Belfast – An emerging destination

The history of the city both recent and past holds Liz Gill’s interest during her visit

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Warren is big and beefy and, to be honest, a bit scary looking. But then that’s probably fitting for someone who’s going to show you round a prison. In fact Warren turns out to be a brilliant guide, balancing to just the right degree the serious, sometimes downright grim, history of the place with humanising little anecdotes, even the odd quirky joke.

Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol dates opened in 1845 and closed in 1996. During those years it housed 25,000 prisoners including women and children and saw 17 executions. It held Irish leader Eamon DeValera for a month in solitary confinement in 1924, groups of suffragettes during their fight for votes for women and segregated Loyalist and Republicans at the height of The Troubles.

Last December after extensive renovations it opened as a conference centre and visitor attraction. You can even get married here now – “Another kind of life sentence,” says Warren drily.

No amount of paint and polish though can quite remove the chill of such a place. You’re reminded of its sorrows while still in the waiting room where handcuffs, batons, bunches of keys, a birch and a cat o’ nine tails and the rules for their use – minimum age 14 for the birch, 21 for the cat – lie in glass cases not far from the gift section with its ‘The Leprechauns Made Me Do It’ T-shirts.

The tour starts with a display of old photographs of prisoners including women looking wretched but still wearing their hats in perhaps a last show of personal pride. Many of them are pictured with their hands across their chest, a scar or missing finger being another means of identification.

We move on to the underground tunnel used to connect the gaol to the courthouse across the road (apparently it was so rat infested that warders used to bang the door hard to make them scatter before they dared open it); the governor’s office (summoning a prisoner there was the origin of the phrase ‘on the carpet’) and the cells themselves including the condemned man’s cell and the execution cell complete with noose and trapdoor. Warren says he frequently turns down requests from tourists wanting to put their head inside the rope. In the grounds outside are the unmarked graves of 15 of those executed, the last in 1961.

I ask Warren if former prisoners ever do the tour and he says yes. He was initially a bit edgy when there was a Republican and a Loyalist on the same visit but they got on fine, both saying that if they could live their lives again they would have taken different paths. On my tour are a group of ex-servicemen who had done duty in Northern Ireland and now wanted to reminisce in more peaceful times.

The Crumlin Road Gaol could be seen as a symbol of what’s happened in Belfast in the past 15 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It would be unrealistic to say sectarianism has vanished – this summer’s marching season riots and the uproar over the decision not to fly the Union Jack daily on City Hall were a reminder that animosities can erupt from time to time – but the city is no longer synonymous with bombs and shootings and bitter conflict. From being somewhere you would pass through quickly or avoid altogether it is now a place that offers a vibrant culture and a wide range of attractions.

Some, like the murals tour, draw on recent history. Others like the City Hall, the Ulster Museum and the Titanic Quarter reach further back to when Belfast with its heavy engineering and ship building industries and its flourishing trade in tobacco and linen was known as Boomtown and the obvious place to build the biggest ocean liner the world had ever seen.

The ill-fated ship’s power to enthral remains undiminished. As one Titanic Belfast attendant put it: “It means different things to different people. Some are fascinated by the feat of engineering, others by the luxury, others by the romance, the human stories, the tragedy.” There’s even a term for the most devoted fans: Titanoraks.

Such is the continuing appeal that the target of 475,000 visitors annually was exceeded by nearly a quarter of a million last year and although that was the centenary this year’s figures to date suggest the same drawing power. They are unlikely to be disappointed.

The building itself which stands at the head of the old slipways looks fabulous. It stands 90 ft tall – the height of the original liner from keel to deck – and is shaped like four hulls all clad with over 3,000 dazzling aluminium shards.

Inside, nine galleries over four floors explore every aspect from construction – a special ride whizzes you around replica gantries so you get a sense of the immense scale of the thing – through launch, luxury fit-out, maiden voyage, sinking and aftermath. The final exhibit, the Ocean Exploration Centre, has footage of the real wreck.

Titanic Belfast does not have any actual artefacts or other salvage: a conscious decision was taken when the idea was first conceived not to go that museum-style route. For those you have to go to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum about seven miles away in Cultra to see its Titanica exhibition with its 500 related artefacts including several retrieved from the seabed.

The museum is well worth a trip in its own right. The transport buildings house magnificent steam locomotives, trams and buses and a nostalgic selection of cars among them the ground-breaking but ultimately ill-fated DeLorean. The Folk Museum is a recreation of life 100 years ago in genuine buildings of the era which have been dismantled from their original sites and rebuilt in two areas Town and Rural.

I did not have time for the latter which has flax and corn mills, a weaver’s home, a farm and a forge, but I did have a very enjoyable couple of hours in the town watching newsreels in the old cinema, wandering in and out the bank, the post office, the photographers studio, homes both poor and prosperous and chatting to a printer, a draper and various other ‘villagers’ about their lives and work.

One of the best ways to see Belfast if time is limited is with a taxi tour. They are not prohibitively expensive and with some driver-guides like the engaging Billy Scott who took me round you get not only the knowledge of a Blue Badge expert you also get an authentic local voice.

Billy gave me a whistle-stop overview of the city centre, passing major buildings like Queen’s University, City Hall, the Metropolitan Arts Centre, the Lyric Theatre and St. Anne’s Cathedral as well as various famous – and infamous – pubs and clubs, before heading for the areas of North and West Belfast and their hundreds of astonishing murals. For years these were synonymous with the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, marking territory and tribal loyalties, commemorating martyrs, celebrating paramilitary action.

Today they remain powerful visual reminders of the Troubles but they also embody the new spirit of the city. For ones now being created illustrate not what divides its people but what might unite them: shared early history, famous sons, cultural and artistic endeavours,  international heroes, the peace process itself.

Billy’s commentary throughout is not only highly informative but admirably even-handed and realistic. For the city’s violent past does cast a long shadow and there are undoubtedly parts of Belfast where members of one community would not be welcome in the pubs and clubs of another. “Resolution of all these old problems is not going to happen overnight,” he says. “I think some people thought that we’d all wake up one morning with flowers in our hair loving each other. But this is a transition period between conflict and peace.”

Afterwards I go to the Ulster Museum which is small but perfectly formed with something for everyone – from dinosaurs to exquisite ceramics – and a section devoted to the city’s history with a clear and concise summary of the enormously complex background to The Troubles. All this is very recent history, of course, so it seems appropriate that it ends with an area in which visitors can simply sit quietly and perhaps reflect, among other things,on just what an extraordinary achievement it is for Belfast to be now attracting nearly eight million visitors a year.

Useful Links

Taxi tours

National Museums Northern Ireland