Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Mighty Quinn thumps the bar top in Kelly’s Cellars with his 88-year-old fist and bellows: ‘We’re all equal, am I right?’ One is not inclined to disagree. Mighty may be one of Belfast’s older Marxist warriors but he still has eyes that could pin you to a wall and snip off your toes in a nanosecond. On his blazer, the legends ‘Erin Go Bragh’ (Ireland Forever) and 'Tiocfáidh ár Lá' (Our Day Will Come) frame a badge depicting Che Guevarra.

Kelly’s has been a rebel stronghold since at least 1798 when it served as a safe haven for revolutionary leader Henry Joy McCracken. You can still sense those radical spirits whispering into the darkest shadows and rebounding off the tobacco stained walls.

Twenty or thirty years ago, pubs like Kelly’s were full of men like Mighty. Angry, indignant, war-weary Ulster men who could still carry a rebel tune with sixteen pints of stout down the hatch. The newspapers spread along the bar counter provided them with updates of the inevitable gloom that saturated the streets outside – a shooting here, a bomb there, two dead, four dead, seventeen dead. Running from 1969 to 1997, the Troubles was a three decade long nightmare for every man, woman and child living in Belfast City.

And then there was peace. Twelve years after the ceasefire, Belfast continues to thrive in a climate of reconciliation and general calm. Of course there are slip-ups along the way, often brutal, sometimes fatal. The Troubles probably do not seem so far away if you live in the Protestant tenements of Shankhill or the Catholic terraces of the Falls. And there’s still plenty of chicken wire on the windows of the police stations. The murals are still there too. Like the one depicting Bobby Sands, the hunger striker, as Jesus, rising above the words: ‘You can kill the revolutionary but you can't kill the revolution’. And, if one of the so-called Black Cab tours is your bag, then the actual places where people died exude an aura of eternal sorrow, such as the spot where they found the bodies of the star-crossed lovers, the Protestant man, the Catholic woman.

The Troubled Belfast was Mighty’s Belfast and the Guinness-swilling old timer is understandably a little befuddled by the City’s steely resolve to move away from the past and start enjoying itself. Even now as he starts growling about the night all his teeth were kicked out by the Ulster Volunteers, the door swings open and four twentysomethings assemble along the bar beside us, two Belfast girls, a burly Dubliner and a lanky Norwegian. They are in merry spirits. Their confident laughter echoes around the unassuming cavern of uneven white-washed walls, misshapen windows and low arches. Mighty’s mouth closes in confusion. You get the impression that he’s not used to such mirth.

While Mighty may rub his eyes at the way things have turned out for his home city, perhaps its not such a surprise that Belfast – arguably the most dangerous and miserable city in Western Europe thirty years ago – is now hailed as a beacon of hope for the world.

Belfast has always had a unique way of doing things.

For starters, it was the only city in Ireland that enjoyed the Industrial Age, churning out ships like the Titanic.

It was the only place in Ireland where the “Sixties” happened, a generation now represented by Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison and Wings guitarist Henry McCullough.

And it is also perhaps the only city in Britain or Ireland where the good times are set to keep on rolling in 2010, aided and abetted by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s recent announcement that the New York Stock Exchange is to open a service centre in the city, with the creation of 400 jobs. The message is that Belfast is a rock solid place to invest.

Back in 1798, when McCracken was hiding from the British Redcoats behind the bar in Kelly’s, Belfast was little more than a village, picturesquely nestled between a bowl of hills and the sea. In 1800, the Irish Parliament in Dublin ignorantly voted itself out of existence and, as Dublin’s economy tanked, so Belfast picked up the torch and became the most affluent urban sprawl on the island.

In the early decades, the linen industry boomed as over quarter of a million acres of Ulster was given over to linen. Belfast’s Linen Hall Library has an unexpectedly good exhibition on this era and is one of the city’s hidden gems. When the linen industry faltered, many Ulstermen emigrated abroad. Among these was solicitor James Atkinson who moved to Australia in 1843, purchased a whaling station on the coast of Victoria and called it Belfast. In 1887, that port town was renamed Port Fairy.

By the late 19th century, Belfast boasted one of the biggest shipbuilding industries in the world. Two enormous yellow gantry cranes known as Samson and Goliath still brood above the old Harland and Wolff shipyards on the banks of the river Lagan today, a testament to an age when over 35,000 people worked in these yards. The Titanic was one of many cruise liners built here and the City now has its own Titanic Quarter along the docks where she was built. Several of the Royal Navy ships that served in the Dardanelles were also Belfast built. So too were the Guinness barges which sailed up Dublin’s River Liffey until recent times.

