Belfast - Boomtown!

The Mean Streets of Belfast


My life isn’t all hospitals and operations. If I’ve learned anything about the fragility of life, it’s to do what you love, don’t put things off. I love to travel, to get out amongst it. This is hard to do in Covid times, but back in Summer, when the world went on a global staycation. We went to the most exotic place in Ireland I could think of… Northern Ireland.

When I think ‘vacation’, Northern Ireland is not the first place that pops into my head, in fact it's not anywhere near the top of any lists, but what a fool I've been! Growing up with 'the troubles' raging 'up the north', the daily news reports of sectarian murders, bombing, protests, it never struck me as a holiday destination. Like many Irish people of a certain age, we grew up staycationing long before lockdown made us do it. So my childhood did include a couple of jaunts across the border, but with great care not to go into the 'wrong area', the car tense with my Dad’s paranoia that our Republic of Ireland registration would draw the wrong attention.

Now we live in a world of Brexit consubstantiation where we are in constant flux, a state of one and none at the same time. Borders are blurred, differences welcomed, the only fighting up north is between the Lannisters and the Starks.

Two hours later, not even a whiff of a border patrol, and we were waltzing through the doors of one of Belfast’s biggest attractions, the Titanic Museum. It lies in the Titanic Quarter, a neighbourhood born from an excellently executed waterfront regeneration. You have a good mix of old and new, the legendary Harland and Wolff shipyard is now adjunct to film studios, posh restaurants and apartments.

All On board!

The museum walks you through what life was like in Ireland preceding the building of the biggest passenger ship in the world, a ship they said God himself could not sink (yikes, he could and he did). Apparently, around that time a lot of Irish people were subsisting on a diet of mainly tea and bread (and that’s changed in what way??).

For young Roisin, the highlight of the museum was jumping on an amusement car ride. We were dropped into the bowels of the construction work, animatronic welders sparked away at girders and rivets as we swung past. But you can’t go to the museum without escaping from the great tragic sadness of it all. The thought of the musicians playing Nearer My God to Thee while the ship sank was haunting. There is a room that shows all the SOS communications the ship sent out, they are truly heartbreaking.

The Last Messages:




2.10am Titanic: “CQ” (come quick)


With a wee tear glistening in my eye I headed down to the bottom of the great blue sea, a.k.a. the basement. In a very clever set up, a large screen showed footage of a deep sea dive to the Titanic wreckage, while underfoot a see-through observation floor let you walk through the virtual remnants of lost lives - a hair brush here, a bed there, encased in the algae of a different realm.

Off with their heads!

After the museum we hit the Maritime Mile Treasure Trail, you charge around the area answering questions, taking selfies with statues, and sitting on thrones. For the rising generation, Belfast is probably best known, not for its civil disrupt, but for being the home to the hit TV show Game of Thrones. Much like the show, it is full of surprises and just when you think it’s dead it pops back to life.

We drove into the city centre to find some random spot for dinner. Although we were on the same land mass as the rest of Ireland, I really felt like we were bang smack in some metropolis in jolly ole England. The signage is in keeping with the standard British format, so there’s that, but there was also just a vibe, a feeling, not in a bad way, but you just knew you were in the UK. Maybe the fact that most places I looked at a Union Jack was slapping me in the face had something to do with it, nah, probably not.

Pretty Polly

Belfast is famous for its murals depicting both sides of the troubles but it was a treat to catch, on the side of a tattoo palour, a stunning colourful painting of a parrot and its Amazonian owner looming down over a sketchy part of town.

We stopped in one of the few restaurants taking a chance with Covid walk-ins, a random Japanese hole-in-the-wall. Roisin kept prompting me to ask if they had any fortune cookies, I assured her they were a Chinese treat, originating in San Francisco, it would be ignorant to ask for them in a Japanese establishment. Whining from a 6 year old is my kryptonite and I was pretty sure I saw the waiter serve someone a hamburger, all bets were off. Sure enough when I asked about the possibility of a fortune cookie the tired millennial waiter shook his head, sighed and walked away. I slipped out the exit tainted with soy sauce and shame.

We had dropped anchor in a huge parking lot, due to Covid we were the only souls in the lot. On our return to the car, as if to remind us that Belfast has some grit underneath its Titanic glitter, we witnessed a drug deal go down. As the parties split and ran in opposing directions post deal, I urged Dom to floor it out of the carpark. I’m sure on CCTV later our squealing car with our dodgy Rep reg has now been logged as a property of a Dublin crime gang “the Southside Squealers”.

We headed back to the hotel and passed a young man wearing a Trump 2020 cap, perhaps ironically? you just can’t tell in this city. 90% of the cars in our hotel carpark had Republic of Ireland registrations. I chuckled to myself thinking how much this would have freaked out my 1970s Dad. “It’s a new age, Pops, nobody cares who you are or where you came from, people don’t even have genders anymore…” (this was in theory, in reality I was standing in the carpark in the rain counting cars).

Tired old tree

The next day I wanted to check out the Botanical Gardens. I had a distant memory of visiting Belfast in my college days and having a drink in the famous student hangout the Bot pub, I never quite made it to the gardens that time.

Before the park, we knocked into Maggie May’s for breakfast, they had lovely fluffy proper American pancakes, you can shove your crepes Europe, they are grand and all, but let’s not pretend they are pancakes. Maggie May’s are famous for their milkshakes which Dom and Roisin thought was a perfectly acceptable thing to order with breakfast. These are the people who think it's ok to ask for fortune cookies in a Japanese restaurant, I’m hanging out with savages.

We took a stroll through the Botanical Gardens which were compact but lovely. We wandered across to Queens University. Another tourist commented to us “Isn’t it just like Hogwarts?” This perked up the milkshaken Roisin “Is this HOGWARTS?” she asked, astonished. I did what any honest parent would do, I looked her straight in the eye and said “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is”.

We slowly wandered back to our car that we had parked down some narrow back street. It was heartwarming to spot all the rainbows in the windows cheering on the NHS. The city buses painted pink swished past us, Roisin was very impressed with the city’s colour coding.

Aslan - fierce

I grew up loving the fantastical tale of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Among Roisin and her little pals I have become the official narrator of the story. I can go off-story at times and once found myself knee deep in the intricacies of the politics that lead to WW2, c’mon they loved it. I often forget that the author C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast. I was tickled pink to see his name on a map, he had a park dedicated to him. We swung by, it was pretty small but dotted with metal versions of characters from his books. A touching nod to the local boy done good.

My favourite thing about Belfast is the beautiful mountains and hills that guard it. A wisp of fog settled on them as they gripped the city a little tighter. It was time to drive past the fog, straight through the wardrobe, left at the faun, around the white witch, and on to our next adventure. On our way out of the city we drove past a shop selling men’s clothes XL7… seriously?? I know giants originated in Northern Ireland (hello, Cuchulainn anyone?) but 7 times XL, and the fact there was a whole store of them. Fair Play Belfast, I wouldn’t mess with ya!

It was time to find out more about these giants and their causeway.

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