With the re-development and expansion of the Titanic, Cathedral and Queen’s Quarters, an economy renewed by foreign investments and local businesses, and a fledgling arts culture seeking to pull-up a varied and multi-faceted heritage by its oppressed roots, the city of Belfast is tinged with the joy and excitement in affluence and discovery.
Belfast is, in fact, re-discovering itself after thirty-odd years of regressive, tribal warfare. Never has it been the city you’d want to take home to your parents – violent, conflicted, confused, it could blow-up at any time. History is always likely to spill- over if circumstances are ripe for it; the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement make clear that peace is conditional, something which is inherently understood by the residents of Belfast. And yet, as with any place that has experienced prolonged impoverishment and suffering at the whim of tyrants, the desire for peace has proved defiantly resilient. The present envelopes the past.
Belfast (from the Gaelic name, Béal Feirste, meaning “Mouth of the Shoal”) is Northern Ireland’s capital city. It is also the largest, ascending to prominence during the 18th and 19th centuries on the strength of its industry, which included first and foremost linen production, tobacco processing and pioneering feats of heavy engineering and shipbuilding. So successful were these ventures that for a brief period during the late-19th century it managed to surpass Dublin as the largest city in Ireland (Queen Victoria finally granted Belfast city status in 1888).
Although the site where the city in its current configuration now permanently resides and flourishes has been traced back to the Bronze Age (the Giant’s Ring, built on the outskirts of the city, is 5,000 years old), it bore little semblance of social or structural significance until a few hundred men under the command of John de Courcy constructed Carrickfergus Castle (to the north of the city) in 1177. Grey Castle (somewhere to the east), which was built under Aodh Flann O’Neill of the O’Neill dynasty in 1350, helped permanently arrange and locate the site. But only during the 17th century, when wealthy English and Scottish landowners began to systematically colonise the north of Ireland in what is known as the Plantation of Ulster, did Belfast take its proper form.
In 1791, a small group of nine Presbyterians (including Henry Joy McCracken) met with the legendary revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone and his compatriot Thomas Russell (both Anglicans), and together they founded the Society of United Irishmen. At this point in Belfast’s development, a series of alleyways mapped-out and provided access to key locations. Named, quite simply, the Belfast Entries, they remain as the city continually expands and contracts around them. They are the oldest structures in Belfast.
It was Crown Entry at Kelly’s Cellars pub (est. 1720), in fact, where the United Irishmen held its first meeting. Due largely to the brutal measures with which the Irish government chose to repress its Belfast enterprise, eventually the organisation, seeking to form an independent Irish republic, found its headquarters permanently in Dublin. From there it gave rise to the Irish Rebellion. The gravesite of Henry Joy McCracken, hanged at Corn Market in 1798 for leading the uprising through County Antrim, rests unglamorously in Clifton Street Graveyard alongside his sister Mary Ann, herself a political activist and social reformer. Joy’s Entry, which connects Ann Street to High Street, is named for them.
During the first half of the 20th century, Belfast suffered a steep decline in industry when much of the products and methods of production made popular during the 18th and 19th centuries fell out of demand and were replaced by more advanced and efficient technologies. The latter half of the 20th century threw Belfast into what seemed like ever-lasting turmoil with the arrival of the Troubles. However, Belfast today is by any standard an altogether much nicer place to live and visitors are consistently amazed by the speed, quality and direction with which the city has progressed.
Unmissable Attractions in Belfast
1. The newly constructed Belfast Metropolitan and Arts Centre offers free, interactive exhibits and is worth visiting for the building alone, which won its commission through the RIBA International Design Contest in 2007 (Opening Times: Monday to Friday from 10.00 a.m. – 7.00 p.m.)
2. Crumlin Road Gaol (Opening Times: Monday to Sunday from 10.00 a.m. – 4.30 p.m.) Prices: Adults £7.50 / Concession £5.50 / Family £22.00
3. Falls Leisure Centre (Opening Times: Monday to Friday from 7.15 a.m. – 10.00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10.00 a.m. – 4.00 p.m.) Prices vary
5. Shankill Leisure Centre (Opening Times: Monday to Friday from 7.15 a.m. – 10.00 p.m. and Saaturday and Sunday from 10.00 a.m. – 4.00 p.m.) Prices vary
7. Saint Peter’s Cathedral (Opening Times: Monday to Friday from 10.00 a.m. – 10.00 p.m. and Saturday from 10.00 a.m. – 6.00 p.m. / Sunday Mass at 9.00 a.m. 11.00 a.m. and 6.30 p.m.)
