Impressions and expectations of visiting Belfast and Northern Ireland:
After experiencing the charm and warmth of Dublin and the Republic of Ireland we were keen to see what Belfast and the North would offer. In many ways my expectations of Belfast have been clouded by the media and culture I grew up in. It was never somewhere we could have ever imagined visiting when we were kids given the tension. We even know many who served over there during The Troubles and their stories are harrowing to say the least.
One thing I wasn’t expecting was for it to feel like a totally different country to Ireland. OK, I knew they were and sure, Dublin at times did feel a little different to home but not totally foreign. But Belfast really did feel a million miles away from Dublin and made the republic feel very European in comparison. Maybe part of it is the familiar things from home such as street signs, but I never expected that upon the same small island there to be such a contrast…but that’s what is fascinating about these two countries.
So having only been in Vienna a couple of weeks before, the culture and atmosphere could not be much further apart, but that is what makes Europe such a great place to explore! Belfast has a beauty to it of a different nature to that of the traditional notions of places like Vienna. Belfast has true heart, it has no façade or trickery, it is what is it and it’s damn proud of that!
Some history and background:
Following on from the Irish War of Independence between 1919-21 the Northern Irish State is created and remains under British rule with Belfast as its capital. In 1968 the Nationalist begin to protest the rule of Stormont as bias toward the Unionist and the British army move in, thus beginning the period known as “The Troubles”
The Troubles officially lasted from 1968 until the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 (30 years), but violence did continue until the early 2000’s.
Some of the key events during the troubles include the December 4th UVF bombings of 1971 which killed 15 people including 2 children. Then comes the infamous “Bloody Sunday” were 14 unarmed civilians are shot dead during a Civil Rights march in Derry by the British Army. In July 1972 was “Bloody Friday” were 9 people died in Belfast due to 21 IRA bombs detonating across the city.
Another major event was the death of Bobby Sands alongside 9 other IRA prisoners in 1981 who had their political prisoner status removed and so were allowed to die during their Hunger Strike. In 1988 3 IRA members were killed in Gibraltar and loyalist Michael Stone killed 3 mourners at their funerals during a gun and grenade attack. Two British army corporals are ambushed by a mob and shot by the IRA at their subsequent funerals.
The Good Friday agreement is signed in 1998 to give a power sharing agreement to the Northern Irish parliament and the removal of British troops from the country. However in August that year 29 people are killed by a bomb in Omagh by IRA dissidents
Things to do in Belfast:
Titanic Museum and Quarter
The area around here has a really energetic feel, on a gloriously sunny day sitting on the newly built decking by the harbour is simply wonderful. It feels very much like an area in transition but at the same time still retains it’s authenticity and industrial character.
The museum is an impressive building which juts into the skyline like the bow of the gigantic ship herself. We had a great time exploring the rides, interactive displays and exhibitions within the centre but it did feel a little on the expensive side and we were disappointed by the lack of relics from the ship in display.
Over on the docks which is about 1.3 miles from city hall, take buses 26, 26b or 26c.
January – March 10am – 5pm Daily
April – May 9am – 6pm Daily
June, July, August 9am – 7pm Daily
September 9am – 6pm Daily
October – December 10am – 5pm Daily
Child (5-16): £7.25
Titanic Dry dock and Pump house
The sheer work and technology that went into making this dock at the time was state of the art and the pump house had the capacity to move vast volumes of water in and out of the huge cavern in record times. The scale of the dock and pump house equipment is a testament to the power of Victorian/ Edwardian engineering and the workforce of Belfast.
Belfast City Hall
Completed in 1906 this Baroque Revival building sits in the heart of Belfast and is one of the city’s most important and impressive buildings. The area around the Hall has been the heart of Belfast long before it was constructed having housed the White Linen Hall.
In 2012 it was the centre of some controversy when the City Council voted to limit the flying of the Union flag to 18 designated days. The flag had previously been flown everyday since 1906 and this change upset many of the Loyalists in the city. The evening of the vote a group of both protesters tried to storm the hall and other groups around the country became violent.
Saturday – 2pm and 3pm.
Albert Memorial clock
Samson and Goliath
These Harland and Wolff cranes have long since seen their glory days but they are still very much part of the remaining working docks of present day Belfast. As such there is only so close that you can get but standing underneath the 315 ft and 348 ft tall cranes you really get a sense of their enormity! It would be awesome one day when they are no longer in service if visitors could ascend to the top!
