The world’s largest linen mills
The world’s largest rope works
The world’s largest tobacco factory
The world’s largest tea machinery factory
The world’s largest shipyard
The year was 1910 and the facts listed above demonstrate the industrial might of the city of Belfast. These were not the only “world’s largest” accolades held by Ulster’s largest urban centre. We learned this at the fascinating exhibition inside Belfast City Hall. We were in the section dedicated to the city’s industrial history. Of course, much was made of The Titanic, the most famous ship to be built in these parts. Sadly, many of these industries declined during the course of the 20th century, although there is now a new found vibrancy to the city. Regeneration of the docks has led to a burgeoning of film production, centred around Titanic Studios. Game of Thrones is perhaps the most famous show filmed here. Aeronautical engineering has also become a major employer.
Other rooms in the exhibition are devoted to Belfast’s social, cultural and sporting history. Sporting heroes like George Best and musicians Van Morrison and Snow Patrol are given due prominence. There are sections on wartime Belfast, how its accent came about and living conditions at the end of the 19th century. We tried on the Lord Mayor’s robes and found out about the politics of the area. The final room has a poignant reflection on the troubles, the violent conflict between largely Protestant Unionists (wishing to remain British) and mainly Catholic Nationalists (wanting a united Ireland, independent of the UK). It finishes with a clear message that peace is the way forward and the importance of never repeating that period of Irish history – sentiments supported by all political factions in the city today.
It is well worth visiting City Hall, not only to see this excellent free exhibition, but also to admire the wonderful civic architecture and artworks. Free tours of the wider building are available, if you book in advance.
We had begun our day in Belfast by visiting the Ulster Museum. This was well worth doing too. The museum is quite eclectic, with sections on dinosaurs, geology, politics and the history of the troubles, among many other things. There was a hands-on area for children, where F enjoyed reconstructing a skeleton. My favourite exhibit was the glowing rocks. Made of minerals, the rocks looked grey and dull – until ultraviolet light was shined on them. At this point, they shone in a multitude of colours.
Outside the museum are the Botanic Gardens. Some areas were roped off for maintenance, so we made for the Palm House, which was more impressive from the outside than the inside. It was stuffed with plants, but not being a botanist, I didn’t have the foggiest clue what I was looking at. A few labels or information boards would have made it a more educational experience for the likes of us. At least it was all free, so no money lost.
We left the Palm House and strolled through the Queen’s Quarter, the elegant and trendy district of Belfast that is home to the prestigious Queen’s University. Built in the 19th century, the university shows off some fine Victorian red brick architecture.
After visiting City Hall, my daughter F (9 going on 14) was crying out for some retail therapy. She longs for the day when she can hang out at the “mall” with her friends. I blame teenage youtube channels. So, off we went to the shops. At Victoria Square shopping centre, there was an observation dome which provided panoramic views of Belfast. We climbed to the top, but the views appeared a little bleak due to the grey weather. Prominent on the skyline are Samson and Goliath, the two famous cranes at the Harland & Wolff shipyard.
After a little souvenir shopping, it was time to call it a day and return to our hotel to have a dip in the pool. We walked back through the Linen Quarter, now devoid of any connection to the industry other than through street names. While observing new hotels and trendy eateries, I pondered what the scene would have been a century ago, when the world’s largest mills dominated the area.
Belfast is in the east of Northern Ireland, 105 miles (166 kms) north of Dublin
Regular train services are available from Dublin and Londonderry (aka Derry). The nearest airports are George Best Belfast City (5 miles) and Belfast International (15 miles). Regular bus services link the city with these, as well as Dublin Airport (98 miles/158 kms)
For further information on visiting Belfast, click here. Belfast City Hall, Botanic Gardens, Victoria Square Observation Dome and the Ulster Museum can all be accessed free of charge. You can pay for an audio guide to the City Hall Exhibition and voluntary donations are invited by the museum. Click the links for further information
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