Tag: Northern Ireland

Story of the week: a Titanic trip to Belfast


* Another story from the back catalogue, this week the last in a series of northern Ireland stories from last year. This autumn I’ll be switching my focus to Glasgow to preview the Commonwealth Games – coming in 2014. Follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS for more story updates. 

The array of souvenirs was bewildering: an oven glove, a compact mirror, a decorative ashtray – all of them Titanic themed.

“Over there,” suggests the girl controlling the increasingly unruly queue outside the Titanic shop in the new Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, the £97m project newly trumpeted as the cornerstone of Northern Ireland’s tourism renaissance.

“The Titanic teabags are the best seller,” she deadpans. “Just £2.69 for 80 teabags.”

Later that night, sat in the audience of a BBC Radio Ulster concert, a procession of Irish musicians from both the north and south of Ireland are playing at the bottom of the grand staircase, a recreation of the Titanic’s ballroom.

Cathal Coughlan of Fatima Mansions fame, a stalwart of John Peel shows that soundtracked my early teenage years, is playing his powerhouse-lyric protest songs for the assembled throng.

“Forgive me,” he announces, “if this all sounds a bit hysterical.”

Maybe it’s the hefty shot of Titanic whisky I’d just downed at the bar  – no ice, ‘natch – but I’m starting to feel a bit seasick.

Then again, the whole of Belfast has been giddy with Titanic-sized fervour as the events to mark the centenary of the world’s greatest passenger shipping disaster worked towards a frenzied crescendo after Easter.

It was, as signposts around the city constantly reminded us, “It’s our time.”

Titanic story 

To be fair, Titanic Belfast [pictured above] is suitably impressive with its nine interactive galleries, including a sub-Disney ride through the Belfast shipyards, and moments of heartstring-tugging seriousness as we read personal stories behind the tragedy.

The Titanic Light Show, which projected the Titanic story onto the side of the new building via digital mapping, was also highly evocative – despite the rain. Other events across the city ranged from concerts to exhibitions via a newly commissioned requiem.

“We have our own little story and our own little craziness. That’s what makes us Belfast,” says Stuart Bailie, the fast-talking founder of the Oh Yeah Music Centre, a project for local musicians and showcase of Belfast’s musical heritage.

“You can still find live music in Belfast most night – traditional music at Madden’s, or up-and-coming bands like Two Door Cinema Club at the Limelight,” he adds.

“Belfast isn’t cooking up phony stories. It’s alive.”

Titanic Belfast, with its the four angular hulls, towers over the Titanic Quarter, east Belfast’s 185-acre waterside regeneration area.

But the west bank of the River Lagan, across the river from the Titanic Quarter, also offers glimpses of Belfast’s changing fortunes over the centuries.

The Custom House, just off Donegall Quay, is a stately 1850’s building with a triumvirate of sculpted heads, Neptune, Britannia and Mercury, while the Ring of Thanksgiving, is a 15m-high public artwork of a steel woman holding a ring of peace on the quayside.

Cathedral Quarter

Across town, the Cathedral Quarter takes its name from St Anne’s Cathedral with its towering Celtic cross on the western façade. Formerly the domain of run-down whisky warehouses, the area is better known today as a hub for dining, drinking and arts events.

The district has even spawned its own arts festival, The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, staged each May. Close to the John Hewitt pub, home to regular literary salons, the MAC, the city’s dedicated new contemporary arts space, opened in April with two theatres, three art galleries and a dance studio.

But I was hungry for more Titanic treats and the Merchant Hotel, the Cathedral Quarter’s chicest hangout, didn’t disappoint.

The Great Room of the opulent hotel, the former vault during its time as the Ulster Bank, had been given an haute-cuisine nautical makeover as RMS Merchant. I tucked into the tasting menu based on the flavours of 1912, including dishes such as cold asparagus truffle vinaigrette, poached oysters, and turbot and lamb à la Francaise.

The only sinking feeling was the cost – £85 per head with wine.

But as Titanic fever subsides, Northern Ireland can perhaps look beyond the brouhaha and get on with re-inventing itself as a city-break destination free of political troubles. Later this year the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, running October 19 to November 3 at venues across the city, celebrates its 50th anniversary with a newly expanded programme.

More immediately, Land of Giants is an outdoor theatre show based around five poems about giants of Northern Ireland culture.

These include Finn McCool (of Giant’s Causeway fame) and the shipyard’s Harland and Wolff shipyard cranes, known affectionately as Samson and Goliath. The event forms part of the Cultural Olympiad and will be staged on the Titanic Slipways on June 30.

