“That’s the most bombed hotel in the world,” our guide, Barbara, matter-of-factly told us. “It’s been bombed 34 times.” She let that sink in. After all, I wasn’t in Syria, nor Afghanistan, nor Iraq. I was a 40-minute flight away from Liverpool.
I was standing in front of the Europa Hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “The theory was that this is where all the journalists used to stay. If the IRA wanted to get their cause in the international papers, they would take it directly to where the people who were reporting it were based. Thankfully, no one was ever killed in the Europa blasts, the IRA always phoned ahead and the manager evacuated everyone at double speed.”
Free Walking Tour Belfast
I was on one of three mind-blowing Belfast walking tours, each one run by a born-and-bred Belfast local sharing information that I had little knowledge about. I’d grown up in Britain when the euphemistically titled ‘Troubles’ were raging, when two sides were fighting for Northern Ireland – the IRA on one side and the British Army and loyalist groups on the other – when 3,720 people were killed in 30 years. Yet my in-depth knowledge was scant.
“It’s a real shame we all grew up with this division,” Barbara said, “I mean, I only had half the pool of men to marry. I might have found a better husband if we’d mixed!” Her Belfast humour was always a welcome relief among the tales of bombs, division and poverty.
Barbara went on to regale us of her chance encounter with Bill Clinton in the back of her friend’s bakery, a clandestine meeting to allow him to speak with Gerry Adam’s, leader of the IRA, to try and help broker a peace agreement in the mid-90’s. “Imagine shaking the president’s hand of the USA while holding a Belfast bap in the other!” she smiled. The Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed three years later.
She turned our attention to the Victorian pub opposite the Europa Hotel, a local institution renowned for its quirky Victorian design, intimate booths, and original gas lights. The first owners were a couple from both sides of the divide. The woman was a Protestant and won the battle with her husband to call the pub ‘The Crown’, but her husband won his own battle by putting the crown emblem on the floor, probably unbeknown to his wife, so people would put their feet on it every day.
The tour group snaked through the streets to one of the ‘seven quarters’ of Belfast, the Linen Quarter. “I left school at 16, but even I know that seven quarters is impossible,” Barbara laughed, as she told us that Belfast used to be the linen capital of Europe until cotton items, which were cheaper to make, took hold in Europe and the demand for linen declined.
The Political Divide Walking Tour Belfast
Wanting to learn more about recent history, I’d booked on another tour to hear about The Troubles from both sides. It was cleverly run by two guides who only met at the handover, with two opposing views, and took us through their respective communities. Our first guide gave us a rundown of the riots in 1969, his memories of it, his involvement in The Troubles and his imprisonment. He spoke about the loss of his brother, and how he now works helping youths from poor neighbourhoods in the area.
The tour took us alongside part of the Peace Wall at Cupar Way, a three-mile barricade 13-metres high in West Belfast, which stands taller than the Berlin Wall once did. We walked through inches-thick gates (photo above) to meet the guide on the other side.
“Aye, guys. This is still locked every night until morning,” the second guide told us as we looked back at the steel gates that divide the two communities. “Separate shopping areas, separate schools, separate pubs. We don’t integrate here. And I don’t know what the way forward is,” he added.
The three-hour tour, which takes in Falls Road and Shankhill Road, was a real eye-opener, with some hardline views, and probably left us with as many questions as it did answers.
Belfast City Hall Tour
I narrowly missed the free tour in the grand City Hall (they run four per day), but wandered round the little exhibition showcasing some Belfast history, and my favourite section, the Belfast accent and dialect. A cocktail of Irish Gaeilge / Scottish English / Irish English and English from the west coast of England, mixed with “a competitive working-class population and an industrial city, Belfast tones are both defensive and aggressive,” says the plaque, so “Belfast speakers often sound indignant when they aren’t.” Having grown up in Liverpool, the same could be said for the Scouse accent.
Stormont Parliament Walking Tour, Belfast
Next on my spur-of-the-moment agenda was the Stormont Parliament Building, where a grand tree-lined road leads you right up to the white, stately building, which was built by the same architect behind the impressive Port of Liverpool. Sitting on a hill, Stormont was caked in manure and tar during WWII to try and deter the Luftwaffe, which worked, perhaps from the stench as much as from the building’s blackout.
Inside, I joined a fact-packed two-hour tour of the building and our guide, Micky, was probably one of the most knowledgeable guides I’ve ever come across.
The tour covered a plethora of history of the British Isles from the Romans: “They didn’t invade Ireland so paganism lasted much longer here. It’s one of the reasons why so many of us Irish are quite superstitious,” through to the kings and queens: “The unicorn in the UK coat of arms is there because it represents James VI of Scotland who became James I of England and Ireland.”
Scotland had two unicorns in their coat of arms prior to King James, but to show unity, he brought in the English lion. Apparently, James had been led to believe that he was similar to King Arthur because, like the Camelot king, James believed he was there to unite the people of his kingdoms. The two emblems of the lion and a unicorn demonstrated this. “You’ll notice that unicorn has been tethered by the neck in the coat of arms, so it can’t escape.”
“And don’t we know it!” a Scottish woman sighed from behind me.
As we passed through the corridors and into the chambers, everyone was utterly engrossed in what Micky was saying. “William of Orange was actually funded by Pope Innocent XI,” he announced to an audience of dropped mouths. King James VI/I of the unicorn fame, had a great-granddaughter Mary, who was married off to the Protestant King William of Orange from the Netherlands. (He was also Mary’s cousin). King William had deposed of Catholic King James II, his uncle and father-in-law, in 1688. But a year later, James, exiled in France, was ready to fight back. Although a Catholic, James’ views didn’t align with those of the Pope’s, so the Vatican provided financial support for King William who fought James at the Battle of the Boyne, which saw James and his Jacobite supporters lose, whereupon James returned to France.
By the time the two-hour tour had finished, everyone’s heads were spinning, but in a wow-we’ve-learnt-so-much kind of way.
BEST Belfast Walking Tour for an overview of Northern Ireland’s history:
Stormont Parliament Buildings @ 11am & 2pm Mon-Fri
BEST Belfast Walking Tour for an overview of the city:
Free Walking Tour @ 11am & 14.30 daily opposite the Visit Belfast Tourist Office
PRICE: Tips, but give at least £10 cash per person
BEST Belfast Walking Tour to hear about The Troubles from both sides:
Belfast Political Tour – Conflicting Stories Walking Tour Belfast @ 14.30 daily