Returning to Belfast as a Tourist

I left Northern Ireland nearly twenty years ago and in my absence the place has been transformed by relative peace. Time, I decided, to revisit Belfast as a tourist.

It was raining as I arrived at Great Victoria Street bus station near the city centre. The Opera House looked as grand as it always did despite decades of strife on its stage doorstep. The Europa hotel was once infamous as the most bombed hotel in the world, she too has endured and towers above the melee below. Another defiant survivor is the ornate Crown Bar, restored to its former Victorian glory, its snugs now full of locals and tourists enjoying the craic.

My first ‘must-do’ was ‘Troubles tourism’ and I was met by my ‘Troubles tourism’ taxi driver. A friendly guy of the staunchly republican persuasion, he took me to a peace line that keeps catholic and protestant neighbourhoods apart, then gingerly we visited protestant loyalist heartlands via an impressive display of street murals. Picasso’s Guernica, Palestinian and Cuban Political Prisoners and perceived local injustices all inspire the artists of West Belfast. It felt a little uncomfortable, more than 3,600 people were killed and tens of thousands injured during the years of violence. Today ‘troubles tourism’ plays a role in the city’s economic revival, as visitors now flock to see the streets where rioting was once commonplace and even today the threat of violence is never far away.  (Photo of black taxi on Falls Road  – Siobhan Starrs)

Belfast bonfire

My one regret was not seeking out a unionist/loyalist/ protestant guide as I felt that I was just having my prejudices as a Northern Irish catholic confirmed in the company of my chatty genial driver with his republican prisoner past.  (Photo shows construction of July bonfire on Cupar Way – Siobhan Starrs)

The next day it was teeming (raining) as I headed into the city on the bus. As it was nearly lunchtime already I took shelter in another Belfast institution Kelly’s Cellars. Built in 1720 it is has changed little. I came in for some warmth and found it in the comforting bowl of Irish stew served with a pint for just £5.

Two huge yellow cranes dominate the skyline, recalling the city’s shipbuilding heritage. Named Belfast style after biblical giants, Samson and Goliath, they actually date from the late sixties (Goliath) and early seventies (Samson). They have become symbols of the city and the place wouldn’t be the same without them.

The centenary of the Titanic disaster in 2012 gave Belfast a chance to reclaim its place in the ship’s story. The new shiny ship-like building located just 100 metres from where the Titanic was built and launched, resembles four 27m (90ft) high ship hulls.

The interior is an impressive audio visual experience, immersing you in the story of the liner from its construction to its tragic sinking and the impact that had on the city.

One of the most poignant moments for me, was a story about two wee girls whose father was one of the engineers of the ship, they were told that he was ‘lost at sea’ and so they ran from street to street calling out in vain for their daddy.

Next to the Titanic Museum the last remaining White Star Line vessel in the world, The Nomadic, is berthed. After a century of wandering, The Nomadic returned home in 2006, and is now restored to its 1912 glory.

The Nomadic brought first class passengers out to the Titanic when the liner called at Cherbourg in Northern France on its ill- fated maiden voyage. It also served in both World Wars as a troop carrier and was a tender (passenger transfer) to some of the world’s most famous liners. Passengers have included Marie Curie, Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Later it spent some years in retirement as a floating restaurant on the Seine in Paris, before make its return voyage to Belfast.

As impressive as the Titanic museum is, this boat made me feel more connected to those who perished on the liner, who had sat on these benches, in these rooms, full of hope and expectation.

My links to this city are deep, my mother’s family are rooted here. My experience as a resident twenty years ago was one of discomfort, Belfast seemed uncomfortable in its own identity as a place of bombs, bullets and suspicion.

Today the city centre no longer closes at 6pm, its restaurants serve food to rival the gastropubs of London, it’s pubs are full of craic and often ceol (music). The people are friendly and welcoming. Peace suits Belfast.


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