My first non-Dublin Irish travel adventure took me to Belfast, a beautiful, progressive, and sometimes still hotly contested city in Northern Ireland. The border between the Republic and “De North” is thankfully soft and mostly invisible; road signs change colors and distance markings (miles in the North, kilometers in the Republic), and suddenly every building flies a flag—either the Union Flag or the Irish Tricolor to clearly advertise the political alignment of the household.
I was a bit baffled when we walked out of the bus station in Belfast. It was so…British. We had only left unmistakably Irish Dublin merely ninety minutes earlier—a trip short enough for daily commuters—yet it felt like we were stepping out of Paddington Station in London. No passports had been checked; no body of water had been crossed; yet we knew we were not in Kansas anymore.
The taxis were black, the post boxes were red, and strains of “God Save the Queen” could almost be heard playing softly on a loop over the noise of the traffic. We pulled out cash from an ATM—British sterling notes with a rather generous portrait of Queen Elizabeth looking grumpily out at us—and explored what we could of the city in the failing October light.
There wasn’t time to visit the Titanic museum that seems to top most Belfast checklists, but we were able to race to the runner-up landmark: Belfast City Hall…just as they were closing for the day. Sadly, we wouldn’t be able to see what I can only imagine were walls of portraits of kings and titleholders wearing red capes with fuzzy polka dot linings. We were, however, able to explore the public gardens surrounding City Hall, and the boulevards spoking out from this central city square.
We found not the official Titanic museum, but a memorial to those lost when it sank. Belfast was famous for its shipyards for a long time, and the city takes pride in its part in the building of the famous, doomed ship. (Is this because the blokes in Liverpool left their name off of the stern, leaving millions of moviegoers to assume it was only built in the city of Scousers?) I looked for the names of the few people mentioned in the movie, as best I could remember them. “I believe you may get your headlines, Mr. Ismay.”
No sign of Jack Dawson or Rose Whatever-Her-Name-Was, and the Unsinkable Molly Brown made it safely home to Denver to inspire the hit Broadway musical, so of course she wasn’t on the memorial.
Who was responsible for more deaths than the Titanic? Queen Victoria, who has her own large memorial nearby. Looking up at her mean sneer, I finally—finally—understood why so many recent British colonies have beef with the UK and its royal family. Holding her Orb of Power and Scepter of the Mighty—accoutrements more befitting a Dungeons and Dragons character than a real-world empress with real-life “Off with her head!” authority—Ol’ Vikky stands above her subjects, common farmers and laborers who toil at her feet. As if we didn’t understand her symbolic status from her position and relative size, she is carved from rock of (pollution-stained) white while her subjects work away in (equally pollution-stained) black. Whew! I thought. Little heavy handed with the symbolism there, aren’t we? I get it, I get it!
With the October sun setting, the rain picking up, businesses rapidly closing, and an early start scheduled for the next day, we had to retreat from the perky, peppy frown of the Queen for whom half the world is named, but who never personally visited any of it.
If we had scheduled more time in Belfast, we may have lined up a tour of some of the more hotly-contested and sectarian neighborhoods; such tours are readily available from local taxi drivers. In light of recent world events, I’m no longer sure I would want to support the tourism of extremism, Irish or otherwise. True, I didn’t grow up in Ireland during the Troubles, but having visited other Northern Irish cities and seen segregated schools and neighborhoods—some even surrounded by tall concrete and razor wire walls like prisons, ironically called “peace walls”—I feel conflicted about rubbernecking at ignorance and hate. Frankly, I wouldn’t care to listen to either side of the story if the story involves terrorism, torture, and killing.
Or maybe I just failed my saving throw against the Cause Annoyance spell of Queen Vic’s Orb of Power.