The Iverk Show committee and members made the long trip to Belfast two weeks ago to visit the internationally known farm show known as Balmoral Show. As part of the trip, our group made time to also visit Belfast city centre.
Walking around the centre of Belfast one felt the city was changing, but the bad days are not that far behind.
There is a building boom in the city centre with new offices and hotels going up and also some apartments, a bit like Dublin in the early nineties, but still ten years behind.
People seem to mix better and you hear more foreign accents whether they be American or from across the water in Scotland or England. The hotels are doing well as people are no longer afraid to stay here.
Café society has also reached there. As we travelled down the Lisburn Road to the Balmoral by bus we noted the coffee shops and designer boutiques as well as luxury shops like Bang and Olufsen, which you would not find in Waterford or Kilkenny.
More foreign restaurants, like Italian or Indian, are scattered around the city centre and on the Lisburn Road. The pubs and clubs are also more numerous and cater for a busy weekend trade.
Prices are better with sterling falling against the euro and it could become a good weekend city destination, easily reached by train, for around €60 from Waterford, with a good connection from Heuston to Connolly with the Luas.
Leaving Waterford’s Plunkett Station at 7.30am, we were in Central Station, Belfast at 1.10pm. The return journey the next day was slower because the connection train from Dublin was timed 1.45 hours later.
By car you could do it in 5 hours if you could get around Dublin in reasonable time, the new M1 goes as far as Newry from Dublin, with motorway from Lisburn to Belfast. The new Waterford motorway opens the North more to people from Waterford and Kilkenny or Carrick.
There seemed to be more optimism in the air around Belfast and hope replacing the despair which was evident during the troubles. This writer can recall the eighties there when it was not a happy place and one kept one’s southern accent down, now it does not matter as they seem to want visitors now. Back then they were suspicious of them.
We did not get a chance to see the Museums this time, but there is much on offer, from the Ulster Folk Museum, called Cultra, on the outskirts, to Stormont Parliament, to seeing Belfast in the blitz and the arts. The Waterfront building was also complimented by the group as was Stormont.
The Antrim coast was especially liked and County Down is really good if you go by car and see the Mourne Mountains and coastline near Strangford Lough.
The city itself reminds one of Manchester, or similar red brick industrial cities in Northern England and has less of an Irish flavour compared to Cork or Galway, but more like parts of Dublin.
It looks a major city like Dublin and has many impressive public buildings like City Hall and the Law Courts, not damaged by the war blitz or the troubles.
You can walk around comfortably and take a bus easily too, which are cheap and convenient with detailed maps of routes available.
Outside the city centre you do need to know where you are going, we had a guide for the political tour, which is useful if you are going to the Shankill Road, the Loyalist area, but the Republican Falls could be visited by bus or black taxi, which are cheap and plentiful.
One needs to do one’s geography, but the city centre seems mixed and relaxed. The great Wheel near City Hall and Marks and Spencer were big attractions.
People sat in the grass in front of it in what was a real peaceful scene that could have been anywhere in the world and showed how Belfast has normalised at last, to some extent at least.
But a trip to see the Loyalist Murals by special bus in the Shankill showed a different story. Unemployment seems a major problem and educational disadvantage will take a long time to sort out as people are three generations without jobs.
Boys are paid £30 a week to attend school up to 17 years to keep them off the streets and out of trouble. There were few friendly smiles, but acceptance that a mural is a work of art and can be admired by visitors, but with blood red hands of Ulster and Cromwell, we did feel uncomfortable.
Rangers flags were on display in abundance for the UEFA Cup final against St. Petersburg that evening and many had gone to Manchester to the game.
They could hear our accents but there was no hassle, as an American bus was there too. The bus driver said it was dangerous there at night and not to be recommended for anyone not from outside the area.
We then crossed the peace line road barrier to the Springfield Road at Lanark Way. This still closes at 10pm to stop stoning and crime by the two groups. Higher fencing of up to 50 ft. is erected to stop the bottles flying over.
Peace is a little fragile here and will be for a long time to come.
Both sets of people support Manchester United but hate each other at the same time. Mixing in schools has to be done, it worked in the USA so why not here.
We were relieved to get over the peaceline and the dreary and dangerous Shankill, that is still suffering from the Troubles. We hope there is a better future for them there and for the Republicans.
They urgently need more jobs and foreign investment in the city as a copper-fastening process. A weak economy could see troubles returning in a limited way, working together has to be the option for the future.
We saw the Bobby Sands Mural in West Belfast near the Sinn Fein offices on the Falls Road where there was more hustle and bustle, with better cars and happier people. Politicians emerged from the offices holding briefing documents and brief cases.
It was really far more businesslike and hectic here with traffic and people, which signified real change. There were plaques on the Springfield Road to the Troubles and incidents where IRA men, or “volunteers”, were killed.
The Loyalist murals also celebrated dead comrades, some of them really chilling. The Loyalists really see themselves as under attack, from what you read on the murals.
Most of our group were never in Belfast before but appreciated the history lesson and discussed the Troubles and problems later that evening over dinner and a pint.
We did feel uncomfortable in the Shankill but were glad to see it as we got to know their side of it too. An interesting day for all that will be remembered for years to come.
Friday saw a visit to the Parliament at Stormont, where the Iverk group were taken on a tour and given tea. Dating from 1928, it was completed and opened in 1932.
The group was brought into the Main Parliamentary Room and allowed seat themselves in Ministers’ seats and the guide gave a detailed account of procedures during parliamentary sessions.
The next stop was the Giants Causeway, where the sun shone brilliantly as people admired mother nature.
From there the trip ended with a final stop at Bushmills whiskey distillery, where some members stocked up on the foxy stuff for the coach back home and a present or two.
Saturday was shopping day in Belfast, where the city was really bustling. Then it was the train home to Waterford with a brief change in Dublin, where the Luas connects the two main stations.
This was a very well organised tour and enjoyed by everybody. The committee would like to publicly thank secretary Catherine O’Driscoll for her great work in drawing up such a good schedule, which was thoroughly enjoyed by all.