For various and unusual reasons, my boyfriends birthday this year was to be spent in Belfast. A three hour taxi journey to Gatwick followed by a missed flight and an OCD fuelled panic attack later we flew to Dublin to begin what would prove to be an insightful and moving visit to a place that has endured centuries of adversity.
After spending the night in Dublin, we rose early and travelled to Newcastle in County Down, a tiny seaside town just south of Belfast. It’s perhaps most famous for being the home of Tiger Woods’ favourite golf course but its real charm is in its dramatic and eery landscape. The sun is very low all day long which casts the cliffs and mountains into silhouettes looming over the sparkling water.
On sunday morning we drove to Belfast and took a tour of the battle scarred streets on both sides of the ‘Peace Line’. A series of walls separate Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. Our guide was the charismatic and charming Bobby Walsh, who took us to various different points of conflict in the city. However, I wasn’t at all prepared for how upsetting it was going to be.
Let the murals speak for themselves, the spectre of violence remains.
The above mural remembers the 10 men who died in prison during the 1981 hunger strike that lasted 58 days. One of the men, Bobby Sands (below) was elected as a Member of Parliament (in absentia) during the strike resulting in a new surge of IRA recruitment and activity. International media coverage brought attention to the hunger strikers, and the republican movement in general. Many of the murals on this side also show solidarity for other marginalised groups such as Palestine and the Miami 5.
Many parts of the wall are free space where anyone can come and write messages of support. It is said that artists from all over Europe come here to paint inspirational messages or images whilst tourists and locals pen their own words.
Over to the Protestant or Royalist side..
No matter where you stand, the sniper is always pointing his gun at you. A very unsettling and unsubtle message.
The Crown Pub was opened in 1885 by the Catholic Mr Flanagan and his Protestant wife. Constructed by Italian architects with Italian materials, it is a shockingly opulent public house. It is one of the most spectacular structures i’ve ever seen and completely incongruous with the rest of the City. Legend has it that, the married couple argued over what to call it; his wife being a Protestant wanted to call it the Crown, but Mr Flanagan being a Catholic disagreed. Inevitably his wife got her own way, but not before Mr F had the last laugh. In order to enter the pub, patrons have to trample all over this beautiful mosaic…
SLEEP, EAT, DO
- SLEEP – Europa Hotel – Directly opposite the Crown pub and very close the the city centre, this hotel holds the record as the most bombed hotel in Europe and has been rebuilt countless times.
- SLEEP – The Merchant Hotel – Occupying the former headquarters of the Ulster Bank, The Merchant Hotel is a grand neoclassical building with vaulted ceilings, kitted out in rich colours and fabrics.
- EAT – The Barking Dog – exposed brick walls, Amaretto Sours and the best beef shin burger i’ve ever had. If you come to Belfast, you must absolutely come to the Barking Dog.
- EAT – James Street South – Menus change weekly, but highlights could include eel with smoked salmon, watercress and horseradish dressing, and roast hake with cous cous and tomato vinaigrette – and make sure you order some of that Ulster speciality champ, a blend of mashed potato, spring onion and butter.
- DO – Black Taxi Tours – All guides have unparalleled local knowledge and are a great resource of local stories, legends and happenings. Their particular expertise is the recent political troubles, but the guides are equally educated in regards to the city’s history, the Shipyards, the University District and of course the bars and pubs. www.belfasttours.com
- SLEEP – Slieve Donnard – With stunning views of the County Down coastline and superb spa facilities, including a 20-metre pool. This 4-star hotel stands in 6 acres of grounds, leading to the Royal County Down Golf Club. Room mix-ups, noticeably unclean bathrooms and general disorganisation were part of the countryside charm…maybe.
- EAT – Mournes Seafood – Somewhat of an establishment, Newcastle Mournes is the little sister to Mournes Belfast. Classic starters include oysters, mussels, seafood chowder, smoked salmon, panfried crab claws in chilli butter and salt and chilli squid with napa slaw and chilli jam. Mains include faithfuls such as beer-battered fish with chips and mushy peas, and daily specials from a range of hake, monkfish, sea bream and more, plus steak for non-pescaphiles.
- EAT – Bucks Head Inn – The Bucks Head Inn is situated in the historic village of Dundrum. Renowned for its warm welcome chef/proprietor Alison Crothers has combined local produce with modern and imaginative menus. This 18th century building has a cosy cherry panelled bar with open fire conducive to casual intimate dining, while the new contemporary restaurant looks out into a walled garden.