In the month when the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is commemorated, Mal Rogers recommends several stopping-off places in Belfast to revive your spirits
If you’re visiting Belfast during 2012, you’ll hardly be able to move without coming across some Titanic-related event or location.
But once you’ve had your fill of marine-related memorabilia, you’ll find much else to divert you in this fine old city of which EM Forster said in 1936, “Belfast stands no nonsense.”
Certainly Belfast would never have come up with the word flâneur, or the concept, either.
This hard, Victorian metropolis has few fripperies, an absence of elegant boulevards, and not much in the way of jack-the-lad architecture — with the exception now, of Titanic Belfast.
But what it does have is cask-conditioned, rollicking, character, and in an odd anomaly, this one time bastion of Britishness and Protestantism is almost more Irish than its counterpart in the Republic, Dublin.
Belfast was virtually isolated from the rest of the world for almost 40 years — basically you didn’t visit Belfast unless you had relatives there, and even then…
This isolation has meant that the central character of the place remained unchanged, with old Ireland slumbering on in many parts of the city, not least in its exquisite and varied pub culture.
Despite a past for which the kindest word would be ‘eventful’, today Belfast is a friendly place, its citizens generous to a fault – except to each other, on occasion.
The city is still home to several miles of ‘peace lines’ – bulwarks higher and longer than the Berlin Wall ever was, in place to separate two communities with differing views on transubstantiation.
Since the ceasefire, however, Belfast has steadily limped back to normality, and today the dying embers of the Bother are now a tourist attraction — Troubles tourism thrives alongside Titanic tourism.
Several companies offer tours of flashpoint sites, with the murals on both sides of the religious divide being one of the big draws.
But you can go on a tour of Belfast that guarantees no paramilitary content. Arthur Magee’s guided tours (0777 1640 746) give you a view of “alternative Belfast”, ranging from a mural of John Peel to radical Presbyterians.
Arthur will take you down side streets to reveal where The Undertones recorded Teenage Kicks – hence the John Peel mural – and to Writer’s Square, where a memorial honours the Belfast citizens who fought against Franco and fascism.
Or you might fancy a C.S Lewis tour — the creator of the Chronicles of Narnia was born in east Belfast, and tours of significant sites in his life can be taken.
But you could spend a very fine weekend — or longer — just wandering round Belfast, visiting pubs, joining in the conversation — and availing of one of the most vibrant music scenes in these islands.
The new cultural heartland is the Cathedral Quarter, Belfast’s old warehouse district surrounding the impressive St. Anne’s Cathedral.
Festivals of acute cultural idiosyncrasy are a regular feature here, as well as cobbled streets, industrial architecture, and cosy pubs.
The novelist Owen Hannay said in his autobiography, “I was born in Belfast and brought up to believe that, like St. Paul, I am a citizen of no mean city.”
Dark, dramatic Belfast remains today, absolutely no mean city.
Belfast’s pub culture
In Belfast, lurking between its time-darkened buildings, you’ll find some of the finest pubs in these islands. Traditional old back street pubs, up-market brasserie bars, frenetic music houses catering for all rhythmic tastes, sports bars, rock venues, gastropubs, saki bars, and just ordinary Belfast theme pubs, where the theme is drinking and chatting.
A thriving traditional music scene is focused on bars stretching from the docks to the outer fringes of the suburbs. As one celebrated musician said not too long ago: “The Troubles almost kick-started the music scene in Belfast.
Bands from anywhere else stopped visiting, it became too dangerous for local musicians to travel about, so people fell on their own entertainment. And that was traditional music.”
Pat’s Bar (19-20 Princes Dock Street, 028 9074 4524) is one of Belfast’s most famous gathering places for traditional musicians. The sessions have been tearing away since the mid-sixties, and it remains the epicenter of traditional music in Belfast. An absolute gem of a pub, even in a city studded with them.
Madden’s Bar (74 Berry Street, 028 9024 4114) is similarly steeped in music. Live traditional music is featured most evenings during the week. The pub is frequented by lot s of locals chatting, drinking, and availing of the cheap Irish stew and duvet thick sandwiches.
The Rotterdam (52-54 Pilot Street, 028 9074 6021) is a legendary venue, the local hub for alternative and rock bands to play and hang out features music seven nights a week. The Rotterdam is situated on Pilot Street at Clarendon Dock, and you can sit outside on summer evenings and enjoy the atmosphere of this old area of the city known as Sailortown
Robinson’s Bar (Great Victoria Street, BT2 7BA, 028 9024 7447, www.robinson’sbar.co.uk) has been serving Belfast’s thirsty people across three centuries. A pub full of charm and character, the part known as Fibber Magee’s has traditional music and ballad bands seven nights a week. On the top floor, Roxy’s Night Club tears away every Friday night, while the basement is home to a club.
