Irish Mona Lisa

Belfast Travel Blog

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Belfast City Hall

People who made my travels more enjoyable: Nikki (USA), Fabienne (France), Aline (France) and George Best (Northern Ireland) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2D8IW_3_6D8

http://lenouveaumonde.co/irish-mona-lisa/

We woke up around 7 and made our way toward Connolly Station. We headed northwest from our hotel, crossed the river, and decided to stop at a McDonalds (yes I know it was the second time on our trip). We ate as we walked, and after about 10 minutes reached the station. Since we had bought our tickets online we were able to bypass the long line that had formed near the ticket booth. We collected our tickets from an agent near the door and made our way toward the platform.

A street scene during The Troubles (Taken from the UK Independent)
 

Nikki and I boarded the train without difficulty and after a few moments were nestled in our cozy seats. Once we were en-route to Belfast I had some time to think about upcoming trip to Northern Ireland's capital city...

Northern Ireland has had an incredibly violent and tumultuous history. I could spend a lot of time going into detail, but I don't want this blog to turn in to a history paper. In brief, Northern Ireland is a small country that was created in 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. It has a total of six counties where Protestants are a majority and Catholics are a minority. The Catholic minority were often referred to as Nationalists or Republicans, this may or may not be correct depending on the individual's political affiliation.

Ulster Volunteer Force (One of the Unionist paramilitary organizations)
Protestants are commonly referred to as Unionists, this stems from a common desire to remain in union with Britain. During the 40 years following its creation, Northern Ireland was at relative peace. Unionist politics and policies were so dominate that the Catholic political movement was largely nonexistent. However, this did not change the fact that the Catholic minority was often sidelined and unjustly discriminated against. When Terrance O'Neill came to power during the 1960's, the stability that had been in place for nearly half a century, began to unravel. Fueled by increased frustration over voting rights and housing credits, Catholics under the banner of a newly formed civil rights movement, began to speak out against the Unionist dominated government.
UFF memorial at Sandy Row (A unionist enclave in Belfast)
Over the next decade the situation became even more dire as a number of ill-devised government policies increased tensions between Protestants and Catholics. By 1972 the Troubles, as the period would later be referred, engulfed nearly all Northern Ireland. Sectarian violence and acts of terrorism would kill over 3,500 citizens in the coming decades. The IRA (Irish Republican Army) and other radical Catholic groups used car bombs and other dangerous instruments to terrorize Protestant citizens. Unionists responded in kind, creating the UVF and similar paramilitary organizations to combat the IRA. Eventually, on the 10th of April, 1998, a peace agreement was signed. The Belfast Agreement, or The Good Friday Agreement as it is more commonly known, was made possible by significant acts of good will on both sides.
Republican monument
The British and Irish governments signed the agreement into law and most political parties within Northern Ireland endorsed it as well. Following the Good Friday Agreement violence within Northern Ireland decreased significantly, but has not been completely eliminated. Regardless, there is hope both within Northern Ireland and amongst the international community that the peace will continue to hold. 

I was drawn to Northern Ireland because of this history and I could not pass up an opportunity to visit such a fascinating place. 

The trip truly began once we crossed the border in to Northern Ireland. Within the Republic of Ireland, the Irish language is prominently featured on road signs and station names. Northern Ireland does not use Irish in the same fashion.

Victoria Square
All station names, road markers and public building signage used English exclusively. As far as I could tell, Irish was not used at all within Northern Ireland. Once we disembarked from the train, the feeling in the air was much different. First off the train station felt newer, more modern, in some cases. There was a lot of security around as well. This was a huge change from how things had been in Dublin. We saw people queuing up before they were scanned with metal detecting wands. It felt more like an American airport than an Irish train station. 

Our plan of action was to eat lunch, then find a suitable bus tour. Nikki had been in charge of planning most of our trip, but for Belfast I was in charge. Naturally, I didn't do enough research and we had no idea where to eat.

Our tour of Belfast begins
We made our way toward Victoria Square and after a few minutes we happened upon a little Argentine restaurant. We decided it was as good a place to eat as any, so we walked inside and were seated quickly. Food was tasty, but not memorable (hence I forgot the name of the establishment almost immediately after eating there). It was also my first experience using British currency. Pound notes are fat, the 20's don't fit properly in your wallet. They also have a strange assortment of coins, including two pound coins and two pence coins. Strangely enough, I found myself wishing I could use Euros. 

After leaving the restaurant we were approached by people selling guided bus tours. This is a huge part of the tourist business in Belfast. Places that were at one point unapproachable, are now, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, easily accessible.

Our awesome tour guide
At the time of our visit there were two competing bus companies. One was red and the other was white and blue. Again, I failed to do proper research and didn't know which of the two was better (Nikki was getting a bit frustrated with me at this point). We asked some passer byes and they suggested the blue one. The blue one it was! We approached one of the many salesmen wandering about, and they rushed us over to the bus. With our student ID's it was 15 Pounds each. We boarded the bus, and were soon underway. If you travel to Belfast, take the blue bus tour (we didn't take the red, but I can't imagine a tour being run any better than the one we took)!

