One Day In Belfast

Foreword

“YOU ENGLISH BASTARD!” was something I was called regularly as a child by the children in the neighbourhood in Galway. Strangely though, it didn’t actually bother me all that much. In truth, I’ve been called worse things in my life. The most recent thing I get called is “The Mad Cow” which is kind of funny and I guess I left myself open for that one. (Photos on Facebook here: #1, #2)

Incidentally, while I was born in England both my parents are Irish who went to Britain, like many of their era, back at a time when there was nothing much of anything in Ireland.

“I identify as British,” a man I meet over the course of the day tells me, proudly. He subsequently tells me he had his DNA examined and that he had a lot of Scandinavian in him.

The fun thing about DNA mapping is that “Irish” or “British” people are often amazed to find that they have a range of DNA which shows them as being part Spanish, French, German, or whatever. One of the most Irish people I know, a Native Irish speaker from the heart of Connemara, and one of the first people I know to have had DNA mapping, was surprised to learn that he had DNA indicating that some part of his ancestry hailed from India.

How ever anyone in Ireland actually arrived in Ireland is a mystery but one theory is that people, post ice-age, migrated up through Europe, into the geographical island we call the United Kingdom and then perhaps crossed over into Ireland when the sea was so frozen over that walking across it may have brought them here which would mean that all inhabitants here could technically be described as British and perhaps British could technically be described as African since there is some theory going around that all human life originated in Africa.

Subsequent settlers would have hailed from all corners of the globe and would undoubtedly have included conquerors and slaves. Slave markets were commonplace all over Europe as recently as a few hundred years ago with a big one being in Dublin as recently as the 12th century. Indeed, I read on the walls of a museum in Dublin recently that people from Eastern Europe may today be known as the Slavic people on account of such countries being a source of slaves back when human trafficking was a widely practiced form of commerce.

Many would argue that slavery is still very much alive and well today and that all of us are in the Western World are in some way benefactors of it in the clothes we wear and the devices we use, but that’s beyond the scope of this piece.

My point is that everyone in Ireland, North and South, has a mixed bag of DNA which is most likely a mix of people who dominated or were oppressed at one time or another. The differences, thus, must in some way stem from mildly different perceptions of reality and a desire to bend it in a way in which life makes sense and is bearable.

One Day In Belfast

“You’ll get petrol bombed duun there,” said a chap when I mentioned I was headed for Shankhill to look at, and photograph, murals. He then, with a laugh, added, “Ah, I’m on’y joken’.”

The first time I was in Belfast was around 15 years ago. At the time I felt slightly nervous driving through Shankhill in a southern registered car but at the same time I felt equally nervous driving through areas where there were big murals of men in ballaclavas holding machine guns. On this occasion, a camera on each hip, I feel a sense of excitement about soaking up as much as I can about Belfast in as objective a way as possible.

My perception of the North, when I was younger and more impressionable, was that it was a dangerous place. The Northern accent, thus, I have always found to be simultaneously scary and sexy as hell, especially in women, but I shall leave weird fetishes aside for now.

Belfast Castle

Arriving at Belfast Castle at 6.20am with the intention of getting to the highest point in Belfast, which is McArt’s Fort at the top of Cave Hill, to get a sunset photo of the city, I stick on my trail running shoes and grab my camera bag and tripod and dash up a moderately steep 4.5 mile trail to try and find a good spot before the sun is so far up that I can’t take advantage of the soft, and often colourful, dawn light.

Cave Hill trail is pleasant and easy to follow and if you look into its history you’ll see that it was the site of much historical importance going back well over a 1,000 years with a German bomb being dropped there as recently as World War II.

It’s already reasonably bright by the time I get to the highest point, by McHart’s Fort but I take a few photos anyway. The city looks beautiful from up here on this cold spring morning. I take a few snaps and make my way off the peak and follow the trail down the hill in the opposite direction to which I started.

Cave Hill at Sunset
Cave Hill at Sunset

“What the fuck are you doing?” is a question which rattles around in my brain every Saturday when I go out on these expeditions. A part of me wants to stay in bed all day. It seems the easier option when it’s cold, dark, and wet outside; it seems an easier option than talking to strangers who may be rude, hostile, or even dangerous, but as Noel Gallagher sang, “it’s cold outside but it’s lonely in your bed.”

Spotting two lads along the trail I stop and talk to them just to confirm that I am on the right path back to the castle. We exchange a bit of banter about general things and as an afterthought I take a photo of them.

Dave Donnelly Belfast

Arriving back where I parked at Belfast Castle, I take a few shots of it and go in search of the murals, the first of which I view is Bobby Sands, a war hero to some, a terrorist to others, his mural is one which is the most famous to me. He died on hunger strike in the height of the troubles in the North.

Bobby Sands Mural, Belfast 2019

After taking a photo of Bobby, I head off to Shankhill and upon asking someone advice on where to find “the Bobby Sands equivalent of Loyalist murals” I get the response as quoted at the start of this piece, which while I know is a joke, I can’t help but feel it has mildly sinister undertones.

Arriving in Shankhill, a Loyalist area for those of you that don’t know, I find that the whole area is probably the most decimated place I’ve visited so far. Other towns have varying degrees of closed and abandoned business premises but Shankhill appears to have many more than average.

Abandoned Shops Belfast

“If you want a doctor, a haircut, or a sun tan then you should come to Shankhill,” says an elderly lady to me when I comment that the area looks half abandoned what with all the closed up shops.

“Oh, so the sun shines more in Shankhill than anywhere else,” I quip, but then realise she was talking about spray tan and laugh stupidly at my own stupidity.