The Botanic Inn (23-27 Malone Road, Belfast, BT9 6RU, 028 9050 9740 has sessions, live bands, DJs, dances – as well as big-screen sport and pub quizzes.
The Morning Star (17 Pottinger’s Entry, 28 9023 5986) is located in one of the old Entries, running between Ann Street and High Street. The pub announces its presences via a superb Victorian sign hanging from a grandly exuberant iron bracket — one of the finest examples of the form to be found anywhere in Ireland. Also look out for another great rarity — the Winged Lion of St Mark sitting proudly on the corner. The building, historically listed, traces its history back to 1810, when it was mentioned in The Belfast Newsletter as being one of the terminals for the Belfast to Dublin Mail Coach.
Entry into the Felons’ Club (537 Falls Road, 028 9061 9875) used to require the possession of a prison record, or at the very least to be able to prove you’d had a spell of internment without trail. Changed days – anyone is welcome, but you’d probably be better off not taking photographs, and you’ll find yourself denied access to some bar areas. But the pub is friendly, somewhat male-orientated (sports bar, pool etc), but they serve a good pint of stout, and it’s a good place to reflect on Belfast’s long history.
The John Hewitt in the Cathedral Quarter (51 Donegall Street, 028 9023 3768) is probably unique in the world in that it is owned by The Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre. The Resource Centre’s managers had always relied on various grants to fund its work, when in the mid-nineties, they came up with the idea of generating some of their own funds by opening a pub on-site. John Hewitt, the late poet, socialist and Freeman of Belfast officially opened the Resource Centre on Mayday 1983, thus the name. In 2008 the John Hewitt won the CAMRA Pub of the Year.
The Kitchen Bar (16 Victoria Square, 02890 32490) has been dispensing drink and food to Belfast’s citizens since 1859. Ignore your cardiologist’s advice and dine at this fine old establishment, part American diner, part cafe, part Irish pub. Breakfasts feature three kinds of home-made bread – wheaten, soda and potato farls as well as the finest bacon, sausages and black pudding; specialities include ‘Paddy’s pizza’ – a slab of soda bread with a slice of boiled gammon, Coleraine cheddar and tomatoes topped with eggs. Also try the Irish stew with beef — served with towering escarpments of mashed potatoes.
Kelly’s Cellars (Bank Street 028 90 324835) in the very centre of Belfast dates back to 1720. Kelly’s was a frequent meeting place for the United Irishmen in the run-up to the 1798 rebellion. Henry Joy hid under the bar from English soldiers. Even away back then some barman doubtless quipped, “Some of our customers are revolting.” Nearly 300 years after it was founded, Kelly’s manages to find its feet somewhere between everyman drinking pub, political meeting place and historic museum. Folk music is regular fare at weekends. During the week it’s the ideal meeting-up place — even if you aren’t planning a rebellion.
McHugh’s Bar and Restaurant (29-31 Queens Square, 028 9050 9999) has the unique distinction of being the oldest building in Belfast, dating back to its establishment in 1711. Like so many pubs in Belfast these days it is multi-functional, with restaurant, lounge, music venue and club. But it’s the bar which is the glory of the establishment – warm, welcoming and comfortingly quiet.
The Hatfield House (130 Ormeau Road, 028 9043 8764) is very much a traditional Irish bar with original features, ornate ceilings and lavish craftsmanship carried out by the same lads who worked on the Titanic. The Hatfield is very big on sports – particularly GAA – and live entertainment is regularly part of proceedings.
The Crown Liquor Saloon (46 Great Victoria Street, Belfast, 02890 249476) is the city’s most famous hostelry, glorying in Victorian splendour. Many of the luxurious fixtures and fittings destined for the Titanic ended up here, appropriated by shipbuilders who frequented the pub. It was the location for Carol Reed’s film Odd Man Out in the 1940s, and to be honest, not much has changed since. National Trust owned, this is undoubtedly one of the world’s finest bars.
The Errigle Inn (312 Ormeau Road, 028 9064 1410) has regular rock, folk and American music.
The Bridge House (35 Bedford Street, 028 9072 7890) is a Wetherspoon’s mega-pub, offering some of Belfast’s cheapest pints. It also features a fine range of cheap meals.