Belfast is a strange place. It’s nearly a non place. Its history is scattered and shattered like a jigsaw puzzle blown apart, with less than half of the picture in place 20 years ago and still a work in progress. You will see this all around: in the patchwork of Belfast’s street art, eclectic and not conventionally “pretty” architecture.
Being a Dublin Tour Guide, Belfast people might expect me to have a ‘big city’ mentality – those who know Londoners- and New Yorkers-for-life people know what I’m talking about. Most Dubliners have little understanding of Norn Iron (‘Northern Ireland’ pronounced by a local) and I’d guess less than half have been there more than once.
But I’m no Dubliner. Growing up in Donegal, which is beside Derry and so is a ‘border county’, I’ve had a daily comparative exercise when my father would switch between TV news from Belfast and Dublin-centred news. So I like to think I’m a more in-tune ‘Southerner’.
Forty years of The Troubles had made the city centre increasingly unattractive for locals and businesses alike. Interestingly, Dublin had one day of car bombs in 1974, which some say attributed directly to the decline of O’Connell street, as well as that of the quaint ‘town’ mentality of Dubliners. So one could imagine that effect multiplied dozens of times for the case of Belfast city centre.
But The Troubles have been over since 2005 and Belfast is back. Last weekend I did two great tours of the city (Belfast Food Tour and Seedhead arts street art tour) and besides the tours themselves, the most amazing thing was that most of the participants were locals. In the food tour, of 21, I was the only non-local. And I’m from Donegal!
It was great to have such sizable numbers in the off season, for one thing, but it’s a sign that those who are promoting Belfast are getting promoted BY Belfast. In the media, the locals are hearing about these optimistic moves to a much more developed (at least touristically) Belfast – I heard on more than one occasion someone lament Belfast’s poor windfall compared to Dublin.
Generally, walking tours will allow you to see the best of a quarter of a new city, but consider the affect on locals. So the themes of neighbourhood-appreciation and regeneration were even more pronounced. In the food tour, some of the sites were well-known to locals but it granted them a renewed view of their city. My favourite part was George’s Market, which trumps anything we have in Dublin. The best we can get is Moore st, which has the ripest (note: not ‘freshest’) fruit and veg for eating that day and that day only. And besides the accents, the one major saving grace of the street is FX Buckleys full butcher counter of Crubeens (trotters) to kidneys.
You know it’s always nice and refreshing to get out of your city (the local participants did that in a different way). In case of this Belfast trip, I feel that learning about Dublin’s sister city has not been merely a networking opportunity to connect with fellow tour guides, but also shown me what’s worth exploring when I find myself on the train to Norn Iron next time. Furthermore, now I am totally entitled to give genuine tips to my guests who ask for advice on visiting Belfast.
So this is my attempt to contribute to that. I’ve always been supporting Ulster tourism.
Up Donegal as well, by the way!