catholic/Republican, or neutral. We walked up and down Shankill and Falls Rd to get a taste of both.
They say that you can tell which way a neighborhood leans in Belfast just by opening your eyes – if Unionist, the curbs and lampposts will be red and blue, and Union Jacks will fly from each pub. If Republican, it’ll be green, orange, and Irish flags. We didn’t find it to be so obvious at first glance, but closer inspection of the murals and flyers would instantly let us know. We passed numerous murals between Shankill and Falls Rd, many in support of Palestine. Further down the road, a mural in support of Israel had been torched – recently. Completely burned. That was our first, humbling slap in the face that these tensions were still bubbling just beneath the surface. We then passed through a gate into a Unionist neighborhood. Building sides were dedicated to praising Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Army. Union Jacks did indeed fly from several buildings. But most jarring to us was a corner dedicated to the memorial of those killed in bombings during the Troubles, with harsh words against the IRA, Sinn Féin, and any Republicans- so harsh that I won’t post them here. We felt chills to see such hate, knowing full well that such words and opinions were being used and held on both sides. Sure enough, when walking through a predominantly Republican neighborhood next, we saw several threatening fliers proclaiming that the IRA was not dead, a flyer that said “Brits Out not Sell Out”, and murals strongly denouncing Unionists.
As night fell, we began the trek back across the city to Botanic station. Belfast is a relatively safe city these days, but after reading so much about the Troubles and having just seen all the murals and flyers all over town, a car backfiring gave us both quite the start. Back in the university neighborhood, we ate dinner in a delightfully decorated Italian restaurant and headed back to Dunmurry for the evening.
On day two in Belfast, we started off in the Titanic Quarter. Two cranes tower over the landscape, giants left over from the heyday of Harland and Wolff, the company that built Titanic and countless other ships. Disembarking from the train, we were prepared for a long walk to the Titanic Belfast museum, but were pleasantly surprised to find a free trolley train waiting to cart tourists around the Titanic Quarter free of charge. Belfast is pulling out all the stops for tourists, it seems, and soon enough, we were in front of the wildly impressive Titanic Belfast.
Belfast was one of the largest shipbuilding centers in the world, and perhaps most well known for producing the Titanic in the early 1900s. The people of Belfast never much talked about Titanic after the disaster – there was a sort of public shame about the incident, and it was left unspoken. However, they clued in to the massive popularity of the story following the box office hit “Titanic”movie and subsequently began to build a tourism industry around the incident. The museum opened in 2012 and cost over 100 million pounds – and it’s easy to see why. The building is stunningly designed, and inspires awe before even stepping inside. To me, it looks like an elegant cross between a ship’s bow and an iceberg. Once inside, we were surrounded by gift shops, cafes, and a long ticket line, but looking up we saw crisscrossing staircases and a starry night sky instead of a ceiling. It was breathtaking, yet just a small indication of the brilliant museum design to come.
The entrance fee seems steep, but as we were to find, well worth it. We spent the next three hours making our way through the “Titanic Experience”. Perhaps pompously named, but justly so. Instead of your usual museum experience with straight facts and artifacts to engage, each room was masterfully designed to include murals, personal quotes and stories, and interactive exhibits. Instead of just focusing on the Titanic itself, we first learned about Belfast’s Industrial Age and what led to the commissioning of something like the Titanic. We learned about how the shipping yards were constructed over years to accommodate building something so massive. We learned how Morse code was developed, and got to try tapping out some ourselves. We learned how the ship itself was made, even going on an interactive ride that took us through the shipyard, complete with blasting heat from the furnaces and the metallic bangs of riveting. Our hearts cracked over the difficult working conditions the builders had to face, and flat out broke when we read about all the workers’ celebrating when the hull was launched from Belfast. The sheer pride they felt all those years ago was almost palpable to us, and of course we all know how it ends. We continued on through the exhibit and found ourselves in an open room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking part of the shipyard in the harbor – this was the dry dock where Titanic was constructed, right in front of us. With sound recordings of news reporters hailing the majestic ship, we had a sense for the enormity of the ship and the occasion of the launch.
We then entered the set of rooms showing how the Titanic was fitted out. Gone was the clanging and smoke of the shipyards, the soot-covered faces of workers and guttural shouting of overseers. Instead, we were surrounded by finely crafted wooden furniture, elegant crystal chandeliers, plush wall-to-wall carpets, and the tinkling of piano keys. We saw reproductions of a third class, second class, and first class accommodation. We even watched a life-size virtual reality video of what it was like to walk through the Titanic, top to bottom. From the coal-shovelers down below to the tea rooms and lounges above, it was ingenuity, industry, and comfort at it’s best. We were caught up in the elegance, and in the next room, the stories of several passengers. We saw what they would have packed, their tickets, their final destinations. It was all so artfully done as to make us forget what was next.
Turning a corner, all that was shining and bright turned to cold and dark. The rooms became a deep blue-black, the lights dimmed, and reflections of water danced across the walls. Silence reigned, but only briefly. As we began to read to large white letters on the walls, we realized these were transcriptions of the final messages of the Titanic, and voices began to trickle from speakers. These were recordings of actual survivors, and as we listened to their blunt voices telling us what the sinking was like from their perspective, their last sightings of beloved family members as icy waters closed in, we took in the hopeless call-for-aid messages printed on the walls, and our hair stood on end and tears came to our eyes. We all know what happened; it’s no surprise. But the Titanic Experience gave us so much backstory and context that we couldn’t help but feel even more deeply for the passengers and crew. Stories of couples that refused to be parted and orphaned children taken under the wing of complete strangers stirred up even deeper emotions. We then continued on into rooms explaining the after-effects, such as what was initially reported and how the rest of the world reacted. Horribly, some preliminary reports of the sinking erroneously stated that everyone was rescued successfully. The truth trickled out incredibly slowly. We also learned what it was like for the survivors to actually reach the United States – they were rescued by RMS Carpathia, and upon disembarking in New York, some said they were blinded by pure white light – flashes from the numerous reporters’ cameras. After such horrors, we can’t imagine what they felt. It was something I never paused to think about.
