Irish Mona Lisa
Belfast Travel Blog› entry 6 of 9 › view all entries
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 tour would last about 1.5 hours, in which, we'd view many historical and notable sites all over Belfast.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.