Becoming Belfast: Street Art, a Difficult Past and a Titanic Zest for Life

Northern Ireland's capital bares its soul through political tours, whiskey-splashed saloons and the grand Titanic museum.  
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There’s plenty of craic in Belfast, in the little snugs at Crown Liquor Saloon (left); nursing a glass of beer, or on walks spent mural-spotting (right) in the Cathedral Quarter. Photo Courtesy: Tourism Northern Ireland (saloon); Photo By: Kareena Gianani (murals)

The voice announcing the 30-minute delay of my train from Dublin to Belfast sounds so desperately apologetic, so regretful, that I feel sorry for him.

“But it has never happened,” murmurs the woman, about 80, sitting across my seat. Her name is Clare O’Connell and she’s dressed in a white sweater. Her copper-dyed hair sits sleek, a bit like Fleabag’s bob. When she speaks, time-doodled lines on her face leap and dip like a conductor’s baton, livening up tales about that trip to remote regions of Northern Ireland that the Belfast-born took 62 years ago. She has seen it all, the enchanted lands beyond Donegal, where whales would wash up on the beach in the morning, salty wind buffeting her everywhere. She’d be late all the time, because people would pop out of their cottages to chat with her, telling her about that little bar where the gin was to die for. “I went to local dances and lived in a caravan rented by a farmer. When we parted he gifted us sheepskin rugs from the animals he’d sheared,” smiles Clare.

But in her 30s, Clare watched as Northern Ireland (NI) radically transformed during The Troubles, a rather euphemistic term for the violent conflict between the Protestants in the majority who wished to remain part of the U.K., and the Catholic Republicans who wanted the region to be part of the Republic of Ireland. Violence raged between 1968 and 1998, killing almost 4,000 people, injuring over 30,000, and scarring the collective psyche of the region. Clare, who had then moved to Dublin with her husband, had to regularly cross the border to meet her ailing mother—dreadful rides spent clutching the steering wheel and her heart. Once, in 1970, she crossed the border customs at dusk and saw cars going up in flames. Petrified, she abandoned hers. “Then there was my best friend who barely spoke to me because she married a Protestant man who didn’t approve of us. I thought Belfast would never be happy again.”

 

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Galleries inside the Titanic Belfast museum (left, bottom) provide a sensory experience of the ship’s tale. The last few rooms narrate poignant stories of its passengers and survivors, while giant screens show visitors the ship’s wreck in the Atlantic (top). Photo Courtesy: Titanic Belfast

Dancing to Irish Beats

Until I met Clare, my Irish journey had been a blurry montage of tap-dance parties and storytelling sessions in Dublin’s bars; feasting on the hearty Dublin coddle, shopping for leprechaun souvenirs, and driving across the brooding bogs and castles of Connemara. In Galway, I picked up puns on local fish (Galway hooker) and Ed Sheeran’s infatuation with a tabletop-dancing “Galway Girl.” At night, I’d order pints of dark-as-hell Guinness and sway with strangers, watching students from a local college play the most soulful fiddle and Irish bagpipes.

I had pictured Belfast as a city both on the mend and on the edge of an ugly change—The Troubles had ended only 20 years ago, and now the region was already bracing itself for Brexit. In 2012, Belfast took another painful memory and turned it into art: R.M.S. Titanic was built right here, along Belfast’s harbour, before it sunk in 1912. Exactly a century later, across that very spot, the grand Titanic Belfast museum was opened. It swiftly turned Belfast’s tourism fortunes; the city is no longer content to be a pit stop for those on their way to the rugged north.

 

Bustle, Bite, Repeat

Mixing and melting into the dimness of Clare’s stories are the colours of Belfast’s plentiful present, and I am hurled into it when I step out of my hotel, into St. George’s Market on East Bridge Street. Built between 1890-96, the red-brick building booms with voices of stall owners and live music. I can’t help but feel buoyed; this place is like that jolly friend with the big laugh, whom you count on to bring booze and cake and gossip to the party. I see shiny, rotund buns that make my belly rumble, cupcakes the colour of acid dreams revolving on tiered trays at Dezurts, raspberry-stashed scones, and even fleece coats for doggies. Some meditatively finger vinyls at Andy Paraskos, others waltz between bubbling pots of coffee and pans steaming with chorizo and seafood paella. The Lazy Goose churns out its famous Ulster fry—bacon, sausage, black pudding, mushrooms, beans, egg, and the Northern Ireland staple, soda bread. My knees weaken around a shop selling Turkish treats, but it’s at Belfast Bap Co. where I stuff myself with everything you should on a fine Saturday morning: a bap is a mighty, toasty bun stuffed with bacon, sausage and egg—rich enough to stop my heart.

