Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

Site Update

It can’t have escaped your attention that a blog dedicated to an English guy’s reflections on living in Belfast and Northern Ireland almost never talks about Belfast and Northern Ireland. There’s a reason for this and I’m going to have to come clean about it – I haven’t lived in Northern Ireland since September 2015.

The original idea was to share with the internet how fond I was of my adopted home on the other side of the Irish Sea. The problem is that, not long after getting started, I took a job in London and the whole premise of the blog was compromised. And by compromised, I mean ruined. Fundamentally altered.

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Church near where I lived in South Ealing, west London

Given that we’re approaching 2018, I probably should’ve gotten round to rebranding the blog by now (apologies if “rebranding” sounds a bit grandiose), but it just never happened.

These days I live back on home territory in Liverpool, but the option of a return to Northern Ireland at some point in the future is something I keep open as I was very happy over there and think I would be again. What I don’t fancy is redesigning the blog just to have to change it all back again if and when I move back to Belfast. So you’re just going to have to accept, for the time being, that An English Guy in Belfast is written by an English guy in England.


 

A couple of years ago I did one or two posts about anxiety – a condition that, since leaving Belfast, has had a major impact on my life. I prefer not to talk about it too much on the blog as I came to a conclusion pretty quickly that I don’t want to give this pain in the arse of a condition any more attention that I absolutely have to. But I did write a piece that used a pretty terrible boxing metaphor to describe what having anxiety is like.

Since then, I’ve noticed that I often get referrals from Google from people searching the terms “boxing” and “anxiety” together. I did wonder about removing the piece or altering it in some way so as to prevent anxious young boxers finding their way to what is mainly a travel blog and wondering what on earth happened and how a story about my underpants in Norway is meant to help them. But then I thought, you never know, the stuff about anxiety might help someone somewhere (boxers or otherwise), so I’ve left it up, but I wanted to let anyone who finds my blog this way know that I am sorry if you arrive here and feel misled. It’s interesting that boxing is so often about bravado and machismo, yet clearly there are plenty of amateur fighters out there for whom their chosen sport can lead to levels of tension and anxiety that cause them to seek help online.

Anyway, I just wanted to clear a couple of things up. Oh, and part three of our trip to every country in the world is on the way. Eventually. It’s a lot of research and I get tired. I’m a bit stuck on India. Can you imagine trying to condense India into a bitesize chunk? It’s one of the most complex countries on earth and I’m terrified of excluding anything important for the sake of brevity. Also, I’m getting more nervous the closer I get to Israel. I’m gonna piss someone off no matter what I say there, aren’t I?

Thanks for reading,

Michael

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Formby Point, Formby, Liverpool – home

 

West Belfast by Black Cab

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The incongruous but colourful peace line on Cupar Way on the Shankill side of the divide.

This post is about an event that took place about a year ago. Any inaccuracies or obvious errors should be interpreted in that regard. Thanks!

Our driver greets us outside City Hall with a beaming smile and a firm handshake and leads us to the black hackney cab that is to be our “tour bus” for the next hour and a half. But we don’t pull away. Instead, our new friend turns to the three of us crammed into the back– all English residents of Belfast with an interest in the city’s history – and introduces himself. He then gives us a flavour of what we will see, explains his own background as a Belfast man who grew up on the Falls Road and experienced the full force of The Troubles, and primes us on the history of west Belfast. I can almost imagine a lectern where the handbrake resides. His enthusiasm for his work is immediately apparent. He describes how wonderful he feels it is to see the changes that have come to Belfast over the past 20 years and how pleased he is that tourists are now embracing the city. Interestingly, he shares with us several times his view that the likes of myself and my two friends, coming to the city to live and work, bring “normality”. Belfast has seemed pretty normal to me from the moment I arrived. It’s hard to picture the security checkpoints that used to screen entrants to Royal Avenue. It’s even harder to imagine the place where you live, work and play as a warzone. But he is adamant that we are signs of the new normal in the city.

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King William of Orange and his trusty steed

I’d been living in Belfast for about 18 months by this point and had become familiar with its landmarks and its geography. Indeed, I’d already toured the west of the city by open-top bus and had even strolled down the Falls Road one cold and wet afternoon. But I’d promised myself that, at some point, I would take an iconic black cab tour. Plus, I’d not yet visited the loyalist Shankill. Upon leaving City Hall, we arrive first in that Protestant bastion of west Belfast. On a freezing cold afternoon, the streets are like a skating rink – so much so, we’re told to mind our step. I briefly wonder how a life-long resident of the Falls feels, standing in the middle of the Shankill, at the foot of murals depicting gun-toting loyalist paramilitaries. “This is my living. I do this every day, sometimes four or five times”, he explains. “But back in the day, like many people from Belfast, I had friends from the other side and we socialised and worked together in the city centre. But then I’d go back to the Falls and they’d go back to the Shankill.”

