Off the Walls: Belfast’s Murals an Absolute Must-See According to Travel Editor Margaret Scully
Murals adorn end of terrace walls, union Jack bunting streams from homes and high fences are covered in graffiti as we drive around a suburban housing estate. The black taxi mural tour is an educational and fitting start to Belfast where the Titanic experience, City Hall and a Food Tour are also on the itinerary.
Black cab tour driver, Billy Scott conveniently collects myself and Des from the foyer of the revamped warehouse that is the stylish and centrally located Malmaison Hotel.More than just the quintessential chatty cabbie, Billy is a professional guide with a mindboggling head full of historical facts, names and dates. Within minutes I’m bamboozled and struggling to take note.
A stones throw from the hotel are the cobblestone lanes of the Cathedral Quarter, where artistic murals adorn walls. A lane and car park yard exhibits the city’s famous sons and daughters including Hollywood actor Liam Neeson, car inventor John Delorean and Narnia author C.S. Lewis. There are hundreds of faces and Billy reels off the names, but I’m not convinced that Sister Sinead and Bono are locals
Across the lane, Karen is pulling pints of Guinness and reminiscing about the night Snow Patrol played their first gig in the bar in 1998. The Duke of York is a very atmospheric and traditional pub venue among the bars, restaurants and night clubs of the cobbled Cathedral quarter
There is hardly a building or monument that Billy doesn’t know and on the short drive to North Belfast we take a peek at Sir John Lavery’s 1917 triptych, Madonna of the Lakes in St Patrick’s Church. Madonna is modeled on the Belfast born artist’s wife, Hazel, who was also the face on every Irish pound note from 1928 until 2002.
Faces and graffiti adorn the walls as we arrive at the Loyalist Shankill Road a few minutes later. At a piece of waste ground, Billy stops at the spot where the Troubles started in 1968, a conflict that officially lasted thirty years.
Black hands, martyrs and King Billy on his horse, re-enforce the message loud and clear that we are in the protestant unionist heartland. It’s only one week since Orangeman’s Day on July 12th, so the place is decked out in fresh union jack flags and bunting.
Other Black Taxi’s with tourists are pulling in, and Billy tells us that visitors are curious about the origin, mechanism and resolution of conflict. In the 1980’s the UK and Ireland had a media ban on interviewing nationalists, so mural painting became a way of communicating messages in Belfast.
Known as ‘Peace’ walls, high graffiti covered dividers separate Protestant Loyalist and Catholic Nationalist areas. Des and myself leave our peaceful wishes among the many, including one from the Dalai Lama of Tibet.
After crossing through an unmanned post on the road we turn the corner into a nationalist housing estate, and Billy changes his name to Liam. Statues of the Virgin Mary and pictures of JFK in porches are Catholic hallmarks as we make our way to the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden on Bombay Street, commemorating volunteers and prisoners from the area who lost their lives during the Troubles.
Arriving onto the Falls Road, a gable end is dedicated to Bobby Sands a nationalist poet, writer and hero who died on hunger strike in 1980. Murals of Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and the imprisoned Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocallan reflect the Irish nationalists solidarity with international freedom fighters, in their quest for independence from Britain.
Bordering walls may be a feature in Belfast city but there is no border between the South and North of Ireland. The two hour fifteen minute journey on board the Enterprise train from Dublin to Belfast Central is seamless, with beautiful scenery, big seats, decent food and excellent service.
Being a driver myself I’m charmed by the ease of train travel, which frees me from the task of navigating city streets and identifying the best places to park Southern Ireland registered cars, which can reportedly attract minor acts of vandalism if left in the ‘wrong’ place. With online rail fares starting from €36 return, this is an ideal and relaxing way to travel.
Passengers on board the Titanic were no doubt enjoying their journey aboard the brand new liner when tragedy struck on April 14th, 1912. The world’s most famous passenger ship was built in Belfast, and a visitor museum experience now sits on the very dock where it originally launched.
After walking through the relatively quiet Titanic quarter, we are amazed at the volume of people inside the Titanic Visitor Experience, but are less surprised upon learning it was voted the ‘World’s leading tourism attraction’ in 2016 Tourism Oscars. I’m in awe of the building, which is an impressive feat of architecture, housing nine interactive galleries, and vow to visit again when it is not so busy.
A short hop away is Titanic Studios, where Game of Thrones is being filmed, and a little further HMS Caroline is docked. The world war one battle ship survived the Battle of Jutland in 1916, miraculously never lost a life and retains its original interior and exterior features.