We then came to a large theater space. The film playing was taken directly from the deep sea exploration of the sunken ship itself, and showed it rusting away in its final resting place. We finished up by going through rooms showcasing the inquest of what went wrong that fateful night, as well as the numerous safety precautions at sea now in place as a direct result of the Titanic sinking.
Leaving the museum, we were able to visit the SS Nomadic located in a dry dock nearby. This is the last surviving ship of the White Star Line, which also included the Titanic. You can go inside and tour, though it honestly wasn’t overly impressive. It had some original paneling, but apart from being a small ship that ferried passengers to the Titanic, I didn’t find it particularly fascinating, especially after the experience we just went through.
We’d spent more time in the Titanic Belfast than originally planned, which unfortunately meant that most sites would be closing soon (everything seems to close at 4 or 5pm in Belfast!). We walked from the Titanic Quarter to City Hall, passing several oddities along the way that was well worth a photo or two. There was the Big Fish sculpture, which was covered in quotes on wisdom. There was the Albert Memorial Clocktower, which is leaning quite obviously to the South. They’ve shored it up, but that didn’t stop me from feeling slightly uneasy standing under it. We passed by a burned out shell of a building with several roads closed off around it. Sadly, this was the Primark building until recently, when a fire in August 2018 completely destroyed it. It’s still considered a dangerous site, which means many detours around the city centre.
We stopped for a drink at the Crown Liquor Saloon, famous for its interior decor. It is a shining example of the early 20th century gin palaces, and has intricately carved walls and columns, beautiful mosaic floors, stained glass windows, and even little strips on the walls where you can light matches for cigars. It was shockingly packed and we could only stomach the crowds for one drink, but it was certainly worth seeing. We wandered the streets looking for a pub for dinner, but being a Saturday, we found that many were full up. Our persistence led us to wandering through the “entries”, which are essentially alleyways that connect streets in the city centre. They reminded me of the “closes” of Edinburgh or “winds” of Glasgow. An apologetic pub owner pointed us in the direction of a restaurant that may not be full, and we are grateful to her for it, since our meal at the tucked-away Morningstar Pub was scrumptious. We ate traditional lamb stew while watching horse racing on the bar screens, and washed our meal down with an Eton Mess – a lovely marriage of strawberries, cream, and meringue.
For our final full day in Belfast, we started off at St. George’s Market, a Victorian covered market that has been in use since the 1890s. We left the chilly, breezy streets to enter a bustling conglomeration of food stalls, arts and craftsmen, and cafes. We admired the work of local artists while inhaling the rich scents of pasties, stews, coffee, and spices. There were smiling candy vendors and jovial cordial peddlers. I love anything with a faire-like atmosphere (quel surprise), and this market was no exception. Clayton bought one of the most delicious burgers I’ve ever tasted, and we purchased some black butter fudge, jelly babies (a weakness of mine), and coffee to sip as we walked. We took several turns around the market, which was so alive I feared we’d never see it all. Fishmongers shouted their prices on one end, a live band played in the center, and piles of spices bulged out of trays at the other.
Our next stop was City Hall, which we’d seen in passing several times but hadn’t yet managed to catch during opening hours. The building is Victorian in design, though the domed center reminds me of both Washington DC and Madison. On one side of the building, a memorial garden contains a plaque listing all the lives lost on the Titanic. As we approached the entrance, we noticed a heated protest outside the gates which included several Union Jacks, but we never found out what it was for as it had dispersed by the time we were back out.
Inside City Hall, there is an option for a guided tour of the building, but we opted for the free walkthrough of the history of Belfast exhibit. Honestly, it was far better put together than the Ulster Museum, and the exhibit laid out the history and socio-political past of Belfast much more clearly. We learned about the Belfast dialect and it’s clipped vowels and tendency to put verbs last (“It’s to Belfast they’re goin’!”) and the horrid conditions of the workers of the Industrial Age. The only allusion to the Troubles was a “reflection space” that constituted one brilliant white room, with grey writing on the walls of different quotes from both sides. These were more quotes from victims of the violence, and were powerful enough to evoke tears once again. We were surprised that there wasn’t more information, but given how recent these events were and the fact that City Hall is a political center, perhaps we shouldn’t have been.
In all, our time in Belfast was incredibly eye-opening to what it is like to live in an area where sectarian unrest is bubbling constantly beneath the surface. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for the people of Northern Ireland to live through those years of violence, uncertainty, and fear. We saw a Belfast full of hope and recovery, and can only pray that will continue. Learning about the troubled history of Belfast and connecting with it’s people, it’s particularly nail-biting to watch the Brexit debate in full swing, with heated discussions over a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. We can only hope that peace, love, and cool heads will prevail, resulting in a safe future so everyone can enjoy the beauty and culture of Northern Ireland without fear. Our host Antonia perhaps said it best – a city with one eye on the past is wise, a city with both eyes on the past is blind. I can only hope that the province continues on a path of healing and peace.