As he walks us round the surrounding streets of the Shankill, I’m struck by how quiet it is. We have the whole estate to ourselves, it seems. Everywhere are indicators of the locals’ pride in their British identity – I’d never seen so many union flags in one place. I also observe how close the Belfast Hills seem, shrouded in mist at their summits despite the blue sky over our heads. I can’t help but feel a twinge of unease at how close a mural featuring a figure in military fatigues wearing a balaclava and aiming a firearm is to a primary school. I think about what impact it has on the little ones who walk past it five days a week. Do they even notice it, I wonder. Some would say it’s part of the local culture and that the mural might not even be there if the likes of myself and my two friends didn’t want to come and look at them. Our guide jokingly suggests we consider purchasing the house for sale opposite the provocative artwork in question. My Geordie friend balks at the idea, unsure how his Catholic girlfriend would react.

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A Loyalist mural on the Shankill

Back on board, we cross the Shankill Road itself, with its bunting and its traffic and small businesses and tour buses. I wonder how many other cities in the world draw tourists into their housing estates. If The Troubles had never happened, I guess the Shankill Road, and indeed the Falls, would just be an unremarkable arterial route connecting west Belfast to the city centre. Our next stop is the Peace Line on Cupar Way, separating the Shankill from the Falls. It’s a surprisingly functional-looking structure, fashioned mostly from dark green corrugated steel. However, it is livened up somewhat by various images, works of art, graffiti and messages of hope. Our guide hands us all a black marker pen and suggests we write something on it. I’d read warnings online that leaving messages on the Peace Line was not welcomed or advised. Looking at the hundreds of thousands of signatures, exhortations to greater cross-community understanding and inane observations, I assumed that the locals had gotten pretty used to well-meaning rubber-neckers like myself leaving their insignificant thoughts behind and that no harm or offence could come of it. I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure it’s been weathered away or inked over by now. Peace Lines like the one on Cupar Way aren’t just a relic or a tourist attraction. The majority on both sides seem keen to keep them, reassured by their silent, towering presence. Our guide explains that there are moves afoot to start bringing them down and sounds optimistic about the idea one day coming to pass. But it’s hard to envisage it happening any time soon.

On crossing the Peace Line, we leave the union flags, the Ulster banners and loyalist murals behind us as we enter the Irish nationalist Falls area. Our first stop is Bombay Street, an ordinary-seeming cul-de-sac where homes jut up against the other side of the Peace Line. The street is infamous for the 1969 Burning of Bombay Street, and also features the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, dedicated to IRA volunteers who were killed during the conflict. Once again, I’m fascinated to be stood in a mundane residential street that wouldn’t feature on a tourist itinerary anywhere else but in Belfast, jostling for space with visitors from other parts of Europe and beyond. Our guide pulls some rubber bullets from his pocket and we marvel at just how much they differ from the image we had in our minds, especially in terms of size. It’s easy to imagine the damage they could cause, and it’s safe to say none of us will be volunteering to be target practice any time soon.

The Falls Road bears one immediate and striking difference to the Shankill. Whereas the Protestant estate is a sea of red, white and blue, the Falls is not equally bedecked in the colours of the Irish tricolour. Indeed, were it not for the Irish language on the road signs and the occasional nationalist mural, you might not even realise where you were. We stop again at the Falls’ junction with Sevastopol Street and join another throng of international tourists to get a snap of one of the most famous murals of all – a giant portrait of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. The colourful image adorns the side of a Sinn Fein office, and our guide points out the concrete bollards that line the front of the building, explaining, as if it were needed, what purpose they serve.

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The famous Bobby Sands mural on the Falls.

A little further down the road, closer to the city centre, we arrive at our final stop, the international wall in Divis. Rows of tourists stand on the opposite side of the road and wait for gaps in the traffic to take a photo of the various murals, many of them in solidarity with political causes around the world with which the Republican movement sympathises. Our guide explains how some are permanent, while others are only temporary and will soon be replaced by something else. My eye is drawn to the striking black, green and red section calling for the release of imprisoned Basque separatist Arnaldo Otegi and to a similar message of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

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A section of the international wall featuring a variety of political messages 

At this point, our tour ends. Our guide declares with surprising vehemence that we’d be welcomed into any of the nearby pubs. None of us is willing to put this to the test, so we stroll back into the city centre, and back to the new normal of which I feel lucky to be a part.

Safety and security….

Belfast during the 2014 Giro d'Italia.

Belfast during the 2014 Giro d’Italia.

I read with interest reports of a study suggesting that Belfast is the most dangerous city in Europe in terms of terrorist threat (you can read about it yourself here). Whenever I come across misleading negativity regarding my adopted city, I feel the need to put the record straight.

The study was apparently carried out by a ‘global risk analytics company’, who compiled details of every terrorist attack around the world in the five-year period to March 2015, along with longer term attack records, in order to rank cities around the world based on the dangers posed by terrorism. Unsurprisingly, Baghdad came out top. I’ve never been to Baghdad, but I’m sure their findings are basically sound on that one.

