Once Belfast’s tourist appeal was compared to Baghdad’s; under 20 years ago it was a war zone, a city heavy with tension. But the Northern Irish capital has shaken off its unsafe reputation surprisingly quickly – a symbol of the city’s strength and ingenuity.
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The conflict has its roots in religious divisions which evolved into a political war. The Protestants were mostly unionists or the more extreme, loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain to continue. But the Catholics were more likely to be Nationalists or to become more militant Republicans who wanted Northern Ireland to be reunited with its Southern neighbour.
In 1969 these divisions became violent and ‘The Troubles’ were born. The British army were deployed, supposedly to calm the situation but others branded their presence as “an occupation”.
Belfast bore the brunt of the country’s violence. There were bombings, assassinations and constant fighting between rival paramilitary groups. On Bloody Friday, 22 bombs were detonated in the city centre, killing 11 people. Between 1969 and 2001, 1,600 people lost their lives in Belfast.
But the Northern Irish are turning their gruesome history into a tourist attraction and no tourist can help but be fascinated by such recent turbulence.
“The Troubles” have had a huge impact on Belfast’s art scene with violence and loss being central themes in much of the art and photography coming out of the country, even today. As the country, and its artists, continue to try to come to terms with recent history, exhibition after exhibition focuses on the emotional scars left behind by conflict.
See Troubles-related art at the Ulster Museum which has its own “human history” department, dedicated to Northern Ireland’s social and political past. Until April, the museum will be exhibiting Colin Davidson’s ‘Silent Testimony’ – portraits of victims of the troubles.
Belfast Exposed is the city’s best known gallery for contemporary photography with a political edge and Golden Thread Gallery is another visual arts organisation that holds exhibitions and talks, with a focus on recent history.
The city’s street art is just as political. The walls of Belfast are painted with some of the most famous political murals in Europe. They mostly reflect the communities they’re based in. In Republican communities, find grim depictions of the hunger strike or British censorship. One of the most memorable Republican murals depicts a man, painted in the colours of the Irish flag and gagged with the Union Jack. But in the unionist communities, the murals are used to promote Ulster loyalist paramilitary groups and commemorate their martyrs.
Once you’ve ingested all the information you can about the city’s political history, explore Belfast’s other claims to culture. Oh Yeah, Belfast’s music centre, runs music bus tours. Step back in time to the beginning of Van Morrison’s career and his debut at the Maritime hotel in 1964. The man who wrote the soundtrack to Ocean’s Eleven, David Holmes, also used to live here and west Belfast offers tales of a folk dynasty, the McPeake family and the flautist James Galway.
After the tour, explore Oh Yeah’s three storey building – the performance space, songwriting room, exhibition and cafe.
Hear traditional Irish music across the city. The list of venues is endless. Madden’s Bar at Berry street is the most popular for traditional musicians and listeners. The Sunflower Public House is another lively venue, renowned for Gypsy Jazz.
More recently, traditional music has been seeping into the Cathedral Quarter, now widely regarded as the city’s creative hub. In John Hewitt at Donegall Street, fashionable young artists sit side by side with trade unionists and greying lefties. The nearby Duke of York bar in Commercial Court is famous for its Thursday evening sessions. Organised by fiddle player Donal O’Conor, these sessions attract musicians from all over Ireland.
The Irish are just as proud of their writers, as they are of their musicians. Belfast is the birthplace of C.S. Lewis, famous for his series of children’s novels “The Chronicles of Narnia”. And poet Seamus Heaney was once a member of the “Belfast Group”, a collective who were active in the city during the 60s. Because of the city’s rich literary heritage, there are always lectures, readings or literary festivals. Visitors can also book onto the Belfast literary walking tour, run by Visit Belfast.
There are also plenty of theatres in Belfast; from The Grand Opera House, a magnet for both local producers and international companies, to The Mac which puts on traditional shows and also showcases more experimental work. For something a bit different, track down the Aisling Ghear Theatre company – Northern Ireland’s only full-time Irish language theatre company.