October 2021 - Belfast - Day 1
A not so early start to our first day in Belfast after we both got a really good nights sleep in a really comfy bed. We wandered down to breakfast about 9am and I sought out the hot food. I was bemused by the label for the Northern Irish pork sausages and wondered how they could be different from normal Irish sausages. Whatever was in them was very acceptable though. There was also a tureen labelled up for Scrambled Eggs that was empty. I heard someone asked if anymore were being prepared and heard the comment that they hadn’t had their usual egg delivery which got me curious as to why the labelled tureen was even out at all.
After this we packed up and set out on foot for the day. Our plans were fluid and dependent on the weather. There was an annoying light drizzle that stayed with us all of the way on the decent stroll to the City Hall. This was a grand building befitting a City Centre. As the clouds still looked dark we decided to take the Hop on Hop Off bus tour as it had been highly recommended by Glenn. It was jolly interesting and we saw parts of Belfast that we would never have got to on foot. It also orientated us to where everything was in the City as well as much of the history.
By far the most fascinating part of the tour was the ride through the Falls Road and Shanklin Roads area. As a child who grew up with these roads being headlines on the National news it brought back the terrible troubles before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It may just be my memory or the way it was portrayed on the English news but the bias did seem to me as a child who had no real understanding of it at all, to portray the IRA as the baddies. In reality though they were both as bad as each other. The peace gates and high metal barriers are still there and the gates are closed nightly at 7pm even today. Houses each side of the barriers still display their respective colours and I found that sickening that some people obviously still feel so strongly entrenched in the views and hatred. Why anyone would still choose to even live in such sectarian areas is beyond me. I had no problem with the murals on either side as I saw them more as records of history. As we finished the tour I really couldn’t stop thinking about it all and wanted to learn more.
We then headed to a ubiquitous Caffe Nero which seemed to on every street of Belfast and had some we felt well earned hot drinks. After resting a while Karen realised we were located next to a large M&S and thought it would be rude not to visit. She emerged with a Cocktail Dress (don’t ask) and some sandwiches.
As the weather was now much brighter we decided to take the 2.30pm Free walking tour which also started outside of the City Hall. We introduced ourselves to Dave the guide and joined about 10 other people on the tour. Although it obviously didn’t go as far around the City as the bus tour (although after 2 ½ hours on our feet it felt like it had), it more than made up for in depth of information. Dave was from Belfast and had lived through the troubles. He tried to be as neutral as possible but his Catholic background did come through from time to time. Now I am not a history buff and sometimes information on these tours go above my head, but he was incredible in how he explained the background of all the troubles. He told us how the partition came about in 1921 and the problems it caused. I was ashamed to learn of how some people were treated.
Some of the facts are still whirling through my mind. Essentially the partition was put in place to protect the protestants. At the time out of the population of 1.5 million the division within the partition was 1 million Protestants and 0.5 million Catholics. The Catholics in Northern Ireland were not allowed to be in any position of power and only allowed poorly paid manual jobs. How wrong this was but I suppose no more so than women's rights or racial bias at the times (not that two or more wrongs make a right). They were however creating a powder keg for the future. The horrific stories he told of living in Belfast during the 70 & 80’s begged belief. One of only 3 hotels that were in the centre at that time was bombed 43 times. No wonder there was no tourism. To get into the City Centre you had to go through turnstiles and then were searched before you went into each shop. Even that was not enough and on average 2 bombs went off each day. According to Dave there is now peace but the underlying threat of violence is never far away in certain areas.
Northern Ireland now makes up only 2.9% of the whole UK population. Yet through the Barnett formula for distributing funds they receive a much larger proportion of funds per head than any other part of the UK. In short we are subsidising them to remain part of the UK. Yet for what purpose now? The split between Catholics and Protestants is now 50/50 and will soon tip in favour of the Catholics. In my quite uninformed opinion there is a real need of leadership from somewhere to create a United Island of Ireland. I’m sure it will come and that the sum of the parts will be greater than the indivdual components.
For instance it makes no sense that in all sports rather than Football there is a single Ireland team that everyone gets behind. Yet in Football there are two. If there was just one the combined team might actually be properly competitive and also it would be very unifying. I know it is easy for me to say and there would have to be compromises made but the sooner the better that this happens for everyone in the long term.
Anyhow the walking tour wasn’t just about the troubles and it took us off the main streets and explained things like why most pubs are down alley ways and also showed us the ‘Line of Duty’ subway. We both thoroughly enjoyed the walk and tour and felt as though we had been educated and entertained for most of the day. We took another break in another Caffe Nero using more of the free vouchers we had saved up, before walking to The Crown Saloon & Liquor Store where we hoped to get a table for a meal.
This is a remarkable place. For a start it is owned and run by the National Trust. It has been preserved to the exact state from when it was built in about 1830. We couldn’t believe our luck when we not only got in but were allocated to one of their famous booths. It was like having our own room with a door giving complete privacy and a bell we could ring when we wanted service. The decor was amazing and it was still lit by Gas lamps. Karen had the homemade Chicken Leek and Ham Pie whilst I had Irish Mussels and chips. They were both very good although the mussels were rather small not like the large ones we get from Brancaster.
We then took the long weary walk home. We were both very tired but happy (although Karen was still feeling the effects of her cold). After sending a few messages home (to Barry & Ellie who were using the Hot Tub) we retired early for the night.
Belfast today had lived up the high expecations we had and we had had a really good day.