Belfast Europe Ireland Northern Ireland

Belfast: Industrial University City Chocked Full of History

It’s been a bit since we’ve had much to write about. We’ve spent much of the summer at home in Portugal, enjoying the (mostly) beautiful, albeit hot, weather. But our return to exploring began in Ireland and, more specifically, began in Belfast. We landed in Dublin and enjoyed a beautiful drive north as the late summer sun was waning and arrived just as it was beginning to dip down below the horizon around 10pm.

Belfast is the largest city in Northern Ireland, Ulster County and the second largest city on the island of Ireland. Depending on who you ask, and you may want to be careful if you’re asking, you’ll either hear you’re in the United Kingdom (as is internationally recognized) or Ulster County of Ireland. Belfast was a hopping industrial city during the industrial revolution. During this period, Belfast’s linen mills were leading producers of cotton. Today, only one remains standing (source), due to the bombings which took place during “the Troubles”. More on this later…

Our first day, we set off to visit the history of the Titanic. Around the same time that Belfast was a leading force in the cotton industry, it was also the site where the ill-fated ship was built. Beginning construction in 1909, White Star Lines, and the 3,000 laborers working to build her, took three years to complete it and the Titanic set sail for New York City from Belfast on April 10, 1912 via Southampton England, Cherbourg France and Queenstown Ireland. And you don’t have to be a Leonardo DiCaprio or a Kate Winslet fan to know the rest. The Titanic Experience Museum, is worth a visit and recounts the history of Belfast in the era of her construction, the construction itself, her journey from departure through sinking and aftermath to her discovery in the 1980s. You ascend through the modern structure, the height of the Titanic itself, as you experience this journey in a multi-sensational, excellently designed museum; one of the best we’ve ever visited. You may need to purchase tickets in advance during high season and can do so on the museum link above. For more info on the Titanic, click here. Also in the Titanic Quarter, at Titanic Studios, was the studio in Northern Ireland where HBO filmed Game of Thrones. GoT fans we are, but we missed the studio on our brief time here (though we did make a small tour of a couple of rural filming locations).

But while Titanic is a massive bit of Belfast’s history, Belfast is most famous, especially for those of certain generations, for the “Troubles”. On our second full day in the city, we struck out on the mural tour of West Belfast and the Troubles. I’m old enough to remember the news stories of the Troubles and always associated Belfast with bombings and violence in the streets. I also quite remember the 1998 “Good Friday Accords” peace deal. There are several options for hearing about this period of Belfast and Ireland’s history. You can take a “Black Cab” Troubles Tour or a “Loyalist Tour”. We chose the Murals Walking Tour advertised in the brochure of the Feile Festival, a two-week music, games and arts festival for which we just happened to be in town. (This particular tour is done three times per week normally or daily during the Festival). If you’re looking for an unbiased perspective, its pretty likely you won’t get one, regardless of your tour selection. When we visited Dublin, the events surrounding Irish independence feel like older history but here, the memories are very recent and still raw. Some of the murals depict events or honor people from the 1920s, 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s but others depict ongoing struggles.

Our tour took place during Europe’s summer 2022 heat wave and was led by Jack Duffy, a self-described socialist, “human rights activist”, Republican (of the Irish kind) and former member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). What was advertised as a three-hour tour, extended through a fourth, as Jack certainly has the renowned Irish gift of gab. And while not unbiased, it was a fascinating deep dive into the history of the area, the troubles, the prison hunger strike of 1981 and the politics from a Republican perspective. As you cross over the M1 highway on to Falls Rd. you get the distinct feeling you’re not in Royal-loving land anymore as evidenced by the absence of the Union Jack, the plethora of Irish flags, preponderance of Gaelic on the signage and a “welcome to Ireland” greeting tossed our way by a local resident of Divis Tower, where our tour began. It was long, hot and fascinating and totally worth the £26 price for 2 (Guinness included at the end for those with the stamina to make it to the conclusion).

Belfast today is a modern, yet still conflicted, city. Straddling the River Lagan where it pours out to sea, Belfast is an industrial and University town. We stayed on the south side off of trendy Ormeau Road in a row house townhome right near Belfast’s oldest park, Ormeau. There are lots of hotels downtown, including the world’s most bombed hotel the now peaceful Europa (source) but we prefer to stay in the neighborhood and this one was perfect.

We capped our visit to Belfast at Crown Liquor, the oldest bar in Belfast. If Falls Road was Republican territory, The Crown is, as the name suggests, Loyalist land. It was a great spot to end our time in this super interesting and still conflicted city.

Our friend Svenja joins us in Belfast for 1/3 of our trip.

And I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention that Led Zeppelin first performed “Stairway to Heaven” live in Belfast. Despite death threats and the dangers of performing live in Belfast during the 70s, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham and John Paul Jones went ahead and played here anyway, performing the classic rock anthem here for its live debut. Now that’s something to get a bustle in your hedgerow about.

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