Equipped with headphones and a small laser audio device we are let loose to amble around at our leisure. Pointing the laser at various ports around the ship, we get a brief story of the room or person in 30-60 second snippets.
Cat man Des is delighted to learn of the ship’s feline inhabitants as we amble around officer’s quarters the engine room, kitchens and dining rooms.
Dining is a feature of Belfast and there are lots of nice eateries. Cast and Crew Café, opposite the Titanic Studios, is a great pit stop for a Caesar salad and burger after our nautical morning. Former pop-up restaurant Home on Wellington Place is a stone’s throw from city hall.
My chef companion is very enthused by the buzzy eatery serving up fantastic fare including Lobster and Japanese salads. Behind City Hall, Flame restaurant on Howard Street is true to it’s name with excellent fire cooked fare, fantastic friendly staff and a perfect crème brulee.
Dining is also an option at Belfast’s beautiful City Hall, but one has to be invited to a function. As we enter for the 3pm free tour with guide Desmond, a wedding party is en route to one of the stunning function rooms.
A new £1.3 million visitor attraction at Belfast City Hall was officially in May this year and the enjoyable one-hour tour takes us up to the rotunda then along a corridor of Lord Mayor portraits before entering the robing room. We take a seat in the council chambers, before heading to the impressive great hall, which is also available for hire and hosts major dinner events annually.
No doubt much of the fine produced sourced for the upmaket city hall diners comes from the historic St Georges market. Dating back to 1890, the place is buzzing with great food, music and shoppers on Saturday morning.
“Imagine if Dublin had something like this” dreams Des, as I seek out former solicitor and food tour guide, Caroline Wilson who is assembling todays troop of twenty two at the market entrance. Much to our surprise, we are the only non Northern Ireland natives partaking on the tour.
Proceedings kick off with a zesty lime tea from Suki Teas before a coffee at Bell’s, Ireland’s oldest coffee roasters and a platter of divine hand made sausages. At the Armagh apple stall we learn that the county produces 40 million apples a year, making it a hub or apple juice and cider production.
Tasting as we go, Caroline’s four hour tour takes us on a walk around the city to pubs, a whiskey shop and a wonderful chocolate emporia called Co Coutour, where proprietor Deirdre shares her passion and knowledge. Sourcing her raw materials using the ‘raised trade’ model, her suppliers in Madagascar get 20% tax from all purchases.
At the John Hewitt pub, profits are used for an unemployment project. Not one for the drop himself, Des observes that the tour has as much alcohol as food, but as I was enjoying the local beers and ciders, I didn’t even notice.
Finishing up in the Cathedral Quarter, we spot Karen outside the Duke of York, where we started two days ago, with Billy the black cab driver. After a hug goodbye from Karen we run in the rain down the cobblestone streets.
Making a quick stop at the eclectic Folktown Craft and Artisan Market, beside Kelly’s Cellars, we grab and go with fresh healthy juices and yummy pitta pockets from Nikki Minnion’s bright yellow Dodge Truck
With five minutes to spare we make the train and enjoy the relaxing journey back to Dublin. Oh the joy of staying in a central located hotel, which is close to everywhere, including the train station
Recapping on the homeward journey both agree that Belfast is a perfect destination for a two-night break, with lots to see and do, and almost all within walking distance from our hotel. Seeing both sides of the walls with Billy is a highlight and worth visiting sooner rather than later as they will hopefully be coming down in the not so distant future.
Dublin Connolly to Belfast Enterprise Train.
Web fares from €36 return
4* Malmasion Hotel, 34-38 Victoria Street,
Belfast BT1 3GH
Titanic Belfast, Queens Road
HMS Caroline, Alexandra Dock, Queens Rd
Belfast City Hall, Donegal Square
St George’s Market, 12 – 20 East Bridge Street, Belfast BT1 3NQ FREE
Black Taxi Tour of Belfast – with Billy Scott
Taste of Belfast Food Tour – with Caroline Wilson
Tel: 00 44 7900 578190
HOME, 22 Wellington Place, Belfast, BT1 6GE.
Cast and Crew: Titanic Quarter, Queens Road, BT3 9DH.
Flame Restaurant 46 Howard Street, Belfast BT1 6PG
The Duke of York, 7-11 Commercial Court, Belfast BT1 2NB
Home of Belfast Punk Rock
The Dirty Onion
The Crown Liquor Saloon, 46 Great Victoria St, BT2 7BA.
A beautiful old bar.
For further information about places to stay or things to see and do in Northern Ireland please visit.
Margaret Scully Travel Writer
Additional Picture Credits:
mural in Belfast.
Andrew Hurley Follow
William Murphy Follow
St George’s Market