Belfast Castle is one of the must-see sights of the city
Deep inside my soul fights a war I cant explain, I cant cross over any more All I see are dirty faces Rain and wire, and common sense in pieces But I try to see through Irish eyes Belfast Look outside, summers lost and gone Its a long walk on a street of right and wrong In every inch of sadness Rocks and tanks go hand in hand with madness But I never saw a braver place Belfast…
— From Elton Johns album Made in England
It was a freezing, blistery winter morning when I flew out of Leeds for Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland. Id decided to go on a weekend trip to one of the prettiest, yet tourist-free parts of the British Isles.
Most visitors shun the one time ship-building city of Belfast, surrounded by stunning sea-scape, for its unfortunate history of sectarian violence which still threatens to erupt once in a while.
Failte (welcome), said Danny Neil, a beaming short, rotund Irish gentleman, our guide for the day. Unlike snow-bound England, the sun was out in Irish skies and the countryside through which we drove was a patchwork of green fields and rolling heather-rich hills with snow clad mountains in the distance. They say there are more shades of green in Ireland than in any place in the world, said Danny, proudly, driving his little van.
| Graffiti on the street leading to Sandy Row which is Loyalist territory
We drove past ruined castles to Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, connecting the tiny island of Carrick to Antrim county in Northern Ireland.
We wanted to try the bridge. Some 350 years ago salmon fishermen built a rope bridge to the island which was an anglers paradise, where upto 300 salmon could be caught in a day during the June-September season when the fish migrates upstream to spawn in the rivers Bann and Bush.
Since the first rickety bridge, many versions have came up, till a final wire rope and Douglas fir bridge, which locals say is the safest theyve ever had. The walk across was short, but with sea winds swaying the bridge and making eerie sounds in the crags and crannies, it was also one of the most memorable and scary ones I have ever had.
The salmon has deserted Carrick and now only a few hundred are caught each season. Over-fishing is the likely cause, but Danny claimed it was the Troubles in Derry and Belfast which drove away the salmon. How Catholic peasants and workers fighting Protestant landlords and businessmen could drive off fish, is a little difficult to imagine, but then this is Ireland!
After the walk in the bracing sea air, I needed a hearty breakfast. A nearby farmers cottage turned into an eatery served us Ulster Fry — fried sausages, bacon, eggs with lots of potato cake and wheaten bread. Ulster is the name of the original Irish province, six of whose nine counties now make up Northern Ireland, and the fried platter is named after it.
After a short drive through Derry which saw some of the worst violence in North Ireland, we reached Belfast. Belfast has been the tragic symbol of a city literally divided by religion and ethnicity through the 19th and 20th centuries and yet has now become a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.
Northern Ireland was always more industrialised than the rest of the island and had large numbers of immigrant English and Scottish Protestant settlers. When Ireland became independent in 1921, the north chose to remain loyal to the British crown. And that was the genesis of the Troubles. In the late 1960s, bloody riots broke out over Catholic demands for integration with Ireland.
A visit to the Belfast dockyard which built the famous ship Titanic, is a must. It was known as the ship-building capital of the world. Much of Englands Second World War fleet of aircraft carriers and frigates was built here. Ship-makers Harland & Wolff built the tragic RMS Titanic here in a dry dock, by the side of the Lagan River. As Belfast shipwrights say she was alright when she sailed out of here. The rest is history.
|Guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara seems an unlikely hero for Northern Ireland
Danny guided us to Ewings Fishmongers, a family-run shop on Shankill Road. A secret recipe for smoking salmon, passed down generations makes this one of the best known seafood restaurants here.
Belfast is not just a sea-food lovers paradise, it has some lovely architecture and lively streets. The Victorian-style Queens University, St Annes cathedral, the Northern Ireland parliament — Stormont, Belfast Castle, the ultra-modern steel and glass Waterfront hall, form part of the collage which any visitor to the city must see.
But perhaps the most interesting bit of Belfast is a tour of the streets which saw the worst of Protestant-Catholic rioting. What strikes you as you walk past poor workingmens quarters are huge wall graffiti. One sign warns Catholics they are now entering Sandy Row, which is Loyalist territory! Another, a collage of international freedom fighters which includes Che, adorns a Catholic neighbourhood.
It was scary walking from one part of the city to another. There were actual walls and barbed wire fences dividing the city … you could be dead if you were caught on the wrong side after dusk, explained Danny.
On the night of August 14, 1969, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, mostly drawn from Protestants and Protestant gunmen fought Catholic rioters with Shoreland armoured cars mounted with heavy Browning machine guns. In the acts of violent reprisals that night, Loyalists set fire to dozens of Catholic houses in Bombay Street.
Night-time, Belfast is lit up like a fairy kingdom. The deserted waterfront and city centre and the more lively pubs and discos are all decked up. Looking at the brisk business, music and whisky induced bonhomie at the pub of our choice —Duke of York — one cant imagine this was a divided city once.
Getting there: There are regular flights to London from Indian metros, including Calcutta. You change flights for Belfast from London.
Staying there: All kinds of accommodation are available in Belfast, from bed and breakfasts to lavish five-star options. Go to www.belfastaccommodation.net.