Thursday, 7 August 2008

On shoes and ships and sealing wax.

TotS Irish Adventure

August 6th, Day Seven.
Some of you might remember that during the period between 1969 and the mid 90’s Belfast was not the sort of place many people would have thought of as a tourist destination. Nightly news frequently featured shootings, bombings, hunger strikes, marches that erupted into violent clashes, terrorist attacks on civilian and military sites, and military reprisals. A friend of Wayne’s, who is a news reporter who worked in Northern Ireland during that time, tells of another reporter who bribed a youth to throw a Molotov cocktail at a car in the background of a report he was doing. It would not have been considered a safe place to visit and yet it was a country where English was spoken; from which the ancestors of many English, Australians and Americans originated; and where people were still living their daily lives in a way which would have been familiar to most of us.

Today was a day we had been looking forward to since we had decided to go to Ireland. We were going to be looking around the city of Belfast, and we were going to have a person who was born and grew up here with us as our friend and guide. Through circumstances beyond her control Julie was unable to be with us in the morning, but we decided to go into the city ourselves, take a look around, and then meet her in the city centre sometime after lunch. Because Moneyrea is only 7 miles from the centre of Belfast (despite being a small village in a decidedly rural setting) we were catching the bus into the city, to avoid having to worry about parking.

We were even looking forward to the bus ride. Wayne, because it would give him a break from driving and the chance to look around more, Brock, Quinn and Meg, because it is interesting to do familiar things in different places. At the bus stop we were intrigued to hear the reaction of the other travellers around us. One elderly lady turned to another and said, “They must be the Australians.”
“Yes”, replied the other lady, “they are very common”.
We were slightly taken aback, firstly that our presence in this village was so widely known, and Meg particularly horrified that a word like “common” would be applied to us. However, we weren’t the ones making derogatory comments about others in their hearing at a bus stop.

The ride itself, beginning through green fields (and the whole of Ireland is very green) and then gradually moving through suburbs before ending in the city, was over much quicker than the boys had imagined it would be. Having spent six months living in England the similarities in architecture were striking. One thing that was noticeable was that there were nowhere near as many people on the street. Whereas we had seen hitchhikers through most of the Republic (and would continue to do so over the remainder of our trip) this did not seem to take place so much here. As the city centre got closer we also began to see the occasional mural, with a political theme painted on to the sides of buildings. There was also quite a lot of new building going on, which was very encouraging to see.

After a bit of confusion (solved by the bus driver telling us that this was where we had asked to go) we got off at Donegall Square, across the road from the Town Hall. It is a Renaissance style building constructed in 1906 with a dome of the top which makes it seem very big and impressive. At the front entrance is a statue of Queen Victoria, despite the fact that it had been completed a few years after her death. Even the lighting is impressive, ornate lamps decorated with cherubs and seahorses (meant to symbolise the city’s industrial and manufacturing heritage). We walked from here down Howard Street toward Great Victoria Street.

It was on Great Victoria Street that we found one of the things we had been looking for. A man was standing near a large red double-decker bus advertising city tours. Julie was planning to join us for this because it would give us a chance to go into areas that she had never travelled through before. They would know the best places to go and be able to tell us more about them. Speaking to the man we found that the actual bus did not leave from this point, but from a spot on the other side of town. However, the tickets would last for 24 hours and if we came back to this spot we would be able to catch a bus to where the tour started. With this in mind we turned around to head back toward the Great Victoria Street Railway Station and Europa Bus Centre.

Two buildings, which are amazing for different reasons, are just next to the train station. The first of these is the Grand Opera House. It is an impressive building architecturally, (designed in 1894 by Frank Matcham) but it has also been the host to an enormous variety of performers over the years. Next to it is the Europa Hotel which, because of it’s proximity to the Opera House, has hosted the rich, famous and talented over a long period of time. More than that, however, it also rates as the most bombed and bomb threatened Hotel in Northern Ireland and possibly the world. The huge concrete barriers (to protect from car bombs) are no longer there and there is now glass in the front windows, but there are still scars and monuments to what has taken place in the past.

Having got the money to pay (we have been amazed here in both parts of Ireland just how many places don’t have facilities for cards) we went back to Fisherwick Place in order to catch a bus to the main starting point at Castle Place and, after a short wait, boarded the big red bus. Sadly, there was not enough room on the open top part, but very shortly into the drive we lost our concern as it started to rain. The tour guide, very early on in the tour, recognised that both Wayne and Meg would interact with him and he was funny and friendly, as well as being informative. We headed up and over the River Lagan via the Queen Elizabeth Bridge, past the Lagan Weir which keeps the river at a reasonable height, looking back toward the (sadly not working because undergoing maintenance) Belfast Wheel. Then it was on to Queens Island and the first stop on our journey.

