City Centre, Belfast
I was recently on a trip back home to Northern Ireland and had just visited the rather interesting St. Anne's Cathedral, which I suggest you do, and was wandering fairly aimlessly wondering what to do next in the city I was born in and now barely recognise! I saw a roadsign pointing down Talbot Street to the Northern Ireland War Memorial. Now I know Belfast has changed a lot since I left Northern Ireland about a quarter of a century ago but Talbot street is not exactly the champs Elysee, the Mall or Broadway and I could not for the life of me remember any war memorial. Intrigued, I began to walk and was shortly confronted by the fairly basic looking office building you see in one of the images. By this time, I was really confused as my idea of a war memorial is a statue or monument of some kind.
Do not be put off by getting into the place, which is not as tricky as it appears at first. Simply press the appropriate button on the intercom to the right of the main door and speak to the attentant who will buzz you in. I believe this procedure is because the Memorial shares the building with offices which probably explains the architecture. I really wasn't sure what to expect and what I got was a fairly small space which looked like cross between a pretty small one room Museum and some sort of religious place. the latter impression was generated by the rather splendid stained glass piece (pictured) which dominates the window area to the front of the building.
On a midweek November morning I was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the only person there so I went for a chat with the chap on the desk who had admitted me. Enquiring what exactly the place was about, he informed me that it is, and I quote directly here from the excellent attached website,
"A Memorial to those who sacrificed their lives in World War One and World War Two.
A Hall of Friendship to record the friendship between the people of Northern Ireland and the American and Belgian forces during World War Two.
Offices for Service Charities.
Entertainment facilities for ex-Servicemen."
So that explained that then. He also informed me that the exhibits had all been in a building called Memorial House in Waring Street which had been opened in 1963. As I have mentioned in other Belfast tips, I lived in Belfast for over ten years and in Northern Ireland for the first 28 years of my life and yet I never knew of that building. Strange how you sometimes don't see things on your doorstp, isn't it? He told me to look round, ask any questions and replied to my request for permission to take photos with a cheery Belfast, "Help yourself, big man". As a matter of principle I never use flash in places with old artefacts, so apologies if some of the images are underlit.
A lot of the exhibition space deals with the Blitz and the Second World War activities in Northern Ireland. If you mention the Blitz to most people, they will mention London, possibly Liverpool or coventry, but few people realise that Belfast was also attacked albeit that it was at the extreme range of the Luftwaffe's flying range from occupied Europe. The reason for this was predominantly the Harland and Wolff shipyard and nearby Short and Harland turning out bomber aircraft. There were also many factories manufacturing munitions and uniforms.
I remember being told about the Blitz by my late paternal grandparents and there is a family story that my Grandfather actually managed to sleep through one including a bomb landing in his street! I have seen where the bomb landed as there is one completely incongruous detached house in a long street of semi-detacheds but how true the tale is I don't know, much as I like it.
There are many very interesting things to see and I spent considerably more time there than I though I would in such a limited space. I had known that many overseas troops had been stationed in Northern Ireland in the Second World War, including Canadien troops who were stationed close to the village where my family still live but I was unaware of how many free Belgian forces were billeted in my home country and of the continuing links between the two countries. Indeed, I learned quite a lot which is undoubtedly the purpose.
I shall just explain a couple of the images which are not self-explanatory. The two man diorama is of the Home Guard, the so-called "Dad's Army" of those too old, not medically fir or in reserved occupations who were recruited to guard the "home front". The Northern Ireland Home Guard was disbanded in December 1944 when the Germans were no longer in a position to invade Northern Ireland. This had been a distinct possibility earlier in the War.
The cape is remarkable. It belonged to Molly Lea, an Army nurse in the Second World War. Whilst the outside it is a standard issue garment, the inside is covered in unit and other badges given to her by grateful patients. It is truly fascinating to look at.
The final image displays two things. The mannequin is there to showcase a uniform of the Auxiliary Territorial Service from the Second World War. I believe H.M. Queen Elizabeth II was actually a member of the ATS during that period. The portrait to the right is of a great favourite son of Belfast, a man called Leading Seaman Jack Magennis VC. Magennis was a diver on a midget submarine in the Far East during the Second World War. On one particular mission against the Japanese cruiser Takao he displayed almost lunatic bravery to complete his mission despite huge personal risk, exhaustion and the very great chance of discovery. He was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross (the highest military bravery decoration in the UK) for his actions. I am glad that he survived the war and lived a long while after, dying in 1986 at the age of 67.
I had never heard of this place, had no idea what to expect, and was hugely and pleasantly surprised. If you have read this and are visiting Belfast, I do hope you can visit and see for yourself.
Here are the logistics. The Memorial is open Monday - Friday from 1030 to 1630. The website does not make specific mention but it is on the ground floor with no steps so should be wheelchair accessible. I did not see any toilets either accessible or otherwise. Admission is free although obviously donations are very much appreciated.
