I’d not seen so many Union Jacks since William married Kate. The patriotism was remarkable – even more so given I wasn’t even in England. There were flagpoles on the porch of virtually every house on this tidy estate. Yet there were no signs of celebration – just an eerie stillness. Neat gardens – the lack of litter quite remarkable – and no sign of children playing out in the street. But this was a Sunday morning. Maybe everyone was at church?
I was in the midst of Belfast’s Shankill estate.
It might mean little to readers under 30, but for those of us who grew up in Britain in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Shankill Road, together with the neighbouring Falls Road, were rarely out of the headlines. This was the district at heart of ‘the troubles,’ as they were called.
The fact that more soldiers died here than in the Bosnian, Afghanistan and Falkland wars combined seems to have been overlooked by the British politicians – and press – who referred only to ‘the troubles’ during more than 20 years of mindless bombings, shootings and cross-party retaliations.
For many years after the peace treaty was signed in 1998, Belfast was considered a ‘no go’ area for British tourists – indeed there are still those who prefer to give it a wide berth. But sitting in the quaint old Crown pub on a Saturday evening, being regaled with dirty jokes by a trio of septuagenarians I’d never clapped eyes on before, I got a real flavour of the Irish spirit – and the ‘craic’ for which it is so well known. Paddy (aka Kevin) didn’t care what nationality or faith I was. He was just happy to share the craic and see that I was spending my cash in his country.
Tourism is now taking off in Northern Ireland – in the past two years, the number of hotels has doubled. This is thanks in no small part to the popular Game of Thrones series, filmed in a variety of locations around Northern Ireland.
You can now take tours around the film locations – there’s even a 66-metre tapestry depicting the series on display in the Ulster Museum which, when finished, at 77 metres, will be longer than its inspiration – the Bayeaux Tapestry. Well worth a visit – and it’s free.
On a short break to Belfast, a visit to Titanic Belfast is also a must.
The Irish are rightly proud of this great engineering feat and the exhibition dwells heavily on the skill and expertise which went into the vessel’s construction and less on the failings which led to its notorious sinking on the maiden voyage from Southampton to the USA.
But it was the Black Cab tour that left the most lasting impression of my weekend in Northern Ireland. Following an IRA raid on the Northern Bank in December 2004, there were reports of stolen cash being ploughed into assets such as pubs, restaurants – and black cabs. Some of the brains behind the daring robbery no doubt dreamed up the idea of the Black Cab tours, for there are dozens of them at a time cruising round the streets of Shankill and the Falls. Make sure you book one.
I hadn’t realised that the Protestants still light towering bonfires on Orange Day, burning the Irish tricolor flag at the top – just so the Catholics in the Falls Road can see it above the towering monstrosity ironically dubbed ‘The Peace Wall.’ Nor that this wall – 2.5 miles long and with five sets of gates, is still locked each night at 6pm and closed all day on Sunday, in a bid to keep the two factions apart. And, at 15 metres tall, it is higher than the Berlin wall ever was.
Today, Belfast looks no different to any other city. No lasting evidence of the streets razed to the ground and houses blasted skywards by car bombs. Just the countless gable ends with their imposing murals which bear tribute to those who were interred. It’s a sobering but enlightening experience.
With the help of a pen obligingly supplied by the Irish black cab driver, I added my brief message to the Peace Wall, joining names like Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I’d never encountered legalised graffiti before. But then I’d never been to Belfast – and looked at life from both sides of the Peace Wall.