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Days in Belfast swing between stories of its past and present: the grande-dame-like City Hall where tours are free (top), trips to the Ulster Museum (middle right) for a shot of wonder, and a drive to the Peace Wall in a black taxi (middle left). A fitting end? Stout glasses of Guinness and live music at Whites Tavern (bottom left); Feast on the famous Belfast bap at St. George’s Market (bottom right). Photos By: Lou Armor/Shutterstock (city hall); Joe Fox/Agefotostock/Dinodia photo library (black taxi); Photo Courtesy: Tourism Northern Ireland (woman sewing); Photo Courtesy: Tourism Northern Ireland (musicians); Ariya J/Shutterstock (food stall); Kareena Gianani (Joe Watson)

Museum of Memories

I walk it off in the 30 minutes it takes me to reach the Titanic Quarter, across the footbridge over River Lagan. Belfast’s old shipbuilding yards have dusted off the past and reincarnated as a quarter that showcases the city’s maritime history, including several Titanic-related sites.

The quarter’s North Star is the dazzling aluminum building shaped like four giant ships’ bows—the Titanic Belfast museum. But it is the little details here that add to what I already know of the Titanic thanks to the Leonardo-and-Kate film I’d sobbed over in school. For instance, the height of the building’s four ‘bows’ is the same as the ship’s. And the benches outside the building are arranged in the Morse code sequence the ship sent out after hitting the iceberg.

Titanic Belfast is a place to feel and breathe the ship’s whole story, not just its sinking. The first gallery takes me to Belfast’s golden days in the early 1900s, when its shipbuilding, linen, rope and tobacco industries made fortunes even as the workers lived in difficult conditions. The stage was set for the Titanic to be built.

The second gallery is the museum’s most riveting. The Shipyard Ride’s six-seater cart takes me around the gantry where the Titanic was built from scratch. Bangs and clangs fill my ears; red and yellow lights gleam as I descend through a dark ‘shipyard,’ watching videos of how the ship’s skeleton was built—three million rivets hammered by hand! I get to see and feel what the workers saw back then. Later on the floor above I peer through glass at luxurious first-class and smaller second- and third-class cabin replicas, complete with ghost-like projections of their occupants. I am haunted by stories of passengers, of Wallace Henry Hartley, the bandmaster who played music on the deck to soothe passengers while the ship was sinking. There’s even a long note scribbled by second-class passenger, Esther Hart, to her mom, complaining of seasickness and boredom. “Heaps of love and kisses to all from Eva,” reads the sign-off in the same letter from Esther’s seven-year-old daughter. I know exactly what happens to most of these people, but the galleries make me hope for a different ending.

Air as cold as doom grips me when I enter the next, darkened gallery. Water-like projections ripple beneath my feet. Beeps play on loop: the last distress calls from the ship in Morse code. Large screens show chilling images I’ve seen recreated in numerous documentaries and Spielberg’s film—the Atlantic swallowing the Titanic. The room is filled with the voices of the passengers who survived: “I’ll never forget the sight of the cold greenish seawater… rising step by step up that stairway…”

The museum’s last exhibit is a large screen that plays footage of the Titanic in its final resting place, green-grey and ghoulish. The videos are provided by explorer Robert Ballard who helped discover the wreck. Kids around me happily tap interactive screens and as I glance at my feet, the bow where Leonardo and Kate held hands glides by.

Towards Peace

The next morning, Desi Hans, my guide, shows up in a very-London, spiffy black taxi. “Let’s show you what peace in Belfast looks like,” he chirps.

It takes a mere eight-minute drive from St. George’s Market to West Belfast’s working-class residential areas. There’s a Sunday-sloth about the place—in the empty bars, shops whose bells yawn more than they tinkle, cosy brick homes with Halloween pumpkins and vampires skulking around their windows. But something here isn’t quite normal: everywhere I go there are 20-foot walls dividing the nationalist Catholics areas from the loyalist Protestant ones. Walls made of stone or brick, topped with barbed wire and metal fences to protect people from projectiles from either side.

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Great pubs, whiskey shops and good mood ring in Commercial Court’s cobbled alleys. Photo By: Michele Oenbrink/Alamy/Indiapicture

This bewildering partition is the Peace Wall, a series of walls ranging from a few yards to several kilometres, first built when the riots began in 1969. “They were supposed to be temporary structures, but they never came down,” says Desi, as we drive on Falls Road, a Catholic neighbourhood that saw intense riots that year. Every corner of every street is covered by political graffiti—I spot bold murals declaring support for Palestine, and later Nelson Mandela, the Tamil Tigers, Kurds, Catalonia—the list goes on. On one mural, Aung San Suu Kyi’s face is crossed out in blood-red paint (after the Rohingya ethnic cleansing). The smiling, dimpled face of Bobby Sands, a hero among the nationalists and member of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army, is at the centre of many pieces. In a flash, I am reminded of the graphic portrayal of his life and his death in the 1981 hunger strike from Steve McQueen’s brilliant film, Hunger (2008).

