Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Pride of Belfast City...

T and I have spent the last few days in Belfast. One of our daughters was giving a TEDx talk there, and of course the proud parents wanted to attend - what a wonderful experience! 

While we were there, we spent a couple of days roaming the city.  It was her first ever visit, but T had done some work at BBC Belfast during the Troubles, and I had spent some very formative teenage years living on the northern fringes of the city.  Neither of us had been back since.  

I am still coming to terms with how the old place has changed.  Have you ever had the experience of meeting with someone you haven't seen since you were 17?  Belfast seemed at first to be a bit like my old school friends, completely recognisable but immensely changed by the passage of the years. 

We stayed in a hotel which could have been in Shoreditch. It's reached through a passageway decorated with murals - there's the front courtyard, below.

It's fair to say that "hip" was not a word associated with the Belfast of my youth.  This time, though, we were in the Cathedral Quarter, the city's hippest area, and believe me, I've never seen such a place for street art.  In some areas, street art covered almost every metre of wall space.   The image below was one wall of a huge courtyard entirely covered in paintings, all of them representing events or aspects of Northern Ireland both now and in the past.  

It is approached by an alleyway, and the alley's roof is decorated with Yeats'  "An Irish Airman Forsees his Death" - you can hear it, and read an explanation of it, here.

When you get into the square you see that one side consists of a life sized row of terraced houses, one of which is shown below. To see a whole row is quite unsettling.

Each window in the terrace has a meaning.  I'd think the elephant, for instance, refers to a short movie directed by Danny Boyle about Northern Ireland refusing to "see the elephant" in its living room.   (in case you're not familiar with the expression, it means you refuse to acknowledge something even though it cannot be ignored).   

On the left you'll see a Catholic sitting room complete with a picture of the Pope, religious statuettes and a collecting box for missionary work. On the right is a gay couple with their cat staring out of the window. Above is an arm-wrestling match between the UVF and the IRA  over a coffin. The lady in curlers is holding a mug from Santa Ponsa, and this recalls an amusing story about 'Northern Ireland's best boss,' a hairdresser who made a rash promise to his staff... (read about it here). 

Above the houses is a black and white mural of Belfast folk before the recent troubles, and just visible on the left is a display of photos of real people who lived in this area sixty years ago.  

 Some of the imagery is pretty hard hitting, but there are also many moments of humour, and some well known Irish people appear.  Can you spot George Best and Van Morrison below?

Well, here they are.  Wonder who the fellow in the car is?


The Big Ben-like clock is the Albert Memorial Clock, a Belfast landmark. In the picture, the digital face shows 1690, the date of the Battle of the Boyne, cherished by Orangemen, and the hands show 1916, the date of the Easter Rising, which is dear to Republicans. 

I'm still puzzling about the tiny detail below, to be found at the feet of the Orangeman standing by the "bóthar druidte" sign. It is a tiny little jockey jumping a rat over a cigarette packet, which says, in Polish, "Smoking Kills."

Someone needs to provide little booklets to explain some of these murals, don't they? In fact, there is a company offering tours of the murals of Belfast,  but I don't know if it includes the likes of this square, which seems to belong to the nearby Duke of York pub.  And I'm sure the tours don't take in the mural below, decorating one of the industrial buildings that still characterise the city.  I think it's Belfast depicted in Native American style (or at least, I think the creature's head is the Albert Memorial Clock again, trailing clouds). 

And here are some more murals reflected in the windows of the Mourne Seafood Bar in Bank Square, which had the most delicious looking fresh fish I have seen outside Japan.    

But murals aren't the only things to look at in Belfast.  Its big white City Hall has a remarkable collection of modern stained glass windows representing different aspects of Northern Ireland's history.    The one below is their take on the great famine.   See the ship taking the starving wretches to a new life in America?  

And I was dazzled by the variety of stained glass techniques in the window commemorating 100 years of  Belfast life, with linen and aircraft making, agriculture, and scientific and artistic achievements. I particularly like how the rays of light from the atom are engraved into the glass and then coloured to catch the light.

