The fascinating island of Shamrock, known as Ireland is a dream for many travellers. The landscape and seascape, the crooked shoreline, the uneven grasslands, the woolly grazing sheep, the hay bales, the three-leaved clover, the castles and the architecture, the language, the revolution and its corresponding street murals are so typical of the land that it gives them a unique Irish identity and attracts travellers from around the world. Though not a nation anymore, has a lot in common and yet many differences in them. And I was in its northern part to explore a tiny bit of the land and its associated Irish things beginning at Belfast.
It was again utterly short and unplanned trip which I would like to call ‘a hint of Irish flavour’. I was literally excited and the clear weather and the lovely aerial view acted as a catalyst enhancing my internal yearning. We landed in the George Best Airport in Belfast, a simple, small airport close to the city.
Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland, situated on the bank of the River Lagan draining into the Irish Sea. As per the etymology, the name Belfast was derived from the Irish word Béal Feirsde (Béal meaning river mouth and Feirsde meaning sandbar). So the city is aptly named and this proximity to the river and the sea naturally makes it more beautiful.
Belfast is known for many things like its old linen industry, ‘The Troubles’, its Game of Throne link (stay tuned for the next post to know more about it) and the most popular – the shipyard used for the construction of the fateful Titanic. Since early times Belfast was the prime location for shipbuilding with Harland and Wolff’s shipyard situated at the mouth of the River Lagan.
The famous Olympic-class trio of British ocean liners (Olympic, Titanic and Britannic) were built in Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. The Samson and Goliath are said to be the landmark structures of Belfast. These are the twin shipbuilding cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard named after the Biblical figures.
Harland & Wolff (H&W) was a well-known name in the world of heavy industries. It is said that after a couple of years of construction of the Samson and Goliath, the shipbuilding industry here declined and shipbuilding ceased. The cranes now stand as the items of architectural or historic interest in the present dry dock facility.
In the earliest of time during the 1st century, Ireland was a Gaelic land. It was Christianised later in the 5th century. The Norman Invasion, the Tudor conquest followed one after the other and then the subsequent colonisation by the British settlers increased its cultural proximity to Great Britain. The difference between the Protestant English Rule and the Catholic majority of Ireland started building up in the 1690s.
The Act of Union in 1801 brought Ireland under the United Kingdoms. The Irish Home Rule movement started in the 1880s which meant autonomy of Ireland within the United Kingdom. This led to a prolonged crisis between the Irish nationalist (people in favour of a sovereign Irish Nation) and the Ulster unionist (people from the northern province of Ireland in favour of continuation as a part of the United Kingdom).
With the Third Home Rule Act, the Bill for the partition of Ireland was introduced in the year 1916. The Irish war for independence followed and this Anglo-Irish guerrilla war was fought from 1919 to 1921. This lead to the partition of Ireland by creating the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland in the year 1922.
This was followed by the Irish civil war which continued from 1922 to 1923 between the pro-treaty Provisional Government and the anti-treaty IRA (the original Irish Republican Army who fought against the British Rule in Ireland), over the Anglo-Irish Treaty (leading to the partition of the island). The war was won by the pro-treaty forces but the war left behind many deaths and the hard feelings and a situation of unrest within the Irish people and the society.
The unrest continued with scattered incidents of violence mostly in the region under Northern Ireland and mainly in its capital city Belfast. In the late 1960s, the ethno-nationalist conflict began in Northern Ireland and was named as ‘The Troubles’. The conflict was mainly based on the previous events leading to the present political scenario also fueled by the ethnic and sectarian differences.
The majority of the Unionist or loyalist were Protestant and they were in favour of Northern Ireland to remain as a part of the United Kingdom. While the Catholic majority Irish Nationalist or the republicans wanted Northern Ireland to be a part of United Ireland free from the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. It was an irregular war with scattered instances of riots, civil disobedience, mass protest, violent gathering and other disturbances again leading to the death of many.
The Good Friday Agreement in 1998, also known as the Belfast Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland. Under this agreement, several issues were looked upon with preference to sovereignty, civil and cultural rights. The agreement gave clarity and set out provisions relating to the status of the governing body of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Even after peace prevailing in the region, there are suppressed sentiments among some sections of people which are expressed as a sign of displeasure through many street murals all across Belfast. Indifferent of political motivation and public sentiment, I must say the mural are some amazing pieces of art, clean and bright. The famous Shankill Road in Belfast was the site of many upheavals and sectarian violence during the time of The Troubles.
Today, in the calmer era this road is the home to the peace wall with beautifully painted murals. While travelling through the streets of Belfast we were highly impressed to see murals all over the city on the walls of the buildings and also on boundary walls. The partition of Ireland may have separated the island in socio-political terms but the Irish culture remained the united in its Gaelic games, Irish music and literature.
It was a Friday night and was the cultural night in Belfast and we were excited to be a part of the cultural night. We stayed close to Donegall Square, which is the business centre as well as a tourist hub. The Belfast City Hall is also located here and it was the venue where the cultural programme was supposed to be held. It is a beautiful Baroque style building of the late 19th century then known as the White Linen Hall.
Today it has been converted to a civic building. The green, copper-coated domes of the City Hall distinctively mark it from the other Victorian buildings around the city. The stage was built on the courtyard of the hall and there was a celebration mood everywhere. As the sun started to mellow down the excitement rose, more and more people descended on the streets. The pubs were overflowing with the crowd, streets were transformed into pedestrian zones, huge flow of teenagers was seen in Donegall street.
After the sun was down, the streets were buzzing with people mostly teenagers, all decked up in fancy dresses, with beer cans in hands, in small to large groups of friends having fun and frolic as it was their day to celebrate the Irish culture. There was a musical performance in the city hall premises while every corner of the streets and squares had performers surrounded by a large number of people singing, dancing and drinking along.
It was a different kind of cultural night that I experienced for the first time. The majority of the crowd were teenagers and it seemed to be a celebration of their youthfulness who came to Belfast from all around. The cultural night was followed by the cultural day the next day. Although the next morning, it was a different scene with the streets and pavements scattered with beer cans and broken bottles (to be cleared soon.)
We were loitering on the streets of Belfast when the Belfast Party Bikes caught our attention. Those were 15-16 seater paddle bikes, especially for the Beer Bike tours. It had two rows of seats with pedals on either side and the guide in the driver’s position to manoeuvre the bike and there are beer barrels in between the rows. All the passengers are supposed to pedal, enjoying their drinks as the guide steers through the streets of Belfast narrating its stories.
It was an interesting side of the city although we had to explore more of it so we hopped on into a Hop-on-hop-off bus from Donegall Square. With the bus tickets, there was a map with all the stops on the route. I decided on my favourite ones and with a little prelude of the cultural night, was fully prepared this time to see the rest, not like the way I behaved in London (read my post on London to know more about it).
Series of Victorian buildings intercepted by some modern buildings matched beautifully on either side of clean roads. Many of the simple buildings and even the boundary walls were seen adorned by murals. They were a reflection of public sentiments but were some great pieces of art which I admired. They were the outcome of the struggles of the past.
A part of the long history, in short, was necessary to get an introduction to the city so pardon me for lengthening my post with the history of Ireland that I shared in the beginning. I think I must not stretch my post further and let the pictures with the caption narrate the rest.