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No sleep till Belfast
An amazing city .
Your liver may take a bit of a battering .
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Well, it's my fiftieth review, and I feel that I owe you all some kind of landmark discourse. I'm aware that these are generally reserved for proper milestones, but my writing tends to be a bit sporadic and at that rate reaching the century could take years. You probably all can't wait that long. I asked a few members to give me suggestions as to what I should do, because I'm lazy and couldn't be arsed putting that kind of effort in myself. The best ideas were that I should do a review on Belfast (thank you lovely Louizalass) or that I should write about the five Ciaosters that I'd most like to go on holiday with (courtesy of the ever-gorgeous Susie191). As ever, I'll bastardise things a bit, but will have a go at remaining essentially true to those intentions.
Belfast is the town I was brought up in and as much as I may take the piss out of it, I love this city. In Irish it is Beal Feirste which means 'mouth of the river'. In this case, it's the river Lagan which up until a few years ago was a scum encrusted swamp which supported no recognisable life forms, but did spawn loads of bikes/old tyres/tampons. Thankfully, Belfast City Council saw fit to clean it up and now there are loads of trendy apartments and winebars overlooking it. Initially, trendy apartments and winebars catering to yuppies may sound like a bad thing, but you're forgetting the following magic formula:
Yuppies + (wine x sun) = yuppies falling into river
This leaves all the more Stella for me. Brilliant.
Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland and spans two counties: Antrim and Down. It's serviced by two airports: International (it's nowhere near Belfast. You have to drive for bloody ages before you get within striking distance of the city. Still, the roads there are mountainous and bendy and therefore suitable for Rally Ireland style driving which makes the time pass a lot more quickly) and City (it's been renamed 'George Best Airport' but only die hard Georgie fans and stupid Americans actually refer to it as such. Should you fly into City airport you'll find that the plane has to bank out over the sea to approach the teeny little runways. The difference between the temperature of the sea and the temperature of the land on a hot day will cause the plane to drop in a manner which will make you think death is imminent and will rupture the eardrums of every infant on the flight, causing a simultaneous cacophony of squealing. It's not the ideal introduction to the city, perhaps, but some would say a fitting one).
This isn't related to anything at all, but it's an entertaining wee aside. Urban myth has it that a few years ago Terry Waite flew into Belfast to give a series of talks around Ireland about his experiences. He got into a black taxi and drove off. As they were driving the following conversation took place:
Taxi Driver: You look familiar to me, mate. Have I had you in the cab before? Terry Waite: No, I don't think so. TD: You're Terry Waite, aren't you? The hostage? TW: Yes. TD: You sure you wouldn't be more comfortable in the boot?
This myth is so believable because it
Pictures of Essays
The Causeway Coast
encapsulates all that is great about Belfast people, namely, we'll talk to anyone and there is no event so traumatic, so jaw-droppingly awful that we can't take the piss out of it.
Belfast is mainly known for being a warzone, and whilst we were never reduced to carrying our own weapons and sandbagging ourselves into our houses each night, it was amusing to tell American tourists that we were. The 'troubles' as they were known (makes it sound like a brief squabble) lasted from the late 60s to the late 90s, however, the causes of the conflict reach back over centuries and are not a subject you really want to delve into without the aid of a degree in history and strong drink. At heart it was a dispute between Republican and Loyalist factions, but at various stages anyone who could construct an explosive device from a household object saw fit to jump on the bandwagon. The conflict arose largely because of Northern Ireland's uncertain political standing within the UK as a whole, and the fact that the Nationalist minority felt dispossessed and disempowered by the Loyalist majority (ably abetted by collusion from the RUC. This may sound like I'm taking sides, but there is little doubt that the RUC and Army were strongly linked to Loyalist paramilitaries, and indeed, were actively procuring weapons for them). The resultant punishment beatings, executions and bombing campaigns ghettoised large sections of the city for a number of years. By the end of the troubles between 3,500 and 4,000 people had died, meaning that almost everyone knew someone who'd been killed in the conflict.
Personally, I lived in a suburb of the city that was resolutely middle class. I do, however, remember vividly the daily occurrences which I accepted as absolutely normal which now seem to push the boundaries of the absolutely surreal. I remember walking home from the shop and being passed by two tanks. I remember sharing my chewing gum with the army officer stationed at the corner of my street. I remember being in the car one night and being told to keep my head down on the seat as we accelerated through a roadblock and wondering why men were shooting at our car. I remember listening to lists of the dead nightly on the evening news and barely raising an eyebrow. I remember being in work on the day of the Omagh bombing and watching those around me from the town frantically try to ascertain whether the people they loved were dead. Most of all I remember finding my mother crying one morning, and not knowing why. It emerged that the father of a family down our street had been executed the previous night by the IRA as he lay in bed with his wife. He had 6 children, who woke to see masked men wiping their father's blood off their weapons and their mother in such a state of shock that she was unreachable. His crime was that he worked for an English construction firm. His children went to my school, and they never recovered.
The Good Friday Agreement just about brought a close to the worst of the terrorist violence. However, most of the major players are alive and kicking, they've just turned their aggression towards their own communities. Foreigners never understand how certain communities in Northern Ireland can abhor the terrorist atrocities, and yet still embrace terrorist factions within their own community. This symbiosis is relatively easily explained. The paramilitaries, when not brutally murdering innocent people, were a far more effective police force than the RUC or PSNI could ever be. Got a problem with drug dealers outside your kids' school? Phone the local paramilitaries and the threat of a kneecapping will be enough to make sure they're never seen again. However, as the unlikely soothsayer Bob Dylan once suggested, to live outside the law you must be honest, because the law no longer affords you its protection. Vigilante justice, although swift, has repercussions that affect entire communities.
