I’ll never let go, Jack

Going to Belfast and not visiting the Titanic museum is a little like going to Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal. Or so I was told. Always curious about what these types of installations can offer (and I believe that millions upon millions went into the building of what lays claim to being the largest Titanic museum in the world), we paid to go see. (Trivia: The foundations needed 4200 cubic metres of concrete which were delivered by 700 concrete lorries in 24 hours – bet anyone who witnessed that convoy will remember it for a while.)

IMG_2614 (800x600)Set up as a series of interconnected interactive exhibitions, the first looked at Belfast at the beginning of the twentieth century. I had no idea that it was such a booming town back then  – it seems like every possible industry had a home there, from tobacco to rope-making, from ship-building to printing.

IMG_2621Then it was on to the shipyard. I can’t say that I was overly interested in how the ship was built, but even my disinterest waned as we to took a  rollercoaster ride through the bowels of the ship and watched audio visual displays of men at work. The sound effects left little to the imagination; it was as if we were there as it was being built. Quite amazing.

IMG_2623 (800x600)IMG_2628In the launch gallery, scenes from 31 May 1911 were brought to life. Here I learned that although the ship was launched, it still had to be fitted out. And this took some time. In yet another gallery we saw models of the various cabins. But cooler still was the  360-degree computer-generated tour around the ship. It’s amazing where modern technology can take you.

IMG_2631Perhaps the most evocative of all is the gallery that portrays the sinking of the great ship. A heady combination of Morse code SOS message, audio accounts by survivors, and images of the sinking takes it toll. Another thing I hadn’t realised was that more than 700 people survived. You can search the passenger and crew lists to find out if any relatives were on board – all a little eerie.

IMG_2620 (800x600)Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the entire exhibition (given that I’m not the least bit technically minded) was the gallery exploring popular culture inspired by the Titanic. The contrast between fantastic wealth and relative poverty, the abundance of heroes and villains, the sense of romance, all lend themselves to using it as a background for the favoured story of the day. That said, I’ve never seen the movie – or indeed any of the movies – made about the Titanic. And curiously, even after seeing this exhibition, I have no desire to remedy this.

In the last gallery, visitors get to stand on a glass floor and look down on the wreck as she is today, some 12 000 feet below the Atlantic. Again, I didn’t realise that the ship sank in two halves, and these are quite a distance from each other. As we watched the ocean moving beneath our feet, we heard audio of divers exploring the wrecks. Quite a sensation.

At £15.50 a pop for adults, it’s a little pricey, but given that you could happily spend three hours there, it’s worth it. Admittedly I found the amount of information rather overwhelming, but if you’re technically minded, a history buff, or interested in anything maritime, then it’s all there for you.

There are Titanic museums aplenty, from Pigeon Forge, TN, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, each in its own way contributing to keeping the memory alive. Belfast though, might be the one to beat.





2014 Grateful 28

It’s been twenty years or so since I was last in Belfast – at least there long enough to have a look around. Whatever happened in the intervening period – perhaps my perspective has change – it’s a far more beautiful city than I remembered.

IMG_2500 (800x600)IMG_2505 (598x800)The night views over the Lagan are impressive. And some of the buildings have been beautifully restored. More, however, are but remnants of their former glory, in a sad state of disrepair. One wonders what might become of them. The old Crumlin Road Jail is a case in point. The Courthouse that sits across the road from it is in ruin. It would make a fine hotel or, as someone suggested, a great casino. But the stricter element in the city isn’t ready for such debauchery.

IMG_2536 (800x600)The Courthouse was designed by Charles Lanyon (who also had a hand in Queen’s University) and built for meagre monies (£16800) back in 1850. It closed in 1998 and the two-acre site was sold for £1 (and no, that’s not a typo). Plans for a 161-room hotel approved in 2007 are now on hold. Two fires in the meantime caused further structural damage and last year, talks of Belfast City Council are considering it for European Peace IV Capital Funding with which they plan to renovate the courthouse as ‘a shared history Belfast Story museum, built heritage centre and destination point for the North Belfast cultural corridor’. Who knows what will happen … or when.

Queen's University Belfast

Queen’s University Belfast

Seeing Queen’s University was a highlight. Its alumni include Nobel Laureate and poet Seamus Heaney, actors Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea, and the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese. Founded in 1810, it’s one of the ten oldest university in the United Kingdom. It was chartered as Queen’s College Belfast in 1845 along with Queen’s College in Cork and in Galway to make up Queen’s University of Ireland which was set up to encourage education for Catholics and Presbyterians as a counterpart to Trinity College in Dublin (which was then Anglican). It’s an international institution with about 1400 international students from over 100 countries. Architecturally, more than 100 of its 250+ buildings are of note, the main one being the Lanyon Building, modelled on Magdalene College in Oxford (always a favourite of mine, mainly because it’s pronounced Maudlin).