Belfast locals tend to be immensely proud of the fact that it was at the Harland and Wolff Shipyard that Titanic was designed built and launched. The writer, Peter Biddlecombe, in ‘Ireland - In a Glass of its Own’ recommends that ‘they like nothing better than to be reminded that the ark was built by amateurs and the Titanic by professionals’ but we did not take this advice. The shipyards are amazing with an enormous dry dock and two of the biggest cranes in the world (known as Samson and Goliath, while they are no longer used they are heritage listed so will be preserved), even the offices of the shipyards are designed to look like a ship. Also on the island is the Odyssey Pavilion which is a concert centre, an education facility, and the home of the Belfast Ice hockey team. For some strange reason none of us had thought of an ice hockey team playing in Belfast (and not one of the players is from Northern Ireland apparently) but the tour guide pointed out that they missed a real opportunity in naming the side the Belfast Giants rather than the Belfast Bombers.

From here we drove out past Victoria Park toward the George Best International Airport. Victoria Park had been built during the previous century by the docklands owners to give their employees somewhere to go on weekends. Given the length of the hours worked, and the fact that they also worked on Saturdays this gave them and their families some green space, watercourses and playgrounds. These days, for health and safety reasons, people aren’t allowed to scull or sail on the lake, however there has been an effort made to encourage wildlife into the parklands, and visitors are able to feed the ducks and other birdlife. On the other hand, the airport was only renamed in honour of one of Belfast’s favourite sons in 2006. Although Best was a brilliant footballer, in a time before television was able to show that to the world, various problems with sex and alcohol cost him an extended career and eventually his life.

Our next location, quite a long way out from the City Centre, was the Stormont Building, the seat of the Parliament of Northern Ireland and now the home to the Northern Ireland Assembly (created under the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement). It is a very impressive building, originally modelled upon the White House in the United States, and the grounds are even more impressive. Our guide told us that to camouflage it during World War II the building's Portland stone was painted with supposedly removable "paint" made of bitumen and cow manure. This seemed so unlikely we were tempted not to believe him. However, having done some research, it appears actually to be true. Apparently, after the war, removing the paint proved an enormous difficulty because it had so badly scarred the stonework. It took seven years to remove the "paint", and the exterior facade has never regained its original white color.

At the front of the building is a very dramatic statue of Sir Edward Carson who was, at one time, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in the British Parliament. In fact, he led the resistance to the Home Rule Act in 1912 and led rallies around Britain to try to ensure that Ireland remained part of the Union. He was also known for his role as the leader of the defence when Oscar Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensbury for libel in 1895. Carson and Wilde had known one another at Trinity College and the trial has become famous for the battle of wits which took place between the two. The statue has the inscription, “By the loyalists of Ulster as an expression of their love and admiration for its subject” and, unusually, Carson was present at it’s dedication, the statue being erected in 1932, three years before his eventual death in 1935. He was one of the few non-monarchs to receive a United Kingdom state funeral, which was conducted in Belfast’s St Anne’s Cathedral.

On the topic of funerals, the Stormont was also the site used for the funeral of George Best. It was considered the best site largely because it was the only place in Belfast capable of holding the large crowds who wished to attend. Depending on whose numbers you believe, anywhere between 25 000 and 100 000 people lined the roads both in and around the Stormont as the funeral cortege passed by. This was the first time since World War II that the building had been used for a non-governmental or political purpose. Our entrance to the grounds was off a side road, but even so we had security staff come on board to check out if we were suspicious personages. Interestingly, when we came back on a second trip with Julie later the Guard didn’t even get on to the bus.

By this stage the rain had started to die down which was good because we were now to go to one of the most fascinating parts of the tour around Belfast. In fact, a big reason behind why Julie wanted to come on the tour bus with us was, despite the fact that she had lived in Belfast for most of her life, she had never previously been into the areas we were going to travel because they had never been safe. After another pass through the City Centre we headed into west Belfast and the areas known as the Shankill Road and the Falls Road (names which might be known to any of you familiar with the period of the ‘Troubles’). This involved going out on Clifton Street, past the aforementioned St Anne’s Cathedral and up to the Crumlin Road Gaol and Court House.

Crumlin Road Gaol was built in 1845 from Black Basalt rock on a 10 acre site to be the county gaol for County Antrim and was modelled on Pentonville Prison in London. It was closed on March 31, 1996 and in 2003 was transferred to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister for redevelopment. During the intervening period it had a fascinating history, housing over 25 000 prisoners. Among the first, moved across in a transfer from the previous county gaol, 6 of the 106 had already been earmarked for transportation to Australia. Among these were both women and children, women being kept at Crumlin Road until the beginning of the 20th Century. It was the suicide death by hanging of ten-year old Patrick Magee, who had been ‘sent down’ for three months for stealing clothes from a washer woman, that led to a law being passed in 1858 prohibiting children under the age of 14 from being kept in an adult prison.

