The arts are my passion: drama, music, opera, dance, sculpture, painting, art history, architecture, film, literature... old and new... national and international... and after a period living, writing & performing in Australia and Italy this passion has brought me back to London. 'Blog Julie Arts' is a spin-off after success with 'There's Always A Story' at blogjulie.com

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Made in Belfast (part 1)

What do you think of when your hear ‘made in Belfast’? 

I think of Liam Neeson.  I know my geography is off by a few miles as Liam Neeson actually comes from Ballymena, County Antrim, but when you walk around Belfast everybody sounds similar to that wonderful actor so I can’t help but smile. 

Then I found a restaurant in the Cathedral District called, yes, Made in Belfast, and the food, service and bohemian design were so inviting I returned several times.

When I stumbled into the Ulster Hall however I knew I’d found the ‘real’ Belfast.  Don’t you just know that iconic venue from all those album covers?  “Recorded live at Ulster Hall” is certainly embedded in my psyche… and though I suspect that’s from a love of U2 it could equally be from concerts by legends such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, the Boomtown Rats, AC/DC, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and goodness knows how many rock and punk bands - not least The Clash, who famously didn’t perform there in 1977 as scheduled, sparking street riots by disappointed fans.  The walls drip history and culture, and recent renovations have done nothing to dampen her intimate charm and character.   

The Ulster Hall’s Mulholland Grand Organ still takes pride of place and, amongst others, the Ulster Orchestra, now based there, continue to build on a rich and diverse tradition.  The Culture Northern Ireland website expands thus: “Over its century and a half, everyone from Dickens to James Joyce has given readings at the Ulster Hall, and it has played host to sporting events and political rallies from across the spectrum. Not many venues can claim to have had both Ulster Resistance and Sinn Féin address an audience there. During World War II, the Ulster Hall was even used as a dance hall to entertain American troops stationed in Northern Ireland.” 

After relaxing over a coffee in a deep leather arm chair in the cosy foyer, nonchalantly eyeing up a handsome stranger who looked like, but sadly wasn’t, Liam Neeson… I moved up the street past City Hall and around the corner to catch a Belfast City Sightseeing Bus.  I highly recommend this as a way to see the city in comfort, giving you a great overview from which you can return to specific sights and locations later that day or the next (on the same ticket). 

There are several companies who offer a similar service but I was very happy with my big red bus – not least, because when there was a problem with traffic one day they went to great lengths to make it up to me the next; a sure sign, in my view, of a business who cares for its customers.  If you ride the bus for its full duration you will see and learn a lot.  Our guide, Brian, was perfect: intelligent, well-informed, sensitive to political issues but ready to point out important facts, funny, warm and entertaining.  As an actress I was particularly amused by his anecdote about Northern Irish pronunciation: beware the ‘o’ which becomes an ‘a’ because if you own a hardware store (as he did) you’ll lose lots of money if customers come in looking for a ‘mop’ but you’re so convinced they want a ‘map’ you keep sending them up the road to the newsagency. 

On this tour you’ll cross over Belfast’s Lagan River near which is positioned an attractive sculpture called the  Thanksgiving Rings, but locally known as “Noola the Hoola”, and you’ll see the colourful Salmon of Knowledge known with equal affection as “the big fish”.  You’ll pass one of the world’s largest docks with two enormous cranes, Samson and Goliath, reminding you before you get near a museum that ship building is another important part of Belfast’s history and character.  You’ll see the sparkling new Waterfront concert-hall, Customs House Square, the Parliament Buildings of Stormont Estate (home of the Northern Ireland Assembly and site of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement), the up-market suburb of Hollywood, the Odyssey Arena and Pavilion (home of the Belfast Giants, an ice-hockey team with encouraging bi-partisan support), various Universities, the Ulster and Titanic Museums, the Crumlin Road Goal, and, perhaps of greatest interest to many, the historic wall murals and residential streets around the famously contained Fall and Shankill Roads. 

The only thing I’d change about the bus tour, or rather add, if asked… is that it’d be nice if guides pointed out for tourists more of the theatres on route, such as the MAC (behind St Anne’s Cathedral), the Lyric and the Opera House.  I have friends from London and across the UK on tour in those venues, so some verbal PR for their shows would be nice for them and Belfast visitors.  Yet the theatres probably only need to ask info@belfastcitysightseeing.co.uk and they’d add it to their patter in a minute. 

That’s the Irish you see, warmth and hospitality an inevitable part of their DNA.  


[The highlights of Belfast are continued in the next post: Made in Belfast (part 2)]







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