The Vastly Differing Faces of Belfast.
We have just returned from a trip to Belfast. I have been in Belfast for fleeting trips a short number of times down the years. So this time I gave it more time. In summary it is a city which is emerging from a long bleak period of convulsion. However that is now dissolving at least on the surface. It will take quite a while yet for the scars to heal but for a visitor it has a lot to offer. The reason for the visit at this time was to attend TG4’s Gradam Ceoil Awards. A friend of ours, a notable Roscommon musician and personality, Patsy Hanley was receiving a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ and a hard core of Roscommon traditional music followers were in attendance to applaud Patsy and show their support. It meant forsaking the ‘Trip to Thurles’ and the late match drama there!
The Waterfront and T.G. 4 Gradam Awards
We arrived in Belfast in the early afternoon. The city does not bustle on Sundays but it means that one can get ones bearings more readily in that environment. Accidentally we wandered into the City Hall Museum. Its exhibition showcased the city’s journey with different zones. It is hugely impressive with a catalogue of famous personalities who have been born in the city including writers, musicians, inventors and especially sports people. While I will not list that many here as I was not taking any notes the musicians included Van Morrison and James Galway; the sports icons were George Best, Alex Hurricane Higgins, Mike Gibson and boxers Freddie Gilroy, Johnny Caldwell and Rinty Monaghan, the poet Longley and many more. All other areas of endeavour were treated similarly and it needed much more time to absorb appropriately.
We met some friends and had a lovely meal in the ‘Coppie Restaurant’ in St. Anne’s Square. That night it was to Belfast Waterfront Theatre for the Gradams event. There we met John Wynne, John Carty, John Carlos and Tommy Guihan and Matt Molloy and the talk was not of music at this stage but of the drama in Thurles. The Waterfront is obviously a very new and modern centre and was crowded with a happy bustling crowd, there to celebrate the achievements of their friends and immerse in the best of traditional fare. The award to Patsy was presented by Matt Molloy, actor Stephen Rae to Colin Dunne and President Michael D. Higgins to Frankie Gavin. The whole show was being recorded and transmitted live by TG 4. The President received a great welcome and it was obvious the event itself, being in Belfast for the first time of four, was seen as a landmark event for the traditional community and the city. A little like the All-Ireland Fleadh when in Derry a few short years ago.
There was an after show party where people socialised and were happy until late hours.
The Shankhill and Falls Road Murals
Monday broke bright and dry and we set off on a ‘Black Taxi’ tour with guide Joe who had vivid experience of ‘The Troubles’. He laid his colours to the mast by saying that he was telling it as HE saw it and that became very obvious in a short time. We were taken to the Shankhill and stopped in front of a mural of King William on his white horse and raised sword as he advanced in the Battle of the Boyne. Joe shot down the idea of a white horse, the raised sword and the impressive figure. It was an extended history lesson and as a former history teacher I was aware of a good deal of it. We were encouraged to walk around the block to view a number of other gable murals such as Lt. Col. Bucky McCullough and the more sinister Stevie ‘Top Gun’ Mc Keag. The ‘Top Gun’ title was as a tribute to the fact that he was ‘credited’ as having killed more Catholic/nationalists than any other Loyalist gunman! The ‘Top Gun’ and name appendage seems to have been photo-shopped from some representations on the internet.
If one had the odd inclination to view these murals on the internet they are a chilling reminder of those terrible years when such appalling acts were regular.
After the Shankhill we were taken to the ‘Peace Walls’ as they are euphemistically called. These divide the two opposing communities. And to our surprise our guide told us that some were still being built! They consist of say 30 foot high concrete which were not able to defend from missiles being thrown over them so they added say 15 foot sheets of corrugated iron to which they had later to add say 10 feet of mesh fence. Even at that some houses close to the wall had to have their own meshed defence. There are still gates that are opened in the morning and closed in the evening.
After the Shankhill we were taken to The Falls area and the murals here were dominated by Republican imagery and especially the Hunger Strikers. Top of the league here is Bobby Sands with the signature ‘Poet, Gaeilgeoir, Revolutionary, IRA Volunteer’. The fact that he was also an M.P. is not used.
Our next stop was at the Bombay Street and Clonard Memorial Garden to dead Republican Volunteers and interestingly extends to the names of civilians killed by opposing forces of varying hues during the troubles. Bombay Street was a street gutted by Loyalists in the early days while Clonard Monastery was the home of Father Reid who was a very early peacemaker. There is so much history in these streets. We were told that there are many of these ‘Memorial Gardens’ throughout the city.
It is only as I write that the, despair, hatred and cruelty of what happened in many parts of Northern Ireland casts its depressing shadow. We here in Southern Ireland have no idea of what went on in places like The Falls Road and The Shankhill two areas so close to each other. An irony as well that it was mainly working class people who got caught up in the maelstrom. Progress might be mirrored by how long these murals-relics to wholescale killing- remain and that could be quite a while. It was good though that when I asked the guide if it could possibly reignite he was very confident that it would not. The new generation who basically know only peace now would not countenance it as a new mind-set and a new prospering environment shows Belfast in the positive light of prosperity and optimism. This is enriched by the huge growth in tourism and an outward perspective.
The Titanic Exhibition
The attraction which has the tourists flocking to Belfast is ‘The Titanic Experience’. It really is a magnificently presented exhibition. All facets of the great liner's short life are shown in detail by a varying array of modern technology. It is ironic I suppose that a city’s rebirth owes a great deal of emerging life to the death of its most famous ship. We were there for three hours but one could roster for another visit. It is divided into 9 segments; such as Boomtown Belfast of the Industrial Age/The Shipyard/ The Launch/ The Fit Out/ The Maiden Voyage/ The Sinking/ The Aftermath/ Myths and Reality/ and the Titanic remains on the sea bed. There are visitor stand-out elements during this such as a short cable- car-type swirl around the furnace and a stop where one feels like he is moving from one deck to another.
Coming shortly is another experience based on the hugely popular television series ‘Game of Thrones’ part of which is filmed in Northern Ireland but with its production headquarters in Belfast.
So I would certainly recommend a visit to Belfast perhaps away from peak season when cruise liners et all visit. Belfast is not a very large city and one can get to grips with it pretty quickly. Cost wise as someone I know says after (Southern) Ireland costs few places come across as very expensive. There is a boom in hotel building with some eight in the process. There were a number of things I might have done such as the city tourist bus ride, also the walking tour and so on. I had been lazy in my prep work so it would be advisable to research or enquire regarding the sights which would be recommended.
The Murals though kind of haunt me in a negative way.
Congratulations again to Paul Young and Cartoon Saloon for them winning at the Annie Awards in Los Angeles last week-end with their Best Animated Feature — Independent
Fortunes turned a full cycle for Boyle Celtic last week-end at Lecarrow when they lost 5 to 1 v St. Peter’s Athlone. Boyle had a very impressive similar win the previous week v Castlerea Celtic. This week there is a very important game in the Connacht Cup v St. Bernard’s of Galway City.