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Belfast, Northern Ireland: A Good Time to Visit

Belfast’s best known landmark - the copper domed City Hall. Photo credit: K Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Judy and I spent a lovely weekend in Belfast in the fall. Although there is no direct flight from Tel Aviv to Belfast, one can easily reach it on a connecting flight from London. It is well worth the effort.

When someone thinks of Belfast, he thinks of the Troubles, the terrible violent conflict between the Catholics, who want Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland, and the Protestants, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. That conflict lasted from the late 1960s until 1998, when a peace agreement was reached. During those three bloody decades, more than 3,500 people lost their lives.

Today, the situation has much improved. There are still many signs of the underlying tension between the two communities - they are separated where possible and where necessary by walls, euphemistically called peace lines, and there are murals, flags, and colored curbs championing one side or the other. But the worst of the bloodletting is over. Belfast has reopened to visitors, and ironically the Troubles spawned a tourist industry.

It's surprising to discover that TripAdvisor's number one tourist attraction in Belfast is a prison, namely the Crumlin Road Gaol. What can be so fascinating about a jail? The answer lies in its history. In order to protect prisoners, and also to prevent protests and demonstrations, an underground tunnel was built connecting the prison to the court house. Once sentenced, the prisoner was taken from the court house to the jail unseen by outsiders' eyes. This practice started well before the Troubles began. It was helpful during the time when Catholic and Protestant militants were put on trial and imprisoned in their hundreds. These prisoners were held in separate parts of the jail completely sealed off from one another. The prison, built in 1845, was closed in 1996, following the peace agreement and is now known as Belfast's Alcatraz.

Belfast's motto is "In return for so much, what shall we give back? "We decided to visit Cavehill Country Park, a green hilly area on the outskirts of the city. It is said that Jonathan Swift, while staying at Lilliput Cottage down below, imagined that the top of Cavehill resembled the shape of a sleeping giant safeguarding the city - hence, Gulliver and the Lilliputians. There may not be a giant but there is a castle on the slope of Cavehill. Set amid beautiful gardens, it offers a wonderful view of the city. After a refreshing cup of hot tea in the Castle Tea Room we returned to the city center.

Belfast's best known landmark is the copper-domed City Hall, built in 1906. Its artistic murals and stained-glass windows tell the story of Belfast's growth from a village at the mouth of the Lagan River into the world's largest linen-producing center in the 19th century, and then into one of the world's major shipbuilding centers in the 20th-century. In fact, it was in Belfast that the Titanic was built.

The Titanic was the world's largest and most luxurious passenger liner of its time. On April 15, 1912, on its maiden voyage, the unbelievable happened - it collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean and sank. On board were some of the world's richest people and several of them drowned. In all, more than 1,500 people lost their lives. Titanic Belfast is a tourist attraction that recounts the story of the Titanic and offers tours of the Titanic's smaller sister ship, the SS Nomadic, now fully restored to all its turn of the century grandeur.

We stayed at the Europa Hotel, fortuitously located right across the street from the Crown Liquor Saloon, the world's only saloon owned by a National Trust. It was like stepping back in time. The bar has been fully restored to its Victorian-era ambience. We sat in one of the pub's ten private booths - called snugs - and snuggled over pints of Ireland's best known beer, Guinness.

In the snug we recalled the story that was told by Henry Towb, an actor and writer and a member of Belfast's dwindling Jewish community. One afternoon when he was a young lad, he was leaving Hebrew school when three thugs accosted him. They grabbed him by his shirtfront. He knew what was coming - his Hebrew school teachers had prepared him well. He was going to be beaten up for being Jewish. "With what foot do you kick?" the thugs asked him. He understood their question. They wanted to know whether he was Catholic or Protestant. After a moment's hesitation, he said, "I am a Jew." There was a momentary stunned silence. Then one of the thugs asked , "But, are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew."

We have come full circle. Belfast has known dark days. It may know them still. But for now there is calm in this fascinating city and it is a good time to visit. 



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Thursday, 18 July 2024

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