Our tour would last about 1.5 hours, in which, we'd view many historical and notable sites all over Belfast.

The leaning tower of Belfast
We sat on the top of a double decker bus, which was roofless. This made the viewing of sites much more convenient, but didn't offer much protection against the elements. Naturally, it started raining as soon as we took our seats. This was the first time that it had rained heavily since we arrived in Ireland, oh the irony...

First we passed a leaning clock tower that our guide fondly named, "the leaning tower of Belfast". As with many things in Belfast, the tower was actually named after Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria, who visited Belfast a single time (although there is some speculation if she actually came), had many buildings and other sites in Belfast named after her. Next we passed the arena where the Belfast professional hockey team played. Our guide said they considered naming the team, "The Bombers", but in light of the countries tumultuous history the owners thought it might be in poor taste.

This cruiser fought in the battle of Jutland!
Whether his story was true or not, it was the first time our guide made any mention of the troubles. Throughout the tour he would maintain a sense of humor about Northern Ireland's bloody past. It was apparent that the tour guide was Protestant, but he gave a fair and honest opinion about Northern Ireland's current situation. He was sympathetic and respectful to both sides. 

Our next destination was Belfast's famous port. The port was, and still is to a smaller degree, a source of employment and prestige for the city. During the first and second world wars, many of Britain's war ships were built here. However, the most famous ship ever built in Belfast was the Titanic. To date, the port still houses the largest shipping cranes in the whole world.

George Best ca. 1968 (Photo by Pressens Bild)
To my delight, a cruiser that fought in the Battle of Jutland (one of the largest and most famous naval battles in world history) was docked at the port. 

After our tour of the port we set off toward Stormont. Along the way we passed George Best Belfast City Airport. The airport itself is not worth mentioning, but the man for whom the building is named after deserves special attention. George Best was born and raised in Northern Ireland, his passion for football was matched only by his passion for drinking and womanizing. A resident of Northern Ireland was once quoted as saying, "Maradonna good; Pele better; George best". Adding to his long list of accomplishments, Best was crowned European Footballer of the Year and went on to win the European Cup with Manchester United.

Stormont (Northern Ireland's parliament building)
Tragically, after years of battling his addiction to alcohol, Best died of organ failure in 2005. Despite his troubles, Best was regarded as the greatest footballer in Northern Irish history, and at times, an international sports icon. Over 100,000 mourners came to pay their respects and his funeral was broadcast live on BBC One. A fitting final tribute for one of the greatest and most controversial footballers of all time.

Our next stop was Stormont. Stormont was the home of Northern Ireland's independent government and is still used as Northern Irelands parliment building. It's a beautiful building and the grounds are kept in immaculate condition. We weren't allowed to go inside (security is quite tight in Northern Ireland), but our bus pulled over for a minute so we could all take some photos.

Irish Mona Lisa (The barrel of the gun points at you no matter where you stand)

The next part of our tour focused on the many murals that had been painted on buildings all over Belfast. These controversial murals, a byproduct of the troubles, are now an important part of the Belfast tourism industry. One of the first murals we passed was nicknamed, " Irish Mona Lisa". In the mural a protestant paramilitary member is seen aiming an assault rifle at some unkown person or thing. The barrel of the gun is painted in such a way that no matter where you stand the gun appears to be aimed directly at you. This is similar to the actual Mona Lisa, in that her eyes always appear to be looking at you, no matter where you stand. Our guide pointed out, during one of his many jokes, that the gunmen couldn't have been a very good shot. This was because he had closed the wrong eye when attempting to aim the gun.

Largest peace wall in Belfast

One of the more interesting, and possibly tragic sites on our tour was Belfast's largest peace wall. Officially named Peace Lines, these large concrete or brick walls separate Catholic and Protestent neighborhoods. To this day the number of walls continues to increase. Many of the walls are topped with razor wire and have large steel gates. The gates are constantly monitored by police that have the ability to close them at any moment, should trouble arrise. Curfews still come into effect from time to time. Our guide paid special attention to these walls and gave all his passengers a bit of local advice. "Don't be ignorant," he said simply. He explained to us that many tourists come to Belfast and write messages like, "Please don't fight <3," on one of the many walls.

William of Orange!
The conflict between the Catholic and Protestant citizens of Northern Ireland is incredibly complex. Both sides have been wronged and thousands of people have been killed.  He emplored all visitors to not trivialize the current state of affairs. Do not put a little heart on a wall that might keep two communities from attacking and killing each other.

As our tour progressed I began to realize how polarized these two communities really were. In Catholic communities I saw murals memorializing men and women who had fought for Irish independence nearly 100 years before. Monuments were built to pay respect to fallen Republicans, both innocent and beligerant. Tri-color flags and Irish writing was abundant throughout these communities. In loyalist areas Northern Irish and Union Jack flags were equally abundant.

