February 2003: Belfast

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  • Since the troubles, it has all been one giant ice hockey match for visitors to Belfast. Colin McGann casts a new eye on the island’s second city

 

The Apartment, one of Belfast’s trendiest new restaurants/clubs, looks out on City Hall

I am a child of the 1990’s and so my earliest memories of Northern Ireland are of the troubles. I know I’m not alone and I also know that there are a lot of young adults who still associate Belfast with bullets and bombs. Some of them are my friends.

I’ve been to Belfast three times in the last few years. On the first two trips my itinerary didn’t allow me time to see the city’s major landmarks, sporting occasions rarely lend to seeing the sights. Staying in an agricultural college, and a B&B in Newry doesn’t help you get a feel for the city either. For this reason my most recent visit was a hugely exciting prospect.

If you want to see the city of Belfast there are many ways to do it, a black taxi is not only the most traditional way to do it but it’s a lot more personal than a large bus tour. Having driven through the Shankill Estate we stop to read the text on one of the murals. While we are parked a mini bus full of curious tourists pulls up behind us.

When you travel to landmarks in Paris, Amsterdam, New York, or any other major city for that matter, you get used to being surrounded by groups of snap happy sightseers. A housing estate decorated with flags, murals and painted kerbstones isn’t somewhere you would expect to be in the same situation.

The city is famous for many of the wrong reasons and when you’re watching the news you tend to forget that the troubles occurred around people’s homes. For this reason visiting west Belfast is an experience unlike any other. The huge wall that divides the Catholic and Protestant estates provides an eerie reminder of the past.

Leaving in the direction of the Falls road you drive through a set of gates. These gates are still closed every night and at certain times of the year. Since the IRA ceasefire was announced in 1994 this side of the city has become gradually more popular with visitors. It gives people an opportunity to see Belfast in real life and the people are willing to dispel the myths built up over the passage of time.

Michael Palin said of the city, “Belfast has a warmth and friendliness that completely upended my prejudices. I have been drawn back by the generosity and intelligence of the audiences, the life of the city itself, and the beauty of the scenery that surrounds it.” I agree whole-heartedly.

Something that surprised me about Belfast was the amount of land it covers. For such a prominent city it is very small, but while it is compact it certainly doesn’t lack activity. Restaurants, pubs and clubs dotted all over the city defy its small stature. Competition in the restaurant trade means that prices are reasonable and because a lot of the new nightclubs are aimed at 20-30 year olds the city buzzes with life.

I have to admit that I was apprehensive about my visit to Belfast but have realised that to a certain extent we in the south are victims of a type of propaganda. The people of Belfast are both involved and excited about the changes taking place at the moment and most are very hopefully for the future.

On my departure I was only sorry that I didn’t have more time to take in the atmosphere of the city. I have now been properly introduced to the city of Belfast and will definitely return. Hopefully sooner rather than later!

 

There’s five minutes to go in the final period and the scores are tied at 3-3. The Steelers want to win this game in order to take another step on the road to the league title. The Giants want to please the home crowd but also as newcomers to the league they want to lay down their intentions for coming seasons.

The drummers behind the goal play faster and louder. The almost full arena is engulfed in noise and you know how much this team’s victory would mean to the home supporters.

Ice hockey is big in Belfast, and having watched this game I can understand why. The players may all be from Canada but while they continue to mix it with Britain’s best they are upholding the pride of the city.

Having only one team it is supported by everyone. Norman, our guide, informs us that this helps the city. It’s been a difficult road but once inside the Odyssey arena it is evident that during hockey matches, differences are left outside.

 

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