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Sunday, 31 May 2009

Beautiful, Bewildering Belfast - Page 2

Written by Meghan E. Miller
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I would not call myself a business traveler, nor would I claim to live abroad; implying distance from some hypothetical home base.  Instead, my home, my work, and my life belong to a kind of transient village.  As an acrobat with one of Cirque du Soleil’s touring productions, I have performed for audiences in thirty cities across the globe.  It has meant adapting to different cultures and climates, foods, fashions, languages, and different rhythms of life.

Beautiful, Bewildering Belfast, Cirque du Soleil, The Crown Liquor Saloon, Black Taxi Tours,Along Victoria Street is one of Belfast’s most precious jewels, The Crown Liquor Saloon.  An original 1820s “gin palace,” the pub’s exquisite interior was created by Italian artists employed to build the city’s fine Catholic churches, who worked overtime in less holy construction.  The bar, now owned and protected by the National Trust, features real gas lamps, a carved wooden ceiling, and detailed mosaic work, including a royal crown image on the floor of the entryway.  Legend tells of the Catholic owner’s argument with his Protestant wife over the name of the pub and its degree of allegiance to British royalty – while he conceded to name it “The Crown,” the sly tile-work in the entryway makes it necessary for every patron to wipe his feet upon its namesake.  Beautiful, Bewildering Belfast, Cirque du Soleil, The Crown Liquor Saloon, Black Taxi ToursDarkly sheltered booths called “snugs,” which allowed for private drinking in solemn Victorian times, are deliciously spooky, with metal plates for striking matches and a little bell to call the waitstaff.  One can only imagine the plots and schemes formed within those walls!

Looking across the street from the Crown, is an immediate reminder of the city’s strife.  The Europa Hotel holds the title of “most bombed hotel in Europe.”  Feeling hopelessly ill-informed about Belfast’s political situation, I called for one of the reputable Black Taxi Tours.  Operated by a number of cab companies citywide, these tours seek to clearly and calmly illustrate the sectarian conflict for visitors struggling to understand.

It is hard to know how to approach such a tour, and I found myself that morning somewhere between funeral solemnity and field-trip excitement.   The cabbie guide’s approach was poised yet honest as he described the origins of the Northern Ireland conflict, the historical roots of the Loyalist/Republican, Unionist/Nationalist, Protestant/Catholic split.  Shockingly, Belfast is still 97% segregated; residential areas, businesses, schools exist as two separate communities sharing a common hatred.

We drove into the heart of the Protestant Shankill neighborhood to view apartment complexes painted with colorful, symbolic murals of the hostility and its heroes.  On this sunny, tranquil morning, the area was silent but for municipal workers mowing lawns.  We stepped from the cab to see houses that had been burnt, bombed, attacked in an effort to drive their residents away, and here we were with this oddly close, surreal perspective.

Only a short drive down the road was the so-called “peace line,” one of many ironically named walls meant to keep violence at bay by keeping people apart.  The barriers separate Protestant and Catholic areas, and have proliferated throughout Belfast and other cities in Northern Ireland.  The one we saw was covered in signatures and graffiti with messages of peace, yet discouragingly, our cabbie explained, it had been extended only six months earlier to combat the continual warfare.  We got out of the car to write our own wishes with nubby crayons.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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