Friday, May 20, 2011

Ireland!!: Belfast

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Belfast is a very quick drive from Armagh, and the center is very easy to access from the motorway. We left the car in a parking garage and met up with our friend T, who had arrived the previous day from Britain. She had already done a hop-on-hop-off tour, which was helpful because she has an amazing memory and could tell us what all kinds of things were. Belfast's hop-on-hop-off tour tickets are good for three days, which sounds pretty good to me, although bus tours usually aren't our thing.

We looked around a bit - saw City Hall and the big cathedral, and stopped at an outdoor store (looks like a UK chain) to get some boot laces, since I discovered I'd left one of mine at home. We grabbed lunch at a Caffe Nero, and then met up with a Coiste tour guide near Divis Tower for a Falls Road tour. For eight pounds, we got a four-hour tour of the neighborhood with a republican activist who refused to acknowledge the existence of anything called "Northern Ireland". At the end of the tour, you get a complimentary half-pint of Guinness at Felons Club, a republican bar decorated with things like a backlit stained-glass decoration depicting the republican hunger strikers who died in the 80s.

The tour was fascinating, and covered all the significant murals and buildings along Falls Road and the stories behind them, then a walk through the Milltown Cemetery to see the graves and memorials to all the people he told us about, some of whom were his friends. I think four hours was a bit long - at the end I was starting to zone out a little from information overload - however it's definitely worth the price. It was interesting to hear him portray the republican side of things as more of a bunch of intellectuals separate from questions of religion and separate from the people who did bombings. Outside of Ireland the Troubles are usually portrayed as a Catholic vs. Protestant war, but he pretty much never mentioned religion except in a negative fashion (and said he was an atheist). I would have really liked to have a similar tour on the loyalist side, but I could only find info on places that do them for large groups, which we were not. Check out the photos - I included all the murals for those interested.

Belfast Mai 11

After the tour we took a black cab back to the city center. These cabs are 1.80 pounds per person and hold 5-6 people, functioning kind of like a tiny bus you can flag down anywhere. My seat didn't have a working seat belt, which was a bit unnerving, but you can't beat the price and it was really fast since everyone else in the car was also going to the center.

Back in the middle of town, we met up with another friend, J, who was visiting Europe from the US for work and had some free time to join up with us for part of our trip. We checked in at Belfast City Apartment, which is in a great location just south of the center. There are two bedrooms, one with a double bed and one with two single beds, plus a kitchen with laundry facilities and a computer with internet access. The guy who showed us around had a couple of pub recommendations, so we went off to one of them that sounded really interesting, The Crown Bar. There was an employee standing outside and we asked him if they were serving food. Apparently he had already answered that question many times that day, and no, they don't serve food on Sundays. Instead of just saying that he had kind of a conniption fit about it until I finally snapped back at him and we went on our way. We didn't end up going back for a drink later, although that had been the original plan if they weren't serving food! We ended up eating at some fish and chip shop called Bishop's, which was kind of terrible, but good enough for the price. Then we went to the other pub the guy at the apartment recommended, called Lavery's. It was a standard city bar - nothing particularly friendly or interesting about it. We all had a pint and turned in for the night, since we had to get an early start the next morning (and with four people to one shower!).

We didn't have much time the following morning, but I still wanted to get a taste of the loyalist side of things, so we took a drive down Shankill Road and stopped on the loyalist side of the peace wall (a tall wall set up where the loyalist and republican neighborhoods meet - you can find them in other places too). From the republican side we hadn't seen any graffiti on it, but on the loyalist side it's completely covered in mosaics, sculptures, and graffiti of all kinds.

After a false start heading out of Belfast in the wrong direction, we got on the road toward the Glens of Antrim. I wish we'd had more time for Belfast. I had a really good feeling about it before we went there, but I found that the city didn't seem to be as progressive as I imagined it. To be fair, I'd been thinking about something along the lines of Berlin, but Belfast hasn't gotten there yet. I hope to go back someday and get a better feel for it - and who knows how things will be by then? I hope it remains safe and we see an end to the groups of angry young men who just want an excuse to blow shit up. There is still violence - just weeks before we visited a police officer was killed in Omagh. But as someone pointed out, even with all the violence that occurred in Northern Ireland over the years, it was still safer than New York City.

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