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.


Educational epitaphs

I thought I was a little odd visiting Bródy Sándor’s grave each November and leaving flowers, but I have nothing on this 40-something French girl who comes to Ireland five or six times a year to visit Michael Collins’s grave and also sends flowers for Valentine’s Day and his birthday. Amazing what Liam Neeson’s portrayal of the great man can ignite.

IMG_7245 (600x800)Mind you, I inherited a photo from my aunt of a man in uniform, sure that it was of my grandfather. A friend visiting from Ireland said he was surprised that I’d have a photo of Michael Collins on my wall. I’m not sure who got the bigger shock.

Michael Collins ranks up there as one of Ireland’s great historical figures. And Glasnevin cemetery is full of them. Parnell, Larkin, O’Donovan Rossa  – they’ve all secured a place in history and a plot in this cemetery. Used as I am to rather banal epitaphs, it was quite a shock to see cause of death etched in stone. Walking through Glasnevin was like leafing through a history book.

IMG_7241 (589x800)IMG_7223 (594x800)I felt stirrings of that elusive thing called patriotism as I was reminded, yet again, that the freedom I enjoy today is courtesy of so many who gave up their lives to secure it for me. There were two sides in the Civil War and to this day, there are two camps alive and well in Ireland. I wrote a while back about the American Civil War and the South’s reluctance to move on and let go, so it was with more than a little chagrin that I listened to our guide tell of visitors who would refuse to stop at de Valera’s grave or walk by Michael Collins without as much as a nod. And I wondered, not for the first time, about history and how, how it is passed on  shapes our view of the world.

IMG_7235 (600x800)I’m a great fan of WB Yeats and have noted a couple of instances where he refers to a chap by the name of O’Leary. In September 1913, he writes: Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone; it’s with O’Leary in the grave. And again, in the poem Beautiful Lofty Things: Beautiful lofty things: O’Leary’s noble head. I’d always wondered who this chap was and now I know. Buried next to James Stephens, for whom he was best man, O’Leary was a Fenian, believing in Irish independence and the separation of Church and state, and, apparently, a friend of Whistler. Now there’s a connection that would make for an interesting ‘six degrees of separation’.

IMG_7211 (800x600) (2)The prize for the best attended funeral goes to Charles Stewart Parnell – more than a quarter of a million people turned out to see him buried – a sizable number of whom wanted to make sure he was dead. Parnell was buried in the cholera pit, where more than 13 000 others met their end in a mass grave. It was thought that here, he’d be safe from the grave robbers and those who might want a piece of him.

In many countries, grave robbing has fallen off the statutory law wagon. Back in the day, when medical universities needed bodies to dissect, corpses were traded by the imperial inch. Just one body was worth two months’ wages in Ireland and in the UK, the same body would be worth six. In Austria right now, police are looking for a grave robber who has broken in the graves of composers Brahms and Strauss and stolen their teeth! Apparently he plans to open a museum. Oh, the workings of the human mind – what a mystery.