ShowsBefore You GoBulletin BoardContactAboutSearch
Show and Features |
Culture Watch | Question of the Week | Letters of the Week |
Traveler's Aid | Library | Host's View

A New Look at Belfast

In Northern Ireland the fragile peace seems to be holding, so is it now safe to pack your bags and go exploring a place that for decades has been known as the land of troubles? And if you do go, what's there to see? The Savvy Traveler's Martin Stott ventured to Belfast to investigate.

by Martin Stott

Real Audio Listen with RealAudio help Need audio help?

If you limited yourself to Bing Crosby's version of Ireland you'd picture rippling trout streams and women in the meadows making hay. You'd think of the Irish as jolly, fun fellows -- like MacNamara and his band -- where Hennessy Tennessee tootles his flute and the music's something grand.

Tower Clock But I'm a different generation. Mention Ireland and particularly Belfast to an Englishman like me and I think "bomb blast," "terrorist," IRA, murder. I need to challenge these dreadful preconceptions.

And what better way to start than this - a group of pensioners happily singing together at a luncheon club in a Church hall near the center of Belfast. But these are Catholics and Protestants and the church is right on the Peace Line - a giant 12-foot high brick wall - built to keep apart Catholic and Protestant communities, to stop them killing each other.

In the same building in the evening children from both sides of the wall meet to play together. It's here that the foundations of a real peace are being built in Northern Ireland. Not by the politicians, but by courageous ordinary people. People like Sister Noreen Christian a catholic nun who dares to confront sectarian division by living on the Protestant side of the wall. We meet outside her front door.

Sister Noreen Christian: "Somebody set off a rocket from the footpath here to the other side. We had one night two years ago when we were surrounded be men who weren't actually attacking us, but they had guns in their hands and they were pretty frightening looking and we had our lights out and were on the floor trying to keep ourselves safe."

But that was two years ago. Today the only things being fired over the wall are bottles and stones - thrown at each other by youths more out of boredom than hatred. If you want to see the wall it's best and safest to get a taxi. Some of the drivers take tourists round the city showing you the scars and explaining the history.

The magnificent city hall represents Belfast's wealthier side. I discovered a free tour and got chance to try on the city leaders' grand historic robes, with their mysterious long red sleeves.

Thankfully open sewers are no longer one of Belfast's tourist attractions. While I was at the city hall I met Dean and Mary King from Iowa. I asked them what people back home said about them visiting Northern Ireland.

Museum Dean King: "'Aren't you scared?' "

Mary King: " 'You might get bombed, what's your problem?' "

Dean King: "There's no need to be concerned. We fly in here all the time."

If they're here so often what do they like about the place?

Dean King: "I'm a musician, I love diddly diddly music - you know what I mean. Irish music. I don't know whether you call it that - that's what our relatives call it."

Later that night I stepped into a traditional Irish pub where a live band was playing diddly diddly music. For a whole evening I sat drinking Guinness and Irish whisky entranced.

Martin: "I'm now about an hour's drive north of Belfast and the contrast in scenery couldn't be greater. This is the Antrim coastline and it's beautiful. On top of the cliff face here is the Corrymeela project famous the world over for bringing together children, Protestants and Catholics, many of them for the first time. Corrymeela means the hill of harmony."

Queen University It doesn't sound very harmonious. You'd be forgiven for thinking relations between these Catholic and Protestant children had broken down completely. It's a quiz -- the sides are mixed and the children are accusing a mischievous nun of cheating. She looks delighted to see them joining forces against her so enthusiastically! I'm here to meet Alastair Kilgour, Corrymeela's assistant director. He tells me he's confident lasting peace is finally coming to Northern Ireland.

Alaistair Kilgour: "There's a growing realisation that all the damage all the killings have been for nothing. The politcal gains could have been had in a much more peaceful way. I think there's a war weariness and a deep sense that we have got to learn to live together."

And during their three days here that's what these Catholic and Protestant children will learn to do.

Just up the coast from Corrymeela is one of the country's finest tourist attractions -- the Giants Causeway. It's weird, thousands of hexagonal stones -- like giant organ pipes mysteriously growing out of the seabed. The eighteenth century writer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, allegedly said, "It's worth seeing, but not worth going to see". Ignore him.

Queen University Driving through the green rolling countryside to the coast then having your head nearly blown off by the fresh gusting wind as you clamber down the cliff path is half the fun of the trip. People always talk about undiscovered gems -- and now I've found one. The troubles have frightened so many tourists away from Northern Ireland that you've got it to yourself practically.

So mention Ireland now and I suddenly think of some truly special people, rolling green hills and diddly diddly music. You know, maybe old Bing wasn't far wrong after all.

From Northern Ireland, this is Martin Stott for The Savvy Traveler.

American Public Media
American Public Media Home | Search | How to Listen
©2004 American Public Media |
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy