A tour of Belfast’s docks, jail and linen trail – The Irish Times
I was initially skeptical when the Titanic Belfast tourist attraction was launched 10 years ago, a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage on the site of the Harland & Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built. I could see how you would go once, but would you come back? Well, here I am, a decade later, going back and getting a lot out of it.
The building is very pleasing to the eye and a lot of imagination has also gone into the displays, which are informative without being dry. They cover every conceivable angle, from the construction of the ship and its layout to the circumstances in which it sank and the ensuing investigations, as well as its portrayal in popular culture. You can search the names of all passengers on the ship and find out their fate. My two namesakes never did. The ticket price also includes a visit to the SS Nomadic tender, built to transfer passengers to and from the Titanic. Never mind flogging a dead horse, Belfast has shown what can be saved from a sunken ship.
There have been quite a few changes since our last visit. The Drafting Offices, where the designers designed the Titanic and a fleet of other ships, have been transformed into the Titanic Hotel, where we are staying. The art deco nautical theme is subtly realized, and the bar is particularly grand, with wooden floors and glass vaulted ceiling, without being intimidating. Stroll along the Maritime Mile, Belfast’s historic waterfront, before dining at the hotel’s Wolff Grill restaurant overlooking the harbour.
I’ve done the black cab tours of the city’s hotspots and walls of peace before. This time I thought I’d try the City Sightseeing Belfast open top bus tour (£18 adult, £11 child) but a loyalist parade was disrupting traffic so after a long wait to escape Crumlin Road Gaol, we switch to normal city buses. The service is remarkably cheap: a Metro Daylink fare offers unlimited daily journeys for just £3.50 (€4.12).
The imposing courthouse opposite the jail is derelict – dilapidation and an air of neglect are problems in Belfast and Dublin – but the jail has been well preserved. The building is fascinating but the exhibits give it back, such as a handcrafted collage of the Madonna and Child made by a prisoner in the 1970s, a notice of internment served on a James Doyle (no relation) in 1940, and the condemned cell with profiles of the eight men were hanged there. The last, Robert McGladdery, executed on December 20, 1961, is the subject of Eoin McNamee’s beautiful novel, Orchid Blue. The executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, was also a pub owner, and there is an eerie photo of his pub, Help the Poor Struggler. There’s a bar on site, the name of which, The Last Drop Inn, is in questionable taste, although a pint of Guinness costs just £3.
The Belfast 1798 walking tour is a much further step back in time, to a different but perhaps more optimistic and idealistic time of turmoil, when Catholics and Presbyterians, radicalized by the French and American Revolutions, formed the United Irishmen to try to throw off the yoke of the Anglican aristocracy. Sean Napier and Colm Dore have come together to tell the story, bringing to life characters such as Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell and Henry Joy McCracken, the beating heart of revolutionary Ulster when, in Wordworth’s words, “happiness was he on the verge of being alive”. .. but being young was truly heaven”. The tour operates every Saturday at 11.30am at St George’s Church, High street, in front of the Albert Clock, Belfast’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Standing four feet from the perpendicular, he inspired the motto: “He doesn’t just have the time, he also has the inclination”.
Belfast is unrecognizable from the city where I spent a year as a student in 1985. It is now a much livelier, safer, more diverse and welcoming place. But he retained a down-to-earth, unassuming quality. And I’m still drawn to the places I loved back then, like the National Trust-owned Crown Liquor Saloon, a Victorian bar that John Betjeman called ‘a multicolored cavern’ opposite the Hotel Europa. A short walk away is the red-brick Queen’s University, next to which is the Botanical Garden, a green haven in which to relax on a spring afternoon, with a magnificent palm grove. The adjacent Ulster Museum, refurbished to the tune of almost £20million ten years ago, is well worth an afternoon of your time.
There is, of course, much more to Northern Ireland than Belfast and whether you want to see a bit of countryside or break up your trip if you are heading from the south, allow me to recommend some gems in Co Down. The FE McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge features the work of Northern Ireland’s greatest sculptor, including his studio transported from his home in London’s Holland Park, as well as exhibition space (currently dedicated to a Colin Davidson retrospective until September 10) and a sculpture garden. The café, run by a local butcher and delicatessen, Quail’s, is exceptionally good. The Boulevard, a factory outlet mall, is nearby, where you can buy tickets to Linen Mill Studios in Ballievy. Much of Game of Thrones was filmed there and it is now the location of the Game of Thrones Studio Tour.