To my puzzlement, I notice steel gates in the wall—and they are open, revealing the Protestant area of Shankhill Road. “Oh yes, you can cross the walls during the day, but the cops shut them in the evening. I know the guy who does it,” smiles Desi. I ask him whether I’d be safe walking around here later, and he nods. “Totally safe. Paramilitary groups control areas, but they maintain peace.” We drive through one such gate. The Protestant side looks just like the Catholic’s until I begin to notice the murals—there’s support for Israel, large detailed artwork dedicated to the Queen. And come summer, you can easily tell one neighbourhood from the other by how many homes here put out the Union Jack to vow their allegiance. We pass Alexandra Park, perhaps the only garden in western Europe divided by a wall.

I ask Desi what it all means to him, someone who has seen The Troubles, and now lives among these walls. “I wish I could say these walls mean nothing, but they do. People do feel safer. Once you’re in the city centre, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Protestant or Catholic. But here it does. Ninety per cent of kids in Belfast study in segregated schools.”

At the end of my tour, he takes me to the International Wall, to the spot where Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton left messages, where there is an interpretation of Picasso’s “Guernica.” The wall is covered in scribbles. Desi hands me a marker. “Strength and Wisdom Are Not Opposing Values,” reads Clinton’s message. I think for a bit, and all I manage is, “Towards Peace.”

Desi looks at it and smiles. “These walls almost feel normal to me because I grew up with them, but it is important to recognise that they aren’t normal. Not in a civilised world.”

 

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It wouldn’t be wise to leave St. George’s Market without noshing local specialities like Ulster fry and soda bread. Photo By: Sergi Reboredo/Alamy/Indiapicture

Becoming Belfast

Returning to the city centre, I find a starkly different Belfast. I start at the baroque City Hall, pass Europa (which looks pretty normal for a place infamous as the world’s most bombed hotel) and finally reach the Cathedral Quarter. It is no slouch when it comes to throwing parties with an outpouring of local gin and quicksilver charm. “Hustle Now Sleep Later, My Lad,” a graffiti message advises me. Live music washes over me when I walk into Duke of York, all old brick walls, gleaming wood, and mirrors advertising whiskey. The barman hands me my beer and tells me how the Cathedral Quarter was the place of hacks and literary figures—a satirical newspaper in the 19th century was based here; three newspapers are around even now. The John Hewitt pub nearby was named after the famous local socialist poet, and still has quotes by famous writers carved in stone. I slip into Crown Liquor Saloon at Amelia Street, and see—nah, taste—why it is Belfast’s beloved. Stained glass, gunmetal plates for striking matches, and snugs to disappear into with a stout glass of Guinness—Crown will never ditch its 19th-century garb. That night, when I hear the curious sound of dhols in the street, and see Irish kids in Halloween costumes dancing with Mexican performers celebrating the Day of the Dead, I see how the world can come together in Belfast.

Essentials

Flights between Delhi/Mumbai and Belfast require at least one stopover, in London. Indians need a U.K. visa to visit Northern Ireland (vfsglobal.com). Those entering Belfast from the Republic of Ireland must apply for an Irish visa under the British-Irish Visa Scheme (BIVS), which allows travellers to visit both Ireland and the U.K. on a single visa.

Where Walls Speak

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Tour guide Joe Watson was a former political prisoner, and relived his life story with his travel group. Photo By: Kareena Gianani

Coiste Tours For deeper insight into Belfast’s political history and murals, sign up with Coiste Tours, whose guides were activists during The Troubles. My guide, Joe Watson (above) was a former political prisoner, and relived his life story with our group. We walked around West Belfast, including Bombay Street, where houses were burned down during the 1969 riots; and Shankill Road, where the murderous gang of Shankill Butchers left some of their victims’ bodies. The walk ended in Milltown Cemetery where Bobby Sands is laid to rest (coiste.ie).

Seedhead Arts Walking Tour Street art is the toast of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter; every corner I turned into has modern graffiti that filled my spirit with colour. On High Court Street, a mural of a chef holding a plump, orange lobster held my gaze; every line around his frown, every crease in his chef’s whites so crisp that I felt he’d stir any second. There is stencil graffiti, street art inspired by Game of Thrones and Celtic mythology. Artworks in the quarter are all about having young local and foreign artists experiment with their medium and message.

Adam Turkington of Seedhead Arts conducts tours in the quarter. “In Belfast the narrative is pretty binary. It is either all about The Troubles and political murals, or the establishment telling you ‘Look at all the cool food we have; we’re like everyone else now’.” Adam showcases visitors how important outsider art is to the city. Belfast’s street art scene, he told me, is a response to the century-old mural tradition of Northern Ireland, when tribes demarcated territories with drawings.

His favourites include “The Son of Protagoras” on 21 Talbot Street by French artist MTO. It shows a red-haired man holding a bloody dove struck by two arrows—believed to depict how religion has maimed peace in the region (www.seedheadarts.com).

  • Kareena Gianani is Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.

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