Interestingly, there was no gallows in the original building, however a new execution chamber was opened in 1901 and during the time it operated 17 men were executed at the gaol. 15 of these were for criminal murder, 1 for semi-political reasons, but the most famous was the execution of Tom Williams on September 2, 1942. This was carried out by Thomas Pierrepoint (about whose life a movie, Pierrepoint, was recently released which Wayne viewed on the flight to England back in January and which he highly recommends) an official British hangman who also executed 200 Nazi war criminals. It was felt that having an Irish national conduct the execution would be too emotive given that he had been sentenced for political protest causing the death of a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Crumlin Road was used to house many on remand of sentence as political prisoners, with republicans interned between 1922 and 1924, again during the IRA’s border campaign of the 1940s and 1950s, but most frequently during the 1970’s when the prison could get so full that 3 prisoners had to be kept in a one inmate cell.

The Shankill Road is an arterial road running through the predominantly Protestant working class Shankill area of Belfast and was the focus point of the Protestant or Unionist paramilitary groups during the ‘Troubles’. One of the main Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) paramilitary groups, responsible for loyalist terrorist attacks against the IRA and Catholics, was known as the “Shankill Butchers”. However, the Shankill Road was also the target of IRA attacks, most notably the “Shankill bombing” on 23 October 1993 which killed 9 people in Frizzells Fish Shop, including one of the bombers. This event is one of a multitude of events, people and groups commemorated in murals which line both this area and the Falls Road (the predominantly Catholic area of west Belfast). All of us found these murals absolutely amazing, taking up the whole sides of buildings and obviously well maintained.

As well as the murals, another sight which amazed was the ‘peace lines’ on Millfield Road between Shankill and the Falls. These are a series of barriers built of iron, brick, and steel walls up to 25 feet (7.6 m) high, topped with metal netting and which act as a sort of fence between the Catholic and Protestant areas. As we passed through we could see them proceeding off in both directions and were even more astonished to hear that in some parts of Belfast the gates are still closed at 6pm every evening. In fact the guide claimed that, even with the extensive work done on the peace process over the last 10 years, leaving the gates open would almost certainly result in events which might cause that process to fail.

The Falls Road saw British troops placed there by the British government from August 1969 in response to the Northern Ireland riots. Initially they were welcomed by the residents as a source of protection from protestant gangs which had been marauding in the area. However, these attitudes changed as the residents were drawn into conflict with the British Army. In 1970, the road was the scene of what became known as the Falls Curfew when 3000 British army troops sealed off the streets around the road, home to about 10,000 people. They flooded the area with soldiers in an attempt to recover IRA weapons after a gun and grenade attack by the Provisional IRA. After an all day gun fight in the street, ninety rifles were recovered but four Catholic civilians had been killed by the soldiers. For the next thirty years the British Army maintained a presence on the Falls Road, with a base on top of the Divis Tower and with CCTV cameras (with special bulletproof lenses) directed up and down the road. When the IRA stated that it was ceasing armed conflict the base was removed in August 2005.

Like the Shankill, the Falls Road was also covered in murals, however these were pro-Catholic, pro-IRA and memorialised victims and ‘martyrs’ from this side of the conflict. There were so many on both roads that it was difficult to spot all of the murals and we were glad that we would be coming back later with Julie to make sure that we could get good photos and get a second look at the area. It seemed astonishing that such a violent political battle could also produce some impressive artwork. We all fervently hoped that the conduct of any future problems might be confined to mural painting, and indeed on both sides some of the murals dealt with issues from all around the world. One of the strangest parts of the tour saw our guide tell us that, with the IRA, the UDA, and UVF, one of the most dangerous organisations, still active today, was coming up. He then warned us to put our cameras to one side because the organisation doesn’t always react kindly to people photographing them in the context of the conflicts in Northern Ireland. You can imagine our surprise, then, when the organisation in question turned out to be KFC.

At the end of the Falls Road is an area which is not primarily known because of association with the ‘Troubles’. The Royal Victoria Hospital was completed in 1906, historically significant from an engineering perspective because it was the first air conditioned building in the world. None of us had known that air-conditioning was developed in Northern Ireland (indeed Brock wanted to know, given the temperatures here relative to those in Queensland, why people in Belfast would need air-conditioning at all) but that was not the Royal’s only claim to fame. It was while Frank Pantridge was working at the Royal that he developed the portable defibrilator, which are now standard equipment in hospitals and ambulances around the world and by means of which thousands of lives have been saved. Around the hospital grounds the fence is constructed to look like strands of DNA and at regular intervals there are large photographs which form a series tracing the aging process from a tiny baby to an old man (or, if you are travelling in the other direction, you can watch the face gradually get younger).