As Ireland’s Catholic majority struggled for independence during and immediately after the First World War, it became apparent that the British government had little desire to lose control of Belfast and her mighty ship-building industry. The city was run by a tight group of prosperous no-nonsense Protestant merchants, devoted to the British Crown and utterly opposed to becoming part of a new Catholic Ireland. The dissatisfying solution was the partition of Ireland. In 1921, Belfast became the capital of a new Protestant-dominated country called Northern Ireland. For many of the Catholics living in and around Belfast, this situation became unbearable, particularly with the hideous pogrons in which nearly 500 people, mostly civilians, were murdered between 1920 and 1922. This was the world into which Mighty Quinn was born.

The city muddled on through the 1920s and 1930s, and seemed to have established itself by Easter Tuesday 1941 when nearly two hundred German Luftwaffe bombers struck the city in an assault that lasted five and a half hours. Over 900 people died and 35,000 houses were damaged. The Chief Casualty Officer for Belfast at this time was Theodore Thomson Flynn, the Australian biologist who served as the Chair of Zoology at Queen's University of Belfast from 1931-1948. T.T. Flynn was also the father of Hollywood star Errol Flynn who he outlived by nine years.

One hundred years after the Titanic was launched, Belfast is on its feet again and the sense of optimism can be found all across the City. Take a ride in one of the gondolas on the 200 foot high Big Wheel to get a true sense of the city and its marvellous location. The hills around Belfast inspired Jonathan Swift’s description of the landscape through which his hero walked in ‘Guillver’s Travels’, while Belfast-born C.S. Lewis likewise used the Mountains of Mourne to the south as the magical setting for his Narnia novels.

As evening falls, the sunset strikes upon the City’s impressive Victorian buildings and a new rumble begins to resound from Donegall Square, the City’s buzzing hub, through the historic Cathedral Quarter to the new glassy riverside promenade where the Belfast Waterfront and the Odyssey Arena draw the theatrical and music loving crowds.

Many of those enjoying Belfast’s vibrant social life are students from Queen’s University. The number of visitors from the Republic of Ireland has also shot up since the peace process began. For many Irish citizens, this is probably their first ever visit to Belfast. There are also huge numbers of descendents of Belfast émigrés visiting from the UK, the US and, increasingly, from Australia. Indeed, it is perhaps no surprise that Belfast’s airport, named for the late footballing legend George Best, is presently the fastest growing airport in the UK.

Belfast has risen to the occasion with a perennial calendar of events – fashion weeks, film festivals, gourmet bonanzas, St Patrick’s Day carnivals and every type of musical extravaganza from blue grass and traditional Irish to thrash punk and old time jazz. There are stacks of eateries, delis, wine bars and restaurants, such as the acclaimed Café Vaudeville and the Michelin-starred Restaurant Michael Deane.

Belfast is also home to some of the finest pubs in the northern hemisphere. Nearly 300 years after it was founded, Kelly’s Cellars manages to find its feet somewhere between everyman drinking pub, political meeting hall and historic museum. Folk music is a regular fare at weekends. As the pints and shorts slide across the bar, so the session players gather momentum by a roaring turf fire, a riot of button accordions, banjos, bodhrans, tin whistles, concertinas, flutes and fiddles. Between the reels, the Irish language is heard throughout the bar, used by staff and customers alike, and Mighty himself might even sing you a rebel song.

If Kelly’s sounds a little roughshod, try The Crown on Great Victoria Street with its fabulously gilded interior created by Italian craftsmen in the 1860s. Between 1970 and 1976, twenty eight bombs exploded in the 12-storey Europa Hotel across the road. Not surprisingly, the collateral damage was considerable even if the bar stools continued to be defiantly occupied by the same neutrally minded drinkers who had always frequented the pub. The National Trust, who now own the pub, restored the bar and today it as glistening and majestic as it ever was. If opportunity knocks, be sure to grab a seat in one of the elaborately carved wooden snugs.

At night’s end there are no shortage of options for places to stay but, if you’ve come this far, you really ought to treat yourself to a night at The Merchant Hotel (www.themerchanthotel.com), the stunning Italianate former headquarters of the Ulster Bank, which is currently undergoing a £16,000,000 Art Deco expansion due for completion in the summer of 2010. The Bar at The Merchant was selected as the ‘World’s Best Hotel Bar’ at the 2009 Spirit Awards in New Orleans, where it also scooped up world’s best gongs for its ‘Cocktail Menu’ and ‘Drinks Selection’.

And if you’re looking for a brief respite from urban chaos, then zip north to the Galgorm Spa Hotel (www.galgorm.com), a private retreat on the River Maine set within 163 acres of private parkland. The hotel is situated beside the village of Gracehill, rather bizarrely founded by Moravian refugees from Bohemia in 1759.

Walking through Belfast City during the fireworks display that accompanied the arrival of the Tall Ships last year, one of the most remarkable factors was the huge numbers of young people out and about. These are the first generations to have been raised in a time of peace. And, as anyone of them will tell you, they have no intention of having it any other way. Northern Ireland has learned how to be happy again and the city that stands on the shimmering shores of Belfast Lough is leading the way for this brave new age.