Belfast is not stylish or glamorous, but the city serves many artists as a canvas for their work.
There’s a hiss, then another, and already the outline of a girl wearing headphones appears on the pub wall. The sprayer, 33, is a woman with long dark hair who goes by the name of “Friz.” She’s painting from the garden of the Sunflower, a corner pub in Belfast. Her real name is Marian Noone, and she’s originally from Sligo, a place south of the border in the northwest part of the Republic of Ireland. Friz has been living in Belfast for nine years and loves it here. “I can’t be this creative anywhere else,” she says.
You hear the same thing from lots of artists in Northern Ireland’s capital. The Cathedral Quarter in the center of Belfast, in particular, has become a paradise for writers, artists and street artists. It attracts creative types of all kinds, as well as students, musicians, party people and tourists. Right around the corner from the Sunflower, there’s a mural of a nan, as the Irish call their grandmothers, that clearly references Jan Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” – except that this Belfast nan is wearing a pair of hipster glasses. There are plenty of unused spaces here, empty buildings no one bothers about, crumbling courtyards, gray walls – all of them a canvas anyone can claim. And unlike 20 years ago, the city center is not longer a danger zone.
For a long time, Belfast was the scene of sectarian civil war, or “The Troubles,” as people here call the conflict that goes back to the 17th century. For many years, the whole of Ireland was ruled by the British, and between 1919 and 1921, the Irish fought for their independence, which was finally granted by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. From it emerged the Irish Free State in the southern (predominantly Catholic) part of the island, while the northeastern (predominantly Protestant) part continued to belong to the United Kingdom. The partition of Ireland was not without consequences, however, as Catholic Republicans in the North called for reunification with the South, while the Protestant Unionists there wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. The conflict escalated in 1969 and turned into an almost 30-year war, which only came to an end after lengthy negotiations that culminated in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
A giant mural near St. Anne’s Cathedral, to which the Cathedral Quarter owes its name, recalls the violence of that time: It depicts a boy, crouching down and holding an injured dove in his hand. The two arrows piercing the bird’s breast symbolize the battle between Protestants and Catholics. It is the work of the French street artist MTO, who now lives in Berlin but produces graffiti all over the world.
In many places, you come across walls that tell the country’s history. Known as “peace lines,” they have separated the pro-Irish Republican areas from those of the pro-British Unionists since the time of the conflict. You will find them in around a hundred places all over town, and some of the barriers are up to eight meters high with barbed wire on top. The gates are open during the day, but locked at night – for safety reasons. The scars of conflict are far from healed, and in the minds of many people, it still exists.
No one can describe such tensions better than Sam Millar, who was born in Belfast to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother in 1955. The rift dividing Norther Ireland went right through his family. Millar, 61, unremarkably dressed in jeans and a sweater, is sitting in the café of the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast (The MAC). He has won several awards for his trilogy featuring gruff, wry-humored private detective Karl Kane (Bloodstorm and other titles). Netflix is planning to adapt them for TV and turn them into a series in 2017, and the U.S. film company Focus Features (Brokeback Mountain) produced a film adaptation of his wild memoirs On The Brinks.
An author would be hard put to come up with a personal history like Millar’s. A member of the terrorist organization IRA, he did time in the notorious high-security prison Long Kesh, was released and staged a spectacular heist on the money transport operation Brink’s in 1993. He and his accomplices got away with 7.2 million dollars, but Millar was caught, went back to prison, but was pardoned and returned to Belfast. Today, he only writes about crime. “Writing is everything to me,” he says. “It’s as though I were now living my childhood dream.”
The entire city has changed dramatically. In the old days, very few tourists ventured here, but now more and more are coming every day. There’s plenty to see, too: The giant yellow shipbuilding gantry cranes, Samson and Goliath, on the banks of the River Lagan, are city landmarks. In 2012, a Titanic Museum opened, where visitors can take a 3D ride from the engine room to the sun deck of the fated vessel. Just in case you didn’t know: The Titanic was built at a Belfast shipyard.
A tour of the working-class districts is a tour of the murals. The political motifs originated during the civil war, but there’s a tradition of wall-painting in Belfast, so it’s like taking a walk through a history book. In no other part of town are more eloquent depictions of how people here felt during The Troubles to be found – except perhaps at Belfast Exposed, a gallery dedicated to contemporary photography.
Curator Ciara Hickey, 32, is also the guardian of more than 500 000 photos documenting that period. She likes to invite artists to come and delve through the archive photos. “In the early 1980s, a group of Belfast photographers grew tired of seeing photo reporters fly in from around the world, take photos of the street battles and disappear again,” says Hickey, “so they put cameras into the hands of the people and asked them to record their daily lives, their city.” The photos were shown in the Belfast Exposed exhibition in October 1983 to resounding success. Belfast’s citizens evidently wanted to have a say once again.
Addresses you’ll like
The John Hewitt
A traditional pub in the Cathedral Quarter with an open hearth and live music.
Minimalist in decor, this café serves waffles, pancakes – and a truly grand coffee.
Leadlights and antique wood: the Crown Liquor Saloon first opened in 1826.”
The Black Box
On Real Sketchy evenings, guests at the culture center enjoy a drink and a draw.