Author: David Wilkening

Travels Through Northern Ireland – Belfast, Northern Ireland

Travels Through Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland

There was a time when this city was best known for its connection to the “Titanic”. The ill-fated ship was built here. In more recent times the word most often associated with Belfast is “bombs”.

My own 84-year-old mother was among those concerned. “Are you sure it’s safe?” she asked the day before I left.

Memo to mom and other folks, I made it back safely to tell you: Belfast is not only safe, it’s thriving.

The tourists are coming back in record numbers and the available hotel rooms have tripled in just five years. Huge black cranes building hotels, restaurants and even offices are seemingly more common than seagulls, and the city’s finally getting around to putting up a museum to tell the world about the Titanic.

You won’t see British soldiers anymore. The police stations are now being built with windows, and the once-filthy Lagan River is so clean the salmon have returned, an event commemorated by a large riverside statute of a fish.

Tourism officials are hungry for visitors to replace the city’s once thriving industrial base that more than a century ago included shipbuilding and Irish linen-making. Belfast at one time had more people than Dublin.

In modern times, of course, it’s The Troubles that have characterized Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland.

“It’s a mixed blessing. The good news is that everyone knows Belfast, but often for the worst of reasons,” says Rosemary Connolly, a popular Blue Badge Tour Guide.

Connolly also points out that most Belfast residents went on with business as usual with little or no inconvenience from The Troubles, while the violent events here grabbed the world’s attention for decades.

The images pile up: bombed restaurants, hunger strikes, British soldiers shooting crowds, tear gassing tableaus, machine-gun menacing IRA members.

From the 1960s on, Protestants battled Catholics. This was not a religious war, however, but strife caused by a complicated mixture of economics, politics and patriotism stemming from pro and anti-British sentiments.

Casualties mounted up to more than 3,000 people, but there was only one reported tourist death from a bomb. Of course, there weren’t many tourists coming here in those days.

“Why would they want to come here other than to say they survived a trip to Belfast?” asks Connolly with the usual trace of Irish sardonic humor.

The period of unrest came to an end, partly with the help of US President Bill Clinton, when all sides signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The signs of the conflict still remain on walls throughout Northern Ireland (“Shankill will always remain British: No surrender”), and city guides often take visitors first to Falls Road and other sites made famous during the “period of unrest”.

Today, tourists can find many reasons for coming here: centuries-old castles, rocky seas and meandering coastlines, ancient buildings, a hearty nightlife and overall, the country’s long history. Those of us who remember The Troubles will also appreciate visiting firsthand what we used to see on the 5 o’clock news.

How safe is Belfast today? That’s always a difficult question to answer. Crime can be found anywhere, but Irish Tourism officials quote a United Nations study. It found Northern Ireland’s present-day crime rate lower than any country worldwide with one exception: Japan.

Its shipbuilding and linen-making past behind it, Belfast today has two airports, two universities, two cathedrals and even an opulent Grand Opera House with velvety red seats and gold elephant statutes.

Belfast, with a population of about 600,000, is not a huge city. But that makes it a fine place to walk where you can get anywhere downtown with a 10-15 minutes, through often wet stroll from City Hall in the heart of Belfast.

If you need another reason to visit Ireland: it’s like going down the street to see a first cousin. Many of our first US presidents such as Andrew Jackson were born in Belfast.

This is not a big city such as London or New York, offering endless things for tourists to do. But Belfast should not disappoint someone on a short trip (direct flights are available; I came here via Newark, NJ). And since Northern Ireland is a small country, day trips from Belfast are easily reached if you don’t mind navigating often narrow, winding roads.

During a five-day stay, among my activities was a revisiting of The Troubles, taking in a variety of literary sites and making a pleasant pilgrimage to “Saint Patrick’s country” and a visit to his grave. I braved chilling rain to walk along the roaring and romantic Irish coastline, visited Dunluce Castle, a romantic ruin that teeters on the sheer edge of a cliff, and spent more than one night in lively pubs such as Fibber McGee’s listening to sometimes mournful Irish music.

Dublin, twice the size of Belfast, is the Irish city most associated with Irish culture. There’s even a Writer’s Museum there. But Belfast has its own literary claims.

C.S. Lewis, perhaps the most famous writer in the world in the early to mid-20th century, lived and died here. Visitors can find his home and haunts, including statutes that amusingly label him as a “Christian Apologist”.

In addition to his religious themes, Lewis was the author of the Narnia books, which were dramatized in the recent movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Some tours trace the hauntingly beautiful Irish coast and countryside as inspiration for the author’s children’s writing.

Another person influenced by his surroundings was Van Morrison, who was born here and is a frequent visitor. You can find his home at 125 Hyndford Street.

The “brown-eyed girl” he sings about lived in this modest neighborhood. City officials wanted to mark the songwriter’s home with a billboard but the unassuming Morrison wanted only a small plaque.

In addition to culture, Northern Ireland has some important spiritual stops.

Millions of people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but how many know where he is buried? His church and grave, merely a large granite slab, are perhaps an hour’s drive from Belfast in the small town of Downpatrick, where there’s also an award-winning international cultural stop called St. Patrick Centre. Not much is known about St. Patrick, but today he is the most celebrated saint of any age.

He did not chase the snakes out of Ireland because there weren’t any, but he performed a much more valuable service. At a time when pagans worshipped the sun, the former slave came to Ireland sometime around 430 AD and spent the reminder of his life spreading Christianity throughout the country. He single-handedly kept the religion alive in Ireland.

Visitors also find many natural attractions in Northern Ireland. One of my favorite’s, only about an hour’s drive outside of Belfast, is the Giant’s Causeway, believed by many to be Northern Ireland’s most famous sight. It’s a series of 40,000 stone columns that form steps leading from the cliff and disappearing into the sea.

Geologists say this startling sight of crashing sea waves over mammoth sized rocks is the result of intense volcanic activity about 60 million years ago when molten rock poured over the landscape.

But the inventive Irish have a better story.

Legend has it the stones were created by two giants, the Irish Finn McCool and a Scotsman, Benandonner, who taunted each other from their respective shorelines, which are visible on clear days (which is not often).

Benandonner vowed to come to Ireland to fight his rival. Finn built a causeway of stones across the water but when the Irishman saw how big the crossing Scottish giant was, he had second thoughts. Finn’s inventive wife had a suggestion: hide him in a baby crib. The Scotsman arrived at his rival’s house to find him gone but was invited to have tea with Finn’s wife. When she showed him how big the “baby” was, Benandonner feared facing a grown version of this huge infant. The Scot giant fled back home and tore up the rocks on his trip to keep Finn from following him.

Another less natural site that seems inevitable on a visit to Northern Ireland — a place where it is sometimes said “God invented whisky so the Irish would not rule the world” — is the Old Bushmills plant. Licensed in 1602, it’s the world’s oldest licensed distillery. After an informative tour, visitors sample a wee drop of Old Bushmills, distilled three times to make it as smooth and mellow as an Irish tall tale about Finn McCool.