Flags of the UK, plus Germany and America
We even passed a large Orange Hall (A fraternal organization for Protestants, which was named after William III, King of England and champion of Protestantism)! Taverns and bars flew all the individual flags of the UK countries. Murals constantly praised the link between Northern Ireland and Britain. Republican and Unionist communities had gone in different directions for so long it was amazing that they were getting along as well as they were.

One of the most poignent murals I saw on the tour was a dedication to soldiers who fought for Britain at the Battle of the Somme. The Battle of the Somme was one of most tragic and memorable battles in British history. The pain and frustration that came as a result of the battle is still prevalent in British collective memory.

Tribute to Northern Irish forces at the Battle of the Somme
Men from Northern Ireland fought and died for British Generals at the Somme and countless other battles. I can think of no greater demonstration of commitment than to fight for willingly for Generals of another country. Unlike many other unions that disolved after WWI, Northern Ireland continued to fight willingly for Britain. This was further demonstrated by a memorial to Northern Irish soldiers who lost their lives during the Korean War. Belfast was more fascinating than I ever imagined.

During the final portion of our tour we drove past the beautiful Queen's University of Belfast. Meanwhile our guide, who was still making jokes, began to poke fun at Prince Charles and his poor taste in women (not Diana of course). After a few more minutes the bus arrived at our destination near Victoria Square.

Beautiful, Queens University Belfast
We tipped our guide and went off to find some food. After we ate Nikki did some shopping. Lucky for me we only had a limited amount of time before our train, so I had to end Nikki's shopping spree.

We made our way back to the station, passed security and boarded our train for Dublin. I slept most of the way back, but when I was awake I looked out the window at the beautiful scenery and reflected upon the days events. It's one thing to read about history, but another to witness it. Belfast had been one of the most unique and interesting cities I had ever visited. It will be interesting to see if old wounds will heal and new friendships will begin in the near future.

Once we arrived in Dublin we decided to go out for a couple drinks. We returned to Porter House and randomly met two French tourists.

Bloody nose on the train to Belfast
The rest of our evening was spent chatting, laughing and drinking. What an amazing day it had been. Tomorrow I would fly to London!

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Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall
A street scene during The Troubles…
A street scene during The Trouble…
Ulster Volunteer Force (One of the…
Ulster Volunteer Force (One of th…
UFF memorial at Sandy Row (A union…
UFF memorial at Sandy Row (A unio…
Republican monument
Republican monument
Victoria Square
Victoria Square
Our tour of Belfast begins
Our tour of Belfast begins
Our awesome tour guide
Our awesome tour guide
The leaning tower of Belfast
The leaning tower of Belfast
This cruiser fought in the battle …
This cruiser fought in the battle…
George Best ca. 1968 (Photo by Pre…
George Best ca. 1968 (Photo by Pr…
Stormont (Northern Irelands parli…
Stormont (Northern Ireland's parl…
Irish Mona Lisa (The barrel of the…
Irish Mona Lisa (The barrel of th…
Largest peace wall in Belfast
Largest peace wall in Belfast
William of Orange!
William of Orange!
Flags of the UK, plus Germany and …
Flags of the UK, plus Germany and…
Tribute to Northern Irish forces a…
Tribute to Northern Irish forces …
Beautiful, Queens University Belfa…
Beautiful, Queens University Belf…
Bloody nose on the train to Belfast
Bloody nose on the train to Belfast
Largest shipping cranes in the wor…
Largest shipping cranes in the wo…
More Stormont
More Stormont
Memorials
Memorials
Freedom corner
Freedom corner
More freedom corner
More freedom corner
Strange statue
Strange statue
UVF, WW1 to Present
UVF, WW1 to Present
More UVF
More UVF
More murals
More murals
Sandy Row (Another angle)
Sandy Row (Another angle)
Monument to Northern Irish football
Monument to Northern Irish football
Belfast murals (note razor wire in…
Belfast murals (note razor wire i…
Red Hand of Ulster
Red Hand of Ulster
Protestant defenders
Protestant defenders
Titanic mural
Titanic mural
Peace mural
Peace mural
The Orange Order
The Orange Order
Belfast Courthouse (No longer in o…
Belfast Courthouse (No longer in …
Queens University
Queens University
More Uni
More Uni
Even more (I thought it was pretty)
Even more (I thought it was pretty)
Famous saloon
Famous saloon
Largest Celtic Cross in Ireland
Largest Celtic Cross in Ireland
Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall
Sadly the city hall was closed :(
Sadly the city hall was closed :(
Close-up
Close-up
Memorial to Northern Irish forces …
Memorial to Northern Irish forces…
Bobby Sands Memorial (Died on hung…
Bobby Sands Memorial (Died on hun…
Republican murals
Republican murals
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pt 2
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pt 4
pt 5
pt 5
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pt 8
Belfast
photo by: vulindlela