My excursion to the Titanic Experience in Belfast was inevitably tinged with sadness. While the glamour and romance that have come to be associated with the ship are a little intoxicating, the thought of 1500 people freezing to death in the darkness of the North Atlantic somehow takes the shine off the legend for me. My visit to Belfast itself was similarly coloured: I met wonderful people and thoroughly enjoyed myself, but I couldn’t help but see the evidence of Belfast’s bloody recent history. As an English child of the 80s, I remember Northern Ireland being a frequent feature of the evening news. I absorbed acronyms like IRA, UVF and RUC, and words like “Peace Process” without really understanding what they meant. In my childish head, Belfast was this hazy, sinister place, not dissimilar to Baghdad (another regular star of the BBC Radio 4 PM programme in the 80s).
Chris and I took a bus tour around the city, which began in the new, gentrified Titanic Quarter, moved on to Stormont (the seat of the devolved government in Northern Ireland), and then wound around the different compass points of the city taking in the Loyalist Shankhill Road, and the Republican Falls Road. These two contrasting areas are separated by one of Belfast’s ironically named “Peace Walls”; structures designed to keep the various warring factions apart. Even today the routes through the various Peace Walls are closed at certain times, and in the event of trouble the gates can be slammed shut at a moment’s notice by an operative in a local police station. Our tour also took in some of the murals on the Shankhill Road, a former school ridden with bullet holes, the overgrown Crumlin Road Court House, and the Europa hotel, the so-called “most bombed hotel in Europe” (28 bomb attacks in total). For a child who has known nothing but peace, who has never experienced anything more fearful than a bit of turbulence on an aeroplane (by far one of my biggest terrors), and was raised with the rather flippant expression “The Irish Question”, this trip was a real eye-opener to the warzone that was right on my doorstep.
We also had a lovely outing to the Cavehill (so named for the caves – see above for Cave Man in natural habitat) and Belfast Castle. Legend tells that the castle will be safe so long as a cat resides there, a myth that led to the creation of the Cat Garden in the castle grounds. There are nine cats hidden within the garden, in mosaics, sculpture and other surprising forms, and it is claimed that finding all of them brings great luck. This snoozing bronze fellow on the edge of the fountain was my favourite, although hedge topiary cat was also a bit of a winner. I did manage to find all nine feline friends, so here’s hoping for some truth in the local legends!