Posted on November 26, 2012 by Fraser Doherty


"Along the Shankill Road, you'll see billboards promoting some of the most notorious killers in Northern Ireland.  The UDF, the UVF, the UDA.... and the KFC." 

I've recently had a couple of trips over to Belfast, most recently last week to give a talk to a Marketing class at the University of Ulster.   It's of course a city with a lot of stories to tell, good ones and bad ones, and definitely a place that has changed a huge amount over the past couple of decades.  The center is really lovely; i've had some great meals and pints of Guinness.  

A great pub to check out is the Crown Liquor Saloon / Crown Bar on Great Victoria Street, the only pub that is owned by the National Trust and a beautifully maintained version of a Victorian gin palace.

Of course, a visit to the city isn't complete without a tour around the murals (or Muriel's as the locals call them), which tell the story of the Troubles - the bombing, persecution, street fighting and sectarianism that took place between the Unionist Protestant population (the people who like Northern Ireland being British) and the Republican Catholics (people who see Northern Ireland as Irish).  

You can do this cheaply on a red tour bus or for a bit more money in a taxi - which is the best way to do it, especially if there's a few of you - as the taxis can get up the smaller streets - also all taxi drivers in Belfast are characters!  The black hack has a certain symbolic importance, being the only mode of transport that was brave enough to shuttle people to and from the shops during the Troubles.

It's hard to imagine the suffering and fear that has gone on in those streets - and even in 2012 there is still widespread prejudice and ignorance in some of the stauncher neighbourhoods.  Even today, there are curfews and massive walls seperating some neighbourhoods (walls have even been heightened relatively recently).  There are sectarian marching bands and separate schools for Catholic and Protestant children - both things we also have an undue tolerance of in Scotland.  

Our tour guide said, "You know, some people think Belfast is like Berlin; a big wall down the middle of the city with Catholics one one side and Protestants on the other.  It's nothing like that.  There are almost 100 walls."

The drawing room - naval architects manually drawing plans for the layout of the hull of the Titanic.

Unfortunately Belfast was home to another one of humanity's most tragic stories, the Titanic.  Recently, the city has opened a spectacularly huge and expensive museum that tells the story of the tens of thousands of labourers who toiled in squalid conditions to build the largest moving object that mankind has ever produced.  I felt the hairs standing on the back of my neck a few times, imagining the work and effort that went into building such a thing, and the dreams that it represented for the people who boarded its voyage to New York.

It is a story of time when mankind thought it was invincible - that nature could be beaten.  It was also a time with little regard for the value of working class lives - the conditions the labourers endured were appaling and White Star Lines (the company of JP Morgan, who owned the Titanic) didn't think it neccessary to provide enough lifeboats for all of the passengers on board.

Although definitely a great museum and well worth a visit, you'll need to be prepared for a bit of reading.  There are some incredible interactive/video demonstrations of what it was like on board the ship but I came away feeling that, for such a tragic story, I should have cried at some point (and I cry at John Lewis Christmas adverts, so it shouldn't have been hard!).

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