Belfast City Hall

Belfast City Hall

IMG_2523 (800x600)Belfast City Hall is another gem, dating back to 1906. This Renaissance-style building took just eight years to build and came in at about half a million pounds. Free public tours are available (just one of many reasons to make a return trip to the city).

IMG_2534 (800x600) (2)The Orange Hall on Clifton Street has seen better days. Its cornerstone was laid in 1883 and it took two years to build. Today, it’s still used as the starting place for parades and is still being attacked. The last attempt was in May this year when a 13-year-old boy tried to petrol bomb it. I had thought, in my innocence, that the Orange Order was a purely Northern Ireland thing, but I was wrong. The Protestant fraternity has a global membership with autonomous Grand Lodges in Scotland, England, the USA, West Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Who’d have thought?

IMG_2609 (800x600)The Europa hotel, which turned 40 back in 2011, is said to be the most bombed hotel in the Europe (or the world, depending on what you read) having been hit 28 (or 33 or 5, again depending on what you read) different times during the Troubles. But it never closed it’s doors. [James Leavey has an interesting post full of anecdotes about the hotel on the FORCES International site.] Its next-door neighbour, the Opera House, was hit three times. Its curtain first went up in December 1895 and it’s still going up today. I’d like to have been there the night General Dwight Eisenhower  and Field Marshall Montgomery were in the audience in 1945.

Assembly Buildings

Assembly Buildings

Perhaps one of the most imposing buildings in the city, though, is the Assembly Building, which opened in 1905. Looking for all the world like a baronial castle in Scotland, it has its own 40-metre-high clock town with a bell that peals 12 times. For years the headquarters and General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, it went ‘commercial’ in 1992 and is now a major conference centre.

As I write this week from the shadow of the United Nations in Geneva,  I’m grateful that Ireland as an island can still surprise and amaze me. While Belfast, like many cities, has it murky side, its trendy side, and its commercial quarter, it still has some of the most jawdroppingly gorgeous buildings I’ve seen. It’s a city with heart, tenacity, and style. And one I’ll be back to see again.


99 barriers

Last year, I saw a  famous wall – one I’d never heard of before, one I knew nothing about. But that was in Palestine. Last week, I saw another famous wall – one I’d never heard of before, one I knew nothing about. But it was in Northern Ireland. Shame on me.

IMG_2575 (800x600)At the end of last year, there were 99 barriers dividing nationalist and loyalist communities in Belfast. They take various shapes and sizes: 35 are metal fencing; 23 are a mix of solid wall and metal above; 14 involve fencing and vegetation; 12 are where roads are closed to vehicles and allow pedestrian access only; 8 are wall walls; and 7 are roads with gates that are closed at times. Some like the one pictured above (Cupar Way) are now famous. Built it 1969, this 4.5 m concrete wall is topped by 3 m of metal sheeting and 6 m of mesh fence and runs for about 800 m. It separates loyalist Shankhill Road from the nationalist Springfield area. The walls started to go up in the late 1960s when the Troubles kicked off. This, in a weird, unpalatable way, is understandable. In separating the Catholic and Protestant factions, they offered something in the way of security. But more have gone up since the 1994 Good Friday Agreement and some are still being added to today, despite talks of bringing them down. Since 2008, three new ones have gone up, two more have been fortified, and three have come down. And yes, people are keeping track.

IMG_2572 (800x600) (2)The majority are owned by the Department of Justice (58). Some are owned by the NI Housing Executive (18). Some are even thought to be privately owned (6) with three belonging to the Department for Regional Development. Six go unclaimed and other organisations own one or two.  When I read this, I was surprised. I’d never before given much thought to who owns these types of barriers, or thought of them in terms of maintenance.

Though many of the walls now have gates that open during the day, I can see where ‘going the long way around’ takes on a whole new meaning in the city. Mind you, given what the walls separate, perhaps no one really wants to get to the other side in a hurry. The Observer ran a piece in 2012 that is worth a read.