However, whatever methodology the firm quoted in the article used to come up with their results, I feel that they don’t represent the reality on the ground here in Belfast. This, of course, is not a political blog, and I don’t intend to get into a political discussion of any kind, but I’m not going to pretend that everything is fine here now and that nothing ever happens. There is indeed a considerable risk to the security forces in Northern Ireland. And wherever attacks of any kind take place, there’s no point pretending that members of the public, or even tourists, couldn’t, in theory, find themselves caught up.

However – and this needs to be stated in the strongest possible terms – the reality is that the threat to ordinary people, and in particular to tourists visiting Belfast and Northern Ireland, is minimal. Indeed, Northern Ireland is regularly cited as one of the safest places to be a tourist in the industrialised world. Petty crime rates are relatively low. Belfast’s streets are free of the pickpocketing menace that blights major tourist spots the world over.

Only yesterday, I took an early evening stroll past City Hall and along Royal Avenue in the very heart of the city. Milling around on the streets surrounding the building was a throng of tourists taking pictures or just gazing in wonder at this architectural masterpiece. As they chatted in what I suspect was Spanish, not one of them looked as if they sensed danger or felt any kind of threat to their person. Of course, indiscriminate terrorist violence often strikes when people are at their least suspecting, but my point is that, whatever the political situation in Belfast, it offers a safe and friendly tourist experience.

The picture I have chosen to illustrate this entry was taken during the start of the 2014 Giro d’Italia bike race – the Italian version of the Tour de France. It was a sign of real confidence in Belfast and Northern Ireland that the organisers of the Giro opted to begin the race here, even if the weather didn’t play ball! I feel the image at the top of this post demonstrates Belfast at its best – welcoming, vibrant, increasingly cosmopolitan and on a forward track. Again, I can only ask – does anybody in the picture look like they’re about to hunker down in fear at the prospect of a terrorist attack?

My biggest fear is that studies like the one quoted, with their simplistic narratives, set back the incredible hard work that the likes of Discover Northern Ireland and Visit Belfast do to try and improve the visitor experience here and to encourage people to visit. Those who do visit are rewarded by a beautiful and friendly country with a fascinating (if tragic) history and an increasingly exciting future. Belfast itself offers plenty of interesting sights – and it’s especially worth coming at this stage, before it’s truly discovered and the tourist traps become like every other tourist trap around the world.

A new start…

If there’s one thing I like (and there may only be one thing I like), it’s places that challenge and change your preconceptions and your ideas of what that place is like. I’ve experienced this in a few locations: Glasgow’s warmth and friendliness – not to mention the attractiveness of parts of the city – were a genuine surprise; the hustle and bustle of Delhi is not, as some would have you believe, something to escape as soon as one arrives in India; North Nicosia is not simply a dust-blown backwater, but rather it is a dynamic, exciting and welcoming (half-) city that more visitors to the island of Cyprus should take the time to explore, even if only for the kebabs. So when I found out I would be moving to Northern Ireland, I was hopeful that it, too, would sweep away a few of my pre-conceived ideas.

As a child of the 1990s, two key moments in 1998 helped to shape my image of Northern Ireland as a juvenile observer from the outside – the tragic events of that August in Omagh, and the momentous signing of the Good Friday Agreement. I have no intention of focusing on either event here, but they serve to illustrate the conflicting vision of Northern Ireland that a young Englishman trying to make sense of the world might have had – was Northern Ireland a fierce, intimidating place locked in the past and to be avoided, or was it forward-looking, on the up and open to outsiders?

My first visit to Northern Ireland came in 2008, a working visit that offered little chance to see the real Ulster beyond the Premier Inn on Belfast’s Alfred Street and the short drive from the city centre down the Ormeau Road to Forestside. That excursion always felt like a wasted opportunity. My naive younger self allowed my judgement to be clouded by old stereotypes and notions of a violent past that prevented me from taking the chance to do any exploring when it came along. My thought process was something along the lines of ‘this probably isn’t a good place to get lost’. And when I left, I didn’t know if I would ever be back.

But I did come back.

Anyone who has spent any kind of time in Belfast city centre, whether a local or simply as a visitor, will know it is daft to allow yourself to feel intimidated by it. It’s more than daft, it’s unfair. It’s more than just unfair, though. It’s illogical. Belfast city centre functions in the same way as most others in the UK and Ireland, and Northern Ireland as a whole has one of the lowest rates of crime in Europe. It’s worth reiterating that – Northern Ireland has a low crime rate. And Belfast is warm, welcoming and steeped in fascinating, if at times sad or even troubling, history.

Now that circumstances mean I must build the next stage of my life here, I’m just getting started with this little country. Truth be told, there is so much to be discovered and so much to learn. Every time I catch a glimpse of the iconic Samson and Goliath cranes or glance in the direction of the Belfast Hills or hear a distant roar from Ravenhill Stadium, I know I have every right to be excited about where I live and what experiences lie ahead.