The city of Belfast lies in the province of Ulster and is the second largest city on the Isle of Eire. The city was founded by the Celts, who named the city after the sandbanks that formed around the mouth of the river Farset. The Vikings attacked, raided and settled all along the coast, bequeathing red hair and their knowledge of metal works and the beautiful designs now known as Celtic knots to the region. The English, under Queen Elizabeth I, came a-conquering in the 16th century and Plantations started in the 17th century, sowing the first seeds of the violent sectarianism that would come to trouble Belfast in later years. During the Industrial Revolution Belfast was the centre of the Irish linen industry, tobacco production, rope making and shipbuilding – the ill-fated RMS Titanic was constructed here and the shipyard has been converted to a museum. This short and sweet itinerary takes in 2 days in Belfast.
Day 1: Daytrip out to the Giants Causeway
The day dawns alternately bright and cloudy, and the bus that will take me up to the coast of County Antrim in the cold, blinding wind is on schedule, the bus driver cheery despite the weather. I’m headed off to see Carrickfergus and the Giants Causeway.
Northern Ireland is green and rolling, and I soak in the views as the bus plows up on the basalt plateau that is County Antrim. Our first stop is Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, located on the North Coast in a National Park. A short coastal pathway winds its way from the ticket booth to this precariously dangling suspension bridge, spanning a chasm almost 80 feet deep. Along the way are views of the cobalt blue waters of the Irish Sea, stark white limestone cliffs plunging precipitously into the ocean and verdant, emerald grassland dotted with black-and-white cows. The bridge itself was built by fishermen to check their salmon nets, strung out from the very edge of Carrick-a-rede island.
The next stop is The Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Causeway was formed by a molten lava flow millions of years ago, basalt rose from the chalk beds then cooled and cracked evenly, resulting in the tall hexagonal columns that make up the Causeway today. The tallest column is around 36 feet high, towering over the crashing waves of the sea.
The fable that accompanies the Causeway is a tale of two giants, one Irish, the other Scottish. Finn McCool the Irish giant fell asleep and his wife put him in a cradle just as his rival, Bernandonner, walked across the Causeway to challenge him – on seeing Finn in the cradle and being told that it was Finn’s baby son, Bernandonner logically deduced the father must be much, much bigger. He fled back back to Scotland, tearing up the Causeway as he went to prevent Finn from coming after him. There are similar formations across the water on the Scottish side.
Day 2: Derry/Londonderry
Derry/Londonderry, or Stroke City, also known as Derry the Walled City, is where I get my first real brush with Irish Sectarianism. My guide talks me through the history of the Troubles and the current situation, of his own personal experiences living in the Bogside, known to the British Army as the IRA’s backyard, and of the struggles of ordinary people against the military. He gives a balanced view, rounded out by my Dubliner bus driver, who tells us of the tit-for-tat measures employed by the IRA – militant violence met with civilian bombings, heavy handed governmental action against murders in the night. There are schisms in Derry/Londonderry still, the Protestant loyalists huddled in their own enclave, and the Catholic republicans on the other side of the wall. Old hurts run deep and the memory of Bloody Sunday resonate too strongly in these streets.
Back in Belfast, I book a Black Cab Tour. My driver is a red-faced, florid (Republican, I think, though I didn’t ask) Irishman with a lilting accent, less hard and more rounded than Dubliners. He takes me to the murals along Falls and Shankills road, and spins story after story of murder, intrigue, and political travesty. The names and fates of these common people are woven into the streets of Belfast, and I think their stories should continue to be told, lest we forget. Children, fathers, wives, these all, victims of British snipers, IRA gunmen, civilian-thrown petrol bombs – an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.
We pass the Europa Hotel, bombed 36 times during the Troubles, and known as the most bombed hotel anywhere in the world. I walk past Belfast Town Hall, where an environmental sculpture exhibition is currently being held. I have dinner at the Crown Saloon, the Most Beautiful Bar in the World. It is a splendidly Victorian pub with delicate painted glass, old-fashioned carved wooden ceilings and intricate mosaic floors. The façade is a riot of vibrant Italianate tiles, held up by false Corinthian columns. It is cosy and comfortable, and it feels like it belongs to a world that ceased to exist 30 years ago.