Thursday, October 01, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #365] Béal Feirste

I continued my tour of Britain over the weekend with a 26-hour jaunt to Belfast, Northern Ireland, with my flatmate, Marco. Shamefully lured by £20 inclusive return flights, we packed our allowed 12 ounces of carry-on luggage and set off in a plastic plane over the Irish Sea.

Turns out, 26 hours in Belfast is enough. I didn't think too much about the city before going, and it wasn't even till we were on our way that it came back into my frontal lobe that I am quite interested in The Troubles* and grew excited to see some of the separation barriers and such, à la touring the Berlin Wall and East Berlin. I asked the hotel front desk where I could see these things, but my the friendly assistant was rather unwilling to promote this aspect of her city and referred us to a city tour so we could get more of an encompassing history. We duly paid our £12.50 and did our ten minute (OK, 1h15) tour of Belfast, which was cool, but sadly dwelled much less than I'd wanted on The Troubles and its divisions.

We went through a main Catholic and main Protestant neighbourhood, saw the Peace Wall, murals commemorating events for both sides, Divis Tower and a separation barrier, but zoomed through it all in a way that didn't allow much of a sense of what it's like on the ground. As an American, it was weird to think that people who were just as white as their neighbours could have a sweeping prejudice against them. Of course, religion's really just a proxy for views on whether Northern Ireland should be reunited with the rest of the island or remain an outpost of Whitehall, and I don't maintain it's even as shallow as that, but the surface-level effect is still quite odd.

So, culture done, we headed out to the real point of the trip: booze, bars and boys! The streets of Belfast had been hinting to us all day what we would find once we were out, and from the first karaoke song to the last drink at a club more than eight hours later, Belfast did not disappoint: it was truly chavtastic. At one point, as we were walking between beer purchases, Marco said to me "Those girls don't really exist. I just dreamed them up in my head" so Middlesbroughesque were they. And indeed, that's how Belfast felt, by no means in magnitude, but in character. Belfast could be Middlesbrough's older brother; the one that got out of town, but never really got away.

It's much less lively than Dublin, and lacked a certain buzz of the Irish capital (of course, I was there in the days of the Celtic tiger), but the people were just as golden and I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically love the accent. I'd go back if prompted, but I've got other places to see if I am the one setting the itinerary.

Slán,
Shaun

Some pics attached, full album @ http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=4222670&l=700ff79fff&id=713081334

*For several decades there were harsh tensions (euphemistically called 'The Troubles') between the mostly Catholic residents who resented Britain's occupation of Ireland and the mostly Protestant, pro-British remnants of that occupation. The IRA is the most known outcrop from the fight for independence, and it bombed cities around Britain and other aggressions in its struggle (though, almost chivalrously by today's standards, they called into a bomb site before it went off so the site could be evacuated). The IRA has since been replaced by its political arm, Sinn Féin, which partakes in the current power-sharing government. Northern Ireland is still one of the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom and peace prevails, but the neighbourhoods are still largely segregated along sectarian lines and locals are happy to tell you that America was right to dump Britain or not, depending on which side of the Pope they fall.

01. DSC00001 - Not Belfast, but I like this tube station and it was in the same roll. :-)


02. DSC00003 - What you get for £20 - oh, the joy of RyanAir!


03. DSC00006 - View from our hotel including the "Belfast Eye".


04. DSC00008 - The Peace Wall, lined with murals honouring various separation and anti-suppression movements


05. DSC00009 - A separation wall dividing mainly Protestant Unionist (pro-UK) and mainly Catholic Nationalist (pro-Ireland) neighbourhoods


06. DSC00011 - Who designed this sign?


07. DSC00013 - Belfast City Hall


08. DSC00014 - The tower block in the distance is Divis Tower. Until two years ago, the British military occupied the top two floors as their base for their operations in West Belfast and as a guard tower overlooking the city. After the military left, the council asked the residents what they'd like to do with the roof, and they asked for a curved roof to ensure no helicopters would ever land on it again. Sidenote, the building houses single and divorced men, so its nickname in the neighbourhood is the Heartbreak Hotel.


09. DSC00015 - Ah, finally!


10. DSC00030 - Belfast's leaning clock. It tilts four feet to one side as this street, which paves over a river Fleet style, can't support it.


11. DSC00032 - Outer Belfast looking over its harbour.


12. DSC00035 - You know you're in for a classy time when a city names its airport after footballer George Best, who said one of my favourite quotes ever: "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered."


Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

http://www.nocirc.org
http://shaunism.blogspot.com

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