8. The Albert Memorial Clock Tower, which was constructed in 1867 on wooden piles on top of marshland and therefore leans four feet to the south, is (perhaps fortunately) not open to the general public, but visitors can easily view it at any time from Custom House Square. Custom House Square is itself worth visiting
9. For a feel of the city’s burgeoning modernity, the third floor of Victoria Square, a newly-developed, semi-enclosed shopping complex, leads up a spiral staircase to a huge, glass-dome viewing gallery, which overlooks the changing Belfast skyline at 360 degrees
10. For a feel of the city’s burgeoning arts culture, don’t miss Culture Night Belfast, the city’s largest, most colourful and widely inclusive cultural celebration, which for one evening every September radically transforms the streets of Belfast. Over 150 organisations and individuals in the city centre perform, present, curate, cultivate and illuminate the evening inside a host of venues, galleries, artists’ studios, historic buildings, churches and restaurants, with many more throwing open their doors to the public.
11. A visit to Belfast City Hall, which is open to the general public all year, may include a free, 45-minute guided tour of the premises. Twice a year in spring and winter it accommodates the splendid continental market, which brings together almost 100 traders from diverse areas of Europe and offers a wide range of food and drink, plants and homemade trinkets. (Opening Times: Monday to Thursday from 8.30 a.m. – 5.00 p.m. and Friday from 8.30 a.m. – 4.30 p.m.)
12. The Linen Hall Library, opposite the site of the City Hall where it stood originally, contains virtually every piece of historical information written onthe Troubles (Opening Times: Monday to Friday from 9.30 a.m. – 5.30 p.m. and Saturday from 9.30 a.m. – 4.00 p.m.)
13. Construction of St.Anne’s Cathedral, which began in 1899, remained somewhat unfinished until 1981. This beautiful monument to a varied and conflicted history houses the tomb of legendary Ulster figure Sir Edward Carson (Opening Times: Monday to Friday from 8.00 a.m. – 4.00 p.m.)
15. The Crescent Arts Centre, which since 1979 has welcomed into its venue various theatre and arts companies, was recently refurbished and reopened to the general public (Opening Times: Daily from 9.30 a.m. – 10.00 p.m.)
16. The Ulster Museum, which was recently reopened after extensive interior modernisation, features amongst countless, wonderful instalments the open casket of a 2500-year-old mummy, the reconstructed skeletons of prehistoric animals and a chunk of the moon (Opening Times: Tuesday to Sunday from 10.00 a.m. – 5.00 p.m.)
17. The Botanic Gardens feature the Palm House, whose designer George Lanyon lovingly encased in glass. Additionally, check-out the Tropical Ravine, that strange and rare thing: a greenhouse lovingly encased in brick (Opening Times: Daily from 7.30 a.m. – closing times vary according to the time of year)
18. One of Belfast’s most famed buildings, The Grand Opera House was extensively restored and refurbished to its original Victorian design after a bombing campaign targeting the nearby Europa Hotel (“Europe’s most bombed hotel”) left it badly damaged.
19. St George’s Market, an elegant Victorian marketplace built in 1896, is the oldest continually operating market in Ireland. On Friday it offers an assortment of food, and on Saturdays and Sundays often features live music(Opening Times: Friday from 6.00 a.m. – 2.00 p.m. Saturday from 9.00 a.m. – 3.00 p.m. andSunday from 10.00 a.m. – 4.00 p.m.)
20. Ozone Leisure Centre (Opening Times: Monday to Saturday from 9.00 a.m. – 10.00 p.m.
and Sunday from 10.00 a.m. – 5.00 p.m.) Prices vary
21. Ormeau Park (Opening Times: Monday to Sunday from dawn till dusk)
22. An Droichead Cultural Centre (Opening times may vary) Prices vary
23. Martyrs’ Memorial (Opening Times: Sunday worship at 11.30 a.m. and 7.00 p.m.)