I was pleased to see that the window also contains the "Salmon of Knowledge," next to the atom rays.  (I've always liked the idea of a Salmon of Knowledge.) It refers to Fintan mac Bóchra, from Irish mythology, a seer who survived in the guise of a salmon for some years and passed on his wisdom when he changed back into a human once more.  

It is very well worth taking the free tour of the City Hall.  It is a good example of Edwardian architecture, with no expense spared (and it also has a great museum and coffee shop). Certainly, I saw enough splendid old buildings to remind me how my teenage years in Belfast gave me a lifelong love of 100-year-old architecture.    

The City Hall tour's lots of fun, not stuffy at all, by the way. Here's a grandad being encouraged to model the Mayor's robes, and he got a round of applause afterwards. 

There are more visual delights - here are mosaics in Belfast cathedral...

And isn't this drinking fountain great? It's from 1874, in remembrance of Daniel Joseph Jaffe, politician and philanthropist, and it is painted up in dazzling yellow.  

Did you ever see such a magnificent old brass front door?  Someone must polish it every day or two.

I can't say goodbye to Belfast's public art without sharing this picture of the DeLorean from one of my favourite movies, "Back to the Future."   DeLorean's in Belfast had already closed by the time the movie came out, but it lives on in a terrific mural of Belfast in Dali surrealist style. 

One afternoon we managed to visit the Ulster Museum, where top priority for me was the tapestry of the "Game of Thrones."  This popular series was filmed partly in Northern Ireland, and the tapestry is a kind of take-off of the Bayeux Tapestry, with each section telling a part of the story. I understand that after every episode, another section of the tapestry is added on to what already exists.  

I'm not a "Game of Thrones" fan but this tapestry was a wonder, even if you don't know anything about the series.  

 We heard a good deal of street music around the city, which I don't remember in the Belfast I knew before.    My favourite performer was this charming man, below,  who was very proud of his fiddle-cum-vintage gramophone, which had exactly the right squeaky sound for the Central European folk music he was playing with vigour. 

You'll wonder if we got the chance to see any of Belfast's official tourist attractions, not least the well known Titanic Belfast, which occupies an eye catching building in what used to be a drab industrial landscape.   The answer is no, we saw nothing except the City Hall - but maybe next time.... And meanwhile I am very glad we took the trouble to walk around the streets and see all the sights available for free.  

At the end of my stay, I felt that the old Belfast was still very much alive inside its new skin.  Despite much redevelopment, it is still one of the great Victorian cities, and it is still full of friendly people who like a chat and are extremely attached to, and proud of the place.  Just as before, though, I was also aware of strongly held religious and political sensitivities, so I was instinctively figuring out what kind of person was listening before I gave my own views.  A strong moralistic streak still ran through some of the atttitudes I encountered - which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing, although I might draw the line at actually shooting drug dealers.  

I'm still trying to put this new artistic, outward-looking Belfast together with the place I knew, and  yes, I'm aware I was mainly in the centre of the city.  Still, the more I think about it the more I start to believe that, like all great cities, Belfast is constantly reinventing itself. It is obviously full of talented and hardworking people, and if it can withstand the challenge that the coming couple of years could bring to its hard-won peace, there's no limit to what it could achieve.   

One last thing. Just like when I lived in Belfast, I returned to England with Northern Irish money in my purse, and nobody in London would accept it, even though it is legal tender.  Grr!


  1. Having never been there, you've piqued my curiousity.

  2. Great pictures. Those buildings are incredible. And I was thinking about Game of Thrones when I saw pictures of those tapestries.

  3. Jenny, what a wonderful post, thank you! The only thing Irish about me is my surname (Steve's family came from Ireland about 5 generations ago, and their surname then was O'Riley, later shortened to Riley.) But I have always found the idea of travelling to Ireland attractive, even though I can not claim to know much about the place.
    Specially delightful for me was to find out that you and I share one of our favourite movies - I, too, love "Back to the Future" and can quote passages of dialogue if prompted :-)

  4. I too am intrigued by the image of the rat, and now I want to know more. You are right they should issue a explanatory booklet.
    I went to Northern Ireland for the first time about 5 years ago, and enjoyed it so much more than I imagined. There are also several interesting NT properties to visit and of course the amazing Giant's Causeway.
    Would the bank not exchange your Bank of Ireland £10 note? if not, then you will perhaps just have to make a return visit!