The flax industry is a more universal part of Northern Ireland’s history than shipbuilding – no harm in the Titanic – so if you’re interested in exploring its rich social and industrial history, I recommend Bann Valley Heritage in Laurencetown, Co Down. Created by my neighbour, Norman Kerr, whose family has been farming locally for centuries, this fascinating and eclectic collection captures the history of the flax industry along the River Bann, photos of the mills and mansions of the flax lords to the displays of tools and processes used to turn linen into fine fabric. There is also a range of exhibits demonstrating the development of daily domestic life as well as farming, from tools and toys to tractors.
For another take on the theme, visit the Irish Linen Center & Lisburn Museum in Lisburn’s Market Square, which hosts a permanent exhibition, Flax to Fabric: The Story of Irish Linen, as well as live spinning and weaving demonstrations . Fine samples of 17th century damask purchased by European royalty are on display along with a costume collection that includes designs by Sybil Connolly, whose dresses were worn by Jackie Kennedy, and embroidered stockings for Queen Victoria.
What do the city’s best writers recommend to visitors?
It’s normally a selection of streets in East Belfast that my writing sheds light on (or at least holds a candle to) but today I’m going to recommend the Ulster Museum at Botanic in the leafy south of the city – and more particularly the Lavery Room.
Sir John Lavery, one of the greatest artists ever to come to Belfast, donated 34 paintings to the new City Museum and Art Gallery (as it then was) in 1929. The collection includes my favorite painting, Daylight Raid from my Studio Window, July 7, 1917. It shows a woman – Hazel Lavery, the artist’s wife – kneeling on a sofa facing a large window, her back to the viewer. In the distance, a number of barely visible planes: dogfight in the sky, morning coffee in its silver pot momentarily abandoned for that brief uproar, as Yeats puts it, in the clouds.
I could stare at this painting all day. There is a scene unfolding before him in my Belfast Blitz novel These Days, and by some strange synchronicity, and to my delight, mine is not the only novel published this year to feature Lavery: Trespasses, of dazzling quality, by Louise Kennedy gives it a cameo too.
After the Lavery Room, it can be nice to stroll through the beautiful Botanical Gardens, and if you’re still in a literary mood, read the Bernard MacLaverty Glasshouses (from Blank Pages and Other Stories), set in the Palm House – designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and built by Richard Turner, predating the greenhouses at Kew and Glasnevin, and even surviving the Belfast Blitz intact. What more do you need after that than a gin-in-a-tin or an ice cream on the grass near the rose gardens?
But for something more substantial, just across the road is the bistro where I had my first Saturday job, then called Bonnie’s, now Conor’s Cafe, the former studio of Belfast painter William Conor, another of the greats of the city. The artwork on the walls is by Neil Shawcross; cherry scones, as they say, are not buns; and these days you get a better class of service than the 16 year old who thought the mark of a good cappuccino was its height in inches.
If, like me, you are a fan of books and baked goods, you must visit the newly refurbished cafe in Belfast’s beautiful Linenhall Library. In my humble opinion, they have the best caramel squares in town. I did a lot of research. The best sandwich in town is at the Lock Keeper’s Inn. Take a scenic walk along the Lagan from Shaw’s Bridge and indulge in bacon, brie and cranberry; best enjoyed outdoors on a bench by the river. Neill’s Hill in Ballyhackamore in the east is great for brunch and also has an eclectic and rotating selection of Belfast’s most delicious homemade scones.
There’s life outside Belfast city center too – venture east, past the ever-expanding Titanic Quarter, to the neighborhoods of Belmont and Ballyhackamore where you can eat everything from Bangladeshi Italian style without pizza, catch (or take part in) a show at the Strand Arts Centre, and stroll through the resplendent gardens of Stormont Estate, where the current absence of politicians makes it all that much more relaxing.
For more information see visitbelfast.com. Martin Doyle was a guest of Harcourt, which offers a four-night Northern Escape package for two, with two nights’ accommodation at the Titanic Hotel Belfast and two nights at Lough Eske Castle, from €840. titanichotelbelfast.com