It says something about Belfast’s troubled political past that the Northern Irish capital would rather be known for a shipwreck.
2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the much-heralded launch and subsequent spectacular sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, the vessel that sold a zillion movie tickets. Belfast, home to the shipyards that built the behemoth, has been capitalizing on this claim to fame ever since — and in this centennial year, the mood is so celebratory it’s easy to forget the Titanic was actually a colossal failure.
But Belfast badly needs a party. The city was ground zero for a decades-long conflict between Protestants and Catholic separatists, with the small Jewish community caught awkwardly in the middle. A few years ago, during a surge in the Irish economy, I wrote in this space, about how Belfast was finally emerging as a destination, with a nascent touristic infrastructure and signs of gentrification.
On my recent visit, it was obvious that gentrification has come to a standstill. When Oggi and I drove up to Belfast a few weeks ago with my sister and brother-in-law, we found the streets quieter, the storefronts barer, and the general mood darker than a few years back.
But the vaunted Irish friendliness — now liberated from ethnic war — shines through. Belfast, unlike its favorite ship, is a survivor: worn, tired, and yet somehow incorrigible. If we could get through “the Troubles,” people say, referring to years of bombings and open-street warfare, what’s a little economic recession?
Hence all the hoopla surrounding the Titanic centennial. The centerpiece is Titanic Belfast, a shiny metallic complex that the BBC has compared to the Sydney Opera House. It’s a comparison apt both for the visual resemblance and for the buildings’ skyline-defining ambition — the latter all the more significant in low-slung Belfast, where grimy Victorian architecture evokes Waterbury more readily than Australia.
Titanic Belfast opened last month to inaugurate a yearlong program of events in the city. The complex itself is home to six stories of galleries, theaters, restaurants and shops aimed at rejuvenating the waterfront. It’s also the staging rounds for Titanic Belfast Festival 2012, which runs through April with a lineup of commemorative films, concerts, guided tours and talks. MTV even gets into the act with an event on the Titanic Slipways.
Those of us who watched coverage of the Costa Concordia wreck and wondered about the lawsuits will enjoy “Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912),” a so-called verbatim play by Owen McCafferty, which runs from April 22-May 2. And later this year, the BBC Northern Ireland will stage a Titanic music festival.
Much of downtown Belfast retains the Victorian-era feel it must have had when the Titanic launched 100 years ago — especially along Great Victoria Street, a main drag lined with traditional wood-paneled pubs. The most famous of these, and well worth the inflated cost of a Guinness, is the Crown Bar, a multi-story affair that is literally bejeweled within and without.
Great Victoria was also the site of Belfast’s first synagogue, built in the 1870s by the German Ashkenazim who established a Jewish community. (Many had actually bought boat fare to New York, but landed instead at Irish ports.)
Over the next hundred-plus years, the Jewish linen merchants found their place on the sidelines of Ulster’s ethnic conflict. In the documentary “The Jews of Belfast” (available in episodes on YouTube), one local recalls coming out of Hebrew school only to be confronted by a group of youths demanding to know his religious loyalty. He responded that he was a Jew, and the youths persisted: “But are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?” It’s a question that captures the strange position of Belfast Jewry: rarely the main targets, they have struggled nonetheless amid a hostile religious landscape.
Things are generally calmer today. A small but active Jewish congregation gathers at the Chabad synagogue on Somerton Road, where Jewish visitors are welcome on Shabbat; the excellent website (jewishni.com) has kosher and hotel information for travelers.
Belfast, as we discovered, is best combined with a driving tour of its nearby coastline. As we made our way north from Dublin, the soft, velvety greens of Ireland’s south gave way to craggy cliffs and sparser, more severe vegetation.
Those cliffs came into focus as we cut off the highway leaving Belfast to the north, and found ourselves on a terrifyingly narrow coastal road. Cars whizzed precariously to our right as Oggi navigated wrong-side driving for the first time. To our left were frothy clouds of yellow blossoms; to our right, the steel-gray waters of the Irish Sea, where waves crashed along jagged rocks, and the distant Scottish shores came in and out of view.
Most waterfront villages are boarded-up out of season, but we found signs of life at Ballycastle, a classic Victorian summer resort that reminded me of the Jersey shore. Along the pastel-colored main street, we wandered boutiques full of shamrocks, bought steaming hot-cross buns, and joined locals for live rugby at a pub.
Other than a few moldering castles perched along these rocky cliffs, there’s little on the northeast Irish coast to rival the grandeur of Scotland, with its royal legacy and relative wealth.
But I saw no fewer than seven rainbows in a 24-hour period. As we drove through alternating patches of showers and sunlight, it became a game to spot the arches, shimmering in chromatic brilliance against the dark Irish sky.
I never did see the legendary pot of gold, but who’s to say? Maybe if I’d stayed longer, it would have been waiting — just around the bend in the Irish road.