  5. Thanks for this, Jenny, 1954 was my first experience if Belfast, vastly changed to what it was then. My first in-laws lived in a Capecastle, i.e. part of Ballycastle.

  6. Belfast looks interesting - unfortunately we did not get there during our visit to Ireland in 2016. Yes the fountain is gorgeous, absolutely love it, and the stained glass is always beautiful. The famine still looms large in the Irish mentality, it seems to me. I don't watch Game of Thrones, but the idea of the tapestry is clever and unique and it really does resemble the Bayeux. The busker is so cute and I can just imagine the music in my mind. Perfect!

  7. These are wonderful pictures - last time I was in Belfast (researching Sara) I made time for the Titanic exhibition but that was it, Now I need go back, just for fun!

  8. Time does not stand still, but the memories do. It is good that you got to visit Belfast again and can have new, more positive ones of peace and growth. I enjoyed your photos and Belfast looks like a nice and interesting place to visit,

  9. I just remember huge queues at every cinema and the parks swings being locked up on Sundays.
    It made '50s Glasgow seem like an ecumenical Paradise .
    I'm glad it's jollier now .

  10. Love the murals. We've never been to Northern Ireland, looks like it's well worth a visit.

  11. Thank you for the visual feast. I know so very little of Ireland and enjoyed it immensely.

  12. Wonderful post giving Belfast a peaceful face. The murals are fantastic, and city hall is a wow.

  13. The only story I knew about was Game of Thrones (from watching the series) but even if I didn't know all the wonderful stories the artwork was a sight to behold! I have never seen so many murals in one city. Wow! :)

  14. I had no idea you were coming to Belfast. We could have met up for a coffee! I've never seen any of those murals - which shows how little I know of the nooks and crannies of Belfast. But I'm familiar with the wonderful stained glass windows in the City Hall. There are lots of talented buskers, including one who only sings operatic songs. And yes, it's very annoying that people on the mainland seem to think our banknotes aren't legal tender....

  15. Hello Jenny, I can imagine your pride in being there to see your daughter's ted talk.
    Your post on Belfast was extremely interesting. I loved seeing what's happening there and you've managed to explain most of those murals for us as well!

  16. I heartily applaud your daughter for being a proponent of storytelling. I was beginning to think it was a lost art.

    I also appreciate your insight into Belfast. I used to have some friends who lived there many years ago. I'm sure (as you said ) that it has changed drastically since then. I love the murals and stained glass - but I agree that perhaps a guidebook should be available to explain the murals.
    And that brass door is fantastic! I've never seen one like it (...but I'd hate to have the job of keeping it clean...)

  17. I thoroughly enjoyed that! It gave me an entirely new way of thinking abut Belfast.

  18. What a post today !
    Seeing your daughter give a Ted Talk ! Fabulous
    I have never seen any huge murals like the terrace house but it is too creepy for me.
    Love all the others art though.
    The Game of Thrones tapestry was beautiful especially the Dragons.
    I love dragons ! I remember reading a book that that an old map and the places they did not know they wrote "Here Be Dragons" Perfect !

    cheers, parsnip

  19. Belfast has certainly been cleaned up but the attitudes have not changed.
    I doubt they will change for decades yet.
    Well worth a visit looking at those pictures however.

  20. This is fascinating, Jenny, and now Belfast is on the bucket list as well. I loved the art -- you're right about a "guide" to understanding it all. After all, you knew a lot more about it than I would and even you would have appreciated it! The stained glass and the mosaics are stunning and I would have loved to see the tapestry. No, I'm not a Game of Thrones fan, in fact I've never seen it. But wow! The workmanship looks terrific.

