Our bus dropped us off at the bus stop directly across from City Hall. The day was cloudy and drizzly, so we took shelter immediately in City Hall. As soon as we did, we knew that we had landed in a very cool city. Belfast City Hall is simply an amazing building.
This is City Hall with the Queen Victoria statue in front. Queen Victoria granted Belfast city status in 1888 due to its impressive trade and engineering industries, especially shipbuilding and textiles. This statue was built by Sir Thomas Brock to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, the sixtieth year of reign and marked as historic as she was the longest reigning English monarch, but Victoria would never see it as she died in 1901 and it was unveiled by the Queen's son, King Edward VII in 1903.
We took a quick tour through Belfast City Hall and began to realize what an intense history this city encompasses. One of the most striking features we came upon was this window...
This refers to an infamous dock worker's strike in 1907, that stood out as special as the strike was comprised of both Protestants and Catholics. Though it is true that some of the dock workers were Catholics, most were protestants, as most Catholics were driven out in riots. The catalyst for these riots being the "Home Rule"bill that was introduced in 1886 well before the strike. "Home Rule" was fiercely debated between Catholics (Nationalists) and Protestants (Unionists), with Protestants against it. However, this window attempts to mark the healing of these two warring factions that had troubled Northern Ireland, Ireland and England for decades. This set the stage for what we would come to learn about "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland.
Our next stop was a great little bar, Sweet Afton Bar and Kitchen with live music. We ordered our typical wings with extra celery, along with other deliciousness. I hadn't realized that they serve their celery shredded. The food was delicious. Sweet Afton's live music was perfect for our first rainy night in this historic and dynamic city. See below for a snippet of the music.
We had read about the Crown Liquor Saloon and how it was the "most bombed" bar in Belfast, so we headed over for a peek. Although the drinkers inside were always both Catholics and Protestants, the Europa Hotel was right across the street which served as the information hub for all sides during "The Troubles"; where journalists stayed to cover the violence surrounding the hotel and served as a symbol for IRA violence to make their voices heard internationally. Every time the Europa was hit, the Crown Bar suffered as well, with more than 40 blasts. The National Trust restored the building in 1978.
The Crown Bar was originally built in 1926 and remodeled to include its distinctive rich colored interior and ecclesiastic design and decor in 1885 by Italian designers hired to build churches; the owner's son Patrick Flanigan persuaded to work on the bar after hours. The unflappable bar is situated right by the traditional battlegrounds, Sandy Row and Falls Road, of Catholic vs Protestant demarcation.
We spent some time in this historic bar as we figured out how we would get to our airbnb 30 minutes away by bus. Here are some pictures of the inside and outside of the Crown Bar and the Europa Hotel.
In the rain, we headed to our bus and made our way out to our airbnb southwest of downtown Belfast, on Kells Ave. We traveled from ground zero of Catholic and Protestant violence via Falls Rd, which was a hotbed of riots and violence, to west of Belfast which was historically Catholic. We had a nice quiet ride on the metro 10 on the translink.
This wasn't always so on this route. Historically, an uneasy partition of Catholic and Protestant, this route out of town marks many places of violence. In 1964, spurred on by the Unionist Minister Ian Paisley's furious objections to the display of the Tricolour flag (symbolizing Irish National sentiment), the Falls Road district suffered riots that left many injured, and arrested. Paisley's objections fueled anti-nationalist and anti-catholic sentiment and the flag was taken down with some violence and force by the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), and union supporters, which in turn angered the Nationalist Catholic population who fought back with violence as well.
We got off the bus and headed to our airbnb, which I had seen on google maps beforehand was in a neighborhood that had a wall around it and we might have to navigate around it. Some areas in Belfast were "interface areas" where communities of predominantly Catholic, or Nationalists communities met Protestant, or Unionists and walls and gates were erected to "keep the peace". These were called "peace walls". It is unclear whether our airbnb neighborhood had this wall for this reason, but it seems likely that it was erected for that purpose.
The next day, we headed back to our bus stop, where we met a man who claimed it was his 100th birthday today and had lived in this area his whole life. He even showed us his license! The strife, violence, discrimination, political machinations and manipulations that this man lived through was plentiful, though, he just kept on with his painting business and persevered through it all.
Our first stop was City Hall. We had a quick trip to City Hall the night before and we wanted to see more. Besides being a beautiful building, it contained a lot of history.
Some before and after facts regarding this display: The first US soldiers to enter WW2, came to Belfast to train due to its similar landscape to the fighting fields in Europe. This had some repercussions. There were some rivalry between US and British soldiers, where mild heckling turned to being dunked into water tanks followed by a few rounds of drinks at the bar, and Irish women went gaga over the "yanks" coming into town.
As noted earlier, the "Unionists" (largely protestant) were fiercely against the "Home Rule" bills. Unionists wanted to remain as close to Britain as it possibly could and rejected any action that distanced itself from the Motherland. Their industries of trade and shipbuilding were closely tied with Britain.
Unionists promised to defeat the idea of Home Rule, by "any means necessary" In 1914, rifles and ammunition were smuggled in from Germany to arm the Ulster Volunteer Force to defend against the Nationalist agenda. The "Sinn Fein"party was founded in 1905, but did not become anything other than a political party until after the Easter Uprising of 1916 in Dublin, an armed insurrection against British rule which many Sinn Fein members did participate in. This uprising was quickly extinguished, but it sparked the War for Independence which evolved as an ever escalating violent tit-for-tat, comprising murder of civilians and murder of police between the Royal Irish Constabulary, the IRA and British forces, such as the Black and Tan and the "Auxies", some notorious for ill-discipline and attacks on civilians.