Slowly, Belfast has begun to recover, and to reinvent itself. The housing market is one of the strongest in the UK, cool bars and clubs are opening every week, multinational firms are investing and the engineering industries have begun to thrive again. Although the shipbuilding industry here will never regain its former glory, the twin cranes Samson and Goliath (at one time the largest in the world at 106 and 96 metres tall, respectively) still stand over the city like two sentinels. Hated and loved in equal measure, they are the monoliths of the city, and, for me at least, possess an odd and unforgettable beauty.
Anyway, it's probably best to leave history behind and move on to the good stuff. What will you do when you come to Belfast? Well, it offers something for nearly everyone. On this virtual Ciao tour the first guests will be Torr, RICHADA, Paul99ine, Louizalass and Koshkha. As discerning travellers, it's unlikely that these five will be satisfied with a piss-up before being sent home, hungover and nauseous (although more of that, later), therefore we'll do a quick tour of the major landmarks. Driving up the Falls and Shankill roads to see the murals should inform them in an expedient manner of the legacy left by the Troubles. Another aside, we once had an art specialist in the school who had done a dissertation on the artwork of the murals. He interviewed Republican paramilitaries and then moved on to investigating the Loyalist murals. In a meeting with a Loyalist paramilitary the following conversation took place:
Art specialist: I notice that Republican paramilitaries seem to focus on historical figures, whereas your group's are mainly of masked men. Loyalist paramilitary: Yes AS: Is that symbolic at all? Are you trying to suggest that you are guerrilla fighters? That you are the secret band of men who attempt to do what you see as justice for your community? LP: No. Erm, we haven't learnt how to do faces yet.
That done, we'll head to the Botanic Gardens for a walk. These occupy approximately 30 acres of Belfast. The gardens feature an astonishing range of flowers and trees, and a short walk brings you to the gorgeous glasshouse which is older than that at Kew. After that, we'll drive out of the city along the coast road to see the Glens of Antrim. There are nine in total, and the scenery is absolutely astounding. Also on the route is the Giants Causeway which was made when Ulster's very own giant, Fionn MacCumhaill picked a fight with a Scottish giant. The trip will be brought to a close with a visit to Bushmills, the world's oldest legal distillery. After two whiskeys, it's likely that Torr will have to physically restrain RICHADA from singing 'Danny Boy'.
The next visitors to my home town will be Soho_Black, Dudo_Perudo, Pink-Ice-Queen, Susie191, Ciaomeister, Brereton66 and Markd_uk. There'll be little point trying to educate them on matters of culture or history, as they're all a bunch of pissheads, so our first stop will be The Crown Bar. Located on Great Victoria Street this bar is owned and protected by The National Trust. The bar is tiled on the outside in highly intricate and decorative ceramic tiles, and has comfy booths surrounded by carved woodwork inside. They also offer a fine selection of all things alcoholic, which should keep the boys happy. Once we've all laughed at Dudo's hair and lack of ears we'll progress to Irene and Nan's in Brunswick Street. We'll be walking slowly, mind, as Brereton and Markd are older than time itself and can't keep the pace like they used to. It's at this juncture that we may lose Soho to the hordes of attractive young ladies, but it's alright, he knows where to find us. The night will be finished up in Morrison's Bar on Bedford Street, which has a great club upstairs on the weekend, has nice cocktails and is where everyone knows my name.
The next day I'll be in need of some food to soak up the excesses of the night before, which is where Amazingwoo, Sweary and Baalzamon come in. Breakfast will be in Rain City, a restaurant on the Malone Road whose staff have an unerring instinct for when you need coffee and a huge fry up. Also, my friend works there, so they'll not object when you sit for hours and get grease stains all over their newspapers. Lunch will be in Belfast Castle, which is situated halfway up Cave Hill in the north of the city and affords gorgeous views over the surrounding landscape. I'll be having a starter of deep fried Camembert with the Glenarm Salmon to follow. After that we'll progress to my mum's house which is just around the corner. There we'll sleep off lunch whilst she entertains us with random anecdotes and my stepfather looks on with the expression of a man possessed of the patience of a saint. Dinner will be in Cayenne, the restaurant owned by Paul Rankin. It's expensive, but I'll have stolen Dudo's wallet from the night before, so we'll be laughing all the way to the bank. Over a dinner of chilli squid and Strangford lobster we'll gently dissuade Baalzamon from talking too much about geeky computer games, console him with drink over his house buying troubles and marvel at the size of Sweary's marrows.
Once everyone's departed I'll head for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, who now owe me a fairly sizeable cheque in recognition of the PR work I've just done. Congratulations (or commiserations) if you got this far. Belfast is an amazing city and I hope I've answered the question posed by our motto, "Pro Tanto Quid Retribuamus" (what shall we give in return for so much?).
I've been in The Crown Bar!! Paul and I were over for a wedding at that Castle (Carrickfergus or something...) - we didn't have time for any sightseeing but we did have a recovery pint in the Crown Bar xx
lillamarta 27.01.2010 23:59
A lovely read and insight into Belfast I only visited once for a few hours... unfortunately only had time for a pit stop...