    There's that old saying "You can't go home again." I think you can, but not with the expectations of the past. I'm so glad you were able to see the present and even perhaps a bit of the future during your trip.

    And by the way, congratulations to your daughter. Although you didn't say, I'm assuming she was brilliant!

  21. How wonderful this post is...thank you, Jenny. I love it!!! :)

  22. You’ve made me want to go to Belfast, Jenny! A lovely post! And I’ve been looking at your daughter’s site too. I am very impressed. What a wonderful thing she is doing! You must have been very proud to see her talk.

  23. I most certainly agree with your daughter’s view that storytelling can be magical and vitally important for both adults and children. In fact, your Belfast visit reminded me visually of storybooks like Alice in Wonderland … a little bit zany, eclectic and seriously artistic!

  24. I love that brass door, blimey, I bet that takes some cleaning. My other favourite images are the artwork for each window, what a great idea.

    Oh and well done to your daughter giving a TEDx talk. I sneaked a look at her blog. Well you did leave a link so I hope that was okay.

  25. Hello, oh my these photos are perfectly interesting. I've seen artwork to hang on your wall like this, but to see these large incredible sized stories are just wonderful. It's fun to figure out what they're trying to tell us. What fun.

  26. What wonderful, interesting photos! I remember reading a while ago that Belfast had turned into a modern, hip city - not something I expected; I remember reading the headlines about Belfast in the 1970's.

  27. Fascinating post, great photos - and those murals are just so brilliant!

  28. My oh my there were so many interesting and unique photos here. That art work is amazing and quite fascinating. I love the explanation about the Elephant in the Room.

  29. What an all-round great trip! I went there 1980ish and stayed in the Bogside with my then in-laws. I vividly remember the tall, corrugated iron fences between the communities designed, they said, to prevent mortar fire. Went back later and stayed in Greencastle. There was an old fishing boat aground there that the locals were gradually stripping for firewood.

  30. Thanks so much for your recent visit and comment on Travel Tales, to which I have replied.
    Sorry I have not called by here for so long, real life is very busy, but I have just enjoyed a browse, good to see you still blogging.
    I thoroughly enjoyed my virtual trip to Belfast.

  31. Your photos are breathtaking. I enjoyed looking at all of them, but especially the stained glass windows. What an art form. Truly mesmerizing. Thanks for the show.

  32. Agree with you completely. I thought I was on Kingsland Road for a moment. :-) Beautiful pictures.

    Greetings from London.

  33. Jenny, thanks for your virtual stroll in Belfast. I've never learned how it looks like and your photos showed me the life of this city. I know about wall paintings - murals but I sometimes love them and sometimes I don't. I actually love stained glass art, it's wonderful. The "Game of Thrones" tapestry is amazing, it's true. Ha ha when I returned from Scotland with Scottish money nobody in England accepted them.

  34. Reading Yeats's is really inspiring. We have been living with folklore, history, nature and passion. Life is ephemeral and joyful.

  35. Dear Jenny - The word Belfast reminds me of Elton John’s song Belfast and disputes of Northern Ireland by association. I think I can understand how you were surprised by the big changes of the place. Changes are not bad at tll, it’s just about your attitude how you can accept it. As for my hometown Kobe, I still miss some familiar places which disappeared after 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake but I’m happy for Kobe to come alive. Back to Belfast, it really seems to have gotten revitalized with these explosion of culture, so varied and interesting. The street music sounds nice.

    I have read some poems related to WWI. In Flanders Fields looks so popular in the West, while I was stunned by Anthem to the Doomed Youth. I like the poem An Irish Airman Foresees his Death and I think I can understand Yeats’ thoughts. Incidentally I came to know the poet by his “Isle of Innisfree” relating to my favorite song “Isle of Innisfree” sung by Celtic Woman.

    The Header photo is breathtaking. I wish I could be in such a gold-light-fused late autumn forest in person. The grand finale of our autumn foliage is coming soon.


  36. In a word . . . WOW.

    This place just knocked me out.


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