IMG_2581 (800x600) (800x600)IMG_2580 (800x600)IMG_2583 (800x600)Names like Dali Lama and Bill Clinton feature, too, alongside their various words of wisdom. People are encouraged to add their messages and some of the Black Cabs carry markers in case you’re not packing your own. Yet even here the message is mixed. And perhaps this same mixed message exists when it comes to discussions about whether or not these walls should come down. When you live with what’s known locally as a Belfast conservatory, the thoughts of leaving your backyard open to whatever every might be flung over from the other side would probably be enough to vote to keep them in place.

IMG_2587 (800x483) (800x483)At the bottom of the Falls Road, there’s another wall – an International Peace Wall. This series of murals speaks to conflicts in other parts of the world and at home, too. It was here, that just last month, a newly painted mural depicting Gerry Adams as a ‘peacemaker, a leader, and a visionary’ was paint bombed and subsequently  replaced by one ‘supporting a campaign for an independent review into the killing of 11 civilians by the Parachute Regiment in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in 1971’.

IMG_2596 (800x584)It’s said that at one stage in Belfast there were more Israeli and Palestinian flags flying than there were Union Jacks and Tricolors (read nothing into the parallel order here as I’m undecided as to which side would support which, but given the welcome I received in Palestine, I’d harbor a guess at it being right). It seems that divides across the world gravitate towards each other in some sort of global solidarity.

IMG_2598 (800x600)The more I saw, the more I wondered whether people living locally actually see these walls any more? Or is their attention focused on them by the band of black cabs that pull up alongside disgorging camera-toting tourists eager to digitalise what for many might well be seen as a type of romanticised violence. As one of the aforementioned CTTs, I opted to stay in the cab and listen to what my cabbie had to say (more on that later).

IMG_2602 (800x593) (2)I’m often chastened but never surprised by how little I know. Or perhaps I did know at one stage but have chosen to forget. Yet as our cabbie explained the murals, I felt a tad ashamed of my ignorance. Particularly as Michael Stone has been in the news lately, too. His one-man attack on an IRA funeral killing four and leaving 50 others injured made the world news in 1988 as it was captured live on video. He was released as part of the Good Friday agreement in 2000, but a second attempt on the lives of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in 2006 sent him back inside.

IMG_2600 (800x600)There is so much about Northern Ireland that I don’t understand. So much history that I think had to be lived through to be really understood. Although things might have gotten better in recent years, the divide is still there, still visible. And while some might hold out hope that terrorism might be replaced by tourism,  I wonder.




Real where it counts

I like my lists. I have lists of  books I want to read. Lists of places I want to visit. Lists of things I want to do before I die. For years now I’ve had a list of singers I wanted to hear live before they died: Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Jones, Neil Diamond, BB King – all ticked off. The one I was missing, until last week, was Dolly Parton.

I can’t say the Odyssey in Belfast would be my place of choice to see a live act again, but there’s always a first time. It was a tightly controlled fully seated concert and if anyone stood up to dance, they were immediately asked to sit down. I’m not quite sure that Dolly knew what to make of it. I know I didn’t.

IMG_2482 (800x599)IMG_2497The woman looked amazing. As she said herself – she looks totally artificial, but she’s real where it counts. She’s on record as saying: ‘If I see something
sagging, bagging and dragging, I’m going to nip it, tuck it, and suck it!’ The woman is a testament to the powers of cosmetic surgery. She explained how she idealised the town ‘tramp’ when she was a kid and always wanted to look glamourous. Tipping around in her high heels with nails long enough to reach the remotest itch, she was all that, and more. And, man, does she like to talk.

We were treated to all sorts of anecdotes about her life, about her daddy and her mama, about her granddad and her husband (48 years married this year but as she tours so much, they’ve only been together for 3!). She told us about being raised as a Holy Roller and about the importance of being proud of our religion, whatever that might be. She thumped the bible so much that as we were leaving, I overheard someone commenting that she felt as if she’d just been to church. But that’s Dolly. I hadn’t realised that she’d recorded a gospel version of Jon Bon Jovi’s Lay your hands on me.

IMG_2489 (800x674) She played the harmonica, the guitar, the fiddle, the tin whistle, a washboard, a banjo, the piano, and even a mini-saxophone which she’d customised with rhinestones. ‘Twas all bling. Her nine-piece band (including one male backing singer) were dressed in black; the only piece of colour on the stage was Dolly. She was definitely the star of the show.

The one-liners kept me as amused as her singing kept me enthralled.  I particularly liked: I’m a little too good to be real bad, and a little too bad to be real good. While it was Islands in the stream and 9-5 that got the crowd finally to their feet en masse in defiance of the security bods, for me, it was her Little Sparrow that made it all worthwhile. Fair play, Dolly. You’re one in a million.

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