I kicked off the weekend with Ruairí Ó Baoill’s’ ‘Hidden History’ archeological walking tour, taking a look at the often overlooked and invisible parts of Belfast’s past which it turns out extends far beyond the 400 year remit of the festival. We met at the front of the City Hall, where I had a few minutes to take in the extent of the celebrations before we set off. There was a collection of remarkable classic cars lined up beside Victoria, which a small sign informed me were courtesy of the ‘Banbridge Old Vehicle Club.’ On the other lawn, to Victoria’s right, were a crowd of ribbon dancers passing out ribbons to excited youngsters and encouraging them to join in. Crowds of people thronged around the entrance to the building, waiting for the doors to be opened for the host of events within.
I located Ruairí at the front gates, wearing in a high-visibility jacket and waiting with his son, similarly attired, who was to be his dad’s ‘glamorous assistant’ for the day. Each of us was given a copy of Thomas Phillip’s famous 1685 map of Belfast (often credited with being the first map of the town) annotated with the contemporary street names enabling us to orientate ourselves. The tour took us from the City Hall to Arthur Square, St George’s Church, Cotton Court off Waring Street and finally Writer’s Square in front of St Anne’s Cathedral. Along the way we were provided with snatches of history, unique insights, fascinating anecdotes, images of archeological digs and the beguiling objects found just beneath our feet.
As a perfect counterpoint to this tour, the next one kicked off at half two from the same spot. This one was the Architectural walking tour, hosted by PLACE and ably lead by Gary Potter of PLACE and the Future Belfast website. The route was similar to Ruairí’s, but provided a totally different set of insights into the city. Looking specifically at the existing buildings this was the visible history of Belfast, pointing out what there is to see even if we don’t see it in our day to day interactions with the city. I must confess that I feel rather ashamed to admit I had never looked up at the fantastic Art Deco facades in Ann Street; neither was I aware of the one original 18th century house still standing in Donegal Place nor the oddly incestuous nature of the competition to design the Albert Clock. Just some of Belfast’s architectural quirks highlighted on the tour.
After four hours of tours I really felt I’d earned my pint in the Washington Bar before heading home to warm up.
The next day I made my way to the Harbour Commissioner’s offices off Corporation Street. The unpleasant walk under the motorway and rail bridges, through eerily deserted car-parks, proved more than worth it to get a rare glimpse inside this magnificent building. The tour was hosted by a blue-badge tour guide, who informed us how woefully under-attended the tours had been over the weekend (perhaps a lack of advertising). This, however, made for a fascinating and intimate tour of this breathtaking building. I would urge anyone to include this on your list of places to visit in September’s European Heritage Open Days.
That night I attended the evening tour of the City Hall. Entering through the back gate (an entrance I had previously used only once before, on my wedding day), I waited patiently under the City Hall’s dome for a few minutes as my fellow tour-attendee’s gathered. The tour was guided by Michael Livingstone, an official guide for Belfast City Council, who started off by pointing out some historical artifacts and documents arranged around the reception area (including the original 400 year old copy James I’s charter). We ascended the grand stair case and all stood around the rotunda beneath John Luke’s previously mentioned mural. It was here it became clear this was not your standard historical tour. A man in 18th century garb was suddenly standing before us, animatedly reading a description of the old White Linen Hall. The tour continued in this way for just over an hour; a standard (if not fascinating) tour with these unexpected, humorous and at times moving dramatic counterpoints which breathed life and emotion into the history which surrounded us. All together an excellently put together tour/production which was over far too soon.
There were of course many more events over the weekend and I really do regret not making it to more; particularly the lectures in the great hall and the film screenings in the QFT and the Lyric Theatre. There was a fantastic atmosphere around the City Hall and in the city centre in general which personally proved a tonic for the city’s uncomfortable and unfortunate start to 2013.
Loving Belfast is never easy, but after a few difficult months the Belfast 400 festival gives us license to be proud again.