“Giants are part of our history and society,” explains Associate Producer Kathy Hayes. “You’ll see something that happened once before and is unlikely to ever happen again,” she adds enigmatically.

“It’s a must-be-there moment.”

Causeway cruise

Further along the Causeway Coast route, the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Experience opens this summer at the Unesco-listed site near the village of Bushmills.

The project incorporates the new visitor centre to replace an outdated centre, new interpretation material around the site and new cliff-top walking trails. Two key features of the exhibition are a revolving CGI presentation of the legend of Finn McCool and a large-scale sculpture of the Causeway Coast.

The opening will be accompanied by a public art installation, Flags, around the causeway by the German artist Hans Peter Kuhn. The installation, which embeds hundreds of semaphore flags around the Port Noffer headland, will coincide with the closing of the London 2012 Festival on September 9.

“The building is not the destination. After all, we have one of the natural wonders of the world on our doorstep,” says Project Director for the National Trust, Graham Thompson.

“It’s a stepping stone to the World Heritage Site.”

Back at the Titanic shop, I’m deciding between a Titanic teddy with a jaunty sailor’s hat, or a Titanic T-shirt.

In the end, I decide on a set of books to read up on the truth behind the myths. Some 1,514 lives were lost on the icy water of the North Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

For Northern Ireland it’s time to honour them and move on.

* This story first appeared in Real Travel magazine in 2012. Liked this? Try also A Cultural Tour from Belfast to Derry.

Story of the week: A cultural tour from Belfast to Derry


* This is the fifth post in a new weekly series, highlighting stories from my travel-writing archive – many with no link online. I’m running them here in full. Subscribe to posts at this website for more.

On a quiet afternoon in Derry The Playhouse theatre still buzzes with activity. The writers’ group has just hit on the punchline, the art class revels in a riot of colour. I poke my nose into a movement workshop, led by the Colombian choreographer Hector Aristizábal, to find young dancers throwing sensuous shadows as early-spring sunlight streams in through the windows.

The theatre will play a powerhouse role as Derry steps into the spotlight this spring as the inaugural UK City of Culture. For Derry, the erstwhile heartland of The Troubles, the social and political conflict that blighted Northern Ireland for 30 years, it will be transformational. No wonder Derry was named by travel publisher Lonely Planet as the fourth most exciting city to visit this year.

“The arts always flourish in times of conflict,” says the fast-talking Playhouse chief executive Niall McCaughan, sprawling on a backstage sofa while a band tunes up for tonight’s show. “Derry nurtured strong connections to the arts via its community projects and now it’s time has come.”

I started taking the pulse of Derry’s renaissance earlier that day by crossing the Peace Bridge, the new link from the city centre to the Ebrington regeneration district on the far side of the River Foyle. Some of the cornerstone City of Culture events will be staged around this new public square, including the London Symphony Orchestra in March and the Turner Prize in October.

Over a lunch of dressed crab, spring lamb and slow-cooked pork at Browns, the contemporary-chic restaurant just across from Ebrington, head chef Ian Orr tells me about bringing local, seasonal produce to Derry tastebuds. “Derry didn’t have a strong food culture,” he says. “When I moved back here, I wanted to be the first.”

Orr was recently named Irish Chef of the Year at the Georgina Campbell Awards and plans to open a new sister restaurant, Browns in Town, across the Peace Bridge in the spring.

I spend the rest of the day taking in some of the other new arts spaces around the city. I find the young ensemble of the Echo Echo Dance Company rehearsing for one of their City of Culture commissions, Without, at a new studio, reviving a dilapidated old building on the ancient city walls. Their enthusiasm is almost tangible and I have to stop to catch my breath afterwards at the funky Café del Mondo in the Craft Village.

On the fringe of the Bogside district, past political-sloganeering murals and urban-industrial architecture, the Void Gallery is housed in one of the old shirt-making factories. “Many artists are returning to the city after years away,” says gallery manager Maolíosa Boyle, hanging her battered biker jacket on the stark-white wall of the minimalist space.

One of the gallery’s City of Culture projects is Artists Gardens, taking contemporary art out of the gallery and into the city. “I love the way art reflects the times,” she adds. “It touches all our lives.”

