I visited Belfast on a blustery Saturday in May of 2012. Accompanied by my friend Eli, also at the time studying at Trinity in Dublin, we decided a day-trip would cover all that we wanted to see economically.
As our bus pulled into Belfast, just in time for “Imaginary Micky’s Walking Tour”, I was struck by the depressing energy of the city. Don’t get me wrong; I did go to Berkeley and I do have a certain hippie element to my existence but I’m not super into energy/reiki/crystals. I do however believe in a certain “feeling” you get from being somewhere/with someone but I’m not really into anything past the initial “feeling”.
For the next 2.5 hours, we were immersed in the heavy, horrible history of the Troubles, primarily in West Belfast. We saw the murals, visited graveyards, learned about neighborhoods that were torn apart by the violence and heard dozens of personal anecdotes of family and friends lost. We visited the Irish Republican History Museum and actually got to place the objects we were seeing into the history we had been narrated. It was an indescribably heavy and heartbreaking experience. While the tour was incredibly comprehensive, I couldn’t shake off the somber mood of the city, like at all. Zombie by The Cranberries served as my mental soundtrack as I walked past mural after mural. As our tour guide relayed very personal losses as a result of the Troubles, I kept remembering passages from Bernard Maclaverty’s Cal and viscerally feeling Cal’s pain and guilt.
I was most struck by a visit to a particular neighborhood of traditional brick homes. As we walked through little gardens and gates into what seemed like the heart of suburban Belfast, we found a little graveyard, nestled between the homes, with remembrances by members of both the Loyalist and Republican groups. The graveyard was a neighborhood project to remember and honor those who had died. To see the community effort to look at each other as humans who had hurt one another’s families so significantly and unite in an effort to remember was so moving. The voices that tell these stories still quiver from the emotional freshness of these wounds. To say that Troubles happened a long time ago and are no longer relevant would be discounting the very real pain of a city that I felt is still reeling.
We got chips and beer with our tour guide as part of the tour and had an opportunity to bring our emotional roller coaster a sense of closure. This tour does such a fantastic job of presenting the history in as balanced a way as possible. Belfast, from what I experienced, seems like a city of memories and memorials. Everywhere I went, there was a very concerted effort to remember the past; to never forget.
After the tour, we met up with a fellow TCD student who’s originally from Belfast and she tried to lighten the mood and show us around. As part of our tour, she took us to a lovely little cafe, aptly titled Common Grounds in the Queen’s Quarter area. It reminded me of Berkeley’s Cafe Gratitude with it’s warm brick interior, cozy fireplace and comfortable armchair. I think it was the presentation of the large, warm “Yumm” bowl that really cemented the comparison. The food was really well prepared and nourishing.
I finished my meal off with the Mocha Latte.
We ended our trip with a walk around City Center and a tour of the gorgeous Lyric Theater.While we weren’t able to catch a show, the architecture of the theater, the wood panelling and the overall “warmth” were a welcome treat from a city that has been through so much so recently.
Fun Fact: Belfast had a FC that was one of the most successful teams in Ireland until it withdrew from the Irish League in 1949 due to some internal issues.
Common Grounds Cafe
12-24 University Ave, Belfast, County Antrim
BT7 1GY, United Kingdom
+44 28 9032 6589