08 January 2006

Belfast rising

Kansas City Star

Northern Ireland’s capital welcomes tourists as it leaves its Troubles behind


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Click to view - Albert Memorial Clock Tower, built between 1865 and 1870

Belfast guide Rosemary Connolly pointed out the city’s new courthouse, near St. George’s Market. “This just shows you how things have progressed in Belfast,” she said with wry humor. “We’ve got a brand new courthouse with a glass wall, and it’s still standing.”

A few years ago that would have sounded like a bad joke. Not anymore. After 30 years of guerrilla warfare between Loyalist Protestants and Catholic Republicans over whether Northern Ireland should remain part of Great Britain or unite with the Republic of Ireland, most people have decided that’s enough. About 3,000 people in Northern Ireland have died.

A gradual easing of hostilities began in 1994. Last July the Irish Republican Army formally ordered an end to its armed campaign.

“I believe it’s over,” said Michael Deane, one of Belfast’s top chefs with a string of awards after his name, including a Michelin star. “Just because somebody doesn’t agree with someone about something doesn’t make you have to fall out all the time. I think the real people are moving Belfast on. I really believe that.”

Deane was standing in St. George’s Market, where he had come to do a cooking demonstration on how to use leftover Christmas turkey. St. George’s is a Victorian brick building that was restored in 1999 by the Belfast City Council.

The Friday market is large and utilitarian, with food staples and household goods for sale. On Saturdays vendors sell gourmet food — organic produce, cheeses, olives, homemade soups, pastries, tea and more. People come with their children and their dogs to sit at little tables in the middle of the market, where they chat, listen to music or maybe read the newspaper.

“The real people,” Deane said, “are the people in places like this, in the markets, the everyday businessmen. These are the people who have been making Belfast work.”

A woman came up to Deane holding a bag of sweets. “Here’s something for the wee boy,” she said, indicating Deane’s 6-year-old son, Marco, who had come with him that day.

“We just can’t live with each other,” Deane said to me, “but they are lovely people.”

Yes, the people of Belfast are lovely — hospitable, funny and unpretentious.

Belfast is a workingman’s city that grew during the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. When Ireland was partitioned in 1921, Belfast became Northern Ireland’s capital. Shipbuilding and linen production were the major industries along with the manufacture of heavy machinery, rope and whiskey.

Most of that is gone now. Although 1,742 ships were built in Belfast — including the Titanic — the last ship was launched two years ago. But the workers’ housing remains — street after street of small, attached houses called “terraces.” The older ones have two rooms on the ground floor and two rooms above, with an attic.

You can go to museums and concerts in Belfast, but much of the real culture is in the pubs and in casual conversations, which are often laced with trenchant observations, stories and sardonic wit.

The painted walls of Belfast are another example of the city’s populist culture. Found primarily in West Belfast (and to a lesser extent in East Belfast) on the gabled ends of housing terraces or on fences, they started almost 100 years ago as crudely painted political statements and as territorial markers for the Loyalists and the Republicans. Gradually, however, many of them achieved a compelling level of artistry.

The paintings, which now number more than 600, have become a major tourist attraction. Some are memorials to the dead, some are cultural statements. Sightseeing buses ( www.city-sightseeing.com ) and Black Taxi Tours in London-style cabs take visitors to the Shankill and Falls roads in West Belfast, where the violence was once so intense that a “Peace Wall” of concrete, wire and corrugated tin had to be built to separate the opposing communities. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama have signed the wall, as have numerous other people.

Although sections of the wall remain, everywhere in Belfast are signs that peace is taking hold. Belfast guide Rosemary Connolly pointed out the city’s new courthouse, near St. George’s Market. “This just shows you how things have progressed in Belfast,” she said with wry humor. “We’ve got a brand new courthouse with a glass wall, and it’s still standing.”

She also pointed out a passing police car — an armor-plated Land Rover that she said is being phased out. “We used to build police stations like fortresses. The police were being attacked from both sides of the political divide in certain areas. We opened two new police stations last year, and you wouldn’t know they were police stations at all. The security is so low-key.”

Along Belfast’s River Lagan are more indications of peace and prosperity. A few years ago a weir was built to keep the water from receding completely at low tide, which caused an unbearable stench. Now that the river smells better and is less polluted, waterfront housing has become desirable and increasingly expensive. Waterfront Hall, with two auditoriums, an exhibition space and a restaurant, opened in 1997 as part of a major Laganside redevelopment program. It’s used for big-name performers and classical music as well as for conferences.

Near the hall is Thanksgiving Square Belfast, with a large wire sculpture of a ponytailed woman standing on a sphere. Her formal name is “The Angel of Thanksgiving and Reconciliation,” but Belfasters call her “the doll on the ball.” A sign at her feet says she represents “hope and aspiration, peace and reconciliation.”

During the years of the Troubles, the Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street was one of the few hotels in Belfast. It’s right next to the Grand Opera House, one of the city’s spectacular Victorian landmarks. The Europa was bombed 27 times, causing it to proclaim itself “the most bombed hotel in Europe.”

“At one time because of the bombs, the kitchens weren’t in operation,” said Connolly, so they barbecued food for the guests. “But they weren’t up to four-star status, so one of the jokes was, ‘People said what kind of wine do you have? And the answer was “red wine, white wine and pink wine.”’”

With few visitors, there wasn’t much need for hotels, but now, Connolly said, “we have all these new hotels! We have visitors here!”

The newest Belfast hotel, scheduled to open in April, promises to be one of its most luxurious. Called the Merchant Hotel, it’s in the former headquarters of the Ulster Bank — a dazzling example of Victorian architecture on a narrow, cobblestoned street in the city’s Cathedral Quarter. Nearby are old pubs and new restaurants and across the street is a printmaking workshop and gallery housed in a former cotton warehouse.

One of the city’s newly minted festivals, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, is scheduled for April 27 to May 7, with poetry readings, plays, folk music and exhibitions.

A more traditional form of entertainment takes place at the Christmas season. Pantomimes, or “pantos,” are mounted on Belfast stages, with ribald, slapstick humor interspersed into fairy tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk” or “Aladdin.” A portly man dressed as a woman is a stock character, playing the hero’s mother, a nurse or cook. The audience boos the villain, yells warnings to the hero and talks back to the Panto Dame.

At “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the Christmas panto at the Grand Opera House, May McFettridge, playing the nurse, ended the performance by wishing the audience “a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.”

In Belfast, those were not empty words.

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