Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland situated on the River Lagan. The whole of Ireland was once under British rule and when Ireland got its independence from the UK, Northern Ireland chose to remain under British rule. Belfast has suffered greatly during the period of conflict called “The Troubles” or internationally known as the Northern Ireland Conflict which lasted for three decades from about 1968 to 1998. The conflict was caused by the nationalist minority who were mainly Irish and Catholic wanting the north to become part of the Republic of Ireland and the unionist majority who were mainly British and Protestant wanting it to remain part of the UK. You may have remembered that back in the 80s and 90s, we frequently hear about Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombings in the evening news. This was a territorial conflict, not a religious one. The two groups saw very different national identities and thousands were killed and as many as 50,000 people were injured as a result. Even though the conflict officially ended almost 20 years ago, the situation is still delicate and the sectarian hatred still exists and is quite openly displayed.
We stayed for a few days in Belfast at the Fitzwilliam Hotel conveniently located in the center of town. For you Game of Thrones fans, this is where the cast stays when they film in the area. Not far from the hotel is the Crown Liquor Saloon where you can savour a pint while admiring the beautiful Victorian decorations. The interior is covered with stained glass, mirrors, and ceramics tiles. There are snugs which are basically small rooms that have access into the bar and give privacy from the rest of the bar area. The story goes that the owner, Patrick Flanagan who is a Catholic, argued with his Protestant wife over the name of the pub. His wife insisted that it be named the Crown in honor of the British monarchy. Flanagan took revenge by placing the crown mosaic on the pavement outside the entrance so that customers would tread on it everyday.
Belfast is well known for its shipbuilding business and it was here that the ill-fated liner RMS Titanic was built. Titanic Belfast Museum is good for a quick visit if you are into ship building and early Belfast history and life.
Another place of interest here in Belfast is the Crumlin Road Gaol which dates back to 1845 and served as a prison until 1996. There are guided tours taking you from the tunnel linking the courthouse on one end of Crumlin Road to the hanging cells, holding cells, c-wing, hospital, and graveyard. Not only do you get a glimpse into life inside the prison, you are also given a lot of information regarding the conflicts in Northern Ireland.
To better understand Belfast and the sectarian conflict, we took a Black Cab tour of the peace walls and murals in West Belfast. These peace walls were erected to separate the Catholic and Protestant groups and to retain a sense of peace and protection from sporadic attacks. In some places, they are as high as 18 feet topped with barbed wire. There are access roads to cross from one side to the other. The red, white, and blue kerbstones and Loyalist or Unionist murals indicate the Shankill side, while the green, white, and gold kerbs with Irish murals indicate the Falls side. The Peace Walls have outlasted the Berlin Wall and the government has vowed to remove them but no formal mechanism is in place to dismantle them.