He blinked a bit, but the die was cast. I’d already booked the flights. An entire bottle of Chardonnay, a whizzbang internet connection and a burning desire to see the Titanic Experience. Oh yes. Drunk booking is great.
My first visit to Belfast was in 2001. It was a city with it’s war wounds glaringly visible. Armoured cars still ran on the streets and khaki clad soldiers stood hefting automatic rifles outside BHS.
No one went to Belfast unless they had to, whether a lowly squaddie or a disgraced politician who woke up one day to find he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It was on no-one’s list for a cheeky wee weekend break. .
But there was change in the air. The Good Friday peace agreement was holding. Bill Clinton had rocked into town and switched on the Christmas lights. People even liked Tony Blair, but loved Mo Mowlam.
Belfast was starting to look through the checkpoints and over the razor wire to a big wide world outside.
People were coming back from good jobs in Boston, Adelaide and London to build a new Belfast, one that had tourism at its heart. Boy, did we slap our thighs with merriment when we heard that. What, Belfast? Seriously?
Here in Edinburgh we near choked on the custard creams. Away ye go. Look. We’ve got a castle.
World, watch out. Belfast is coming to get your tourists. The city has plundered, polished and packaged it’s past, from the Titanic to the Troubles. They even have a pub actually owned by the National Trust. That’s heritage we can all get behind.
In 2001 the people of Belfast were friendly enough, but tired and fed-up being scared. It gave them a certain wariness.
Now they’ve unleashed their friendliness. No transaction is complete without finding out where you’re from, how did you get here, what’s the craic with the kids, what’s the rest of the day and who did your hair?
If Disney did secret police, this is how they’d interrogate. This might be their secret weapon, y’know. They really want you to visit and they really like it when you do.
Remember the three sisters . .
Ever since April 15, 1912 the name Titanic was hardly spoken in Belfast. She and her two sisters, the Olympic and the Britannic were vaguely embarrassing, nicknamed The Beautiful, The Dammed and The Forgotten. Well, we all know what happened to the Dammed sister, but the Beautiful, SS Olympic, sailed until 1935. She was broken up at Inverkeithing. The Britannic lies at the bottom of the Aegean, lost in 1916 after hitting a mine.
The fact that all three sisters had been incredible feats of engineering had all but been forgotten.
In 2001, they were starting to demolish the great shipyard of Harland and Wolff, even the famous slipways.
Now entire sections of the city are named Titanic and the shipyard is the site not just of an amazing visitor experience, but it also boasts a brand spanky new studio where they film that Game of Thrones shenanigans, which apparently uses so much fake blood they’re thinking of piping it in directly from the manufacturer.
Bold city battled back to build itself a future
There are tour buses, mini-trams and people on segways tracing the outline of the ships on the ground. You can go on tours of the studios, take trips out to see the Falls and the Shankhill Road and guides point out murals, prisons, and Stormont.
People have jobs. Oh I know that it’s probably just the living wage, and things are tight, but it’s work, and incidentally, anyone who harks back nostalgically to the shipyard days needs reminding that those jobs were low paid, insecure and dangerous.
Belfast came out of the Troubles looking for work, and built itself a tourist industry. They are still building, still on the hustle for the tourist dollar, euro and pound. As one taxi driver said with a sly grin, “We’re thinking of registering the place for that Fringe in August...we’ve heard it gets a bit busy over there. We’ve got a room or two to spare.”
Beware a flock of seagulls
The seagulls of Belfast deserve a commendation. At low tide on the Lagan the bridge supports are encrusted with mussels. The gulls rip them off, fly up, then drop them from a height, which is startling the first couple of times it happens behind you. Should that fail to break the shell, they pick it and give it a right old battering until it smashes, and bingo, seafood dinner.
This is good and proper behaviour for a seagull.
Let us look to the seagulls of Leith, who lurk above shop doorways and wait until the chip is dropped or the steakbake abandoned. Attenborough would despair.
Mind you, I suppose they keep the place tidy.