Murals and Peace wall
The murals and peace wall are an important and unique feature of Belfast, there are so many of them and with such fascinating and sometimes horrific stories behind them that we are planning on doing a separate longer post too. But a guide to Belfast would be lacking if they were not included!
The murals are spread around the city and it would take forever to search them all out, but the main and most important are situated on the Falls Road, Shankill road and Newtownards Road. The murals actually cover a wide breadth of topics including sports, Titanic and the general legacy of the city. However they are most well known for their political themes and that was what we really wanted to see.
Once you venture into these areas of the city, which are inner city suburbs you get to the real heart land of The Troubles and the different “sides” of this city really makes themselves known. The centre feels mostly quite neutral but once you step on to The Falls Road there’s no mistaking the fact that you are in republican turf. Road signs turn to Irish and the tricolour is flying high from almost every house. Murals such as the memorial to Bobby Sands are of particular significance and evidence of the atrocities committed on these streets are plain for all to see.
The murals themselves however are very much respected among each group and are a way, not only to differentiate which area of the city you are in, but to display an identity each community has in a way which doesn’t involve violence (despite the often depicted AK47!). To see children walking past painting of men wearing balaclava and holding up rifles is a strange thing, I guess the idea is to instil within each generation their identity but also to never forget what happened.
Victoria Square Shopping centre
Now, forget the shops and all that rubbish, the thing to go and see in here is the dome! It’s open to the public for free via a lift or spiral staircase and offers panoramic views over the city! At night it can it is lit up blue and the skyline becomes a trippy, twinkling delight! It’s a great place to head up to and chill out as well as scoping out where to venture to next! Often earlier on in the day a guide will be up here too!
The area is continuing to be developed, somewhat controversially, but still retains that character many of these alternative quarters in city’s around the world have lost to commercialisation. This outdoor art gallery and cultural hub is great to explore and alongside the Murals just shows how creative and artistic Belfast is!
Roughly situated between Royal Avenue near where the Belfast Central Library building is, and the Dunbar Link in the city centre. From one of its corners, the junction of Royal Avenue, Donegall Street and York Street, the Cathedral Quarter lies south and east.
Stormont Parliament building
Opened by King Edward VIII on 16th November 1932 it signalled a massive change in the way that Northern Ireland was ruled over and became the first permanent place for the newly formed parliament to be held. The vast estate that the building stands in provides an impressive view leading up the steep road towards the entrance.
Visiting is free and they do offer tours twice a day. We turned up late on in the day but some of the guards still took us around all the public areas which was wonderful, their enthusiasm and knowledge made the bus trip worth it! To get in however you have to go through airport style security and be given a visitors badge, police presence is also quite high!
The inside of the building are quite ornate and grand but yet also a lot smaller than expected. The two main halls in which the party leaders sit and debate are open to visit and feel quite intimate. One of the unique elements of the NI parliament is the power sharing assembly which is reflected by the horseshoe shaped connected benches.
Free twice daily tours, Monday to Friday at 11.00am and 2.00pm
The crown is one of the best remaining examples of a Victoria Gin Palace and is one of the most lavish and intricately detailed and decorated pub you will likely come across! The pub dates from around about 1826 and is still open for business and merriment today!
The tiled exterior continues inside where almost every surface is decorated and the floor features a huge crown mosaic. One of the best features of the pub is it’s cosy atmosphere though it’s period lighting and private snugs!
46 Great Victoria Street
Differs from week to week, check here: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/crown-bar/opening-times
Unfortunately you can’t just go in a visit the studios where they film Game Of Thrones which is pretty disappointing. I am sure they would make a lot of money from offering tours and it’s right in the heart of the Titanic quarter so a great location for visitors. But anyway here is it, inside there is the iron throne!
One of the big reasons we wanted to go up to Belfast if we are honest is to see something that isn’t even in the city!! The Giant’s causeway is somewhere that has been on our bucket list for a long time and this was the main reason to extend the trip over to Ireland as last time we hadn’t had the time to head up north. We wanted to take in a country we had near been to before but also tick this off!
In the end we came across the “Stones and Thrones tour” and it ticked all the boxes, we got to see some amazing places that day and it really lived up to our imaginations. We did the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge, we saw Winterfell and the cushendun caves, we had a wonderful lunch in a quaint fishing village and of course made a dream come true seeing the Giant’s Causeway… post coming soon but here a couple of photos for you!
More from our recent trip to Ireland:
Have you ever been to or considered visited Belfast, what did you make of it and what did you expect?In memory of our good friend Michael Lunney who passed away this week. He visited Belfast to see his family as often as he could and was really proud of his Irish roots. R.I.P mate.