The next day I drive onto Belfast, cruising through the spring-stirring glens of County Antrim. I start by exploring the new Titanic Quarter, the sprawling regeneration area on the east bank of the River Lagan dominated by the newly opened Titanic Belfast (pictures above). The building with its four angular hulls traces the story of the world ‘s greatest shipping disaster across ten interactive galleries from Belfast’s industrial heyday to the post-disaster enquiry.

But it’s the Cathedral Quarter across the Lagan that has come to epitomise the vibrant new face of Belfast. From my base at the Merchant Hotel, the former Ulster Bank building reborn as the city’s grandest hotel, I set out to sample the vibe. The rabbit warren of streets clustered around St Anne’s Cathedral is alive with cafes, galleries and venues.

It has even spawned its own annual arts festival, the Cathedral Quarter Festival, staged each May.

I follow the ancient passageways, nodding to murals to John Peel and Van Morrison, pivot past the Harp bar on Commercial Court, home of Belfast’s sparky punk-rock scene, and skirt the facades of old whiskey warehouses. The strum of power chords lures me towards the O Yeah Music Centre.

The centre’s fast-talking chief executive Stuart Bailie shows me round the collection of memorabilia from Stiff Little Fingers to Snow Patrol. The graffiti-scrawled rehearsal space upstairs smells of musty damp, flat beer and the hopes of next-generation Belfast musicians. He says:

“I was 17 and ripe for rescue when punk broke in Belfast in early 1978.”

“That spirit has energised us ever since and lives on in the Belfast swagger.”

Stuart introduces me to singer-songwriter Katie Richardson, frontwoman of Katie & the Carnival. She’s playing a low-key acoustic session that night at creative arts venue the MAC. I promise to be there.

That night before the show Katie tells me about Belfast’s creative impetus over a glass of red wine in the MAC bar. “When I was growing up, all I wanted to do is leave. But now,” she says before taking the stage, hunched over her guitar with pink-streaked hair and gold-lame platform shoes, “there are so many fresh ideas that we’re a long way off being mainstream.”

The next day I meet writer Glen Patterson for one last, heading-home pint of chocolate stout at the John Hewitt pub. Named after the Belfast socialist poet, the pub stages literary salons and Patterson is a regular, one of the resonant new voices in Northern Ireland’s rich literary tradition.

He recently co-wrote the script for Good Vibrations, the film about the Belfast punk scene, which opened at last year’s London Film Festival.

“Ten years ago the Cathedral Quarter was a no man’s land yet it’s steeped in nostalgia,” says Patterson, a Bradley Wiggins lookalike with a dash of Paul Weller mod. “My uncle ran a warehouse behind the John Hewitt and we’re sat within spitting distance of where The Undertones recorded Teenage Kicks.”

He finishes his pint. “Belfast embodies the fact there’s no last word in cities, only the latest. We’re not there yet,” he smiles. “But we are here.”

* This story is the most recent in a series about Northern Ireland; see also Post Conflict Tourism in Northern Ireland in travel writing and Northern Ireland campaign for the Daily Telegraph in copywriting. It was published in the March 2013 issue of Zoom Zoom magazine.



Story of the day: post-conflict tourism in Northern Ireland

DSCN1598Every day in January I’ll be publishing stories from my back catalogue. Consider it a Happy New Year.

First up is a story I entered for some of the travel-writing awards last year – that’s 2012, since you ask.

I didn’t win. I think I was robbed. But, then again, I would say that.

Here’s an extract:

The Troubles, the violent period from 1968 to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, is the elephant in the room throughout my journey around Northern Ireland. It’s a feature of almost every conversation, with everyone I meet insisting that it’s time to move on.

The region has its chance to do exactly that over the next 12 months, with a triumvirate of key events aimed to encourage visitors: the centenary of the launch of the Titanic in April next year; the opening of a visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site in June; and Londonderry’s selection as the UK’s inaugural City of Culture in 2013.

I’ll be back in Derry this year for its moment in the spotlight as the UK’s first City of Culture.

Read the full story, Giant Steps Forward.

More about Derry City of Culture.

Was this a winning story? Will you be going to Derry in 2013?

Post your comments below.

Northern Ireland 2012 campaign for the Daily Telegraph

IMG_0053 I visited Northern Ireland several times during late 2011 and throughout 2012 to co-write a supplement for the Daily Telegraph. The supplement was commissioned by Tourism Ireland for a strong editorial feel to stories about Belfast’s cultural life, the Causeway Coastal Route and the Titanic anniversary. To read more, go to the Telegraph’s microsite. Do you have a favourite place in Northern Ireland? Did I miss something crucial? Post your comments below.