If you visit the fascinating St. Anne's Cathedral, and I suggest you do, you should spend a little time either before or adter in the open area just across the road. This area is known as Writers Square and, as the name suggests, reflects the rich literary history of Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular.
I am going to do something slightly unusual in one of my tips here. Ordinarily I recommend looking up anywhere you go as you see so much more than if you wander around looking at normal eye level but in this instance I would encourage you to look down. The reason for this is that there are quotations from 27 now deceased Northern Ireland poets, playwrights and authors and I have included a couple of random examples here to illustrate the point. Regrettably, the day I visited last was a fairly dismal autumnal one and, if you have visited Belfast in November, you will know just how dismal that can actually be.
Amongst the writers commemorated are the poets Lois MacNeice and John Hewitt, novelists Sam Hanna Bell and CS Lewis and playwright Stewart Parker. I suppose they did not wish to feature living writers when they laid the place out in 2002 as they did not wish to show favouritism. The two examples I have included are from Thomas Carnduff and one in Gaelic from Robert McAdam.
This pleasant space provides a walkthrough to North Street should you be going that way. It is indicative of the so-called "peace dividend" which has led to a complete overhaul of Belfast City Centre. Definitely worth a bit of a look.
This 34 metre high column is named after Queen Victoria's consort. Due to being built on reclaimed land from the River Farset, the column has a serious list. The Column was given a thorough restoration in 2003 & now has a solid base. Next to it are dancing fountains in the pavement.
Wellington Place, named after the Duke of Wellington, who lived for some time in the south of the city, is famous for gift shops, fashion boutiques, cafes and music shops.
Here, right in front of the Academy is the 1876 statue of the Reverend Dr Henry Cooke, known as the Black Man. But, as you can see, it's of green bronze. The original figure, painted black and later moved to the City Hall, was of the 1885 Earl of Belfast.
This is the largest music hall in the British Isles which hosts all kinds of concerts, kickboxing tournaments, beer festivals and much else.
This is where the Rolling Stones played in 1964 and where Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven had its stage debut in 1971.
The building, designed by W. J. Barre, was completed in 1862.
The Belfast Telegraph is the only evening newspaper and largest selling daily title in Northern Ireland. It's a combination of local, national and international news and sport coupled with extensive information on local events, entertainment advertising and issues in Northern Ireland.
If you wish to research Belfast or Northern Irish history and culture, this is a good place to start. The library houses extensive collections of periodicals and newspapers going back to the 19th century.
This red sandstone 3-storey building, designed by Lynn, was completed in 1888.
I don't have much to say about this, other than I liked the Victorian architecture and wanted to take a pic of it :)
You'll find it leans to the side a little bit, but don't worry, it is not likely to fall on you!
It is near St. Anne's Cathedral and the river.
Where once ships sailed down the River Farset, you can see Belfast's very own leaning tower. This 34-m-tall Albert Memorial Clock was erected in 1865. As it was built over reclaimed land it now leans 1.25m off vertical.
The clock features a statue of Prince Albert, crowned lions and floral decorations.
If you go to Belfast, you have to do what I did! I went to one of the old, black taxis that's parked everywhere and asked the driver if it was possible for him to take me for a trip around the "IRA-hood".. I payed 25 pounds for an amazing round trip, and the driver act like a guide telling me about the history of all places. Amazing, absolutely amazing.
The Ulster Hall was designed by WJ Barre and built betwen 1859-62 for grand dances, but also hosted political rallies. There are thirteen paintings of Belfast history inside. It’s also famous for its huge organ given in 1862 by a wealthy industrialist named Mulholland. Ulster Hall is frequently used now as a concert and sporting venue offering everything musical from rock to organ recitals.
This is castle Place in Belfast City centre and where you can get on board the 'City Sightseeing' buses. These tours are very popular with visitors and locals alike. Take care if you opt for the open deck on top! You might get wet but you can be sure that your guide will keep you well amused and informed.
The National Trust only owns one pub, and it's in Belfast. No pub tour would be complete without a visit to The Crown - probably the only gaslit building in the world that also has it's own web-cam. Great on atmosphere (although it does get crowded) and the beer's good too.
The Crown Liquor Saloon in Great Victoria Strret, downtown Belfast is a National Trust property still functioning as a pub. Victorian elegance is highlighted by stained and painted glass, and private cozys.
This is Kelly's Cellars, a pub that opened in 1720 and from the look inside, probably hasn't changed much since. The interior walls are stone with wooden slabs extending out and serving as benches. I had to duck my head when moving through doorways and there wasn't a TV in sight. There was a pretty eclectic crowd here when I visited; I shared conversation and pints with an old, proud Geordie woman, two very sloshed Irishmen and a young and openly gay local. We talked about racism, classism, religion and all the things most guidebooks tell you not to talk about when in Belfast. The only 'offensive' moment of the day came when I left to catch a train back to Dublin. I hated to leave, but as I weaved in and out of consciousness on the train ride I knew I wouldn't have been able to withstand another pint!