Now we turned down towards the area of Belfast which is dominated by the Queen’s University. The roots of this organisation go back to 1810 when it was known as Belfast Academical Institution, it was chartered as a university in 1845 and opened in 1849 as Queen’s College, Belfast. This was as one third of an organisation which also included Queen’s College, Cork and Queen’s College, Galway, making up the Queen’s University of Ireland. You might be surprised to know that the university was one of only eight United Kingdom universities to hold a parliamentary seat at Westminster until such representation was abolished in 1950. The university was also represented in the Parliament of Northern Ireland from 1920–1968, where its graduates elected four seats. Although not as old as Oxford and Cambridge the University is only a couple of years older than the University of Sydney (the oldest in Australia), and both the grounds and surroundings, as well as the architecture are very similar.

Of course, no University would be complete without places for the students to drink, and the last part of our tour took us past some historic pubs as we returned to the city centre. The Crown Bar, on Great Victoria Street is owned by the National Trust, and is reputed to have ‘the most perfectly preserved Victorian pub interior in the province’. It is 19th century building which features ten wood panelled snugs to give customers a certain degree of privacy, as well as being a superb example of a 'gin palace'. The decorations feature scalloped gas lights, gleaming brasswork, a long bar inlaid with coloured glass, marble, geometric Italian tilework and fine glass carvings. We wondered if the people drinking there would have been as appreciative of the surroundings after one or two pints.

Once back in the centre of Belfast we managed to do a little bit of shopping and grab some lunch from Tescos before Julie reached us. The weather had cleared up nicely after we had left Stormont and when Julie arrived we decided that we would ride on the top of the bus this time. At the front of the bus there is a little section covered in plexiglass so, to cover their bases, Wayne and Meg rode in this section. It was great to do the trip again (your ticket is for 24 hours and you can hop on and off anywhere you want, however we chose to do the round trip both times) with a different guide, reinforcing many of the things that we had learned on the first trip around. Our second guide even used some of the same jokes as the first guide, so we decided that even they were part of the spiel, however there were other features that were very different, which was good.
Sadly, the one negative was that not long after we had boarded and the bus had started to move the weather also changed. By the time we were at Stormont this time around it was bucketing down and many of the people behind us had abandoned the top level altogether. Not only that, but if you were sitting at the very back of the bus the road to Stormont itself passed under trees with very low branches so it was possible to get whipped by them as well. This made taking photos difficult, but things had calmed down by the time we reached the Shankill and Fall Road area so it was possible for Wayne to walk to the back and take photos amidst the drizzle. As well as spotting more murals on our second trip we also noticed just how well fortified the police stations and former army posts had been.
Our second guide also delighted in quirky buildings, one of our favourites being a tiny house next door to the Great Victoria Street Baptist church. As you might see from our photo, while two stories high, it is not very wide at all, and dwarfed by the Victorian era church next door which was capable of holding a congregation of 740 at its peak. The guide told us that the occupant of the house was once the caretaker of the church with his wife and family. Most astounding was that this family included 7 children. From the outside it is hard to imagine where they could possibly have put them. Sadly, it seems that both buildings will be demolished under a current proposal for a new building before the Belfast City Council.
When we completed our second trip, Julie took us to Victoria Square, a large shopping centre in the middle of the city. While the shopping itself might have been exciting enough for Meg and Julie, the highlight of this is the giant glass dome and viewing platform which is there. From this vantage point you can, on a clear day, not only see all of the tallest buildings in the city but you also get a largely uninterrupted view out to the hills which surround Belfast itself. Meg wasn’t overly thrilled about going up in the glass elevator, but Julie, Wayne and the boys were able to appreciate the view, despite the inclement weather conditions limiting it somewhat. Meg was made even gladder she had not gone when Brock and Quinn told her how the platform at the top had been swaying slightly because of the strong wind we were having that day.

After a couple of visits to shops to pick up gifts, we parted from Julie so that we could catch our separate bus back to home (Julie had parked in closer to the city after her activities of the morning and had to catch a different bus). On the way we stopped in at both the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland Tourist Information offices to make sure that we had what we needed (including accommodation) for the next few nights of our trip. With a bus trip back we had dinner and did as much packing as possible ready for some more driving the next day. Altogether our time in Belfast had been a fascinating one and we all learned lots.

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