Belfast: Little trouble

By Peter Calder

Belfast's grand and historical City Hall. Belfast's bloody past is not all that intrigues Peter Calder.

Belfast's grand and historical City Hall. Photo / Britain on View
Belfast's grand and historical City Hall. Photo / Britain on View

Belfast might seem a city shackled by its recent history. Not even Berlin, the would-be imperial capital of of the Third Reich and the hard centre of Cold War suspicion, is so burdened. The very name of Belfast conjures up visions of thugs in khakis and black balaclavas, of pipe bombs exploding in crowded pubs.

But the city is breaking free of those shackles. The beating heart of Northern Ireland - the northeast corner of the Emerald Isle whose membership of the UK has spared it the worst of the economic meltdown affecting the republic to the south - is much more than the 30 years of sectarian strife that is referred to as "the Troubles".

Indeed, one of the most striking things for a visitor is how difficult it is to trace the archaeology of the conflict. It was a war that consumed the whole province - there's scarcely a town in Ulster that doesn't have its sad story to tell - but in Belfast you have to go looking for it.

It's only a short taxi ride to Falls and Shankill roads, former republican and loyalist strongholds respectively, in West Belfast. The two streets are still separated by the infamous high "peace fence", designed to stop petrol bombs being thrown into neighbouring yards although these days it's mostly notable for the wall below festooned with the felt-tip wisdom of tourists: "Kia tau te rangimarie"; "Love each other"; "G'day from Wagga Wagga".

Plenty of cabbies will, for a few quid, give you a guided tour and a version of what went down between 1969 and 1998, including the senseless loss of life - the official toll tops 3500 - on both sides.

I was impressed by the locals' receptiveness to querulous visitors. They seemed at least indifferent to my interest in sites of specific horrors.

But the city has many more stories to tell. A major commercial and industrial centre during the Industrial Revolution, it was Ireland's largest city for a few years at the end of the 19th century. The world's leading producer of linen at the time, it was dubbed "Linenopolis" and huge fortunes were made when Belfast filled the gap in the market caused by disruptions to the supply of cotton reaching Europe from the New World during the American Civil War.

Belfast also grew rich processing tobacco from Virginia, but much of her wealth was based on the sea: ropemaking and shipbuilding. The massive shipyards of Harland and Wolff turned out more than 150 ships between 1860 and 2000, among them the White Star's RMS Titanic - a grim joke that has entered Belfast folklore has it that "she was all right when she left here. That's what happens when you have an English captain, a Scottish navigator and a Canadian iceberg".

Today, the abandoned shipyard is in the slow process of becoming the Titanic Quarter, a leisure and residential docklands development that will turn Belfast's dingiest neighbourhood into its most sparkling and desirable.

In the meantime, the city's greatest charms are to be found in its established centre.

The Linen Hall Library was established 222 years ago by members of the artisan - not merchant - class "to improve the mind and excite a spirit of general enquiry". Most fascinating is its complete collection of all the handbills and posters created during the Troubles.

The magnificently named Hugh Odling-Smee meets me on the steps of the library. An actor and theatre producer, he also runs a business taking literary walking tours of the city. It doesn't need to be highbrow. You can take in the Ulster Hall on Bedford St, which was where Led Zeppelin first played Stairway to Heaven live.

But Odling-Smee is at his actorly happiest when standing on the pavement declaiming excerpts of great literature. Facing the depressing Castle Court shopping centre, he quotes Padraic Fiacc remembering the Belfast souk of Smithfield Market, which once stood on this site, and the toll taken by bombings during the Troubles.

Not a minute too soon we fetch up at the Crown Liquor Saloon, a fabulous Irish pub because there's not a Guinness mirror in sight or any Dubliners playing on the sound system. The pub, in Great Victoria St, claims to be the most beautiful bar in the world. It's the perfect end to a perfect Belfast day.

CHECKLIST

Further information: See belfastliterarytours to find out more about literary walking tours of Belfast.

Peter Calder explored Belfast with the support of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Cathay Pacific.

- Herald on Sunday

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