Northern Ireland: Rebounding after decades of strife
Mention Northern Ireland to most people and what comes to mind is the bombings that divided the country and dominated the headlines for 25 years. But after a decade of peace, the country is transforming itself, becoming a dynamic destination for travelers.
As both a traveler and a writer, I am intrigued by places that have suffered -- places with layers of complexity, places with resiliency, places that have recovered. The exhilaration of triumph is poignant and powerful in places like Cambodia, Berlin, Vietnam, Bali, Egypt, and Northern Ireland.
In Belfast, development is now as rampant as tear gas was once, with cranes rising across the city and a palatable sense of optimism. I stayed in The Europa, once Europe’s most bombed hotel (more than 200 incidents from 1969 to 1994). U.S. presidents including Bill Clinton have been guests.
Victorian-era Crown Liquor Saloon is on the National Trust and just across the street; it boasts stained glass windows, warm carved wood and cozy dining “snugs,” private booths. After a lunch of boiled ham and cabbage, I meet Ken Harper of Harper Taxi Tours, who gives me a historical and political background of the city. He has an accent that sounds likes he’s garbling marbles and an affable manner.
Belfast: Political Remains and More
We start with the famous political murals (the earliest date from 1908), which illustrate past and present divisions. Harper explains that Northern Ireland’s population is about 1.7 million; 50% are Protestant, 45% are Catholic, 5% are ethic. Since the “The Troubles” (as locals refer to the era of fighting), more than 2,000 murals in support of the Irish Republican Army or the Ulster Freedom Fighters were painted on public buildings; the most famous are in the Shankill and Falls neighborhoods.
Today, not all the murals are religious or political in nature -— a few parody President Bush; some children have painted messages of peace and tolerance on school grounds and some artists have portrayed Irish mythology. But its the arresting images of hunger striker Bobby Sands and “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” with a gas mask-clad soldier that pack the biggest wallop.
As does the sight of the “peace lines,” a series of metal, brick or iron barriers —- some as high at 25 feet—separating Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. In total, they stretch over 13 miles. There are numerous gates in the zip-sag system; Harper says only two are open 24/7. Some are apparently still monitored —- I notice a CCTV camera.
We fast-forward from past to present. A little-known fact is that The Titanic was built and launched from the port in Belfast. Blending old and new, a mixed-use waterfront development is underway in The Titanic Quarter, the former shipbuilding site. The recently opened Victoria Square, a retail complex, boasts restaurants and a cinema. I dine at one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, the contemporary Cayenne, owned by Chef Paul Rankin. The menu has numerous Asian dishes including seared beef tataki and duck breast and sea scallops with Asian slaw; but the delicious sticky toffee pudding is all Ulster. Afterwards, I take a ride on the Ferris wheel in front of City Hall. From here, the city looks vibrant, forward-facing, as electric as the lights.
Read more about Belfast and Northern Ireland
A former Navy brat who traveled and lived abroad extensively, Suzanne Wright is a fulltime, freelance writer based in Atlanta. She is a member of NATJA, and has written numerous travel, food and decor features for numerous international, national and regional publications. Her articles have appeared in Elite Traveler, Wine & Spirits, Veranda, Atlanta Magazine, The Tennessean, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Piedmont Review, Charlotte Place, Where, On Magazine and others. A suitcase is always packed and her passport always up to date.