Slick British magazines will tell you that Belfast has been reborn, that it’s now hip and stylish and, yes, even safe. All of that is true. But what makes the city so riveting, at least to me, aren’t the Asian fusion restaurants or the soaring new Victoria Square shopping centre or the steel skeletons of boutique hotels that are rising at every downtown intersection.
No, it’s the city’s ghosts. A century ago, Belfast was an Edwardian boomtown. Its citizens had invented the pneumatic tire and the tractor. They dominated the linen trade and served as master shipbuilders to the world. In fact, the Belfast shipwrights of 1909 had just started building their biggest ship yet — a mammoth ocean liner that was to be called the Titanic.
As you probably heard, that venture ended badly for everybody except Kate Winslet. The sinking of the Titanic seemed to cast a curse upon Belfast. It soldiered through a world war, a depression, and then another world war in which nearly a thousand of its residents died in an air blitz. Starting in the late 1960s, the Catholic-Protestant battles known as the Troubles ripped society apart for three decades.
Today, as you fork down your penne and take a sip of a saucy little dolcetto in a restaurant on Belfast’s oh-so-stylish Lisburn Road, it’s possible to shrug off the past and go back to reading the entertainment listings. But if you come to Belfast simply for the clubs and the shopping, you would be missing what gives this city its strut.
It’s a matter of character. Belfast is a place that prides itself on grinning through bad times. It likes its heroes hard, its drinks strong, and its humor black.
A case in point is George Best, the local boy whose name graces one of the city’s airports. Best, who died in 2005, was, for a few years in the 1960s, the most dazzling soccer player on the planet. He was also a world-class drinker who didn’t apologize for his excesses. When asked what he had done with his earnings, he replied, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
Belfast loves that brand of muscular flamboyance. A walk though the centre of the city turns into an extended gawk at the red-brick offices and warehouses constructed at the height of Belfast’s 19th-century boom. The buildings tower over you with arched windows, carved lintels, sculpted balustrades. Linen merchants and distillers erected these Victorian showpieces to announce their success to the world. More is more, the gaudy buildings proclaim — an architectural philosophy that reaches its fullest expression in Belfast’s City Hall, a gigantic wedding cake of white stone that bristles with colonnades, cupolas, arches and parapets.
As City Hall demonstrates, subtlety is not the Belfast way. When I tell a taxi driver that he lives in a beautiful city, he snorts. “Now, sooo-nny Barcelona — that’s beautiful,” he tells me. “But rrrrainy Belfast? What we are is interesting.”
To prove his point, he takes me on an impromptu tour of the drab row houses of the Clonard district. We stop in Bombay Street, scene of a bloody riot between Protestants and Catholics in 1969. A marble memorial on the street commemorates IRA soldiers and civilians who died in the Troubles. Just behind it rises a seven-metre-tall metal barrier, or peace line, that separates the neighborhood from the Protestant enclave down the way. Homeowners who live by the wall have built chicken-wire cages around their backyards to protect their backyards from whatever could come hurtling over the fence. “Oh, we’re doing better now, for sure,” my driver says, “but I’ll only believe we’re truly at peace when that chicken wire comes down.
"To be fair, Belfast has enjoyed a remarkable run of peace since a power-sharing agreement between Catholic and Protestants was signed in 1998. But the conflict still defines everyday life. When I go on a group tour of the decommissioned Crumlin Road jail, a sprawling Victorian penitentiary, our guide is charming — but he also makes it clear that he will not go near certain topics, for fear of starting a fight. When he explains how an IRA man escaped from the prison during a soccer game, or another dodged the guards by coating himself with butter then hiding in the sewer, he’s quick to say that he’s not glorifying the escapees — just giving us some of the prison’s history.
And fascinating, creepy history it is. The jail dates from 1843. Its gloomy corridors have housed everyone from Victorian urchins arrested for stealing laundry, to First World War-era suffragettes to 1980s IRA members. Prisoners were forbidden to talk. Guards wore flannel slippers so their steps were noiseless. “They say the only sound you could hear was the sound of men weeping,” our guide tells us.
If you want to shake off the shadows of the prison and experience Belfast’s brighter, more genteel side, I highly recommend the C.S. Lewis bus tour. It traces the early life of the writer who would go on to create Narnia and become the foremost Christian apologist of his time. The tour sweeps through posh Belfast neighborhoods, tracing the background of the Narnia tales,and the events that shaped Lewis as a child. You see the house he lived in as a boy and the door knocker on his grandfather’s house that may have inspired his creation of Aslan, the divine lion of Narnia.
Our guide tells us that Lewis’s biggest loss was the death of his mother when he was only 9. Of course, Lewis turned that tragedy into inspiration. You could argue that his native city has made a practice of doing much the same. Yes, it built the Titanic — so it’s now building a huge Titanic Quarter that, among other things, will tell the story of the doomed ship and open in time for the centennial of the ship’s launch, in 2012. Yes, the city and surrounding region lost much of its population to emigration over the past century and a half — so nearby theme parks now cater to thousands of North American tourists who want to trace their roots back to this city.
It’s the thumbprint of history that marks Belfast as a special place. A few days after my visit, I try to explain to friends in Toronto what I felt in Belfast. I tell them the story of my taxi driver. “But he was wrong,” I say. “Belfast isn’t just interesting — it’s fascinating."