Belfast has an appeal that is both grim and heart stirring. The only city in Ireland to experience the full force of the Industrial Revolution, this enterprising city with its shipbuilding, linen, rope making and tobacco industries — grew wealthy as a result. Evidence of this prosperity looms large in the form of churches, banks and remarkable public buildings like the Renaissance-styled City Hall.
But Belfast is more than this handsome, built-up quality. It’s a city with a story to share. A city that like a Phoenix has risen above the ashes of rebellion, historical clashes and sectarian troubles between the Protestant and Catholic groups that took place here.
Today university pubs overflow with students and optimism. The glitterati and literati frequent swish shops along Donegall Square. Families throng the botanical gardens. Tourists photograph regulars who are permanent fixtures at the Crown Liquor Salon that dates back to the 1880’s and shot to fame as the setting for the film Odd Man Out.
A friendly local informs you that the panels in this bar were originally made for Brittanic, the sister ship of Titanic, also built in Belfast. The bartender looks ready for a chat; only you are eager to join a group of friends on a visit to the Grand Opera House. On your way out, a troupe of students from Queen’s University pour in for a stag party. Hope floats in the air like a fragrance you look forward to catching.
Perhaps as compelling as the city’s resilience is how much of a cultural hub it is. Wherever you look, you’ll find some provoking cultural artefact waiting to be pursued. Homes, workplaces, schools, shops, churches and halls — all tell stories of people who lived, worked and worshipped in them.
The “Peace Lines” are a series of separation barriers ranging in length from a few hundred yards to over three-miles, separating Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. For instance, Catholic Falls Road and Protestant Shankill Road are dotted with walls on which large impassioned murals and painted texts express religious and political sentiments. Built once to minimise violence, they now keep grim memories alive.
Similarly, when you look around your feet in Writer’s Square opposite the Church of St. Anne, you’ll see several political inscriptions gazing up at you, provoking you to think, demanding your attention. The one I’m standing on says quoting Robert Lloyd Praeger who lived between 1865 and 1953, “Ireland is a very lovely country indeed, there is only one thing wrong with it, and that is that the people in it, don’t have the common-sense to live in peace with one another and their neighbour.”
The peace process may have now borne fruit. The fighting may officially be over. But what lingers are reminders of the past. Perhaps it is these very reminders that keep people pushing on towards the bright future that is being built even as I write this. That urges forward Belfast’s new leisure and art developments on the banks of the river Lagan. That causes the yellow cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyards, east of the river, to beam their approval. Which is why when I see a hopeful rainbow lighting up the sky, above the politically motivated murals painted on walls, I feel that life here has finally come full circle.