After chattering away to maybe a dozen random people in the area, I’m half surprised to find that the locals are as friendly and talkative as anybody you could ever meet anywhere. It’s funny, Ireland lays claim to friendliness and the colour green but the grass is green all over the world. Although, I do realise that Northern Ireland is Ireland and England depending on your persuasion, so I hope I haven’t pissed anyone off. Do let me know in the comments if I have.

Shankhill Locals

BANG!!! I hear, as I pull into one of the housing estates and am instantly filled with aprehension. In the middle of the road was a pint glass which I ran over which created the noise. Getting out of the car and brushing glass off my tyre, I’m slightly worried about air whooshing out and leaving me having to change a punctured tyre, something I have never done in my life. In fact, I’ve no idea if there’s even air in my spare tyre and am relieved to find there is.

Taking a few photos around the estates, I roll on to the inner city so as to visit the FREE Ulster Museum, Belfast and take a few more photos of the people and places of the city.

Ulster Museum

Along the way I chatter to a few more people and take a few more portraits, the one I am most proud of being the lady on the phone in one of my previous posts, or if you’re on the blog post, the lady below.

Young Fashionable Woman Outside Queen's University

Ulster Museum, situated beside Queen’s University Belfast, has a fascinating array of history which details the changing geological status of Ireland, has some dinosaur fossils and skeletons (always cool) and being in the North also has a section about The Troubles.

After leaving the museum, I go in search of a street which has numerous umbrellas above it. In News Letter, “CTCP Chair, Noel Williams, said: “I would encourage people to come back to the town centre to do their shopping. Shops and businesses will thrive if people support them by returning to our town centre, as opposed to doing all their shopping in out of town retail outlets.”

Umbrella Street Belfast

While it’s optimistic to think a nice display of umbrellas will bring people back into town centres, from what I’ve seen recently it’s crystal clear that the days of the town centre are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive or just telling people what they want to hear. It’s sad to see, but you’d have to literally be blind not to see it.

Feel free to argue with me on this, but I believe that the fundamental basis for all conflicts and wars boils down to: “I have it, you don’t have it, I want you to give it to me, but you won’t give it to me.” Whether it’s the genocide in Rwanda, the Holocaust in Germany in World War II, the French Revolution or indeed the troubles in Northern Ireland, the divide between the “Haves” and the “Have Nots” is often the precursor of conflict. The problem for the “Haves” is that the “Have Nots” greatly outnumber them and when they get sufficiently destitute they get enraged and that’s when the bloodshed starts. Perhaps you view this as an oversimplification but I’m confident I could easily spend many years researching this to prove my point.

Republicans and Loyalists have been at odds for years, but there is a common denominator which is much bigger and is indiscriminately decimating the way of life and cultural centre of every single town in Ireland and in Europe and probabaly the rest of the world too, and that is, basically, the internet.

We all love online shopping and it’s impossible to pay €100 for something in a shop in town when you can buy in for €50 on Amazon. The high street can’t compete so it’s goodbye high street. The local man in the local shop is increasingly becoming a thing of the past with only global super-chains with huge economies of scale being able to continue to manage to run high street businesses profitably. The big shops are great, often cheap, but blindingly glary, lacking in character and somewhat soulless. The “Haves” now, thus, are CEO’s of foreign companies. Every click on an online shopping website bleeds a little more life out of the souls of high streets the world over.

On the umbrella street I meet a man who tells me he is Benny the Bike Man and that he is a Belfast celebrity, a human sex symbol, and has George Best eyes. Seeing my cameras he says, “no, no pictures, no pictures….unless you pay me” and so I take his picture and give him a £1.50. Telling me he was homeless but recently got a flat, he tells me he recently had pneumonia and showed me his thin frame which resulted from it.

Wandering back through the city I take a few shots of buildings and buskers and just then realise that there are a lot more people around than there was earlier on, but I guess most cities aren’t exactly thriving at 8am in the morning which was when my wanderings began.

C.S. Lewis Square followed by the Titanic Belfast are the next two places I visit to take my photos. My plan is to photograph the Titanic Centre at sunset but as I’m sitting there I recall someone saying that the Aurora Borealis is supposed to be visible up at the North Coast that night. I’ve never seen the Aurora Borealis and so decide to abandon my Titanic Centre sunset photo and hit the road. One has to occasionally be spontaneous, baby!!

At this point I’ve been on the go for about 17 hours with only one hour sleep the night before and, trying to follow Google Maps on my phone to The Giant’s Causeway, I miss a turn and end up on the road to Dublin and with the heater on become acutely aware of just how sleepy I am and resolve to return to Galway.

The sky bursts into an incredible array of pinks, reds, and oranges and is one of those rare sunsets that would get you at least 50 likes on Facebook, haha, and I’m mildly annoyed with myself for leaving the Titanic Centre so impulsively.

Throughout the day I photographed many people and places and believe I captured much of the essence of what Belfast is. Youthful innocence, places of interest, wealth, destitute people, party people, tourists, and beauty are all to be found within.

Driving home to my slumber, I found my visit to Belfast to have been one of my most invigorating yet. The pride that people have in their identity, the friendliness of every single person I met, and the historical significance of certain areas captured my heart and imagination in a way that I hadn’t expected it to. It being the most summer-like day we’ve had this year probably coloured my perceptions too.

And that’s probably only part of what I have to say about……my one day in Belfast. Part of me wants to visit such places for more than one day but I have an almost OCD inclination that it has to be ONE DAY and one day only.

If you’d like to support my work then you can do so by purchasing prints of photos from the various towns I visit by clicking this link.

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